Do We Need the Bible to Do Ethics or is Nature Enough?
As a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, I was taught that certain cultural applications flowed from a consistent application of the Bible. Simply put, I was told that the Bible applies to every area of life. To be a Christian is to make biblical application to issues beyond personal salvation (Heb. 5:11–14).
No one ever questioned this theological framework until some of us actually began to apply worldview Christianity to particular social issues. This is what we were taught to do, from our first reading of Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism to Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?
Those students who were interested in cultural Christianity were directed to Kuyper’s 1898 Lectures on Calvinism. It was here that we were told we would find a fully developed, comprehensive, biblical world-and-life view. Kuyper’s brand of Christianity has been described as the “only modern exception” to the tendency of Christians either to abandon social action in favor of piety or to abandon piety in favor of social action.1
The “Kuyperian” tradition “was at once pious and socially influential.”2 “As Abraham Kuyper said, there is not one inch of creation of which Christ doesn’t say ‘Mine.’”3 In his Lectures on Calvinism, Kuyper discussed politics, science, and art, but it was more than the familiar five points of Calvinism. Curiously, economics and law were absent from his discussion.
Reading Kuyper was like reading a repair manual that was all diagnosis and little if any instruction on how to fix the problem. Here’s a sample:
That in spite of all worldly opposition, God’s holy ordinances shall be established again in the home, in the school and in the State for the good of the people; to carve as it were into the conscience of the nation the ordinances of the Lord, to which the Bible and Creation bear witness, until the nation pays homage again to God.4
Everything that has been created was, in its creation, furnished by God with an unchangeable law of its existence. And because God has fully ordained such laws and ordinances for all life, therefore the Calvinist demands that all life be consecrated to His service in strict obedience. A religion confined to the closet, the cell, or the church, therefore, Calvin abhors.5
This is marvelous biblical world-and-life view rhetoric, but there is almost no appeal to the Bible in Lectures. Broad principles are set forth, but a specific biblical worldview is lacking. As one soon learns after reading Kuyper, there is little that is distinctly biblical in his cultural position. Kuyper, along with Herman Dooyeweerd (1894–1977), is best known for the concept of sphere sovereignty and what is now being described as principled pluralism. Writes pluralist Gary Scott Smith:
This position rests upon several major tenets. God built basic structures or institutions into the world, each having separate authority and responsibilities. He established state, school, society, workplace, church, marriage, and family to carry out various roles in the world, and He commands human beings to serve as officeholders in these various spheres of life.6
What standard are these officeholders to use in the governance of these various spheres? This is the essence of the debate. The disagreement is over how we should be involved and what standard we should use in our establishment of a developed social theory.
A contemporary application of the Kuyperian worldview can be found in the writings of numerous “principled pluralists.” These Christian advocates of the Kuyperian model argue that “a biblical view of civil government must rest . . . upon general principles taught throughout Scripture.”7 The emphasis is on “general principles” and not “isolated prooftexts.” From these “divine norms,” the people will “experience peace, justice, and righteousness in their fullness.”8
But exactly how should the Christian define justice and righteousness? Is it just and right to tax the citizenry in order to fulfill the general demands of justice and righteousness, say, in caring for the poor and educating the people through an educational system controlled by the state because it is financed by the state? Liberals and conservatives espouse justice and righteousness. Whose definition is correct? Whose solution should Christians follow if the pluralist is correct when he maintains that the Bible cannot be appealed to for specifics, since the “tares” must be tolerated until the time of the “final harvest”? By what standard are Christians required by God to decide these issues?
Where does the Christian pluralist go for his specific norms? They are few and far between in the pluralist’s world. For example, in Gordon J. Spykman’s defense of principled pluralism, there is little appeal to the Bible, even under the heading “Biblical Foundations.” He mentions general norms, but there is no worked-out judicial system.
Our view of society should not be derived from isolated passages scattered throughout the Bible. Such a piecemeal approach assumes that the Bible is a collection of timeless truths with built-in, ready-made applications for every situation. Rather, the Scriptures present principles and directives that hold for life as a whole in every age. We must therefore rely on the comprehensive meaning of the biblical message. Though couched in ancient forms, the Scriptures carry with them universal norms that should direct the lives of Christians and shape societies they live in.9
This is doubletalk. Let’s rephrase the first sentence in this quotation: “Our view of the Trinity should not be derived from isolated passages scattered throughout the Bible.” How about our view of the deity of Christ, the resurrection from the dead, and justification by faith alone? Could the same be said for “the family” and “the church”? It was an isolated passage in Romans that brought on the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Luther’s cry was that “The just shall live by faith alone” (Rom. 1:17). Are the doctrines of justification and sanctification different from the doctrines of law and the civil magistrate? The Westminster divines did not think so. Biblical passages are cited throughout the Shorter and Larger Catechisms.
