Much Ado About A ‘Transformationalist’ Nothing
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Much Ado About A ‘Transformationalist’ Nothing

kuyper-kellerWhat do Doug Wilson, William Evans, and I have in common? We’re all puzzled by the intramural attention D.G. Hart and Carl Trueman are paying to Tim Keller, Abraham Kuyper, and the “problem” of “transformationalism.” Trueman links Hart while raising concerns:

I was struck by [Hart’s] account of Abraham Kuyper. Here was a (probable) genius and (definite) workaholic who had at his personal disposal a university, a newspaper and a denomination, and also held the highest political office in his land. We might also throw in to the mix that he did this at a time when European culture was far more sympathetic to broadly Christian concerns than that of the USA today. And Kuyper failed to affect any lasting transformation of society. Just visit Amsterdam today, if you can bear the pornographic filth even in those areas where the lights are not all red.

Trueman referencing the failure of Kuyper having a lasting “transforming” influence in contemporary Amsterdam seems to ignore the profound cultural and religious shifts in the Netherlands during and following World War II. Purdue University’s Jennifer L. Foray helps us understand some of these shifts in her recent article, “An Old Empire In A New Order: The Global Designs Of The Dutch Nazi Party, 1931–1942” in the journal European History Quarterly. One would be hard pressed to assume that Kuyper’s influence could neutralize or supercede the effects of World War II in Dutch society in light of how the war affected Christianity in Western Europe in general. The University of Utah’s John G. Francis is also helpful in the 1992 article, “The Evolving Regulatory Structure Of European Church-State Relationships” published in the Journal of Church and State in understanding those shifts. There’s simply more to the story than Kuyper circa 1905 and Amsterdam in 2013.

Erskine College professor William Evans adds that any sort of “transformation” rhetoric in Kuyper’s era was “at best provisional, temporary, and incomplete, although the later dalliance of some with democratic socialism muddied the waters a bit.” Evans summarizes Trueman’s logic this way: since modern Amsterdam proves that Kuyper’s project was a failure, and since Tim Keller is no Abraham Kuyper, any talk of cultural “transformation” is futile. Evans, putting Kuyper in proper perspective concludes, “By any reasonable standard, Kuyper (despite his weaknesses and ambiguities) accomplished a great deal of good in his time, but Trueman seems miffed that he failed to inaugurate a Dutch millennium.”

In asking if Tim Keller could have saved Detroit, Hart maintains that “what the gospel does is not cultural but spiritual. And what works culturally are matters, still from God, but having little to do with what he sent his only begotten son to do.” Trueman has a similar refrain in hoping that the type of rhetoric by Tim Keller and those who use the language of “transformation” be expunged by concluding, “It is time to drop the cultural elitism that poses as significant Christian transformation of culture but only really panders to nothing more than middle class tastes and hobbies. It is time to look again at the New Testament’s teaching on the church as a sojourning people where here we have no lasting home.”

After reading Hart and Trueman, one has wonder if they are reading too much into the “transformation” rhetoric. What, then, could be lurking behind the latest anti-transformationalist episode of the Hart/Trueman Show? In answering the question about Keller and Detroit, Hart looks to the lessons of “two-kingdom distinction-making” in thinking about Christianity and society. Now that makes more sense. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), where Hart and Trueman are both ordained, is currently embroiled in an intramural debate over the “two-kingdom” theological perspective. That discussion is beyond the scope of this post but in that context Hart’s reservations about Keller, Kuyper, and the word “transform” makes more sense.

Over at The Gospel Coalition Kevin DeYoung summarizes the two-kingdom perspective this way: “the two kingdom folks believe in a kingdom of this world and a kingdom of Christ. We have a dual citizenship as Christians. Further, the realm of nature should not be expected to function and look like the realm of grace. Living in the tension of two kingdoms we should stop trying to transform the culture of this world into the kingdom of our Lord and instead focus on the church being the church, led by it duly ordained officers and ministering through the ordinary means of grace.” For an evaluation of that discussion, reading John Frame‘s evaluation may prove helpful. Knowing that the latest anti-transformationalist/Keller critique has the DNA of the “two-kingdom” perspective helps us understand some of the reservations introduced by these OPC leaders. It is not likely that those with sympathies toward the “two-kingdom” framework are going to have affirmative dispositions toward Tim Keller, Abraham Kuyper, or any rhetoric about “transforming” culture or society. Kevin DeYoung explains these insights this way:

On the plus side for the two-kingdom approach:
• Emphasis on the church and the ordinary means (e.g., preaching, sacraments)
• Realistic appraisal of our fallen world and the dangers of utopian idealism
• Acknowledges that while Christians can do and should do many worthwhile things in the world, the church as church has a more limited mandate
• Avoids endless, and often silly, pronouncements on all sorts of cultural and political matters
• Takes seriously the already and not-yet of the kingdom
• Understands that every nice thing that happens in the world is not “kingdom work”
• A bulwark against theonomy and reconstructionism

But I also see some dangers in a radical two-kingdom approach:
• An exaggerated distinction between laity and church officers (e.g., evangelism is the responsibility of elders and pastors not of the regular church members)
• An unwillingness to boldly call Christians to work for positive change in their communities and believe that some change is possible
• The doctrine of the “spirituality of the church” allowed the southern church to “punt” (or worse) on the issue of slavery during the 19th century

For this reason, the two-kingdom-like critique from Hart and Trueman is welcomed accountability in the world of celebrity, tribal, evangelicalism where followers take words like “missional,” “radical,” “transform,” “impact”, “engage,” and the like, and turn them into exclusive orthodoxies. Because those in the transformationalist tradition have blind spots, as Keller and DeYoung note, it is good to have voices like Hart and Trueman speak from their personal convictions in ways that enrich Protestant understandings of the gospel.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.