Where’d All These Calvinists Come From?
Two events served to bring to the front of my mind the growing prominence of reformed theology among the young in the American evangelical scene.
- I was having dinner in Manhattan a couple of years ago, seated between a couple of older prominent evangelical Anglicans. They were discussing the drought of good preaching that they had been surviving through for the last couple of decades. I said only a little to them (said that wasn’t my impression), but it made me notice the veritable garden that it seems to me in the circles I run in that God is growing up.
- At Together for the Gospel, April 2006, at one point I asked people to stand by ages. Out of 3,000 we had a few senior citizens. Some guys in their 50’s. A lot in their 40’s. A TON in their 30’s. And even MORE in their 20’s. Now, there could be a lot of reasons for that, but let me simply say that when Collin Hansen came out with his interesting article about “Young, Restless and Reformed” in the fall of 2006, I had already observed the phenomenon and agreed with the premise of his article–that there does seem to be something of a reformed revival among those born in the 1970s & 1980s.
The purpose of this series of posts is simply to address the question–why? And I mean that not in a theological sense (our God is sovereign, or because people read their Bibles) but in an historical sense. As a trained historian, I know that suggesting causation among historians is a bit like alchemy among chemists. But it’s just too interesting for me to pass up!!
I intend to suggest these sources in a roughly chronological order, wondering, if there were so few self-conscious Calvinists in the 1950’s how’d we get so many of them today?
1. C. H. Spurgeon
Source #1 is the only source I’ll mention which endured throughout the 20th century in a consistent way–the writings of C. H. Spurgeon.
But no one can top the continuing popularity of Spurgeon and his sermons.
Of course, behind Spurgeon, and quoted by him, were lots more–Edwards and Whitefield, Bunyan and Owen and the rest of the puritans (SIBBES!!), Luther and Calvin and the other reformers. If you look at the magnificent 57-volume Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit series of sermons, they are commended by a stunning host of the great and the good among mid-20th century evangelicals. Not only did Spurgeon’s younger contemporaries revere and recommend him (like B. H. Carroll, founder of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) but so did many of the most eminent among the preachers of 1950 and 1960. Simply look at some of those who wrote commendations for the reprinting of the Met Tab series by Pilgrim. Look who was exhorting everyone to buy and read these sermons, and in the most glowing of terms! WA Criswell and Billy Graham. Wilbur Smith and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Stephen Olford and John Walvoord. R. G. Lee and Charles Feinberg. Herschel Hobbs and Helmut Theilicke. John R. Rice and Harold Lindsell. J. Harold Smith and Curtis Vaughn. Jack Hyles and D. James Kennedy. That list is so extraordinary, that it’s pretty safe to say that you couldn’t have gotten that list of people to endorse the writings of anyone OTHER than C. H. Spurgeon! Some of them even wrote books against Calvinism, but they praised Spurgeon.
If Spurgeon was the underground aquifer bringing down the nutrients of earlier generations to those after him, then it was this generation of preachers–many of them anti-Calvinists–who, ironically, were the aquifers who brought us all Spurgeon. And friends, if you keep being told to buy Spurgeon, eventually you’ll probably read Spurgeon. And if you read Spurgeon, you’ll never be able to believe the charge that all Calvinists are Hyper-Calvinists, and that Calvinists can’t do missions and evangelism.
Spurgeon seemed about as healthy and balanced as a Bible-believing Christian can be. In his preaching He exalted God’s grace, centered on the cross of Christ, instructed Christians and pled with sinners.
It was Spurgeon who said in his sermon on I Cor. 1:23-24,
“I have my own private opinion, that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified, unless you preach what now-a-days is called Calvinism. I have my own ideas, and those I always state boldly. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism. Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith without works; not unless we preach the sovereignty of God in his dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor, I think, can we preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the peculiar redemption which Christ made for his elect and chosen people; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation, after having believed. Such a gospel I abhor. The gospel of the Bible is not such a gospel as that. We preach Christ and him crucified in a different fashion, and to all gainsayers we reply, ‘We have not so learned Christ.’”
Many of the ministers who now decry what these young people believe are the very ones who commended Spurgeon to them. And these young men have trusted their pastors recommendations.
