Was Victoria Osteen Channeling Jonathan Edwards?

I was not planning to write about this since discussing the Osteens is like mistaking Bill O’Reilly for Michael Oakeshott. But I am intrigued by the experimental Calvinist response to Pastorette Osteen’s remarks on the importance of experiencing happiness in worship. The issue is conceivably whether we pit God’s glory with our experience in worship. And sure enough, the experimental Calvinists echo Pastorette Osteen. Ligon Duncan reminds us that even the famous first answer of the Shorter Catechism (an experimental Calvinist product) combines God’s glory with our enjoyment:

The Reformed steadfastly affirm that the fundamental purpose of human existence is God’s glory, but we refuse to pit God’s glory and human happiness against one another (as Ms. Osteen, perhaps unwittingly does in her misguided exhortation). The very first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism gets at this. “What is man’s chief end?,” it asks. The resounding answer is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” In other words, our chief and highest purpose, goal and end in life is God’s glory. That is what we live for. Whereas many of our contemporaries think that God is the chief means to our highest end (happiness), the Reformed do not believe that God is a means to an end, he is The End. He is the reason and aspiration for which we exist. There is no ultimate happiness and satisfaction and fulfillment and joy apart from him.

BUT, the Reformed do not believe that God’s glory and our joy stand in opposition. We do not believe that those two things are in contradiction. Indeed, we believe that they are inseparable. The Reformed believe that it is impossible to pursue God’s glory without our own souls being blessed with everlasting good. We think that our fullest joy cannot be realized or experienced apart from the pursuit of God’s glory.

That is John Piper’s cue:

Christian Hedonism teaches that all true virtue must have in it a certain gladness of heart. Therefore the pursuit of virtue must be in some measure a pursuit of happiness. And the happiness, which makes up an essential part of all virtue, is the enjoyment of the presence and the promotion of the glory of God. Therefore, if we try to deny or mortify or abandon the impulse to pursue this hapiness, we set ourselves against the good of man and the glory of God. Rather we should seek to stir up our desire for this delight until it is white hot and insatiable on the earth.

And then Piper chimes in with Edwards:

Self-love, taken in the most extensive sense, and love to God are not things properly capable of being compared one with another; for they are not opposites or things entirely distinct, but one enters into the nature of the other. . . Self-love is only a capacity of enjoying or taking delight in anything. Now surely ’tis improper to say that our love to God is superior to our general capacity of delighting in anything. (Miscellanies, #530, p.202)

I am not saying that Piper, Duncan, and Edwards are wrong because they echo Pastorette Osteen. But it is striking to see how many people reacted negatively (Christian and not) to Osteen’s video and how experimental Calvinists are less inclined to pounce.

Now in the world of Reformed Protestant objections to Lutheranism, it is also striking to see how the funny Lutheran guy (thanks to our New Jerusalem correspondent) responds to the Osteen comment:

In their sermons and books, both Joel and Victoria Osteen give full-throated endorsement to the prosperity gospel, a theology which states that those enduring hardships, poverty, and sickness have only their lack of faith and confidence to blame for their suffering. There are, of course, some enormous theological problems with this Christianized version of “The Secret,” where you obtain God’s blessings by speaking them into existence. The first is that it has no basis in the Scriptures and conveniently ignores all of the words that Jesus speaks about the question of suffering, the cost of discipleship, and the blessedness of persecution. The second is that it offers nothing but despair to those who are faithfully enduring the crosses Christ has given them to bear. And the third is that such a doctrine simply doesn’t square with the lives of those who were the first to tell us about God’s blessings in Christ (self-promotion alert).

So is it bad for Victoria Osteen to encourage us to think of God as the “Treat Yo Self” Tom Haverford to our name-it-and-claim-it Donna Meagle? Most definitely. But surely it’s a few notches lower on the pole of theological indefensibility than speaking words that, one, say the exact opposite of what the Bible says; two, belittle suffering Christians with the insensitivity a man horking down a hot fudge sundae three inches from the face of a starving child; and, three, imply that St. Peter, St. Paul, and even Jesus Himself must have been really lousy Christians who couldn’t unlock God’s potential blessings.

In other words, the funny Lutheran guy sees here a version of the prosperity gospel. And so my point is whether we should see the prosperity gospel also at work in experimental Calvinism — as in the happier, the more you’re experiencing God’s presence, or the more holy you are, the more pious and spiritually successful you are. And lo and behold, along comes Mark Jones to confirm the point:

I am of the view that powerful preaching, by a minister who labours week-in, week-out, with his flock has a strong correlation to his own godliness. I think Robert Murray M’Cheyne was right to say, “a holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” A man who has been broken – who really does preach with “fear and trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3) – is a man people will listen to week-in, week-out. There’s a reason God “breaks” his servants: he wants them to preach as broken men, not as those who strut around like peacocks. There’s a reason old, seasoned ministers have a massive advantage over young ministers. And it’s a good reason – they speak with a type of wisdom that comes from many years of ministry. Personally, I rarely listen to preachers under the age of 45 – with apologies to my friends who are ministers under 45 (you know who you are).

In 1 Timothy 4:16 Paul writes the following to Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

A plain reading of the text leaves us with little doubt that personal holiness and perseverance in holiness are means (along with teaching true doctrine) that God uses in the salvation and sanctification of Christ’s bride. What a thought, for ministers, that watching ourselves and our teaching has eternal consequences for us and our people. That’s why, if you desire to be a minister, you’re either called or mad, though hopefully not both!

And there you have it — making the world safe for celebrity pastors (how else do we explain their success or their joy?).

This Day in Calvinist History — Nothing Happened because Calvin Was Not (yet) a Calvinist

Since July 10 is the birthday of John Calvin, can we say that Calvinism was born on this day in French history? Or, since Calvin did not align with the Protestant cause until his mid-20s, is the day of Calvin’s natural birth insignificant compared to the day of his spiritual re-birth? And that raises more questions — not addressed for some time here — about conversion and the way that Calvinists differ on the necessity and importance of a dramatic experience to mark the beginning of Christian life. The experimental Calvinists generally following Edwards take one side, the ordinary Calvinists who can’t remember a day when Calvinists questioned conversionism, look to folks like John Williamson Nevin for help in reconceiving the start of spiritual life.

