Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Two journeys

In a September 2006 cover story for Christianity Today Collin Hansen correctly asserted that the most important phenomenom in contemporary American evangelicalism was the resurgence of Reformed theology, not the rise of the so-called Emergent church. According to Hansen "Calvinism is making a comeback and shaking up the church." Brian McLaren may get the Larry King invites, but John Piper is more likely to be on a young evangelical's bookshelf or iPod. Now Hansen has followed up with Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists which is basically a book-length expansion of the CT article. It's an entertaining and worthwhile read.

I couldn't help but see elements of my own biography of the last 5-10 years in Hansen's travelogue. Many of the leaders and organizations he profiles have had an influence on my life in profound ways. Hansen has a journalist's eye for the telling detail and anecdote. I enjoyed reading that the Piper house doesn't have a TV and that Pastor John unwinds over a bowl of cereal after preaching his Saturday evening sermon. I chuckled over the fact that C.J. Mahaney has a copy of Encyclopedia Idiotica in his office, and was saddened (but not surprised) that the church once pastored by Jonathan Edwards now advertises support for alternative lifestyles. Though Hansen is clearly writing as a sympathetic insider he treats fairly and respectfully opposing voices including Piper critic Roger Olson and several Southern Baptist leaders concerned about the revival of Calvinist theology within the SBC.

In an autobiographical epilogue South Dakotan Hansen writes affectingly on how the rise of Reformed evangelicalism is having an effect even back home, "Hunger for God's Word. Passion for evangelism. Zeal for holiness. That's not a revival of Calvinism. That's a revival. And it's breaking out in places like Emery, South Dakota." There's no doubt in my mind that the Reformed resurgence is having a positive effect on the American church. Young Christians are looking for something more than the shallow theology and pragmatism that characterized the seeker-sensitive churches of their parents. They are finding it in a radically God-centered view of the gospel and the church. I don't see how a fair-minded person could fail to be impressed by some of the young pastors and leaders in this book. Hansen profiles Josh Moody, the 37-year old pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in ultra-secular New Haven, Connecticut. Trinity bought what was once St. Boniface's Catholic Church. The Southern Baptist congregation was down to 30 members when Moody was called in 1999, but has grown to over 300 under Moody's Puritan-influenced, Gospel-centered preaching. Moody says, "we like to think of this as the Reformation all over again."

Will the young Reformed resurgence bring lasting reformation and renewal to the American church or will it be just another passing fad? Will the revival of Calvinist doctrine lead it's young adherents to an embrace of a more, fully-orbed Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions and catechisms?

An excellent book to read in tandem with Hansen's is An Unexpected Journey: Discovering Reformed Christianity by W. Robert Godfrey. Godfrey is the President of Westminster Seminary California and a lover of church history and the Psalms. Godfrey grew up in a nominally church-going home, but didn't meet his first Calvinist until he was in high school. Paul Hoekenga was a member of the Alameda High School swim team with Godfrey, and Hoekenga's family were members of the Christian Reformed Church in town. Hoekenga invited his teammate to church and thus began the unexpected journey of the title.

Part autobiography and part apologia, Godfrey weaves his own story into an introduction to the various strands of Reformed theology, practice and piety. This book is especially valuable because it spends relatively little time focusing on five-point Calvinism. Why? Godfrey's WSC colleague Michael Horton makes the case in Hansen's book that believing in TULIP doesn't make one Reformed. Godfrey agrees:

Much confusion has arisen from the tendency of the Reformed to talk of the five points of Calvinism. Such talk implies that Calvinism is simply summarized in five points. In reality, Calvinism cannot be reduced to five points, but is summarized only in its confessions, such as the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession.

I know there are some that would disagree with that, but one should at least read a lucid exposition of historic Calvinism -- the kind that's been around for several centuries -- before dismissing this view as too narrow. An Unexpected Journey does this well. Not to say that much of Godfrey's critique of American evangelicalism doesn't track with the young, restless crowd. It does. Godfrey and Mark Driscoll agree on a lot, but Godfrey's regulative principle of worship rules out most of what goes on at Mars Hill. Although I come down somewhere in the middle on this issue, I have a better understanding of the historic Reformed view of worship having read this book, and I agree with Godfrey that we could do with more simplicity, reverence and awe -- "as Psalm 2:11 says, 'Rejoice with trembling.'"

