Why the "Calvinist" Resurgence is Troubling

Mark Dever has tried to account for the prominence recently of Calvinism among Baptists and independents. Coming in at #6 out of 10 influences is the Presbyterian Church in America:

Born out of theological controversy in 1973, this denomination’s official doctrinal standard is a revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith—a document “so associated with the history of Calvinism,” Dever suggests, “it could almost be said to define it in the English-speaking world.”

“By the late 1990s,” he recalls, you could virtually assume the “most seriously Bible-preaching and evangelistic congregations near major university campuses would not be Bible churches or Baptist churches, but PCA congregations.” From the success of various seminaries to the influence of Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) on campuses to Tim Keller’s ministry in New York City, it’s clear the “organizing and growth” of the PCA has been a major contributing factor to the Reformed resurgence.

Not to be too disrespectful of a communion of like faith and practice, but if I were looking for theological chutzpah in the last quarter of the twentieth-century, I would not be turning to the PCA precisely because of Keller. In fact, since 1986 when Joining and Receiving failed, the PCA has broadened and become flabby, while the OPC has become lean (many thought it was always mean). Does this mean that Dever should have mentioned the OPC? Of course, not. We are small, marginal, and can’t make it in NYC the way Keller has. (Whether the PCA has actually made it in NYC is another question.)

But this account of the PCA and Keller suggests that the new “Calvinists” don’t really get Reformed Protestantism. Inside confessional Presbyterian circles folks are worried about the PCA and wonder why folks like Keller don’t spend some of their considerable capital on trying to help the denomination recover its Reformed faith and practice. (Oh, that’s right, Keller has.) Imagine a Southern Baptist minister or seminary professor mixing it up with Episcopalians or United Methodists and you might have a parallel with Keller’s unwillingness to play within the confines of Presbyterian polity and Reformed teaching.

But if CG’s comment about Baptists needing to venture out on their own and lose their wanna-be-Presbyterian outlook is correct, then perhaps Dever’s estimate of the PCA is just one more version of Baptists, who are only a guhzillion times bigger than Presbyterians, turning their heads to follow a tall Presbyterian blonde. Why they don’t find Lutherans that attractive is a mystery, though it may be an indication of Baptist provincialism. Imagine what the young and restless would look like if they were reading Luther instead of Piper channeling Edwards. Then again, Luther’s theology of the cross might require having to give up Billy Graham.

42 thoughts on “Why the "Calvinist" Resurgence is Troubling

  1. Dever’s contention about the PCA’s influence is shared by the mod-prog-evanjellys within the PCA, many of whom see themselves more as the smart kids of evangelicalism instead of (more accurately IMHO) the “D” students of the P&R world. I’ve heard or read grandiose statements from PCA leaders about how the denom’s influence in evangelicalism is huge in proportion to its numerical size. They thought this before Keller — how much more so now?


  2. I think most Lutherans don’t even get Luther.

    Besides, we Lutherans ‘look’ too religious…too ‘Catholic’. Anything that smacks of Catholicism is BAD…even though they (Baptists) have basically the same theology as does Rome. ‘A lot of God and a little bit of me’.


  3. I will be disrespectful for you then.

    Fie on the supposedly “reformed” teachings of Kellerite pastors thickly embedded throughout the PCA. To poach one of apologist Chris Rosebrough’s terms…. pure bullocks scatology.


  4. iTunes, and the ability to test drive more sermons/lectures than you could listen to in 3 eternities, has to be top 10 for allowing people to taste and see and winnow out a Reformed stream to their liking.


  5. I’ll grant you that, Kent. The SBC “calvinistics” were greatly aided by the internet in the mid- to late-90s.


  6. I grew up Baptist in the upper south in the 50’s and 60 ‘s and there was a lot of movement back and forth between Baptist and Presbyterian congregations. Still is. I’ve worshipped many times in Presbyterian churches, of various affiliations, and always felt comfortable. Maybe it is provincialism.

    Actually,I have observed more interest in Luther in recent years, though not necessarily Lutheranism. I’ve heard several sermons on his theologians of the cross/theologians of glory theme, for example.


  7. Dever’s contention about the PCA’s influence is shared by the mod-prog-evanjellys within the PCA, many of whom see themselves more as the smart kids of evangelicalism instead of (more accurately IMHO) the “D” students of the P&R world.

    C’mon! Give credit where credit is due, CW! Speaking as one in the PCA, I’d say we’re the D+ students of the P&R world! BIG difference!!