That’s one of the places that I think all these young Calvinists have come from.
Special Added Value: I’m writing this in Geneva, Switzerland, where I’m to be lecturing and preaching until Thursday (DV). From the place where I’m staying, I have a clear view of mighty Mt. Blanc. I am reminded of the quote of one of Spurgeon’s admiring contemporaries, John A. Broadus, one of the founding professors of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Broadus said, “The people who sneer at Calvinism might as well sneer at Mt. Blanc.”
2. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
At the J. I. Packer conference held at Beeson Divinity School last autumn, Jim Packer was asked who the heroes on his mantle were. He mentioned six. One of them was Spurgeon. Another of them was D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Now this may seem strange considering the public division that came between Anglican evangelicals (like Jim Packer) and “the Doctor” (Lloyd-Jones) in the mid-1960’s. In short, an address Lloyd-Jones gave was taken as a public call for evangelical Anglicans to come out of the Church of England. This ended many joint projects in the 1960’s between brethren who had, in previous decades, labored together. What’s more, Packer and Lloyd-Jones had been especially close. Jim Packer had been an undergraduate with the Lloyd-Jones’ eldest daughter, Elizabeth (now Catherwood). She had introduced Jim Packer to her father, and the Doctor had been a huge encouragement to Packer theologically and spiritually. Furthermore, several years later, when Packer was living in London, he would go to hear Lloyd-Jones preach in the evenings as his own schedule allowed it. Their ties were deep, thus the division was painful.
Still, 40 years later, when Jim Packer is asked the question “who is the greatest man you’ve known” I have, on several occasions, heard him reply without hesitation “Martyn Lloyd-Jones.”
Lloyd-Jones is less well-known in American evangelicalism than in Britain. Though he made several trips to the US & Canada, Lloyd-Jones had an active preaching ministry in Britain for over 50 years, and most of it in the center of the nation–London. His preaching shaped countless thousands of Christians in the mid-20th century. His books–from Spiritual Depression to Studies in the Sermon on the Mount to Preaching and Preachers–are classics for Christian devotion and especially loved by ministers. His books, by numerous publishers, remain in print today, more than a quarter of a century after his death.
Lloyd-Jones was never partisan and narrow in his preaching. He rarely mentioned what we call “theological labels”, and yet his preaching was in no way shallow, dodging difficult theological issues. Lloyd-Jones was perhap the leading advocate of and pracititioner of expostional preaching in the mid-20th century English-speaking world. And God gifted him to powerfully bring the listener into the very presence of God as he preached.
Much of his preaching–like Spurgeon’s–lives on in print. Go to Amazon and you’ll find hundreds of titles by or about him. From his masterful series of sermons through Ephesians and Romans to little occasional pieces like “Will the Hospital Replace the Church?”, Lloyd-Jones was used of God to greatly enrich the minister’s library, and his heart. Like Spurgeon before him, the riches of previous ages are brought down to the reader today. J. C. Ryle and George Whitfield, John Owen and Richard Sibbes, Calvin and Luther–all are quoted, stories from their lives recounted in Lloyd-Jones’ sermons and writings.
He was also a man of tremendous stature. He was the one man in 1940s, 1950s, 1960s British evangelicalism that you had to deal with. His fingerprints were all over the broader evangelical movement–from Tyndale House in Cambridge to the Inter-Varsity Fellowship to its international expression, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, to the Christian Medical Society, to the Evangelical Library. On and on we could go.
Even if many of those who were born in the 1970s and 1980s haven’t heard of Lloyd-Jones, chances are their ministers have, and have been influenced by him. Both John Piper and Tim Keller have borne eloquent testimony to “the Doctor’s” influence on their own preaching. No other figure in the middle of the 20th century stood against the impoverished gospel evangelicals were preaching, and did it so insightfully, so biblically, so freshly, so regularly, so charitably–all without invoking a kind of narrow partisanship that wrongly divided the churches.
