Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (David W. Hall and Marvin Padgett, 2010)

Across all of life
When I first stumbled across a book by Francis Schaeffer in 1968—the year his The God who is There was published—I was not interested in changing my theology. I was interested in saving my faith, because the fundamentalist dispensationalism in which I had been raised had proven to be sadly inadequate. Spirituality applied only to personal morality, God’s full pleasure attached only to religious pursuits, and art and culture were dismissed as “worldly.” A faith that limited, I concluded, was hardly worth the effort. I almost didn’t read The God who is There, but as I thumbed through it I saw that Schaeffer neither disdained culture nor was dismissive of asking honest questions—and that caught my interest. It was a Christianity I had not known.

So I read Schaeffer’s books, learned that taped lectures were available and devoured them as well. At first it made little sense to me, but slowly I began to discover that in Schaeffer’s view, the Bible didn’t just present a theology, it provided a worldview that applied to all of life and culture. This was not a novel idea, it turned out, but was actually based on what the Reformers had taught in the 16th century, what Augustine had taught in the 4th century, and what the apostles taught in the 1st. Abraham Kuyper had summarized it in his Stone lectures, given in 1898 at Princeton and published under the title, Lectures on Calvinism. In the series he explained how Christ’s Lordship extended to all of life, and how the revelation of God in Scripture shed light on every sphere of existence. The six lectures explored Christian orthodoxy as a worldview, and then how it worked itself out in religious life, politics, science, art, and a view of the future. I didn’t have to agree with Kuyper at every point (and I don’t) to undergo what can only be called a paradigm shift. I hadn’t merely come across a few new ideas to accept but a whole new way of thinking and seeing.

I had begun this pilgrimage in an attempt to save my faith, to try to discover whether the Bible was relevant to all of life or only to tiny slice of existence. In the process two things transpired: I adopted Kuyper’s ringing confession of faith as my own (“No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”), and my theology was changed.

To hold a faith that addresses not just “spiritual” (religious or devotional) concerns, but that speaks to all of life provides a motivation to love and serve God. Every legitimate vocation pursued to his glory pleases him, all truth is his, every glimmer of beauty resounds to his glory, and we are not awaiting release from the physical but will serve him body and soul in a new heaven and earth forever.

This holistic vision must be constantly renewed or it will wither away. Our culture pushes us towards fragmented living and thinking. The church is haunted by pseudo-Gnostic beliefs that pull us towards dividing the sacred from the secular, the spiritual from the material. Reminding ourselves of the richness of the Christian worldview and exploring afresh the implications of Christian belief to life and culture is not burdensome but necessary. Besides, new challenges and ideas arise in a broken world and we are commended to “bring every thought captive,” which means our thinking is never done (2 Corinthians 10:5).

In Calvin and Culture, David Hall and Marvin Padgett help us in this process by editing a book that essentially works through the same material Kuyper did in his Stone lectures. In the process they provide us a chance to refresh our thinking about the biblical worldview and reflect on how the gospel speaks creatively to every aspect of our lives and thinking. The chapter titles summarize the contents well:

“1929 and All That, or What Does Calvinism Say to Historians Searching for Meaning?” (Darryl G. Hart).
“Law, Authority, and Liberty in Early Calvinism” (John Witte Jr.)
“The Arts and the Reformed Tradition” (William Edgar)
“Calvin’s Contributions to Economic Theory and Policy” (Timothy D. Terrell)
“Calvinism and Literature” (Leland Ryken)
“Calvin’s Legacy in Philosophy” (William C. Davis)
“Calvin, Politics, and Political Science” (Paul Marshall)
“Calvinism and Science” (Don Petcher)
“John Calvin’s Impact on Business” (Richard C. Chewning)
“Calvin and Music” (Paul S. Jones)
“Medicine: In the Biblical Tradition of John Calvin with Modern Applications” (Franklin E. Payne)
“Calvin as Journalist” (Warren Cole Smith)
“The Future of Calvinism as a Worldview” (David W. Hall)

Theologian John Frame notes that, “for Calvin, theology is not just one subject among many.” It is the key to everything human, and therefore to culture. Culture is what human beings do with God’s creation. The marks of the fall permeate it. We see cruelty in human government, nihilism in human art, lies in human journalism. But redemption changes people comprehensively, so that they carry God’s wisdom into their workplaces: compassion and justice into government, meaning into art, truth into journalism.

So the worldview of Calvin, which is the worldview of Scripture, necessarily energizes God’s people to serve God by their callings; and thereby to change everything. Redeemed people renew and ennoble everything human. Sin does continue to tempt them, and they do fall. But from a wide historical perspective, we can see that through their Spirit-motivated efforts, culture does change for the better. The gospel has in fact motivated God’s people to care for widows and orphans, to build hospitals, to paint and sculpt, to oppose tyranny, to take God’s Word to the ends of the world.

We recommend Calvin and Culture. It will not provide all that’s needed in every sphere of life and work and culture that is addressed, but it will provide a good foundation. And it will remind us of the vitality of Christian belief, and how the perspective given us in Scripture sheds light and life to all that is encompassed in Christ’s kingdom—and that includes precisely everything.


Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview edited by David W. Hall and Marvin Padgett (Phillipsburg, PA: P & R Publishing; 2010) 305 pages + indices.