Kuyper v. Benedict? This Is Not an Either/Or

October 13, 2015

The question of Christianity’s place in a rapidly changing society seems to be on everybody’s mind. Barely a day or week passes that even mainstream press is picking up on an undercurrent of conversation happening amongst religious conservatives.

The discussion takes many forms and comes to expression most fully around the increasingly sclerotic issue of sexual morality. According to some, same-sex marriage represents the formal severing of America with its Christian roots. Are the days of the Religious Right dead? Will they be paid attention to like they once were by the GOP, or is that relationship dead, too? Do Christians have a place in the future of electoral politics? Are Christians to welcome or shun their newfound “Moral Minority” status? What is to be the posture of Christians who now find themselves as resident aliens in a culture that is quickly shedding itself of any vestiges of its Christian past? Or, with the surge of All-Things-Pope-Francis, is the decline of Christianity really even happening?

At a granular level, it seems that with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling, insiders and outsiders to Christianity are all recognizing that a symbolic pendulum swing, of some sort, has taken place. A new order has arrived, and Christians are now forced to find new ways to preserve their doctrinal and ethical distinctiveness.

Therein begins “The Benedict Option” proposed by my friend Rod Dreher. I don’t want to spill a lot of ink rehashing all of Dreher’s eloquent explanations of “The BenOp” as he calls it. The BenOp represents a strategic withdrawal of sorts built on the proposition that if Christians hope to survive to the next generation and outlive culture’s collapse, such survival will require greater attentiveness to forming deeper Christian identity and in turn, community. The BenOp, as I summarize it, represents a turn to deliberative Christianity.

Dreher’s BenOp is provoking a lot of discussion online, at conferences, and in churches. I accept this as a good sign, because it shows that Christians are thinking critically about themselves and their place in culture.

Dreher’s proposal has also received a lot of criticism. Critics accuse Dreher of a newfound and rebranded quietism or pietism—a Christianity that shirks social responsibility and instead retreats to the hills. These critics often hail from the transformationalist camp of Christianity, a paradigm that believes that Christianity must always engage with the forefront of culture for the sake of mission or else it will run the risk of disobeying the inherently transformative nature of Christianity. Many look to the 19th century Dutch polymath Abraham Kuyper as the forerunner of Transformationalism or neo-Calvinism. For our purposes, let’s refer to this as the “Kuyper Option.” I’ve even heard this sentiment referred to as “The Wilberforce Option” at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on the Gospel and Politics conference in honor of William Wilberforce whose Christian presence in 19th century England helped bring slavery to an end as an institution.

In some sense, the debates we’re having today echo back to the timeless question of how Christianity and culture relate to one another. It may be that Dreher is recapitulating the themes that H. Richard Niebuhr classic Christ and Culture raised in the 1950s.

The purpose of the present essay is to argue that the Benedict Option and the Kuyper Option (i.e., Transformationalism) don’t have to be at odds with one another. I like much of what the Benedict Option emphasizes and view its recommendations as quite necessary if Christian identity is to survive the secularist winter. I also consider myself a proponent of the Transformationalist paradigm. I’m a Calvinist who believes that the success of Western culture—measured in terms of past commitments to human dignity, the rule of law, and humane institutions—is inextricably linked to its Christian roots. Now that we find ourselves slowing witnessing the displacing of a vaguely Christian consensus, it may mean that the sun is setting on the so-called “Christian West.”

Now, I’m fully aware that in my earnest desire to bridge disagreement, I could be misreading what the advocates of each side are really saying. But what I do know is that Christianity is often victim of hackneyed “either/or” false antitheses. Sometimes, “either/or” polarities need to occur. Open Theism and Calvinism, for example, are polarities and reconciling them cannot be done. I don’t see that as necessary in the debate happening right now. Instead, I see elements of overlap in the proverbial Venn diagram.

Must the Benedict Option and Transformationalism be at odds? Or, what would a Transformationalist Benedict Option look like? Because that’s what I think we need.

First, the Benedict Option has been wrongly construed by many as surrender. After reading and speaking with Dreher, I continue to sense that surrender is not inherent to the BenOp. The Benedict Option as Dreher tells it is Contra Mundum, Pro Mundo—“Against the World, for the World.” Any oppositional position that Christianity takes toward the world is ultimately aimed towards displacing falsehood with truth. The Benedict Option is advertised as awaiting the inevitable ruins of societal self-destruction while looking to the church looks to strengthen its own pillars. The church must try to stave off the ruins, but once the ruins are present, it seeks to rehabilitate a broken culture with the truth of Christianity. In that sense, the BenOp is a patient, long-suffering transformationalism.

The Benedict Option, rightly construed, may then be seen to be referring to the interior self-awareness of how the church sees itself pursuing deliberate growth in Christ for the sake of forming deep communities that can withstand secular advance. This is why you see in so much of Dreher’s articulation the idea of community formation seeded by a virtue ethic that looks to the practices and habits of community in forming its people.

If I’m at all interpreting Dreher’s Benedict Option accurately, I sense that Dreher is emphasizing the communal and interior life of the church. This doesn’t mean that the Benedict Option is averse to mission, but it places emphasis on mission as springing from the interior existence of Christianity identity.

