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.)

34 thoughts on “Calvinism as “The Big Tent”?”

  1. I cringe at the elevation of complementarianism as primary to Calvinism. Some of the very best thinkers in the reformed tradition are not so dogmatic on that point. Why are the t4g folks so eager to find their fundamentals? Don’t they know how that story ends?

  2. David A,

    Not giving them attention has allowed them to receive the power they have. Just look at how organized these people are. They have multiple conferences per year, church planting movements (Acts 29), various organizations (Together for the Gospel, the Gospel Coalition, etc.), blogs galore which are very connected, centralized, & organized, etc. All this is perfectly fine in and of itself. However, they are adding things to the Gospel & excluding those who are “in” who have always been considered “in.” In this video it is clear that they believe that if you have a brain, take the Bible seriously, and have a desire for others to hear about Jesus then you’ll naturally be a Calvinist. This is unacceptable. It has to be called for what it is, and we need more scholars and leaders speaking out against it or else more seminaries will be taken over & more Christians will be led to believe it’s their only option. Because of this, I think if you care about American evangelicalism then giving these people attention and speaking out about it is the only way to go.

    1. David, I’m more with John on this one. They already have attention. The question is whether alternative voices will be raised to call people to different ways of understanding a faithful, biblical Christian identity.

  3. Daniel,

    What answer would you give to Mohler for the question, “Where else are they gonna go? What other options are there?”

    Where can young people go other than these people who care about the Gospel and take the Bible seriously? What organized options do we have? What conferences are there? How would you answer Mohler about this? He seems to think if you’re committed to those things he listed and you want to join a movement then you’re going to be homeless unless you join them. What do you say about this?

    1. Very good question, John and Mason. I’m in that position. There is no nationwide association for moderate Evangelicals. The only options seem to be the New Reformed or the mainline. We desperately need a movement of moderate Evangelicals that embraces egalitarianism, science, and an open mind regarding the Scriptures WITHOUT embracing nominalism. I don’t understand why moderate to liberal Evangelicals seem to slide toward nominalism. Just because we accept evolution, egalitarianism et al does not mean we can’t have just as much passion as the New Reformed.

  4. “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’s an interesting perspective. I want to believe it, but I’m struggling being quite this optimistic. The “unity” of T4G specifically is not unity for unity’s sake at all. Nor is it unity for the gospel’s sake. It is clearly division in the guise of unity. You can’t say, “We will set aside theological differences to unite around the gospel,” and then tell people that they’re endangering the gospel if they’re not also complementarians who believe in inerrancy. It seems like little more than a clever ruse to me.

    But I’m willing to try out the optimism you offer here, Daniel. I hope it pans out to truly lead to a uniting Church rather than simply a re-branded fundamentalism.

    1. Will, you’ve raised some very important criticisms both there and on your own site. One of the challenges in all this is that everyone thinks they’re right and that, to some degree, the folks who disagree are getting the story wrong. But if one of the things I think they’re getting wrong is that they’re drawing the circle too small, I can’t right that wrong by drawing an equally small circle three paces to the left. I’m not entirely sure how to do better, and I’m more likely to be patient with folks a bit more to the left of these guys, but I need to start figuring out how to embody the sort of Christian embrace that I say I want them to advocate, too.

      1. I completely agree. I guess I’m struggling with two big issues. First, I’m not trying to draw a circle that excludes them. I want to celebrate what they’re doing and include them, but I’m finding that if I don’t agree with them on their pet issues, then no matter how big my circle is in theory, they won’t allow themselves to be put in it. In my world our circles can overlap; in their world no such overlap is possible.

        The other problem is that, having grown up in the wacko version of fundamentalism, I’m concerned about where this group may go even without intending to.

        But I readily admit that I need the perspective that you’re offering here, so thank you. I can agree with your patient approach even if it takes a while for me to embrace it emotionally.

  5. John has a good point. The Reformed tradition has made efforts to be that place to go in a way other traditions have not.

    This does not make them correct, or the best path for evangelicalism to take, but it has certainly extended their influence.