I never had the privilege of hearing Lloyd-Jones preach “live.” But if you did, or if you ever heard him recorded (which I have many times), read this section of one of his expositions from Romans 1, and see if you can’t “hear” him:
“Let us look at the first part of that statement: ‘they did not like to retain God in their knowledge. . . .’ What does that mean? The Revised Standard Version reads: ‘They did not see fit to acknowledge God,’ but even that is much too weak. What it really means is, ‘They did not approve of God,’ because the word that the Apostle uses is the word that is used for testing. It is the word that was employed for testing metals—gold and so on. A lump of metal would be shown to the expert with the query, Is this gold or is it not? They tried it by various tests on it. That is the word that is used. You apply tests—and what the Apostle is saying here is that mankind, having considered God, having examined Him, having ‘tested’ Him, decided to reject Him! Like the scientist who, given this lump, says, ‘No, this is not pure gold, this is an alloy; throw it away!’ Now that is the attitude of mankind towards God. They consider God. They are the judges, you see, and God is a subject for examination! ‘Ah, yes,’ they say, ‘very interesting; now let us see about this God! You say you believe in Him . . .’ and so on. They are going to get Him, and having done so, and in spite of this full knowledge which He has given in the ways that we have seen, they decide that they are not interested; it is not worth while to bother any longer about God! The Apostle Paul wrote this, remember, nineteen hundred years ago, but you see what a perfect description it is of mankind today. How interesting to have a discussion about religion and to talk about God! Should God do this or should He not do that, and what I think about God! They examine God and reject Him. ‘They did not like to retain God in their knowledge.’ What an appalling statement! What a terrible condition! That is the state of mankind; they did not think it worthwhile to retain God in their knowledge; they deliberately put Him on one side. And man in sin is doing this still.” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans 1, p. 383).
Where’d all these Calvinists come from? Quietly, all over the world young Christians, young ministers have had their spiritual tummies rumbling after they’ve been reading many of the spiritual bestsellers, books that are full of jokes and life tips, whose height of profundity have been something like “Lighten up and Live!” And someone has turned them on to Lloyd-Jones. And, by God’s grace, they have learned about the grace of God, and the God of that grace.
3. The Banner of Truth Trust
From the Great Plains of Kansas, I write a brief blog suggesting a third influence on the resurrection of Reformed Theology in this generation–The Banner of Truth Trust. In 1957 Iain Murray and others with a shared vision and funds began to reprint Puritan and other reformed titles. A magazine appeared, which re-aquainted us with ministers and authors of the past. Books appeared. Well-bound and attractively presented, no such editions of Reformed works from the English-speaking tradition had been popularly published for a century. Through consistently keeping key titles in print, carefully screening what would be published, word of mouth, huge 50% (or more) discounts for theological students, the Banner brought affordable, well-presented re-prints of classic works to a new generation. The libraries of our generation of ministers are filled with books written decades and even centuries earlier, newly re-printed. Some contemporary authors were published–not least of whom is Iain Murray himself. He has produced a series of productive works, uniting piety, theology and history, all in a popular style and with an eye to instructing and edifying the church.
But what was most exceptional about the Banner in the late 1950’s was its widespread distribution of literature from the past. The Princeton faculty teach us again through their books. Dutch Calvinsts and English Puritans appeared again. Readers were introduced to 19th-century divines (the Bonars, Charles Bridges). Furthermore, the Banner was in it for the long-term. They were theologically motivated. They were not put off publishing a work because it would not sell immediately. They gave time to allow an old classic to slowly disseminate through networks of Christians and fraternals of ministers. And their assiduous work in publishing in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s has clearly helped to bring forth (and equip) a harvest in the 1980s and 1990s and still today.
4. Evangelism Explosion
Some astute inquirers have noticed that all the influences I’ve mentioned so far have been British. A couple of observations about this. My wife and I lived in Britain for 6 1/2 years, and I would say that there is something in the British culture (perhaps it is part of living in a much older place) which is at home with given-ness. That is, where an American would say “that’s unfair” a British person might simply respond “that’s the way life is.” There is both maturity and resignation in this British response. Such different responses have advantages and disadvantages for both sides. It is simply the case that our friends in Britain are the children of those who stayed, and we Americans are all the children of those who left. Consider the interesting gene pool that’s created!