Secondly, Transformationalism is firmly dedicated to the proposition that conversionary Christianity offers the best and lasting hope for building humane societies. This proposition I wholeheartedly affirm. Transformationalism insists that a Christianity lived boldly in the public square is infused with a dynamic of hope. The Benedict Option is transformational in the sense that it believes that Christian identity, insofar as it is rooted and orthodox, can and will transform because Christianity is an exponent of absolute, indissoluble truth grounded in the goodness of God and his loving care for creation.

I see the primary difference in the two paradigms as between an interior Christianity (Benedict) and an exterior Christianity (Kuyper). Transformationalists insist upon scaling the walls of every sector of culture in order to see Christ’s Lordship ultimately stamped upon it. Here, Kuyper needs Benedict. To scale the walls, it will require a type of people that are formed and self-aware. An interior concern is conscious of who Christians must be in order to exist. An exterior approach is conscious of what Christians do to live faithfully.

Now, there may be serious disagreement between the camps between what each thinks what influence is feasible at the moment. That, I believe, might be the biggest point of conflict. Dreher is pessimistic about opportunities to see change happen and believes that the secularist advance is dominant and unstoppable in the short term. To him, we are irreparably post-Christian in the short-term. The Transformationalists, on the other hand, believe that no momentary hesitation or acknowledged self-retreat is allowable. If there’s an opportunity to influence the culture, it should be taken because Christ’s Lordship over the cosmos requires a witness heralding this lordship over every arena of life and culture. A Kuyper Option understands that Christianity, by definition, is public truth.

A congruence of a Transformationalist Benedict Option may mean, supremely, that our method and expectations change. We continue to strive to influence every sector of culture that Christians can, fully aware of the limitations and difficulties that our times will place upon us. But we do so with an eye toward understanding that the witness we offer, perceived as refuse to some (1 Cor 4:13), is really a sweet aroma (2 Cor. 2:15). This is a Christianity where paradox and contradiction may be the mode of transformation.

But let me say very soberly: There will not be transformation in the headwinds now facing us if there isn’t deep identity and resolve to orthodox Christianity. No longer can parents simply rely on an ambient culture to disciple their kids in the way of the American way of life if the American way of life means subliminal paganism. There’s a realization setting in that the faith of their childhood cannot be passively absorbed. It will require catechesis. I see this happening within my own ranks of conservative Christianity, most of which unabashedly loves culture and wants to benefit it.

What must the Benedict Option and Kuyper Option brace for and work to prevent in the day we now find ourselves? The Benedict Option must be careful to not fall into a Nature/Grace dualism that evades social responsibility. The Kuyper Option must sever triumphalism or penultimate victory from their short-term strategy. Penultimate victory may come in terms of reclaiming sectors of culture, but I don’t see that happening for a long, long time. Kuyper Option Christians must, to paraphrase Chesterton, fight a losing battle and know that they’ll not actually lose. Again, this long haul requires the habits of identity formation.

A Transformationalist Benedict Option must be simultaneously attentive to the interior identity and exterior mission of the church. A Transformationalist Benedict Option will mean that local churches are cultivating a Christianity with roots. Children are being catechized by parents. It will mean that children and teens are being taught the beauty of creation and the Lordship of Christ. There will be more discussion about culture proper, not just subverting culture with parroted forms of (bad) Christian culture. Churches will be full of members who are full of cultural refugees, but refugees who act as insurgents.

A metaphor may serve what I’m hoping to argue. If a ship is off course and going astray, I want every effort taken to send rescue boats whose compasses can put the ship back on course. But rescue boats need to have their own compasses and directional navigation properly calibrated in order to rescue. In the same way, the church must know who it is to withstand the waves while looking to rescue the wayward culture that is intent on throwing its compass overboard and dancing while the ship ventures further and further off.

This isn’t an either/or. No one is saying not to fight or engage, but the mode of engagement is going to look different. We’re going to have to take on a new mindset; we’re going to have to learn to embrace ridicule; we’re going to have to learn how to communicate our beliefs in a way that assumes nothing. We have to learn that winsomeness may not matter at all. That should not, however, cause us to hesitate at all about whether our Christianity is to be lived publicly.

I tire of the constant “The times are a changin’” refrains. They are. So what. Stiffen the spine. Perhaps we’re awaiting the ruins, but that shouldn’t cause us to expedite their presence. Work to prevent them. Christian parents, teach your children the faith. Take nothing for granted. Look to the local church as the locus of your social identity. Put down the happy clappy self-improvement book and pick up something by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Look to the sky and shout, “Play the man, Master Ridley,” for everything will be alright in the end.

Andrew Walker
Andrew Walker is the managing editor of Canon and Culture. He also serves as the Director of Policy Studies for The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination’s entity tasked with addressing moral, social, and ethical issues. In his role, he researches and writes about human dignity, family stability, religious liberty, and the moral principles that support civil society. He is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Andrew lives in Franklin, TN with his wife and daughter and is a member of Redemption City Church. You can find him on twitter at @andrewtwalk.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24