Posted by: Alex | May 16, 2011

Subtle Themes in Young, Restless, Reformed

To wrap up our discussion of Young, Restless, Reformed by Collin Hansen we are going to look at what I think are three claims Hansen is subtly arguing for throughout his book.  To lay my cards on the table, I firmly disagree with all three.  However, they will, I think, show up again as we read through other works by Neo-Reformed writers, so they are worth pointing out now as things we will need to consider in hopefully more substantial form as we continue with this project.  Tomorrow we start into our next book, The Younger Evangelicals by Robert E. Webber.

So, with that said, here are three claims to examine:

1.  Calvinism (in its evangelical form) reflects traditional Christianity

Throughout this book Hansen wants to assert that the Neo-Reformed movement reflects traditional Christian theology.  That claim is, in the estimation of most historical theologians I have read at least, patently false.  While certainly Luther (whose movement was never joined with Reformed theology, though Hansen frequently links him to it) and Calvin and other reformers drew heavily from the New Testament- especially Paul- and from major figures in the Christian tradition- especially Augustine- their theology still reflected several significant breaks with many aspects of prior tradition.  Those breaks are even more apparent when we consider the Neo-Reformed manifestation of Calvinism which has emerged in contemporary evangelicalism, which is predominantly “baptist” in many of its other theological leanings.

This is not to say that Reformed theology is terrible or wrong.  However, neither is it reflective of “traditional Christianity.”  It is reflective of a particular Christian tradition, one that has many positive characteristics to it.  What worries me and many others, however, is that this subtle claim that Reformed theology is “the” traditional view is leading to a reemergence of a kind of fundamentalism in which other equally long-standing (or longer-standing) traditions of Christian thought are devalued or marginalized.

2.. Calvinism is the only form of “theology” available to evangelicals.

Along similar lines, Hansen wants to advance the claim that this newly resurgent Calvinism is the only real theology available to evangelicals.  Through his frequent use of sarcastic jabs he subtly asserts that various forms of “non-Calvinism” amount to little more than free therapy sessions designed to (falsely) inflate the self-esteem of those listening.  He suggests that most leaders of the evangelical community have promoted message devoid of theological content for the past few decades and that the “Seinfield culture” now arising, raised on the empty void that is postmodernism, have a felt need for a strong, clearly defined theology from the distant past to give them a foundation.  In the estimation of Hansen, no other such strong theology from the distant past exists aside from the Neo-Reformed camp he has exposed us to here.  This is a claim that we will have to examine more critically over the course of this summer as we read and interact with theologies from several different camps.  So far I’m not convinced.

3.  Theology is more significant than the life of the community.

I’m not sure if Hansen really intends to promote this idea, but the way he tells his stories does just that.  Two stories are especially illustrative of the point I intend to get at here.  The first concerns Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile Alabama, which called pastor Steve Lawson in 1995.  In 2003 the church split over controversies stemming (apparently) from Lawson’s Calvinist theology.  He started a rival church in the neighborhood at the request of 400 church members who left with him.  Hansen spins this story as if Lawson is a hero who stood valiantly for his beliefs.  What is interesting to me, though, is one note he does include from a pastor who followed Lawson at Dauphin Way:

One pastor who stepped in after Lawson resigned said the church would have given him more support “if he had a more compassionate spirit and related more to people.  He was distant… from everything in the church except preaching.” (83, ellipsis Hansen’s).

The implication seems to be that Lawson neglected his duties as a pastor to care for his church beyond his time in the pulpit.  Lawson’s defense seems to confirm the accusation in my mind:

“I don’t mean to say I’m perfect,” Lawson said.  “By that I mean that I believe in the sovereign providence of God.  God ordered my steps to come to Dauphin Way.  God brought me to that church to preach his Word as an expression of his mercy and grace.”  (83)

Might it also be the case that God brought Lawson to that church to serve its people and not merely preach his theology?  Lawson seems to think (granted, based only on the one comment given is his defense by Hansen) he has no responsibility for what happened to the church under his care.

Another story from a few pages earlier is similar.  Here are a few excerpts:

For someone who says he doesn’t want to stir controversies, Timmy Brister often finds himself in the middle of them.  His blog writing doesn’t endear him to the executives at Southern Seminary, where he is preparing for pastoral ministry.  He gives seminary leaders and earful when they welcome chapel speakers who have elsewhere derided Calvinism.  “It bothers me that I get reprimanded for doing the very thing I’m taught to do,” said Timmy.

… Circumstances nudged Timmy toward Reformed theology.  He was fired from his first church internship, working for an SBC church in Mobile that ranked among the state leaders in baptisms.  The pastors there took the CEO model a little too literally, according to Timmy.  They spent work hours day-trading stocks, he said.  So he wasn’t happy when the pastors refused to approve a modest budget he proposed for college ministry.  Timmy managed to obtain a copy of the church budget and confronted the staff about their expensive pet projects.  Two pastors sat him down for three hours to express their displeasure.

