Posted by: Alex | May 15, 2011

Positive Trends in Young, Restless, Reformed

Continuing to discuss the book Young, Restless, Reformed by Collin Hansen.  Decided to finish reading it before blogging about some of its themes.  In this post I want to present what Hansen perceives to be the positive themes and benefits of the Neo-Reformed movement among evangelicals.  In our next post we will discuss what he notes have been some of the criticisms of the movement.  Then, to wrap up our treatment of this book, we will consider what I take to be a few subtle claims about the Neo-Reformed movement and contemporary evangelicalism that Hansen is attempting to advance through this book.

So first up, we are going to examine a few things which Hansen perceives as positive traits of the Neo-Reformed movement:

1.  Drastic conversion and transformation of individual lives brought about by Neo-Reformed preaching.

A common theme of many of the stories Hansen tells is that of a dramatic conversion experience brought about by exposure to Reformed theology.  This theme is so prevalent in Hansen’s book that listing the examples would take twice as long as I intend this post to be in total.  This is frequently, Hansen notes, part of the testimony of both leaders in the Neo-Reformed movement and their followers.  While in some cases the dramatic conversion experience includes an immediate exposure and conversion to Reformed theology, often this embrace of Reformed theology takes time and involves repeated exposure to major Reformed voices like John Piper.  Hansen’s description of his own testimony captures the sentiment of many of the stories in his book well: “I didn’t go looking for Reformed theology.  But Reformed theology found me” (25).

Certainly these dramatic stories, often involving a turn from drug culture to passionate service of God and the church or some other similarly dramatic life change, are praiseworthy.  What is worrisome to me, and what we will need to consider as we study this movement in more depth this summer, is a possible issue of consistency.  We might simply ask if in many of these accounts Reformed theology has become the means of salvation instead of God’s work on behalf of sinners?

2.  Neo-Reformed theology answering a cultural need: the “hunger for something transcendent.”

Another common thread in Hansen’s account is the sense of Reformed theology filling a cultural need among young evangelicals for something more substantial than post-modernism allows for.  Hansen recalls a conversation with JI Packer that describes this sentiment well:

Many evangelicals today grow up in what J.I. Packer described to me as “a kaleidoscopic world of uncertainty.”  Reformed spokesmen can give them certainty, Packer said, because they confidently marshal biblical proof texts.  And unlike previous eras, the sudden grown of Calvinism has made Reformed theology more credible. (126)

Packer is not the only one expressing such a view of the impact of postmodernism on evangelicals.  Caleb Maskell, formerly of the Jonathan Edwards Center here at Yale Divinity School (I think he’s at Princeton now, but not sure), is quoted by Hansen as well to describe the appeal a theology like that of Jonathan Edwards might have with contemporary evangelicals:

If Edwards has one thing, it’s an integrated worldview.  And if there’s one thing evangelicals of the early twenty-first century- people spun out of seeker-friendly churches- are looking for, it’s an integrated worldview. (58)

Hansen notes that Joshua Harris of Covenant Life Church in Maryland has a similar view and summarizes why he sees this movement taking such deep root among young evangelicals especially by referring to Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s landmark study in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagersin particular, their diagnosis that American Christianity is being overrun with what they refer to as “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism”:

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism cannot save.  As evangelicals graduate from high school and leave the churches of their youth, many end up at conferences like Passion or New Attitude and begin to be transformed by the transcendent God they behold through Reformed theology.  I suspect that Calvinism strikes a chord with these college-age students precisely because Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has infiltrated so many evangelical youth groups. (24)

In considering the appeal Calvinism might have on evangelical young people, there are two important questions that need to be taken under consideration:

First, a good postmodernist will shoot back at this with the accusation that this supposed foundation being discovered in Calvinism is simply artificial and is itself being used as “therapy” by evangelicals unable to swallow the postmodern pill.  Hansen, for instance, quotes Tony Jones, the coordinator of Emergent Village, who notes in discussing Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle that:

“You have all these people in the shifting sands of moral relativism in Seattle, a peripatetic young adult crowd, and here’s this guy who’s just cocksure in what he believes, and he’s a great entertainer- funny and engaging,” Jones told me.  “He has a beautiful wife and great kids.  He’s got it all together.  There’s something to sink your teeth into.” (141)

What we have to ask of Neo-Reformed critics of postmodernism is this: have they actually refuted postmodernism?  Or is their claim to offer a secure foundation just as artificial as postmodernism argues other similar claims are?

