New Calvinism is Warmed-Over New Evangelicalism with a Hint of Hipster

John Turner’s post about Henrietta Mears reminded me of a thought I have had for some time — namely, that the New Calvinism and Gospel Coalition are simply trying to do what Carl Henry and Harold John Ockenga were trying to do in the world of Protestantism outside the mainline churches. Mears was arguably the most important force in Sunday school curricula during the post-World War II era. And her outlook and energy prompted Turner to characterize neo-evangelicalism of the Billy Graham era along the following lines:

▪ Biblicism. This may seem obvious, but lost in discussions of the divergence of “new evangelicalism” from old-style fundamentalism is the fact that the new evangelicals remained biblicist to the core. Henrietta Mears revamped Sunday school education at Hollywood Presbyterian because she did not like the existing “grasshopper approach to the Bible. The children were not taught that God had a plan from Genesis to Revelation but were taught only stories. As one of the children said, ‘Sunday school gets dumber and dumber. The same old stories all the time.’” It occurs to me that the story of Jesus welcoming the children over the disciples’ opposition is indeed overused!

▪ Optimism. Certainly American evangelicals were alarmed, even paranoid at times, about various threats to the church and their nation. Communists, union leaders, juvenile delinquents — evangelicals were never at a loss when it came to finding something ominous on the country’s horizon. At the same time, they had tremendous faith that God would perform miraculous works through their ministries. It is no accident that Henrietta Mears helped mold Bill Bright, the Campus Crusade for Christ founder with a vision to “change the world.” Mears dreamed big. Evangelicals today are more chastened. We read about declining evangelical clout and the growing number of religious “nones.” Evangelical celebrities come to town for a night or two, not for six- or eight-week crusades like Billy Graham’s. A more realistic, even chastened approach is probably wise, but we could sometimes use a dose of Henrietta Mears-style dogged optimism.

▪ Bridge-building. Perhaps Henrietta Mears has given me a somewhat overly irenic sense of mid-century evangelicalism, but she seemed to get along with nearly everyone who even approached the nebulous borders of the evangelical world. In terms of theology, I understand Mears as rather close to a Keswick-style approach to surrender, holiness, and empowerment for service. In her ministry, however, she cooperated with mainstream-to-liberal Presbyterians, Keswick-oriented speakers, and dispensationalists. She would not invite Pentecostals to Forest Home, but she did invite Oral Roberts’s family to her own home and befriended the Oklahoma evangelist. As a “Bapterian,” she did not worry overly much about an individual’s precise place in the patchwork world of evangelicalism. Like Billy Graham, she could work with anyone dedicated to bringing young people in particular into a deep, abiding relationship in Jesus Christ.

That also seems to apply to the New Calvinism — not wanting to be too bound by theological systems, optimistic about all works of God (especially the New Calvinism), and willing to cross sacramental (think baptism) and spiritual-gift (think tongues) lines.

The only aspect of New Calvinism that is different is the attempt at urban hipness that sometimes surfaces among its proponents (think Greg Thornbury and image of TKNY). Henry and Ockenga had their urban moments, whether Los Angeles (okay, Pasadena), Boston, or Washington DC. But they were more earnest about the truth than being relevant. But with the success of TKNY has come the notion for some of the New Calvinists that you can be Edwards in Manhattan. For some reason, the New Calvinists don’t remember that Edwards’ earnestness landed him on the Massachusetts’ frontier trying to evangelize the Native Americans. In other words, earnestness and hipness don’t mix (which may explain John Piper’s remarkable indifference to Christian urbanism).

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42 thoughts on “New Calvinism is Warmed-Over New Evangelicalism with a Hint of Hipster

  1. First Pres of Hollywood was a piece of work. I saw their former pastor-smarm meister Ogilve on a old TBN rerun the other night (I couldn’t sleep, OK?). He left there to be the Bob Dole-nominated chaplain of the Senate for many of the Clinton years.

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  2. I’m trying to imagine Thornbury on the frontier……………………………………………………’Collaborate and listen.’ I mean, ‘align and listen.’ Breathe in the holy spirit, breathe out your sins(confession). Arrowhead is sorta frontierish. I mean, not really, but there are trees. What about his suits? Apparently, there’s only one(clothier) who will do. Not very flexible. Frontier life would demand flexibility and poverty(thank you, MG). How handy is he with a hatchet? Black powder rifle? There’s no tweeting but the birds. If you’re tweeting then even the savages might give you some space-adv. Harry Potter.

