Posts Tagged ‘Calvinism’
Kenneth J. Stewart
IVP, 2011, 256pp., paperback, £14.99
I had expected to disagree with this book more than I did, for it is not the sustained plea for latitude that I had expected. It is divided into two parts: four myths that Calvinists circulate about themselves, and six circulated about them by non-Calvinists. Surveying the historical data, Stewart seeks to demonstrate the excessive narrowness of some Calvinists (defining Calvinism more by our own distinctive expression of it) and the empty caricature painted by some non-Calvinists (confusing association with Calvinism with origination in Calvinism, and sometimes even getting the first wrong). Stewart also suggests that – while there are ebbs and flows, springtides and neap tides – there is a sustained Calvinistic undercurrent in the Christian church (demonstrated here from the late Georgian period on). While we might contend for particular accretions to the Calvinist core, Stewart reminds us that the river is broader than we might imagine, and in doing so stimulates us to consider our own heritage and our attitude to it more intelligently.
Rapidly, rapidly, the gospel spread, and crowds flocked to hear this unorthodox and ‘unschooled’ preacher. This country boy, who had learned vigorous and full-orbed evangelical Calvinism – as if true Calvinism were anything else! – from his parents and grandparents, from libraries of Puritan authors, and from an old cook, soon saw multitudes being converted, and his fame spreading. As Spurgeon often remarked, Calvinism was merely a nickname for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and how that gospel was effectual as he preached! His prodigious intellectual ability, consecrated to the service of his Saviour and in constant dependence on the grace of God, enabled him to maintain a constantly fresh and vigorous ministry. The building in which the church met soon proved too small to contain the thronging crowds, and extensions to the building and temporary visits to other larger halls in which he could preach provided no final answer. The preacher himself, always conscious of the spiritual burden of his work, soon began to feel the physical and emotional effects as well. It was, however, during these early years in London that Spurgeon came to know, admire and then love a young lady called Susannah Thompson. The demands on his time and energy did not make courtship easy, but the deep love the two shared, and Susannah’s increasing spiritual maturity, happily led to their marriage on 8th January 1856.
In the meantime, Spurgeon’s increasingly varied and blessed labours brought him under increasing scrutiny, and often into conflict, quite naturally with the world, but also – sadly – with other professing Christians. His unashamed proclamation of the doctrines of grace antagonised both Arminians and hyper-Calvinists. His spiritual vigour and holy bluntness often enraged those who did not share his understanding of God’s Word. In 1855, partly in answer to his slanderers, Spurgeon nailed his colours even more firmly to the mast with the re-publication of The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. More importantly, he wanted to furnish the people to whom he preached with a plain statement of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Spurgeon stood firmly in the stream of historic Biblical Christianity, as manifested among his Particular Baptist forefathers. In introducing the volume to the church, Spurgeon wrote:
This ancient document is a most excellent epitome of the things most surely believed among us. By the preserving hand of the Triune Jehovah, we have been kept faithful to the great points of our glorious gospel, and we feel more resolved perpetually to abide by them. This little volume is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby you are to be fettered, but as an assistance to you in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness. Here the younger members of our church will have a Body of Divinity in small compass, and by means of the Scriptural proofs, will be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them.
In the same year began the regular publication of a weekly sermon, soon gathered into annual collections, continuing throughout Spurgeon’s life and – using up unpublished sermons – after his death, so that 63 such volumes of sermons are now in existence.
It is worth pausing here to emphasise again that Spurgeon was thoroughly committed to true Calvinism in all its Scriptural, evangelical vibrancy. He declared his position in this way:
I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.
In taking such a stand, Spurgeon had to defend himself from the charge of Arminianism. The hyper-Calvinists claimed that he had no right to plead with sinners to turn to Christ and be saved, and that he was mistaking the gospel. In another sermon from the New Park Street Pulpit (on “Particular Redemption”) Spurgeon declares his adherence to the biblical gospel in all its fullness and freeness (in opposition both to Arminian and hyper-Calvinistic abuses and misunderstandings):
I must now return to that controverted point again. We are often told (I mean those of us who are commonly nicknamed by the title of Calvinists – and we are not very much ashamed of that; we think that Calvin, after all, knew more about the gospel than almost any man who has ever lived, uninspired) – we are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made a satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is, that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it: we do not. The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, “No, certainly not.” We ask them the next question – Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They answer “No.” They are obliged to admit this, if they are consistent. They say, “No; Christ has died that any man may be saved if” – and then follow certain conditions of salvation. We say, then, we will go back to the old statement – Christ did not die so as beyond a doubt to secure the salvation of anybody, did he? You must say “No;” you are obliged to say so, for you believe that even after a man has been pardoned, he may yet fall from grace, and perish. Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why, you. You say that Christ did not die so as to infallibly secure the salvation of anybody. We beg your pardon, when you say we limit Christ’s death; we say, “No, my dear sir, it is you that do it.” We say Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.
How did such convictions work themselves out in practice? How did Spurgeon not only hold his ground, but advance the cause of Christ? We gain a glimpse into his heart if we listen to his earnest pleadings with sinners.
I cannot plead as I could wish. Oh! if I could I would plead with my heart, with my eyes, and my lips, that I might lead you to the Saviour. You need not rail at me and call this an Arminian style of preaching; I care not for your opinion, this style is Scriptural. “As though God did beseech you by us, we pray you, in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.” Poor broken-hearted sinner, God is as much preaching to you this morning, and bidding you be reconciled, as if he stood here himself in his own person; and though I be a mean and puny man by whom he speaketh, he speaketh now as much as if it were by the voice of angels, “Be reconciled to God.” Come, friend, turn not thine eye and head away from me; but give me thine hand and lend me thine heart whilst I weep over thine hand and cry over thine heart, and beseech thee not to despise thine own mercy, not to be a suicide to thine own soul, not to damn thyself. Now that God has awakened thee to feel that thou art an enemy, I beseech thee now to be his friend. Remember, if thou art now convinced of sin, there is no punishment for thee. He was punished in thy stead. Wilt thou believe this? Wilt thou trust in it, and so be at peace with God? If thou sayest, “No!” then I would have thee know that thou hast put away thine own mercy. If thou sayest, “I need no reconciliation,” thou hast thrust away the only hope thou canst ever have. Do it at thine own hazard; I wash my hands of thy blood. But, but, but, if thou knowest thyself to need a Saviour if thou wouldst escape the hellish pit, if thou wouldst walk among them that are sanctified, I again, in the name of him that will condemn thee at the last day, if thou rejectest this invitation, implore and beseech thee to be reconciled to God. I am his ambassador. When I have done this sermon, I shall go back to court. Sinner, what shall I say of thee. Shall I go back and tell my Master that thou intendest to be his enemy for ever? Shall I go back and tell him, “They heard me, but they regarded not?” they said in their hearts, “we will go away to our sins and our follies, and we will not serve your God, neither fear him!” Shall I tell him such a message as that? Must I be driven to go back to his palace with such a fearful story? I beseech thee, send me not back so, lest my Master’s wrath wax hot, and he say,
“They that despised my promised rest,
Shall have no portion there.”
