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Calvinistic Comprehensiveness

The chief conceptual distinctive of Calvinism is covenant theology; the chief material distinctive of Calvinism is comprehensive religion. On these two hinges swing the fortunes of a healthy Calvinism.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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The chief conceptual distinctive of Calvinism is covenant theology; the chief material distinctive of Calvinism is comprehensive religion. On these two hinges swing the fortunes of a healthy Calvinism.

Covenant Theology
Undeniably, covenant theology arose within the Reformed Faith.1 In summary, covenant theology is the view that God's relationship to man is a distinctly covenantal relation. A covenant is a solemn agreement secured by oath, often by bloody oath. Its secular versions are contracts and compacts. It lays down stipulations for both parties to the covenant, and it applies not only to those parties, but also to their heirs. God graciously enters into covenant with man. He establishes the terms of the covenant, sometimes in treaty format, like the book of Deuteronomy.2 God in his prevenient grace promises to bless and honor his sovereignly chosen people (there is no hint whatsoever of human goodness or merit stimulating God's choice of whom he will enter into covenant with, or of man's bargaining with God3). Man, for his part, pledges allegiance to the Triune God, including obedience to God's commands. God deals with man by means of covenant, and the Bible itself is structured as a covenant document. This is not merely the Reformed understanding of God's dealing with man; it is, in large measure, the structure of Reformed theology itself. This covenantalism distinguishes Reformed theology from the theology of other sectors of the Christian church.

The chief material distinctive, however, is comprehensiveness. By this I mean that the Reformed see the Christian Faith generally, and the Bible specifically, as the source of authority for every aspect of life, not merely the narrowly religious. The outlines of this distinctive were laid in the Reformation era. As Allister McGrath observes of the Reformation's distinct break with the medieval idea of holiness as a special vocation:

The noted Reformation scholar Roland H. Bainton once remarked that when Christianity takes itself seriously, it must either renounce the world or master it. If the former attitude was characteristic of much medieval Christianity, the latter dominated the thought of the reformers. The Reformation witnessed a remarkable turnabout in attitudes towards the secular order. Monastic Christianity, which had been the source of virtually all the best Christian theology and spiritual writings during the Middle Ages, treated the world and those who lived and worked in it with a certain degree of disdain. Real Christians would withdraw from the world, and enter the spiritual security of a monastery. Yet, for the reformers, the real vocation of a Christian lay in serving God in the world. Monasteries were something of an irrelevance to this task. The real business of Christian living was in the cities, marketplaces and council chambers of the secular world, not in the splendid isolation of the monastic cell.
The importance of this shift in outlook cannot be overstated. It might be thought that monastic Christianity was only one component — and perhaps not even the most significant component — of medieval Christianity. Yet Ernst Curtius is one of the many scholars who have emphasized that it is a conveniently neglected matter of historical fact that much of what we refer to as "medieval Christianity" is actually virtually monastic in its character and origins. Asa result, medieval Christianity was characterized by a strongly anti-secular attitude. To live in the everyday world was a second-rate option; to value the everyday world was seen as a spiritual absurdity, which could lead to all kinds of spiritual degeneration.4

For the Reformers, and especially the Reformed, Christianity is, in Abraham Kuyper's words, a "life-system,"5 what Germans call a Weltanschauung, or we call a "world view." The medieval era, as McGrath observes, had developed a firmly otherworldly character. There is something of Plato's "idealism" about this: man's life on earth can never approach the perfect, aesthetically balanced "ideals" of the eternal. One striking contribution of the Reformation was, without in any sense denying the absolute claims of eternity, to turn men's attention to their earthly responsibilities set forth in the Bible.

Western Ecclesiocentrism
Closely related to the medieval church's strong separation of secular and sacred categories was its pervasive ecclesiocentrism — its church-centeredness. To a large degree, the Roman Catholic Church had simply assumed the structure of pagan, imperial Rome.6 As time went on, the power of that structure rivaled that of the Empire at its zenith. A disastrous byproduct of this ecclesiocentrism was the idea that, so long as men and thought were subordinated within the bosom of the church, they were genuinely Christian; the church itself — in more ways than one — baptized all within its province. It was merely the objective existence of the church that mattered. Perhaps even more dangerous, however, was the fact that autonomous, non-Christian thought could easily operate within the strictures of the church merely by virtue of it association with the church itself.7 It was not subjected to rigorous, Biblical examination. In this way a distinctive rationalistic bent easily won wide acceptance under the very watchful gaze of the ecclesiastical hierarchy charged with preserving the purity of Christ's body.