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  3. They did not even have REI stores on the frontier! How did they ever make it? I’m picturing a sermon ….”Bad coffee in the hands of angry Sinners”

    I must admit I love “steam punk” fashion style and often threaten my wife and kids I am going to start dressing that way. But I’m a middle-aged white guy who wears a suit and tie every day to work so I don’t think I can get away with it. Even though Piper and his devotees are not urban hipsters the tie that binds them with the hipsters is that earnestness. They could make their own jewelry back then on the frontier, just like we can today.

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  4. D.G.,
    So I guess that, according to you, there is nothing to learn from the New Calvinism which is worthwhile. What was that quote from Martin Luther King which I referenced before?

    The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

    BTW, was Edwards a flawed person like us or was he another Biblical author?

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  5. I couldn’t agree more. The so-called New Calvinism is only new if one has no memory of anything before the 1980s. It looks a lot like warmed-over Henry and Lindsell with trendier clothes. Oh, and don’t forget to throw in funding from a smattering of ultra-rich hedge fund guys to fund the whole thing.

    I’ve also noticed that it doesn’t take a lot in the substance department to rise to stardom in such circles. You generally just have to be male, fresh-faced, reasonable attractive, and often blond. Take, for example, Eric Teetsel and Matthew Lee Anderson, who’ve both been heralded as a couple of the brightest stars in the under-40 evangelical world. So, we’ve gone from Mark Noll and George Marsden to a couple of photogenic blond dudes who married well and know how to use Twitter.

    Anderson’s most recent book, about how to ask appropriate questions, seems to reveal the underlying insecurity of this whole project. Anderson’s basic theme is that it’s unethical for evangelicals to ask questions that don’t assume that the neo-evangelical narrative is correct. Really? Isn’t this how cults get started?

    I often wonder, though, whether the whole New Calvinist phenomenon is less significant than we believe. It seems to be funded by a small number of ultra-rich individuals. Tim Keller is its only figure who has any appeal beyond a demographically narrow, all-male audience, and Keller maintains that appeal by avoiding controversy like the plague. After all, how can you pastor a church in Manhattan that attracts a fair number of openly gay worshipers (some of whom are in same-sex relationships), and never have anything to say about homosexuality. Of course, that also begs the question as to why the folks at Mohler Mart, whose churches probably attract no gay worshipers, have plenty to say (see, for example, Denny Burk’s recent ETS panel discussion).

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  6. Curt: The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

    I cannot think of anyone who fits that description better than you, Curt.

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  7. I question that earnestness and hipster don’t mix. Clearly they do. Mohler Mart/ Piperites and Keller devotees may seem very different but upon closer look one sees that their mid-guided desire to “be the gospel”, to live it out experientially (Edwards) is a theological tie that binds them together snug as bugs in a rug. It is why Doug Wilson and other FV leanings are A OK, but Horton types are Lutheran and Antinomian to that crew.

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  8. Mohler? Really? I’d argue Forster and Metexas are the poster boys for the If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… Reclaim the City mantra that is the Protestant counterpart of the assanine Catholic “Civilization of Love” junk that has gone nowhere since Vatican II but still has to be maintained if you want to be on any Catholic Speaker’s Bureau List. For those of you tired of Bryan Cross, just be glad you don’t have to deal with absurd trumpets like Patrick Madrid. Just saying…

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  9. Excellent analysis. As a confessional Particular Baptist, this is nothing new. Some of us knew who and what D.A. Carson was long before the Gospel Coalition was ever launched, and the similarities to the Neo-Evangelical movement have been noted. “The Gospel Coalition is intended as a return to the neo-evangelical coalition-building of the 1950s – a broad alliance across denominational grounds…” from Holding Communion Together, page 195

    Further interaction here.

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  10. @Tom

    One could argue that a lot of neo-evangelicalism’s growth related to the emergence of the middle class (who were looking for something lying between fundamentalism and the Protestant mainline) and the emergence of suburbia (where there was no existing mainline presence). Park Street Church defies that model, but it was probably more of an outlier.

