From PCRT to Ligonier to Gospel Coalition

Anthony Bradley’s memories of coming into Reformed Protestant circles during the 1980s has been making the rounds and includes a question about why Baptists dominate contemporary discussions of Calvinism. Back in the day, according to Bradley, James Montgomery Boice, Sinclair Ferguson, and R.C. Sproul dominated discussions of Reformed theology.

They are all Presbyterians. In those days “Calvinism”/”Reformed” and Presbyterian were synonyms. Something happened, however. The Presbyterians lost their voice some would say and I’m not sure how to explain how that happened. Somehow “Reformed” today (2012) is more associated with Baptists (or Baptistic folks) D.A. Carson, John Piper, and Mark Driscoll.

As someone who regularly attended the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology at Tenth Presbyterian Church and who benefited from lectures and sermons by Boice, Sproul, John Gerstner, and Roger Nicole, I too have sometimes reflected on the change of ecclesiastical landscape over the last twenty-five years. Back around 1980 Reformed Protestantism in the United States looked to be the most formidable expression of Christianity and was even drawing converts from Rome. In addition to PCRT, the editors of Reformed Journal assembled a remarkable collection of academics and pastors to write thoughtfully about church life, politics, and the arts. Contributors included Rich Mouw, George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nick Wolterstorff, Ronald Wells and others. Not too long into the 1980s, however, Calvinists lost their swagger and mojo, and Roman Catholicism, thanks to the appeal of John Paul II, became the alternative for thoughtful and socially active “conservative” Christians.

Some could explain the change as simply a function of age and even death. Gerstner and Boice are no longer with us, and folks like Sproul are fast approaching retirement. Another factor is that the Reformed consensus of the early 1980s that appeared to be drawing conservative Presbyterians and Reformed Protestants together had fallen apart by 1990. The OPC found a way to avoid J&R with the PCA and in the process recovered something of its older polemical edge. The PCA became a refuge for disaffected Orthodox Presbyterians of a New Life persuasion. The CRC debated and finally gave its blessing to women’s ordination. As the OPC hardened, the PCA softened, and the CRC amended, Reformed Protestantism fractured.

Meanwhile, Ligonier became the national successor to the PCRT’s regional presence. And the process of building a national constituency led to the inclusion of speakers who would not have been considered either Reformed of Calvinistic, such as John Piper and John MacArthur. At the same time, while Ligonier expanded what it meant to be Reformed, the Alliance of Confessional Evangelicals — a body formed by Boice — broke up with Mike Horton’s version of confessionalism going one way and the Alliance’s going another. Neither ACE nor White Horse Media, however, could keep up with local/national ministries of Piper and Desiring God, Driscoll and Acts 29, or Tim Keller and the Redeemer phenomenon. When the Gospel Coalition came together it did on a national scale what Boice had done on a much smaller (and pre-internet) scale with PCRT. What is more, it received buy in from national celebrity academics and pastors in ways that Ligonier could not, dominated as it was by one speaker and author.

The answer to Bradley’s question then seems to be that in order to achieve national prominence, Calvinism needed to go off the Presbyterian and Reformed reservation and include groups that were much bigger and speakers more celebrated than Presbyterians could muster. Recent posts at the Coalition underscore the breadth that contemporary Calvinism represents thanks to the move from local to national settings. According to Collin Hansen, the Young & Restless phenomenon is a “critique movement”:

Calvinism has thrived, then, as a fire engine sounding the alarm and bearing water to put out the flames consuming American evangelicalism. We’re not surprised by the bad numbers. In fact, even inside some of the biggest churches in America, we’ve seen the limits of any strategy that fails to account for our God-given need for transcendence, transformation, and tradition. Numbers are a lagging indicator of unhealth. Even during the megachurch boom of the 1980s and 1990s, all was not well with the evangelical soul.

Some could only wish that the critique extended even to members of the Coalition, that it might fault Driscoll’s new measures (and clairvoyance) or Keller’s failure to be a traditional Presbyterian.

