Rejoinder to Dr. Carl Zylstra—President of Dordt College
David M. VanDrunen
Dr. Godfrey has asked me to write a response to Dordt College president Carl Zylstra’s recent review of my book, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture. Given the very negative tone of the review and the fact that Dordt College and my institution (Westminster Seminary California) both claim to be Reformed institutions and serve overlapping constituencies, I agreed to do so. Zylstra’s review is very disappointing, not because he does not like my conclusions—that is his right and the right of every reader—but because of his complete lack of engagement with the arguments I make in support of my claims, his misleading descriptions of what I say, his ad hominem jabs, and his treating me as an enemy of himself and his institution. I will respond briefly to these features of Zylstra’s review and offer a few comments on an issue he emphasizes: Christian education.
My first point, then, concerns the lack of substantive engagement with my book. Book reviews can take many forms, but some things that every review should do, however briefly, is identify the main claims of the book, describe the arguments by which the author supports his claims, and offer an analysis of the quality of these arguments. Zylstra doesn’t provide any of these. A reader of his review will not learn what the “vision for Christianity and culture” is that I try to provide or why I think this vision is biblical. Zylstra never describes what I mean by the “two kingdoms” doctrine. He does not even mention my detailed discussions of the creation and fall in Genesis 1-3, the successive biblical covenants (with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the church), the significance of Christ as the “Last Adam,” the Sermon on the Mount, and many other biblical themes that are central for questions of Christianity and culture. Likewise, Zylstra does not provide me, as author of the book, any indication of where my extensive biblical arguments have gone wrong. I know that he dislikes my book, but I have no idea where exactly, in his judgment, my interpretation of Scripture has erred. Readers of his review will learn much about Zylstra’s opinions, but exceedingly little about the book he’s supposedly reviewing.
Early on Zylstra states that there isn’t much in my book that is likely to convince “neo-Kuyperians” to give up their views; “rather, they are likely just to get mad.” Is this really how professors, students, and supporters of Dordt College respond to books whose conclusions they may disagree with? As one who received his primary, secondary, and college educations at “neo-Kuyperian” institutions, I think Zylstra is far underestimating his own community. Surely an important part of education at Christian schools and colleges is learning to read texts carefully, considering their claims and arguments carefully and dispassionately (even, and perhaps especially, when one is instinctively inclined to disagree with them), and providing a thoughtful evaluation of these claims and arguments. Surely this is how Dordt College professors seek to train their students. If Zylstra’s “neo-Kuyperianism” is worthy of defense, then it should not be afraid to engage the actual arguments of those it perceives as critics. Such engagement is how knowledge and truth advance in the community of learning. By responding to my book without careful explanation of what I actually claimed and argued, Zylstra has not modeled these central academic ideals.
Second, it is also disappointing to see how Zylstra many times says misleading things about me or my book and even resorts to ad hominem barbs. I mention a few examples of misleading statements. First, Zylstra claims early in his review: “VanDrunen believes it is either his way or Kuyper’s way—explicitly referring to the latter as ‘not biblical’ (13).” On page 13, however, I do not make any mention of Abraham Kuyper. In fact, as Zylstra knows from reading another of my books (Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms), I believe that Kuyper’s views were in many respects much closer to the two kingdoms doctrine than to contemporary “neo-Kuyperianism.” I am sure that Zylstra would like to portray the debate as Kuyper vs. VanDrunen, but that is not how it is portrayed in my book, and Zylstra should not describe it as if it were. Second, shortly thereafter, Zylstra says that I “intend to dismiss as totally misguided the entire enterprise of Christian day school education.” Not just misguided but totally and entirely? Given the fact that I say positive things about Christian schools in the last chapter of my book (and do not attack them at all)—not to mention that my wife and I have sent our child to a local Christian school from Kindergarten to the present (eighth grade)—Zylstra has given me a very tendentious reading. Third, in the very next sentence Zylstra refers to my “explicit rejection of the necessity of biblical norms for vocation and civic engagement.” Did Zylstra actually read the final chapter of my book? In each of its major sections (on education, vocation, and politics) I outline what Scripture says to guide our thinking about these areas of life. With regard to politics, for example, I write (pp.196-97): “Scripture teaches a number of important truths about civil government, and these truths define a Christian view of government and politics. Churches are bound to teach these truths, and Christians should conduct their political lives accordingly.” I have taken these examples—which are at best misleading and at worst patently false—from just the first three paragraphs of Zylstra’s review.
I also mentioned above that Zylstra resorts to some ad hominem barbs. What sticks out to me are his references—not once, but twice—to golf. He apparently picks up on a passing comment I make on pp. 25-26. There I mention a number of broader cultural activities that I enjoy, golf being one among many. I also took a stab at humor, noting that though I could not respond to readers’ legal questions (since I currently have inactive status as a lawyer) I would be happy to accept a reader’s invitation to play golf at a nice club to which he belongs. From this off-handed remark, Zylstra derives the following: “he does make clear that he believes cultural engagement takes place better in a round of golf at a fine country club (25-26) than it does in the local Christian school gym.” Not satisfied with this bizarre remark, he later says: “There may be those who truly believe that Christian discipleship arises, first of all, out of intellectual elaboration of the finer points of systematic theology, following a friendly round of golf.” What exactly is Zylstra trying to accomplish with such statements? A charitable engagement of ideas? If he is concerned that I am an elitist, out of touch with the ordinary Reformed Christian, I can only assure him that I have never been a member of a country club and play almost all my golf on inexpensive public courses. If he has something against golf itself as an activity fitting for Christians, then I wonder why Dordt College has both men’s and women’s golf teams.