  8. Seems a bit odd to me to credit the PCA as a whole with contributing to a Calvinist resurgence. There have been individuals in the PCA, most notably RC Sproul, who have been responsible for disseminating a Calvinistic soteriology far and wide, but the denomination? This isn’t a knock on the PCA—I’m in the PCA—but the denomination just isn’t numerically large enough to mean that the most serious Bible-preaching churches near the universities were or are PCA churches. There just aren’t enough PCA churches for that to be true, at least I don’t think there are.


  9. What do you think I am Stuart — Zoroastrian?

    I think you are a Duke-hater and that blinds you to all that is good. (Insert snarky, but smiley Methodist emoticon here)


  10. Coincidence that the two most bitter Old Lifers are PCA?

    I’m not bitter! I’m cynical.

    Again, BIG difference!

    Sean on the other hand . . .


  11. I ain’t bitter, I’m mean. Disillusionment turned into bitterness which turned into resentment which turned into mean. I’m now headed toward drive by, mass shooting. Johnny(SEC frat boy) went from not being able to preach to not deserving to live. It’s dangerous when that root of bitterness takes hold, it turns quickly.


  12. Wow! Sounds like somebody missed their nap time.

    Maybe a trip to a United Methodist church for a season would cheer you up a bit about the PCA. As bad as it may be, it could be a lot worse.

    Just don’t go all Walter White on us.


  13. I was thinking of someone with a funny hat and (S)ean of course — AKA “The Inventor of Ecclesiastical Fragging.”


  14. No worries Stuart, if it was gonna go down you wouldn’t know about it until the morning paper. I have a couple revolving theories for the SEC frat boys, from; inadequate recess violence, to trust fund baby entitlement, to CTS, to southern gentrification leading to white guilt and then back to the lack of adequate recess violence. You can throw daddy issues in there too. I’m with Clark, I doubt we get it resolved in our lifetime but you commit, submit and occasionaly blow people up who are insufferable.( the blowing people up was my contribution)


  15. they (Baptists) have basically the same theology as does Rome.
    Steve Martin, where the hack did you get that from? A revelation perhaps?

    On the other hand, this is a deeply disrespectful article, with an attitude that resembles that of the Eastern Orthodox from my country (Romania): only we are Christians. in this case, only we are Reformed.


  16. Erik,

    Only if he has the principled paradigmatic distinction not to beg the question as he discusses the peace of Christ.


  17. The link referred to in ‘another question’ is details of the excellent 2013 book Engaging with Keller. I would recommend anyone with a deeper interest in the writings and theology of Tim Keller to buy this book – it is an eye opener without being sensationalist or shallow. One issue came to mind as I read this mainly British authored book. Does the Westminster Confession drive or underpin much or indeed any of Tim Keller’s theology and ecclesiology? His sources for inspiration often seem to be anywhere but the confessions, and his alliances are rarely with Presbyterians.
    Sadly Tim has not been able, or maybe unwilling, to correspond with the publishers of this book despite their approach to him for any response he may have had to the issues it raises. Darryl Hart’s chapter on Tim’s ecclesiological position is a corker while Kevin Bidwell’s chapter on Keller’s use of imagery (a dance!) for the relations in the trinity which runs counter to creedal teaching is another of the fine essays worth reading and another eye opener on how CS Lewis has been a source of theology for him.
    Published not by a flash cash rich publisher (Evangelical Press), Engaging with Keller is a timely reminder that such men as Tim have great influence worldwide in this church generation which venerates men and their blogs, books, appearances and teachings. While publishers like the Good Book Company in the UK and the all pervasive Gospel Coalition have such men like Keller and DeYoung as the coolest kids on the block for teaching, there will not be enough necessary checks and critiques like Engaging with Keller which are needed.


  18. This seems to address a common difficulty within Reformed communions.

    There is no substantial strand of Calvinism in the US that was unaffected by one or both of the revivals of the mid-1700s and those of the mid-1800s. Consequently, certain features of Calvinist theology have influenced a number of other traditions that were also forged out of these revival movements. At the same time, certain features of these other traditions have influenced Calvinism. By contrast, Lutherans largely sat on the sidelines during these revival movements, and therefore today have a more cohesive “Lutheran culture” that just doesn’t (and probably can’t) exist among Calvinists.

    Which begs the question…

    Is it possible to carve out a distinctive Calvinist culture that parallels that of Lutheranism? Probably not. There are certainly those of us who would embrace such a culture, if it came to pass. But it still wouldn’t be the same as Lutheranism. None of us here has any experience with the kind of Calvinist church culture that we may envision. We are simply refugees who have a shared dislike of the revivalistic culture that has become inseparably entangled into much of American Presbyterianism.

