Acton Institute Powerblog

Much Ado About A ‘Transformationalist’ Nothing

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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 Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • Darryl Hart

    Anthony, wouldn’t you think that despite WWII and all that Kuyper’s church would still be in existence. It isn’t even if the Free Reformed and Christian Reformed (Dutch) still are.

    Also, you may want to check but the opposition to 2k is coming a lot more from the PCA than within the OPC. Just check out your friends the Baylys, Equip magazine, the Federal Vision, or your neighbor, Tim Keller.

    And btw, the point of my post was why are the transformationalists trying to save Detroit. Surely you don’t think it’s all that hard to want to save Manhattan.

  • Curt Day

    Just some notes here. Blaming Kuyper for not having a “lasting” influence on Amsterdam seems to give too much credit for any individual. Sometimes the person seeking change has failed but the audience should get some blame too. I remember when I was camping out in DC during the beginning of the Occupy Movement there, and noticing the small number of people there vs the number of people we have to draw from. Our small number was not necessarily our fault, it could be the fault of the audience who did not want to get involved. Thus asking if Keller could save Detroit is rather a silly question asked by those who are prone to hero worship.

    When I look at all of the effort to construct theologies to guide us on how we should interact with the world, I get the feeling that we are overtheologizing and forgetting the components of love and compassion. For example, when sharing my views on one reformed blog, I was told that I was eschatology confused and was confusing the law and gospel. But when I heard Noam Chomsky discuss why there is a push against Social Security, public education and alike, he interpreted the push as telling us that we should not care about the widow across town who needs the Social Security check or care about the children whose families that struggling economically and whether they are getting a good education. He says that we are being told that we should not care about others. Instead, we are told that we should only care about ourselves. So for him, to support Social Security and public education as well as other positions, it is because he cares and is oblivious to eschatological and law-grace issues.

    What if we were to use caring and compassion as the primary guide for how involved we should be with the world? And what if we used our own struggle with sin to tell us what response to expect back from the world? And what if our two-kingdom theologies and transformational expectations could become minor guides telling us how to be involved and what to expect? Perhaps, we would then quit substituting theologies for compassion.

    I like how you described these as intramural battles and that is because sometimes intramural games become so intense that we forget to celebrate what we agree on.

  • andrewlohr

    A bulwark against theonomy and reconstructionism (= transformationalism??) is a plus? Considering what a mess the US’s laws are, one would think we might find wisdom in laws given by God, however we have to adjust them to A.D. and 2000 years gone by. (I think some sociologists would sign off on Eccl 8:11.)

    And (Mr Day) we libertarians may oppose government programs in the name of love. The market puts customers (poor people) in charge; the government puts bureaucrats in charge. The market has to earn its keep, but government collects taxes whether its customers are happy or not. The market supplies many wants–burger, pizza, taco, sub, sushi–but government makes for winners and losers (Biden in, Palen out). And so on.

  • ISTM “Its not the gospel’s job (or the church’s job) to transform society” was at work in the slow reticence of conservative churches in the south to oppose the injustice of segregation.

    “Further, the realm of nature should not be expected to function and look like the realm of grace.”

    I’m never sure exactly what that means. That in the church I can’t lord it over people and flaunt authority but in my secular calling I can? If it “functions” better than way? What if segregation helps the realm of nature “function” better (and who decides, and by what standard?)

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