I’m not saying that Britain 70 or 80 years ago was a hotbed of Calvinism. It wasn’t. But there was an at-home-ness with the Bible’s teaching on election and predestination that seems somehow more alien to Americans. During the mid-20th century, Reformed theology was not totally absent from America. There was the Dutch Reformed community in Michigan and the mid-west. I first read Flavel and Baxter not from the Banner re-prints, but from those by Baker (though that Baker Book House is, sadly, long gone). A. W. Pink travelled around and made friends with various conservative Reformed Baptist ministers (among whom one was my great-grandfather, Leaman Winstead). But on the whole, the early and mid-20th-century was a desert time for Reformed theology in the broader English-speaking evangelical America.
And then came what many may see as an unlikely aid to the cause.
Among the most deadly objections to Calvinism among American evangelicals was the charge that it killed missions and evangelism. American evangelicals have had, for a hundred years or more, an inability to distinguish between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism. Calvinism teaches the absolute sovereignty of God and the real responsibility of man. Hyper-Calvinism teaches that because God is sovereign our actions, essentially, don’t matter. That is, because the end is already established, the means may be dispensed with. (Thank God Paul didn’t think that! Look at Romans 9-10–the strongest statement on predestination leads to the strongest call for missions and evangelism! He himself had been encouraged in his evangelism in Corinth by the doctrine of election–see Acts 18.) Even among those who could distinguish between the two, Calvinism was dismissed by saying that it always led to hyper-Calvinism. The slippery slope is always a fascinating argument. The inevitablity of certain consequences from certain circumstances at least always sounds compelling.
And then came Evangelism Explosion. D. James Kennedy, a native of Augusta, Georgia, became the pastor of a little PCUS church in Ft. Lauderdale in 1959. He began training his people to do evangelism. And by 1962, he had organized this as a program called Evangelism Explosion. The book continues on, in its 4th edition. It has been used literally around the world. It is the subject of much debate and criticism among evangelicals. Missional types dismiss it as a modernistic sales job, assuming too much to be of any use today. Reformed types dismiss it as one-sided, coercive, or decisionistic. Nevertheless, neither of those sets of discussions need to detain us as a matter of history.
My suggestion is that Evangelism Explosion (and the subsequent dramatic growth of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, especially in the 1960’s) became a quiet, but telling piece of counter-evidence against the stereotype of Calvinism killing evangelism. Kennedy was unashamedly Calvinistic in the soteriology he presented in his sermons. He later joined the PCA, with the Westminster Confession as its doctrinal standard. Regardless of how consistent or inconsistent one takes aspects of EE to be with Reformed theology, a church that clearly meant to be Calvinistic pumping out evangelism, and evangelism training throughout the 1960s and 1970s was a telling argument in pragmatic America. I’m not sure anyone thought of it at the time. But I think that it substantially weakened the ground of the opponents of Reformed theology. A pastor born in the 1920s, coming to maturity in the 1940s may have assumed that Calvinism was as gone as the horse and buggy, and partly he may have assumed that because of the “evangelism-killing” argument. But a pastor born in the 1960s, maturing in the 1980s, would have a hard time taking it for granted that a Calvinistic theology always (slippery slope) leads to killing missions and evangelism. There would be too many churches around him using Evangelism Explosion.
5. The Inerrancy Controversy
In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been attempting to reconstruct the history of the resurgence of Calvinism among younger evangelicals in the late 20th century, and I’ve been attempting to do this even in the order of these posts. So I’m not suggesting that the first (or the tenth) reason I’ll give is the most important. Rather, I’m suggesting that in the 1940’s there was little encouragement, though there were Spurgeon re-prints. Then there was added the increasingly known preaching of Lloyd-Jones. To that, by the late 1950’s, you could add the re-prints of Banner of Truth. Then, in the 1960’s & 1970’s, I have suggested that the rise of Evangelism Explosion was quietly undermining one of the main objections American evangelicals had to a Calvinistic soteriology.
As we move into the 1970’s and 1980’s I would suggest that another main cause for the renewed popularity of Calvinism came through the Inerrancy Controversy. Controversy over the authority of Scripture has always been there. From the early church to the Reformation, various challenges to Scripture’s authority were met and defenses erected. From the rising deism inside “Christian” countries in the 17th and 18th centuries, to the early work of Biblical critics in the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible-believing Christians have had to articulate their understanding of God’s infallible working through sinful humans to compose His perfect Scriptures. From Gaussen in Geneva to Warfield in Princeton, the 19th-century churches produced careful defenses of the inerrancy of the Bible.