To the rescue comes Henry M. Lewis, a long-time contributor to the Nicotine Theological Journal, who wrote the following (which is an excerpt from his October 2000 piece, “The Unconverted Calvin”) about Calvin’s own account of his spiritual development. First, Calvin’s account from the preface to Commentary on the Psalms:

God drew me from obscure and lowly beginnings and conferred on me that most honorable office of herald and minister of the Gospel. . . . What happened first was that by an unexpected conversion he tamed to teachableness a mind too stubborn for its years — for I was so strongly devoted to the superstitions of the papacy that nothing less could draw me from such depths of mire. And so this mere taste of true godliness that I received set me on fire with such a desire to progress that I pursued the rest of my studies more coolly, although I did not give them up altogether. Before a year had slipped by anybody who longed for a purer doctrine kept on coming to learn from me, still a beginner, a raw recruit.

Now Lewis:

Bouwsma interprets this passage as nothing more than “a shift and quickening of his interests,” certainly nothing incompatible with the evangelical humanism that many university students at Paris espoused, simply a willingness to be more teachable. In other words, there was no decisive break in Calvin with his former life until he ran afoul of Roman church authorities. But becoming a Protestant, something that was gradual and progressive, hardly qualifies as “going forward” at the time of an altar call or experiencing a unique and immediate sense of God’s presence somewhere in the woods outside Paris. Protestantism was a reformation, not a revival. Evidence of its transformation came in the form of changes in doctrine, liturgy and church polity, not in hearts strangely or normally warmed.

AS BOUWSMA ALSO OBSERVES, Calvin was not enthusiastic about conversion as a precise event in his discussions of Christian piety. He “always emphasized the gradualness rather than the suddenness of conversion and the difficulty of making progress in the Christian life.” In a statement that many contemporary Presbyterians would deem nonsensical, Calvin wrote that “we are converted little by little to God, and by stages.” In his commentary on Acts, Calvin was even reluctant to attach much significance to Paul’s encounter with Christ on the way to Damascus. “We now have Paul tamed,” he wrote, “but not yet a disciple of Christ.”

CONSEQUENTLY, BOUWSMA attributes more to family circumstances and educational influences than to the movement of the Spirit in explaining Calvin’s move into the Protestant fold in 1535. The death of Calvin’s mother and his subsequent exclusion from his father’s household, according to Bouwsma, imparted a sense of homelessness that would later befit a French exile in Geneva. Then at Paris Calvin learned the three languages — Latin, Greek and Hebrew — that were so much a part of the Christian reform movement spearheaded by Erasmus. Bouwsma concludes that whatever conversion Calvin experienced it was not a radical break with his past but rather the fruit of personal, spiritual and intellectual seeds sown earlier in his life.

Whatever the merits of Bouwsma’s historical scholarship, his point about Calvin’s conversion or, better, evolution should not come as a shock to those who claim to follow in the French Reformer’s spiritual footsteps. That it does amaze is testimony to the way that pietistic influences have eaten away Presbyterian and Reformed brain cells. Once upon a time the Calvinistic branch of Protestantism was not so gullible when it came to the gushes of emotion that are supposed to count for the work of the Spirit among revivalistically inclined Protestants. For most Presbyterians, affirmative answers to questions commonly asked at a public affirmation of faith were a sufficient gauge to a man or woman’s standing before God. But these more formal and objective measures of Christian zeal began to look bland once the converts of the revivals of the First Great Awakening began to tell about the ways in which they had been slain by the Holy Ghost (as if they had, to borrow Luther’s phrase, swallowed him, “feathers and all”). At that point, the great and ongoing struggle between dying to sin and living to righteousness was reduced to a moment, a crisis, a specific time when the convert experienced Gawdah. And ever since the eighteenth century when Presbyterians began to look for signs of grace where no one had looked before, they not only started to insist on the kind of conversion narratives that make Calvin look like a non-evangelical, but they also introduced an element into their religious sensibility that would prove to be destructive of Reformed piety and worship. They began to insist upon experiences and encounters and restrictions and insights that their theology could not deliver. (This explains, by the way, the great disparity between the biblical and theological disciplines in Reformed theological education and the area of study misnamed as practical theology. Prospective pastors learn for two-thirds of their classes that it is God who saves his people and then are told that to be successful in the ministry they need to be enthusiastic, warm and caring. Go figure.)

THE REVIVALIST IMPULSE IN American Protestantism has played itself out in such a way that many conservative Presbyterians and Reformed fail to remember that God executes his decrees through the works of creation and providence. Revivalism is good at affirming God’s creative power, that is, his ability to create ex nihilo, such as when he breaths new life into a heart of stone. But it stumbles over God’s providential power in ordering things through secondary causes. For this reason, revivalist Protestantism demands that John Calvin had to undergo a conversion, a dramatic change of life, in order to demonstrate God’s work in his life. A person is either alive or dead, and to go from the wretched state of the latter to the exalted state of the former requires a monumental form of divine intervention. But if God superintends all things in the lives of his saints, even down to the hairs on their heads, then it could just as likely be the case that the movement from spiritual death to spiritual life is gradual and life-long. It may begin a particular moment, though the movement of the Spirit being fairly invisible is hard to detect. But it may also come in fits and starts that depend on such secondary causes as family, school and especially church. It may even be something that is inherited, such as in the case of Isaac, the model covenant child who grew up never having known otherwise than that he was a child of God. Indeed, the damage that revivalist Protestantism does to a proper understanding of baptism and any notion of covenantal religion is huge, to put it mildly, but that’s a subject for another time.

