Posted by: Alex | May 13, 2011

Ready, Set, Go!

Time to get started!  Our first book for the summer is Young, Restless, Reformed by Collin Hansen.  The book is a research report from a journalist who interviewed leading figures in the Neo-Reformed movement, some of their followers, and at least one opposing voice (namely, Roger Olson).  It is going to serve to give us a general lay out of the Neo-Reformed landscape before we delve into reading some of the major voices in their own words.

My first comment to make about this book is that it is full of polemical jabs at opposing views.  The jabs are subtle and are clearly designed to push and prod readers toward joining the Neo-Reformed movement.  They are also, from the perspective of someone studying the movement and aware of many of the theological issues at stake, sometimes alarming, sloppy, and occasionally even offensive.  So with that initial comment I’m already giving this book a bit of a negative review.  I need to balance that with the recognition that this is not by any means a scholarly book and should not be judged on its academic precision.  Further, this is not a theology-heavy book- it is very much a work of journalism with much more emphasis on the perceived look and feel of the movement than on its theological claims and arguments.  So I’m not here going to enumerate all of the jabs that have been made or the ways in which they could be turned around.  I will probably point out a few that are particular striking to me because I can’t resist…

That said, the purpose of the book is clearly polemical and apologetic.  The author notes in the Preface (which you should always read as it often provides important insight into the conceived purpose, goals, and methodology of a book) that he was alarmed by the growing emphasis on the Emerging Church in evangelical circles and set out to prove that there was an alternative- namely, Reformed Theology:

After one staff discussion about the emerging church, I talked about these experiences with my boss.  I expressed concern that when Christianity Today reports about the emerging church, we might give the impression that this group will become the next wave in evangelicalism.  If anything, in my limited sphere I saw a return to traditional Reformed theology.

He is more ambitious, though, than just wanting to show that such an alternative exists.  Hansen also wants to argue that this alternative is the new “wave” in evangelicalism:

The result should help us learn what tomorrow’s church might look like when they [the young evangelicals he interviewed] become pastors or professors.  Even today, common threads in their diverse testimonies will tell the story of God’s work in this world.

So the agenda of the book is very much oriented toward defending the validity of Reformed theology to claim the title of evangelicalism’s “next wave” over and against all other contenders.

With this in mind, we need to make a major clarification concerning what Hansen means by Reformed theology.  This is not Reformed in the traditional sense of the term, which is linked to the Swiss Reformation and its leader John Calvin.  Even though John Calvin is a major source of inspiration for this Reformed movement, there are some significant breaks.  We see this already in the repeated emphasis on the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards throughout this book (or at least the first few chapters I have read so far), both of whom break with one of the major aspects of Calvin’s theology, his understanding of the Church.  The congregational, local autonomy and individual liberty model that the Puritans in many ways pioneered would eventually become one of the foundations of American evangelicalism, which flourishes in baptist and non-denominational settings where local church autonomy and individual liberty are emphasized.  So when Hansen speaks of Reformed theology, he is speaking very specifically of the Reformed theology that has taken root in this particular context.  Rather than the traditional association of Reformed theology with Presbyterian or even Anglican denominations (which, incidentally, Hansen seems to almost mock at some points, a move that seemed particularly distasteful to me at least), this is a Reformed movement in the largely baptist evangelical community led by baptist and non-denominational thinkers like John Piper, Albert Mohler, or Joshua Harris (three names Hansen will spend a lot of time on).  This particular manifestation of Reformed theology is what I have in mind when I use the tern “Neo-Reformed.”  This, to be clear, is not in any way meant to be derogatory but is meant to note the significant differences between the present movement and its claimed founder John Calvin (who, given his treatment of the anabaptists of his day, might not actually like the Neo-Calvinist evangelicals a whole lot).  As Hansen will make clear in this book, the primary emphasis of this brand of Reformed theology is on the sovereignty of God in administering salvation:

Calvinists stress that the initiative, sovereignty, and power of God is the only sure hope for sinful, fickle, and morally weak human beings.  Furthermore, they teach that the glory of God is the ultimate theme of preaching and the focus of worship.

While this description so far is generic enough that I think any evangelical would agree to it, Calvinist or not, these are themes that are going to be especially prevalent in Hansen’s discussion as the book continues, particularly in the emphasis that he puts on the acronym TULIP- Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints- as the center of Calvinist theology.

This is already turning into a long post, so I won’t get into too much more.  Tomorrow we will begin discussing some of the trends that identify this movement as Hansen understands it.

What do you think?  How significant do you think the difference is between Calvin’s theology and the theology of the Neo-Calvinists?  Do you think Neo-Reformed theology is the “next movement” of evangelicalism?


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