Posted by: Alex | May 15, 2011

Young, Restless, Reformed: Some Negative Themes

Continuing to discuss the book Young, Restless, Reformed by Collin Hansen.  In this post we will discuss what he notes have been some of the criticisms of the Neo-Reformed movement.  In our next post 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 as we wrap up our discussion and prepare to move on to book two of the summer project.

1.  Personality cults surrounding key leaders (especially Piper).

One of major criticisms Hansen notes that the Neo-Reformed movement is susceptible to is the development of personality cults around its key leaders.  John Piper seems in many ways to be the most likely candidate for such an issue, as Hansen notes that “nearly every story I heard while traveling included lessons learned from at least one of Piper’s many best-selling books, especially Desiring God” (29).  However, other leaders are likewise prone to this pitfall.  Particularly telling is a story that Hansen recalls about Joel Brooks, the founder of University Christian Fellowship in Birmingham (a ministry I have done a lot with in recent years):

[Joel] invited his hero in the faith, John Piper, to speak at UCF in November 2005.  Piper delivered a touching message about how God uses suffering, even events like Hurricane Katrina, to grab our attention.  Over dinner together, Piper gave Joel some advice he’ll never forget… He encouraged Joel to emulate a dead theologian, as Piper has done with Jonathan Edwards.  Joel, who has read twenty of Piper’s books and at least three hundred of his sermons, informed Piper that he was Joel’s theologian of choice.  Piper kindly explained that he really intended for the theologians to be dead.  “In Minneapolis, you’re as good as dead to me,” Joel told him.  (131)

From my experience listening to Joel’s teaching, the conscious modeling of his ministry on John Piper was quite apparent.  This is not meant to be a jab- I thoroughly enjoyed Joel’s sermons, many of them were quite powerful.  However, such obvious and intentional imitation of another prominent Christian leader is a bit worrying because of the way it can lead to undue attention on a particular pastor or teacher instead of on the God they (and we) purport to serve.  To some extent I think UCF suffered from this: Joel left that ministry to start his own church (UCF is now led by a very good friend of mine, Andy Byers, whose book we will come to at the end of the summer), and when he did there was, unfortunately, a sharp drop in attendance, even though (at least in my opinion) the quality of teaching and pastoral leadership certainly did not decline.  So the danger of a personality cult affecting a ministry is, it would seem, a real one.  If I may venture to challenge Piper’s quoted words above a bit, I think this danger does not extend just to living theologians but also to dead ones.  There is a problem when the words of John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards are given more weight than the words of Jesus.  This certainly does not mean that such thinkers cannot influence and inspire us, but that there must always be a conscious degree of caution associated with the weight we give to any teacher’s words or beliefs.

While Hansen acknowledges this issue, and notes that leaders like Piper also acknowledge and are wary of it, he almost seems to shrug at the problem.  Here is what was to me one of the most troubling parts of the book to read:

Piper openly worries that some people feel great affection for him but don’t remember to thank God.  Its a catch-22.  Charismatic personalities draw the largest audiences.  Piper wants other Christians to catch his vision for a glorious God.  How better to pass along that vision than to show others how these beliefs have flamed your passions?  Maybe it’s inevitable that some will miss the message in their attraction to the messenger. (45)

To me this statement seems like simply giving up on solving the issue.  Certainly this issue will always be present for anyone in leadership.  Personality cults follow those who exert influence on others, no matter what kind of position they are in.  However, for a Christian leader especially, this seeming inevitability should not prompt us to merely shrug our shoulders and let happen what will.  I think, based on Piper’s statements in this book, that Piper is more on target here than Hansen is.  Piper seems to consciously struggle with refocussing the attention away from himself.  Hansen seems to suggest that such efforts may not be worth as much trouble as Piper gives them.  My worry is that other Neo-Reformed leaders may take more of their cues from Hansen on this point than from Piper.

2.  Complaints that many in the Neo-Reformed movement promote a negative view of women and a distinctly patriarchal theology.

Certainly one of the more contentious issues facing the Neo-Reformed movement in todays societies are their more “traditional” views of the relationship between genders.  Hansen openly notes that “the Calvinist resurgence is a complementarian movement.  That is, these Calvinists understand from Scripture that men should lead churches and households” (44).  Mark Driscoll is the case and point for such a view:

Driscoll should be regarded as nothing short of hostile toward key postmodern assumptions such as diffused authority.  That became clear when I asked him if Scripture clearly presents his complementarian view of gender roles.  “Beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Driscoll answered.  “Egalitarianism is a myth invented.  It’s not a doctrine found.” (139)