Spykman tells us that when “the Reformers spoke of sola Scriptura, they did not mean that Scripture is God’s only revelation. God also reveals His will in creation and providence. In fact, the creational word remains His fundamental and abiding revelation.” It’s true that special revelation (Scripture) is not God’s only revelation. But if general revelation is enough, then why did God give us the Bible? Adam and Eve, prior to the fall, were given special revelation regarding the maintenance of the created order. John Frame drives the point home:
Natural revelation was not sufficient before the fall of Adam. Even in Paradise, as Cornelius Van Til used to say, our first parents learned truth, not only from their senses and reason from God’s revelation in creation, but also from the divine voice itself. According to Gen. 1:28-30, God did not leave it to our first parents to find out his will on their own, by scrutinizing natural revelation. Rather, he spoke to them in his own words, giving them the fundamental task of their existence. Indeed, it is this passage, often called the “cultural mandate,” that defines culture for God’s people.
Spykman continues: “God gave the Scripture to correct and reinforce His original revelation upon our minds, redirecting our attention to its meaning, refocusing the intent and purpose of creation. God’s message is always the same, but it comes in different modes. Its author does not contradict Himself. Though revelation comes in various forms, its norms are constant. The word holds, even when men do not discern or obey it.”10
Spykman agrees that general and special revelation present the same message. If this is true, then we should expect to find the same laws in the creation order as we find in the Bible. For example, not only should we find prohibitions regarding what a society should do with men practicing sodomy, but we should also be able to find the same sanctions. Since both general and specific norms are found in the Bible, general and specific norms can be found in creation. They are one and the same! If the Bible was given to reinforce God’s original revelation, then why not begin with the Bible, since the original revelation is itself in need of reconstruction? Christian pluralists refuse to begin here. Why? My guess is that the Bible is just a bit too clear and specific.
God has directed his people to seek his law, not through their own study of the creation, but through his written word. To be sure, nature does reveal some of God’s ordinances (Rom. 1:25, 32; 2:14f.). But Scripture never suggests that nature contains a richer or fuller revelation than the written word. On the contrary: In Romans 3:1-2, the Jews, because of their acquaintance with Scripture, are said to have a tremendous advantage over the Gentiles who (according to the preceding chapters) had only general revelation. Scripture, says the Apostle Paul, is sufficient “that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly furnished unto every good work” [2 Tim. 3:17]. Adding to God’s word is as much an act of human presumption as subtracting from it (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18).11
Because of its lack of a specific and absolute biblical ethic outside the confines of ecclesiastical courts, Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty has been taken to its logical conclusion in his native Amsterdam. In time, the distinctive Christian witness was so diluted by competing worldviews that little remained of Kuyper’s influence. In Amsterdam, prostitutes parade their female assets in shop windows for eager “clients.” Of course, this is not what Kuyper intended, but it is the logical outworking of his common-grace system: no biblical civil law.
- Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe, Understanding Cults and New Religions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 126. [↩]
- Hexham and Karla Poewe, Understanding Cults and New Religions, 126. [↩]
- Douglas Groothuis, “Revolutionizing our Worldview,” Reformed Journal (November 1982), 23. [↩]
- Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,  1970), iii. [↩]
- Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 53. [↩]
- Gary Scott Smith, “Introduction to Principled Pluralism,” God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government, ed. Gary Scott Smith (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1989), 75. [↩]
- Smith, “Introduction to Principled Pluralism,” 76. [↩]
- Smith, “Introduction to Principled Pluralism,” 76. [↩]
- Gordon J. Spykman, “The Principled Pluralist Position,” in God and Politics, 80. [↩]
- Spykman, “The Principled Pluralist Position,” 82-83. Emphasis added. [↩]
- John Frame, The Amsterdam Philosophy: A Preliminary Critique (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Harmony Press, n.d.), 31. [↩]