A Little Bit of Comfort for Machen's Worrier Children

Article by   July 2008
In the fall of 2006, Christianity Today's Collin Hansen wrote an article which pointed to the fact that, for all of the hoo-hah about the Emerging/ent Church, there was a growing interest among young Christian people in America in traditional Reformed theology.  If Hansen was right, then it was not Brian McLaren who was the man of the moment: more likely contenders included John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Al Mohler and C J Mahaney.

Well, Collin Hansen has now expanded that CT article into a small book for Crossway, Young, Restless and Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.  The book is not long (160 pages, including index), nor is it a difficult read, but it is a fascinating insight into the revival of Reformed thinking among young people and, as such, something of an encouragement, albeit not an unmixed one, for those of us who like our rock music pre-1980, our movies pre-1960, and our theology pre-1690.  Even better, this is no theological equivalent of a tie-dye tee-shirt or lava lamp - you know, that postmodern ironic nostalgia of the `it's so out it's in, daddy-oh' kind.  Rather it seems to have genuine depth.  After all, one would have to be very, very committed to postmodern irony to try to read those dreadful, illegible double-columned Edwards volumes from Banner of Truth simply for the nostalgia value.  Indeed, Edwards in the Yale edition is scarcely any more readable.

There are numerous interesting aspects to the book.  Particularly fascinating is the description of the amazing turnaround at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the mid-1990s, when Dr Al Mohler, at the impossibly young age of 33, became President and took the institution by storm.  Not only did he dare to think the unthinkable - that, against all the historical evidence, a seminary could be recaptured for inerrancy.  Indeed, he has built a first-rate Faculty on that basis, and Southern's return to orthodoxy has proved the foundation for its current success in recruiting students and graduating pastors and missionaries.  

As time has gone on, Mohler's Calvinism has perhaps been even more controversial within SBC circles than his commitment to inerrancy, and Hansen gives interesting insights and hints about struggles that are yet to come to full fruition within the Convention.  Of course, inerrancy on its own is clearly never enough: it must be connected to a matrix of other doctrines and practices; and once the tide had turned on the issue of the Bible, attention in the SBC inevitably turned to other things.  Alliances were put under strain and even in some cases broke down, with old allies becoming new opponents.   Nevertheless, even here there are grounds for encouragement.  It is, after all, good to see that in the SBC Calvinist-Arminian struggle, the Calvinists are putting the lie to their traditional image through their impressive record in arrears of church planting and missionary recruitment.   

Nevertheless, I confess to ambivalence, to both encouragement and concern, at what Hansen describes.  On the encouragement side, it is clearly wonderful that the old theology of the Reformed Orthodox and the Puritans continues to speak today.  This is not a surprise to those of us who believe it is, well, basically true (forgive the outdated modernist use of the word `true' at this point but, hey, I am an outdated modernist after all.  So what do you expect?).  It is also exciting to realize that this new zeal for solid theology does not always have to be combined with an uptight social and political conservatism that longs for the enlightened days of Genghis Khan's domestic and foreign policies (hey, he was kind to his grandchildren.....) and the kind of women's fashions made popular by Little House on the Prairie.   Even better - the good news for us men is that, no, there is no necessary connection between vital Christian faith, drinking only Lite Beer, and buying your clothes based on recommendations from the fashion pages of Professional Librarian Monthly, no matter what the excess of wide-lapelled plaid jackets, kipper ties, curly sideburns and horn-rimmed glasses on your local church's session might indicate.

Yet, as I note above, I am ambivalent at points.  There are causes for concern even amidst all the good news.  At the heart of this revival - and this is both the strength and the weakness of the movements described - are a set of powerful personalities linked to powerful movements or conferences.  The name of John Piper looms large in the narrative, but there are others: R C Sproul, the T4G guys, Joshua Harris, Mark Driscoll etc.  Without such dynamic figureheads and the organizations around them, it is doubtful that the movement would have made the impact on young people which it has done.  Nevertheless, the dangers here are several.  First, there is the absence of the church at key points.  Now, this criticism needs to be nuanced.  All of those mentioned above are churchmen, and none would wish to see their conferences or their personalities becoming in some way substitutes for the institutional church.  Yet the danger is always there whereby people become attached to the man rather than to the message or to the church.  We are commanded to love the body of Christ; and our leaders are useful only to the extent that they are instrumental to that end.  

