19 April 2006

Why I am not. . . a 'pantagruellian'

Bertrand Russell once told the world why he was not a Christian. Now Daniel Knauss tells us why he is not a neocalvinist. Knauss is one of the angry young men at the New Pantagruel, a two-year-old web journal dedicated to the proposition that one can find one's place in the public square simply by moving to Kansas. As I understand it, Knauss' objection is twofold: (1) that neocalvinists from Dooyeweerd to Francis Schaeffer to Nancy Pearcey have mounted "facile critiques" of "various -isms, whole groups of people, historical eras, key figures and bodies of thought"; and (2) that neocalvinsts have unduly neglected ecclesiology, including the sacraments and catechizing of the young. Both points are worthy of response.

First things first. When I first came into contact with Dooyeweerd's thought some three decades ago, I did not initially see an obvious connection with Schaeffer, who appeared to have a marked predilection for making sweeping judgements in precisely the manner Knauss criticizes. Years later I became aware that there was indeed a connection, but an indirect one at best via Hans Rookmaaker, the art historian at the Free University of Amsterdam. As far as I can tell, Schaeffer did not bother to delve beneath Rookmaaker to grapple directly with Dooyeweerd's or even Kuyper's writings. Pearcey, on the other hand, does know Kuyper and Dooyeweerd, in addition to Schaeffer, to whose legacy she is unswervingly loyal. The difficulty with Pearcey is that, following Schaeffer, she tries to bring together two mutually incompatible apologetics. I will admit, of course, that neocalvinism is as diverse a movement as any other (including perhaps "pantagruellianism"), but I doubt anyone would view either Schaeffer or Pearcey as the most obvious exemplars, given their admitted eclecticism.

As for Knauss himself, I do not know to what extent he is behind the shape-shifting Fr. Gassalasca Jape, the collective personification of tNP. But given the protean priest's unsophisticated understanding of liberalism and his tendency to throw the oxymoron "liberal order" indiscriminately at whatever he dislikes in the larger society, Knauss might wish to rethink who is doing the facile critiquing. Then again, Knauss could be playing his part in the ongoing animation of Fr. Jape while not necessarily accepting japian views for himself. And, if so, then he deserves accolades for play-acting, if nothing else.

Concerning Knauss' second point, he is definitely on to something and I can agree with him up to a point. I recall in the late 1970s knowing a young married couple in Toronto both of whom had studied at the Institute for Christian Studies. Neither was attending church at that point and, furthermore, didn't really see why doing so was all that important. If all of life is religion, then won't the living of all of life religiously suffice in itself? I disagreed with them privately, but was reluctant to speak my mind for fear of endangering our friendship.

However, my own experience was quite the opposite of this couple. In fact, a reading of Dooyeweerd opened up to me the question of ecclesiology in a way that it had not been before. Prior to that point, I was largely content to locate myself within free-church/parachurch evangelicalism, even if I was uneasy with many of its manifestations. Yet, though I came to recognize and accept the legitimacy of the distinction between the church as an institution and the church as corpus Christi, which is manifested in a variety of institutions, this did not by any means lead me to deprecate the former. Far from it. In fact, there were four consequences for me:

(1) As I came to understand the Kuyperian notion of sphere sovereignty, or what I call the pluriformity of authority in my forthcoming book, I came to embrace a strong conception of the authority of the institutional church, as opposed to the voluntaristic notion current in much of contemporary evangelicalism.

(2) This moved me away from a congregational church polity, whose proponents too easily touted its "democratic" character, towards embracing what might be called a "thicker" ecclesiology. (At the same time, I could not bring myself to reject my fellow Christians who could not embrace a thick ecclesiology yet were taken with the christian worldview propounded by Kuyper and his followers. If Knauss wishes to fault me for this, he is welcome to do so.)

(3) An understanding of the importance of the institutional church moved me to look at some of the earliest postbiblical christian writings, including that little collection known as the Apostolic Fathers, as well as the writings of Augustine and others.

(4) It prompted in me an ongoing sense of pain over the fragmentation of the institutional church, something which Herman Bavinck, for example, too easily accepted as an example of legitimate pluriformity. So, yes, neocalvinism has something of a mixed record in the area of ecclesiology. Here is where Knauss is correct, in my view.

Yet this is hardly a reason to reject neocalvinism, any more than the mixed record of Christians in general is reason to reject Christianity. Perhaps my colleague and co-conspirator, Gideon Strauss, should consider devoting an issue of Comment to precisely this question: What is to be done . . . about ecclesiology? After that, I might reorient the topic slightly to ask the following: What is to be done . . . about the church's liturgy? I will return to the latter question at some point, because I believe it's more important than many Christians — especially evangelicals — seem to think.

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