Our Traditions Are Rooted in Creation’s Possibilities—Reflections on Being a Kuyperian-Wesleyan

The above quote is from a published article by Gideon Strauss (originally from South Africa), who has been appointed to head up the Worldview Studies program at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), in Toronto. I did my PhD (and some previous Masters coursework) at ICS, and taught a number of courses in the Worldview Studies program when I was working on my doctorate (Brian Walsh was then Worldview program director).

The Kuyperian Tradition and the Institute for Christian Studies

Like me, Gideon has been shaped by the Kuyperian (a.k.a. Neocalvinist) tradition, which gave birth to the ICS and which continues to shape its vision. We have also had the similar experience of being born and raised in one culture, while presently living and working in another culture.

In the article that the quote was taken from, Gideon reflects on the possibilities of a postcolonial re-appropriation of Neocalvinism in Africa, given that apartheid was propagated by Afrikaners, who were (at least, nominally) Neocalvinists. His analysis is very much indebted to the Neocalvinist philosophical tradition, something that didn’t impact me quite as deeply, given that my interests were more theological and especially concerned with biblical interpretation.

I was, however, impacted by the broad Kuyperian vision, which claims that all of life and human culture, indeed all creation, belongs to God. In a previous post I quoted Abraham Kuyper’s famous statement:

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign Lord of all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

And God’s saving work through Christ is as wide as creation.

These were themes I was beginning to discern in Scripture before my contact with the Kuyperian tradition at ICS; but that tradition gave a helpful focus to these themes.

Of late I have been reflecting on my debt to the various traditions I’ve been part of over the years.

Traditions That Have Shaped Me

First, there is the indelible experience of growing up Jamaican (white in a predominantely black culture), then being thrust into Canadian culture at the age of 22, and how having lived over a third of my life in the United States. For some years now I’ve described my hybrid identity as “Jamericadian.”

But I’ve also been aware that I’ve been formed by many diverse church traditions.

In Jamaica I was a member of the Missionary Church (a Wesleyan/Holiness denomination); in Canada I’ve been Presbyterian (two types), Christian Reformed, and Baptist (two types); and in America I’ve been a member of the American Baptist Church and now the Free Methodist Church (a return to my Wesleyan roots).

As I look at my ecclesial and theological journey, I note that I have returned to the Wesleyan tradition which initially shaped me (however, I wasn’t particularly aware of the depth of that tradition, initially). Along the way, I often connected with the Reformed/ Calvinist/ Presbyterian theological tradition, since this was the tradition that seemed to be aware of worldview issues (which I found important). But just as often, as I moved from city to city (six such moves), I was attracted to the particular local church; my motivation for church involvement was usually guided by the search for a faithful community on my faith journey.

Interestingly, I have found that there is significant overlap between the Kuyperian tradition and the Wesleyan tradition. In particular, Wesley’s interest in creation and the sciences (called “natural philosophy” at the time) and his mature view of the eschatological redemption of all things resonate well with the Kuyperian vision of Christ’s cosmic lordship.

Further Thoughts about the Intersection of the Kuyperian and Weslyan Traditions

For those interested, I’ve been articulating some ideas about the intersection of the Kuyperian and Wesleyan traditions (especially as I have been shaped by them) in response to a blog post by Bob Robinson.

In the post, which first appeared on his blog Regenerate, Bob explained the Kuyperian view of the kingdom of God as God’s claim over the entire created order. In a previous post he had addressed the anabaptist version of the kingdom in the writings of Scot McKnight and John Howard Yoder. And he promised a further post explicitly contrasting the Kuyerian and anabaptist visions of the kingdom.

In the discussion that followed on Bob’s Facebook page (which is copied to my Facebook page), a conversation started (in advance of his promised post) about the differences between the Kuyperian vision of God’s cosmic kingdom and Scot McKnight’s view of the kingdom of God as equivalent to the church.

I joined the discussion at a number of points. Here were some of my comments.

  • A Middleton-McKnight Book on the Kingdom of God

Scot McKnight has asked me to write a book with him (for IVP) on the Kingdom of God, that would include his view (the kingdom as the church) and my own (Kuyperian-Wesleyan) hybrid view (a cosmic kingdom, embodied in the church, both as institution and as scattered people of God). We would also include one or two other positions (so this would be a three or four views book). I’ve agreed to work on this with Scott after my sabbatical (I would be free to work on this sometime after 2017).

  • On Being a Kuyperian-Wesleyan

Someone wondered about my hybrid Kuyperian-Wesleyan identity, since he hadn’t known of the Wesleyan part. This was my reply:

I have found that there is great overlap between Wesley and Kuyper on the cosmic scope of God’s salvation. Perhaps the Wesleyan piece comes out more in the emphasis I place on the church, and the importance of ecclesial witness. There is also a sacramentalism in Wesley, that he got from the Greek Fathers (who influenced him greatly).