But oh! may I not go back to court to-day, and tell the Monarch on my knees, “There be some my Lord, that have been great rebels, but when they saw themselves rebels, they threw themselves at the foot of the cross, and asked for pardon. They had strangely revolted, but I heard them say, ‘If he will forgive me I will turn from my evil ways, if he will enable me!’ They were gross transgressors, and they confessed it; but I heard them say, ‘Jesus, thy blood and righteousness are my only trust.’” Happy ambassador, I will go back to my Master with a gladsome countenance, and tell him that peace is made between many a soul and the great God. But miserable ambassador who has to go back and say, “There is no peace made.” How shall it be? The Lord decide it! May many hearts give way to Omnipotent grace now, and may enemies of grace be changed into friends, that God’s elect may be gathered in, and his eternal purpose accomplished.
Here is a man convinced that Christ died for his people, and that Christ will therefore save his people from their sins by the application of his blood, bringing them to himself through the preaching of the Word.
There were other particular trials and assaults. Denied the use of Exeter Hall (where he had often preached because of overcrowding at New Park Street) he undertook to preach at Surrey Gardens Music Hall, where as many as ten thousand people might be able to come to hear him. The first service was due to take place on the Lord’s day, 19th October 1856, shortly after the Spurgeons had moved house, and become happy parents to twin boys, Charles and Thomas. However, soon after the service began, a pre-arranged series of cries (claiming fire, falling galleries, and a general collapse of the building) caused a fearful panic, and in the ensuing rush for the exits, seven people died, and almost thirty were hospitalised, some in a serious condition. Spurgeon was publicly vilified by many. The deacons of the church protected their sensitive pastor from the trauma of the event as much as they could, but his soul was torn up by the tragedy, and it was some time before the Lord was pleased to restore him to his usual health and strength.
Despite this fearful event, Spurgeon eventually returned to preach at Surrey Gardens, usually on the Lord’s day mornings, and God graciously blessed his ministry. Multitudes made credible professions of faith, the church at New Park Street grew both in numbers and in the grace and knowledge of Christ, and various believers and other churches enjoyed a revival of true religion. During this period, plans were afoot for the construction of a building sufficient to hold on a regular basis a gathered congregation of the sort accustomed to hear Mr Spurgeon. Thus was built the Metropolitan Tabernacle, able to hold some six thousand hearers (though it was not designed for quite so many). Labours to open the building free of debt were prodigious. The first meeting in the unfinished building took place on 21st August 1860, and the first Sunday service was on 31st March 1861, as part of two weeks of celebrations of God’s goodness and mercy. The ‘five points of Calvinism’ were preached on as part of these opening services. In those first months many testified to their faith in baptism and were added to the church, as God continued to own his servant’s labours. Spurgeon’s first formal words in the new building were these: “I would propose that the subject of the ministry in this house, as long as this platform shall stand, and as long as this house shall be frequented by worshippers, shall be the person of Jesus Christ. I am never ashamed to avow myself a Calvinist; I do not hesitate to take the name of Baptist; but if I am asked what is my creed, I reply, ‘It is Jesus Christ.’ My venerated predecessor, Dr. Gill, has left a Body of Divinity, admirable and excellent in its way; but the Body of Divinity to which I would pin and bind myself forever, God helping me, is not his system, or any other human treatise; but Christ Jesus, who is the sum and substance of the gospel, who is in himself all theology, the incarnation of every precious truth, the all-glorious personal embodiment of the way, the truth, and the life.”
These massive efforts were not the sum of Mr Spurgeon’s labours. Alongside his preaching and the pastoring of the flock other enterprises developed. One of the more significant was the Pastors’ College. This ‘school of the prophets’ was dear to Spurgeon’s heart. It began in about 1855, when a young man who had been converted under Spurgeon’s ministry began to spend a few hours with Mr Spurgeon every week with a view to preparing for the ministry. In these early years, several godly and zealous young men came to his attention, and soon – fashioned by the Triune God and through the principled care and instruction of his servant – they were going out to preach the gospel. Some of Spurgeon’s weekly lectures to the students were published as Lectures to my Students, an excellent text-book of pastoral theology. In addition, in 1865 a magazine was begun called The Sword and the Trowel: A record of combat with sin and labour for the Lord. Spurgeon published books, a volume of daily readings, a hymn book used by the church at the Tabernacle, and began working on a massive and profound commentary on the Psalms entitled The Treasury of David. An organisation for the distribution of good books was begun, with men of rugged character and warm hearts spreading the gospel by word of mouth and page throughout the country. There were almshouses for widows; an orphanage was constructed for boys, and then an addition for girls. Spurgeon’s convictions galvanised him to work for the good of the bodies of men and women and children, while he never lost sight of the enduring value of winning their souls. The Metropolitan Tabernacle was a constant hive of godly industry, open all day, every day. After twenty-five years in London, Spurgeon’s secretary had a list of some sixty-six institutions over which Spurgeon presided, all of them maintained by faithful giving and willing labour from the Lord’s people.
During this period of sustained growth and massive expenditure of effort, the health of Mrs Spurgeon failed quite drastically, leaving her substantially invalided. At the same time, Spurgeon’s health began to suffer. He was prone to depression, combined with and brought on to some degree, by severe gout. To gain some respite, Spurgeon eventually took a European tour in the company of his friend and publisher, Joseph Passmore, and found a place called Mentone in the south of France to which he would subsequently return almost every winter in an attempt to husband his strength.
 Spurgeon never received any formal ministerial training, but was an avid scholar all his life.
 In short, and in this context, those who believe that a man can make a contribution to his own salvation prior to his regeneration.
 In short, and in this context, those who believe that God’s sovereign grace means that no-one should be urged to put their faith in Christ.
 Charles H. Spurgeon, “Particular Redemption,” in The New Park Street Pulpit (1858; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 4:135.
 Charles H. Spurgeon, “Substitution,” in The New Park Street Pulpit (1857; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 3:282-283. One could turn almost at random to some of these early sermons, in which Spurgeon recognised that many before him were unconverted, to find similar entreaties.
Dan Phillips begins what looks like it will become a fascinating new series over at Pyromaniacs, in which he calls upon Calvinists to explain stuff. He says:
I’m going to introduce a few such popular Calvinist positions, and open the meta for advocates of those positions to explain the rationale in under two hundred words. Speak in words any Christian can understand. Do not preach to the choir. Be pointed, plain, precise, helpful.
First up, in fewer than 200 words, explain why Calvinists reject altar calls. I look forward to the comments, which have yet to start rolling in.
Apart from specific issues, it is a good discipline, worthwhile not just for doctrinal clarification (legitimate shibboleths?) but also for the gospel itself.