But when the definition of Calvinism includes Wesleyanism, what kind of critique might you expect? John Starke’s recent exchange with Fred Sanders, a Wesleyan who teaches at BIOLA and who quotes Calvin, reinforces the point about the breadth that afflicts the new Calvinism of the non-Reformed variety. Here is Starke’s introduction:

I’ve been reading Fred Sanders’s blog for a long time, and when his book, The Deep Things of God, came out, I was eager to read it. He’s a good writer, he loves and quotes the Puritans, he’s a reasonable thinker, and he knows how to do careful exegesis.

He’s also a Wesleyan.

I don’t mean to declare that so menacingly. But the first time I learned Sanders—associate professor at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University—was a Wesleyan, I was a bit surprised. It’s not that Wesleyans and Arminians can’t be careful interpreters and reasonable thinkers—I just don’t often resonate with their writings and conclusions quite the way I do with Sanders’.

And so, I had to know: For a guy who loves, quotes, and depends upon Calvin and Calvinists, why isn’t Fred Sanders a Calvinist? We corresponded, and he explained the one thing he wished Calvinists would stop accusing Wesleyans of doing and why Wesleyanism is only the opposite of Calvinism in a very small thought-world.

Will Fred Sanders make an appearance at a Gospel Coalition conference and receive a “Calvinistic” benediction? Odder things have happened in the world of contemporary Calvinism.

26 thoughts on “From PCRT to Ligonier to Gospel Coalition

  1. Indeed. I agree. Much of the loss of confessionalism in the “reformed” world is the result of Ligonier inviting non-reformed speakers to their conferences.

    I heard Sproul himself once say on Renewing Your Mind, that they got the largest amount of negative mail when they did an issue of Table Talk on infant baptism… Now, why did his readers not know that he was a Presbyterian, and that Presbyterians believed that!? Easy – Because he had not been teaching them so… Nothing that he spends most of his time on would be offensive to baptists.

    I was also told in a personal discussion with Richard Phillips that one concern they had at ACE around the time of Horton’s departure was that ACE was afraid of losing their baptists, because the baptists were being offended by the lutherans! Therefore, they took the “confessing” out of ACE, and turned it into just another de-facto Alliance of Calvinistic Evangelicals.


  2. Writing as a baptist, I too am concerned about the diluting of monikers Calvinism and Reformed. I’m certain that admitting that I’m a baptist you de facto view me as part of the problem. However, let me make my case. I’m a 1689 London Baptist Confessional Baptist. As such, I believe not just confessionalism is important, but it is imperative that we view the reformational creeds, catechism, and confessions as vital to proper understanding of faith, practice and piety.

    I understand that confessionally our ecclesiology is less than “reformed” and on this basis desire to distance all baptist from being calvinist or reformed. However, to often Baptist are painted in a singular color as if every baptistic association and/or denomination are co-extensive in faith, practice and piety. This is far from true. There are over 400 different Baptist associations or denomination is North America alone according to one Baptist historian. To lump them into one bowl is less than disingenuous. While I can respect Piper, MacArthur and Carson for many of their contributions to the kingdom of Christ, I do not view them as Reformed or as consistent Calvinist because of their lack of commitment to the covenants; eternal, historical and the differences between a covenant of works and grace. It is as if their Calvinism is tied to nothing.

    I’m willing to discuss differences between Westminster Confession and the 1689 London Baptist Confession. However, the Savoy Confession theologically moved away from the WCF in ecclesiology yet I never hear Owen’s Reformed or Calvinistic credentials challenged. The LBC was intentionally built upon the WCF and SC for the purpose of making clear distinctions from the anabaptist and wanting to identify with confessional reformed thought. Their commitment to the writings of Ames and their interactions with Owen in writing the confession have been documented.

    Please to don’t dismiss Baptist with a single stroke.