In response to a comment about how complex our identities can be, I noted:

Most of us have some sort of hybrid identity. Different contexts might lead me to highlight different aspects of my identity. I have certainly been shaped by the Kuyperian tradition, but I never found myself a perfect fit. I still retained some of my formation in the Wesleyan/ holiness tradition (though I was unaware of the nature of this tradition at the time). The Kuyperian tradition helped me correct some of the problems I perceived in my formation. But as I have become more cognizant with the Wesleyan tradition I have come to see a depth and breadth there that was not always explicit in my formation (and that isn’t always manifest in contemporary expressions of this tradition). But, thankfully, both my seminary and my church are characterized by this depth and breadth. See my post on Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College: https://jrichardmiddleton.wordpress.com/…/northeastern…/

  • How I Came to Discern My Kinship with the Wesleyan Tradition

When asked for further clarification of the Wesleyan piece, I elaborated as follows:

I discovered my kinship with Wesleyans after I began teaching at Roberts Wesleyan College in 2002 and met Wesleyan academics (faculty and students) at the Graduate Students Theological Seminar (held in Indianapolis each fall), sponsored by the Free Methodist Church and the Wesleyan Church. This seminar was started in the 1960s to support students from these two denominations who were working on PhDs in the broad area of theology or religious studies.

Each year doctoral students are invited to present papers arising from their research, with a Wesleyan professor in the same area giving a detailed (critical, yet encouraging) response. The students’ expenses are all covered. A bishop from each denomination also attends, and participates in the discussions, fellowship times, and worship.

Denominational sponsored or affiliated colleges (like Roberts Wesleyan College, Houghton College, Azusa Pacific University, Seattle Pacific University, Greenville College, Spring Arbor College, etc.) all send faculty representatives, who participate with the students in rigorous academic discussions, but also in fellowship and worship.

This annual event sends a strong message that the church values serious academic work. It therefore helps the students who attend remain ecclesially connected, conscious both of the relevance of their work for the church and that they themselves need the church’s support.

  • The Church in Kuyperian and Wesleyan Perspective

I added a final set of comments on what I learned from the Kuyperian and Wesleyan traditions about the significance of the church:

The Kuyperian tradition has been very helpful to me by distinguishing between 1) the church as an institution (denomination, or local body) and 2) the church as the body of Christ or God’s people (who may organize themselves in denominations and gather for worship, teaching, and fellowship; but who are still God’s people when they simply live their lives in the world, as parents, spouses, citizens, politicians, engineers, students, teachers, farmers, workers; and also when they organize themselves into non-ecclesial institutions, such as schools, labor unions, etc.). So the church in the first (narrower) sense is only one manifestation of the church in the second (wider) sense.

Kuyper thus calls on Christians wherever they are and whatever they do (whether individually or collectively) to represent the Lord Christ (and his kingdom) in their lives. It is the mission of the church (in the broader sense as God’s people/ the body of Christ) to conform their lives to the standards and values of the King of all creation.

The Wesleyan tradition isn’t so clear on the above point, though Wesley strongly emphasized the need for the church (and all Christians) to minister to the poor as part of the gospel (which involved both proclamation and deeds of mercy).

But I value the Wesleyan tradition particularly for stressing the crucial role of the gathered (institutional) church for the life of faith; the worship of the gathered church should be spiritually formative, which grounds the life of the people of God for faithful living in the wider world (which is still God’s world).

But I don’t want to give up on the Kuyperian distinction between the two senses of church. In fact, if you read the Pauline epistles with the broader sense of “church” in mind, they have much more far-reaching implications, addressing what Wesleyans have called “social holiness.”

I am grateful to have been profoundly shaped by these differing traditions rooted in God’s creation, which have been unfolded and refolded over time by communities of the faithful, in ways that engender blessing and shalom in God’s world.

More Discussion and Clarification of My Views on Eschatology (Jesus Creed Blog)

A couple days ago Scot McKnight (New Testament scholar; prolific author and blogger) posted a review of my book, A New Heaven and a New Earth. This generated a number of comments, some of which seemed to misunderstand what I was saying, so I responded with clarifications. I then got further questions, and I responded again. I’ve highlighted below some of my responses, for those interested.

The Motive for Ethical Living Today

One commenter wondered whether “new heavens and new earth eschatology should be a motive and basis for caring for creation and culture,” since there are people without this eschatology who are, in fact, concerned for this world.

This is how I responded:

I am basically a Wesleyan in orientation. This means that it isn’t some abstract concept of the eschaton that motivates me to care about this world. Rather, as one who passionately desires to be conformed to God’s image and thus to manifest what Wesley called “social holiness” in my life of discipleship, I want to love what God loves.

So I understand the promise of the renewal of creation, which began with Christ’s resurrection, and which can be a reality in the life of the church, to signify the heart of God.