Kevin DeYoung has an interesting post (generated by one from another blogger, I should add) about why so many New Calvinists are also complementarians, and rigorously so. He suggests at least four reasons (summarised below) why they are so closely linked:
- Historically, opening the door to egalitarianism in one generation leads to bigger errors in the next. It is a distinctly and definitely slippery slope.
- The role of men and women is a huge issue for our day. Gender issues are among the most significant in our day.
- Complementarianism tends to signify a number of other important convictions (he suggests that it usually ‘goes with’ inerrancy, penal substitution, and eternal punishment, for example). In DeYoung’s opinion, a Calvinist complementarian is a pretty safe pair of theological hands.
- Practically, it is very difficult for groups and organizations and movements to make both complementarians and egalitarians happy.
These are interesting reasons, not least because we are accustomed to hearing the so-called New Calvinists banging on about the importance of distinguishing between doctrines held in the open hand and doctrines held in the closed fist (i.e. negotiable and non-negotiable matters).
Quite apart from the fact that not all “New Calvinists” are actually Calvinists (some are Amyraldians), I am left wondering who gets to determine the open hand – closed fist classification of any doctrinal matter. Is it the loudest shouter, the most famous name, or the bloke with the biggest congregation (do downloads count)? I find it vaguely amusing that we all like to think that we can determine what are the open and closed hand issues, and vaguely worrying that complementarianism is now identified as one of the latter, when so many important matters are – relatively speaking – dismissed as the former.
I am not suggesting that the roles of men and women are unimportant issues, but there are many doctrinal matters which are, historically considered, far more slippery in a slopewise fashion than complementarianism (one might mention antinomianism or unbalanced perspectives on the person and work of the Spirit, both of which seem to be moot points among “New Calvinists”). Who decides that other issues are relatively unimportant? I can think of a whole raft of theological positions which do and do not imply faithfulness in other areas, some much more and others much less. Finally, it can be fairly tricky to keep any ‘organisation’ (one might mention the local church, for example) happy that has people in it at opposite ends of the spectrum on more significant issues.
So, a stimulating and useful post by Kevin, but one which raises more questions than it answers, and certainly demands that the same magnifying glass be employed on other equally-if-not-more-important issues.
Calvin teaches us what it means to be not so much a Calvinist as a Christian in the ebb and flow of life in a fallen world. When we read Calvin himself we find that a Calvinist is not a follower of any man, but a true disciple of Jesus the Christ and a preacher of the gospel of God’s sovereign grace.
Such a man, like Calvin, is committed to the glory of the triune Jehovah. B. B. Warfield put it in this way: Calvinism “lies in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature.” This is the starting point of Calvin’s Institutes: Calvin is a man captured and captivated by the triune God, and who therefore sees himself also in proper and humble perspective. Until we perceive God accurately as revealed in Christ, our eyes opened by the Spirit, we can neither be saved nor can we serve. When God opens our eyes, then we begin to begin to know and adore him as he is. That believing view should once and for all bind us with humble joy to the God of our salvation, recognising that what he does, he does for his glory, and that we should live to the same end. This understanding sets our compass for time and for eternity; it will keep us faithful.
Furthermore, such a man, like Calvin, is committed to the truth of God in the Scriptures. Calvin recognised that God was known pre-eminently through his inscripturated revelation. He therefore set himself to know God and to obey him as he has revealed himself and his will. We should be instructed by Calvin’s honesty in handling the Word of God, by his readiness to submit to all its nuances, and not to impose his system on Scripture, but to have Scripture fashion his system. Calvin is always a man under authority: where he reaches the limits of his Spirit-enlightened understanding of God’s revelation, he will not press further and trespass on what God has left unrevealed. Rather, he will pause and worship where he cannot penetrate. There is a wonderful integrity to his teaching on this account. When dying, Calvin could say, “I have taught faithfully, and God has given me grace to write, which I have done faithfully as I could; and I have not corrupted [mutilated] one single passage of Scripture nor twisted it as far as I know; and when in a position to arrive at an artificial meaning through subtlety, I have put all that under my feet, and have always aimed at being simple.” If this was the sincere testimony of more preachers, Christ’s church would be substantially healthier than it is. This disposition is the fountainhead of his public ministry: he sought not only to understand and follow God’s Word for himself, but to communicate its truth with simplicity and clarity to those whom he served, and to apply the Word of God to the hearts of his hearers in all the challenges that they faced in life.
Finally, such a man, like Calvin, will be committed to the service of God. This attitude is really the outworking of the former two. Because God is who he is, and because we know him as revealed in Scripture for our salvation, how can we but consecrate ourselves and our all to his glory? When we learn of Calvin’s life and labours, of his Christlike willingness to serve, and to suffer in serving, we are humbled not so much by our lack of gifts as by our failure to use what we have been given. Calvin, having been purchased entirely by Christ, offered himself entirely to God. Again, hear Warfield: “He who believes in God without reserve, and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling, willing – in the entire compass of his life-activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual, throughout all his individual, social, religious relations – is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.”
The great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, situated the heart of Calvinism in the declaration, “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jon 2.9):
That is just an epitome of Calvinism; it is the sum and substance of it. If anyone should ask me what I mean by a Calvinist, I should reply, “He is one who says, Salvation is of the Lord.” I cannot find in Scripture any other doctrine than this. It is the essence of the Bible. “He only is my rock and my salvation.” . . . . I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.
What is Calvinism, then, but a nickname for the biblical gospel and its right outworking in a man’s heart and life? This being so, it should be no surprise that Calvinism is so often presented in an unbalanced caricature: Christ crucified remains a stumbling block to the self-righteous and foolishness to the would-be wise of the world (1Cor 1.21-23). The truth of God’s word is not palatable to the unconverted man, and does not become so until God the Spirit gives him an appetite for it. At that point the gospel is seen and known to be both the wisdom and the power of God to salvation (Rom 1.16; 1Cor 1.24): it captures the whole man, and draws him willingly to serve the God of his salvation. This is the gospel that Calvin preached:
Let us examine ourselves closely, and inasmuch as he has come near to us out of his infinite goodness and given us the teaching about our Lord Jesus Christ his Son, who is our true light, let us make our effort to walk in the way while it is still day (Rom. 13:12-14) for fear that the night will take us by surprise and plunge us into darkness more terrible than the Papacy’s. . . . And because there is no constancy within us and we cannot continue on our own, let us learn to walk in fear and humility in obedience to our God, and let us pray that he will always guide us and strengthen us by his Holy Spirit so that we will not fail.
If we would honour Calvin, then, we will not do so by parading our Calvinist credentials, parroting his name, or promoting a mere caricature of his system in our thinking and feeling and doing. The man who insisted on being buried in an unmarked grave would not be impressed by the weak-minded adulation of a man-centred fan-base.