Second, we need to ask if there is a faulty assumption at work in the Neo-Reformed movement, namely that they offer the only alternative to the “shifting sand” of postmodernism?  Are there other theological systems that evangelicals could opt for that offer just as secure a foundation?  If so, how do we decide between them?  Hansen records a conversation with Arminian theologian Roger Olson which touches on this issue:

“When Piper speaks, he gives you the impression that he absolutely knows truth,” Olson told me.  “Young students are not used to that… Those students, in my experience, begin often to think [Calvinism] is the gospel, and that anyone who doesn’t agree with it- like myself- isn’t authentically Christian.” (37-38)

Is this view of other evangelicals who do not share their Calvinist beliefs legitimate?  Is Calvinism really the only holdout against postmodernism?

3.  Emphasis on evangelism and missions in Neo-Reformed churches.

Hansen notes with pride the emphasis on missions and evangelism that exists among many Neo-Reformed congregations:  “Almost every Reformed pastor I interviewed bragged about how much money his church gives to missions” (90).  This is an especially important point for Hansen to note from an apologetic perspective, as it counters the assumption of many that Calvinism leads to a deemphasizing of missions and evangelism.  Hansen quotes Piper on this point: “I think the criticism of Reformed theology is being silenced by the mission and justice and evangelism and worship and counseling- the whole range of pastoral life” (34).  We can see this exhibited clearly by the ministries of John Piper and Mark Driscoll in Hansen’s own book or, in my own recent experience, in the ministry of David Platt, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama.

I certainly agree with Hansen that this is a positive trend and I have been quick to applaud the efforts of Brook Hills (especially their Secret Church program) and similar ministries in the past.  There is one aspect of several of Hansen’s stories, however, that causes a caution flag to go up in my mind.  This is the notion that the missions and evangelism undertaken by these Neo-Reformed congregations is not simply aimed at the spread of the gospel but also at the spread of specifically Reformed theology.  This shows up in one of the first stories of Hansen’s book:

But if he isn’t Adventist, why does Robin still attend an Adventist church?  Because that’s where he can make a difference and maybe even teach others with his Calvinist theology. (16)

What is worrisome to me about this is that it is evangelism targeting other evangelical Christians.  Further, its not just happening in friendly conversation or study.  There is an intentional effort to seemingly infiltrate another church and spread the Calvinist message to them.  What makes this of concern, in my mind, is the potential for division and internal conflict that it seems to generate.  Others, as we will note in our next post, will express very similar concerns.

4.  The strength of conviction displayed by Neo-Reformed leaders and their followers.

The final major trend we will consider today from Hansen’s book is the strength of conviction Neo-Reformed evangelicals frequently exhibit.  The two most prominent examples of this in Hansen’s book are Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky and Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington.  Mohler is noted for having take a hard stand against “liberal” faculty and demanding all sign a statement affirming inerrancy and Calvinism or be fired from the Seminary’s faculty.  96% of the faculty left and the Seminary essentially rebuilt from the ground up.  Mark Driscoll is noted for taking a tough stance on doctrinal issues.  On page 139 of Hansen’s book Driscoll names a few of what he considers “watershed” issues in evangelical theology that include gender relations, inerrancy, penal substitutionary atonement, heaven and hell, and homosexuality.  As Hansen notes, “because Driscoll thinks Scripture allows no confusion on these points, disagreement becomes a matter of authority, not interpretation” (139).

Such strength of conviction can be rightly admired.  However, it does seem possible to take it too far.  When does strength of conviction become dangerously stubborn pride?  Certainly both Mohler and Driscoll have been famously divisive figures in their own communities.  Hansen notes that Mohler is still not welcome in many Louisville Churches and that Driscoll continues to try and shake a reputation as a cult leader in Seattle.  Is that divisiveness and level of controversy genuinely helpful to the community of Christians they lead and teach amongst?

What do you think about any of the questions we have raised here?  How would you evaluate the positive value of these trends among Neo-Reformed evangelicals?

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