Children Before God

Biblical Themes in the Works of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards

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John McNeill
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , November
     2017.
     238 pages.
     $29.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498281065.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Authors on children and childhood often complain that academic literature fails to engage the child’s distinctive experience and mindset. Psychiatrist Robert Coles in The Spiritual Life of Children (Houghton Mifflin, 1990) depicted “children as seekers, as young pilgrims well aware that life is a finite journey and as anxious to make sense of it as those of us who are farther along” (xvi).  Through attentive listening, Coles found that the spiritual life of Christian children generally focuses on “salvation,” while Muslim children think in terms of “surrender,” and Jewish children seek “righteousness” (202-276). Coles’ work gestures toward a fuller account of faith development in childhood, a topic that John McNeill addresses in his new book.

Children Before God presumes that Christian theological tradition—and specifically the Reformed or Calvinist tradition—has something to contribute regarding children. Its author, John McNeill, is a Superintendent Methodist Minister who served in Scotland, and notes his years as “a full-time children’s worker in the Shetland Islands” (1), though he does not explain the nature of this work. Two major Reformed-Calvinist thinkers overshadow the whole of this book—namely, John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards.  Apart from the introduction on “The Problem of the Child in the Calvinian Tradition” (1-12), the first chapter, “The Biblical Language and Imagery of Children” (13-57), and the fifth chapter, “Toward a Theology of Children” (158-78), the remaining chapters expound Calvin’s and Edwards’s theologies. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 are entitled, “John Calvin’s Theological Methodology (58-86), “Calvin’s Theological Anthropology” (87-120), and “Jonathan Edwards’s Theological Proposal” (121-57). 

McNeill writes, “I offer this piece of research as a reparative exercise within Calvinian epistemology that gives Calvin his due but arguably goes beyond him” (xi). The foil for his argument lies in an outlook he terms “reductionist (xi, 2, 10, 55, 57, 73, 78, 92, 127, 133, 162, 175)—also “literalist, absolutist, substantialist and essentialist” (6)—that treats children as irretrievably tainted by original sin. He cites the words of Sam Doherty of the Child Evangelism Fellowship: “because all children are spiritually dead, they are outside God’s kingdom” (4). This standpoint, he argues, neglects the image of God in humans, the sensus divinitatis (“sense of the divine”), and a proper understanding of the faculties—themes fully developed in Calvin and Edwards. Another of his targets is the revivalism or conversionism that treats human sin as transcended through a sudden, death-to-life, spiritual transformation by faith-decision. McNeill derogates forms of rationality and systematicity that lead “to dehumanized, impersonalistic, dogmatic assertions which . . . create a false dichotomy” (8). With Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he wants to avoid “being imprisoned within the outline of any single dogmatic system” (9). 

There are a number of problems with the book’s argument. First, about half this volume consists in sections that say nothing specifically about childhood or children (47-103, 106-20, 128-52). Much of the book summarizes existing knowledge concerning Calvin and Edwards and so lacks originality.  McNeill’s technical discussions of religious epistemology in these two thinkers are intriguing, but they do not engage the primary theme of childhood.  Second, this work does not make sufficient use of the existing literature on its chosen topic.  McNeill’s work mentions but does not engage two copiously documented chapters by Barbara Pitkin and Catherine Brekus—on Calvin and Edwards—in Marcia Bunge’s edited volume, The Child in Christian Thought (Eerdmans, 2001). These chapters afford perhaps the best available treatment of children and childhood in the two thinkers.

Third, McNeill is much clearer in what he is against than what he is for. The disparaging references to Sam Doherty and Child Evangelism Fellowship—scattered over eleven pages—are incongruous. Should anyone be surprised that publications from Child Evangelism Fellowship lack depth and sophistication? Does this need arguing? Third, McNeill’s stated aim at contributing to “Calvinian epistemology” (xi) works at cross-purposes to his other aims in writing. The neo-Romantic appeal for an unsystematic theology (per Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George MacDonald) stands on its own, and so  has little relation to the focus on children. Fourth, original sin in its larger significance remains unexplored. From Augustine onward, virtually the whole Western theological and cultural tradition taught that children carry this taint from birth. While revivalistic Calvinists stressed faith-based conversion experience, Catholics, Lutherans, and many Anglicans viewed baptism as a spiritually cleansing rite. McNeill does not engage sacramental theology as a possible response to the original sin issue that drives his argument. 

McNeill’s work might be interpreted against the backdrop of the 1840s American debate, pitting liberalizing Calvinist Horace Bushnell against the revivalistic Calvinist Bennet Tyler. Rather than anticipating conversion in late childhood or early adulthood, Christian parents—according to Bushnell’s Christian Nurture (1847)—should raise their children as Christians from the outset and expect them gradually to form Christian faith and character apart from a distinct conversion experience. Tyler by contrast held that children must undergo a conversion experience unmediated by familial relations, and that spiritual regeneration occurs by an instantaneous act of the Spirit. The church was not to instruct children as budding disciples but to convince children of their sinful state and so to lead them to decision for Christ (Michael Farley, “Christian Nurture Debate,” in Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America [2007]). Arguably, it is this 19th-century debate—rather than Calvin’s or Edwards’s work—that provides  a helpful theological context for contemporary Calvinistic discussions of children’s spiritual life. In Children Before God, McNeill seems to argue Bushnell’s thesis without making reference (except in one footnote) to Bushnell.

Children Before God will be useful for those interested in “Calvinian epistemology” and who might consult the book for its summary of the literature on that theme. The author concludes by saying that “grace is the condition by which the child grows . . . grace is thus intertwined with the child” (178). Yet this unexplained assertion falls on the book’s final page, and so its contribution to a theological understanding of children or childhood remains unclear. In focusing on theological methodology and epistemology, McNeill’s book fails to develop a full-orbed theological anthropology of the child that might provide new insight into the faith-formation processes in early life. Such a project might and perhaps should be pursued, but Children Before God does not undertake or accomplish this task.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael McClymond is Professor of Modern Christianity at Saint Louis University.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John McNeill is the Superintendent Methodist Minister based in Aberdeen, Scotland. He has a BA in Near Eastern Archaeology (Liverpool), Masters degrees in Computing in Archaeology (Southampton), Mission Studies (Sheffield), and Philosophical Theology (Cambridge), and a PhD in theology (Cambridge). He worked for a number of years with children in the Shetland Islands.

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