24 October 2004

Neo-Calvinism and piety, revisited

On thursday evening I was privileged to be present at the home of my colleague, Dr. Craig Bartholomew, for a regular gathering of our students known as the Kuyper café. One of my protégés, the efficient Mr. Rob Joustra, gave a talk on the subject of neo-Calvinism and piety, on which some of us, including me, have written before. I will not recount the content of his presentation, as I will allow him to do so if he is so inclined. Suffice it to say, however, that this grows out of a perception that those who have become taken with the neo-Calvinist vision are often neglectful of personal piety. Is this lack something intrinsic to Abraham Kuyper himself or is it a distortion of the Kuyperian worldview emphasis? I doubt that the former is true, since Kuyper himself was a deeply pious man.

Yet if there was a dark side to Kuyper's legacy, I wonder whether it might be located in his teaching of a doctrine known as presumptive regeneration, defined by the Synod of Utrecht of the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland in 1905? This doctrine means that baptized children of believers are presumed to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit unless and until their lives indicate otherwise. Might this lead to a certain complacency among such children as they grow into adolescence and adulthood? I think the possibility cannot be entirely excluded.

Remarkably, as my youth was spent in a Baptist church somewhat influenced by American revivalism, I was taught almost precisely the opposite doctrine: that one is not a Christian at all unless one accepts Jesus Christ as "personal saviour." (I was never quite sure what the adjective personal was intended to add to the equation.) Only then is one saved. The difficulties with this are fairly evident for anyone taking the witness of scripture seriously. First, my own decision, rather than the work of Christ, becomes the effectual moment of salvation. Second, that decision takes on an almost binding character, ignoring the possibility of someone welcoming the good news and then falling away (Matthew 13:20-21), thereby proving that he was not saved at all. And third, it cannot account for those who grow into the faith without being able to pinpoint an exact moment of conversion, which was my own experience. For many, if not most of us, conversion is a daily dying to self and putting on Christ. In the church where I spent my youth, piety became pietism, an overemphasis on personal piety at the expense of much of the rest of life for which we were created.

So what is the truth of the matter? Should children of the covenant be treated as unregenerate until their lives show the fruits of repentance? I doubt I would go that far, yet it certainly is incumbent on those of us who are parents to nurture in our children the marks of true piety, namely, a deep love for God and the desire to serve him with our whole lives.

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