If we would respectfully remember Calvin, we shall do it best by praying for and seeking that same all-consuming conception of the living God of heaven and earth which always issues in the pursuit of his glory. We shall do it by embracing the Scriptures as the infallible and inerrant rule of faith and life and living and worshipping and teaching accordingly. We shall do it by loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, and offering ourselves as living sacrifices, holy, acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service. We shall do it not by honouring a man and simply being swallowed up in his memory, but – profiting from his teaching and example – we shall do it by honouring his God and ours, and by preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its full-orbed and biblical splendour.
 Benjamin B. Warfield, “Calvinism” in Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 5:354.
 Quoted by Robert Reymond, John Calvin: His Life and Influence (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2004), 129.
 Benjamin B. Warfield, “Calvinism” in Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 5:354-5.
 Charles H. Spurgeon, “A Defence of Calvinism” in Autobiography (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 1:172.
 John Calvin, “38: The Penalty for Idolatry” in Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters1-7), trans. Rob Roy McGregor (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008), 541, 549.
A few days ago I was slightly put out. I had recently read the Time magazine article suggesting that “New Calvinism” was a significant player in the current marketplace of ideas, and the evangelical blogosphere was substantially awash with excitement.
But what is a “New Calvinist.” Is it a style? Do you have to be young? Would restless and reformed help? Do you have to be soteriologically Calvinistic, or will Amyraldian do? If you have a concept of a sovereign God who saves sovereignly, does anything else go?
I think it is too soon for the kind of triumphalism (contra Don Carson’s oft-quoted warning from the blurb of Young, Restless, Reformed) that this article has spawned. I also am intrigued by some of the attitudes that seem to be gaining ground among some of the “New Calvinists” as defined by Time or by themselves (see the above book title for an example).
I write this as one who is probably not a “New Calvinist” by my own or by their definition, but who does not recognise the caricature that is often painted of the “Old Calvinist” that I seem destined to be because someone else has made up a label to stick on me (for more on such labels, see here). “Old Calvinists” seem to be stuck with the reputation of being cool, arrogant, exclusive, and passé. However, while some of those accusations may be open to debate, there can be something arrogant and exclusive about the new Calvinism as well. By this, I do not mean to do a reverse sweep and tar many evidently godly and humble men with the same brush. It’s not a revenge attack, not even an attack, more of a concerned observation.
There are two things that I wish to identify, and the reaction to the Time article has brought them to the fore again. Please note that I am not giving a blanket condemnation: these are things that can be true, not are invariably the case.
Firstly, some neo-Calvinists can be historically blinkered. I acknowledge that this is far from universally true: witness some of John Piper’s excellent treatment of historical figures, for example, or the clear insights from the past gained and then given by other movers and shakers. It may be a reflection of the freshness of the movement. Many have only recently come to grasp some of these wonderful truths and are still digging into their foundations. At the same time, a lack of historical awareness can become not only embarrassing but unfair and even dangerous. Mark Driscoll – whom I appreciate in many ways – can be a culprit in this regard. I have blogged before about his quite staggering assertion that until he managed to get Vintage Church into the marketplace, nothing of any substance post-Reformation had given any serious consideration of ecclesiology. Mark swiftly responded to Time‘s piece with the following ‘insights’ into old and new Calvinism:
- Old Calvinism was fundamental or liberal and separated from or syncretized with culture. New Calvinism is missional and seeks to create and redeem culture.
- Old Calvinism fled from the cities. New Calvinism is flooding into cities.
- Old Calvinism was cessationistic and fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. New Calvinism is continuationist and joyful in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
- Old Calvinism was fearful and suspicious of other Christians and burned bridges. New Calvinism loves all Christians and builds bridges between them.
Talk about caricature! Now, Mark seems to have backtracked a touch, and is now giving us a Long Live the Dead Guys Week at The Resurgence. Athanasius is first up. In this respect, I have changed the title of this section from ‘historically myopic’ to ‘historically blinkered.’ We all have a tendency to read into history – and Scripture, and other sources of data – just what we would like to find there. By all means disagree with those who have gone before, wisely and sensitively and intelligently and – above all – Biblically i.e. with Scriptural grounds. By all means assert that you do not think that they got it all right. But do not suggest that because you have not read something that you agree with, or you do not like what history seems to teach, that no-one has ever taught it. History is a handmaiden to Scripture, not her mistress, but assertions about church history need to be substantive, even if the interpretation can be debated. Leaving that argument aside, I am still concerned at the initial caricature of “Old Calvinism” and the historical inaccuracy of the statements Mark makes. It is not true of the past, and it is not true of the present.
Number 1 is wrong. There were and are fundamental and liberal strains of “Old Calvinism” which rapidly became and remain unworthy of the label. However, Mark invests his own notions of what is Biblically credible in the ideas of mission and culture-creation and redemption. With regard to mission, it is not for nothing that the academy in Geneva was called “Calvin’s school of death”: its nickname arose because so many of its alumni went forth to preach the gospel and perished as witnesses to the truth. Yes, at times there seems to have been more introspection than we might appreciate and commend, but are we to believe that Whitefield, Carey, Judson, Brainerd, Martyn, and men of their stamp and kidney were not “missional”? What about Spurgeon? Furthermore, a distinctively Protestant art has been long recognised. Men of God who were statesmen, scientists, artists, authors, poets, architects, musicians, and the like have long had a profound and God-honouring role to play in their cultures. There are still men and women whom I imagine Mark would dismiss as “Old Calvinists” who are actively and prayerfully engaged in the work of gospel mission, even if their notions of creating and redeeming culture may not quite match those of Mark.
Number 2 is wrong. Old Calvinism did not flee from the cities. Paul headed for the cities. Many of the church fathers (of varying reliabilities) were found preaching and teaching in cities. Geneva was a city. The Reformation spread through a network of cities. The Puritans worked from the university cities and were prominent in London churches, spreading across the country. Whitefield preached in the cities in the UK and the US. Spurgeon headed for the city. There may be a danger at times of wishing for a rural retreat, and the development of a fortress mentality – a danger with which I strongly agreed – but “Old Calvinism” was and is not running from the cities.
Number 3 is wrong. As I have begun to argue elsewhere, what is labelled “cessationism” does not and should not imply being “fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.” Did the first Great Awakening not take place? Did Spurgeon not preach in the power of the Holy Spirit? What about Whitefield? Did Edwards not begin the Humble Attempt concert of prayer? Was it not revived by the eighteenth century Baptists? Did the Calvinistic Methodists not exist – men who were, under God, used in some of the most Spirit-drenched periods of blessing upon the Western church? Apart from the fact that cessationism and continuationism are not labels that refer to antagonism toward the Spirit on the one hand and his embrace upon the other, it is simply not accurate to say that “Old Calvinism” is simply fearful of and resistant to the Spirit of God, even though at times it may either give that impression or, indeed, be so (and arguments to be made on the other side for misunderstanding of the person and work of the Spirit of God among some New Calvinists). (Furthermore, are all the men to whom Time made reference continuationists? Al Mohler?)
