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).