… Timmy moved closer to home after college and began working in student ministry for a church.  Just twenty-one years old, Timmy bought a house and planned to live the rest of his life there.  But during his fourth year Timmy led a staff devotional by reading from Piper’s Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.  The staff didn’t appreciate what Timmy implied by reading from Piper’s critique of a professional view of pastoral ministry.   Timmy said he just wanted to warn them based on his Mobile experience.  Still, Timmy did see some parallels.  If I had tried to reach him by phone at that three-hundred member church, Timmy said, I would have first spoken with two secretaries and one intern before I ever caught him.  So maybe the devotional hit a little too close to home.  The church suspended Timmy for one week without pay.  At that point Timmy decided he needed to go to seminary.  Timmy expects to either plant his own SBC church or join a Calvinist pastoral staff when he graduates.  (77-79)

I’m not sure who Timmy is going to put down as references for his past ministry experience when he applies to that Calvinist staffed church.  To me, and perhaps this is just because I have spent the past year teaching a class of ten-year-olds who love to pin the blame on everyone but themselves, it seems extremely obvious that we are only getting one side of the story from Timmy, and that the side we are getting intends to make everyone else look like the bad guy.  But I can imagine that if I was an experienced pastor at a successful church and a kid fresh out of high school pulled the stunt Timmy did with the church budget I would think it was time for a sit-down, too.  There is something to be said for discretion and deference to those with more wisdom (and training) than we have.  Doesn’t mean they are always right.  But probably means we shouldn’t go off half-cocked and ready to shoot them down first chance we get.  The fact that Hansen glorifies stories like this of excessively confrontational young leaders who, in reality, probably need a lesson in thinking before they speak, terrifies me.

The point is that the attitude promoted by such stories is one which places theology above community.  Admittedly, there has to be a balancing act here.  Some bad theology probably does need to be confronted, especially if we are being true to our Protestant heritage.  However, there is always a cost to confrontation, usually to the life of the community we belong to, and that needs to be in the forefront of our minds when we march out wage war on those who interpret Romans 9 differently from us.

What do you think? Do you think these subtle claims are fair assessments of the attitude of Neo-Reformed evangelicals?  How should we balance theology and community?

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Responses

  1. […] but I think he may be guilty of the same mistake I have critiqued Neo-Reformed writers of making in the past, which is assuming that history points to their particular movement and ignoring the diversity of […]

  2. Regarding this statement above–“there is always a cost to confrontation, usually to the life of the community we belong to, and that needs to be in the forefront of our minds when we march out [and] wage war on those who interpret Romans 9 differently from us”–

    First–Although Romans 9 deals with some of the most profound and deep truth conceivable, nevertheless its essential insistence is plain and obvious to anyone with the ability to read: “[God] says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (vss. 15-16). There is no way to subtly divert such obvious language away from its intent to assert divine prerogative in the choice of who will be saved. The only way to contradict that truth is by direct rejection, and opposition to this statement is not against John Calvin or any other preacher, but against Paul the apostle and, therefore, against the God who inspired this Scripture (1 Cor. 14:37).

    Second–Remember what James wrote–“The wisdom from above is FIRST pure, THEN peaceable” (James 3:17). And so, our faithfulness to the truth of God is what actually “needs to be in the forefront of our minds” before we prioritize the impact of confrontation to “the life of the community.” There is no virtue in building a “community” around common agreement with falsehood. The great Calvinistic Baptist Charles H. Spurgeon said, “That union which is not based upon the truth of God is rather a conspiracy than a communion…To pursue union at the expense of truth is treason to the Lord Jesus.”

    This principle was exemplified by the Lord Jesus Himself, who faithfully preached a forthright, straightforward defense of absolute Divine Sovereignty in salvation in the clearest, plainest language possible in John 6, in which He stated: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me” (vs. 37) and “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (vs. 44). And in case anyone in the audience missed the point, He brought the whole discourse to an end by saying, “For this reason I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father” (vs. 65). The result of this brazen assertion of the crown rights of the King of the Universe was very detrimental to the “community,” as the next verse reveals: “As a result of this, many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.”

    This response is eerily similar to the way many faithful men like Steve Lawson are treated when they preach the same exact “Calvinism” that the Lord Jesus Christ preached. But, rather than suppressing the truth in unrighteousness in order to embrace the widest possible “community,” perhaps we should place a premium on being “straightforward about the truth of the Gospel” and let our “community” form itself as people gather with one another on the basis of fidelity to the Word of God.

    If those who maintain such a conviction are accused of being “divisive,” let them respond to that charge with the words of another great Calvinist, Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “We would suggest that before [the church] repents of her disunity, she must repent of her apostasy.” If such a conviction is interpreted as “unloving,” let it be remembered that true, legitimate love “rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6), therefore it is the highest act of love to remain faithful to the truth, and to call others to do the same, even at the risk of offending them in their love of what is untrue.


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