Number 4 is wrong. The best men have generally been the most irenic men. Again, there have been exceptions and aberrations, but few would assault John Owen’s Old Calvinistic credentials, and he is on record as one of those who most ardently pursued every legitimate expression of Christian union. Jeremiah Burroughs was of the same spirit. Richard Baxter commented of the Westminster Assembly that “if all Episcopalians had been as Archbishop Ussher, all Presbyterians as Stephen Marshall (the great preacher of the Assembly), and Independents as Jeremiah Burroughs, the divisions of the church might soon have been healed.” Spurgeon was an unashamed Baptist who preached against the baptismal regeneration implicit in the teaching of the Established Church, yet was not so narrow that he could not appoint a Presbyterian as Principal of his pastors’ college. “New Calvinism” is sufficiently new to suggest withholding judgment at this point might be wise. Loving all Christians is right, but the truth must not be sacrificed for the sake of unity. Besides, Mark’s subsequent assertion that this is the most important point of the four is made to ring a little hollow at this point:
Sadly, Cruel Calvinists are a small but loud bunch. Thus, now more than ever, it is vital that all Christians in general, and Reformed Christians in particular, demonstrate the kind of love and humility that our theology requires. The cruel, flame-thrown half-truths and misquotes between Christians do not speak well to the watching world of the love we are supposed to share. Therefore, it is vital that we distinguish between what I will call state and national theological borders.
Very sweet, but Mark just made his ‘state theological borders’ grounds for calling “Old Calvinists” “Cruel Calvinists.” Hardly the most irenic statement ever delivered! Such swingeing assertions rather undermine Mark’s plea to overlook the state boundaries, do they not?
Why have I gone substantially to history to make these points? Because Mark puts “Old Calvinism” in the past tense. He is wrong. The “Old Calvinists” of history were not what he paints them to be (quite how this ties in with “Dead Guys Week” I am not sure), though they doubtless failed at many points. The “Old Calvinists” of the present are – in many respects – failing to live up to their inheritance, and I would be among the first to recognise it, mourn it, and respond to it. But the caricature is not accurate, the inheritance is not the one that Mark pictures, and some Old Calvinists remain alive and kicking.
[I should note that - since beginning this piece - I have seen that the insightful R. Scott Clark has also entered the fray at this point. It will be quickly clear that Dr Clark and I will not agree at many points. For example, he sees the Reformation as coming to its final expression at a high-water mark that he puts at a very definite point in the history of the church and the development of doctrine. My understanding of its past and present progress is different to his. Nevertheless, I have often appreciated many of the points he makes and warnings he gives.]
Secondly, some neo-Calvinists can be immediately blinkered. This may be in part due to its American bias. I am not suggesting that there is no international flavour to “New Calvinism,” and I applaud such a flavour, but America is not a nation always noted for its awareness and insights of life beyond its own borders. I have remarked before that there is something a touch incestuous about the fact that nearly all of the people who puffed Young, Restless and Reformed were either referenced in the book itself, or are intimately associated with those referenced. “D’ya wanna be in my gang?” If not, you may be out of the loop. This struck me forcibly again the other day when I was reading the blurb for a new book. Some of the movers and shakers of neo-Calvinism (among others) were falling over each other to praise this book to the hilt. Several of them mentioned the novelty of the treatment. “At last,” rings out the cry, “someone has addressed this most vital topic!”
“Actually, brothers, there have been books written on this topic, and that quite recently. Some of them cover the same ground. You may be discovering certain things for the first time, and I relish your excitement and the fresh sense of God’s wonder. In fact, I have a holy envy of some of it. But you are not the first to discover, record, and broadcast these things, not even in the present days.”
I freely acknowledge that none of us have a monopoly on truth. None of us can read everything that is written: especially today it seems that “of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh” (Ecc 12.12). None of us can know everything. None of us are infallible in our assertions, unless those assertions reproduce Biblical truth.
But the world is bigger than certain churches, preachers, authors, hymn-writers. If the Old Calvinists are called upon to break out of their ghettoes and recognise that grace operates in more spheres than their own, then it does the neo-Calvinists just as well to face the same fact. The kingdom is bigger than their stake in it. I love some of the preaching and teaching that these men are doing; I read their books with critical relish; I appreciate their labours; I rejoice in the souls brought into the kingdom by these means; I wish I knew more of the blessing that they enjoy. But just because the neo-Calvinist gang is big and powerful doesn’t mean that they have a monopoly on the grace, glory, and progress of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It might be wise to remember that when they are patting each other on the back.
I am not an old Calvinist. I may be an Old Calvinist by some measures and definitions. I am far too new by others. But none of us can afford to be historically or immediately blinkered. God is greater and more glorious than any of us can imagine him to be. God’s church is bigger than any one part of it. We have no scope for bitterness, pride, triumphalism, or self-congratulation, on any side of any divide. Let my Old Calvinist brothers not deny the work of God among the New Calvinists, but rather encourage and support it, be encouraged and taught by it, and invest in it insofar as they can with a good conscience, and set out to instruct it where they cannot. Let my New Calvinist brothers not ignore the work of God before and apart from them, but pray for it and learn from it where they can, listen to it and accept it. Let us remember that each of us are called by God to serve him: to our own master we will stand or fall. Do you have work to do? Do it with all your might.
OK. So everyone is raving about the fact that Time magazine, identifying what it considers to be the top 10 ideas that are changing the world right now, suggests that “the New Calvinism” is having the third most significant impact. It expands on its notion of the resurgence of Calvinism here. Incidentally, Justin Taylor points out that we have been here before.
All the right references are there:
Neo-Calvinist ministers and authors don’t operate quite on a Rick Warren scale. But, notes Ted Olsen, a managing editor at Christianity Today, “everyone knows where the energy and the passion are in the Evangelical world” – with the pioneering new-Calvinist John Piper of Minneapolis, Seattle’s pugnacious Mark Driscoll and Albert Mohler, head of the Southern Seminary of the huge Southern Baptist Convention. The Calvinist-flavored ESV Study Bible sold out its first printing, and Reformed blogs like Between Two Worlds are among cyber-Christendom’s hottest links.
All of a sudden, the Christian blogosphere is awash with excited bloggers posting that – guess what, folks! – Time magazine thinks we are important. Honestly, it sounds not unlike a bunch of teenagers all swaggering through the school corridors because the prettiest girl in the school has been making eyes at them!
Should we perhaps calm down a little? I am pleased that the force of a more Biblical Christianity is recognised more widely. I think it is plain from Scripture and history that when God is at work, even the world will be forced to reckon with it: “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too” (Acts 17:6). However, if Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, then do we need to get quite so excited about the fact that Time magazine thinks we are significant? After all, the piece was hardly a glowing endorsement, although it mercifully lacked obvious and vicious invective against a more Biblical understanding of God’s truth. Coming to this kind of prominence is unlikely to be a simple indication that we are about to take the world by storm; it is as or more likely to be a warning that we are about to face unparalleled assaults. After all, we must bear in mind that an analysis of a disease needs to be made before the world mobilises to wipe it out.
