Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God, by Michael Allen. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2018. Pp. 186. $18.00 (softcover). ISBN: 978-0802874535. [Reviewed by Marco Barone]
This book attempts to refocus Christian eschatology and ethics “upon communion with God, or the beatific vision (the classical image of the eschatological presence of the Almighty)” (8). This goal is unintelligible without mentioning first a tendency that Allen calls “eschatological naturalism.” Allen’s introduction indicates that this theological tendency is primarily represented by the Neo-Calvinist and Kuyperian heritage, with Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck as their most famous exponents. The author sees positive elements in that heritage (7-8, 22-23). However, neo-Calvinism’s emphases “upon the new creation and the earthiness of our hope can and have morphed at times from being productive Reformed correction to the catholic faith to being parasitic to the basic lineaments of the Christian gospel”; that is, “a desire to value the ordinary and the everyday, the mundane and the material, has not led to what ought to become common sense to any Bible reader: that heaven and the spiritual realm matter most highly” (9). Rather, neo-Calvinism emphasizes “the resurrected body, the shalom of the city, and the renewal of the earth” (8).
Chapters one and two expound the eschatological part of Allen’s proposal, and chapters three and four constitute the ethical part.
In chapter one, “Retrieving a Theological Eschatology,” Allen further discusses neo-Calvinism’s eschatological naturalism that “speaks of God instrumentally (as a means to, or instigator of, an end), but fails to confess communion with God as our one true end (in whom alone any other things are to be enjoyed)” (23). The name “eschatological naturalism” ought not be confused with philosophical naturalism and its denial of the supernatural. Rather, it is “a theology…that is naturalistic only in a targeted manner regarding eschatological confessions (or the lack thereof)” (39), and in which “the secondary is elevated to the primary position in terms of Christian hope, and that which is in fact primary is relegated (at best) to the fringes, if not outright dismissed” (39-40). In other words, “eschatological naturalism treats God as the sovereign instigator and cause of Christian hope, the almighty and gracious Lord who brings his kingdom to pass” (46); however, “when it comes to describing or articulating that glory, it searches for other items, realities, and persons to mark its very nature: the shalom of the city, the redemption of creation, the resurrection of the body,” with the result that its “ends can and have at times become naturalistic, limited to horizontal and limited frames” (46).
Allen sees several dangers with neo-Calvinism’s eschatological and ethical emphases. I will mention two. The first is the desire for spiritual reformation. This desire, although good in itself, can become “parasitic” as a side effect of Kuyperian polemics against the errors and hyper-spiritualizations of dispensationalism and rapture theology (48).
Reform can be productive or parasitic. Theologically speaking, attempts to revitalize a doctrine, practice, or church sometimes lead to flourishing by way of deepening. But reforms can also be so intently or myopically focused as to lead to the unintended loss of a wider theological context and of confessional integrity. The danger of polemics in theological debate, then, is not only a matter of tone (whether loving or vindictive) and of content (whether true or false) but also of breadth (whether well balanced or narrow). Too many times, potentially prophetic words misfire because they are separated from a wider doctrinal commitment to the whole counsel of God. In such cases, a reform (perhaps a needful and good reform) takes a parasitic turn and eats away the substance of the doctrine, confession, practice, or church. (21-22)
Another danger has to do with idolatry, which is connected with upside-down priorities (40) and treating God as a means to an end rather than the end (46).
The danger of idolatry lurks especially in the realm of eschatology. When we speak of eschatology we are speaking of fundamental hopes and ultimate desires. Matters of priority and significance come right to the surface because we are addressing what has lasting meaning, value, and integrity in God’s economy. Numerous errors can be identified in the eschatological realm…each of these errors glows from some cultural and personal ideal being given independent significance in a way not acknowledged or upheld by (and sometimes quite contradictory to) the teaching of Holy Scripture. (36-37)
Allen suggests that some sections of neo-Calvinism have fallen into these errors, even into a form of idolatry that “may take the form of instrumentalizing God—treating him as the liberator from captivity and the sovereign who brought one to prosperity, and then turning to worship in an illicit form” (38). Differently, the proper emphases of Christian eschatology and ethics have to do not so much with earthly realities and institutions to be renewed, but rather with God Himself and fellowship with Him. God is the beginning, middle, and end of the history of redemption (34-35). God Himself is the cause, the center, and the end of our hope. The Christian hope is God Himself.