IN THE END, TWO THINGS ARE pretty clear. One is that Calvin’s understanding of conversion was wrapped up with his conception of the Christian life and the ministry of the church. Take away his understanding of conversion as a life long slow process of dying to self and living to Christ, and you have a hard time holding on to his image of the church as mother, whose nurture is necessary to the Christian throughout his whole life. Immediate, one-time-fix conversions, in other words, leave little room for the means of grace in the word preached and the sacraments administered. This is why the Christian life for those who experience the crisis-styled conversions is usually little more than Bible reading (i.e. the search for daily guidance), seeking other converts (i.e., witnessing) and spiritual retreats where batteries get recharged. Conversion of the quick variety lacks an understanding of the sin that still pervades the believing heart and the need of that heart for forgiveness week-in and week-out.

THE SECOND THING THAT IS clear is that the prevailing conception of conversion in American Presbyterian and evangelical circles is a novelty in the history of Western Christianity, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. The idea of an immediate encounter with God through a crisis experience began in the North American British colonies in the eighteenth century and has been the norm for most Protestants ever since. If contemporary Presbyterians and Reformed are ever going to recover some of the depths of Calvin’s theology, worship and piety, they will have to get over their crush on the First Great Awakening. Awakenings may change individuals. But what is often missed is that they also change churches. And that’s because revivals feature a form of Christianity in which the church, her clergy, creeds, and worship are peripheral. Many conservative Reformed and Presbyterians in the United States might be willing to do the American thing and minimize the importance of office and liturgy. The hope at least is that if they can see revivalism as an intrinsic threat to their theology, they might reconsider the parts of their confessions and catechisms that talk about conversion in the right manner.

Postscript: move along, nothing happening here.

And A Lutheran Will Lead Them

Amid all the clamor over sanctification (and perhaps the not so sanctified aims of improving one’s own standing by taking down a ministerial rock star), what seems to be missing are the very basic categories that animated the differences between Protestants (yes, that includes — ugh!! — Lutherans) and Roman Catholics. When you consider this debate among Mark Jones, Tullian Tchividjian (hereafter Double T), and Rick Phillips (for starters), it sure does seem that this is an internecine quarrel among experimental Calvinists who are still trying to sort out the ordo salutis, rather than a basic discussion of our right standing before God. Are we right with God by our works? Or are we right with God by faith alone and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us that comes by faith? Granted, those questions don’t reflect later theological developments. But when you read Rick Phillips’ statement of what’s at stake, a major category is missing:

The matter is not about legalists claiming that the law provides the power to obey God’s commands. Neither is this a fight between Tullian’s defense of the radical grace of the gospel versus those who are afraid of grace. Quite to the contrary, it is precisely the grace of God that is being denigrated, since it is by God’s amazing grace that Christians are not only justified through faith alone but are born again and given the power of Christ to lead new lives (Eph. 1:18-20).

So if the issue is grace and whether it is being denigrated, then what about Roman Catholics who insisted that their view of justification and virtue (what we call sanctification) was just as saturated with grace as the Protestant account? Everyone is claiming grace. What is much less clear is what people are saying about good works and human effort. Phillips and others can claim that the good works that believers do is all of grace. But any believer hearing that gracious account still has to decide what to do with her day, whether to wait for God’s grace (“let go, let God”), or simply get on with it and hope she doesn’t have too many sinful motives dirtying her otherwise useful activities of family worship, dissertation writing, and meal preparation for the pregnant woman in the congregation. That believer also needs to have some idea about whether not to prepare the meal in question is a sign of spiritual declension. Either way, the Phillips-Jones scenario seems to move the anxiety that Martin Luther faced from pre-justification blues to post-justification angst. Have I grown in holiness today? Am I becoming more sanctified and more sanctified? And if I am not, and if sanctification is necessary for salvation, then does my lack of growth in holiness mean I am not saved?

These nagging questions made my recent reading of Gilbert Meilaender’s (the smartest Christian ethicist on God’s green earth) essay, “Works and Righteousness” (paywall alert), particularly refreshing. For in recognizing similarities and differences between John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor and Helmut Thielicke’s Theological Ethics, Meilaender was able to cut through experimental Calvinist introspection and find the differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants while also recognizing the tension that lies at the heart of the Protestant account of the gospel, the good news of justification by faith alone.

For instance, Meilaender frames the essay around the question of whether character precedes actions (faith precedes works) or whether actions (holiness) determine character (standing before God). The challenge of Protestantism is to do away with ethics (i.e. antinomianism):

We can also frame the issue in something more like the language of the New Testament, and the encyclical does so. Faith opens us freely and entirely to call God good. “There is no doubt,” John Paul writes, “that Christian moral teaching, even in its Biblical roots, acknowledges the specific importance of a fundamental choice which qualifies the moral life and engages freedom on a radical level before God. It is a question of the decision of faith, of the obedience of faith (cf. Rom. 16:26) ‘by which man makes a total and free self-commitment to God.’” Of this commitment, St. Paul writes that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” At least in that sense, the character of the person determines the quality of the work.

But what follows from that? Could we also say that any action that proceeds from faith”anything done by one who has made a fundamental choice for God” must be God-pleasing rather than sinful? That hardly seems to follow, but it does make clear the difficulty of relating person and work. For if we hold, as Thielicke does, that the character of a person depends on whether he is or is not in right relation with God, and if we also say that the character of the person determines the moral quality of his works, then we might seem committed to thinking that the actions of anyone whose basic determination is that of faith must be God-pleasing actions.

Thielicke raises this issue very early in his Ethics , and he does so, interestingly enough, when discussing the story”so central to the discussion in Veritatis Splendor ”of the rich young man who comes to Jesus inquiring about what is good. His reading of the exchange focuses on the “person” of the young man. While the encyclical characterizes the encounter as one in which Jesus directs the man toward “a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection,” Thielicke suggests that Jesus aims to free the man from bondage to himself in order that he may be bound to God. Jesus does this through a “movement of concentration” in which imperatives are forms of the command to love God wholly and entirely, not requirements of particular actions.

Particular acts seem to disappear, faith in God occupies the entire moral field, and Thielicke himself sees the difficulty. “We must therefore put the question quite pointedly,” he writes. “Does not all ethical reflection always involve an act whereby ethics really does away with itself by reducing the ethical question to a problem that is essentially dogmatic? . . . In short, does not the solution of the ethical problem lie in the dissolution of ethics?” How we respond to this question will depend on how we understand the claim that a Christian is simul justus et peccator , simultaneously saint and sinner.

