Can a Calvinist make a serendipitous discovery? Serendipity is “an unexpected and fortunate discovery.” Certainly my discovery was unexpected, but I’d much rather credit it to sovereignty than fortune.
There is a small bookstore in Allen Park, Michigan that I frequent, not because the staff is exceptionally friendly (because they aren’t) but because they are the only bookstore (that I am aware of ) in all of Southeastern Michigan that carries a great theology/Puritan selection. While there to pick up a copy of Alistair Begg/Derek Prime’s book On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work I was browsing and happened upon Henry R. Van Til’s The Calvinistic Concept of Culture. Forgive me, but I had never heard of Henry Van Til, but soon learned that he was the nephew of the better known Cornelius Van Til. Henry, as it happens, was a professor of Bible at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI for 15 years until his untimely death at the age of 55 in 1961, just two years after The Calvinistic Concept of Culture was published.
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. I bought this book soley on the basis of its cover – the title and the author. I figure if I am going to host a program called The Center for the Study of God and Culture, it might not be a bad idea to explore the Calvinistic concept of culture. And am I ever glad I did.
The central theme boils down to this truth: the natural is as holy as the spiritual, and the work of the Father in creation is of equal significance with that of the Son in redemption. A Calvinistic view of culture is one that seeks the restoration of the law of God in every sphere of life: commerce, politics, church, home, et al.
The Reformers sought to overcome the dualism of Roman Catholicism, which separates the supernatural from the natural, in the words of Henry Van Til:
Christianity is (viewed as) something added pyramidically to the natural, but it does not enter life like a leaven to transform it.
The consequence of this view was a dichotomy between church and world: the church being the domain of the spiritual and the world being the domain of the profane or material, with neither being impacted by the other.
Along comes Calvin insisting on the influence of the word of God in “the whole of life,” not just the religious sphere. Says Van Til,
Christ truly saved the world, including human culture. He injected new life, new blood, new vitality into the lifestream of humanity. Christ made men whole, he redeemed the cultural agents, thus transforming culture also. Moreover, the Protestant Reformation was the greatest revolution in human history since the introduction of Christianity. It too came at a time when culture was in crisis, and it gave Europe a new lease on life. And it was Calvinism that saved the Reformation, that made it effective in Western Europe and America. Calvinsim had the courage, over against both Armininianism and Catholicism, to maintain the consistent supernaturalism of the Christian Scriptures, that is, to confess Christianity in its purest form without compromise.
But cultural achievements do not in themselves restore man to his true end, point sout Van Til.
Men must become new creatures through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21) in order to regain the true human perspective of that which is true, good, and beautiful. Culture, then, may be either godless or godly, depending on the spirit which animates it…Culture is a must for God’s image-bearers, but it will either be a demonstration of faith or of apostasy, either a God-glorifying or a God-defying culture.
Culture is not merely civilization or refinement. Van Til defines culture as
the total human effort of subduing the earth together with its total achievement in fulfilling the creative will of God.
Culture, then, is any and all human effort and labor expended upon the cosmos, to unearth its treasures and its riches and bring them into the service of man for the enrichment of human existence unto the glory of God.
Our hope in the midst of our present cultural crises – both in the secular as well as in the sacred realm – is a resurgance of the Calvinistic committment to maintaining the supernaturalism of Scripture and to confess Christianity in its purest form, without worldly inducements and attachments, thus without compromise. All of life – our politics, our leisure, our work, our commerce, our media – must be utilized as leaven – infiltrating the culture and changing its very nature by our very existence as redeemed followers of Jesus Christ, enriching humanity through our service to mankind to the ultimate glory of God.