Tuesday, September 08, 2015

On "The Evils of Public Education" (Part 2)

[continued from here]

On the antithesis and the common sphere

In Reformed theology, what exactly does the antithesis pertain to? According to both Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark (despite their disagreement on other matters), the antithesis exists at the level of one's philosophy. In other words, there is a fundamental disagreement between the systems of Christianity, and that of other belief systems. Christianity is unique and contends against all other philosophies and religions. The antithesis lies at the level of thought, of philosophy, and maintaining the antithesis is done by way of vigilance in constantly renewing our minds after God's Word (Rom. 12:2), thinking God's thoughts after him.

It will be noticed that the antithesis exists at the level of systems, not persons. Contrast this with the Neo-Kuyperian view that is expressed by Aaron Lim and his professor David Engelsma:

Describing the antithesis between Covenant children and unbelievers, Prof. Engelsma writes:

“First, the life of the believer is subject to the Word of God, whereas the unbeliever’s life is independent of the Word and in rebellion against it. Second, the goal of life is different. The believer directs his life towards God. His life is God-centered. The unbeliever leaves God out. His life is man-centered” (pg 57, Reformed Education).

[Aaron Lim, "Our Children's Education: A Covenant Necessity (III): The Evils of Public Education," Salt Shakers 33 (Jul 2015), 15]

Now it is true that theology is to be worked out in life. But when one applies the doctrine of the antithesis, one has to actually deal with how Scripture speaks about the world before applying one doctrine to the exclusion of others. Here is where the problem begins for those who are radically pushing a total antithesis, for Scripture teaches that there is not just a category of "good" and a category of "evil," but also a category called "common."

The notion of "common" is associated with the Noahic Covenant, which focuses on preservation of this world, not on salvation and special grace. It is concerned with this age, which in Latin "age" is saeculum, from which we get the word "secular." Reformed theology does not just speak about the ultimate in the coming age, but also has practical teaching and application for [the penultimate] things of this world. For example, marriage is a common or secular institution, for there is no marriage in heaven (Mt. 22:30). But just because marriage is not of ultimate value does not mean that it should be denigrated (as in Monasticism), or that Scripture has little concern for it! Imagine if we were just to focus on ultimate things, then marriage should be seen as unimportant, and working in secular jobs also. We will then go back to the medieval notion that some jobs, the "spiritual callings of ministers," are really vocations from God. Or we can take the Neo-Kuyperian route and attempt to make all jobs "special" and thus baptize one's secular job into a ministry, which tends to subvert what one is actually employed to do.

The PRCA's rejection of common grace is certainly at the root of this radicalization of Kuyper's view of the antithesis. But what the PRCA fails to do is to distinguish the (Neo)-Amyraldian and Neo-Kuyperian view of "common grace" with the Calvinist view of "common grace." The Calvinist notion of "common grace" has to do with penultimate reality, not ultimate reality. It is formally instituted in the Noahic Covenant, and treats creation (though penultimate) as important. Over against the Amyraldian view of "common grace" as being in some sense salvific, the consistent Calvinist denies the salvific value of common grace. Common Grace is nothing more and nothing less than a creational (non salvific) good. It pertains to the common kingdom, not the spiritual kingdom of the church and the kingdom.

It is because there is a legitimate category called "common" or "secular" (saeculi) that we do not have to pigeon-hole everything into "good" and "evil" categories. We see this radical antithesizing tendency at work in Engelsma's shocking words concerning the topic of friendship:

Friendship with the unbeliever is both impossible and forbidden. Friendship demands oneness in Jesus Christ. My friend and I must have God as our God together. Whoever is an enemy of God is my enemy” (pg 70, Common Grace Revisited, RFPA, 2003; as cited by Aaron Lim, "Evils," 15)

According to Engelsma, friendship MUST always be based upon oneness in Jesus Christ. That axiom is of course totally unsubstantiated, and makes sense only if we is pressed with the false dichotomy between "good" and "evil." If one reads Scripture, one can see Abraham developing friendships with people like Abimelech (Gen. 21:22-33), who is an unregenerate Canaanite ruler. King David, the man after God's heart, developed a friendship with the pagan king of Tyre Hiram (1 Chron. 14:1, 1 Ki. 5:1). Friendship therefore is a "common sphere" blessing, which can be infused with spiritual benefits to be sure (among believers) but it is not exclusively Christian. Engelsma' definition of "friendship" is one example of such radicalization of the Kuyperian doctrine of the antithesis, such that now we have a distinction between "friendship" and "Christian friendship." That is why the third stated reason is ridiculous. There is no "antithesis" between the persons of unbelievers and the persons of believers, but between their faiths. Or to use philosophical language, antithesis applies to the area of epistemology not ontology. We all still remain humans and sinners in need to salvation. Only if we refuse to acknowledge the penultimate and focus just on the ultimate can we have such antithesis being placed between believers and unbelievers! At least we do not (as yet) have a difference between air and "Christian" air, although I wouldn't be surprised if someone has thought about that already.

We will go back to the issue of "Christian friendship" later, but for now it suffices to show how radical and unbiblical Engelsma's position is concerning friendship, and Engelsma arrives at this position because of an a priori rejection of the "common" category, putting systematic theological concerns ahead of the plain teaching of Scripture.

[to be continued]

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