One way to understand this assertion “often thought to be the Lutheran way but in reality only one of several ways Lutherans have understood it” is to take it to mean that the believer is wholly and entirely saint and (simultaneously) wholly and entirely sinner. Viewed as one who trusts in the divine goodness and mercy revealed in Jesus, the believer is wholly saint. But viewed apart from that divine goodness, the believer is entirely sinner. The state of the person seems unrelated to his particular actions, for everything depends on the person’s relation to God. The theological task is simply to announce (again and again) the mercy of God that elicits a person’s fundamental decision of faith”leaving us, in short, with what looks like the dissolution of ethics.

Meilaender argues that there is no easy way around the tension that surrounds a faith-centric account of righteousness because we are caught in a conflict that is eschatological (could we get a little help from the Vossians, please):

Ethics always exists in “the field of tension between the old and the new aeons, not in the old alone, nor in the new alone.” To try to say more specifically what the shape of the Christian life should be within this tension would, he argues, be a non-eschatological ethic, something Thielicke associates with Roman Catholicism’s attempt to establish “a hierarchy of moral values with a corresponding casuistry of moral action.” Hence, he does not move very far or for very long beyond an understanding of the simul that he himself has found inadequate. He will accept no static “formula for the unity of the Christian’s existence,” no rules that can ease the tension between the two ages.

So faith alone means the dissolution of ethics, and grace-filled growth in holiness raises the specter of perfectionism: “if we make the connection between person and work too tight, right action may seem to be a condition that must be met in order to attain God’s favor, a tendency not altogether absent from Veritatis Splendor.”

Does this mean that forensic-centric Protestants can make no distinctions between a more or less sanctified life? No. Even a Lutheran can see the problem with an account that recognizes no difference between an adulterer and a husband who is merely tempted by adultery:

a Christian who is faithful to his wife even when experiencing temptation and a Christian who is unfaithful to his wife have the same status before God: They are simply sinners in need of forgiveness. And if going forward is just beginning again, there is no reason to distinguish between them. Each is a sinner, each needs to repent and believe, and each may be right with God. What they do, their agency, seems to make no difference in their relation to God.

But recognizing the tension doesn’t fix it. And the reason may be that bit of eschatology that Meilaender already invoked. We live in between the fall and consummation, and acting like the Christian life is road to holiness may commit the same naivete that John Paul II did, at least, according to Meilaender:

The encyclical exudes a kind of serene confidence about the Christian life that may sometimes be difficult to reconcile with the experience of individual Christians. “Temptations can be overcome, sins can be avoided, because together with the commandments the Lord gives us the possibility of keeping them . . . . Keeping God’s law in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult, but it is never impossible.” Surely this is true. We would not want to say of baptized Christians that the power of Christ’s Spirit cannot enable obedience in any circumstance. “And if redeemed man still sins,” Veritatis Splendor continues, “this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act.”

What we miss here, though, is some sense of our weakness, of the differences in strength and circumstances that mark individual Christian lives. In the famous refrain of Book 10 of his Confessions ”give what you command, and command what you will”St. Augustine also expresses confidence in the power of the Spirit to enable virtuous action. But in his repetition of that formula we sense something that is also present in Thielicke’s thought”the precariousness of our lives as Christians, the deep divisions that sometimes continue to mark the psyches of believers, our sense on occasion that the best we can do does not measure up to what we ought to do, our sense (so strong for Augustine) that God knows our character better than we know ourselves.

I for one don’t think that Double T (though I haven’t read much) captures the precariousness of our Christian lives. Simply to say everything is forgiven (if that is what Double T suggests) doesn’t wrestle with gravity of sin and its penalty, the idea that my sins sent Christ to the cross. But neither do the “obedience boys,” as Bill Smith calls them, capture this precariousness, that even the best of what we do is inferior to God’s righteous standard and comes mixed with a host of selfish and confused motives.

So perhaps the way forward is to read more Lutheran ethics — not the oxymoron that some experimental Calvinists think it is.

The Presbyterian Narrative

If Ref21 had commboxes with their posts, I could simply make this point (or set of points) in response to Rick Phillips over there. But I guess ACE stands for Anti-Commbox Evangelicals.

At the risk of offending Bill McClay (as if he reads OL) who wrote a very fine piece on the “American narrative,” the invocation of the bad n-word, narrative, and attaching it to Presbyterian may allow me to make my point/s. Here is what McClay finds vexing about “narrative”:

It is one of those somewhat pretentious academic terms that has wormed its way into common speech, like “gender” or “significant other,” bringing hidden freight along with it. Everywhere you look, you find it being used, and by all kinds of people. Elite journalists, who are likely to be products of university life rather than years of shoe-leather reporting, are perhaps the most likely to employ it, as a way of indicating their intellectual sophistication. But conservative populists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are just as likely to use it too. Why is that so? What does this development mean?

I think the answer is clear. The ever more common use of “narrative” signifies the widespread and growing skepticism about any and all of the general accounts of events that have been, and are being, provided to us. We are living in an era of pervasive genteel disbelief—nothing so robust as relativism, but instead something more like a sustained “whatever”—and the word “narrative” provides a way of talking neutrally about such accounts while distancing ourselves from a consideration of their truth. Narratives are understood to be “constructed,” and it is assumed that their construction involves conscious or unconscious elements of selectivity—acts of suppression, inflation, and substitution, all meant to fashion the sequencing and coloration of events into an instrument that conveys what the narrator wants us to see and believe.

I invoke “narrative” less to be trendy than to introduce to Presbyterians (real Calvinists?) the idea that we all have narratives and that we may want to be more self-conscious about them even without using the word. (Self-aggrandizement alert — I am a historian and I am actually licensed to think about “narrative.”)

