Sweeney’s Booknotes: Children Before God

John McNeill, Children before God: Biblical Themes in the Works of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017).

ChildrenBeforeGod_McNeillThough he serves now as the Superintendent Methodist Minister in Aberdeen, McNeill devoted more than three years to full-time children’s work in Scotland’s Shetland Islands, where he encountered what he describes as “the ripple effects” of Calvinist fundamentalism on children (p. 2). As the author tells this story, Sam Doherty and others with Child Evangelism Fellowship had persuaded many families of “a wooden, literalist, absolutist, substantialist and essentialist reading of the customary Calvinist rhetoric of total depravity, collapsing it into one whereby original sin has corrupted human nature both to the maximal extent and intent of its reach so that the heart is understood to be utterly depraved, ‘black’ in an unqualified sense” (p. 6). And according to McNeill, this left all-too-many children feeling worthless, utterly sinful, and in need of a complete divine makeover experience, in which God provided everything and they contributed nothing.

By the time he made it to Cambridge for his doctoral research, McNeill decided to reflect upon this problem theologically. Using imagery from Scripture and a short list of writings by John Calvin, Thomas Boston, and Jonathan Edwards, especially, he attempted to develop a more nurturing approach to early childhood development and growth in Christian grace.

He concluded that while Calvin himself was often misconstrued by his “fundamentalist” heirs, even sympathetic readings of his thought include the notion that children are born morally vicious, hopelessly disfigured by the ravages of sin. Edwards, on the other hand, provided a way forward. Although just as Calvinistic as most other Reformed Christians, his aesthetics, in particular, featured a “sliding-scale” of being, goodness, beauty, and integrity on which even those at the bottom have a certain amount of value (p. 153). Fallen sinners are depraved on Edwards’ sliding-scale of beauty, but their lives apart from grace are not as “black” as they can be. They are characterized, rather, by 50 shades of grey (my phrase, not McNeill’s).

McNeill’s conclusion leaves the reader with the clearest view of his struggle against Calvinist “fundamentalism” applied to the lives of children. It will remind many readers of Horace Bushnell’s approach to the issues, published in 1847 against the conversionistic Calvinism of Edwards’ own heirs—an irony worth noting in a book that uses Edwards to correct such Calvinism. “The development of children,” according to our author, “is achieved by maintaining the delicate fabric of human life and should not be disrupted any more than necessary. The divine purpose for children occurs within this life sequence, not simply in a moment when a child ‘knows’ it, but rather when it lives within it. If life is an extensity or a sequence, then the ‘gate’ for the intensity of the divine presence is in the sequence not in the instantaneous. Grace is the condition by which the child grows and moves forward, rather than something that kick-starts it instantaneously. The child experiences this grace; indeed to grow is to experience this. The goal is a security in the grace of God that the child will not be knocked off no matter the difficulty. Grace is thus intertwined with the child in who they are in a way that does not inhibit them but is conducive to their development and growth to a mature form of human flourishing” (p. 178).

I think McNeill has been unfair to Child Evangelism Fellowship, and that Edwards is not the answer to what bothers him the most. But everyone who loves and cares for children will appreciate his efforts to help them sense their worth, beauty, and potential in the providence of God.

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