My motivation to love the world (human and non-human) with God’s love, empowered by Christ’s Spirit, and thus manifest the imago Dei, is grounded in God’s unswerving commitment to humanity and creation after sin (see Genesis 9), and to Israel after the idolatry of the Golden Calf (see Exodus 34), and to the disciples after their abandonment of Jesus (and I could keep adding to that pattern, which recurs throughout Scripture), which culminates with the new heaven and new earth or the reconciliation of all things through Christ.

Have Christians Throughout History Always Thought of “Heaven” as Otherworldly?

On of the points that Scot McKnight himself raised in the review is that it is inaccurate to characterize all Christian speculation about the afterlife as otherworldly.

I responded:

I wanted to comment on your point that the history of eschatology suggests that not all Christian visions of the afterlife have consisted in an otherworldly, ethereal “heaven.” You’re absolutely right there, as I think my survey of eschatology (in the Appendix to my book) verifies.

However, you seem to be claiming more than I do, namely that it has been somewhat common for Christians to envision a new heaven and new earth as the final state (and you mention the history of heaven book by McDannell and Lang). I’m not sure I agree. Or, at least, it may be that I interpret the same data differently.

Part of the issue is that it has been typical to envision “heaven” in concrete earthly terms, while believing that it is some sort of hyper (non-earthly) reality. This is analogous to the point Caroline Walker Bynum makes in her book, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336. She notes that despite the influence of Platonism on Christian visions of the afterlife, the impact of the biblical teaching of the resurrection of the body led even those Christians who shunned a physical vision of the eschaton to conceive of immaterial “bodies” (whatever that means). Likewise, it seems to me that many have transferred concrete elements of the known world to the afterlife, even when the final reality is thought of as immaterial.

Beyond that, however, many Christians (especially in modern times) have envisioned the afterlife as a perfect replica of this world, without thinking of of it as the redemption of this world. Rather, what is envisioned is another, better world. To me, this difference is crucial, since it is the renewal of this world that articulates the vision I am interested in (even a replacement cosmos won’t do).

How Often Does the Bible Speak of New Creation?

One of the points McKnight made is that only Isaiah and Revelation speak of “a new heaven and a new earth,” so we shouldn’t think that this theme is all that common in the Bible. I was not the only person who responded to this point. One respondent pointed out the transformation of the cosmos mentioned in Hebrews 1 and 12, and in Romans 8.

So I joined the discussion:

I would agree that Isaiah 65:17-25 (also 66:22) and Revelation 21:1 aren’t the only places in Scripture that address the new creation. Beyond these two texts that explicitly use the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth,” there is 2 Peter 3:13.

But, of course, as you intimate, new creation is addressed in many more places in the Bible than where the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth” appears.

In the book, I address some of the clearest New Testament texts, such as Acts 3:21 (the restoration of “all things”), Ephesians 1:10 (the gathering up of “all things” in Christ), Colossians 1:20 (the reconciliation of “all things” in Christ), and Romans 8 (the liberation of creation itself from its bondage to decay, so that it might experience the same glory as the children of God). Both the Ephesians and Colossian texts specify “all things” as all things in heaven and on earth, thereby alluding to the cosmos God made in the beginning (when God created “the heaven and the earth”).

But many other texts also address the same reality, using different language. I actually address the text in Hebrews that speaks of the “changing” of the cosmos (parallel to Paul talking about being changed and clothed with the resurrection body, like a new suit of clothes, in 1 Corinthians 15:50-54).

So I think the theme of new creation is much broader than the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth.” Part of the thrust of my book is to show this pervasiveness, which is not limited to specific lexical items. The book is thus an attempt at a biblical theology of the eschaton, where the eschaton is the logical unfolding and natural telos of God’s purposes from the beginning for the flourishing of the world he made.

Scot McKnight’s Review of My Eschatology Book (on the Jesus Creed Blog)

Today Scot McKnight (author of The Jesus Creed, The Blue Parakeet, Kingdom Conspiracy, among many others) posted a short review of my eschatology book on his website, Jesus Creed. You can find the review here. In the review, McKnight (who recently spoke at Northeastern Seminary) gives his particular take on the book, beginning with things he thinks I got wrong, then moving on to points of agreement.

I have posted some preliminary responses both to what he wrote and also to what others have written in response.

I would like to develop (at a later date) a more comprehensive response on this blog, analyzing McKnight’s lectures at Northeastern (he spoke in October 2014, on the topic of his book Kingdom Conspiracy). While he and agree on a lot (and I have the utmost respect for him), I think it would be helpful to explore some areas of disagreement, including why it matters.

To that end, Scot McKnight has asked me to work with him on a book addressing three views of the Kingdom of God. He and I would write two of three chapters (we haven’t yet decided on the third person). I have agreed to do this perhaps as early as Fall 2017,  or more likely Fall 2018, after I complete my sabbatical project.