Rick Phillips has a Presbyterian narrative that generally derives from New Side Presbyterianism, the ones who supported the First Pretty Good Awakening. That gives him the leverage, apparently, to further identify with New Calvinism over the Old (at least as long as the Old are critical of the new — mind you, criticism isn’t bad because New Siders and New Calvinists criticize Lutherans; where the Old Calvinists go off the rails, apparently, is in siding with Lutherans over New Calvininsts). Phillip’s affection for the New likely cools when it comes to the New School Presbyterians since they weren’t very good Calvinists. The Old School Presbyterians were good Calvinists, but they were also generally New Siders at heart — they liked aspects of the Pretty Good Awakening of the 18th century. When it comes to New Life versus Old Life, I’m betting Phillips will side with the former since Tim Keller represents the former and OL (duh) represents the latter. Plus, ins’t Keller a New Calvinist?

The problem with this narrative is that it does not address the rupture that the First Pretty Good Awakening introduced into Reformed Protestantism. The stress on experimental piety and revivals undermined the formal ministry and routine piety that had characterized many pockets of the Reformed world prior to the first celebrity pastor – George Whitefield.

What is also important to notice is that Reformed Protestants prior to Whitefield had no trouble identifying with Lutherans. Just look at the Harmony of the Confessions (1581). According to Wikipedia (another no no, but it sure is handy):

It grew out of a desire for one common Creed, which was modified into the idea of a selected harmony. In this shape it was proposed by the Protestants of Zurich and Geneva. Jean-François Salvart, minister of the Church of Castres, is now recognized as the chief editor of the work with some assistance from Theodore Beza, Lambert Daneau, Antoine de la Roche Chandieu, and Simon Goulart. It was intended as a defense of Protestant, and particularly Reformed, doctrine against the attacks of Roman Catholics and Lutherans. It does not give the confessions in full, but extracts from them on the chief articles of faith, which are classified under nineteen sections. It anticipates Georg Benedikt Winer’s method, but for harmonistic purposes.

But look at what these Old Calvinists decided to include in the Harmony:

Besides the principal Reformed Confessions (i.e., the Tetrapolitan, Basel and Helvetic, and Belgic Confessions), three Lutheran Confessions are also used, viz., the Augsburg Confession, the Saxon Confession (Confessio Saxonica), and the Württemberg Confession, as well as the Bohemian Confession (1573) and Anglican Confession (1562). The work appeared almost simultaneously with the Lutheran Formula of Concord, and may be called a Reformed Formula of Concord, though differing from the former in being a mere compilation from previous symbols.

So the question is, where did the love go? Why not more love for New Calvinists instead of Lutherans? And more importantly, what does this reveal about the Presbyterian narrative? Doesn’t it show that we have lost touch with a part of our tradition that used to regard Lutherans as more in sympathy with Reformed Protestantism than charismatics? It’s a free country and Phillips can tell whatever narrative he wants. But shouldn’t he admit he’s not telling the whole story? And one of the main factors that have prevented American Presbyterians from telling the whole story is their love affair with the First Pretty Good Awakening — an event that had all sorts of detractors on good confessional and ecclesiological grounds, sometimes who go by the name Old Side (not Old Light a Congregationalist term). (Self-serving alert: see Seeking A Better Country.)

What should also be noticed is that the Old Calvinists who put together the Harmony did not affirm union with Christ to the degree that Phillips does, as if it is the central dogma that holds Reformed Protestantism together. In fact, union is never mentioned in either the Belgic Confession or the Three Forms of Unity. If it does appear it is always in the word communion. So is Phillips prepared to dismiss the Three Forms of Unity (no pun here) in his insistence on union with Christ?

Finally, I have to take issue with Phillips’ misrepresentation of 2k, which in my mind borders on the rhetoric of the BBs:

Moreover, if being a Lutheran-leaning Old Calvinist means that I must embrace a radical two kingdoms position that will keep me from speaking publicly against manifest evils like abortion and homosexual marriage, then once again I am willing to have my Old Calvinist credentials held in derision.

I would prefer that Phillips extend the same generosity to 2k that he does to New Calvinism. But if he doesn’t want to, he should know that 2kers all affirm the confessions and catechisms of the Reformed churches which teach that murder and homosexual marriage are sinful. But even Lutherans know that carrying a baby to birth or marrying a person of the opposite sex is not going to merit God’s favor. And that is the point of 2k — for the guhzillionth time — that the good works performed in obedience to the law (state or ecclesiastical) won’t save. Can we get some credit here?

Postscript: Here’s is how a charismatic outsider sees it:

It is the revivalist style of at least some members of the New Calvinism punctuated by constant references to Jonathan Edwards and the rise of charismatic Calvinism that has many Old School Presbyterians concerned. Piper side-stepped the main issue between the two camps: from an Old-School perspective the New Calvinism smacks of the evangelical revivalism of a D. L. Moody, or, more to the point, the baseball-player-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday (insert Mark Driscoll reference here). Sunday once called the novelist Sinclair Lewis “Satan’s cohort” in response to Lewis’s 1927 satirical novel Elmer Gantry, whose main character—a hypocritical evangelist—was modeled on Sunday’s flamboyant style.

That older coalition of Congregationalists, Baptists, and New School Presbyterians combined dispensationalism, celebrity revivalism, and fundamentalism—the very traits that Old School Presbyterians disliked then and now. It is not without some irony that Piper acknowledged the important role of Westminster Seminary while not even mentioning that it was the epicenter of Old School Presbyterianism with its anti-revivalist and cessationist stance (at the end of his lecture Piper got a laugh when he said, “you don’t even want to know my eschatology.” Indeed!). . . . All of this is to say that the New Calvinism looks a lot like the old New School Presbyterianism with a Baptist and charismatic flair to it.

Does this make me an outsider? Or can outsiders pick up better what’s going on than insiders?

Postpostscript: Look mom, no inflammation:

In speaking of Old Calvinism, I admit that I am using the expression loosely for the community of Calvinists generally connected with Old School Presbyterianism and their conservative Reformed Baptist counterparts. One thinks of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and the Banner of Truth, and James Montgomery Boice and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (the host organization of this blog). They are united by a commitment to Five-Point Calvinism, ordinary means of grace ministry, the regulative principle of worship, and a traditional elder-rule approach to church polity.