    I don’t see any demographic trends today that would seem to blow at the backs of the New Calvinists. If anything, the New Calvinist movement has simply provided a way station for those coming out of more fundamentalist and legalistic wings of the Baptist penumbra. I suspect that the fall of Mark Driscoll and the closing of Mars Hill Church are a harbinger.

    I’m guessing that conservative Anglicanism is what will emerge as the dominant vehicle of evangelicalism. It provides a basic evangelical theology, but without inerrancy and restrictive gender roles. In my neck of the woods (Chicago west suburbs), these churches are all doing pretty well. Meanwhile, the traditional neo-evangelical churches are filled with white-haired folks.

    I attended an Anglo-Catholic ACNA church this morning. The median age was probably 35-40, and the church is growing rapidly, mainly among the younger demographic. In contrast, a lot of the more traditional neo-evangelical churches look like geriatric wards. I suspect that neo-evangelicalism will simply go the way of the Protestant mainline.

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  11. Bobby,

    Anglicanism is probably too highbrow to take off on any large scale in the U.S.

    It’s like predicting that PBS is going to eclipse WWE. Not happening in our America.

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  12. Evangelical Anglican congregations are filled with affluent middle-agers. But the Anglican aspects seem to get pushed out early on, as they are mostly people looking for Evangelicalism without the Separatist angle. Trinity Evangelical School for Ministry does not embarrass as a title like Moody Bible Institute does, for example. But it all starts to seem the same when you meet in a high school auditorium, as most Episco-parishes now have to, that is if they choose to remain homosexual hermeneutics-free. Trouble is such folks have little real allegiance to or understanding of smells and bells, so the only reason to stay in place is the teaching firepower of the rector. And that does not right now seem in strong supply.

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  13. Zrim,

    Inconceivable?

    I have a friend who moved from being a successful Southern Babdist pastor (in Ames) to a conservative Anglican church (in Kentucky). Just connected with him on Twitter today, in fact.

    In other news, I discovered while reading an interview with Greil Marcus that Kent sent me that Kathy Keller is not the only one with special gifts:

    Interviewer: Sounds like your wife is a good consigliere, an invaluable interpreter of all this subtle social stuff.

    GM: She has an absolute bulls**t detector.

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  14. God Isn’t Dead in Gotham
    Thousands pack the services of the evangelical Redeemer Presbyterian Church, most of them single and under 35.
    By KATE BACHELDER
    Dec. 19, 2014 6:40 p.m. ET
    69 COMMENTS
    New York

    Timothy Keller ENLARGE
    Timothy Keller KEN FALLIN
    ‘Cheer up, you’re worse than you think,” Rev. Timothy Keller says with a smile. He’s explaining that humans are more weak, more fallen, more warped than they “ever dare admit or even believe.” Then comes the good news: At the same time people are “more loved in Christ and more accepted than they could ever imagine or hope.”

    Do you know many New Yorkers who believe that? Perhaps not, but on Sundays some 5,500 city folk file into the church Mr. Keller founded 25 years ago, Redeemer Presbyterian, at eight packed services across three Manhattan locations, the Greenwich Village campus of which I attend on Sundays. The service is traditional, the congregation less so: Most who show up, if you can believe it, are single and under 35, whether bankers, lawyers, actors or artists.

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    Mr. Keller has a growing national following and is often described as a Christian intellectual who takes on the likes of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud in a sermon rooted in a specific Biblical text. He’ll sprinkle in references from popular culture—something about contentment he read in the Atlantic, a poignant passage from “Lord of the Rings.” His fruitful work has multiplied. Redeemer efforts have helped plant more than 300 churches in 45 cities, from Santiago to Dubai.

    I met the 64-year-old Mr. Keller this week at the church’s offices in midtown Manhattan. He’s at least six-feet tall, bespectacled and I don’t have a chance to notice much else before I realize he’s asking me questions. We sit down in his office to discuss how he’s revived Christian orthodoxy in the naked city and how he sees religion changing in the modern world.

    “Everyone has a God, everyone has a way of salvation, we just don’t use the term,” he says. “St. Augustine would say: What makes you what you really are is what you love the most.” Mr. Keller adds that he likes “to show secular people that they’re not quite as unreligious as they think. They’re putting their hopes in something, and they’re living for it.” For ambitious, driven New Yorkers, it’s often a career, he says. “I try to tell people: The only reason you’re laying yourself out like this is because you’re not really just working. This is very much your religion.”