Why does Zylstra show this animus? A part of it seems to be that he feels insulted; or more precisely, he seems to believe that I have insulted the Dordt College constituency and what it stands for. At one point he states that my book “derides” Reformed Christians such as those who make up the Dordt community. Zylstra provides no piece of evidence anywhere in Living in God’s Two Kingdoms where I come close to deriding anybody. In this book I tried very carefully to describe accurately the views of those with whom I disagreed. Even people who are not sympathetic with my general conclusions have commented that my book is irenic. Where in my book anybody would feel “derided” is beyond me.
Probably Zylstra is thinking back to a single footnote in my long and earlier book, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, which he cites in his review. In the introduction to this volume I wanted to provide a couple of concrete examples of how some contemporary Reformed people use language that is different from that of earlier Reformed theologians, such as John Calvin. One of my examples was a three-word quotation from the Dordt publication, The Voice, which described the attempt to build a football program consistent with the “Reformed Christian worldview.” I have just reread this section of my earlier book. Zylstra is free to disagree with my interpretation of Calvin’s theology, but I do not see why he must take this as an insult, or, in his own words, as an attempt to “pick on a particular college (Dordt College).” This seems strikingly thin-skinned.
Throughout his review Zylstra treats me as an enemy. I hope there is no need for that. I wish Dordt College well, and other schools like it. I have friends and students who are Dordt graduates, and have had many cordial conversations about issues of Christianity and culture with them; they have not responded to me feeling angry or insulted. I would certainly welcome interaction with Dordt students and professors in the future. Though Zylstra suggests otherwise, I share his concern about the obligation of parents to train their children to know the Scriptures and to conduct themselves in all of life in ways consistent with their faith. In the section of my book dealing with education I raise a couple of issues worth mentioning here.
The first is that though Scripture provides guidance for thinking and acting in all areas of life, for most academic subjects Scripture provides only general guidance. The Bible sets certain parameters for approaching the various disciplines, but it does not give us specific or exhaustive information about, say, chemistry or literature or economics. To delve deeply into these subjects requires investigation of the world around us (natural revelation) and a measure of wisdom and good judgment. I imagine that Dordt College professors would agree with this claim, and implement it in their classrooms all the time. My writing on education is not a screed against Christian education, as Zylstra suggests, but wrestles with the implications of facts like this. It is something that every Christian teacher and scholar must take into account.
The second thing is that though Christian day schools (and colleges and universities) can and do play an important role in the education of covenant youth, it is not consistent with Scripture or historic Reformed Christianity to insist that primary, secondary, college, or graduate education must, in every case, take place at specifically Reformed schools. One of the great principles of the Reformation is that Christians may not bind each other’s consciences in things that go beyond the word of God. Rome had placed all sorts of man-made rules and doctrines upon the shoulders of the saints, but the Reformation insisted that Christians have liberty of conscience in matters on which Scripture does not speak. Scripture does obligate parents to train their children—and we certainly may place this obligation upon each other. But Scripture does not require that this obligation be pursued in one particular way. Christians should not insist that parents must send their children to the Christian day school rather than homeschool their children (or vice versa). Neither can they insist that parents may never make use of public education. Would the faculty and board of Dordt College really disagree with this? Dordt has no law school or medical school, and its graduates go on to study law and medicine at the University of Iowa and other state institutions. I imagine that most Dordt professors received their Ph.D.s from non-Reformed institutions. Moses was educated in the pagan court of Egypt, and Daniel, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego were trained in the pagan schools of Babylon, and God used such education for marvelous ends. Reformed people are not being unfaithful to the Scriptures if they make use of non-Reformed institutions today. If a Reformed believer can profitably study law at a state university, then surely one might be able to study accounting as an undergraduate at a state university, or study geometry at a public high school. If the first is permissible, then the second and third cannot be ruled out in principle. And the fact is that situations differ. Some families do not have a Christian school in the area where they live. Others do not have a good Christian school available and cannot do anything about it (just because a school claims to be “Christian” does not mean that it does a good job). Furthermore, each of our children and young adults are different. They mature at different paces and become able to interact intelligently with the broader world at different ages. And non-Reformed schools are not all alike. Many of them offer tremendous resources and opportunities that Christian institutions do not have, from which our children and young adults can profit. Are these not legitimate issues for charitable discussion among Reformed Christians?
Authors of books are honored when people care enough about their work to review them, but I do regret the tone and substance of Zylstra’s review. I understand that I have dealt with difficult and controversial issues in Living in God’s Two Kingdoms and that not all readers will agree with my conclusions. But my hope is still that this book would “provide a stimulating and charitable contribution to ongoing debates about the nature of Christian involvement in cultural enterprises” (162).