  3. Doug,

    It’s not that DGH is writing off anyone. That’s not his point.

    He’s tracing trajectories and hoping you wince at their targets.

    You in fact are just like him – forget the theological differences between WCF and LBC for the moment – you are a Baptist Old Lifer, he a Presby Old Lifer.


  4. There really seems to be a kind of gray blur or lack of precision when talking about these things. I personally don’t care to preserve some precise and unalterable definition of “Reformed”, particularly since that seems to have been the job of those who formed and developed the tradition. So if they were not as clear as they should have been and their offspring continue in this manner, then they should take part of the blame.

    This seems to be the case for many things, even in politics. I can’t accurately describe conservatism, but I can tell you what a majority of self described conservatives decide to support. I can’t really tell you what Calvinism is or what it means to be Reformed, but I can tell you what they mainly affirm over others. If people can’t define their traditions, what other problems are there?

    These kinds of discussions are part of the reason I gave up on considering seminary. Beside the issue of me not having a problem with evolutionary theory, I found the theological world in a ridiculous mess. So it’s off to Physics, Mathematics, and Engineering for me.

    By the way, someone mentioned Lutherans. I don’t see how Baptists or Reformed could not be bothered by some of the things Lutherans do or utilize in worship. I recently saw the LCMS president in a youtube video talking about the federal gov’ts requirements on their institutions in regards to health care, and I saw a large crucifix in the background. I don’t know about others, but I find the sight of a crucifix to be very unpleasant to put it mildly.


  5. I got a single sentence answer for ya (with apologies to Doug): The old Reformed and Presbyterian guard threw their hats in the fundamentalist (baptist) Calvinist ring (who reduce Reformed theology to the 5 points), and thus cut off their broader brothers in the R&P camp.


  6. A couple thoughts to add…I think in hindsight ECT and the fallout from it was the key inflection point. It split Sproul and Packer and for the most part ended Sproul’s connection with RTS Orlando. While much of the P&R response was weak and tended toward equivocation, the Reformed Baptists showed up and proved to be the most effective defenders of the Gospel. I still remember the backward handsprings Mike Horton did to make sense of Jim Packer’s position. The aftermath left the P&R side fractured, major confusion, friendships broken and into the vacuum comes a new resurgent Reformed Baptist movement led by Al Mohler and Southern Seminary with a much different approach than Al Martin for example.


  7. as someone who was a member of tenth pres from 1977-1983, having come to attend WTS Philly as a relatively new Christian and an enthisiastic convert to the reformed faith,i ‘m a bit surprised to hear this assessment of some of the guardians of reformed orthodoxy in the 70’s and 80’s. i recall the puzzle of attending Tenth Pres with Scofield Study Bibles as the pew Bibles, an annual PCRT with speakers who it might strike anyone as strange calling “reformed” – Moishe Rosen comes to mind as chief example – and the teaching of Dr. Boice (whether though preaching or books) which seemed to be reformed soteriologically and yet not on the same page as the reformed faith in many other ways. as a relatively new Christian and someone very new to reformed orthodoxy, i went to tenth because i heard it was reformed (even as i was learning what that meant). what a surprise to have come to philly having read calvin, hodge, warfield, the westminster standards, etc. only to come to a ‘reformed church’ and discover the reformed faith was a pretty flexible thing at least at church. so perhaps we need to be careful about attributing the decline of reformed orthodoxy to our new baptist brethren and be a bit more accurate and focused in our assessment of who helped redefine being reformed.


  8. Darryl:

    Alas, a fair summary of the emergence of the predestinarian Baptacostalist phenemonon.

    I well remember the first PCRT. Roger Nicole was a token Baptist, but the rest were Presbyterians (still in PCUSA at the time).

    Ligonier ably facilitated and enabled the Baptyerian developments.

    I’ve written off WTS-P, ACE, Ref21, and, regrettably as a longtime supporter, Ligonier (long before R.C. was known at all). After all, as LM explicitly noted in not-so-internal statements, there’s a “business dimension” to LM. Sorta, like numbers and dollars.