The New Calvinism is not the Old Calvinism

We can be sure of that thanks to Jared Oliphint:

Twelve Thirteen features of the New Calvinism:

1.The New Calvinism, in its allegiance to the inerrancy of the Bible, embraces the biblical truths behind the five points (TULIP), while having an aversion to using the acronym or any other systematic packaging, along with a sometimes qualified embrace of limited atonement. The focus is on Calvinistic soteriology but not to the exclusion or the appreciation of the broader scope of Calvin’s vision.

1. The Old Calvinism begins with the doctrine of Scripture summarized in confessions like the Westminster Confession of Faith and is willing to use TULIP as a handle for understanding Calvinist soteriology. Old Calvinism also relies on systematic thought.

2. The New Calvinism embraces the sovereignty of God in salvation, and in all the affairs of life in history, including evil and suffering.

2. The Old Calvinism affirms divine sovereignty in everything, even in Christ’s death on the cross for the elect.

3. The New Calvinism has a strong complementarian flavor as opposed to egalitarian, with an emphasis on the flourishing of men and women in relationships where men embrace a call to robust, humble, Christ-like servant leadership.

3. The Old Calvinism follows biblical teaching on male ordination and refuses to describe human life this side of glory as flourishing.

4. The New Calvinism leans toward being culture-affirming rather than culture-denying, while holding fast to some very culturally alien positions, like positions on same-sex practice and abortion.

4. The Old Calvinism understands salvation to be distinct from culture, hence Old Calvinists’ belief that deceased saints are saved even though they no longer inhabit a culture.

5. The New Calvinism embraces the essential place of the local church. It is led mainly by pastors, has a vibrant church-planting bent, produces widely-sung worship music, and exalts the preached word as central to the work of God locally and globally.

5. The Old Calvinism does not exist apart from congregations where the marks of the church are evident and which are part of regional, national, and ecumenical assemblies.

6. The New Calvinism is aggressively mission-driven, including missional impact on social evils, evangelistic impact on personal networks, and missionary impact on unreached peoples of the world.

6. The Old Calvinism actually calls and supports home and foreign missionaries through assemblies of presbyters that oversee such ministry.

7. The New Calvinism is inter-denominational with a strong (some would say oxymoronic) Baptistic element.

7. The Old Calvinism is Reformed Protestant and seeks fraternal relations with communions of like faith and practice.

8. The New Calvinism includes charismatics and non-charismatics.

8. The Old Calvinism excludes charismatics because Old Calvinists believe in the sufficiency of Scripture.

9. The New Calvinism puts a priority on pietism or piety in the Puritan vein, with an emphasis on the essential role of affections in Christian living, while esteeming the life of the mind and being very productive in it, and embracing the value of serious scholarship. Jonathan Edwards would be invoked as a model of this combination of the affections and the life of the mind more often than John Calvin, whether that’s fair to Calvin or not.

9. The Old Calvinism does not drop names and includes Reformed Protestants who are temperamentally restrained (read Scots, Dutch, Germans, Swiss).

10. The New Calvinism is vibrantly engaged in publishing books and even more remarkably in the world of the internet, with hundreds of energetic bloggers and social media activists, with Twitter as the increasingly default way of signaling things new and old that should be noticed and read.

10. The Old Calvinism has more books than New Calvinism, and many of them are ones that New Calvinists need to tell the difference between Calvinism and other kinds of Protestantism.

11. The New Calvinism is international in scope, multi-ethnic in expression, culturally diverse. There is no single geographic, racial, cultural governing center. There are no officers, no organization, nor any loose affiliation that would encompass the whole. I would dare say that there are outcroppings of this movement that nobody (including me) in this room has ever heard of.

11. The Old Calvinism was and still is international in ways that the New Calvinists would not understand. Old Calvinists also appreciate in ways that New Calvinists don’t how European and Western Calvinism is. This means that Old Calvinists speak English without feeling guilty.

12. The New Calvinism is robustly gospel-centered, cross-centered, with dozens of books rolling off the presses, coming at the gospel from every conceivable angle, and applying it to all areas of life with a commitment to seeing the historic doctrine of justification, finding its fruit in sanctification personally and communally.

12. The Old Calvinism teaches that Christ died on the cross only for the elect and Old Calvinists are happy to let the Reformed creeds and confessions define the way that Reformed pastors teach and apply the atonement (among other doctrines taught and professed by the Reformed churches).

13. The New Calvinism uses words like robust, vibrant, embrace and lots of adverbs.

13. Old Calvinists don’t.

Being Inflamed Is So Yesterday

From a review of Addie Zierman’s When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over:

. . . the title of Addie Zierman’s memoir is evocative: When We Were on Fire. A good title will tell you a lot about a book, and indeed there is a lot to learn from this one. We know, for example, that the titular “we” are no longer “on fire,” that it happened in the past. We know this is about more than just one person, although whether the “we” is a constant voice or a changing one remains to be seen.

Most telling is that last bit, “on fire,” a resonant phrase for anyone even passingly familiar with the evangelical subculture of the 1990s. “Fire” was the favored metaphor for a deep and burning passion for God. Consuming. Refining. To be “on fire for God” was the highest compliment, the deepest mystery, the truest sign that you were wholly his.

Experimental Lutheranism

The comparisons between Calvinism and Lutheranism continue. One of the most recent comes from James Rogers, who teaches political science at Texas A&M. Rogers concedes that the average evangelical Protestant has a harder time with Lutheranism than Calvinism for a number of reasons.

First, Lutherans are ethnic (psst, so are Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, Scottish Presbyterians, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, Huguenots, and English Puritans):

Many Lutheran churches began as “ethnic” churches, not even using English in worship. And memories of forced union with Reformed churches in Germany in the early nineteenth century (which prompted much Lutheran immigration to the U.S) also induced isolation from broader American Evangelical culture.

