Posts Tagged ‘Don Carson’
The Intolerance of Tolerance
D. A. Carson
IVP, 2012, 200pp., paperback, £12.99
The central premise of this book is that a true and proper tolerance defends both the right of others to hold views other than one’s own together with one’s own right to challenge those views. However, tolerance as commonly understood has come to mean the conviction – strongly held in the name of tolerance – that any strongly-held convictions which cut across the convictions of others are intolerable. In the course of this book, these straightforward and easily observable propositions are beaten rather thin and embossed with some intricacy. The reason for this may be that the material has its origin in an academic environment. Along the way, some useful points are made, including cogent warnings concerning the tyranny of democracy and the subtle progress of this intolerant tolerance, particularly as Christianity – with its exclusive claims – comes under increasing fire in the West. At this point, perhaps, a treatment of the natural man’s incapacity for and antagonism to the truth might have been enlightening. Carson closes with ten counsels, in the course of which he urges Christians to demonstrate true tolerance in their engagements with one another and with the world at large, while exposing the new and flawed tolerance for the dangerous nonsense it is. Not a groundbreaking analysis, but a useful one for those engaging with the issues, especially in the more public intellectual sphere.
Don Carson has weighed in on his friend Mark Driscoll’s recent comments (see also the craven follow up) about pastoral ministry in Great Britain; Phil Johnson chips in with his two-penn’orth here (pointing out the irony of the fact that the Gospel Coalition can overlook claims of divinely-inspired pornography in Driscoll’s mental cinema, can ignore his crass book on marriage, can sweep under the carpet his validation of a false-gospel preaching modalist, but is not prepared to allow the man to get away with casting nasturtiums on the manly vigour of us allegedly beardless Brits).
Anyway, Mr Carson has a longer history of significant connection with the UK than Mr Driscoll, and offers an alternative perspective. At the same time, Mr Carson is no more a native of the UK than is Mr Driscoll, and his perspective raises the quizzical eyebrow at one or two points, reflecting as it does his distinctive convictions. So, to use Mr Carson’s own language, “you might be interested in hearing another perspective,” while we are about sharing them. I include below Carson’s six observations, and offer some comments.
(1) Mark correctly observes the low state of genuine Christian confessionalism in the UK. Still, it varies considerably (as it does in the United States, though with lower figures over there). There’s a ring around London in which close to 10 percent of the people go to church, many of them evangelicals; the percentage in Northern Ireland is higher, though falling. By contrast, in Yorkshire the percentage that goes to church once a month or more is 0.9 percent; evangelicals account for only 0.4 percent. Both figures are still falling. This is comparable to the state of affairs in, say, Japan.
I am not sure that Mark had much at all to say about “genuine Christian confessionalism in the UK.” I am not sure what Mr Carson means by “genuine Christian confessionalism” but if he is referring to a genuine adherence to one of the classic statements of Reformed doctrine among Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists, he is seriously overstating his case. I mentioned the claim that there is “a ring around London in which close to 10 percent of people go to church” – perhaps we might call it ‘the ring of choir’? – to a group of mainly London pastors yesterday, and – subject to queries about how wide the ring is, where it might be placed, what sort of church is involved, when these people go and how often – the claim was substantially laughed out of court. I should be fascinated to know where these statistics come from, and what lies behind them, but they painted an overly rosy picture for the men I asked.
(2) The phenomenon of the state church colors much of what is going on. Whether we like it or not, in England itself (the situation is different in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) the Church of England is the source of most heterodoxy and of much of the orthodoxy, as well as of everything in between. It has produced men like Don Cupitt and men like Dick Lucas. Exactly what courage looks like for the most orthodox evangelicals in that world is a bit different from what courage looks like in the leadership of the independent churches: their temptations are different, their sufferings are different. Although I have found cowardice in both circles, I have found remarkable courage in both circles, and the proportion of each has not been very different from what I’ve found on this side of the Atlantic.
Mr Carson correctly identifies the phenomenon of the state church as a real issue. However, I would seriously contend with his assertion that “the Church of England is the source of most heterodoxy and of much of the orthodoxy” in England. In my experience, there is far more heterodoxy and theological blancmange than anything else coming out of the Church of England, despite the existence in it of men of the calibre of Dick Lucas; to call it the source of “much of the orthodoxy” in England is over-egging it more than a little. He makes the good point that courage may look different in different spheres, although I think that a bit more readiness to walk away from the culture of compromise in the national church would do some good to all involved.
(3) As for young men with both courage and national reach: I suppose I’d start with Richard Cunningham, currently director of UCCF. He has preached fearlessly in most of the universities and colleges in the UK, and is training others to do so; he has been lampooned in the press, faced court cases over the UCCF stance on homosexuality, and attracted newspaper headlines. Then there’s Vaughan Roberts, rector of St Ebbe’s, Oxford, in constant demand for his Bible teaching around the country. I could name many more. In Scotland one thinks of men like Willie Philip (and he’s not the only one). Similar names could be mentioned in Wales and Northern Ireland.
I am curious as to the Don’s circle of contacts if the men he mentions in England are all associated with the national church. I could mention a good number of young and older men of real courage and conviction among the Independents, but some of them – precisely because they are men of courage and conviction – may not be moving in the circles in which Mr Carson moves, or which might receive his blessing.