    Thanks for the summary. It’s fair and accurate.


  9. Robert Lynn is right. I was at Tenth at the same time (“Hey, Bob!”) and experienced the same thing. Blaming the Baptists is easy, but I recall the same Scofield Bibles at Tenth Pres and the association with PCB. And Roger Nicole at PCRT. There are all sorts of factors here we could point to.


  10. Some Lutherans have a habit of using the word ‘Reformed’ to describe all Prots alike. The Gospel Coalition is making this easier for us. I’d prefer we all stick to our confessions and have some real dialogue, but what do I know? I’m just a meanie head who hates Christian unity.


  11. Bob Lynn, fair enough about Tenth, except that Bradley’s post was about what happened to Boice, Sproul, and Ferguson. Plus, if you notice, the change attribute here comes with Ligonier. Baptists didn’t change anything. They are what they are. Presbyterians simply included them under the Reformed umbrella.


  12. Ted Bigeow: It’s not that DGH is writing off anyone. That’s not his point. He’s tracing trajectories and hoping you wince at their targets.

    RS: There may be other issues at play that are not in DGH’s trajectories. Some Southern Baptists look at the 1940’s or 1950’s as their glory days, but other look upon those days as an earlier time of judgment. As Jesus told His disciples that the reason He spoke in parables was essentially to hide the truth from some (Matthew 13:10-17). He then told them that in the case of those from whom the truth was hidden that this was the prophecy of Isaiah being fulfilled. Perhaps during the 1980’s things were not as strong in the Presbyterian world as some think (as noted in the comments about Boice) and so what happened after that was simply a logical trajectory downward. In fact, Auguste Lecerf (An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, 1949) spoke of Reformed Theology as having a downard trajectory since 1680 or so. John Owen (1616-1684) lamented his own day by speaking of the godly men who spoke with such power thirty to forth years previous. It may be that the trajectory has been pointing down for centuries before the 1980’s. If so, we are truly in a lamentable period.


  13. “But when the definition of Calvinism includes Wesleyanism, what kind of critique might you expect?”

    The whole point of the interview was that he wasn’t a Calvinist. I’m not sure what you’re accusing me of, Dr. Hart.

    Also, there’s a good bit of historical precedence (before Ferguson, Ligonier) of baptistic/congregationalist Calvinists being included under the reformed umbrella. The history between the Westminster Assembly and the Savoy Declaration included a wider range of parties under the Reformed umbrella. The term “reformed” was much more malleable during the English Reformation to the Great Awakening. Sinclair Ferguson and RC Sproul shouldn’t be demonized for having a wider definition of “reformed.”

    One more thing, baptists and congregationalists are reformed in more ways than simply their soteriology. Our view of Scripture, the use of authority in our polity (as opposed to RC), etc,.


  14. John, is dissent really the same as demonization?

    And I’m not sure I accused of anything. My point was that your interaction with the Wesleyan, Sanders, which was highly appreciative, was not exactly the sort of exchange you’d expect from a resource that is confident about its Reformed identity.

    As for the 17th century, we’re not in London anymore. And for some reason the Calvinists at GC never seem to pay heed to the Calvinists in Reformed (non-Baptistic) communions, unless he is TKNY.


  15. Dr. Hart, If you’d like, you can go and count how many presbyterians and “reformed” Episcopalians are on our council.

    I think interacting “appreciatively” with a thoughtful Wesleyan shows our confidence in our reformed identity better than complete public evasion.

    Also, I don’t think “we’re not in London anymore” works as a response. You use a London confession. I could respond back with, “we’re not in the 17th century anymore.” You seem to use a Southern Presbyterian confessionalism more than a Westminster confessionalism, which also seems to be a bit of cherry picking as well.