A prime example of this rationalism is natural law and aspects of natural theology. Natural law is the ancient Greek idea that men can deduce eternally valid law from careful observation and deductions from the natural realm.8 Natural theology is the notion that man can construct a theology without reference to supernatural revelation (namely, Sacred Scripture) but rather by the same appeal to nature. The idea of the medieval schoolmen, coming to the fore in the approach of its greatest proponent, Thomas Aquinas, is that men can gain extensive knowledge of the universe apart from supernatural revelation, but that that revelation is necessary for salvation and certain higher knowledge — the Trinity, for example. This is the so-called "nature-grace" distinction.

Two Forms of Autonomy
This notion of epistemological human autonomy was paralleled by soteriological human autonomy. Since the Second Council of Orange in the sixth century, the Western church had moved progressively in a Pelagian direction. Basically Pelagianism held that men are not naturally sinners, but are divinely endowed with the ability to save themselves. The Western church never went quite this far, though they did embrace a semi-Pelagianism: God graciously furnishes the seed of salvation, but man does the watering and nurturing. In other words, God does not save sinners; he helps them save themselves. The Reformation confronted both forms of autonomy — epistemological and soteriological — with the message that the Bible should govern all of life directly, and that man is saved totally by the grace of God. In principle, at least, all human autonomy was denied. The inner principle of the Reformation swept away the twin mediating factors that created a dominating autonomy within the Western church: an institutional church that stood between the Bible's immediate authority and man's earthly sojourn, and a sacerdotal system that stood between God's immediate grace and man's sinful plight. The Reformation rediscovered the immediacy of God's dealings with man. The Bible was to govern all of life immediately, and salvation was to apply to men immediately, without intervening institutions.9

The Revenge of Medieval Autonomy
The long-lived autonomy of the medieval church finally got its revenge, however. As the insightful Roman Catholic church historian Christopher Dawson has observed, when the European Enlightenment "began its struggle for the emancipation of the European mind from religious authority, and the reconstitution of culture on a purely rational basis, it found this tradition ready to its hand, and throughout the eighteenth century the cause of rationalism was regarded as practically identical with that of Deism and natural religion," for the "revival of philosophy as an autonomous, rational discipline and the beginnings of physical science as a systematic rationalisation of nature had their origins in the integral intellectualism of medieval scholasticism."10 In other words, the theoretical foundation of the European Enlightenment which incrementally subverted orthodox Christianity was bequeathed it by the Western church herself! This simply would not have been possible had the church recognized the error of its ecclesiocentrism and forced every single aspect of life to be governed, not by an ecclesiastical hierarchy, but by the authority of Sacred Scripture.

This is what the inner principle of the Reformation actually required, and it constitutes a distinct break between the Reformation and medieval worlds, despite the obvious and overwhelming continuities.11 Not that the Reformers held a low view of the church. All of the Reformers were dedicated churchmen, and their work in reforming the church was vital. However, the inner principle of their approach to the Faith demanded an assault on every form of human autonomy wherever it was found. In the first couple of generations, this was not entirely apparent to the Reformers themselves.12 Naturally, they were occupied with the theological and practical abuses within the church itself. To a certain extent, they assumed the inherited ecclesiology of the medieval world. For example, we know that the Westminster Confession, like Rome, identifies the church as the kingdom of God on earth. Later leaders of the Reformed church, of course, recognized how mistaken this identification really was. Kuyper,13 Berkhof,14 Ridderbos,15 Rushdoony,16 and others17 knew that the Reformed approach to the Faith entails a definition of the church as a vital aspect of the kingdom of God, but not the kingdom of God itself. The Reformed Faith demands nothing less than the authority of the word of God directly and immediately applied in every sphere of life.

Sphere Sovereignty
This is where Kuyper's idea of "sphere sovereignty,"18 adopted by Rushdoony, makes such a valuable contribution. The family, church, state, science, art, technology, and on and on, all operate as valid spheres of life, independent of each other, but ideally cooperating with one another immediately under divine authority. The institutional church no longer is seen as the incarnation of Christ on the earth, mediating all divine blessings to every aspect of life.19 Rather, it is the word of God itself, the Sacred Scriptures, that by means of the efficacy of the Holy Spirit, governs all spheres of life independently and mediates God's blessings as God's people adhere to the authority of that Scripture.