Then we have the problem that Lutherans don’t teach as well as Calvinists do. For starters, Luther didn’t write a systematic theology and Calvin did. But the Lutheran creeds are not as accessible as Reformed:

I think that most modern American Evangelical readers, attempting to read Lutheran confessional documents by himself or herself, will usually get lost more quickly, and give up sooner, than when reading the analogous Calvinist confessional texts.

But what about Luther’s Small Catechism? Luther’s Small Catechism present the opposite problem to our Evangelical seeker, it doesn’t provide enough perspective to engage him. Luther wrote the Small Catechism as the most basic introduction to the faith in an age of widespread ignorance among layfolk. It starts simply enough with the ten commands, “The First Commandment. ‘Thou shalt have no other gods.’ ‘What does this mean?’ ‘Answer. We should fear, love, and trust God above all thing.’”

While the Small Catechism is well suited for the purpose for which it was written, it is not well suited to our modal Evangelical seeker, who already has a passing knowledge of the Scriptures and is looking for deeper answers. While the Augsburg starts too far down the stream for our Evangelical autodidact, the Small Catechism, as it were, starts too early to engage the same person.

In contrast, the Shorter Catechism is highly memorable and even inspiring.

And then Lutheranism suffers from a sacramental bridge too far:

Lutherans believe that God works through the sacrament with the Word, and so God actually confers grace in and through baptism and the Supper. For Lutherans, it is God who works through these means, and not man. Therefore Christians really receive God’s forgiveness through Christ when we are united with Christ in baptism, and receive Jesus’ true body and the blood poured out for our forgiveness in the bread and wine that we receive.

While this may seem to be theological nit-picking, the differences create important differences in the spiritual and ecclesiastical experience of the average layfolk in the two traditions.

Philip Cary wrote several papers a few years back that helpfully contrast the general Evangelical/Protestant understanding of “sola fide” with the role of the sacraments in Luther’s understanding of “sola fide.” Cary characterizes the standard Protestant view of “sola fide” with this syllogism:

Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.

This syllogism implies what Cary calls this the requirement of “reflective faith.”

The hour I first believed, the moment when I can first say “I truly believe in Christ” is the moment of my salvation, of my conversion and turning from death to life. What matters is that moment of conversion, not the sacrament of baptism, because everything depends on my being able to say “I believe.” For only if I know that I truly believe can I confidently conclude: I am saved. . . .

In contrast, Luther’s “sola fide” for Cary is grounded not in the believer’s internal act of will, but in the work of Christ applied to “me” in baptism. Cary characterizes Luther’s syllogism this way:

Major premise: Christ told me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Minor premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).

Cary observes that the “difference is subtle but makes a huge logical difference in the outcome.” First, Christ’s promise is spoken to me in baptism. It is “Christ who speaks the baptismal formula” through the mouth of the pastor (or the lay baptizer in the case of emergency). These words are spoken to “me in particular.”

I see Rogers/Cary’s point, sort of. But what exactly does Christ’s promise in baptism have to do with sola fide? Luther did believe, did he not, that faith was the instrument by which we receive Christ’s righteousness or the way we trust the promises of God. It is one thing for Christ to speak. It is another for that speaking to be true of me. One is the doctrine of Christ. The other is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (who regenerates for saving faith). So how Cary is addressing the significance of sola fide except in a couple of removed steps of theological reasoning, I don’t know.

But the payoff for Rogers, the way that evangelicals might find Lutheranism more appealing, is the way that experimental Calvinists have been attracting Protestants for over four centuries — that is, by really, really, really meaning it. Rogers is on to this when he concludes:

If Lutherans really believe what their theology says about Word and Sacrament, then I think they would be equally passionate about engaging other Christians: When Christians understand what Christ offers in the sacraments, that understanding, and what is actually received, changes their lives because they come into direct contact with the death and new life of Jesus.

That’s all you need to appeal to the young restless. Tell then that ideas (read doctrines) have consequences and that believing those ideas will change your life. Voila! You’re inflamed.

The Phebe Bartlet Syndrome

Leon Brown wonders:

Asked differently, should we put a smile on our faces for a hour and a half on Sunday mornings when things are truly chaotic in the home? No sooner than we depart the church building, we are met by disobedient children and dueling spouses. Our pornography addiction resurfaces; our anger meets us again; we are back in reality.

I wonder if in some of our churches there is no place for grieving, mourning, lamenting, suffering, and acknowledging sin in more places than the corporate confession? While I have not conducted an analysis of every Reformed and Presbyterian Church in the US, I know this to be true from my personal experience and in my conversations with other pastors. Sunday mornings are the time to be on your best behavior. You cannot show weakness; you cannot fail. Lest the corporate confession of sin, there is no place for brokenness. There is an imaginary sign above the entrance of the church that says, “This is the place for those in perfect health.”

Could the reason be a piety in which earnestness only counts as genuine faith?

Discerning the Spirit (or swallowing Him feathers and all)

Since I managed to attract the experimental Calvinists’ attention with a few questions about the need to read the Bible in a way that inflames readers, maybe the glowing ones can help with a question I posed once before but never received a convincing answer. (BTW, isn’t it a good thing if someone simply — sorry for the adverb — reads the Bible? Am I inadequate if I don’t guzzle the words of life? And for those who cite the Psalms to defend an earnest reading of Scripture, I sure wish they could keep in mind that this desire came at a time when Bibles were not exactly handy — cheap or widely distributed.)

Here’s the question, if earnestness is so desirable, even necessary (?), why does it not prevent the likes of Jonathan Edwards from seeing the problems of a four-year old who goes through what Phebe Bartlet did to obtain the effects of a conversion? The fans of Edwards generally gloss over Phebe’s conversion, but Edwards did not since it was a prime example of the positive benefits of the awakening in Northampton:

She was born in March, 1731. About the latter end of April, or beginning of May, 1735, she was greatly affected by the talk of her brother, who had been hopefully converted a little before, at about eleven years of age, and then seriously talked to her about the great things of religion. Her parents did not know of it at that time, and were not wont, in the counsels they gave to their children, particularly to direct themselves to her, being so young, and, as they supposed, not capable of understanding. But after her brother had talked to her, they observed her very earnestly listen to the advice they gave to the other children; and she was observed very constantly to retire, several times in a day, as was concluded, for secret prayer. She grew more and more engaged in religion, and was more frequent in her closet; till at last she was wont to visit it five or six times a day: and was so engaged in it, that nothing would at any time divert her from her stated closet exercises. Her mother often observed and watched her, when such things occurred as she thought most likely to divert her, either by putting it out of her thoughts, or otherwise engaging her inclinations; but never could observe her to fail. She mentioned some very remarkable instances.