Controversy over the Bible has always been with us. But it is the storm summarized and energized by Harold Lindsell’s 1976 Battle for the Bible that I specifically have in mind. (See the 9Marks website under articles for an annotated bibliography on this issue.) The Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) was already in the depths of the storm by this time. The Southern Baptist Convention was just entering it. And evangelicalism at large became galvinized by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. Many of the most stalwart defenders of inerrancy were not Calvinists. But many were. Through this controversy, Jim Boice, RC Sproul, Jim Packer, Carl F. H. Henry, Roger Nicole and many other Calvinistic theologians were given larger audiences, especially among ministers. Old Princeton (especially the Hodges, Warfield & Machen) was re-introduced to a new generation.
But there was more to it all than young ministers beginning to read a Hodge here and there, or Carl Henry’s vast project (God, Revelation and Authority in 6 volumes!). Theology was being discussed. Young evangelicals were encouraged not simply to preach and pray, visit and counsel, but to engage in theological thinking, to argue systematics. And not only that, but the very shape of the arguments used to promote inerrancy were exemplary of the Reformed understanding of God’s complete and ultimate sovereignty over the completely responsible action of human agents. Much more could be said, but you get the idea. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, many young ministers were being educated theologically by theologians who had Calvinistic soteriology and a Reformed understanding of God and of His work with humanity. Part of what has led to Calvinism among the young has been the defense of Biblical inerrancy–in having a theological conversation at all, but especially by who was defending it, and how.
6. The Presbyterian Church in America
In the mid-twentieth century, Calvinism was at a low ebb in America (at least outside of Western Michigan!). I’ve suggested in this series some factors which explain something of its resurgence. The last one I suggested in the 1970s was the Inerrancy Controversy. In the early days of that–you could say in part, as some of that controversy’s earliest fruit (even before the turn-around of the Missouri Synod Lutherans and long before the recommitted conservatism of the Southern Baptist Convention’s leadership) was the founding of the Presbyterian Church in America.
Born out of theological controversy in what was then the southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS), representatives of 260 congregations met together in December of 1973 to form what would soon be re-named as the Presbyterian Church in America. Throughout the 1970s this connection of churches grew, mushrooming in the 1980s and 1990s. In its numbers are found many who were once members of Methodist, Baptist and Episcopalian churches. These churches (nearly 1500 of them at last count) have over 300,000 communicant members, and far more in attendance at their churches.
The official doctrinal standard of the PCA is a revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith, a document so associated with the history of Calvinism that it could almost be said to define it in the English-speaking world. This connection of churches became the home to well-known evangelical Calvinists such as D. James Kennedy and James Montgomery Boice. It’s seminary grew in size and influence (Covenant Theological Seminary) and Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, Orlando, Charlotte) though officially independent, has functioned since the 1970s as the training ground for many PCA ministers. These churches are marked by aggressive evangelism and missions. We’ve already considered Evangelism Explosion and the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (Ft. Lauderdale), but there are many others that became leaders nationally in evangelism. Briarwood Presbyterian (Birmingham, AL) the location of the denomination’s organizing meeting, has also been a vibrant evangelistic church. Campus Outreach has grown out of the ministries of that congregation. Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City is also a PCA congregation. Redeemer is a leader in teaching church planting to Presbtyerians and other evangelicals. Reformed University Fellowship is the very effective student arm of the PCA, prominent especially in southern universities. By the late 1990’s you could almost assume that the most seriously Bible-preaching and evangelistic congregations near major university campuses would not be Bible churches, or Baptist churches, but PCA congregations. There is no doubt that for the last 30 years, one of the major factors in the resurgence of Calvinism in American evangelicalism has been the organizing and growth of the PCA.