Theology that seeks to follow the emphases of the Scriptures will be alert to the reality that at the end of God’s grace is, ultimately, God. His creation, sustenance, instruction, patience, deliverance, reconciliation, forgiveness, resurrection, and so many other intermediate and unnamed kindnesses–they are all unto God. The gospel logic runs: “From him, through him, and to him are all things” (Rom. 11:36). While our vision or enjoyment of heaven is creaturely enjoyment–thus experienced in time and space and as embodied social being–its object is that one who is no creature but the Lord God Almighty. (38)
True, all things will be renewed in the age to come, and there will be not only spiritual changes but also physical, political, cultural, and social ones. However, that should not be the focus of our eschatology (and, therefore, of our ethics, since eschatology inevitably influences ethics). Rather, God Himself ought to be the end since all things are means to the final manifestation of His glory in Christ. Appropriately, Allen notes that Scripture’s descriptions of both the first creation of Genesis (Gen. 1:1-2:4) and the new creation of Revelation (Rev. 21:3, 21:22-27, 22:12, 20) are not focused on creation, production, restoration, and renewal by themselves. Rather, the culmination and end of all those things is God’s presence and His covenantal fellowship in Jesus Christ (34-35).
In chapter 2, “The Visibility of the Invisible God: Reforming the Beatific Vision,” Allen bemoans the absence in recent Protestant theology of developed discussions on the doctrine of the beatific vision (61), with a few exceptions. This absence is “glaring in the face of the substantial place that the doctrine of the beatific vision held in classical faith and practice, where the beatific vision played a role in prolegomena (as the ultimate form of human knowledge of God), in eschatology (as the central hope of the Christian), and in ethics (as the driving force or motivation for ascetic discipline)” (61). Allen judges this shyness as biblically and theologically unwarranted:
The New Testament witness points to the Christological nature of the beatific vision… (2 Cor. 4:6). Indeed, the apostles witness not only to the positive promise of sight of God in Christ but also to the exclusion of any other sight of God the Father… (John 6:46). There is one way who brings truth and life (John 14:6); he is the only vision we have of the Father. This is at the heart of not only Johannine but all apostolic theology… (John 1:14). (77)
Allen then expounds on the Biblical teaching of the invisibility and visibility of the triune God (66-87), that is, the triune God who, although invisible in His own nature, has made Himself visible in the incarnation of the Son:
The whole Godhead moves to express its glory outward and even the most visible of the persons–the incarnate Son–continues to possess the attribute of invisibility. We do well, then, to speak of the visibility of the invisible God… The shared glory of the three divine persons befits only God, but this Trinity of love and light does share this inner-Trinitarian visibility. Without bringing creatures to share in this natural knowledge and sight, the loving Lord of eternity does elect that creatures participate in this light and wisdom by grace and according to their creaturely capacity. Our vision of God is not the same as God’s own vision, but it is remarkably real nonetheless. (83-84)
Chapter 3, “Heavenly-Mindedness: Retrieving the Ascetical Way of Life with God,” opens the ethical part of Allen’s proposal. Inspired by several past theologians, Allen highlights the importance of being both spiritually-minded (95-101) and heavenly-minded (101-132), which is what the author means by asceticism. This emphasis, marked by a “delight in the triune God,” does not “displace concern for neighbor care and even enemy love,” but “actually sustains and motivates earthly action” (131). On the contrary, what seems lacking today is a proper emphasis on the spiritual and the heavenly, also because of the counter-intuitive nature of this ethical posture caused by our fallen state (90-91, 94-96, 101, 113-114).
Such a theological focus is counter-intuitive and counter-cultural this side of Eden… Hardening of this sort comes naturally to the self-infatuated sinner and is propelled by the materialistic frame of modern culture… But God calls us to lift up our hearts to look upon the “heavenly places in Christ Jesus” where we are filled with “the fullness of him who fills all in all,” that is, “with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 1:23; 3:19). Heavenly-mindedness molds our desires for something eternal and infinite, for God’s own fullness and nothing less. (113-114)
Therefore, Allen calls the reader to order his priorities, or, in Augustinian terms, his loves (112, 127-132), since our heart is by nature restless and can find true rest only in fellowship with God. This is a helpful and needed chapter on a potential problem for all Reformed institutions in general, not only neo-Calvinist ones. The Protestant ethic of work can be exaggerated, or even abused (sometimes unconsciously and subtly), with the result that earthly work is made an end in itself. The good gift of fellowship can be abused to gratify a disproportionate desire for entertainment and activities, neglecting prayer and mutual edification. The covenantal requirement of Reformed education can be abused to hide a proud lust for academic or professional achievements. The stewardship of our God-given bodies through sport or physical activity can be abused to hide an inordinate love for sports and appearance.
