Paleo- and Neo-Reformed

We didn’t ask for this but when a respected Protestant scholar invokes the category of Neo-Reformed (which implies a Paleo version), members of the Old Life Theological Society take the bait with relish (tabasco would help).

In a blog that has gotten far more attention than it likely deserves, Scot McKnight complains about the efforts of the Neo-Reformed to capture evangelicalism. He faults them for being traditionalist as opposed to following the Bible, accuses them of displaying fundamentalist belligerency as opposed to evangelical niceness, and fears they aim to take over evangelicalism and exclude the non-Reformed as opposed to just getting along.

The intriguing aspect of McKnight’s blog is the way it has been received. The Neo-Reformed have taken offense, as if McKnight is accusing them of shady dealings and unloving behavior. The non-Reformed have registered several amens and point to their own experience with the Neo-Reformed meanies. Throughout the interaction with McKnight are references to the Reformed theologians, Mike Horton and John Frame. Some of McKnight’s sympathizers point to a similar diagnosis of Reformed pugnacity in Frame’s  much cited essay, “Machen’s Warrior Children.” Meanwhile, McKnight himself points with a measure of agreement to Horton’s idea that evangelicalism functions best as a village green that allows folks from different perspectives to talk to each other; the converse point Horton makes is that evangelicalism functions worst when it tries to make the village green into a permanent residence.

By invoking Horton, McKnight unwittingly makes an important point about the differences between Neo- and Paleo-Reformed, or between Old Life and New Life Presbyterians. The Reformed Protestants who are most intentional about recovering confessional (or better, ecclesial) Presbyterianism, the Paleos, are the ones least interested in taking over evangelicalism and excluding anyone.  For them (and us), evangelicalism is over.  Meanwhile, the Neo-Reformed, the ones who are most invested in reaching a consensus between Reformed and evangelicals, are also the ones who are most inclined to view evangelicalism from a perspective of Reformed doctrinal litmus tests and so turn a blind eye to the concerns of Wesleyans, Arminians, and Anabaptists. In other words, Neo-Reformed care about being evangelical; Paleos don’t.

It is not Machen’s Warrior Children who want to evacuate the evangelical village green of non-Calvinists and other free will or openness types. Horton readily fits as one of Machen’s Warrior Children, and Frame likely had ecclesial Reformed Protestants like Horton and the editors of the NTJ in mind when he wrote his provocative piece. Rather, it is the opponents of Machen’s Warrior Children, the allegedly nice and tolerant Neo-Reformed, who have designs on commandeering evangelicalism and keeping it for themselves. The Neo-Reformed are the ones who still think evangelicalism is a useful category and a Christian reality that needs to be saved from those who do not adhere to biblical inerrancy, divine sovereignty, or the vicarious atonement. To use McKnight’s own categories, it is Frame who defended something approaching biblicism and accused Horton of being a traditionalist. And it was Frame who wrote Evangelical Reunion, a book about finding a consensus among all conservative Protestants, not Horton whose last volume of Reformed dogmatics, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology, vindicates the Paleo-Reformed high view of the church and its ministry.

Maybe McKnight had a point, even if he didn’t know it.

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17 Comments

  1. Posted February 25, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Amen

    rsc
    MWC #3

  2. Posted February 25, 2009 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    I briefly commented on McKnight’s endorsement of Wright’s new bookhere

  3. Posted February 25, 2009 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    The Reformed Protestants who are most intentional about recovering confessional (or better, ecclesial) Presbyterianism, the Paleos, are the ones least interested in taking over evangelicalism and excluding anyone. For them (and us), evangelicalism is over. Meanwhile, the Neo-Reformed, the ones who are most invested in reaching a consensus between Reformed and evangelicals, are also the ones who are most inclined to view evangelicalism from a perspective of Reformed doctrinal litmus tests and so turn a blind eye to the concerns of Wesleyans, Arminians, and Anabaptists. In other words, Neo-Reformed care about being evangelical; Paleos don’t.

    Unlike RSC I am not given to outbursts, but what the heck: amen…and hallelujah.

  4. Posted February 25, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Huh, just when I thought I had enough labels (amillenialist, particular, credobapistic reformed baptist) now there’s paleo-reformed. One of these days I’ll get all of the labels figured out.

  5. Posted February 26, 2009 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    Hot diggity! Preach it! That is the best and most sane comment yet. Thanks Dr Hart!

  6. Posted February 26, 2009 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    Rob, it’s really not that hard. Neo- and Paleo- depend on what you think of the First Great Awakening. If you do think it was great, or even pretty good, chances are you’re neo-.

  7. Posted February 26, 2009 at 4:45 am | Permalink

    While I wholeheartedly agree with DGH’s concerns, I would still argue that our Reformed forefathers did not have the same reservations about the word ‘Evangelical’ that haunts DGH. B.B. Warfield, for one, often used the word in the following fashion. “The Westminster Standards are the riches and most precise and best guarded statement ever penned of all that enters into evangelical religion, and of all that must be safeguarded if evangelical religion is to persist in the world.” Actually, the shoe is on the other foot here-what McKnight is crowing about is the developments that took place after WWII and was appropriately dubbed ‘Neo-Evangelicalism’.