7. J. I. Packer
So far in this series we’ve considered influences from the Presbyterian or Baptist streams. It may surprise some to hear that I think one of the main reasons for the resurgences of Calvinism in American evangelicalism in the 1970s and 1980s came from Episcopalians! Historians know that Episcopalians (Anglicans) are historically a reformed denomination, but few Americans today would associate Episcopalianism or Anglicanism with Reformed theology. That reflects both our ignorance of history, and how much the Anglican tradition has changed over the centuries (especially with the rise of Anglo-Catholicism and theological Liberalism in the 19th century).
Nevertheless, Thomas Cranmer (the first protestant Archbishop of Canterbury) was a reformed theologian. The 39 Articles (the Church’s statement of faith) is a clearly Protestant, Calvinistic statement. The Puritan movement was largely a movement of Anglicans. The Westminster Confession was written for the Church of England. And Richard Sibbes was an Anglican!!
Anyway, it should not surprise us, therefore, that the English church has so strongly contributed to the revival of Calvinism in English-speaking America. Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, Banner of Truth–all of these are British influences. But in 1973 Hodder & Stoughton in England, and IVP in the US printed a book which had a large immediate effect, and an even larger longer-term effect. Did you notice how the 1970s and 1980s saw a number of books [gerund] God? Like Loving God, Desiring God, Trusting God. Where did that trend come from?
It came from J. I. Packer‘s book, Knowing God. It was published in 1973. And it has continued to sell, year after year, to seminarians, small-group leaders, Christian study groups. It has been read by hundreds of thousands of Christians. Packer has written many other things which have made him the current grandfather of this reformed movement. (He just turned 81 day before yesterday. Pray for more years of health and strength and ministry.) Many of us have disagreed with his work with ECT, but there is no denying that from his introduction to Owen’s Death of Death to his book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, to his many published articles on theology and history, Packer has been one of the best and clearest and most popular theological tutors of those Christians who’ve grown up in the evangelicalism of the 1980s & 1990s.
8. R. C. Sproul and John MacArthur
Among the popular Christian teachers and preachers of the early and mid-20th century who utilized the radio, and later, television, few if any were known to be champions of the doctrines of grace. Truett & Criswell among the Baptists, Walter A. Maier among the Lutherans, Charles Allen of the Methodists, Fosdick, MacCartney and Barnhouse among the Presbyterians, and of course Rome’s Fulton Sheen filled the airwaves of America in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Radio gave way to television. Liberals and Catholics, evangelicals and fundamentalists all had their programs; but few if any were distinguished by the kind of clear Spurgeonic championing of a Calvinistic gospel (as Lloyd-Jones was doing in London).
But in the 1960s and 1970s two men were raised up whose ministries were to last for decades, touching thousands of ministers and shaping them. One was a paedobaptist covenantalist, the other a dispensationalist. In 1965 or 1970, their commonalities might not have been so evident. But over the passing years and decades, as these ministries grew and prospered, as more and more of their teaching was stored and circulated on new technologies (cassette tapes, cd’s, internet MP3 files), as new depths of questioning orthodox belief were reached, that which these men have had in common became more apparent.
New technologies allowed their teaching to be stored and re-listened to or passed around in a way mere broadcasts could not be. Furthermore, as these technologies have continued to develop, they have become more convenient to access. And these teachers have used these technologies to defend historic protestant understandings of the Bible, and especially of the Gospel. The result is that the teaching ministries of RC Sproul and John MacArthur seem to only be increasing in their influence. From the east coast and the west, among Presbyterians and nondenominational types, and everything literally in between Florida and California, the teaching ministries of these two men have had a quiet, but consistently compounding effect for almost 40 years now. Their conferences are attended by thousands. Their books are legion. Their characters are, by God’s grace, unquestioned.
Certainly each of these two men is one of the most significant teachers of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of evangelical ministers, and have been so for some decades now. Their work has been more steady than spectacular, more quiet and consistent than sudden and electrifying. More Wesley than Whitefield (in manner). But when one looks at thousands of young evangelicals who identify with the doctrines of grace, there is no doubt that behind many of them stand the ministries of these two teachers of the Word–John MacArthur and RC Sproul.
9. John Piper
This is the one many of you have been waiting for. You knew it was coming.
