Monday, June 21, 2010

Young, Restless, Reformed - Classical Christianity On the March

Collin Hansen's Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinism (Crossway, 2008) is a fascinating window into a trend that nobody on the Left ever saw coming. The post-Boomer generation is decisively rejecting the waffle and weaving of the Boomers, who tried to have their cake of cultural accommodation and eat it too. Seeker sensitive churches and church growth techniques have taken the pendulum of American Evangelicalism so far in the direction of pragmatism that a reaction was overdue and now it is here.

A younger generation of Evangelicals has grown up without being catechized and they vaguely sense the loss. The Emergent Church represents one possible direction for this generation: a fast track to a new liberalism that will repeat the boring, depressing cycle of socialism, radicalism, immorality, atheism, and death that we have seen before. Many younger people today are not interested in warmed over Rauschenbusch or new age baloney, but where do they turn for something more satisfying than the meager fare on offer in the CEO-driven mega churches? Rejecting both the unhealthy and non-filling fast food of the pragmatic, growth oriented churches and spitting out the poisoned food of liberalism, they hunger for something substantial - slow food that nourishes the soul and builds up the body.

This generation has seen the wreckage of the sexual revolution and does not trust big government. It does not feel either in control of, or respected by, the culture at large. It is ready for something radical but not just a radical version of what the cultural establishment already believes. It is ready, in short, for a revival of classic Christianity.

Many have resonated with Bob Webber's call to the Church Fathers, to the heritage of the undivided Church of the first five centuries. But it is hard to start Ancient-Future churches from scratch without a mediating tradition between the fifth century and us. Ancient orthodoxy sounds great; but what does that kind of church look like today?

Enter Calvinism. Calvinism is radical, counter-cultural, connected to the Great Tradition and exists in the form of a living tradition today. It is not limited to one denomination and yet it has it own saints, key texts, and institutional expressions. Hansen shows that far from being tucked away in ethnic denominational enclaves like the Christian Reformed Church, Calvinism is a dynamic and growing force across the entire Evangelical spectrum.

What makes the "New Calvinism" new is that it includes charismatic Calvinism (as at Covenant Life Church in Maryland, which emerged out of the Jesus People counter culture) and Baptist Calvinism (as at John Piper's Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis) and culturally liberal, "emergent" Calvinism (as at Mars Hill Church in Seattle). This is not your father's dry, dusty, Presbyterianism, although lots of New Calvinist Presbyterians still attract a crowd to sing hymns and follow a traditional order of service.

I heard Dr. Bryan Chapell, president of Reformed Theological Seminary, say in an interview with Ligon Duncan recently that of the 80 or so training centers for Youth With a Mission worldwide almost all of them were using Reformed books as textbooks. This is the kind of penetration Calvinist ideas is gaining today as it rushes in to fill a doctrinal void created by a pragmatism without adequate defenses against liberalism.

John Piper, John MacArthur and R. C. Sproul, together with Timothy George, J. I. Packer and J. R. W. Stott, represent the generation that kept the faith and maintained a Calvinistic witness while most of the Church was disinterested. Now a new generation of leaders such as Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, C. J. Mahaney, D. A. Carson, Tim Keller and Philip Ryken are presiding over a growing movement that is increasingly young, dynamic and confident in the Gospel.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is leading the Southern Baptist Convention back to its own Reformed roots. Al Mohler and company are offering a way forward to people who are saying "Inerrancy is great, but it is insufficient by itself. If we are going to take the Bible seriously, we have to have a framework for interpreting it, not just a theory about its truthfulness." So Mohler's strategy for making the Convention not just non-liberal, but really Biblical is to ground the preaching of pastors in a Reformed systematic theology. The New Calvinism is gaining ground even where it is not even called "Calvinism" or "Reformed Theology" because it is presented as merely "Biblical." This is possible precisely because it is so Biblical.

Those who accuse Calvinists of undermining evangelism and missions are gradually being refuted by the facts on the ground. A flood of Calvinist missionary candidates in flowing into the Southern Baptist mission board. Calvinist churches are growing and evangelistic fervor seems to be enhanced by theological convictions the undergird confidence in the truth of the Gospel. The New Calvinism is untainted by hyper-Calvinism and has heroes like William Carey, Charles Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards. It is not easy to accuse that crew of being anti-evangelism!

Anyone who believes in classical Christianity cannot help but be cheered by the resurgence of the New Calvinism. Even Arminians, Catholics and Lutherans ought to rejoice that Christ is being exalted the Gospel is being proclaimed and the Triune God of Scripture is being worshiped. When any of the classic traditions go deep into their own history, they end up closer to each other than to liberals in their own traditions. In this sense, the New Calvinism is the most important ecumenical movement on the scene. The ecumenism of traditionalists is hard and sometimes frustrating because traditionalist take doctrine seriously. But it will bear more fruit in the long run that the superficial, cheap kind of ecumenism that is built on shared left-wing, political commitments and cares little for doctrine.

The New Calvinism is also good news for and increasingly-hollowed out Evangelicalism that has forgotten what it is supposed to believe. The historical function of Reformed theology is to provide a doctrinal framework for the piety, the enthusiasm and the activism of Evangelicalism. It can fail in this role in two ways: either by showing disdain for the great unwashed multitudes of Evangelicals and thus losing influence on them as Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance did early in the 20th century or by seeking to water down its theological convictions so as to reduce tensions as Fuller Seminary did in the second half of the 20th century. The New Calvinism shows encouraging signs of neither capitulating to the anti-intellectualism of Evangelicalism nor distancing itself from Evangelicalism in an attempt to be pure and untainted. John Piper reaching out to Rick Warren is an example of the latter and Al Mohler's willingness to battle for the mind of the Southern Baptist Convention is an example of the former.

My own opinion, after reading Hansen's book and having been thinking by the issues it addresses for many years now, is that the New Calvinism is the more significant theological movement in North America today and by far the most hopeful.

1 comment:

Brad said...

As a "New Calvinist" myself I can't help but be cheered by your very fair treatment of the movement here. Thank you for a well-reasoned post on a potentially controversial issue.