    If there’s no God, he says in sermons, then everything you do at work will be forgotten, and nothing you can do in your career will earn lasting significance. But if Christianity is true, then “every good endeavor,” he likes to say, no matter how small, “can matter forever.” One tough part for people, he says, is coming under “God’s authority,” because “you have to find your identity in Christ, and not in just fulling yourself,” That “completely collides with what the culture is telling people.”

    The skeptics in his audience—about 15% of the people in the audience, he estimates, tell the church they aren’t sure what they believe about Christianity—are often “attracted to the idea of sacrificial love,” he says. But he says his preaching can also bother people, and Mr. Keller’s Dec. 7 sermon offers one example. He preached on a passage in Matthew, when Joseph learns that his wife-to-be Mary is pregnant with Jesus. Christianity, he says, will never be “a” good religion among many good religions, one that works for some and doesn’t work for others.

    “Every other religion has a founder that says: ‘I’ll show you the way to God. Only Christianity of all the major world religions has a founder that says: ‘I’m God, come to find you.’ If that’s right, he has to be the superior way to find God.” If it’s wrong, he says, “then it’s an inferior religion.” Not a lot of wiggle room there, even on Christmas.

    One of Mr. Keller’s golden rules is: Use plain English. “Evangelicalism has developed a very sentimental vocabulary,” he says, pointing to an overuse of the word “blessing” and other “tribe” lingo. He says of prayer: “When I pray, I think people who don’t believe say: If I did believe, I could pray like that.” That is important when converting people in New York City, where Mr. Keller says he hopes to break down stereotypes that highly religious people aren’t intellectuals.

    Mr. Keller looks less like a pastor than a professor, and in an earlier life he was one. In the mid-1980s he taught theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pa., working part time for the church-planting arm of Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative presbyterian denomination.

    The organization’s then-director asked Mr. Keller in 1986 if he would be interested in starting a church in Manhattan. He said no. He thought it too soon to leave his teaching job. He’d go to New York, he said, to do some networking and field work to help secure the right minister.

    Every plausible candidate fell through, and so he packed up his young family—wife Kathy and three sons under 11—and moved to New York in 1989. Everyone from family to fellow ministers thought he was crazy. “Churches die in Manhattan,” he was told.

    Often he was asked by fellow Christians: Are you sure you’re called to this? His answer: “I have no idea.” His uncertainty rattled people he knew, but it is part of what he teaches: God is “not under any obligation to make me succeed.”

    By any standard he has succeeded. Redeemer held its first official morning worship service on Sept. 24, 1989 in a rented Seventh-Day Adventist church. It took off: 200 congregants after a year, 700 after two years and 1,200 after three. About a third of the early attendees, Mr. Keller says, did not attend church at all before finding Redeemer.

    They wandered in with friends or heard through word-of-mouth. The church doesn’t advertise. Mr. Keller calls it “an impersonal way to bring someone to church.” With a friend, he says, “the person is processing what’s happening in the church in a relationship, rather than simply being a consumer who says: If I like this, and I like this, then I’ll come back.” He resisted getting a website until a former official at the Federal Communications Commission who attended the church convinced him to purchase the domain name “redeemer.com” before someone else snapped it up.

    About 2,900 people attended Redeemer on the Sunday before Sept. 11, 2001. The Sunday after? 5,700. The church had begun to meet in an auditorium owned by Hunter College on the Upper East Side that seated about 2,000. The lobby was teeming with people, the place so overwhelmed that Mr. Keller announced on the spot that there would be a spontaneous second service for anyone who came back in two hours. About 800 people returned.

    Churches all over Manhattan were packed then, he says, but “here’s what was interesting to me: Every other church I know—because I checked it out—over about another month, slowly the numbers went down to where they were before,” he says. “Redeemer never went back under 3,700 people.”

    Then there was the 2008 financial crisis, when the urban professionals who make up Mr. Keller’s church learned through experience that wealth can be fleeting. Did the crash create a spiritual crisis? “If you’re trying to win people to Christ, if you’re trying to say this world is not enough and you need faith—I hate to say it, recessions are wonderful times for that message to fall on more open people.” He adds: “I wish the number of conversions and Christian growth would go along with prosperity and giving—but they usually don’t.”