In chapter 4, “Self-Denial: Reforming the Practices of Renunciation,” Allen proposes a Reformed practice of asceticism. “Asceticism” here means the practice of renunciation, self-denial, mortification, and contempt for the world, to which all Christians are called (139). Allen focuses on self-denial, and he claims that a sound asceticism does not make us neglect our earthly and creaturely duties (134-140). His accounts of Calvin’s correction of the works-righteousness excesses of past asceticism is very interesting. Here is a sample:
Calvin defines repentance neither as a preparation for the gospel nor as a distinct response to the gospel but as a divine provision of the gospel that takes the form of sanctified human action. His reading of Jesus’s scriptural message relayed in Luke 24:47 locates repentance as a believer’s action flowing from and gifted by God’s kindness. While repentance is our action, its existence flows from God’s good promise, indeed, it is a part of that promise, not as a condition but as a creation flowing from the unconditional gift of Christ. (141-142)
Allen laments “the heavy influence of neo-Calvinism or Kuyperianism and of the Weberian and Neibuhrian approaches to reflecting upon the sociological, economic, and cultural significance of Calvinism,” which for him “has led to an image of the reformers’ theology that rarely, if ever, finds itself identifies with heavenly-mindedness, self-denial, contentment, Sabbath, and renunciation of the world” (152). Allen calls again for a reorganization of priorities:
My emphasis here ought not to be mistaken for a rejection of this Kuyperian or neo-Calvinist vision of Christ as Lord of all things, the sovereign over every sphere of life… That said, there are serious dangers to this emphasis, chief among them a loss of proportion. Culture in its various forms can be good, but even at its very best it can only be a secondary participating good that pales in comparison to our primary good: the triune God who participates in no one, but who may be participated in by those united to him in Jesus Christ. (153)
I have two criticisms of this book. First, previous key criticisms of the Kuyperian project are absent from Allen’s book. For example, Herman Hoeksema’s,1 David J. Engelsma’s,2 and Klaas Schilder’s3 respective criticisms of Kuyper’s project are nowhere to be seen in the critical apparatus.
The works of these men have been around for decades, and are often discarded simply because of proud and unwarranted academic snobbery. Of course, I do not ascribe to Allen any malicious intent in this. However, the absence of even the simple recognition of said pre-existent bibliography is, at this stage of the debate, academically unacceptable.
Second, Allen still uses (although only once in this book) the confusing (to say the least) terminology of “common grace” (100). Scripture presents only one meaning of God’s grace as applied to creatures, that is, effectively saving grace.4 This indicates that Allen’s eschatological and ethical proposal needs a soteriological appendix that disposes of the ambiguous language of common-grace theology. This lack is particularly surprising, especially considering what Allen says regarding the fact that anything done or enjoyed outside fellowship with God is idolatry (128-132). God’s universal distribution of degrees of good gifts has nothing to do with a universally gracious and saving disposition on His part, but simply with the perfectly wise plan of His providence.
These criticisms aside, Allen’s book is both needed and refreshing. The author’s criticism of Kuyperianism is spot-on. In a sense, one could say that Allen is not sharp enough in his criticism, at least if one looks at the undeniable and steady spiritual decline of some Kuyperian institutions that have applied Kuyper’s project with a certain consistency. Allen is entirely right about the “eschatological naturalism” and earthly-mindedness of much of neo-Calvinism, and he is also right about the danger of idolatry that seems inherent in the very nature of Kuyper’s project. The warnings of Hoeksema and his students have been around for almost a century now, and they have often been dismissed with preposterous accusations of hyper-Calvinism (for their denial of the doctrine of common grace) and Anabaptism (for their rejection of the Kuyperian project). That their warnings are warranted is evident to any honest investigation of the results of Kuyper’s project.
Allen’s discerning use of ancient and medieval theologians is informative and edifying, and his respect for Reformed boundaries is encouraging. I recommend this short (although deep) volume as it contains good insights and correctives for all Reformed people in general, and not just Kuyperians. It will help the reader from any station and calling in life to set his or her affections on things above, on heaven, where Christ is seated.
1 The Christian and the Culture (First PRC Evangelism, Grand Rapids, MI); “Not Anabaptist but Reformed,” in Henry Danhof and Herman Hoeksema, The Rock Whence We are Hewn (Jenison: Reformed Free Publishing Association), 88-155.
2 Christianizing the World: Reformed Calling or Ecclesiastical Suicide? (Jenison: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2016).
3 Christ and Culture (Hamilton, ON: Lucerna CRTS Publications, 2016).
4 Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grandville: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2004), 1:154-160.