  16. John, the count may be interesting but I’m not sure what it would prove. As for the appreciative interaction with a Wesleyan, I don’t see at GC such appreciation for confessional Reformed Protestants. Instead, it looks more like public evasion of folks who believe GC is an ecclesiological aberration.

    And actually, London does work for Orthodox Presbyterians because the confession our officers subscribe is the Confession and Catechisms of the OPC as adopted in 1936. We confess a living breathing confession, not a historical artifact. But if you do think you live in London among English Protestants, you’d be hard pressed to find something like a Gospel Coalition then. Have you not heard the way that Oliver Cromwell treated Irish and Scottish Presbyterians?


  17. I fully agree that even second London Confession baptists are not “Reformed”. To be “Reformed” is to teach credobaptists that they sin when they fail to give infants the water sacrament. But I have more trouble agreeing that a person or group is “Reformed” when they teach less than the “five points”. Sproul to his credit actually talks about election and just atonement for the elect, and I meet many folks who first heard these great truths from Sproul (and not from their local pastors).

    But now it’s quite common to hear lectures about the modernity of “tulip” from academics who think of one or more of the five points as only “shelf doctrines” (to use the phrase by Mouw). In Ten
    Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition , Kenneth J.Stewart concludes that “TULIP cannot be allowed to function as a creed”. Stewart accuses some folks of having a “Procrustean formula” (p84) and also with being “uncritical”. He seems to thinks of the “Reformed” as a big inclusive tent which needs to place more exclusive folks on the margins. Since he assumes a modern-fundy group that is already on the margins, the purpose of his book is to re-educate us. If the fundies cannot be schooled, then the rest of the “Reformed” at least will need to be re-educated The assumption is either that 5 point fundies don’t know the past OR that they don’t know their place.

    If those who care about antithesis to universal and governmental notions of the atonement are “strident” (AW Pink, p280) and “contentious” (Nettleton, p87) and “belligerent” (p85), why does Stewart think he needs to “blow the whistle on” them? (p12) Who cares? Wesleyanism and the five points are only different “forms of Christianity”, are they not?

    DA Carson from the Coalition (and the PRCT) admonishes us that evangelism means telling all sinners that Christ died for them (The Difficult Doctrine of God’s Love) But only his view of baptism could make Carson non-Reformed because Stewart with many other “Reformed” writers also teach
    about the “adequacy and capaciousness” of Christ’s atonement to save the non-elect.

    But if the death of Christ does not save the non-elect, then it was not enough to save them and it is not God’s justice that demands the salvation of any for whom Christ died. On this topic I would
    recommend the book by credobaptist historian Tom Nettles, By His Grace and For His Glory.

    Wesley’s sermon “Justification by Faith”—- “Neither can it ever consist with God’s unerring wisdom, to think that I am innocent, to judge that I am righteous or holy, BECAUSE ANOTHER IS SO. God can no more, in this manner, confound me with Christ, than with David or Abraham. Let any man to whom God hath given understanding, weigh this without prejudice; and he cannot but perceive, that such a notion of justification is neither reconcilable to reason nor Scripture.”


  18. Boice’s book on eschatology was firmly dispensational, too: in “The last and future world” (1974), which was based on sermons in his church, he seems to echo Hal Lindsey’s earlier claims in stating of Matt 24 that “these verses seem to indicate that the Lord Jesus Christ will return within one generation of the repossession of Palestine and the reconquest of Jerusalem by the Jews.” “If that is so,” Boice continued, “the biblical length of a generation being about forty years, then Jesus may well return with forty years of 1948 (the year of the reestablishment of the state of Israel) or of 1967 (the year in which the old city of Jerusalem once again came into Jewish hands).”

    This wasn’t a youthful indiscretion, either, for in his “Foundations of the Christian Faith” (1986?) he was still directing readers to “The last and future world” for a fuller statement of his eschatological thinking.

    Not the kind of thing we associate with the “new Calvinism”! But “The last and future world” is a brilliant book title …


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