Christianizing the World? (1)
Is this the calling of the church?
Is this the calling of the Reformed young man or woman?
Is this the purpose of the Christian education of Reformed young people, especially of the higher education of Reformed young people?
If we are to believe the Christian Reformed Church, especially its high schools and colleges, including Calvin, Trinity, and Dordt, the answer is an emphatic yes.
Since many Protestant Reformed young people are in contact with young people of the Christian Reformed Church and since some Protestant Reformed young people attend the Christian Reformed colleges, the Christianizing of the world becomes an issue for Protestant Reformed young people.
Does the Lord Jesus command us to engage in this project of Christianizing the world? Does the Protestant Reformed refusal to take on this project constitute disobedience to the lordship of Jesus Christ? Do we by this refusal manifest the folly and wickedness of world-flight—the perversion of the Christian life of the old Anabaptists? Are Protestant Reformed young people to feel guilty because of their lack of involvement in all kinds of endeavors that claim to be aspects of the Christianizing of the world?
Or is the entire project nothing but a fanciful notion of men? In this case, the project is not only foolish—a delusion and fantasy—like the crusades of the Middle Ages. The crusaders were on a mission to conquer Jerusalem for Jesus. The cultural Calvinists of our day are on a mission to conquer the world for Jesus. But the project of Christianizing the world is also an instance of the very serious sin of “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:1–9). For the proponents of Christianizing the world burden the consciences of people, especially Reformed young people, with the duty of Christianizing the world as though this were a commandment of God, when in fact it is merely a fond dream of humans.
The Source of the Project
The source in the Reformed tradition of the modern crusade that tries to Christianize the world is two Dutch Reformed theologians of the previous century, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. They were colleagues in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in the second half of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century. They were men of great influence, both in their own large denomination and in many other Reformed churches over all the world.
Kuyper and Bavinck saw that the Reformed faith, or Calvinism, as the pure form of the Christian religion of the Bible, confesses God’s sovereignty over all of human life, indeed over all of creation and all of history. They understood also that Calvinism claims all of the life of the Reformed believer, not only worship and devotions, but also family life, work and business, education, science, the arts, and involvement in politics—all.
From these axiomatic truths, they inferred that it is the calling of Calvinistic Christians to “Christianize the world.”
It should be evident to all that the inference does not follow from the fundamental principles. That God is sovereign over all creation and over all of history does not imply that he wills the Christianizing of the world by his people in history, and that he calls the church to engage in the project. He may rather, and indeed does purpose that his church shine as light in the midst of and in contrast to a dark, ungodly, and un-christianized world. It may be, and indeed is his purpose that the entire creation of the heaven and the earth be renewed and recreated (not: “Christianized”) by Jesus Christ at his second coming (not: by the saints within history, see Rom. 8:19–22). God is also sovereign over hell, but this does not imply the church’s calling to Christianize hell.
Likewise, the truth that Calvinism claims the entire life of the Reformed believer does not imply that Reformed believers must Christianize the world, or even their own society. What it does imply is that every Reformed Christian is called by grace to bring his or her own entire life under subjection to the lordship of Jesus Christ and to live his or her entire life to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).
If I were compelled to use the barbarous term to describe the sound inference from the fundamental principles of Calvinism, I would say that the sound inference is that we are called to “Christianize” the whole of our life in the world, not only worship and devotions, but also our work and play, our studies, our work in science, our artistic efforts, our involvement in politics and civil government—all. Not the whole world, but our own life in the whole world.
Nevertheless, the two Dutchmen called their countrymen and all Reformed Christians to this grandiose task: “Christianize the world!” They issued the call in many speeches and writings.
Especially influential were and still are Kuyper’s lectures on Calvinism at Princeton Theological Seminary in the United States in 1898. The lectures were soon published as a book, Lectures on Calvinism. Over the years, the book has been the bible of the Reformed advocates of the Christianizing of society and the world. My own copy (Eerdmans, 1953) was the textbook in more than one religion and theology course at Calvin College. It was appealed to in other courses, although not in support of Kuyper’s banning of card-playing, theater, and dance as unchristian activities (“unhallowed influence of this world,” 73).
What is Meant by “Christianizing”
What Kuyper and Bavinck meant by the odd, non-biblical, non-creedal term “Christianizing,” was not that the world becomes Christian. That the world becomes Christian would mean that all the life of all the nations would be obedience to the law of God, in love for God from the hearts of the citizens, because they believed in Jesus Christ. And this could only be the case because a majority of the citizens of all nations had been converted to Jesus Christ and saved.
“Christianizing” in the program of Kuyper, Bavinck, and their contemporary disciples does not have this in mind whatsoever.
But it refers to a certain influence of Christianity upon people, affecting their outward conduct. The vast majority of the people of the world remain ungodly and unbelieving. They reject Jesus as the Messiah. They worship their idols, whether Allah, or Buddha, or some movie star, or some athlete, or their money. But Christianity changes their conduct, and perhaps even their thinking, for the better.
Kuyper himself described “Christianizing” this way:
“Christian” [in the phrase, “Christianizing the nation”] says nothing about the spiritual state of the inhabitants of such a country but only witnesses to the fact that public opinion, the general mind-set, the ruling ideas, the moral norms, the laws and customs there clearly betoken the influence of the Christian faith (“Common Grace,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt, Eerdmans, 1998, 199).