This means, among other things, that every area of life must be rigorously subjected to the word of God, "reconstructed" in terms of Biblical revelation. It is not enough, for instance, to attach a Christian cover to humanistic textbooks and assume that we are teaching a genuinely Christian language, science, history, art, or so forth. This is the practice of some leading fundamentalist Christian day school textbook publishers, who assume that the "traditional" view of education is somehow Biblical. They are no doubt unaware that they are simply perpetuating the pernicious nature-grace error of the medieval church under a more recent fundamentalist banner. Likewise, those who argue that the Bible has nothing to say about economics, architecture, education, agriculture, and so forth, and instead opt for humanistic versions of these disciplines and practices, perpetuate the grave error of medievalism. Merely to place a Christian cover on a secular and humanistic textbook is not to Christianize the text. Merely to include secular and humanistic ideas within the bosom of the institutional church is not to Christianize those ideas. The church (or for that matter, the family and state) should never be permitted to shield our ideas and practices from a rigorous Biblical critique.

The distinctive material contribution of the Reformed church is just this relentless emphasis on the comprehensive character of Biblical religion. No area of thought or life may be shielded from the searchlight of the Sacred Scriptures, and every area of life presently under the domain of sin must be "reconstructed" in terms of explicit Biblical revelation. This does not mean, of course, that the Bible contains all the specific answers to all the specific questions of sociology, physics, medicine, and so forth. It does mean, however, that the Bible articulates all of the general answers to questions on these and all topics, and, in addition, many specific answers. Sacred Scripture alone is the revelation in terms of which we can know anything rightly.

To be Biblically Reformed means we are necessarily committed to reorienting every area of life and thought in terms of the teachings of the Bible — not just in the individual, the family, and the church, but in every area of life. This requires rigorous examination (including self-examination), and a rigorous devotion to scholarship, properly understood.20 It requires intense study. Of course, no single individual can do all of this work; this is why it is necessary to raise up an entire generation of young thinkers and activists whose objective it is to reorient all areas of life and thought by the Sacred Scriptures.

This is the challenge springing necessarily from the single material distinctive of the Reformed Faith — a comprehensive religion.


1. William Klempa, "The Concept of Covenant in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Continental and British Reformed Theology," in ed., Donald K. McKim, Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids, 1992), 94-107.

2. P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, 1976), 36-45.

3. That the covenant is entirely gracious on God's part is expressed powerfully by Rousas John Rushdoony, Systematic Theology (Vallecito, CA, 1994), 1:376-379, and Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, 1966), 214-226.

4. Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought (Oxford, 1993 edition), 220, emphasis in original.

5. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, 1931), 9-40.

6. Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture (New York, 1957), 219.

7. Albert Mirgeler, Mutations of Western Christianity (Montreal, 1964), 53, 111, 142.

8. Heinrich A. Rommen, The Natural Law (Indianapolis, 1998).

9. Kuyper, op. cit., 30, 47.

10. Christopher Dawson, Enquiries into Religion and Culture (London and New York, 1933), 148, 146.

11. Jaroslav Pelikan, Obedient Rebels (New York and Evanston, 1964).

12. One example of this was their retention of natural-law theory. See August Lang, "The Reformation and Natural Law," in ed., William Park Armstrong, Calvin and the Reformation (Grand Rapids [1909], 1980), 56-98.

13. Kuyper, op. cit., 30.

14. L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, 1941 edition), 569-570.

15. Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (Philadelphia, 1962), 354-356.

16. Rousas John Rushdoony, Law and Society (Vallecito, CA, 1986), 335-338. He identifies the church and the kingdom, but holds that the church "includes all regenerate men, the redeemed in heaven and earth, the angels, true 'churches,' Christian states, families, schools, callings, and more," 337.

17. Christopher Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (London, 1960), 43; Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, 1978), 693; Gary North, "God's Covenantal Kingdom," in eds., Gary DeMar and Gary North, Christian Reconstruction—What It Is, What It Isn't (Tyler, TX, 1991), 28-29.

18. Kuyper, op. cit., 79.

19. Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom (New York, 1967), 287-296.

20. For a good start, see ed., Gary North, Foundations of Christian Scholarship (Vallecito, CA, 1979).

  • P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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