(4) More important yet, the last few years in England have seen the invention and growth of the regional Gospel Partnerships. In my view, these are among the most exciting things going on in England at the moment. They bring together Church of England ministers and Independent ministers who are passionate about the gospel, who see the decline, and who are crossing many kinds of denominational and cultural divides to plant churches (regardless of whether the new churches turn out to be Anglican or Free), and raise up a new generation of preachers. They are broadly Reformed. They are annoying the mere traditionalists on both sides of the denominational divide; they are certainly angering some bishops; but they press on. In the North West Partnership, for example, they’ve planted about 30 churches in the last eight years, and the pace is accelerating. That may seem a day of small things, but compared with what was there ten years ago, this is pretty significant, especially as their efforts are beginning to multiply. Elsewhere, one church in London has about 17 plants currently underway, all led by young men. The minister at St Helen’s-Bishopsgate, William Taylor, was formerly an officer in the British Army: there is not a wimpy bone in his body. The amount of flak he takes on is remarkable.
This is, for me, Mr Carson’s most contentious statement. These Gospel Partnerships are all the rage at the moment, and here we are asked to applaud those who “who are crossing many kinds of denominational and cultural divides to plant churches (regardless of whether the new churches turn out to be Anglican or Free).” But such applause must deliberately overlook the definite and even definitive differences between national or state and free church ecclesiology. These differences become even more pronounced when a Baptist considers the national or state church model. Perhaps I fall under the condemnation of Carson’s withering dismissal of “the mere traditionalists;” perhaps I simultaneously escape the watery label of “broadly Reformed,” which may be a fair trade-off. Let’s be clear: to know that churches where the gospel is being preached are being planted is no small joy. Furthermore, there are many Anglicans whom we esteem and admire for their courage of heart and clarity of thought on a variety of issues. But the idea that a principled Dissenter can overlook the inbuilt rottenness of Anglicanism as a system is a nonsense: the state church is, by its very nature, flawed. The nature of the church (its very constitution, including issues to do with the manner and reality of one’s entrance into and continuing participation in the visible body of Christ) is no insignificant matter, and the fact that it is too often treated as a moot point is dangerous. Here again, if I may also nod to the American scene, we may be dealing with those for whom “Coalition” or “Partnership” sometimes seems a weightier word than “Gospel,” and for whom the reality of the church is, if not overlooked, then perhaps underdeveloped. These may seem to be gains, but I fear that they are short-term gains which will leave long-term confusion and even damage.
Let me again be clear: I do appreciate true gospel preachers among the Anglicans, and my contention is not with people first, but with systems. I am properly impressed at the zeal and wisdom that my brothers show in evangelising and teaching and church-planting, and I acknowledge that it puts too many Independents to shame. But I do not think it any accident that now, as in the past, the most faithful and fruitful men in Anglicanism tend to be criticised, marginalised and even excluded; how I wish more of them would simply walk away and be free indeed! So I am willing to learn from the character and competence of such men; I am ready to benefit from their preaching and writing; there are times and places when I cheerfully congregate and cooperate with specific men; but I cannot abandon what I think is at stake: the very principle of the church and its nature, my concern over the generic credibility of national or state church in itself (qua church, you might say), and the specific incredibility of the Church of England.
I found something from Charles Spurgeon the other day. When I read it to my wife, she sighed in the way that only a wife can, commenting that she had not realised how mild my convictions really are. Said Spurgeon, at a prayer meeting in November 1868, on the eve of a General Election in which the establishment of the Church in Ireland was a live issue:
But there are some of us whose tongues will wax more eloquent because we are obliged to wait; and if this matter of the Church in Ireland be kept in hand for many a day, we shall be thankful, for it will come to the turn of the Church of England all the sooner: for we do not conceal our purpose,– we shall never rest until in England the Church is free, and until this spiritual adultery,– for it is nothing else,– by which the Kingdom of Christ is defiled, shall be for ever put away, and be remembered only as the darkest blot that ever disfigured the Church’s face. Pray earnestly for this blessing! I pray for it as devoutly as I ever asked for salvation. If I might but live to see the day when there shall be a free church in a free nation, and all this State-churchism done away, I could almost say with Simeon, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.’
C. H. Spurgeon, C. H. Spurgeon’s Forgotten Prayer Meeting Addresses (Leominster: DayOne, 2011), 24.
It does matter whether the churches we plant are Anglican or Free, because the issues are of pith and moment, especially considering the long-term purity and fidelity of God’s people.
(5) But there is a bigger issue. We must not equate courage with success, or even youth with success. We must avoid ever leaving the impression that these equations are valid. I have spent too much time in places like Japan, or in parts of the Muslim world, where courage is not measured on the world stage, where a single convert is reckoned a mighty trophy of grace. I am grateful beyond words for the multiplication of churches in Acts 29, but I am no less grateful for Baptist ministers like my Dad, men who labored very hard and saw very little fruit for decades in French Canada, many of whom went to prison (their sentences totaled eight years between 1950 and 1952). I find no ground for concluding that the missionaries in Japan in the 20th century were less godly, less courageous, less faithful, than the missionaries in (what became) South Korea, with its congregations of tens of thousands. At the final Great Assize, God will take into account not only all that was and is, but also what might have been under different circumstances (Matt 11:20ff). Just as the widow who gave her mite may be reckoned to have given more than many multi-millionaires, so, I suspect, some ministers in Japan, or Yorkshire, will receive greater praise on that last day than those who served faithfully in a corner of the world where there was more fruit. Moreover, the measure of faithful service is sometimes explicitly tied in Scripture not to the quantity of fruit, measured in numbers, but to such virtues as self-control, measured by the use of one’s tongue (James 3:1-6).
Agreed: there are dark places where a single glimmer of light is, in some senses, a greater demonstration of God’s saving power than it might appear in those places where the church has a relatively greater degree of freedom, however that freedom may be used or abused. This assessing on the basis of numbers is a modern and Western disease which reflects a far too commercial spirit in Christ’s church.
(6) Even where some ministries are wavering, it takes rare discernment to sort out when there should be sharp rebuke and when there should be encouragement. Probably there needs to be more of whichever of these two polarities we are least comfortable with! But I would not want to forget that the Jesus who can denounce hypocritical religious leaders in Matthew 22 is also the one of whom it is said, “He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope” (Matt 12:19-21)—in fulfillment of one of the suffering servant passages. My read is that in some of the most challenging places of the world for gospel advance, godly encouragement is part of the great need of the day.