Love Your Enemies, published in 1979 was his dissertation from 5 years earlier. Academically speaking, he’s a New Testament scholar. The Justification of God was published in 1983 from his teaching work, in part. Professionally speaking, he had worked as a Biblical Studies professor. But then, in 1986 a [gerund]-God book was published (like Knowing God, Loving God, Trusting God). It was called Desiring God. And with that book, pastor John Piper first put together for the reading public the adjective “Christian” with the noun “Hedonist.”
I remember when a friend first asked me about the book. I had not read it. And was both attracted and repelled by the thesis, as my friend enunciated it. As the years have rolled on, and I have read not only it, but most of the books that the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN, has written, I find myself repeatedly taken with the power and goodness of God and His Gospel in Piper’s words. John has a Puritan-like ability to stare at an idea unflinchingly, watch it, and then watch it some more, interrogate it, and then draw implications out of it that are both convincing and surprising, and maybe even startling!
John has taken his Jonathan Edwards-inspired meditations and published them on many different aspects of life and ministry–preaching, missions, suffering. His books, Desiring God Ministries, the many conferences he speaks at, all have made him probably the single most potent factor in this most recent rise of Reformed theology.
I hesitate to write that.
All the factors that I have mentioned before John and his work I do think are part of the explanation. But they are part of the explanation for how the wave, if you will, became so deep, so large, so overwhelming, but they were happening unnoticed, in the 1960’s and 1970’s and 1980’s–all preparing the ground, shifting the discourse, preparing the men–like John–who would be leaders in this latest resurgence. But it has been John who is the swelling wave hitting the coast. It is John who is the visible expression of many of these earlier men. His Desiring God Ministries is the conduit through whom so many of these others who have preceded him now find their work mediated to the rising generation.
Why John Piper? What explains the power of his ministry? All unction about God’s truth comes from God. All fructifying of our labors comes from God. But, in terms of human observations, what sets John’s labors off from those of so many others of us? Theological precision meeting up with spiritual, life-consuming passion. A profound hope imparting a serious joy leading to satisfying sacrifice.
The starkness of John’s statements, the uncompromising nature of his sermons’ calls and claims have captivated this supposedly word-weary generation. John may have turned 60 not too long ago, but his discipleship, his Bible reading, and his preaching and writing have more of the freshness of the young convert’s “anything, God, anything you ask of me” than they do of professorial overstuffed leather chairs with a retirement account to protect.
If nothing else, when he preaches, John makes it clear that the sovereignty of God he’s talking about is not the sovereignty of some musty philosophical argument. No, it’s the kind of dangerous sovereignty that means God may demand anything–or everything–from you at any time. (And God will never demand as much as He’s already given.) And it’s the kind of comforting sovereignty which points us to God’s kind providential care of his own, and which allows the believer to get through some otherwise desperate nights by considering Christ’s love at Calvary.
When everyone else has been out polling to see what people want to hear, or at least how they want to hear it, John has been meditating on Romans, and his own heart, and life as he sees and knows it. And he has been unsparing in reporting what he finds, whether it has to do with the greatness of God, or the foolishness of our own tiny goals and ambitions.
When all those seminarians and ministers in their 20’s stood up at Together for the Gospel in April of 2006, if I couldn’t give a 10-part answer, but if I had to give a 2-word human explanation for their presence there, I know what two words I would utter: “John Piper.”
10. The Rise of Secularism and Decline of Christian Nominalism
I first thought of these blog entries back in January. I had had a conversation or two with friends in which they asked my why I thought there was this resurgence of Calvinism among younger evangelicals. Of course, theologically, the answer is “because of the sovereignty of God.” But I’ve never been convinced by hyper-Calvinism’s argument that because God has determined the ends, the means don’t matter. Means do matter. And as a Christian, as an historian who had lived through the very change I was considering, I wondered what factors had been used by God.
Before I go further, I acknowledge that in this blog I depart from giving answers that even Arminian friends of mine could agree with. If my Arminian friends agree that this rise has happened/is happening, then there is no reason an Arminian should want to disagree about the effect of any of the previous nine influences I’ve noted. They may lament such influences, but they need not dissent from my suggestions, at least not for theological reasons.
This tenth and final influence that I note will be different.