As someone of an egalitarian persuasion who also thinks I find support for that belief (though, I will admit, not conclusive proof of it) in the New Testament, this is a statement that honestly caused me to roll my eyes.  It certainly has gained negative attention from those beyond evangelicalism, who point to such ideas as continued proof of how backward the thinking of conservative Christians is.  Hansen notes the criticisms, describing especially stories that have surrounded several of Driscoll’s comments about gender roles, but I honestly do not feel as though he has really addressed any of these criticisms.  His solution seems to be to marginalize those who disagree with the complementarian viewpoint by raising the volume of the Neo-Reformed leaders who proclaim it.  I was not at all satisfied with the discussion of this issue in the book (and will be interested to see how Driscoll handles it in his book when we read that later).  In particular, I wonder how Hansen, or Driscoll, would deal with the many traditions within evangelicalism (especially in the more charismatic wings of evangelicalism) that have held egalitarian stances for decades now.  As much as Hansen would like to make it seem, this “non-traditional” understanding is really not new, nor is it merely postmodern.

3.  Many, even within the ranks of New Calvinism, complain that proponents of the view are antagonistic towards other viewpoints.

Perhaps the most serious criticism of the Neo-Reformed movement is that “Calvinists don’t always play nice, even with each other” (52).  This has historically been one of the turn-offs to Calvinism amongst many Christians, evangelical or not:

Richard Muow, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, writes in Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, “They have frequently been intolerant, sometimes to the point of taking abusive violent action toward people with whom they have disagreed.  They have often promoted racist policies.  And the fact that they have often defended these things by appealing directly to Calvinist teaching suggests that at least something in these patterns may be due to some weaknesses in the Calvinist perspective itself.”  Other than endorsing racism and murder, Calvinism is great, Muow seems to say.  And this comes from someone who considers himself a Calvinist. (18)

Joshua Harris tells a similar story of his own initial rejection of Calvinism:

“I remember some of the first encounters I had with Calvinists,” Harris said.  “I’m sorry to say that they represented the doctrines of grace with a total lack of grace.  They were spiteful, cliquish, and arrogant.  I didn’t even stick around to understand what they were teaching.  I took one look at them and knew I didn’t want any part of it.”  (121-22)

From the perspective of non-Calvinist evangelicals, this is particularly troubling.  Hansen spends a great deal of time discussing the controversy surrounding Al Mohler’s transformation of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  While many welcome the resurgence of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention, former Convention President Jerry Vines gives Hansen a different take on the issue:

“We’re having a problem today because there’s a small group of hostile, aggressive, militant Calvinists.  They kill evangelism, and they kill churches.  And they do it without integrity when they come in under the radar and the people don’t know up from where they are theologically.”  (84)

To some extent, Hansen seems to suggest that these controversies and disagreements come with the territory.  On the whole, however, Hansen seems to be quite concerned with this criticism.  At one point he writes that “now is no time for Calvinism to make evangelicals self-righteous and bitter toward each other” (93).  Later, he raises a similar concern by referring to Spurgeon, writing that “today’s zealous young Calvinists would do well to heed Spurgeon’s caution against allowing election to split evangelicals” (114).  Hansen is not alone in this issue, several of the major leaders he interviews make similar points (including Joel Brooks, the former director of UCF, I’m glad to say).  Take, for instance, Driscoll:

“The guys who read Paul and want to fight for his doctrine should have an equal amount of zeal to follow in his example,” Discoll said.  “A lot of Calvinists talk like Paul; they don’t act like him.” (152)

Finally, there may be a lesson to learn from history here.  Hansen quotes from Doug Sweeney:

“[The New England Theology associated with Jonathan Edwards] declined primarily because its leaders had long ago become self-absorbed, expending most of their energy on internal struggles for control of their movement’s vast resources,” Sweeney writes.  “As a result, they failed to respond effectively to the changing needs of the world around them.  And, after a while, that changing world just passed them by.” (51)

Frequently, this is exactly the charge raised by advocates of the Emerging movement: that the world is passing evangelicals by, and so long as they continue to bicker with one another over the finer points of Reformed theology, this will continue to be the case.  Clearly Neo-Reformed leaders like Driscoll and Piper are not convinced of that, but they are sounding the caution to their followers that theology should not become the source of bitterness and hard feelings within the evangelical camp.  Hansen shares this concern, and for that I am greatly appreciative.  My own experience, and that of many others I have spoken with, has frequently been that such warnings have not always been heeded by the advocates of Reformed theology, and plenty of bitterness and perceived theological arrogance certainly exists within the evangelical community over this issue.

What do you think?  Are these criticisms of the Neo-Reformed movement fair?  How could Neo-Reformed evangelicals respond to these criticisms?

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Responses

  1. I think Piper’s admonishment is a good bit of advice. It reminds me of Paul’s statement to follow him as he follows Christ (1 Cor. 11:1;Phil 3:17). I’m sure Piper would never want anyone taking his words above Jesus’.


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