A Biblical Worldview Without the Bible. How Is That Possible?
One of the most popular worldview books after Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism is Henry Van Til’s The Calvinistic Concept of Culture. Van Til, in his discussion of Augustine, wrote:
Augustine believed that peace with God precedes peace in the home, in society, and in the state. The earthly state too must be converted, transformed into a Christian state by the permeation of the kingdom of God within her, since true righteousness can only be under the rule of Christ.
Not only in the realm of ethics and politics must conversion take place . . . [but also] for knowledge and science. Apart from Christ, man’s wisdom is but folly, because it begins with faith in itself and proclaims man’s autonomy. The redeemed man, on the other hand, begins with faith and reason in subjection to the laws placed in this universe by God: he learns to think God’s thoughts after him. All of science, fine art and technology, conventions of dress and rank, coinage, measures and the like, all of these are at the service of the redeemed man to transform them for the service of his God.1
Van Til believed, along with Augustine, Calvin, Kuyper, and Klaas Schilder—Christian scholars whose views are expounded in The Calvinistic Concept of Culture—that the building of a Christian culture is a Christian imperative. Van Til castigated the Barthians for their repudiation of a Christian culture. “For them,” he wrote, “there is no single form of social, political, economic order that is more in the spirit of the Gospel than another.”2
If there is no specifically biblical blueprint, we are left with a pluralistic blueprint, no blueprint, or a postponed blueprint (dispensationalism). When we read that “religious pluralism within a society is our Lord’s intention for this time in history and hence is biblical,”3 one gets suspicious. First, what biblical justification does Barker offer? How do we know that it is “our Lord’s intention”? Are we to assume that whatever is, is right? Could the Lord’s intention change at some other “time in history”?
Second, what does this view mean for economics, law, politics, and education? Does toleration for non-Christian religious groups mean that we should also tolerate their law systems? If we tolerate the religion of Islam, must we tolerate their view of economics and civil law? Babylonian law called for the “amputation of the right hand of the physician whose patient died during surgery.”4 Should this law be placed on the same platter with biblical law? If not, why not?
Someone assessing the merits of theonomy should want to know how theonomy and the views of its critics compare with the Bible, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the views of the Reformers, and books like Van Til’s Calvinistic Concept of Culture. There seems to be no room for ethical pluralism for Henry Van Til. My seminary training never hinted at pluralism. Nothing I read in Henry Van Til led me to embrace pluralism. In rejecting Karl Barth’s repudiation of a specifically Christian culture, Van Til assured us that the
Calvinist maintains that the Word of God has final and absolute authority, and is clear and sufficient in all matters of faith and conduct. It constitutes the final reference point for man’s thinking, willing, acting, loving, and hating, for his culture as well as his cultus. . . . [F]or all practical purposes, the church throughout history has accepted the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the Word of the living God. Calvinism, also in its cultural aspects, proposes to continue in this historic perspective, not willing to accept the church or the religious consciousness, or any other substitute in place of the Word.5
This is the historic position of the church, Van Til asserted. This is what I was taught in seminary. This is the view that my professors defended. But there was one problem. Even after finishing Van Til’s book, I noticed a glaring deficiency: There were few specifics and even fewer references to the Bible as to how it applies to culture. Van Til, however, was a few steps beyond Kuyper, but the plane still had no wings. It was not going to fly.
Henry Meeter’s The Basic Ideas of Calvinism
I next turned to H. Henry Meeter’s The Basic Ideas of Calvinism. This work looked promising even though its focus was on politics. The first edition (1939) of Meeter’s work was described as “Volume I.” A subsequent volume never appeared. Again, the Bible was emphasized as the standard for both Christian and non-Christian.
The Calvinist insists that the principles of God’s Word are valid not only for himself but all citizens. Since God is to be owned as Sovereign by everyone, whether he so wishes or not, so also the Bible should be the determining rule for all. But especially for himself the Christian, according to the Calvinist, must in politics live by these principles.6
Since God is the Sovereign of all His creatures, He must be recognized as the lawmaker for all mankind. How does one determine what that rule is? Meeter told us that the Bible should be the determining rule for all, not just for Christians and not just for settling ecclesiastical disputes. So far, so good. Meeter then moved on to answer the question as to whether the state is to be Christian.
On the negative side, he made it clear that the state is still a legitimate sphere of government even though its laws are not based on the Bible. Of course, this is not the issue in theonomy. Is the state obligated, when confronted with the truth of Scripture, to implement those laws which are specifically civil in application?
On the affirmative side, Meeter wrote: “Whenever a State is permeated with a Christian spirit and applies Christian principles in the administration of civil affairs, it is called ‘Christian.’ If that be what is meant by a Christian state, then all States should be Christian, according to the conscience of the Calvinist, even though many states are not Christian. If God is the one great Sovereign of the universe, it is a self-evident fact that His Word should be law to the ends of the earth.”7
Meeter had moved from “Christian principles” to “His Word should be law.” The goal, then, is God’s Word as the “law.” Meeter continues:
If God is Ruler, no man may ever insist that religion be a merely private matter and be divorced from any sphere of society, political or otherwise. God must rule everywhere! The State must bow to His ordinances just as well as the Church or any private individual. The Calvinist, whose fundamental principle maintains that God shall be Sovereign in all domains of life, is very insistent on having God recognized in the political realm also.8
In what way is the state to “bow to His ordinances”? Where are these ordinances found? “For matters which relate to its own domain as State, it is bound to the Word of God as the Church or the individual.” For Meeter, a “State is Christian” when it uses “God’s Word as its guide.9
Meeter left the inquiring the Christian with additional questions: “If the Bible, then, is the ultimate criterion by which the State must be guided in determining which laws it must administer, the question arises, with how much of the Bible must the State concern itself?”10 He told us that “Civil law relates to outward conduct.”11 The inquiring Christian is looking for specifics, a methodology to determine which laws do apply to the civil sphere. What “outward conduct” should the State regulate? Same-sex sexuality and abortion are certainly “outward conduct.”
Like Kuyper and Henry Van Til before him, Meeter, who asserts that the Bible “is the ultimate criterion by which the State must be guided in determining which laws it must administer” never set forth a biblical methodology. In fact, he never quoted one passage of Scripture to defend his position, although there are vague references to biblical ideals! Reading Meeter was like reading an unfinished novel. The plane still had no wings.
- Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959), 87. [↩]
- Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, 44. [↩]
- William S. Barker, “Theonomy, Pluralism, and the Bible,” Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, 229. [↩]
- Laws of Hammurabi, 218. Quoted in Gary R. Williams, “The Purpose of Penology in the Mosaic Law and Today,” Living Ethically in the 90s, ed. J. Kerby Anderson (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1990), 127. [↩]
- Van Til, Calvinistic Concept of Culture, 157. [↩]
- H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 5th rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,  1956), 99–100. A 6th edition appeared in 1990 with three chapters added by Paul A. Marshall. [↩]
- Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 111. [↩]
- Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 111–112. [↩]
- Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 112. [↩]
- Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 126. [↩]
- Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 127. [↩]