Calvinism as “The Big Tent”?

Over the past few weeks I have had a thing or two to say about the kind of evangelicalism that I could see myself being part of. It’s the kind of place where folks can hold onto biblical authority with one hand while holding scholarly and historical criticism in the other. It’s the kind of place where what we do is as much a measure of who we are as what we believe. It’s the kind of place where women are equal. It’s the kind of place where getting our story straight is of tremendous importance, but where asserting the absoluteness of our particular version of Christianity is not.

One reason I want to keep having the conversation about the nature of evangelicalism is that other people are doing their own work to lay hold of the label and put it over very different content.

Today’s conversation starter is a recent video on the Gospel Coalition blog, featuring Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, and Kevin DeYoung.

The video is a round-table discussion of “the New Calvinism.” Based on comments made in the video, the basic tenants of this movement include: (1) a Calvinist/Reformed understanding of predestination of some people to life and other people to eternal death–what they refer to as “sovereignty;” (2) closely tied to point one is adherence to 4 or 5 points of Total depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the saints–what they refer to as “the doctrines of grace;” (3) authority (= inerrancy) of scripture, as something that (4) requires Calvinism and complementarianism (i.e., subordination of women to men at home and at church).

First, there are a lot of very good things going on with Gospel Coalition.

They talk about the importance of being united on these essentials, even while they continue to disagree about theological points such as ecclesiology and baptism. While I might not agree on the importance of continuing to be separate on those points of difference, it is genuinely a good thing that Christians seek out as many venues as possible for expressing the oneness we have in Christ. That has far too often been at the bottom of the Protestant agenda (if there), so this unifying impulse is a good thing.

Also, I believe they have rightly assessed that a huge swath of Christians is done with vapid, theology-free Christianity. They are meeting this need with a robust theological system and tying it back to scripture. That is a good impulse.

Finally, their hope is that this vibrancy will result in the same sort of missionary fruit that other Calvinist resurgences have produced. They want to see God glorified where God is not, and the mission agencies of the Southern Baptists and the PCA are backing up that desire better than many other churches’.

There are also places where their assessment of themselves and of others is problematic.

First, based simply on this video and its emphases, this is not a group that is together for the gospel, it is a group that is together for Calvinism. Untold numbers of Christians have believed in “the priority of God’s grace” being exercised in the cross of Christ on our behalf without also insisting that we had, for example, no free will to accept that offering extended to us. Put differently, Arminians believe the gospel.

Next, they are not a group gathered around the authority of scripture. They are a group gathered around a commitment to a particular set of readings of scripture. Again, myriad Christians (one might think of Wesleyans, specifically Methodists) read Paul with submission and yet do not become Calvinists. And hundreds of thousands find that the biblical narratives of women’s equality is binding on their consciences when it comes to gender roles in home and church.

The rhetoric functions as a means to wrap up their own interpretation of various passages and positions with believing the Bible itself. This is very, very dangerous. To believe in the Bible is not to believe in what Al Mohler or Lig Duncan or Daniel Kirk or Tom Wright says about the Bible. It is to believe that God has spoken there not that I have apprehended its correct meaning.

I do find it significant that few of the most important Paul scholars in our day and age are Calvinists in the sense outlined in the video. Richard Hays and Mike Gorman are Methodists. N. T. Wright is an Anglican with Reformed roots but with quite a different modern-day expression. John Barclay, Lou Martyn, Bruce Longenecker, Douglas Campbell… there’s not much serious Calvinism coming out of careful reading of Paul–and not much complementarianism, either.

Another point where they seem to be missing the mark is Mohler’s contention that Calvinism is resurging because of the secularism of society, and people want to know about their salvation, “Why me?” and so they turn to Calvin’s answer. But when they outline the points they stand for, they are consistently positioning themselves against other Christians. People are coming to Calvinism not because they’re confronting secular society, but because it gives robust (I daresay, at times, easy) answers to complicated questions about being a Christian. It offers the security of a theological fortress at a time when other Christians are telling them that the world is more complicated.

People are not fleeing to complementarianism because the world is secular.
People are not fleeing to a 6,000 year old earth because they want to know why they are believers when their neighbors aren’t.

This is an in-house reconfiguration of loyalties that is being paralleled in the political sphere. While a bunch of people are taking their disillusionment with the status quo and reinventing a mixed-middle, a huge number of people are listing right both theologically and politically, while a mirror reaction is sending some people further to the left. The disenchantment with what we came of age with is causing a number of reactions at once: some people rediscovering the past to which they long to return, some reconstructing using materials that used to be kept secret, some trying to run even faster to a future they hope will one day come to pass.

Together for the Gospel isn’t about retrenching as Christians in the face of secularism. It’s about one kind of Christianity appealing to Christians who can’t hold onto an authoritative Bible while embracing some of the middle-to-left developments in church and theology of the past 15-50 years.

So yes, being together is good. And being together for the gospel is even better. The latter is a laudable goal, but it will never be reached until it includes being together with Arminians and others. And much of the rhetoric of this group that speaks as though it represents “Christianity,” really only represents one (relatively small) way of making sense of biblical Christianity known as “Calvinism.”

So while I celebrate their willingness to have a big Calvinist tent, it is important that we not confuse that with representing anything like a truly big tent Christianity.

(NB: I was corrected twice about including someone as Reformed who would not so identify. I hereby repent in sackcloth & ashes, and have corrected the post.)

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