When I doodled this list back in January, I tried to imagine the influences chronologically, like a picture slowly developing. Under God, where did this come from, who’s given it shape, lines, color? From the background noise of respect for Spurgeon and the reprinting of his sermons to the latest conference John Piper has addressed or blog he’s written, I’ve tried to trace out this path from inside American evangelicalism for the last several decades. This last influence that I suggest is, however, less immediately obvious. But I think it has been increasingly present throughout the last part of the 20th century in America. And I think it has shaped the “theological climate” in which weaker, more wan versions of Christianity pale and fade, and in which more uncut, vigorous versions thrive. It is the rise of secularism and decline of Christian nominalism.
This may seem as unlikely as saying that the Great Awakening was caused by the Enlightenment, but I think there is actually a little more reason to suspect this observation of being true. My fundamental thesis is this: Arminianism is a theodicy. That is, Arminianism tries to exculpate God from the problem of evil. It tries to make sense of God in a world with sin and suffering.
Much as the modern Limitedness of God and Process thinking has tried to get God off the hook by redefining what God knows or is responsible for, so its earlier ancestor—Arminianism—with the best of motives (honoring God) desired to make sense of God. (See Richard Mueller’s excellent study of Arminius, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy [Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1991] 309pp.) In the course of constructing a theology and philosophy and of exegeting Scripture, Arminius & Co redefined term after term so as to both present God as the majestic being He so clearly is, and us as the responsible beings we so clearly are. But they did this by reversing too many Biblical truths about who first chooses whom, and how specifically the choice is made, and to what end.
My point in this already too-long entry is not how much Arminianism changed, but how incomplete their labors were. They said God hadn’t predestined and elected the way most earlier Protestant theologians understood Scripture to teach, but they didn’t say God couldn’t. In a nominally Christian culture, Arminianism may appear to be a satisfying explanation of the problem of evil—“God’s good; it’s our fault”. But as the acids of modernity have eaten away at more and more of the Bible’s teachings and even presuppositions about God, that answer is proving woefully insufficient to more radical critics. It appears merely like moving the wrinkle in the carpet. A backslidden United Methodist may be satisfied with such teaching, but a Deist, a Buddhist or an atheist would have no reasons to be. A. C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and their like will not for a moment be satisfied with someone saying “Well, God could have made this world without suffering, but in order to be loved with dignity by free beings, He decided He must allow such sin and suffering as we experience.”
Really? Then hang being loved with dignity! Forget the whole experiment! It costs too much! Furthermore, what kind of God NEEDS to be worshipped? What kind of deity is this?!
And it’s this line of questioning that I think has quietly, deeply, perhaps subtly been re-shaping the field into one in which the half-measures of Arminianism are not even beginning to be satisfying. They are attractive to fewer and fewer people. Their adherents average age will grow even as their numbers shrink. They will be recruited mainly from the churched, and perhaps even those who’ve nurtured grievances against God, for allowing this or that to happen.
Reformed theology, on the other hand, teaches about a god who is GOD. The kind of objections that seem to motivate Arminianism are disallowed by the very presuppositions Calvinism understands the Bible to teach about God. This God is sovereign and exercises His sovereignty. This God is centered on Himself. And this God is understood to be morally good in being so Self-centered. In fact, it would be evil, wrong, deceptive for Him to be centered on anything other than His own glory. There is no apology about this.
This God saves to make His name known (read Exodus, or Ezekiel!). This God has created us to display His own power and glory, His holiness and mercy to His creation. Creation is a theatre for His glory. This is the God of Genesis 1 and Revelation 22. Even as the book of Revelation came not from John’s philosophical discussions in the king’s court, but from the crucible of persecution by worldly powers opposed to God, so this world’s increasingly open and categorical denials of God and His power will likely be met not by retreats, compromises, edits and revisions, but by awakenings and rediscoveries of the majesty and power of the true God who reveals Himself in the Bible, the God who made us and who will judge us, the God who in love pursued us even to the depths of the incarnation and humiliation of the cross.
This is Christianity straight and undiluted. And the questing, probing spirit of the rising generation has, by this God’s grace, found this Rock. May they stand upon it faithfully in these unbelieving times, until God calls them home to Himself.
Note: This piece combines what were originally ten separate blog posts written by Mark Dever in 2007.