Why be conservative? It’s a nagging question to which right-of-center thinkers have given many different answers, from Burke’s argument against abstract reason to Chesterton’s quip that tradition “is the democracy of the dead” to George Will’s defense of the “unalienable rights” enshrined in our Declaration. But Albert Wolters, a key figure in Reformed Christian scholarship, offers an unusually compelling metaphysical grounding for conservatism in Creation Regained.
Originally published in 1985, Creation Regained is a highly influential statement of the Christian worldview, which has been translated into a dozen languages. It is primarily known for re-popularizing the philosophy of Reformed theologian and Dutch politician Abraham Kuyper. The work’s implications, however, extend beyond intra-Calvinist theological debates, and they continue to bear on American politics by providing a valuable counterweight to extreme and incomplete political theories.
Wolters expounds the worldview through which he believes Christians should engage with the rest of culture and society. Unlike other thinkers, he does not focus on the relationship between church and state. Instead, he gives an account of what culture and society are, what is wrong with them, and what God’s people can and should do about it. These are the central concerns of Christian political philosophy, so it is no surprise that Wolters ends up establishing a political worldview as well as a religious one.
Structure and Direction
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At the heart of Wolters’s account is a metaphysical distinction between what he calls structure and direction. Everything that exists does so because it was created by God. This is the structure of the cosmos, what Wolters describes as “the order of creation.” Wolters is adamant that structure is inherently and unalterably good. He bases this claim on the book of Genesis, in which God pronounces His creation to be “good,” as well as common sense—the assumption that “God does not create junk.”
What about the prevalence of death and destruction, violence and decay? Echoing St. Augustine, Wolters insists that although the structure of the cosmos is all-good, its direction is variable. Wolters defines direction as “obedience or disobedience to God’s law,” not a type of being but rather a property of being determined by humanity. Man was created to be God’s sub-creator, cooperating with Him in “the mandate to develop creation” toward an unrealized state of “glory.” Instead, he sinned, and his disobedience altered the direction of all the cosmos.
So far, there is nothing here not firmly established in mainstream Christian doctrine. What sets Wolters apart is his assertion that the products of human culture and society, not just the natural world, fall under the category of structure, and therefore are inherently good. Wolters does not deny that society and culture contain great evil, but he locates those defects in their direction rather than their structure. Because their structure comes from God, he claims that every human invention is as much God’s good creation as it is the work of human ingenuity, that “the Creator is sovereign over the state as much as he is over the animal kingdom . . . Lord over agriculture as much as he is over energy interchanges.”
Wolters does not mean that everything people build is ordained by God. Rather, he means that everything people build has some kernel of good in it, the value of which no amount of misdirection can destroy. In Reformed terms, human constructs may be totally depraved, but they are never utterly so. In Wolters’s own words: “Creation and sin remain distinct, however closely they may be intertwined in our experience. Prostitution cannot eliminate the goodness of human sexuality; political tyranny cannot wipe out the divinely ordained character of the state.”
It is a claim with compelling biblical evidence. In Genesis, God charges Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Their task is not simply to receive creation but to participate in its cultivation. Moreover, as Wolters points out, scripture begins in a garden and ends in a city, the New Jerusalem. That progression allows for various interpretations, but one is that the urban form, although a product of postlapsarian culture, nevertheless participates in God’s continued act of creation. Both Genesis and Revelation indicate that human invention has a role to play in God’s “development” of the cosmos, and that the goodness in cultural and social constructs represents the positive will of God.
What does this mean for those of us living in today’s world, where evil is rampant throughout human institutions? Wolters points out that God does not wish for the destruction of the cosmos, but rather its redemption and ultimately its glorification. That is why His Son came to redirect and develop creation, not to destroy and replace it. Wolters believes the task of Christians is the same as Christ’s. When they engage with the world around them, they are to “explicitly look for and recognize the presence of creational structure, distinguishing [it] sharply from the human abuse to which it is subject,” and redirect it toward its full potential.
