Commencement address delivered Friday, June 14, 2013 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Pharr, Texas, Edinburg Theological Seminary 

Introduction

I congratulate you graduates on your accomplishment. Seminary isn’t easy, but nothing in life worth having is easy. What you have learned at ETS will shape your entire life and ministry.

I am grateful to President Vallencia and to Dr. Roberts and others of the administration for their gracious invitation. I am proud to be identified with ETS.

I feel especially privileged to be addressing you at Dr. Roberts’ valedictory. It is a bittersweet occasion. Humanly speaking, there would be no ETS apart from Dr. Roberts. His godliness, his theology, his vision, his vigor, his intellect, his perseverance, his grace, his patience, and his kindness — all these virtues have shaped ETS. We colleagues and you graduates can most exhibit gratitude to Dr. Roberts by collectively perpetuating his virtues.

I want to talk specifically about the theological and philosophical virtue of ETS this evening. This is a proudly Reformed seminary. But it is more. It is a self-consciously Reformed seminary with special affinity for the neo-Reformational Dutch theological and philosophical tradition. By this, I mean the heritage in the Netherlands of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Herman Dooyeweerd. I denote its counterpart in North America with theologians like Cornelius Van Til, Henry Meeter, and Even Runner. This theological tradition is unique. The Reformed tradition has numerous streams (Swiss, German, French, English, Scottish). Each makes its own contribution to the richness of our heritage. I am convinced, however, that the Dutch neo-Reformational tradition is the highest form of that tradition to date. Van Til once said, “Calvinism is ‘Christianity come to its own.’“ I’d like to say that the neo-Reformational tradition is Calvinism come to its own. The form of Calvinism espoused by ETS is the highest form of Calvinism there is.

I maintain a special interest in Christian culture, and perhaps the most unique feature of the neo-Reformational tradition is its view of culture. Tonight, I’d like to highlight three unique aspects of our tradition that pertain to culture. I’d like to point out how they propel us to cultural engagement in our days of great cultural apostasy.

The Antithesis

First, the neo-Reformational tradition champions the Antithesis. To understand the Antithesis, we must know what a worldview is. North American evangelicals have now found “Christian worldview” fashionable. Long before this, Abraham Kuyper understood that Christianity is an entire way of thinking and acting. The reason that earlier Calvinists didn’t talk as much is this way is that they didn’t need to. They were living in a Christian culture. The very air they breathed was suffused with a Christian perspective. To think in any other way simply wasn’t an option — or even a viable possibility. But the European Enlightenment shattered that unity. It put biblical Christianity on the defensive. It offered the world a new and powerful alternative to Christian culture. That alternative was life based on human reason and experience and no longer on the Bible and great creeds. Man would no longer bow to God’s special revelation. The Enlightenment crushed Christian culture. In time, this way of thinking got rid of God altogether — the West became secular.

Kuyper understood what was at stake. He was one of the first to argue that Christians cannot simply assume that we can share with unbelievers a basic way of thinking, and only afterward find our way to Christianity. No, Kuyper argued, we must begin with Christian convictions (presuppositions), and only if we begin with them will we end with the right kind of Christianity. Kuyper taught that when God saves us, he gives us a “regenerated consciousness” — a new way of thinking and living, not just a new home in heaven. This is a Christian worldview. There is, therefore, an antithesis between the Christian worldview and all non-Christian worldviews. Our Faith presupposes a distinctive way of thinking: this is antithetical to all non-Christian views.

Our “regenerated consciousness” shapes every aspect of thought and life. It means that we must approach science and technology and history and math and music and literature and politics and culture in a distinctively Christian way. We must think and act as Christians everywhere, not just in church or the family. We do not share with unbelievers our basic presuppositions about thought and life. There are no neutral zones of thinking. A Christian will look at science and politics (for example) different from an unbeliever. In the modern world, most unbelievers look at science from a naturalistic, Darwinian perspective: there is no God, or at least no active God, and we must investigate the universe without accounting for him. Obviously, at many main points, unbelieving scientists will arrive at different conclusions from neo-Reformational Christians. They will likely say that humanity evolved from lower forms of life amid a long process of chaos and chance. We arrive at different conclusions from them because we start with different presuppositions.

Likewise, unbelieving views of politics will be radically different from consistently Christian views. We believe that politics must be founded in God’s moral law in the Bible. Unbelievers deny this law, so they find their source of law in experience or tradition or the majority of the populace or elites or the “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Obviously a political system based on this presupposition is very different from one based on the Bible. In the West today, this unbelieving presupposition almost everywhere necessities an expanded role for the state, or politics. When we deny the power of God, we must enlist the power of an ever-growing state to enforce our views of the ideal society. And so on. Our politics isn’t like their politics, because we start with different presuppositions. Thinking “Christianly” means thinking as a Christian about everything — and this in turn means thinking differently from unbelievers.

