A 21st Century Protestant Political Vision

Angels in the Architecture, by Jones and Wilson, and Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism are both books that attempt to provide a theologically based (that is to say, Christian) account of all of life. Both books recognize the crisis of our times and offer a way up and out. That crisis is not the budget crisis in Washington nor is it the looming threat of legalized homosexual “marriage,” though these are related to it. It is the crisis of modernity, the unraveling of the modern project in the last 150 years or so. It is the crisis of nihilism and of our lost humanity. (We’re sure it’s here somewhere, but we no longer know where to look.)  These books were written exactly 100 years apart, but the older one provides a better understanding of the crisis and its resolution.

Angels in the Architecture

The problem with Angels in the Architecture (Canon Press, 1998) is that it is not a book. It is the introduction to a book that someone who actually knows something really ought to write. After an exciting introduction that promises much, Douglas Jones and Douglas Wilson show in all the subsequent chapters that they are far from up to the task of completing what they started.

They begin by laying out the alternatives for the future as “modernity or medievalism,” an admittedly paradoxical suggestion. Their thesis is essentially that Medieval Europe was developing a full-orbed, thoroughly Christian understanding of all of life. “The medieval period is the closest thing we have to a maturing Christian culture” (p.17). That is what made it “Christendom.” 

But the Reformation cut short its full development. It was “a crucial outgrowth of medievalism.” The Reformers could not carry on that application of Christian principles to every corner of life as they were distracted with survival on the one hand, and developing those theological principles themselves. “It was a time to focus on truth amidst a slaughterhouse—abnormal—but it would be a great mistake to try to make emergencies the model of a culture….”

Jones and Wilson claim to pick up this great historical task of sketching out and initiating what they call “Medieval Protestantism.” The vision of what they call “middle earth” was silenced historically “by tyrannical Rome and a blinding Enlightenment” (p.17).  Thus, in their book their aim is “to sketch a vision of a whole life and a whole culture” (p.15). No small ambition. But I read on.

They are strong on diagnosis, but short on remedy.

  • “Modernity’s empire has dominated the world for only three centuries, even though the soul of the modern vision is that of the meat cleaver’s counter: stainless steel—cold and functional and sterile, with efficient smears of blood. Modernity is a busy place, spinning with silicon speed that goes ever faster but never forward, people pressed into cities full of loneliness” (p.16)
  • “Modernity and its natural child postmodernity are pleased with their rejection of truth, beauty, and goodness—the three faces of culture.” (These three faces are a theme in the book.)
  • “Modern evangelicalism is just that—modern—in love with modernity, in love with individualism, egalitarianism, and perfect boxes” (p.17).
  • “Yet we thin-souled moderns are so proud of our rejection of poems and stories and paintings. We lead half-lives and die with less” (p.22).

Stirring stuff! At this point, I am expecting a book that draws upon broad learning and philosophical depth, something from undiscovered sages that will rival Nietszche for his poetry and provocation and make Allan Bloom look hopelessly ill-equipped to face the foe. Instead, they give us a uselessly vague “broad landscape of hues” (p.15).

Let’s rediscover beauty, they say. Sure! But what is it? Are they arguing for make-up and haut couture? If we follow their cue, will we sell our homes, move into tiny apartments, and build cathedrals?

They say our use of Greek philosophy violated the Christian antithesis, and they give a nod to the later medieval nominalists, as though that can be a philosophical resting place. It wasn’t then and it can’t be now. How then shall we think? They give us no indication.

They have a chapter on the importance of laughter and another one on enjoying good food. Great. I can see the dawn of civilization breaking through the steam of the lasagna.

Lectures on Calvinism

Kuyper, by contrast is a learned man who knows that of which he speaks. The great Dutch theologian and later the Dutch Prime Minister delivered these Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary (still orthodox at that time) in 1898. Kuyper claims that Modernism’s clash with Christianity is an assault by “an all-embracing life-system.” When you understand that feature of modernity, you see that if Christianity is to overcome in the conflict (centuries old, at this point), “we have to take our stand in a life-system of equally comprehensive and far-reaching power” (p.11). He presents us with various comprehensive views of life that have animated civilization in the past: pagan, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Calvinist, and Modern. His account of modernity has lost none of its relevance, and his remarks on Islam are more pertinent today that he could have imagined.

Calvinism, he says, is not just a theology for worship, church order, and personal salvation. It provides a deep life-principle that applies to all aspects of life and gives them a liberating coherence. That principle is the sovereignty of God that calls us to live in the equal dignity of image-bearers under his divine government and before his holy presence in grace (coram deo). The cultural compromise of contemporary Evangelicalism shows that it lacks that broad organizing life-principle. In his own day, Kuyper spoke of Protestantism in general, “[wandering] about in the wilderness without aim or direction, moving hither and thither without making any progress” (pp.18-19).

Kuyper traces all that is best in modern western civilization to Calvinism, and he shows you how it happened. He provides provocative and illuminating lectures on politics, science, and art, and in the final lecture looks to the future. He distinguishes between special and common grace. He identifies various independent “spheres” of life. He gives criteria for these distinctions, shows the government’s limited role with respect to them, and shows the dignity and prosperity that comes from their preservation and cultivation.

Though a staunch Calvinist, he is not simply anti-Roman. He calls Reformed believers to work with Roman Catholics in the great confrontation with Modernism, though he notes that their influence is more fruitful in countries where they are not in power, i.e., in nations of a Calvinistic heritage. You can see the roots of First Things and the Acton Institute in these pages (pp.183-186).

We thought that repelling the Nazis was the great battle to preserve what Churchill called “Christian civilization.” In fact, the 500 year battle with modernism is that battle, and is reaching its peak in our day here in America. It has been easy to fool ourselves that we are still a Christian country beating back a challenge from a culturally hostile elite. And there has been a lot of truth in that characterization. But when we institute same-sex marriage, when we finally pulverize the building block of society, we can finally say that as a people we have fully apostatized. There is no longer even the semblance of a Christian society left. Then the church should be provoked to adopt the stance of alien in Babylon, and work out a comprehensively Christian cosmology over against the surrounding culture, instead of merely disagreeing over this moral issue and that.

Kuyper is a great help for those interested in launching that project.

David C. Innes is associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, and co-author of the forthcoming Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media).


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