Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The latest salvo on the Calvinist resurgence

The Christian Science Monitor is the latest publication to examine the resurgence of Calvinism in the church. The article, Christian faith: Calvinism is back, takes its readers to Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., home of one of the T4G founders, Mark Dever, and parent church of 9 Marks Ministries. There is little that is new in the report, it includes many of the same talking points we see over and over including the obligatory quote from Colin Hansen.

In spite of the clamor from the small group of self-appointed watchmen in places like Westminster Seminary in California, the energy in Calvinism is in places like Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minnesota and in conferences like Together for the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition. Those are places where the great doctrines of grace are given their proper preeminence and the myriad extra-Biblical baggage that comes with the Reformed tradition take a backseat. That doesn’t sit well with some corners of the church that see that as a betrayal of Calvinism. In doing so they demonstrate a troubling misunderstanding of what Calvinism is all about or at least what it should be about. Calvinism at its heart should be about recognizing and giving all glory to God instead of exalting Reformed church traditions over all other traditions.

I think the article exposes the good and the bad in the resurgent Calvinist movement. On the one hand, I like this:

In addition to Sunday worship and Wednesday night Bible study, they spend hours each week in small-group study or one-on-one "discipling." They say those sessions – a time for confessions, encouragement, and prayer – are the most challenging and rewarding feature of church life.

"Christian fellowship is so much more than hanging out with friends," says Claudia Anderson, a magazine editor. "It involves spiritual intimacy, support, learning, counseling, and stunning acts of kindness."

Christopher Brown, a lawyer, concurs. "I came for the theology but stayed for the community," he says. "As Americans, we're so individualistic. But the New Testament rebukes this 'rugged individualism.' We're not saved to be lone rangers."

It is very interesting that they see the time outside of the Sunday morning service as "the most challenging and rewarding feature of church life". On the other hand …

Membership at CHBC isn't for the faint of holy. Classes on theology and Christian history are required before joining. At the "Lord's Supper" once a month, members stand and recite an oath that ties them to one another.

An oath before sharing the Supper? Where is THAT in Scripture? The teaching at CHBC is described as “preaching for PhDs” and I can attest that the sermons are very meaty. I fear that many men fall into the trap of trying to emulate what they hear from Dever, Al Mohler and others and in doing so are teaching way over the heads of most people (and frankly way over their own heads). Simple teaching is often the best teaching.

So there is good and not so good in the article. I think that anytime we see people getting more serious about their faith, about Scripture and ultimately about God, that is a good thing. There is no doubt in my mind that the renewed emphasis on Calvinism is a boon to the church. Of course it has its downside. There is a very real sense that a lot of what we find in Calvinism, old and new, is quite academic and cerebral. In place of action we see lots of studying. There is a lot of knowledge about God but not as much action on behalf of God, if that makes sense. My big concern is that Calvinism becomes the end in and of itself. As long as you are Reformed and getting more Reformed, you are good. I have fallen prey to that thinking myself but I have since come to a somewhat different mindset:

Reformed theology/Calvinism is not the pinnacle of Christian maturity. It is the beginning.

A recognition of the sovereignty of God over all creation and particularly over salvation is the beginning of our understanding of God. It is the foundation but a building is more than a foundation. Soteriology is not the final piece of the puzzle, it is the first. Calvinism, new or old, should spur us to study the Scriptures more deeply and in doing so I have found that many of the traditions that I have held don’t match up with the Bible even though they sound good. It drives me nuts when people ask “Is it Reformed to do such and such” instead of “Is it Biblical”? The answer may be the same either way but in many areas, especially ecclesiology, what is traditionally Reformed is not terribly Scriptural. My hope is that as people respond to the ancient doctrines of grace, they will search more deeply in the Scriptures. Not just for proof-text regarding predestination and election but also about the fellowship of the saints in the community of the elect, the Lord’s Supper as a meal among the redeemed instead of a religious ritual, a real and functional priesthood of all believers instead of a hierarchical ministry. I pray that the “New Calvinists” will keep searching backwards to guide our path forward, not merely to the 16th century but all the way to the 1st. That is what real reformation looks like!

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