And, insofar as Mr Carson’s words are intended as such, we gladly accept them where we can, settling down as we do so to a lovely cup of tea.
Here we are, sliding effortlessly into the Cs and Ds of pastoral theology. We’ve done a couple of instalments already here and here, and the complete page can be found here or from the sidebar. As usual, comments and further recommendations are appreciated, and if you could put them on the full page, I will be able to keep track of them more readily. There are a couple here that are on my shelf without having been read yet. I have noted that, and when I get round to reading them, I will try to update the review. You can also see that I am trying to put in a bundle of links so that readers have a range of options for purchase. Thanks, and enjoy!
Carrick, John. The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric. Outstanding material here. With illustrations from preachers of renown, Carrick insists that we must both explain and apply the truth, and he bases his case on a study of Biblical indicatives and imperatives, and their relationship one to the other (as well as exclamations and questions). Helpful in thinking about the why and how of sermons, and a real stimulus to preaching (or trying to). (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Carrick, John. The Preaching of Jonathan Edwards. I recently got it not least in the hopes that it would develop some of the seed-thoughts of the earlier volume (above). From what I can see, it is a survey of some noteworthy features from Edwards’ public ministry, and could be very helpful. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Carson, D. A. The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians. A helpful study of what it means for “the cross” to have a central place in Christian leadership. A reminder of the spirit in which our pastoral labours are to be conducted. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Chappell, Bryan. Christ-Centred Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon. This volume sounds some helpful notes, and is worth reading to be reminded of some basic realities in connection with preaching. However, while I know it has had much good press, I found it a little dry and somewhat prescriptive. I think that much of its substance and profitable emphases could be obtained elsewhere without the same constraints being unhelpfully imposed. I may be misreading or misunderstanding it. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Clowney, Edmund P. Called to the Ministry. An excellent and brief treatment of the call to the ministry. Very useful for those wrestling with the question. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Croft, Brian. Test, Train, Affirm & Send Into Ministry. With an easy style and an awareness of modern issues, the author puts the call to ministry right where it belongs, squarely into the context of the local church. Within this framework, the character of the man himself is briefly explored, practical recommendations made, and the ongoing investment of the church in the man under authority is pleaded. Although different churches might wish to adapt what they adopt, this is a solid foundation on which to proceed. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Croft, Brian. Visit the Sick. Again writing to equip men to be genuine shepherds of souls, this book sets out to remind the church and her pastors that the care of the sick is not merely a matter for health professionals, especially in the sphere of the soul’s well-being. Again full of practical advice and the fruit of sometimes painful experience, this book is helpful in rightly setting a pastoral priority. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Croft, Brian & Newton, Phil A. Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals. Many young pastors arrive at their first wedding or funeral having just realised that they have never really seen this done from their soon-to-be vantage point. Going beyond the mere mechanics of the service, Croft and Newton give wise counsel on how to think about and engage with the various aspects of a funeral that honours Christ and declares his truth even as it recognises the pains and sorrows of lost loved ones. Helpful especially for the uninitiated, but a good prompt even for the seasoned. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Dabney, R. L. Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching (previously, Sacred Rhetoric). Another older gem, Dabney begins with the preacher’s commission before surveying a classic list of those elements which together enable a man gifted by God to compose and deliver his divinely-mandated message in such a way as to accomplish God’s ends, with his blessing. Changes in expectations and appetites in the world at large do not take away the usefulness of these basic Biblical principles. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Dickson, David. The Elder and His Work. Written from a Presbyterian perspective, and so dealing more with ruling elders as distinct from teaching elders, this is nevertheless a very helpful, practical survey of the work of elders/pastors generally. While you might tweak it depending on your ecclesiology, if you have (for want of a better phrase) “non-vocational pastors” there is much here that might help, quite apart from the benefit to the preacher of the gospel. (Westminster / Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com / Monergism)
Note: for those interested in a more developed treatment of this same issue, you can find it beginning here.
A year or two ago it seemed that ‘the new Calvinism’ was all the rage. Perhaps it has already reached and passed its peak. Maybe the mission has already become a movement and will shortly become a museum. Only time will tell. Certainly the wild rush of the past few years has slowed a little; the river seems broader and flows more gently. Consolidation has occurred around such organisations as the Gospel Coalition and there are nexuses (nexi?) like Together for the Gospel (T4G) and Acts 29 that also function as anchor points. Not so long ago you could not read a book, website or news article in some Christian circles without coming up against one of a range of personalities. The new orthodoxy needed one of a string of names to back it up: “Piper/Grudem/Carson says . . .” almost became the equivalent in some circles of, “The Holy Spirit told me . . .” It seemed as if the new Calvinism was sweeping the board. More conservative evangelicals felt the pressure, often ‘losing’ their young people to the heady atmosphere of the new movement. There was a certain triumphalism in some quarters, a sense of having seen the working future. In others, there was a sometimes uninhibited aggression. However, there seemed to be little middle ground: you were either for or against, a committed friend or a committed foe.
I tried to understand what was taking place by immersing myself in the stream for a while: I read the books and the blogs and listened to the sermons and addresses. I hoped that I got a fair and accurate understanding of this movement. I found things that were attractive and stimulating and provocative and controversial and worrying.
At a little distance from the swirling storm of popularity and controversy, I recently saw a very brief list of those things which characterise the new Calvinism, written very much from within the movement. Looking at that list, I thought, “Yes, but . . .” and began to sketch out some other qualities that, it seems to me, are embedded in the mass of new Calvinistic identity. The list got reasonably long in the end, but I thought that I would work it up and put it out. It may prove useful, or interesting, or controversial, or pointless. I think that some new Calvinists would acknowledge and admit much of what follows, sometimes quite cheerfully, but not always. They might not agree with all the labels I use, or with my own stance on them, but I have set out to be fair and accurate.