    In that sense, we are largely left with something of a difficult choice: (1) continue to worship within our revivalistic Calvinistic tradition with the hope of restraining some of the revivalistic excesses and their concomitant entanglements (e.g., culture war); or (2) adopt ourselves out to a tradition that was not as affected by the revival movements (e.g., Lutheranism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy), but recognize that you’ll always be a foreigner of sorts within that communion.

    While the C2C boys can set forth a variety of theological reasons for swimming the Tiber, I suspect that they primarily left because they recognized that American Presbyterianism was never going to be able to extirpate itself from the influences of revivalism. In other words, American Presbyterian was never going to be anything but messy and amorphous. If you’re the kind of person who has a low tolerance for chaos, the American Calvinist tradition is probably not the place for you. Otherwise, you’ll end up as bitter as Stuart and Sean.

    I, on the other hand, have a low tolerance for people seeking to bind my conscience on matters that aren’t prescribed in Scripture. So, Catholicism is not so attractive. I’m therefore willing to live alongside Peter Leithart and Tim Keller in exchange for having the liberty to ignore the Magisterium.


  19. Hmm…

    “…why they don’t find Lutherans more attractive…”

    That seems fairly obvious to me. Confessional Lutherans are fairly plain folk compared to evangelicals, Presbyterians, and other long winded sermonizers. The closest we come to having “stars” are pastors Todd Wilkins and Matt Harrison. Though we have many extraordinary theologians who are worth reading. We just don’t suit the tastes of revivalists and their emotional highs or those who like their lists of laws to fulfill and ladders climb that week. Not much taste for the theology of the cross unless they’ve been chewed up by the emoting and legalisms… not to mention how we look like cold hearted antinomians to the Edwards crowd..

    Perhaps, it’s time to give up on interesting others in Lutherans. We’re just too homely. 😉


  20. Dan,

    Every once in a while, I like to drop by and give DGH a friendly hard time. The article and comments you linked had some good points. Especially that once a Baptist understands the confessional and theological differences, they cannot become a Lutheran Baptist. It’s incompatible. They have to make a choice and often become Lutherans.

    My point in my comment was that Luther via confessional Lutheranism is not attractive to the majority of American Christians. Confessional Lutheranism is adverse to the pietism, revivalism, and celebrity pastors that dominates so much of American Christianity and American Christianity is adverse to Lutheranism’s objective sacraments, close communion, and homeliness.


  21. Bobby, we have had ethnic Reformed communions in the U.S. — the Covenanters, the Seceders (ARP), and CRC. But American Presbyterians PCUSA, OPC, PCA, never had that kind of ethnic solidarity. They were part of the larger Anglo-American Protestant establishment. I suspect Jason and the Callers wanted a bigger establishment.


  22. Lily,

    I started reading this blog after reading DGH’s Calvinism. (I gave it a four star review at Amazon). I share, in spades, his aversion to transformers, though not for any theological reasons. Back in the Stone Age when I was a senior in political science, I took a seminar from a prof who had gotten his Phd at LSU when Eric Voegin was there. We spent the whole term focusing on his New Science of Politics. (You may be familiar with William F. Buckley’s simplification of one message of that book, “Don’t immanatize the eschaton.”). I welcome anti-utopian allies regardless of their confessional orientation.


  23. @DGH

    Did they want a bigger establishment, or an establishment that claims for itself the authority to resolve ambiguity?


  24. As a historian you must know that the Baptists came out of the Puritan movement, so Presbyterianism really is a closer cousin to them than Lutheranism would be.


  25. Riley, really? I thought Calvinists and Lutherans came straight out of the Protestant Reformation, while Baptists have a foot in that and the Radical Reformation. First cousins versus a few removed, is what I mean.


  26. @DGH

    The C2C boys. I have 5-6 friends who’ve swum the Tiber. In almost every case, they left Reformed communions because they became frustrated with the inability of Reformed communions to provide clear answers to certain questions. In other words, they came to the belief that sola Scriptura left too much wiggle room. From the outside looking in, the RCC and its Magisterium seemed to provide clarity and eliminate the wiggle room.


  27. Bobby, what Roman church were they looking at? Since Vat II, all clear bets are off. Development of doctrine rules in that good old way that adaptation ruled among modernists (Protestant and Roman Catholic).


  28. We took our oldest daughter from broad evangelicalism to a URC when she was around 12. She learned a lot but never made profession of faith. She married a Lutheran and they are in the process of joining a LCMS. I know she picked up a few things, though, because recently we worshipped with them and the pastor used some video clips as part of his sermon. She was chagrined because the last time I was there he had also used video clips. She claimed that those were the only times in recent memory that that had happened and it was unfortunate that I had to be there for it.

    The clips were a flop as there was an awkward 60 second silence while he waited for his computer to work right.


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