  8. DGH
    Posted February 26, 2009 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    Gary, how long does it take an evangelical Calvinist to learn a new trick? Answer: he never does because he still thinks Jonathan Edwards hung the moon.

    Yes, Warfield employed the word evangelical. And he also condemned the Plan of Organic Union of Evangelical Churches (1920), and would have likely opposed had he lived to read it, Shailer Matthews defense of modernism as evangelicalism updated with the insights of science (1925).

    When you have so much confusion over a word, why not just use a different one? Isn’t Reformed much clearer? And if it is not as clear as it might be, isn’t that because the Neo-Reformed have been haning out with evangelicals so long.

    BTW, Warfield thought Baptists and Lutherans were evangelical also. So what does the word “evangelical” clarify if used for these different Protestants who are not in fellowship? I suspect that “evangelical” is supposed to make the differences that lead away from fellowship disappear. Nice try, but the Baptist, Lutheran, and Reformed confessions still disagree in ways that matter to being Baptist, Lutheran and Reformed.

  9. Posted February 26, 2009 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    DGH
    You do know that we are also constantly having to qualify the word ‘Reformed’as well. Warfield bemoaned what C.S. Lewis once described as ‘verbicide’-the death of a precious word. It is highly ironic, given McKnight’s blurb, that NT Wright claims to be ‘Reformed’. To answer your question, Warfield and those like him, used the word ‘Evangelical’ to define those who could affirm the Reformation’s understanding of the importance and centrality of ‘sola fide’-and as such, Wright, in their eyes ,would be neither ‘Reformed’ or ‘Evangelical’.

  10. Posted February 26, 2009 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    DGH,
    I’m on something of a pilgrimage towards confessional Reformed theology, piety and practice. A question I have is, if our definition of Reformed is to be found in the 3 forms of unity and the Westminster Standards (and I believe they embody Scriptural teaching), is it possible for us to ammend the confessions (if necessary) and keep the label ‘Reformed’?

  11. Posted February 26, 2009 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Rob, it’s really not that hard. Neo- and Paleo- depend on what you think of the First Great Awakening. If you do think it was great, or even pretty good, chances are you’re neo-.

    Bill Cinton suggested a thumbnail once that one knows he’s a Democrat if he thinks the 60s were mostly advantageous, a Republican if he thinks they were mainly disadvantagous. Similarly, if one thinks Billy Graham is mostly a good phenomenon he is probably an evangelical, mostly a bad thing probably a confessionalist.

    That may not help Rob or Gary, but it’s as plain as day to me. Last I counted, “evangelical” wasn’t a four-letter word, so I don’t think the point here is to delete it so much as to put into a context. There is at once a fine line and wide distinction between being evangelical and being an Evangelical, which methinks Warfield understood pretty well.

  12. Posted February 26, 2009 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Zrim
    The term ‘Evangelical’ pre-dates the Great Awakening. It was coined to describe the followers of Martin Luther’s understanding of ‘Sola Fide’- Calvin understood that way. It strikes me as a form of skullduggery when someone like Keith Fournier comes along calls himself an ‘Evangelical Roman Catholic’. This is as troubling as Roger Olson calling himself a ‘Reformed Arminian’.

  13. DGH
    Posted February 26, 2009 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Gary, the problem is that “evangelical” also post-dates the Great Awakening, as well as World War II and John Paul II. If we could establish a federal agency to oversee the uses of the term, maybe it would be worth using. It seems that McKnight may have been writing with you in mind. Do you have the authority to determine who is and who is not “evangelical?” If so, can you also get me a job?

    Nick, yes, the Reformed confessions can be and have been revised. The point of being confessional is not to treat the creeds as reference works, but to stand in the company of a Reformed witness that took expression in these statements and continues to be expressed by communions for whom these statements are a summary of God’s word.

  14. Posted February 26, 2009 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    DGH
    Actually, I am perfectly happy to use the word the same way that Warfield did-the way the word was intended to be used in the 16th century. But if that happens then folks like McKnight, McLaren & co. would find themselves out in the cold. Mind you I am not the least bit interested in being part of the ‘Big Tent’ Evangelical circus, but it is a pity that we have lost a perfectly good word in the process.

  15. Posted February 26, 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Come to think of, if this kind of label highjacking is allowed to go on, then what are we going to do with Bill Clinton calling himself a ‘Calvinist’?!

  16. Posted February 26, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Gary and DGH,

    The e-term pre-dates and post-dates plenty of things. It also coincides others like catholic and apostolic, none of which I have any problem with in their proper Reformed context. Certain asterisks are weird things to have in Christian confessions. Either erase them and just using one big R, little e’s, c’s and a’s or put more asterisks in. I’m for the former.

    Re Clinton, if his remarks about work and Calvinism are any measure I don’t see any highjacking hijinks going on. I’ll take him while the theonomoists can have his Methodist wife. After all, “theonomy is Calvinism’s version of Methodism,” as the man once said. And since work sanctifies us, urban-pilgrims fighting the world, the flesh and the devil I think Clinton is quite onto something.

  17. Posted February 26, 2009 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Groups like the Gospel Coalition are downplaying distinctions as they organize around the really important issues. I suppose “coalition member” may be the new “evangelical.” If this is the new trend, we won’t end up with verbicide, but rather acronym soup reminiscent of a Vern Poythress CV. There may be no end to listing all the particular memberships we maintain.

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