Some caveats: I have attempted not to identify and discuss individuals (except where obvious and necessary, and for occasional examples) because this is not about supporting or attacking any one individual. I also recognise that there are exceptions to most if not all of these rules, hence the introductory wording to each suggestion: I am not trying to make out that the movement is more monolithic than is in fact the case. Furthermore, I have not attempted to distinguish between the positive and the negative (which will differ depending on where you stand anyway!) but have rather lumped them all in together. I have not attempted to list these characteristics in order of priority or significance.
That will probably do by way of introduction. So, then . . .
1. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a desire for the glory of God. In this sense, I do not think one can legitimately deny that this is a Reformed resurgence. There is an evident, open, sincere aim at the glory of God in all things, and I think that God is much glorified in many ways by the words and works of many of my new Calvinist brothers and sisters, and I rejoice at it.
2. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by deep-rooted spiritual joy. This may be one of the reasons why it is so attractive to so many, perhaps especially to those from more conservative Reformed circles who feel that this is one of the things that has been lacking in their spiritual experience. It flows, no doubt, in large part from the emphasis on the grace of God (see below) and it may flow into some of its more exuberant expressions of worship. Again, the public face of the new Calvinism is one in which men and women with their hearts made clean through the blood of the Lamb rejoice in their so-great salvation.
3. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by missonal zeal. As with any vibrant gospel movement, the desire to take the good news into all the world is central. Evangelising. Witnessing to Christ. Church strengthening. Church planting. Church rejuvenation. Training pastors and preachers. There is a Scriptural readiness to overcome or ignore the boundaries too readily established in the mind and the heart and to preach the gospel to every creature, and to use as many means as possible (although the Biblical legitimacy of some might be questioned) to promote the truth, propagate the gospel, and advance the kingdom of Christ Jesus. As the movement has advanced, neither the local nor the international elements of this have been left behind.
4. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an emphasis on the gospel of grace and the grace of the gospel. Everything is ‘gospel’: New Calvinists do ‘gospel-this’ and ‘gospel-centred that’ and ‘gospel-cored the other’, sometimes to the point of inanity. By that, I do not mean that the gospel ought not to be at the heart of things, but if we are genuinely evangelical then by definition the gospel should be at the heart of things, and the tendency to badge everything with the word ‘gospel’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it is gospel-soaked and gospel-centred, nor does it guarantee that it will be. That aside, this is a movement that desires to preach the good news as good news, to proclaim the free and undeserved favour of God to sinners in a way that is engaging, fresh, real and powerful. One of the great anathemas of new Calvinism is legalism. Whether or not this is rightly or fully understood I will not argue here, but these friends are desperate to highlight and declare the primacy of grace. Of course, this is intimately related to the joy they feel and the glory of God they pursue.
5. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by complementarianism. We are told by these friends to distinguish between the theological equivalents of national boundaries and state boundaries, to appreciate the different between distinction and division. At the same time, it appears that complementarianism is one of the new Calvinist shibboleths. That does not mean it is wrong, of course, but it is interesting that of all the things that we are told do not matter in the consideration of unity and separation, complementarianism has become something of a sine qua non.
6. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a return to a more Biblical masculinity. One could argue that at times this has almost become a caricature (and I would agree, and it has indeed been parodied and caricatured), but it is a welcome if sometimes extreme reaction to the anaemic and limp manhood too often displayed elsewhere in the nominally or actually Christian world. Alongside and arising from the complementarianism, dignified and vigorous male leadership has received a welcome fillip from the new Calvinism. Like many gospel movements of the past, this one has been characterised in many respects by the salvation of men (often young men), the calling of men to preach, and a readiness by men to take the brunt and lead from the front. This is not to say that women are excluded from the movement, but the Scriptural emphasis on male leadership has seen a welcome return.
7. Again related to complementarianism, it seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the promotion of the family as a basic unit of church and social life. Once again, such an emphasis can easily become an over-emphasis, but the evident loving affection for wives and sons and daughters that is characteristic of many of the leaders of the movement is an excellent testimony. The re-establishment of the God-ordained family unit, the outworking of masculinity and femininity in the family sphere, an encouragement to family worship, a readiness to discuss and instruct concerning relationships between men and women, single and married, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers and children, and the like, is often part and parcel of new Calvinism.
8. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by charismatic convictions with regard to spiritual gifts. It seems as if the nature, extent and degree of the Spirit’s work in what some would say we cannot call post-apostolic times has become almost a moot point in new Calvinism. What was for so long a genuine line of divide between Christians has seemed to be smoothed over with the rise of the so-called ‘Reformed Charismatic’, a label willingly embraced by many if not all of the leaders of new Calvinism, most of whom would be happy – to various degrees and in different ways – to acknowledge themselves to be continuationists, as the lingo has it. Interestingly, this is one of the fault lines that seems likely to become apparent again, not least because of its significance.
9. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by Calvinist soteriology, with some departures and aberrations. Again, here is one of the areas where the claim to the name ‘Reformed’ is at stake and much debated. Generally speaking, in line with the emphasis on the gospel of grace and the glory of God in salvation there has been a distinctively Calvinist take on this issue, and it is here – probably more than anywhere else – that the movement derives the ‘Calvinist’ part of its name. At the same time, there is – in many of those who are at the forefront of this group – more than a hint of Amyraldism, so I am not sure to what extent this is going to hold water for long. You will also note that I identify Calvinist soteriology as apart from other elements of historic Calvinism, many of which I think one could argue have been neglected, ignored, or abandoned by new Calvinists.
10. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a generally thoughtful ecumenism. You only need to look at or think about the names that are at or clustering about the centre to see how broad a movement this is. It has genuinely united Christians from a variety of backgrounds, and garnered sympathy from many who would nevertheless be unable to share all the distinctives of the movement as a whole. Issues such as baptism, ecclesiology, the spiritual gifts, and worship have – to some extent – not been allowed to prevent the coming together of believers to serve God either in community or at the very least in co-operation. Interestingly, though, this ecumenism seems to reach over the middle ground. By this I mean that there is a readiness to receive and relate to (and receive critique and input from) those close to the inner core of the movement, and then a readiness to reach quite far out from that core for critique and input and relationship, leaving those in the middle ground somewhat isolated. So, for example, consider the speaking list at some of the last few Desiring God conferences: where else would you find Piper, Dever, Driscoll, Warren, Wilson, Keller, Baucham, MacArthur, Sproul, Storms and Ferguson. At points on that list you are moved to cheer. At others, a very Scooby-Dooish cry of “Yoicks!” – mingled alarm and distress – rises from the lips.
11. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an often pragmatic ecclesiology. I am glad that it is characterised by ecclesiology at all, that the church of Jesus Christ is in many respects given its rightful place in his plans and purposes for the kingdom. At the same time, there is often more of the light of nature than the light of Scripture in some of the decisions that seem to be made. This, then, is a movement in which statistics matter. This is a movement in which, if you cannot keep up, you have to drop off. Are you in the way of progress? Then you are fired. We are moving onward and upward, so we will hire a worship pastor used to larger crowds or able to generate them; we will hire a technology deacon to take our presentations within and without the services to a new level. Are you not willing or able to move this fast? Then goodbye, because you are holding up the advance. Multi-campus doctrine is one of the examples of this pragmatism; branding and advertising are given a prominence beyond anything the Scripture provides for. Everything is made to serve the growth of the church numerically and the advance of the mission as stated by the church. At times the church seems less and less like an organic whole in which every member has her or his part and more like a business in which the chief executive and his team get to hire and fire at will, moulding the structure and its activity according to human will and purpose. If the church were a business, would I fire some of her workers? Sure. But it is not, and I am not at liberty to decide who I want or do not want in or working for the advance of a kingdom that belongs to and is ruled by a sovereign King. I should, however, add – in fairness – that perhaps at times others outside the movement have not been pragmatic enough, or dynamic enough, in seizing opportunities for gospel advance and employing means about which the Scriptures are silent (this comment is not about the regulative principle, by the way). By the way, you have to love the names of the churches: all portentous, bastardised Greek or catchy, thrusting urban vim? Fantastic!
12. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a neo-Kuyperian view of culture. Here the mantra is that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” There is much to be said for such a declaration, but it also needs to be read in terms of the already/not yet dichotomy. In new Calvinist orthodoxy, it seems to be very much ‘already’ and this often means that culture is considered neutral, and all to be claimed for Jesus. By extension, nothing seems to be out of bounds, and much that the world says and does can be tidied up, baptised, and brought into the service of Christ’s church. Of course, it tends to be the culture from which the converts are drawn (see below) that comes into the church, and so we get our reference points and illustrations from all the hip and cool sources, or those made trendy by the movers and shakers. Star Wars? Check. Lord of the Rings? Check. The Matrix? Check. So we get to be all funky and populist. Then we get to name check Lewis and Chesterton and Dostoevsky and O’Connor and come over all literary and high-brow. By and large, the new Calvinism seems ready to co-opt, co-operate with, and/or capture this culture now, without always making assessments about the origin, tendency and direction of particular elements. Under this heading I am willing to place the whole issue of contextualization, although it might be considered worthy of its own heading.
13. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by doctrinal if not practical antinomianism. Most of the movers and shakers appear ready to align themselves with New Covenant Theology in some form or other. As so often, the Lord’s day Sabbath is the first point of contact and conflict on this issue. However, the default position here, as – I believe – across broad evangelicalism as a whole – is that the moral law has no abiding relevance in the life of the new covenant believer. That assumption is woven throughout many of the key texts and declarations of the new Calvinism, from the ESV Study Bible downwards (for example, consider these comments in the ESVSB on Romans 14.5: “The weak thought some days were more important than others. Given the Jewish background here (see v. 14), the day that is supremely in view is certainly the Sabbath. The strong think every day is the same. Both views are permissible. Each person must follow his own conscience. What is remarkable is that the Sabbath is no longer a binding commitment for Paul but a matter of one’s personal conviction. Unlike the other nine commandments in Ex. 20:1–17, the Sabbath commandment seems to have been part of the “ceremonial laws” of the Mosaic covenant, like the dietary laws and the laws about sacrifices, all of which are no longer binding on new covenant believers (see also Gal. 4:10; Col. 2:16–17). However, it is still wise to take regular times of rest from work, and regular times of worship are commanded for Christians (Heb. 10:24–25; cf. Acts 20:7)”). This is having and will continue to have implications perhaps not so much in the sphere of justification (though that will follow) as in the sphere of sanctification. It is going to mean much for the development of true holiness, and it is only in the next two or three generations of the new Calvinists that these chickens will come home to roost. Key names among the new Calvinists have laid the foundation for this widespread antinomianism, and it is for me one of the most concerning aspects of the whole movement.
14. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by contemporary worship. By definition, all of the service ought to be worship, and by definition, anything done today is contemporary, however old-fashioned or new-fangled it may be considered, but you know what I mean. I personally have no difficulty with songs and music written in the present day, but that is not the same as a willingness simply to co-opt the forms and patterns of the entertainment of the world for the worship of the church. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sung worship of the church. Into the mix here also come the charismatic and cultural convictions of many of the key figures.
15. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the driving force of several key personalities. You know them: there is a centre circle reasonably well-defined, and then the concentric circles around them together and individually. Piper. Carson. Mahaney. Dever. Mohler. Driscoll. Keller. Grudem. Chandler. Anyabwile. Harris. DeYoung. Chan. Perhaps a little further out are Duncan and MacArthur and Sproul and Trueman. Among the bloggers, Challies and Taylor and others. Read long enough and widely enough and the same names will crop up time and time again. You might place them more or less close to the centre, but they will be there or thereabouts. My apologies to those who ought to be on the list and are not, and to the groupies who are now offended because I did not put their idol on the list. Here you see more than a little of that ecumenism mentioned before. No new Calvinist conference is complete without at least one and ideally more of these men on the platform. Each is a little chief in the centre of his fiefdom, many of which overlap. Of course, it can all seem a little nepotistic, even incestuous at times, as these figures read, invite, commend, and endorse one another in ever-decreasing circles. Again, God usually works by men in the world, and those men naturally attain to a right and reasonable prominence, but the concentration on a few key personalities, especially in the early days of the movement, was distinctive. Of course, some of those names are already second-generation names, and it will be interesting to see where things go from here.
16. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the ready embrace and employment of new technologies and media and the platforms that they provide. The new Calvinism is, to a large degree, an internet phenomenon. Sermons, videos, blogs, other social media, swirl around ceaselessly in this milieu. The exchange and discussion of ideas takes place largely online. Conferences are broadcast and live-blogged, and the lines and colours are laid down by a thousand artists simultaneously, often painting on the same canvas. Cross-reference and self-reference generate a stupendous amount of traffic. Look at some of the key blogs, for example, and you will find that they all tend to highlight the same books, events, people and things at almost precisely the same time. All these platforms nevertheless provide a potent thrust for new Calvinist dogma and praxis, and where others are left behind, the new Calvinism is often at the cutting edge, adopting and co-opting the latest technology (hardware and software) in order to promote either Christ or his servants, depending on your take on particular individuals and circles. Of course, we must state here that no self-respecting new Calvinist would be found dead using a PC. The Apple Macintosh and its related accessories are the technological sine qua non of the true new Calvinist. (I deleted the next bit because it counted as mockery, but let’s just say that it went in the direction of cool glasses and coffee shops, tattoos and T-shirts.)
17. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a concentration on a younger, more urban demographic. I recall one new Calvinist church-planting leader voicing his concern at how many church-planter/ing applications he saw targeted precisely the same group as all the others: the young, trendy, hip (when did this admittedly serviceable but not especially remarkable joint become so popular?), urban crowd. Although some of its leaders are getting old enough to be in them, you will not find much of the new Calvinism catering to the full range of society. It tends to be quite selective. I know of a number of churches that – when they began going in this direction – did begin to attract far larger numbers of a certain type and age, but they also began to lose many others. Again, you can only ride the crest of the wave for so long: what happens to the water ahead, and the waves coming in behind? This is one area where the willingness to preach the gospel to every creature perhaps needs to take account of the fact that every creature doesn’t like the same fashion, music, art, style, clothes, and approach as those who have made new Calvinism what it is.
18. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the desire to be big and to have a seat at culture’s table. Bigness does seem to be a great concern for many. Bigness – size and numbers – as a by-product of the pursuit of right things in a right way and for the glory of God is perfectly acceptable, but bigness as an end in itself is not something that the Bible promotes in isolation. Alongside of this goes what sometimes looks like an obsession with being accepted and heard in wider society. Consider the orgiastic and ecstatic applause and self-congratulation when the big names get on national television, or when the movement gets name-checked by Time magazine. Is there a danger here that the movement is too concerned with the applause and adulation and recognition of the world? Does this tie in with the attitude to culture, and what may be a failure to recognise that in this present evil age we are strangers in a strange land?
19. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an ambivalent relationship to church history. I know we all tend to pick and choose the bits that appear or tend to support what we now believe, but it is right there on the surface of the new Calvinist vehicle. Sometimes there is what I can only call a chronological snobbery. This is not meant to sound as pejorative as it does. It is part of the laudable enthusiasm of the movement. What I mean is that there is a freshness of discovery that excites us: we feel, if I may work through Wodehouse back to Keats,
. . . like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
However, just because I have recently discovered some theological gem does not mean that it has never been discovered before, or that I therefore become the sole guardian and interpreter of the tradition. There may be a whole bunch of trekker’s rubbish upon that peak in Darien from those who have been and camped before. Neither does the popularity or promotion of our discovery entitle us to be the arbiters of the canon. Anyway, there is a tendency among new Calvinists either to claim that ground long-broken has been only recently broken by them, or that it has never been broken before and now needs to be broken by them, or because they have broken it no one else is allowed to set foot on it, or that there is no other way of it being broken. In this way, the great and the good of the past all become proto-new Calvinists. Take a bow, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Bunyan, Cowper, Calvin, Lewis, Owen, Augustine, etc. etc. Of course, all this demands quite a bit of historical revision, of which there is perhaps no finer example than C. S. Lewis, one of the new Calvinism’s patron saints. I am not suggesting that these intelligent and well-read men are not aware of it, but at least let us not pretend nor give the impression that Lewis fits seamlessly into the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy!
20. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by sensitivity to the judicial and social aspects of the gospel at work in society. Perhaps in part because there is a left-wing as well as right-wing political input to new Calvinism, it is nevertheless a recovery of emphasis on the God who defends and protects the widow and the fatherless and the stranger, who is concerned for righteousness and justice in heaven and on earth, who takes note of the presence or absence of ethical integrity in the thoughts, words and deeds of men. Of course, this is very easily dismissed as politically correct or touchy-feely nonsense, but there is, perhaps, more of it in the Scriptures than others have always been ready to admit. So, on such matters as abortion, adoption, euthanasia, care for the poor and hungry, help for the homeless, and so on, there is a welcome re-engagement and re-appraisal. Confusion still exists (as, no doubt, it always will) about the relative roles of the church and the individual Christian citizen or subject (two kingdoms theology, anyone?), but there is an awareness of and sensitivity to these issues that is welcome.
21. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by Americocentrism. Here let me bother with another caveat: this is not an instance of cultural jealousy or bitterness, nor is it in and of itself intended as a condemnation. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and of course the movement spills over, especially into the UK and Australia, where the linguistic heritage is shared (so perhaps I should speak more of ‘the West’ that I do of ‘the States’, although I think it is fair to say that America is probably the dominant Western culture, having more influence on others in the West than they have on it). However, while there are adherents, some of them prominent, outside the USA, the movement has its spiritual and cultural home in the States. Could this be where some of its cultural distinctive and pragmatic attitudes derive? Is this part of the reason for its determination and enthusiasm and can-do mentality? Is this driving the concentration on technology and the referents and foci of the movement? Time after time we hear men and women happily cradled in the bosom of American/Western culture assure us that the future of the church is in the so-called Third or Developing World. Is new Calvinism in danger of exporting more of America/the West than it is of Jesus? By definition, we are to some extent products of our culture, and that is part of God’s sovereign design for our sphere of influence and usefulness. But could it be that there is sometimes a lack of cultural awareness and a degree of cultural supremacism that penetrates new Calvinism further than we are aware? This, I acknowledge, is nebulous, easy both to defend and attack precisely because it is so hard to quantify, but it seems to me that this is an inherently Western movement, if not an inherently American one, a movement very much of a certain time and place. That does not make it inherently bad, but it certainly does call into the question the degree to which it can both last and spread beyond its immediate environs.
At this point, I see no reason to change the assessment I made several months ago, after reading Collin Hansen’s survey of the movement, although I hope I have a better grasp on the whole: “There is much that is splendid about the movement . . . 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. . . . observers and participants [need] to gauge both the trajectory and the likely terminus of this curious company, but [they] should also challenge us about the extent to which our faith and our life are keeping pace.”
So there you have it. Do you agree or disagree? Is there anything to add or remove? I should be interested to know what you have to say.
The newest issue of Themelios is out and about. It is available as a 196-page PDF and in HTML. Carson and Salter look interesting, and Trueman is usually thoroughly engaging even when one is obliged to disagree.
- D.A. Carson | Editorial: Perfectionisms
- Carl Trueman | Minority Report: The Importance of Not Studying Theology
- Nijay Gupta | New Commentaries on Colossians: Survey of Approaches, Analysis of Trends, and the State of Research
- Martin Salter | Does Baptism Replace Circumcision? An Examination of the Relationship Between Circumcision and Baptism in Colossians 2:11–12
- Bill Kynes | Pastoral Pensées: The Church: A Hidden Glory (1 Timothy 3:14–16)
- Book Reviews
The Westminster Conference is a little less than a month away. taking place at the Whitefield Memorial Church on Tottenham Court Road, London. Garry Williams, Don Carson, Stephen Clark, Robert Oliver, Ken Brownell and Bruce Jenkins will be there to titillate and tantalise your theological tastebuds.
To book, download the pdf below (click image) and send in the form to the conference secretary (sorry, no online booking at present).
The Westminster Conference for 2009 – “Calvin, Geneva and Revival” – will take place later this year on Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th December at the Whitefield Memorial Church in Tottenham Court Road, London. The brochure will be mailed out shortly, but you can download a pdf copy here (or click the picture on the right) which can be printed out.
The schedule for the conference is as follows, God willing:
- John Calvin’s agenda: issues in the separation with Rome (Garry Williams)
- Calvin as commentator and theologian (Don Carson)
- 1859 – a year of grace (Stephen Clark)
- Elizabeth and Calvin (Robert Oliver)
- Darwin before and after (Ken Brownell)
- The Moravians and missionary passion (Bruce Jenkins)
For those who are fans of Don Carson, or simply appreciators, or interested engagers, Andy Naselli – Carson’s full-time research assistant – has compiled for the Gospel Coalition a list of everything Carson has published. He breaks it down into five categories:
- Edited Series
The collection includes some 350 free PDFs (some of them entire books, each fully searchable, retaining the original publication pagination). You can check it out here.
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.
Don Carson writes an introductory blurb at Desiring God for a series of lectures in which he will aim to put the Jesus of Scripture in his Scriptural context.
Learning to evangelize men and women who know nothing about the Bible and who are bringing their own “baggage” or “context” with them does not require a super intellect or a Ph.D. in biblical theology. What it requires is learning to get across a lot of things that we Christians simply presuppose.
The whole brief article is stimulating, and I would imagine the material itself will be made available online.
My friend Johnny Farese sends out material from Don Carson posted online by Monergism. Taken from A Call to Spiritual Reformation, here Dr Carson provides some of the excuses we make for a failure to pray:
I Am Too Busy
Lillian Guild tells an amusing story of an occasion when she and her husband were driving along and happened to notice a late-model Cadillac with its hood up, parked at the side of the road. Its driver appeared somewhat perplexed and agitated. Mrs. Guild and her husband pulled over to see if they could offer assistance. The stranded driver hastily and somewhat sheepishly explained that he had known when he left home that he was rather low on fuel, but he had been in a great hurry to get to an important business meeting so he had not taken time to full up his tank. The Cadillac needed nothing more than refueling. The Guilds happened to have a spare gallon of fuel with them, so they emptied it into the thirsty Cadillac, and told the other driver of a service station a few miles down the road. Thanking them profusely, he sped off.