Would it make any difference if Time magazine listed Calvinism as third of the most dangerous ideas currently being bandied about in the world, just below Common or Garden Totalitarianism and Islamofascism? Would it make any difference to the ultimate progress of the kingdom if we were (a) hymned to high heaven (b) vilified to the extreme (c) given a stiff and thorough ignoring?
Could it be that what seems to be the net reaction to this piece suggests we are a little too concerned with what men think of us, that we are too ready to receive – and, by implication, pursue or even crave – the applause and favour of men? Could there be a danger of carnality in our reaction? I remember Spurgeon’s warning – fairly black-and-white, but with some wisdom in it nonetheless – in which he suggested that we would be wise not to listen too much to praise, because we would then find it much harder to deal with criticism. This is the man who faced his death confident that his memory would be execrated for many years, although a more distant future would vindicate it.
Getting a mention in Time magazine must not be the apogee of our ambition. Let us not get flustered just because the pretty world winks at us. She might just as quickly turn upon us. Let us not be deafened by the applause of the goats and the commendations of the wolves. Madam Bubble is as dangerous a foe as Giant Despair; the Enchanted Ground is as dangerous a place as the Hill of Difficulty. Vanity Fair can turn a man’s head.
Christ is building his kingdom, and the gates of Hades cannot prevail against it. Neither do the articles of Time ensure it. Let us not swoon too soon, but rather work while it is day.
Furthermore, there is – if not a confusion – at least a question of terminology. Most of the subjects welcome the Reformed label, but how accurately is it being applied? It seems that most of those involved in this movement share a Reformed (or, at least, a Calvinistic) soteriology. The question is raised even in the book as to whether this really constitutes “being Reformed,” as well as how much it matters. Do we need, for example, a Reformed ecclesiology, a Reformed pneumatology, or Reformed worship (or all of the above) in order to call ourselves genuinely ‘Reformed’? In other words, would the patron saint of the new Calvinists, Jonathan Edwards, recognise all these individuals and groups as Reformed? One could argue that this very question may be redefined by weight of numbers involved in this movement who do not embrace what has traditionally been, and been accepted as, part of the Reformed package. On this basis, there may be many who will wonder whether or not they are a part of this movement, and whether they want to be, and – if so – to what extent. This is especially so where the question is being begged over the extent to which the church is reaching the culture as opposed to the culture assimilating the church.
Scott Clark is even blunter than I am. An interview with Collin Hansen has raised the same issue again for him. Clark uses the label ‘Baptist’ to make his case:
You can’t simply redefine ‘Baptist’ by fiat and you can’t impose such a minimalist definition [i.e. "I believe in baptism"] on the word ‘Baptist’ because, after all, all Christians believe in Baptism. Defining it that way doesn’t tell us anything about the person using the adjective. It becomes meaningless.
The progression of Scott’s argument is solid, but it is – I think – clear that, by the time he has done, there are not that many people who can use the word “Reformed.” Here is his thinking:
So it is with those of us who are identified with the historic Reformed Churches and with their confessions. Our people spilled blood for being called Reformed and for confessing the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. The Synod of Dort did not simply issue five canons against the Remonstrants, they also published a church order and they worked on worship and other ecclesiastical issues. To break into the Armory (where the Synod met) and to steal the Five Points from the ecclesiastical context in which they were formed and in which they were meant to be applied and to use them alone to define the adjective “Reformed” is just vandalism and identity theft.
I’m glad folk want to identify with the Five Points of Dort. I’m glad that folks are interested in the Reformed reformation. Keep coming. The road to Geneva is a nice trip and I think you’ll enjoy the destination. If you’re hungry, we will feed you. You don’t have to steal. It’s okay, we love you. Indeed, we’ll put a Geneva gown on your ministers, we’ll baptize your children in recognition of their status as covenant children and we’ll offer you communion in the body and blood of Christ regularly (the Geneva City Council is dead, long live communion). We have a polity, a piety, and a passion for the lost. You’ll love it.
It is interesting to see that – perhaps tongue in cheek – being Reformed involves (of necessity?) wearing a Geneva gown to preach and being a paedobaptist, as well as enjoying the Lord’s supper. Do you have to sing psalms only to be Reformed?
I am a Reformed Baptist. Can I be? I hold to the 1689 (Second London) Baptist confession of faith. Am I allowed to use the label? Where does one draw the line? At which point does your standing in the stream remove you from the current?
Don’t get me wrong: I agree with the essence of what Scott is saying. To simply hoick the label ‘Reformed’ on to any believer who holds to the five points (or even four or so of them) is to empty the phrase of much of its significance. But where does being Reformed start and end? Do Scott Clark or Richard Muller finally pin it down? Is being a Reformed Baptist an inherent contradiction?
I agree with Dr Clark that being soteriologically Reformed is not enough to warrant the label, but I want to affirm my standing in the stream of historic Biblical Christianity. All of which demands an answer to the question: if you need to (and I agree with Scott that you do need to), where do you draw the line?
Phil Johnson has been attempting this over at Pulpit Magazine, in his usual pointed and provocative style, in five parts (so far?):
- Clarifying Calvinism (Part 1): Is Arminianism damnable heresy?
- Clarifying Calvinism (Part 2): Spurgeon: “Calvinism IS the Gospel”
- Clarifying Calvinism (Part 3): Some book recommendations
- Clarifying Calvinism (Part 4): One more recommendation, and an explanation of why this issue is important to me
- Clarifying Calvinism (Part 5): Why this issue is really a lot simpler than most people think
Update: he is still going.
Still going . . .
OK, I think we’re there . . .
The New York Times covers Mark Driscoll: an interesting mix of observation, comment, insight and misunderstanding (of evangelicalism, Calvin, Calvinism, and Christianity). (Note: if she gets Calvin and Geneva so wrong, tread carefully before simply embracing her assertions about Driscoll in Seattle.)
PS Scott Clark has some stimulating thoughts on this same article.
. . . what I am advocating is no antiquarian enterprise. What is set forth in the pages . . . however clumsily, is a life and death matter. Can the form of Christianity commonly known as Calvinism survive in the modern world? It cannot survive unless, first, it is known; secondly, believed; thirdly, practiced. Calvin, the theologian, was captive to his own time and place, but also transcends the sixteenth century. The more I study that great interpreter of Jesus Christ, the more contemporary I discover him to be, and the more dated I find so called ‘contemporary theology’ to be. (O’Brien, 187)
How historically myopic we quickly become! How much we chase after the latest theological fads! When we immerse ourselves in the most humble and God-focused men whom Christ has given to his church, we quickly find just how contemporary they are, and how dated contemporary theology can be. The circumstances of mankind may change, but the heart of man remains fallen. Those who pierce to the centre of things remain relevant precisely because they deal with eternal truth and not ephemeral experiences.