There are hints in Hansen's account that this substitution of the man or the ministry might well have taken place in some cases.  I find myself disturbed by the account of the man who loves Piper, and company, has embraced the doctrines of grace with zeal, but who continues to attend at Adventist church, apparently on the grounds that that is where he can be a kind of missionary for Calvinism.  But the church is surely not a mission field; rather, it is the place where Christians are fed and watered and grow to maturity.  Put bluntly, you don't get fed at conferences and through reading books in order to go to church to evangelize the couple next to you in the pew.   To the extent that the Reformed revival does not make this connection, or leaves it optional, to that extent it is not really Reformed or biblical.

This leads to my second concern: how much of this is about personality/movement cults?  We all know that there are sociological reasons why individuals join groups, be they churches, the Freemasons, or the local exotic slug breeding association.  A sense of belonging is important to humans as social beings; and beliefs get strengthened and reinforced through contact with other like-minded people, especially when guided by a strong type-A personality or a highly-organized and coherent group.  After all, putting ferrets down your trousers is generally frowned upon as an impolite, if not dangerously subversive, social aberration in much of the civilized world; but in parts of Yorkshire I suspect that it is a prized skill among members of the Antediluvian Order of Ferret Trouserists, as attractive to females of a certain age as the plumage of a typical peacock is to a peahen - or at least, that's what I've been told.  But a sense of belonging and social value does not validate a belief or a practice, or even, in the case of ferret trousering, make it advisable.

These, point to the dilemmas which the new Reformed movement must face: how much is this movement about genuine belief and how much is social belonging?  And for its leadership: how much is about genuine mission, and how much is about self-promotion and self-perpetuation?

To take the former, it is, of course, true that churches, like any movement, are also vulnerable to the criticism that they provide a social framework for creating and reinforcing beliefs through a sense of belonging etc.  That is unavoidable: human beings are social animals; and we are also more than brains on sticks.  That some churches go off the rails very quickly after the passing of a key minister is testimony to the failure of some ministries truly to penetrate the pew.  Nevertheless, the church is the God-ordained social structure for believers. Like democracy, she may be far from perfect, but she is better than any of the alternatives.  Thus, one test as to whether the new Reformed revival is really a movement of substance and not simply a disparate collection of personality cults is to see whether the church is being built up and strengthened.  Thankfully, there is evidence that this is the case: for example, the church planting endeavors of the SBC; and Hansen's own conclusion - that the revival is at its strongest in the small churches, working away week by week in the routine matters of preaching the gospel and being the church.  Yet those who can hear and believe all the wonderful teaching and still return to an Adventist church as a mission field give the rest of us some pause for thought.

As to the latter - what we might call the temptations of leadership - the concern has to be deeper.  When does a leader cross the line between promoting the kingdom and promoting himself?  When does a ministry cease to exist for any other reason than providing its leader with a good salary, a flashy car, and a platform for pontification?   Hansen's book makes it clear that powerful personalities have shaped this movement, even at the level of the language used, where the followers have started to use the very turns of phrases which are the hallmarks of their leaders.  Again, there is nothing necessarily wrong with this; but the temptations of leadership are as manifold as the temptations of those looking for a guru to do their thinking for them; and the need for leaders to distinguish between making followers of themselves and forming disciples of Christ, precisely the problem Paul highlights in 1 Corinthian 1.  One could put it really bluntly: to whom are parachuch ministries and leaders accountable?    Unless this question is answered - indeed, unless it is asked on a regular and self-critical basis, the young, restless and Reformed might find their movements either dying out with their leaders or, worst case scenario (if the leaders go ga-ga), heading off into the Utah desert to do something rather unpleasant (and I'm not simply thinking about ferrets and trousers at this point).

I end on a personal note.  I was struck that my own institution, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, so often regarded in times past as the bastion of all things Reformed, merits only a single mention in the text and nothing at all in the index.  A sign of the times?  A testimony to a missed opportunity?  Ironically, at the very moment when Hansen published his original article, WTS was hosting a conference on the Emerging Church.  Strange times when the bastion of Reformed theology plugs the postmodern conversation as the way forward just as the influential organ of mainstream evangelicalism points to Reformed theology as the wave of the future.   There's a lesson here for those Reformed types who are always fretting about how their theological heritage can possibly speak to the present day: don't panic; God's truth is still powerful; just do what you are supposed to be doing.  Machen's worrier children don't need to hammer their swords and spears into candlesticks and incense bowls.  The old theology still speaks afresh to a new generation.

Helpful Resources:
Why We're Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be by Kevin DeYoung & Ted Kluck
Courage to Be Protestant by David Wells
Young, Restless, and Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with New Calvinists by Colin Hanse

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