Dutch Neo-Calvinism and the Roots for Transformation: An Introductory Essay

By Dennison, William D. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Dutch Neo-Calvinism and the Roots for Transformation: An Introductory Essay


Dennison, William D., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


DUTCH NEO-CALVINISM AND THE ROOTS FOR

TRANSFORMATION: AN INTRODUCTORY ESSAY1

I. INTRODUCTION

In his famous lectures delivered at the Yale University School of Law in 1931, Carl Becker maintained that the prominent thinkers in the Enlightenment (e.g. Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau) attempted to demolish the heavenly city of St. Augustine only to rebuilt it with modern materials.2 In my judgment, Becker's thesis correctly contrasted the eschatological approach to life found in medieval Christian Europe and the eschatological approach to life found in the French philosophes. For the common believer in medieval Europe, this world is not one's home; rather, the believer looks forward to final perfectibility in Christ in the next world. In contrast, the philosophes of the Enlightenment advanced their own doctrine of progress and perfectibility of humanity through a radical regeneration of morality and social institutions.3 For the philosophes the quest for modernity was to transform the Biblical notion of the Garden of Eden and the eternal heavenly city into an earthly egalitarian society and cultural utopia.4 In their estimation, the future (posterity) would rationally and naturally bring this transformation. For this reason, "posterity" was often reverently addressed by the philosophes as a divinity as well as an object of prayer.5 Indeed, the quest for modernity will be realized; the dominance of the medieval Christian world will be uprooted and transformed into the world of fraternity, liberty, and equality. For them, the process towards modernity had begun: the sun, not the earth, is the center of the universe (Copernican revolution), nature is controlled by its own inherent power (Newton following Lucretius), exploration focused human attention on this world and not the next world, the expulsion of original sin made the perfectibility of humanity a realized possibility, war can possibly cease by getting rid of religious sects or Christian Protestant denominations-creating an air of tolerance never experienced by humanity (Lord Herbert of Cherbury's proposal)-and hence, the new rational humanism has created the best of all possible worlds here on earth.6

As the Enlightenment fathers called for reconstruction of all social institutions on the basis of their vision of posterity, they left Christianity's foothold upon the European landscape in a defensive posture. The prominence of Christianity was now being attacked by enlightened modernity. In order to maintain a place of prominence, Christians throughout Europe accepted the challenge to defend themselves by attempting to reconstruct European culture and society upon Christian principles. In this battle for western culture, many Christians realized that they could not return to the feudal society of the ancien regime. Rather, in the context of the transition from mercantilism to capitalism, the rising tide of democratic ideals, the burst of industrialization, and the increasing benefits of a global market economy, many Christians adapted to the progressive tide of modernization in this world while minimizing any quest for reward in the next world.7 Herein, they began to stress the presence of the kingdom of God in the present age. Increasingly, the Christian conception of the eschatological future moved into the present world, not solely on the basis of exegetical and theological reasons, but for social-political-economic reasons.

Specifically, as Christianity accepted the challenge of enlightened secularism, many Christians tried to reclaim European culture by attempting to place their own eschatological socio-cultural theory upon the blueprint of the modern city. These Christians called for transforming the modern city into Zion by rediscovering, implementing and following the norms of the creation order. Hence, Becker's thesis advances one step: if the philosophes rebuilt St. Augustine's heavenly city with modern materials, then many Christians responded by attempting to rebuild the modern city with Christian materials. …

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