What is it to have Christ manifest himself to his people? A sermon by John Ryland Jr addresses The nature and evidences of divine manifestations. With echoes of Jonathan Edwards on the religious affections, he provides negatives considerations, several concessions, and six assertions concerning the nature of divine manifestations, or Jesus showing himself to the believing soul. He moves on to the effects and evidences of such demonstrations of the divine presence, before closing with some lessons.
Here is solid, Scriptural, experiential Calvinism of high order. Ryland offers the following evidences and effects:
First: A deep conviction (proportioned to the manifestation) of the meanness, unworthiness, guilt, past and present sinfulness of the soul thus favoured; humbling its pride, and filling it with self-abasement. This is exemplified in the language of Old-testament saints. Thus Jacob, “I am less than the least of thy mercies.” Job, “Now I repent and abhor myself.” David, “Who am I, and what is my father’s house?” Isaiah, “Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips.” Daniel, “My comeliness is turned into corruption.” And Jude, in the text, How is it, that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world?
Secondly: A conviction of our entire dependence on Christ, both for righteousness and strength; thankfully falling in with the design of his redemption; resting with complacency in his plan of salvation; feeling our need of his mediation; and sensible of our weakness and insufficiency to follow the Lord, except continually upheld.
Thirdly: An assurance of the reality and excellence of the objects manifested; i.e. the person and grace of Christ. They shine with such a divine glory, that, they needs must be realized.
Fourthly: A conviction that there is much more to be seen and admired in Christ, than has yet been manifested to the soul; and consequently an earnest increasing desire, to know, love, and enjoy more, which prevents resting in present attainments, and induces the soul to resolve never to stop its pursuit, till it shall enjoy all it wants, and awake in the complete likeness of Christ.
Fifthly: A glorying in this salvation, renouncing all other Saviours, and all other portions; as seeing that there is enough in him to satisfy, though in the want of all things; and that all other things are nothing without him.
Sixthly: A concern to honour and glorify, in all possible ways this blessed Redeemer; never thinking he can be exalted enough; longing that others may see, admire, love, and be devoted to him.
Seventhly: Tenderness of conscience, fearing the least sin, or rather looking on none as little; with a jealousy of our own hearts, and a holy fear of dishonouring God our Saviour.
Eighthly: Not only a spirit of devotion towards God, and peculiar complacency in his people; but universal benevolence, or a spirit of pure, gentle, humble, meek, patient, forgiving, disinterested love towards all mankind.
Ninthly: The transforming efficacy of these manifestations, producing universal holiness and love to all God’s commandments.
Tenthly: Preparation for heaven, anticipating both its enjoyments and employments; drawing off the affections from the world, and causing them to be set on things above.
Gary Brady draws attention to H. L. Mencken’s obituary of J. Gresham Machen. Originally published in The Baltimore Evening Sun (18 January 1937), 2nd Section, p 15, it can be found at Appendix A here, and I reproduce it below. “The Sage of Baltimore” tackles Machen fairly and squarely, making plain that though he despises his Calvinism, it has in it the virtues of cogency, consistency, coherence, cohesiveness and comprehensiveness.
H. L. MENCKEN’S OBITUARY OF MACHEN
The Rev. J. Gresham Machen, D. D., who died out in North Dakota on New Year’s Day, got, on the whole, a bad press while he lived, and even his obituaries did much less than justice to him. To newspaper reporters, as to other antinomians, a combat between Christians over a matter of dogma is essentially a comic affair, and in consequence Dr. Machen’s heroic struggles to save Calvinism in the Republic were usually depicted in ribald, or, at all events, in somewhat skeptical terms. The generality of readers, I suppose, gathered thereby the notion that he was simply another Fundamentalist on the order of William Jennings Bryan and the simian faithful of Appalachia. But he was actually a man of great learning, and, what is more, of sharp intelligence.
What caused him to quit the Princeton Theological Seminary and found a seminary of his own was his complete inability, as a theologian, to square the disingenuous evasions of Modernism with the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. He saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and polluting Christianity in the Modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin. Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives.
Thus he fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works. Most of the other Protestant churches have gone the same way, but Dr. Machen’s attention, as a Presbyterian, was naturally concentrated upon his own connection. His one and only purpose was to hold it [the Church] resolutely to what he conceived to be the true faith. When that enterprise met with opposition he fought vigorously, and though he lost in the end and was forced out of Princeton it must be manifest that he marched off to Philadelphia with all the honors of war.
My interest in Dr. Machen while he lived, though it was large, was not personal, for I never had the honor of meeting him. Moreover, the doctrine that he preached seemed to me, and still seems to me, to be excessively dubious. I stand much more chance of being converted to spiritualism, to Christian Science or even to the New Deal than to Calvinism, which occupies a place, in my cabinet of private horrors, but little removed from that of cannibalism. But Dr. Machen had the same clear right to believe in it that I have to disbelieve in it, and though I could not yield to his reasoning I could at least admire, and did greatly admire, his remarkable clarity and cogency as an apologist, allowing him his primary assumptions.
These assumptions were also made, at least in theory, by his opponents, and thereby he had them by the ear. Claiming to be Christians as he was, and of the Calvinish persuasion, they endeavored fatuously to get rid of all the inescapable implications of their position. On the one hand they sought to retain membership in the fellowship of the faithful, but on the other hand they presumed to repeal and reenact with amendments the body of doctrine on which that fellowship rested. In particular, they essayed to overhaul the scriptural authority which lay at the bottom of the whole matter, retaining what coincided with their private notions and rejecting whatever upset them.
Upon this contumacy Dr. Machen fell with loud shouts of alarm. He denied absolutely that anyone had a right to revise and sophisticate Holy Writ. Either it was the Word of God or it was not the Word of God, and if it was, then it was equally authoritative in all its details, and had to be accepted or rejected as a whole. Anyone was free to reject it, but no one was free to mutilate it or to read things into it that were not there. Thus the issue with the Modernists was clearly joined, and Dr. Machen argued them quite out of court, and sent them scurrying back to their literary and sociological Kaffeeklatsche. His operations, to be sure, did not prove that Holy Writ was infallible either as history or as theology, but they at least disposed of those who proposed to read it as they might read a newspaper, believing what they chose and rejecting what they chose.
In his own position there was never the least shadow of inconsistency. When the Prohibition imbecility fell upon the country, and a multitude of theological quacks, including not a few eminent Presbyterians, sought to read support for it into the New Testament, he attacked them with great vigor, and routed them easily. He not only proved that there was nothing in the teachings of Jesus to support so monstrous a folly; he proved abundantly that the known teachings of Jesus were unalterably against it. And having set forth that proof, he refused, as a convinced and honest Christian, to have anything to do with the dry jehad.
This rebellion against a craze that now seems so incredible and so far away was not the chief cause of his break with his ecclesiastical superiors, but it was probably responsible for a large part of their extraordinary dudgeon against him. The Presbyterian Church, like the other evangelical churches, was taken for a dizzy ride by Prohibition. Led into the heresy by fanatics of low mental visibility, it presently found itself cheek by jowl with all sorts of criminals, and fast losing the respect of sensible people. Its bigwigs thus became extremely jumpy on the subject, and resented bitterly every exposure of their lamentable folly.