Bavinck wrote of “Christianizing life,” and then described this activity as “a methodic, organic reformation of the whole cosmos, of nation and country” (“The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” Calvin Theological Journal 27 : 243, 246). He spoke in this connection of “the conquest of the entire world” (“Calvin and Common Grace,” a booklet without publisher, place, or date, in my library, 127).
A Christianized world is a world that still lies in the darkness of idolatry, unbelief, and unrighteousness, but that has become outwardly more decent, moral, and orderly. A veneer of Christianity has been applied to the world; the world has been “Christianized.”
The Power of the Project: Common Grace
Basic to this project of Christianizing the world for Kuyper, Bavinck, and their contemporary disciples, both in the sphere of the Reformed churches and in the broader sphere of evangelical Christianity, is a common grace of God working in all humans, godless as well as godly, pagans as well as Christians. This is a mighty, though not irresistible grace of God that does not save sinners. What common grace does, Kuyper advises us in his Lectures:
There is…also a common grace by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammeled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator (Lectures on Calvinism, 30).
It is the purpose of God with this common grace to “consummate the world’s development,” ultimately in the world’s being Christianized (Kuyper, “Common Grace,” in Bratt, Abraham Kuyper, 176).
Kuyper very much needed such a grace for his project. The comparatively few Christians can otherwise not be expected to influence their neighborhoods, much less the world. But now the ungodly themselves, delivered from their total depravity and freed somewhat from God’s curse, can exert themselves to realize a truly good culture and society—a way of life that at least outwardly conforms to Christ.
By virtue of this grace of God, which is shared by Christians and non-Christians, Christians may and can cooperate with their ungodly neighbors and unbelieving countrymen in the important work of Christianizing their society, their nation, and finally, the world. In this work, Christians add the influence of the particular grace that is their peculiar possession.
So important is common grace to the project of Christianizing the world that without it the notion fades away like a hazy dream upon one’s awakening, and the entire project collapses like a pierced balloon.
This is in part the reason that the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 took no prisoners in its defense of the doctrine of common grace against Herman Hoeksema. The Christian Reformed Church was committed, heart and soul, to Kuyper’s crusade of Christianizing the world. The spirit of that denomination was then, and has increasingly become cultural Calvinism, rather than spiritual and doctrinal Calvinism.
Every student of Scripture cannot but notice how this theory turns the Bible on its head. It is not a prominent admonition in the Bible that Christians must influence the world for good. But it is a warning on almost every page of Holy Scripture that the true Church and the holy child of God must be vigilant in guarding against the world’s influencing them (James 1:27; James 4:4; Rom. 12:2; Gal. 1:4).
The Kingdom of God without Jesus Christ
When the skeptic requests biblical proof for this quixotic campaign of Christianizing the world, the enthusiasts for cultural Christianity appeal to the biblical texts that speak of the coming of the kingdom of God. Thus, a Christianized world is identified with the kingdom of God.
The implication, which the proponents of Christianizing are happy to draw, is that those—chiefly the Protestant Reformed Churches—who reject the project are without a kingdom-vision, indeed fail to seek and promote the kingdom of God in the world. A slander!
I intend to subject the notion and project of Christianizing the world to criticism in my next installment. But let the readers observe carefully that the kingdom of common grace is not the kingdom of God revealed in the Bible in any shape or form. It is a kingdom, at best, of merely external conformity to some aspects of the Christian religion, without any love of and zeal for God in regenerated hearts. It is a kingdom of citizens most of whom hate God and his Christ—and therefore the true church and genuine believers—worshipping idols and living impenitently in unbelief.
What is most damning about this kingdom is that the crucified and risen Lord Jesus does not reign in it as king.
Common Grace Produces Antichrist
I for one am not a citizen of the kingdom of common grace, that is, of a Christianized world as conceived by Kuyper, Bavinck, and the modern cultural Calvinists. I renounce citizenship in this kingdom, as well as participation in the project of building it, on peril of my soul’s salvation.
For adding to the peculiarity of the common grace kingdom is that in its final form and development, according to Kuyper himself, the architect of the kingdom of a world Christianized by common grace will prove to be the kingdom of Antichrist.
The closing scene in the drama of common grace can be enacted only through the appearance on stage of the man of sin…Common grace…leads to the most powerful manifestation of sin in history…Babylon…will display the most refined forms, the most magnificent unfolding of wealth and splendor, the fullest brilliance of all that makes life dazzling and glorious. From this we know that “common grace” will continue to function to the end. Only when common grace has spurred the full emergence of all the powers inherent in human life will “the man of sin” find the level terrain needed to expand this power (“Common Grace,” in Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, 180, 181).
One would think that this would dampen the enthusiasm of the cultural Calvinists for the Christianizing of the world. They are, in reality, working at the Anti-christianizing of the world—a dubious project.
Rubric: Where We Stand - The Beacon Lights
Author: Prof. David J. Engelsma
Prof. Engelsma is professor emeritus of Theology and Old Testament in the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches.