"Think Biblically! Recovering a Christian Worldview" by John MacArthur, with The Master's College Faculty and "Engaging God's World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living" by Cornelius Plantinga

David VanDrunen
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
May/Jun 2004

One practice that has united a great number of disparate Christian churches and denominations in North America has been the formation of Christian schools, in many cases primary and secondary schools, but most notably colleges and universities. Questions inevitably arise as to the need and usefulness of such schools as well as to their theological rationale, as these various Christian institutions of higher education compete with each other and also with ubiquitous publicly funded institutions. Why should Christian youth forsake mainstream state universities and instead opt for education at Christian colleges that are usually more obscure and invariably more expensive? These books, written by people heavily invested in the world of Christian higher education, offer answers to this question that are clearly distinct, though not completely dissimilar. Cornelius Plantinga, writing out of the Dutch-American Reformed tradition and on behalf of Calvin College, makes the kingdom of God his primary theme and the focus of a Christian education. John MacArthur and his colleagues, writing from a conservative evangelical, somewhat fundamentalist perspective and on behalf of The Master's College, emphasize the idea that all aspects of culture and all academic disciplines ought to be grounded in Scripture. Despite the difference of the kingdom- and Scripture-oriented approaches, both books attempt to defend the distinctively Christian nature of all intellectual study and the cultivation of a Christian worldview.

Think Biblically! consists of seventeen chapters written by John MacArthur and faculty members from different departments at The Master's College. The first six, designed to address the biblical foundations of culture and intellectual study, deal with some basic issues of theology, especially the doctrines of Scripture, creation, fall, and redemption. The last eleven explore how these foundational matters are worked out in particular cultural issues and academic fields. Though the tone and quality differ from chapter to chapter, as is inevitable in a multiauthor work, some common themes do hold this work together. Most prominent is the sufficiency of Scripture, which MacArthur claims is perhaps the doctrine most under attack in the present day. Though many of the authors reject the claim that the Bible is a "textbook" on every particular academic discipline, they all share the conviction that Scripture sets forth principles that are applicable and normative for each academic field and cultural endeavor. Many essays follow a common pattern of surveying the whole of intellectual history from the perspective of its own particular topic-decrying especially the Enlightenment, Darwinism, and now postmodernism-before identifying and unpacking the relevant biblical principles. The essays are sensitive to assaults against the biblical worldview they promote from both non-Christians and professing Christians. Warnings against Christians who have compromised with Darwinism and postmodernism, and have thereby reinterpreted or ignored the "clear teaching" or "face value" of Scripture, are sounded repeatedly.

Perhaps the most admirable quality of this work is its shameless desire to adhere to Scripture, even if that means bucking nearly every trend in the broader world. The authors' willingness to take a critical stand against harmful cultural and academic movements that marginalize them from the world's perspective is something that ought to impress and inspire Christian young people pursuing higher education. However, this same critical posture-itself admirable-contributes to the most substantial drawback of the work: its polemics frequently lack precision. The repeated cursory summaries of intellectual history seldom provide adequate descriptions of the views of any particular person or movement. Many of the Christian thinkers accused of compromising with unbelievers (some of whom would be familiar to readers of Modern Reformation) would certainly not recognize themselves in the descriptions of their views.

Most notable, given the primary thrust of this work, is a failure to provide a consistent description of the nature of the sufficiency of Scripture. The sufficiency of Scripture was, of course, one of the great and crucial doctrines of the Reformation. Yet the reformers did not wish thereby to compromise the reality of general revelation, the necessity of exercising wisdom, or the benefit of learning from unbelievers. To the credit of the authors, this book does acknowledge general revelation and the need for wisdom, and the corresponding fact that Scripture does not discuss a great number of topics in which a Christian college must inevitably provide instruction. But at the same time, the essays also speak frequently of Scripture as meeting every problem of human life, as the only completely reliable source of truth, and as the only place providing knowledge of God. Thus, this crucial matter for Christian higher education is left at best ambiguous, with the result that the posture toward non-Christian thinkers is always only critical. No positive model is provided for learning from the genuine, if flawed, contributions that unbelievers have made to culture and learning.

Engaging God's World is a clear and elegantly written book which centers around the threefold biblical theme of creation, fall, and redemption. It ends with a call to see education as preparation for a specific calling to reform the world for the sake of God's kingdom. Plantinga's work is notably more favorable than Think Biblically! toward integrating Christian scholarship with the contributions of non-Christian learning. John Calvin is favorably described as learning from both Scripture and pagan authors, and college students are called to gain wisdom from many sources, seeking truth wherever it may be found.

Plantinga's specific discussion of the relationship between general and special revelation is markedly different from that of the MacArthur volume. Alleged contradictions between these two sources must be taken as only apparent, but honest and patient scholarship should not be compromised by excessive zeal to find a quick solution, as resolutions may be slow in coming. Plantinga also adopts the view that Scripture offers helpful principles for all of life, but emphasizes that Scripture itself invites creative solutions in applying these principles-indeed, this is part of the adventure of Christian education. Yet these convictions about general revelation do not make Plantinga less committed to specifically Christian higher education. Instead, he expresses clear pessimism about the helpfulness of training at secular universities and stresses the unique contribution of Christian colleges in imparting to students a kingdom vision.

Undoubtedly, the kingdom of God is the key thread uniting his book: to get an education is to prepare for kingdom service. Plantinga picks up a theme that he perceives in Calvin and especially in Abraham Kuyper: the lordship of Christ over all things and the consequent hope of the redemption of the whole cosmos. He rejects any distinction between sacred and secular spheres. The redeemed believer, he claims, embarks on a lifelong adventure to discover the ways of the kingdom in this world and his or her own vocation to advance it. This entails the reformation of all aspects of culture, motivated by the hope that our present achievements will be preserved into the next life in the new heavens and earth. The sweeping vision that he presents is certainly compelling and perennially attractive as an alternative to world-shunning interpretations of the Christian life.

Whatever the ultimate biblical fidelity of this vision, Plantinga's treatment of it does raise some important questions. One is historical. Though Plantinga treats his kingdom theology as characteristically Reformed and exemplified in Calvin, the corresponding emphasis on the two kingdoms in Calvin and other Reformed thinkers is not explored. Calvin clearly distinguished the kingdom of Christ from the civil kingdom; he viewed both as legitimate and God-ordained, but applied redemptive categories only to the former and therefore emphatically warned against confusing the two, which is precisely what Plantinga does. Calvin and the early Reformed tradition is not the clear precedent for Plantinga's view. Another important question concerns the consistency of his kingdom theology both internally and in the light of certain biblical teachings. Plantinga's portrayal of a fluid transition between the present world and the world to come does not sit entirely at ease with his occasional warnings against over-optimism as to what Christians can achieve, nor with Scripture's cataclysmic descriptions of the end of this age.

These two volumes offer much grist for reflection for those interested in the topic of Christian higher education. The two visions represented here are certainly those that a great many Christian colleges today are trying, in various ways, to implement. Both works have much to admire, though they remind us of challenges yet to be resolved. In the face of the somewhat monistic claims of these two books-Scripture answers every problem in the present world or the Kingdom of Christ encompasses every aspect of the present world-this reviewer wonders whether we still have things to learn from the Reformation's both/and approach: both special and general revelation, both the kingdom of God's right and left hand. A both/and approach may strike readers as the very kind of Roman Catholic perspective that the Reformation rejected, yet the reformers themselves believed that their affirmations of two kingdoms differed markedly from Roman distinctions between reason and revelation and nature and grace. Perhaps we, as heirs of the Reformation, have more work yet to do in appropriating their insights on these matters.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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