The Opening of the Calvinistic Mind

I walked around dazed for quite a few years, starting in the 1970s.  It all related to a series of changes God brought into my life.  Step one, salvation.  From being a nominal Christian in a small town church, I came to realize the personal, real aspects of Christianity.  I didn’t know terms like justification and sanctification, but God did the first and was doing (and continues to do) the second. 

Somewhere in the process, I was stunned by the beauty and order of theology.  Before that, I wasn’t sure what the word theology meant, but it did not have good connotations.  Then I started reading men who loved God and who combed through God’s Word continually because they wanted to see how the parts fit the whole.  The study of theology unlocked the Bible for me.  The Apostles’ Creed suddenly made sense, and I realized that God speaks authoritatively through His Word.  (As Schaeffer’s title says, He is There and He is not Silent.)

In this same progression of events, I began hearing of something called “a Christian worldview.”  I was a history major in college, and I was a Christian, but I did not have a Christian worldview.  I would have assumed that a Christian view of history meant studying the history of churches.  But the idea of a Christian Worldview stunned me.  It was a call to take “every thought captive” to the claims of Christ; it applied the Faith to all areas of life and thought; it emphasized that we are to love God with all our mind, as well as heart, soul, and strength.  The Christian Worldview tied my love of words with my increasing love of God’s Word.

As it turned out, the 1970s was the crest of the wave of Calvinistic Worldview Thinkers.  Andrew Sandlin’s experience paralleled mine.  He said, “We were tractor beamed into the Faith by the brilliant intellects of that time.”  God had, as it turned out, been blessing the Church for several decades with great Christian thinkers.  Many of these men were in the Reformed or Calvinist tradition.

These hefty, brainy Calvinists were writing big, weighty books that probably reached small audiences.  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company was one of the few publishers of these books and authors.  They included the apologist Cornelius Van Til, the philosopher Gordon Clark, the historian C. Gregg Singer, and others.  Foundational to much of the Worldview Thinking was the work of the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, and the man who built upon his works was the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. And time would fail us to try to highlight the writings of H. Van Reissen, H. R. Rookmaaker, R. J. Rushdoony, the recently deceased Francis Nigel Lee, Calvin Seerveld, Carl F. H. Henry, and others. (This is all the Clift’s Notes Version of my 2007 “Calvinistic Worldview Thinkers in the Wilderness Years” lecture series given in Virginia.)

The greatest popularizer of this mode of thinking was Francis Schaeffer.  His book (and the film series) How Should We Then Live? is unsurpassed as a way of introducing the key thinkers and movements and issues that have been the foundations of Western Civilization.  Schaeffer taught a whole generation of Christians how to think.  He viewed himself as a preacher, not a philosopher or apologist or cultural critic, but he pushed (shoved) unsuspecting Christians into all kinds of fields of thought and activity.

Somewhere along the way, Christian Worldview Thinking, as well as Calvinism, became popular in more and more Christian circles.  The market opened up for more popular writing by Reformed authors. The popularity of John Piper, R. C. Sproul, Tim Keller, and others testify to the ever-increasing market for Reformed writing on Christian doctrine and life.  The same thing happened in the area of writing on a Christian Worldview.  Home schoolers and private school parents have bought the idea of teaching a Christian Worldview.  Just Google “Christian Worldview” and you can fill a library with books and materials. 

What has not been as prominent in New Calvinism and Christian educational circles are the hefty books in the manner of the older Calvinist thinkers.  Hence, a few years back,  James Jordan wrote a defining essay called “The Closing of the Calvinist Mind.”  Equally as good, Andrew Sandlin wrote an essay called “The De-Intellectualization of the Reformed Movement.”  One of my own contributions to this topic can be found in the essay “Western Civilization on a Mountaintop.”

But lest I sound like the old fogey longing for the good ole days of Calvinist intellectuals, the tradition continues.  Along with many fine short, evangelical, practical books on Christian doctrine, life, and practice, there are still books being written that are bulky, intellectually heavy, challenging, and thoroughly Christian on various areas of life and thought.

One such book is Logic by Vern Poythress, published by Crossway.  Subtitled, “A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought,” this book is not simply a book on logic written by a believer, but a book predicated on the idea of a Christian approach to logic.  In the Introduction, Dr. Poythress credits Cornelius Van Til for boldly stressing the distinctiveness of a Christian approach to logic and D. H. Th. Vollenhoven for emphasizing the necessity for a Christian logic.  (Van Til and Vollenhoven were both Dutch Christian thinkers, and I talked about the Dutch Calvinists in my 2008 “Spheres of Reformation” lectures in Alaska.)  As Poythress notes, these two Dutchmen built their thinking on the work of Kuyper, John Calvin, and Augustine.

Logic by Poythress is not the book to get to teach logic to your junior high student.  For that, you are much better served by getting Introductory Logic by James Nance and Douglas Wilson or Traditional Logic: An Introduction to Formal Logic by Martin Cothran.  Poythress’ book is for the teacher, for someone like me who has taught logic several times and now thinks he understands it.  This book is also for the college class (either undergraduate or graduate level). 

Weighing in at 700 pages of texts, plus a good bibliography, this book is a resource and a challenge.  I suspect that my needs will be best served by reading “Part I: Elementary Logic.”  We are talking about a mere 230 plus pages here.  The first section of Part I introduces the study of logic and deals with the basic terms and issues.  The second section of Part I is called “God in Logic.”  I can’t wait to delve into some of the chapters, such as “Logic: Revealing God,” “Logic and the Trinity,” “Logic and Necessity,” and “Reflections on the Mediation of Human Knowledge of Logic.” 

One had better not attempt this book without strong coffee. 

Part II is called “Aspects of Propositional Logic,” and it contains discussions on such topics as Boolean Algebra.  I need to read it, even if I have to have a life-jacket on the whole time (meaning, I am in way over my head).  Part III is “Enriching Logic” and Part IV is “Supplements.” 

I am thankful for this book, Dr. Poythress, and Crossway, even though much of this work is beyond my ken.  This too is a mission field.  This too is fulfilling the Great Commission. This too is clearly “taking every thought captive.”  If it weren’t for the cost of the book ($45, list price), it would be great to hand out to every sneering skeptic and unbeliever who thinks Christianity is anti-intellectual and stupid.

Poythress is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he has taught for 33 years. He has six earned degrees, including a PhD from Harvard University and a ThD from the University of Stellenbosch. He is the author of numerous books on biblical interpretation, language, and science.

Vern Poythress continues to produce great and challenging books on theology, science, language, and now, logic. 

I hope to post more on this book later.

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4 thoughts on “The Opening of the Calvinistic Mind

  1. Fantastic review. You constantly challenge me with both the sheer volume and the profound richness of your reading.

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