Wolters’s distinctive metaphysical vision has significant political implications. When it comes to a political worldview, people can be roughly divided into three camps: those who believe the world they have inherited is irredeemably flawed and must be replaced with a new one based on abstract ideals; those who consecrate the status quo and reject any movement for change; and those who see the world as flawed but with the potential for redemption and improvement, who support prudent change but not the full-scale destruction of what they have received. The first camp belongs to the various strains of ideologue, most notably progressive liberals and Marxists, but also ideologues on the Right. The second camp belongs to uncritical traditionalists. The third camp belongs to conservatism. Wolters’s arguments in Creation Regained lend much credence to the third and deal powerful blows against the first two.
Like Eric Voegelin, Wolters equates the ideological camp with the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. “There seems to be an ingrained Gnostic streak in human thinking,” he writes, “a streak that causes people to blame some aspect of God’s handiwork for the ills and woes of the world we live in.” By the same logic, those who oppose social and cultural change outright are Gnostics, too. While ideologues reject the goodness of creation as given, rigid traditionalists reject the goodness of creation as developed by human beings. Only conservatism threads the needle between these inverse heresies and is compatible with Christianity’s “uncompromising rejection of all attempts to confuse structure and direction.”
Wolters’s framework also positions conservatism as the virtuous mean between the extremes of political optimism and political pessimism. Wolters states that outside of what he calls the “reformational worldview,” one is doomed only to see either “the debilitating effects of sin” or positive development of God’s creation in the work of society and culture. Contemporary American politics bears that out. Some on the Right blithely overlook the sins of America’s past, and some on the Left ignore the limits of human progress, because they see only structure in history. Meanwhile, anti-modern reactionaries and the Democratic Party’s critical theory adherents cannot look past the directional flaws of the present.
Because none of these groups sees America for what it truly is, none is capable of doing it much good. The optimists are in love with a fiction and therefore cannot engage effectively with reality, and the pessimists are not interested in reforming America so much as they are in replacing it, whether with an imitation of medieval Europe or a neo-Marxist utopia. A Woltersian conservatism, on the other hand, would allow us to approach our country with neither optimism nor pessimism but with an eye toward healing and cultivation. In the end, the approach laid out in Creation Regained promises the chance of real progress.
Nevertheless, Wolters leaves some important questions unanswered. For one, if it is true that every human invention is in some sense fundamentally good, how do we practically determine what is structural and what is a directional perversion in human affairs? Wolters’s roots are in Calvinism, so he presumably believes cultural and social phenomena may be both structurally sound and totally depraved. When that is the case, and an institution requires complete directional reform, what differentiates a “reformational” from a “revolutionary” or Gnostic approach to change?
Moreover, it is unclear that human inventions are as eternal as Wolters characterizes them to be. Are not the kingdoms of this world “falling away,” to be eventually superseded in eternity by the city of God, as St. Augustine would argue? There is probably truth to both Wolters’s perspective and St. Augustine’s. We might conclude that there is always something lasting about our labors on this earth, even if their fruits are only temporary. Nevertheless, the transience of earthly kingdoms is something we ought to consider if we are to exert ourselves in their service.
Something Worth Fighting For
Despite these unanswered questions, Creation Regained offers a powerful metaphysical argument for conservatism. Wolters’s structure–direction distinction cuts equally against liberal progressivism, uncritical traditionalism, critical theory, and right-wing utopianism. He presents a strong case that there is nothing other than the inherent goodness of creation that could make human institutions worth conserving—beyond, that is, the instrumental value prized by pure pragmatists.
Only if we believe that there is something about our nation truly worth fighting for, that there is something about our traditions and culture intrinsically, and not merely extrinsically, valuable, can we authentically adopt the mantle of conservatism. Wolters gives us reason to believe that that something exists, and the value of that contribution should not be understated.