She once of her own accord spake of her unsuccessfulness, in that she could not find God, or to that purpose. But on Thursday, the last day of July, about the middle of the day, the child being in the closet, where it used to retire, its mother heard it speaking aloud; which was unusual, and never had been observed before. And her voice seemed to be as of one exceedingly importunate and engaged; but her mother could distinctly hear only these words, spoken in a childish manner, but with extraordinary earnestness, and out of distress of soul, pray, blessed Lord, give me salvation! I pray, beg, pardon all my sins! When the child had done prayer, she came out of the closet, sat down by her mother, and cried out aloud. Her mother very earnestly asked her several times what the matter was, before she would make any answer; but she continued crying, and writhing her body to and fro, like one in anguish of spirit. Her mother then asked her, whether she was afraid that God would not give her salvation. She then answered, Yes, I am afraid I shall go to hell! Her mother then endeavored to quiet her, and told her she would not have her cry, she must be a good girl, and pray every day, and she hoped God would give her salvation. But this did not quiet her at all; she continued thus earnestly crying, and taking on for some time, till at length she suddenly ceased crying, and began to smile, and presently said with a smiling countenance, Mother, the kingdom of heaven is come to me! Her mother was surprised at the sudden alteration, and at the speech; and knew not what to make of it; but at first said nothing to her. The child presently spake again, and said, There is another come to me, and there is another, there is three; and being asked what she meant, she answered, One is, Thy will be done, and there is another, Enjoy Him for ever; by which it seems, that when the child said, There is three come to me; she meant three passages of her catechism that came to her mind.

After the child had said this, she retired again into her closet, and her mother went over to her brother’s, who was next neighbor; and when she came back, the child, being come out of the closet, meets her mother with this cheerful speech; I can find God now! referring to what she had before complained of, that she could not find God. Then the child spoke again and said, I love God! Her mother asked her, how well she loved God, whether she loved God better than her father and mother. She said, Yes. Then she asked her, whether she loved God better than her little sister Rachel. She answered, Yes, better than any thing!

So many problems here, among them publicizing a piety that is a tad self-righteous — “I love God more than my parents do.” If any minister today wrote about a four-year old conversion in this manner, chances are his session or consistory would advise against publication, and the parents might ask for the pastor to stay away. Who wants to see a four-year writhe out of spiritual anguish (who wants to see a twenty-two year old writhe during conversion?)? But Edwards gets a pass because he is — well — Edwards. Yet, what kind of discernment did he show in his observations about Phoebe or having them published internationally as evidence of the awakening’s benefits? Furthermore, is this lack of discernment what comes with a quest for zeal? As long as someone is moved, quickened, earnest, we don’t raise questions about the manifestations of that zeal?

Some people seem to think I need help. I am asking for it.

Calvinism Envy

Mark Tooley wishes Methodists were more like Calvinists. (H.L. Mencken couldn’t tell a difference when it came to Prohibition and World War I.)

Calvinists are sometimes mocked but they do have their own élan. These determined people endured the flames, created their own cosmology, generated revolutions, crossed oceans, conquered virgin lands, built civilizations, and writ themselves large across history. Calvinism inspired literature, art, work ethics, and systems of governance. Theirs is a world of fire and drama. Think John Knox, Oliver Cromwell, Jonathan Edwards, Rembrandt, Hester Prynne wearing the brand of her Scarlet Letter, Woodrow Wilson, George C. Scott in “Hardcore,” or a bewhiskered Francis Schaeffer in his lederhosen traipsing about the Alps. They may not always be easily lovable but they must command respect. Theirs is a firm, unflinching identity.

As a Methodist, I’m jealous of the Calvinists. . . . Where’s the drama in Methodism? Methodists typically are amiable people, earnest, quiet, dutiful, often colorless, diligent but not renowned for intellectual rigor, art, literature or political theory. Methodism transformed Britain, shaped America, and has influenced the world. It fostered education, charity, philanthropy, a democratic ethos, and social reform. But Methodism doesn’t easily spark the electricity that Calvinism often has. Instead it evokes images of potluck suppers, hymn sings and ice cream socials. Very nice.

In point of fact, Methodism did once spark experimental, culture-transforming Protestantism with the best of the Edwardseans. The problem was that it cooled off the way most movements do when they organize and form structures. Then Wesleyanism needed the kick of Holiness (read Nazarenes) or a second dollop of the Holy Spirit (read Pentecostals) to reignite the fire.

The source of Tooley’s envy is John Piper’s recent poem, The Calvinist, set to video. (The sort of financing, planning, and producing that go into even a small video like this do tend to sap the vigor of even Piper’s earnestness.) Here are a few lines:

See him on his knees,
Hear his constant pleas:
Heart of ev’ry aim:
“Hallowed be Your name.”

See him in the Word,
Helpless, cool, unstirred,
Heaping on the pyre
Heed until the fire.

See him with his books:
Tree beside the brooks,
Drinking at the root
Till the branch bear fruit.

It won’t rival Horatio Bonar, so why did it turn Tooley’s head? It likely goes back to the way that Puritanism has dominated the English-speaking world’s idea of Calvinism. And of course, no Protestant group, not even those world-changers, the Dutch-American Calvinists, can rival the way that the Puritans continue to enrapture and repel.

But if Tooley wants to see a different strain of Calvinism, one less exceptionalist and more restrained, he only needs to visit any congregation of the OPC. There he will find pot-fatalist suppers, hymn sings, and even the avoidance of stimulants (e.g., grape juice). That’s not a put down or a recommendation. It is (what it is) a communion Christ founded.