    Redeemer’s success puts a dent in the narrative that organized religion is on the way out. “Religion is not in decline so much as inherited religion is in decline—religion that you’re born into. So if you’re Swedish, you’re Lutheran, If you’re Polish, you’re Catholic. If you’re Scottish, you’re Presbyterian. If you’re American,” Mr. Keller adds, “You go to the church of your choice; that’s what it means to be an American.” He notes that “evangelicalism fits that quite nicely,” in part because it’s a religion of conversion—of choice.

    Mr. Keller talks about a few problems for evangelicals, and one of them is politics. “A significant percentage of evangelical churches have been too aligned with certain political movements,” he says. He doesn’t go into detail, but it’s no secret that white evangelicals in the Bible Belt tend to vote with the GOP. Almost 50% of non-Hispanic evangelicals told Pew Research in 2012 that they’re Republicans, up from 43% as recently as 2009. In this sense Redeemer is unusual: The congregation splits about 50-50 for both parties in the straw polls the church has conducted, Mr. Keller says.

    He can’t always avoid the intersection of religion and politics, however. A couple of Sundays ago a man stood up mid-sermon and asked Mr. Keller to address racial tensions amid recent grand-jury decisions not to indict police officers in Missouri and New York. He tried to defuse the situation by saying he doesn’t preach on political current events because you “can’t read out of the Bible a simple answer to these issues.” The man asked again.

    Mr. Keller remembers how he replied: “Let me tell you what I think the Gospel does to people in power, to people with resources: It humbles them. It tells them to listen to people without. But here’s what the Gospel says to people who do not have resources and might be tempted to be bitter and angry: It tells them to forgive.” The man said thank you and sat back down.

    He’s cheerful, but the way Mr. Keller describes his own efforts proves what he preaches about the emptiness of seemingly fulfilled ambitions. He admits readily that he can get discouraged, with more ideas and less time. “I very often feel like I’m barely getting a leaf out, in spite of the fact that Redeemer is vastly more successful than I ever thought it would be,” he says.

    “Barely getting a leaf out” is a reference to a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien about a painter named Niggle who spent his whole life trying to paint “a tree, a beautiful tree, and behind it snowcapped mountains, and forest marching off,” Mr. Keller says. When Niggle dies, he’s only finished painting one leaf. “He’s going into the afterlife, and he sees something off in the distance and jumps off the train, runs to the top and there’s the tree, his tree, that he had always felt.”

    What Tolkien is getting across, Mr. Keller says, “is that we have a vision for justice, a vision for beauty—and as artists, lawyers and city planners, in this life we can only ever get out as much as a leaf, but we are actually being inspired by some vision that God’s going to make it a reality.”

    “What you’re working on, and what you’re hoping to get, in the resurrection, in Christ, you will get. But you need to be willing to live with the reality that in this life you’re probably only going to get a couple of leaves out.”

    Ms. Bachelder is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.

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  15. plunder the old Calvinism and rebrand

    “Even though there were typological and even national elements in the promises given to Abraham (Gen 12 and 15) they were only temporary expressions….”

    Exodus 11 The Lord said to Moses, “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt. After that, he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will drive you out of here. 2 Now announce to the people that both men and women should ASK THEIR NEIGHBORS FOR SILVER AND GOLD ”

    Exodus 12: 35 The Israelites acted on Moses’ word and asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. 36 And the Lord gave the people such favor in the Egyptians’ sight that they gave them what they REQUESTED In this way they PLUNDERED the Egyptians.

    Genesis 20: 2 Abraham said about his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” So king Abimelech had Sarah brought to him. 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “You are about to die because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman.” 4 Now Abimelech had not approached her, so he said, “Lord, would You destroy a nation even though it is innocent?
    5 Didn’t Abraham himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ I did this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you did this with a clear conscience. I have kept you from sinning against Me. Therefore I have not let you touch her. 7 Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, know that you will certainly die, you and all who are yours.”

    Genesis 20: 14 Then Abimelech took sheep and cattle and male and female slaves, gave them to Abraham, and returned his wife Sarah to him. 15 Abimelech said, “Look, my land is before you. Settle wherever you want.”[f] 16 And he said to Sarah, “Look, I am giving your brother 1,000 pieces of silver
    20: 17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female slaves so that they could bear children,

    https://americanvision.org/4973/hortons-contrived-empire-calvin-denied-christendom/

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