The fantastic William Jennings Bryan, in his day the country’s most distinguished Presbyterian layman, was against Dr. Machen on the issue of Prohibition but with him on the issue of Modernism. But Bryan’s support, of course, was of little value or consolation to so intelligent a man. Bryan was a Fundamentalist of the Tennessee or barnyard school. His theological ideas were those of a somewhat backward child of 8, and his defense of Holy Writ at Dayton during the Scopes trial was so ignorant and stupid that it must have given Dr. Machen a great deal of pain. Dr. Machen himself was to Bryan as the Matterhorn is to a wart. His Biblical studies had been wide and deep, and he was familiar with the almost interminable literature of the subject. Moreover, he was an adept theologian, and had a wealth of professional knowledge to support his ideas. Bryan could only bawl.
It is my belief, as a friendly neutral in all such high and ghostly matters, that the body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general. Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony. It is, on the contrary, a corpus of powerful and profound convictions, many of them not open to logical analysis. Its inherent improbabilities are not sources of weakness to it, but of strength. It is potent in a man in proportion as he is willing to reject all overt evidences, and accept its fundamental postulates, however unprovable they may be by secular means, as massive and incontrovertible facts.
These postulates, at least in the Western world, have been challenged in recent years on many grounds, and in consequence there has been a considerable decline in religious belief. There was a time, two or three centuries ago, when the overwhelming majority of educated men were believers, but that is apparently true no longer. Indeed, it is my impression that at least two-thirds of them are now frank skeptics. But it is one thing to reject religion altogether, and quite another thing to try to save it by pumping out of it all its essential substance, leaving it in the equivocal position of a sort of pseudo-science, comparable to graphology, “education,” or osteopathy.
That, it seems to me, is what the Modernists have done, no doubt with the best intentions in the world. They have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty as [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again – in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mudupbringing, Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed. He failed – but he was undoubtedly right.
The hard-pressed Phil Johnson at PyroManiacs has determined to spend the next month or so reposting from his original PyroManiac blog, beginning here. I remember the original blog, but few of the original posts. If this first effort is anything to go by, there will be some juicy stuff to follow.
Here, Phil identifies some of the significant shortcomings of “quick’n'dirty Calvinism” of the sort (still? less? more?) rife on the interweb, and makes a wise plea to spend time dwelling upon the truth of God’s Word in depth and at length, in order not to fall into the errors of shallow, ardent, well-publicised, readily-available foolishness.
Crossway Books, 2008 (156 pp, pbk)
Dever; Driscoll; Duncan; Challies; Harris; Horton; MacArthur; Mahaney; Mohler; Piper; Sproul: these are the meats sometimes uncomfortably sandwiched between the pages of this book, together drenched in “Reformed” mayonnaise. Young, Restless, Reformed is the exploration by Christianity Today editor-at-large Collin Hansen of the phenomenon of the new Calvinists, the so-called Reformed resurgence.
With the exception of a few scant references, the focus is entirely on the US. Nevertheless, most of the names will be familiar to those with an interest in Reformed doctrine and practice. Hansen begins with John Piper and “the Piper fiends” (Pipettes?), before surveying “Ground Zero” (Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, where Al Mohler holds sway), then considering the Mahaney/Harris axis at Covenant Life Church and the New Attitude conference, and ending up with Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill in Seattle. In between and helping us along the way are a multitude of other movers and shakers and bit-players. Hanging over it all is the far-from-spectral but somewhat ambivalent figure of Jonathan Edwards.
It is, in many respects, a joyous read. To see a substantial recovery of Biblical truth on such a large scale cannot be anything but exciting. To see the unity and co-labouring it prompts and promotes is delightful. To read of predominantly young men and women in the modern West giving themselves to prayer and the study of the Scriptures is thrilling and humbling.
Hansen does take time to consider the detractors and the devaluers, but there is a sympathetic tone that makes plain that Hansen is fundamentally ‘on-side’ with those of whom he writes. This perhaps contributes to the fact that the book can read more like an exercise in comprehension than in analysis: it provides a snapshot rather than a vigorous assessment.
Another weakness is that the whole scene can appear somewhat incestuous and self-referential. The book is about or refers to people who endorse it in the blurb, read by them, reviewed by them (often in the Web 2.0 environment). The same people are writing books from the same publishers and referring to one another’s blogs. Is there a danger of self-congratulation, of failing to recognise that this is a much bigger community than it was, but still not that big or effective a community? Might the mutual back-slapping hide the fact of how much work there still is to do?
Furthermore, there is – if not a confusion – at least a question of terminology. Most of the subjects welcome the Reformed label, but how accurately is it being applied? It seems that most of those involved in this movement share a Reformed (or, at least, a Calvinistic) soteriology. The question is raised even in the book as to whether this really constitutes “being Reformed,” as well as how much it matters. Do we need, for example, a Reformed ecclesiology, a Reformed pneumatology, or Reformed doxology (or all of the above) in order to call ourselves genuinely ‘Reformed’? In other words, would the patron saint of the new Calvinists, Jonathan Edwards, recognise all these individuals and groups as Reformed? One could argue that this very question may be redefined by weight of numbers involved in this movement who do not embrace what has traditionally been, and been accepted as, part of the Reformed package. On this basis, there may be many who will wonder whether or not they are a part of this movement, and whether they want to be, and – if so – to what extent. This is especially so where the question is being begged over the extent to which the church is reaching the culture as opposed to the culture assimilating the church.
Finally, and leading on from this, one must ask, So what? and, Who cares? We must understand what is the trajectory of this movement, and what its terminus (or termini, if it splinters). We must watch its effects. Will the somewhat insular nature of the new Calvinist community betray it into a failure to preach the very gospel it boasts of recovering to those in need of Jesus on our doorsteps? In some circles there seems to be a very real temptation to preach to the converted (in the essential sense of that word), gaining ‘converts’ from other Christian camps rather than from the world around us, to argue other believers into our camp far more than to proclaim a saving Christ to needy sinners. Surely if we are constrained by what Warfield defined as of the essence of genuine Calvinism (of Biblical Christianity) – “a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly as a sinful creature” – then it will work itself out in a determination to have God glorified in salvation as well as among the saved, in both reaching the lost and teaching the reached.
There is much that is splendid about the movement described by Hansen, but it contains within it some fascinating and fearful tensions, as well as some wonderful prospects. Much depends on the legacy of the present leaders, and the readiness of those who follow to pursue a comprehensive Scripturalism that will govern head and heart and hands. Reading this book will help observers and participants to gauge both the trajectory and the likely terminus of this curious company, but should also challenge us about the extent to which our faith and our life are keeping pace.
 B. B, Warfield, Works, vol. 5, Calvin and Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 354.