Of course, unbelievers don’t always think in a distinctively unbelieving way, just as believers don’t always think in a distinctively believing way. We are all inconsistent. This is a good thing, in the case of unbelievers. God restrains unbelievers from being entirely consistent in their thinking — this is called “common grace,” another vital contribution of the neo-Reformational tradition. This means that at critical points, Christians can work together with unbelievers precisely because unbelievers are inconsistently unbelieving. But to the degree that unbelievers become consistent with their presuppositions, their thought and actions go radically contrary to Christianity, and they wreak havoc on a culture. This is where we get abortion, same-sex marriage, socialized medicine, female egg harvesting, pornography, and the drug culture. Unbelieving worldviews lead to unbelieving cultures — and unbelieving cultures are not pleasant places to live in. A Christian worldview tends to produce a Christian culture. But should we even work for a Christian culture? This brings us to the second unique aspect of the Neo-Reformational tradition.

The Cultural Mandate

The neo-Reformational tradition sees man’s earthly calling as the cultural mandate. In Genesis 1 we read that God created man and woman in order to steward the rest of God’s creation for his glory. Man was to be God’s vicegerent — his holy deputy — cultivating creation for God’s glory. Creation wasn’t to be left as it is. Creation from the hand of God was very good, but God wanted more. He wanted man, his crowning creation, to bring it to even greater levels for his glory. This work assumes the differences between creation (or nature) and culture. Nature is what God makes; culture is what we make. An apple is nature; an apple pie is culture. The musical note “C” is nature; Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is culture. God calls us to interact creatively with nature according to his standards in the Bible to bring glory to him in all of creation. God desires to see man use his full potential to bring creation to the highest possible man-cultivated levels. Man’s highest potential is achieved when he submits to God and cultivates creation in God’s prescribed way in the Bible.

The language used in Genesis 1 is “dominion.” Man is called to rule the earth for God’s glory. This is the opposite of what modern environmentalism teaches. Environmentalists often say that nature should be protected from man. God says that man should cultivate nature for his glory. Environmentalists look at how man sometimes harms nature and says, “Man must not exercise dominion.” God says, “The solution to warped dominion by man is not to quit taking dominion; it is to take dominion in the right way.”

Warped dominion is a fact of life, and it brings up a critical truth. When man sinned in the Garden, he didn’t lose his impulse (or his calling) for dominion: he simply distorted it. Just as unbelievers espouse an unbelieving worldview, so unbelievers practice an unbelieving dominion. This fact accounts for the greatest conflicts in human history — two kinds of people with two kinds of consciousnesses and two worldviews both competing for dominion in the same world. It’s easy to offer examples of how this conflict is played out. Self-consciously Christian musicians like Bach and Handel write music that glorifies God. Anti-Christian musicians like Wagner and Lady Gaga write music that glorifies man — and eventually debases him. Professional Christian athletes like Orel Herschiser give God the glory for the great feats they accomplish. Muhammad Ali brags about his own talents and glorifies himself. Heinrich Hofmann painted to depict the glories of Jesus Christ. Picasso’s pornographic modernism exhibited a man-centered crudeness that shows what creativity in rebellion against God looks like. All of them are dominionists: some are God-honoring dominionists and some are God-defying dominionists. This conflict is the great earthly conflict of the ages.

Kuyper understood that we haven’t properly glorified God until we have glorified him in subduing all of creation to his glory.

For the last few generations, however, Christians in the West have been in hasty retreat from the cultural mandate. They have retreated to the interior — thinking that the only important thing is their internal and vertical relationship with God. They have reduced Christianity to a “personal worship hobby.” They have come to believe that when we exercise dominion, we’re diverting ourselves from the really important tasks like Bible study and church and personal evangelism and prayer and holiness. But the Bible makes no such distinctions. In the Garden of Eden, God communed with man (vertical), but God also had commanded man to take dominion over creation (horizontal). Jesus told his apostles that the greatest command is to love God with all their being, but he also instructed them to disciple all nations in all things he had commanded. We are called to both internal and external tasks in glorifying God. God wants everything of us — not just some of us. But too often Christians have limited their obligations only to the internal or non-cultural tasks.

Or they have revived (although unintentionally) ancient heresies that devalued creation. They have considered the material world to be evil. They have seen salvation as salvation from the world, not from sin. They have not understood that matter isn’t the problem; sin is the problem. They have looked at the evils of Hollywood and abandoned movie making. They have considered the depravity of Washington, D.C. and retreated from politics. They have observed the perversity of Darwinism and given up on science. These are precisely the wrong tactics. We don’t need irresponsible abandonment but active engagement — we need distinctively Christian movie making, politics, and science.

