David A. Booth
The Kuyper Center Review, Volume Three, edited by Gordon Graham. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2013, xiv + 184 pages, $26.00.
Garrison Keillor assured us that in Lake Wobegon “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” In the rest of the country, however, half of every college class is made up of men and women who are academically below average. These are their essays. It is difficult to understand why someone at the venerable Eerdmans Publishing Company didn’t just say “no” to this volume. Those interested in investigating the relationship between Calvinism and culture, or in this case Neo-Calvinism and culture, will be much better served by reading scholars such as Nicholas Wolterstorff and David VanDrunen.
For all the shortcomings of this collection, it did inadvertently raise an interesting question: if Professor Gaffin enjoys Eggs Benedict for breakfast does that transform it into Reformed cuisine or does it simply remain a breakfast option? Surprisingly, several of the articles seem to opt for the breakfast transformation paradigm. For example, in her article “The Calvinian Eucharistic Poetics of Emily Dickinson,” Jennifer Wang acknowledges that Dickinson never made a public profession of faith nor became a communicant member in any church (94). Yet Wang writes:
Rather than rejecting Calvinism wholesale, it is more probable that Dickinson rejected the specific practices of her Puritan Congregational church, which treated partaking of Communion as evidence of moral transformation, a marker of one’s piety, rather than as a reception of grace on behalf of her imperfect faith. (99)
The trouble with this argument is that the four Dickinson poems Wang appeals to in support of her position never mention Christ, God, grace, sin, or forgiveness. Furthermore, the poems could plausibly be read as presenting nature as a better sacrament than the Lord’s Supper. So why should we call such poetry Calvinian? Doesn’t Reformed theology provide us with the framework to enjoy and appreciate the poetry of non-Christians as well as non-Calvinists?
Matthew Kaemingk discusses a very public expression of art in his article “Theology and Architecture: Calvinist Principles for the Faithful Construction of Urban Space.” This is one of the better essays in the volume. Kaemingk is undoubtedly correct to recognize that Reformed Christians should care about architecture and also that our worldviews will shape how we assess the aesthetics, functionality, and social ramifications of different approaches to urban development. He writes:
Augustine, famously commenting on the politics of the earthly city, argues that each city will organize its political affairs around its deepest love. One can easily imagine unique political structures designed to serve the demands of war, market growth, radical equality, or individual pleasure. This essay will be Augustinian in spirit, in that it will seek to explore how a city’s physical structure and design reflects its deepest loves, and more specifically, how a deep and primary love for God might develop a robust architectural imagination that can go beyond the contemporary urban aesthetic of growth and speed. (51–52)
This seems like a promising start, but as Kaemingk moves from describing what some Calvinists have done to developing specific principles to inform what Calvinists should do his project unwinds. The four principles that Kaemingk proposes are humility, craftsmanship, justice, and delight. It is difficult to see why any liberally educated Westerner in the twenty-first century would disagree with any of these themes, and therein lies the rub. If my Jewish, Muslim, and secular neighbors all agree with these principles, what makes them distinctively Christian, let alone Calvinistic?
The real challenge comes when we need to choose between these principles as actual architects are forced do. It is simply a historical fact that most of the landmark architecture that people have enjoyed throughout history resulted from significant concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of individuals, corporations, churches, or civil governments. It would have been interesting if Kaemingk had dealt with the tension between such extreme concentrations of wealth and power (which seem to run counter to his understanding of social justice) and the creation of exceptional architectural beauty. Instead, like the politician who promises both more government services and lower taxes, Kaemingk seems unwilling to choose or even to acknowledge that such choices need to be made. To be fair, other than condemning the extremes of oppressing the poor or denying the value of beauty, it is difficult to see how Scripture provides a working framework for making such choices that is not available to everyone by common grace. In fact, Kaemingk never quotes any passage from Scripture in favor of his position. He merely refers to the architectural judgments of a few men who happen to be Reformed. But doesn’t that leave us with Reformed Christians thinking about good and bad architecture rather than thinking about distinctly Reformed architecture? Why then do the modifiers “Reformed” or “Calvinistic” need to be in the discussion at all? Does every opinion that Abraham Kuyper held automatically become Reformed simply because he was?
The temptation to relate all good things in some way to our tribe has been with the church since some church fathers began treating Plato and Aristotle as Christians before Christ. American evangelicals, likewise, occasionally attempt to recast Abraham Lincoln as a model Christian in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Perhaps this temptation is natural, but it is also unbiblical. All the way back in Genesis 4:19–22, we see that the crafting of musical instruments and the practice of metallurgy developed from the line of Cain rather than the line of Seth. The LORD grants aesthetic skill and wisdom to Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike. For this we should rejoice. At the end of the day, and even at the beginning, no matter what Professor Gaffin prefers to eat, Eggs Benedict is not transformed into Reformed cuisine. It’s just breakfast.
David A. Booth is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as pastor of Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church in North Andover, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2014.