An Unexpected Journey also contains a spirited call for a return to keeping the Christian Sabbath, and chapters on the Reformed view of the two kingdoms and calling. It's thoughtfully arranged and sprinkled throughout with Scripture, especially from the Psalms. John Calvin believed the Psalms expressed all the emotions of the Christian soul, and so does Godfrey. When he does address Calvinist doctrines such as election, he does so clearly and concisely. Young, Restless, Reformed is an exciting book for those of us who believe Reformed theology is the fullest expression of what Scripture teaches. I had a blast reading it. Though not as exciting, Godfrey's book may well point the way to something more lasting, once the young and the restless are no longer either. Read them both.


Randy said...

Nicely done, Steve. Do you do this kind of thing for a living? When I peruse your movie reviews I assume as much, but I really do not know. Real question, the lurking bemusement on the issue at hand notwithstanding. :-)

While very average in the strength of my observation, it seems certainly true that this phenomenon is indeed all that you are saying. I'm intrigued by it all and have gained a much better respect not just for the Reformed 'tradition' but for the Scriptures and the God of Revelation. I've enjoyed interacting with mutual friend Kevin Survance on the issue.

And, if you can forgive the playful quotes on 'tradition' above, I do find some of the emphases - real or imagined - to be a bit question-begging; i.e., assuming all that Calvin taught at core is simply distilled, Scriptural faith re-surfaced. Even falling back on Augustine doesn't seem sound basis for such a position, but I realize I may be constructing a shadow-adversary. My point is that Reformed theology, for all its strengths, can appear a bit arrogant toward the synergistic tradition, a tradition worthy of the name, though, I am suggesting, dismissed out of hand as if tantamount to works-salvation or some such nonsense. The fact that some simply cannot read the Gospels through a monergistic filter should at least be basis for pause -- a pause already in place in much of the worldwide church for 20 centuries. That is all I am saying.

Did I say enough? Probably. Need to go back to bed, or to prayer or something. :-)

For closers, I loved this line: "Though not as exciting, Godfrey's book may well point the way to something more lasting, once the young and the restless are no longer either." Excellent. I certainly agree that a belief in the 'God who is there and not silent', with an historic Biblical foundation, is more lasting by definition. I would however, as you easily expect, respectfully demur on the point that Reformed theology does all it purports to do in reflecting that foundation. That is, purporting to be one and the same with Scripture may be understandable in a life of faith and conviction, but in this context it hardly does justice to the historic discussion.

I hope this is written in a congenial spirit and will in fact appear that way. I love the discussion almost too much, and I appreciate your excellent posts and the occasional interaction. Sometime I want to take up a recent beef I have with Piper, but will leave that for now with the happy admission that he is a remarkable man of God and those of my ilk can learn a great deal from him.


Stephen Ley said...


Haha, no. I'm just an enthusiast. Like our mutual hero CSL, I find that praising and discussing a book or film that I enjoy is part of the pleasure of the thing itself.

Thanks as always for the charitable feedback. I accept your comments in the spirit they were offered. Sadly, I've observed that some on my side of the monergism/synergism divide too often resort to the name-calling that you allude to. I'd humbly submit that all of us should be more diligent in searching the Scriptures for the whole counsel of God. Too often folks on both sides latch onto a few texts to prove their points. It's also essential to develop an ability to keep more than one truth about God in our heads at the same time. J.I. Packer's Knowing God helped me immensely in that regard, especially the chapter on the Goodness and Severity of God.

Just as a matter of interest, I found that the classical formulation of Reformed faith and practice presented by Godfrey had some overlap with the Wesleyan Holiness tradition that you and I are a product of. Of course, there are significant differences too!

Grace and peace.