Or else Christians have given up the life of the mind. They have observed how secular universities (and seminaries!) have destroyed people’s faith, and they’ve tuned their back on reason and learning and the intellect. They have abandoned higher education, and then they wonder why higher education is so anti-Christian. Kuyper knew better. Because the intellect is crucial in the cultural mandate, neo-Reformational Christianity has always stressed the cultivation of the mind. Kuyper launched the Free University of Amsterdam, not simply to get more Christians educated, but to get them educated to think and act in distinctively Christian ways. He knew that the correct solution to the rationalism of the Enlightenment wasn’t to give up the intellect and embrace an emotional anti-intellectualism. The solution to godless intellect is a godly intellect. In the language of Herman Bavinck, “[T]he internal principle [of theology] is not in faith as such but in believing reflection.” We employ our God-given reason to “think God’s thoughts after him,” and when we give up on reason and reflection, we give up on one of God’s most glorious gifts to man without which he simply cannot exercise dominion in the earth.

Finally, Christians have embraced defeatist eschatology — they have come to believe that God has predestined the world to get worse and worse, so the cultural mandate is abandoned to defeat. Sometimes this twist becomes perverse. I once had an evangelical pastor tell me that the rising abortion and pornography and homosexuality in our culture may seem like bad news but really they are good news, since they mean Jesus is coming soon. If that idea sounds perverted, that’s because it is. Flourishing sin is never good news; and whatever your eschatology is, you may never use it as an excuse to quit the cultural mandate.

Neo-Reformational Christians know that the cultural mandate is their marching order. They do not limit their work to family and church and personal devotion. They work, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to subdue all of creation to God’s glory.

Sphere Sovereignty

Finally, neo-Reformational Christians espouse sphere sovereignty. This is Kuyper’s language. He means that God established separate but interrelated spheres of human life by which he mediates his authority in human culture. There are many spheres; each operates according to God’s law unique to its sphere. The institutional examples of those spheres include family, church, and state. Each has its distinct calling, and each is comparatively independent under God’s authority. These spheres may not arrogate to themselves the unique tasks of the others. For example, the family is called to propagate the human race and cultivate children and provide for its members. The church is called to declare the Word and administer the ordinances or sacraments and protect Christian orthodoxy. The state is called (in the language of the Declaration of Independence) to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These spheres (and others) all have separate but critical tasks. The problem arises when a single sphere lords it over all others, and when one arrogates to itself tasks that belong to the others.

A prime example today is over-politicization, or statism. The state has commandeered the tasks of health, welfare, medicine, education and others that God designed mostly for the family. The state has become a monstrosity. It has developed messianic aspirations. Whenever a crisis or calamity erupts, people clamor, “What will the government do about it?” They almost never say, “What will families and church do about it?” This response, by the way, shows that we must be careful not to lay all the blame on politicians. The fact is that most moderns are irresponsible, and they prefer a large and burdensome state, and they will surrender their political liberty, if it means they don’t have to be responsible for health care, elderly care, education, and guns. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

But the church can fail also. Many Christians are church-centered rather than kingdom-centered. The kingdom of God is his reign in the earth. It encompasses all spheres. Of course, the church is indispensable in God’s plan. But the church is not identical to the kingdom; it’s a part of that kingdom. Some Christians seem to believe that God is concerned only about the state of his church. This is wrong. As anyone reading the Old Testament prophets knows, God is intimately concerned with society as a whole — the culture. We cannot obsess about the church and forget about the family and state and music and science and education and so on.

Still other Christians are family-centered. This trend is understandable in our world. The family is under severe assault by pornography, feminism, machismo, statism, abortion, free sex, homosexuality, egg harvesting, androgyny, and much more. But the solution to this assault isn’t to make the family the be-all and end-all. The family needs the church to protect it against the depredations of the culture. The church is a great holy haven for the family. If you pit the family against the church, you are cutting off the very lifeblood by which God preserves the family.

No single sphere can lord it over the others. God does not (for example) use his church to mediate all of his blessings to the other spheres: that was the medieval view, and it was wrong. God certainly does not elevate the state to such a status that it commandeers all of life. We sometimes use the term “government” today to denote the state. But in the Bible, the idea of government is diverse: each sphere has its own government — family government, church government, school government, and, perhaps most important of all, self-government under God’s authority. One government among many, and perhaps the least important of all, is state (or political) government. If people could govern themselves under God’s Word, there would be much less demand for the state. Politics is so large today because men’s personal responsibility is so small. When the godly men and woman and the family and church and the state recover their biblical obligations, the state will soon shrink to its biblical limits.

A genius of neo-Reformational Christianity is its commitment to the application of the Faith in all of life, de-consolidated in different spheres. Neo-Reformational Christianity isn’t just concerned with the afterlife; it’s also concerned with this world.

Conclusion

At ETS, you’ve been brought face to face with the highest form of Christianity: the antithesis, the cultural mandate, and sphere sovereignty. That Christianity is not content with fostering families and building churches. It moves outward in God’s world to claim all of creation for his glory.

Our goal is take godly dominion in our culture according to God’s Word.

This is our heritage. This is our calling. This is our destiny.