Twelve miles or so later, they saw the same car. Hood up, stranded at the side of the road. The same driver, no les bemused than the first time, and even more agitated, was pathetically grateful when they pulled over again. You guessed it: he was in such a hurry for his business meeting that he had decided to skip the service station and press on in the dim hope that the gallon he had received would take him to his destination.
It is hard to believe anyone would be so stupid, until we remember that that is exactly how many of us go about the business of Christian living. We are so busy pressing on to the next item on the agenda that we choose not to pause for fuel. Sadly, Christian leaders may be among the worst offenders. Faced with constant and urgent demands, they find it easy to neglect their calling to the ministry of the Word and prayer because they are so busy. Indeed, they are tempted to invest all of their activity with transcendental significance, so that although their relative prayerlessness quietly gnaws away at the back of their awareness, the noise and pain can be swamped by the sheer importance of all the tings they are busily doing.
I Feel Too Dry Spiritually To Pray
Hidden behind this excuse are two presuppositions that are really quite monstrous. The first is that the acceptability of my approach to God in prayer out to be tied to how I feel. But is God especially impressed with us when we feel joyful or carefree or well rested or pious? Is not the basis of any Christian’s approach to the heavenly Father the sufficiency of Christ’s mediating work on our behalf? Is not this a part of what we mean when we pray “in Jesus’ name”? Are we not casting a terrible slur on the cross when we act as if the usefulness or acceptability of our prayers turns on whether we feel full or dry? True, when we feel empty and dispirited we may have to remind ourselves a little more forcefully that the sole reason why God accepts us is the grace that he ha bestowed upon us in the person and work of his Son. But that is surely better than giving the impression that we are somehow more fit to pray when we feel good.
The second unacceptable presupposition behind this attitude is that my obligation to pray is somehow diminished when I do not feel like praying. This is to assign to my mood or my feelings the right to determine what I ought to do. And that, of course, is unbearably self-centered. It means that I, and I alone, determine what is my duty, my obligation. In short, it means that I am y own god. It is to act as if the Bible never says, “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Rom. 12:12, emphasis added).
I Feel No Need To Pray
This excuse is a trifle trickier than the first two. Few of us are so crass that we self-consciously reason, “I am too important to pray. I am too self-confident to pray. I am too independent to pray.” Instead, what happens is this: Although abstractly I may affirm the importance of prayer, in reality I may treat prayer as important only in the lives of other people, especially those whom I judge to be weaker in character, more needy, less competent, less productive. Thus, while affirming the importance of prayer, I my not feel deep need for prayer in my own life. I may be getting along so well without much praying that my self-confidence is constantly being reinforced. That breeds yet another round of prayerlessness.
What is God’s response? If Christians who shelter beneath such self-assurance do not learn better ways by listening to the Scriptures, God may address them in the terrible language of tragedy. We serve a God who delights to disclose himself to the contrite, to the lowly of heart, to the meek. When God finds us so puffed up that we do not feel our need for him, it is an act of kindness on his part to take us down a peg or two; it would be an act of judgment to leave us in our vaulting self-esteem.
I Am Too Bitter To Pray
We cannot live long in this world without coming across injustice, chronic lack of fairness. Many of us accept such sin with reasonable equanimity, reasoning that it is, after all, a fallen world. But when the injustice or unfairness is directed against us, our reaction may be much less philosophical. Then we may nurture a spirit of revenge, or at least of bitterness, malice, and gossip. Such sins in turn assure that our prayers are never more than formulaic; eventually such sin may lead to chronic prayerlessness. “How can I be expected to pray when I have suffered so much?” “Don’t talk to me about praying for my enemies: I know who has kept me from being promoted.”
Life itself is consumed by the petty assessment of how well you are perceived by those around you. In this morass of self-pity and resentment, real prayer is squeezed out. In other words, many of us do not want to pray because we know that disciplined, biblical prayer would force us to eliminate sin that we rather cherish. It is very hard to pray with compassion and zeal for someone we much prefer to resent.
I Am Too Ashamed To Pray
Shame encourages us to hide from the presence of God; shame squirrels behind a masking foliage of pleasantries while refusing to be honest; shame foster flight and escapism; shame engenders prayerlessness.
We cannot successfully hide from God anyway, “for a man’s ways are in full view of the LORD, and he examines all his paths” (Prov. 5:21). “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). But if it is futile to run from God, our sense of shame can scarcely be an adequate ground to excuse our prayerlessness. Rather, it ought to be a goad that drives us back to the only one who can forgive us and grant us utter absolution, back to the freedom of conscience and the boldness in prayer that follow in the wake of the joyful knowledge that we have been accepted by a holy God because of his grace.
I Am Content With Mediocrity
Some Christians want enough of Christ to be identified with him but not enough to be seriously inconvenienced; they genuinely cling to basic Christian orthodoxy but do not want to engage in serious Bible study; they value moral probity, especially of the public sort, but do not engage in war against inner corruptions; they fret over the quality of the preachers sermon but do not worry much over the quality of their own prayer life. Such Christians are content with mediocrity.
A fascinating and challenging account of a talk by Don Carson identifying five trends in the church today of which we must be aware:
1. It is important to observe contradictory trends.
2. Current evangelical fragments are moving into a new phase – into polarized “clumps.”
3. The most dangerous trends in any age are the trends that most people do not see.
4. There is a trend in our churches to be consumed by social concern.
5. There is a trend in our churches to emphasize discipleship over the gospel.
Full text at Acts 29.
Justin Taylor quotes Don Carson at some length, as the latter suggests six ways of addressing the abortion issue. While there is much that is helpful here, albeit with an American flavour, I hope that the full article reaches more broadly. Ultimately, the best hope for the unborn is a revival of Biblical Christianity, with all that means both in terms of doctrinal awareness and practical compassion.