    Most of my friends who have become invested in the young and Reformed movement seem to have done so for exactly that reason, no one could point out another place their newfound passion for Scripture and doctrine would find a home. So, inevitably, they began to drift in that direction.

    If not there, where? I’m not sure, but for me it’s not T4G. Which is probably why my friends feel they have a theological home far more than I do.

  6. You wouldn’t count Douglas Moo, Thomas Schreiner, or D.A. Carson among top evangelical Pauline theologians of the day? And while you point to Gorham, Hays, Wright, et al., as the respected Pauline scholars of the day–for obvious reasons–do you think they will stand among those ranks a decade or two from now? Those who are “respected” are often those who receive the most approval of others, not necessarily those who are most accurate or truthful. Respect in the professional community means only so much. Now I’m not saying anything for or against any of these guys or their theology. Stephen Hawking is among the most respected physicists of the day, but clearly he is dead-wrong about his atheistic claims and ideas of multiple universes (which cannot be tested empirically and thus is not true science). What I mean to say is that I don’t think majority support can be used in defense of any one idea or theology–as I’m sure you’ll agree too, since many of your views are in the minority in the evangelical world and yet may be credible.

    I used to belong to DeYoung’s church during his first year in the pastorate at University Reformed Church, during my last year at Michigan State (2004-05). He, along with the elders and men of URC, are certainly among the most formative godly influences in my life. It wasn’t Calvinism per se that won, but the burning flame of holy, wise, loving Christ-centeredness that shines from Kevin and the men of URC. I saw the difference in their lives brought about by a sovereign, all-powerful, God of complete grace — and that is why, in large measure, I’m a Calvinist.

    1. Some of how you answer the question of who will be standing in a decade or two depends on where you yourself are standing, for sure. D. A. Carson has a broad impact in evangelical NT scholarship, but I wouldn’t say he is significant in Paul studies. Schreiner is important in the conservative world as a gate keeper, but his work often does not grapple well with the positions of others, and in my recent readings in his work I’ve found that his presuppositions about his theology often keep him from seeing that the text is amenable to other readings. Like the men in the video, I find that the cites the text thinking that in doing so he has proven his interpretation of it. There’s a difference, though, between the text and our readings! Moo has done a lot of work in Romans, and his NICNT will likely be in use for a good while.

      Richard Hays has been a leading voice in a major translation debate (pistis Christou) that is not only changing how Bibles are translated but also how people think about the role of Jesus’ death and our response to it in Paul’s theology. It’s helping people to rethink what the righteousness of God means, and what it means to be saved by faith/fulness versus works. He also has what is likely the most important biblical ethics books written in a generation. And his work on intertextuality continues to serve as a touchstone for other people’s work. Even where people disagree with him on these points, they have to talk about him. This is why Hays is a great NT scholar in a way that these other folks aren’t. He is making people rethink a slew of things they thought they knew. So even if he’s wrong, he will continue to be important.

  7. Well written Daniel.

    Andrew Hall,
    It is that same fervor for the Lord that also leads me to admire and learn from many ministers of the calvinist persuasion. I rejoice that both you and I have leaders that we can look up to in this respect. The issue here seems to be of a different note though—and I say this with as much gentleness, love and respect for these people who are so much further along spiritually than I—integrity/honesty is as much an attribute of godliness as any other trait. The message they are preaching is many times a gospel to the exclusion of anyone who falls outside their tradition. This is not honest, and they ought to widen their boundaries and be more inclusive. Surely, determining exactly where those boundaries lay may be a complex project, but regardless we should be ready to admit that orthodox christianity does not equal calvinism in a 1-1 sense.

    I guess the question that remains, for me at least, is what measures should be taken to promote a resolution to this? A biblical solution appropriate for our modern context…

  8. This is an excellent piece, Daniel. Thanks. I agree with you that the most significant Pauline scholarship is being done by non-Calvinists, and probably because the new perspective has opened up massive new territory that we have only just begun to explore.

    The question, it seems to me, will be whether a coherent practicable and teachable theology will emerge from that research that will have a comparable evangelical force. The new perspective has a strongly Arminian feel to it, but it takes us well beyond that in its framing of Pauline theology, and I don’t think enough work has been done to make it user-friendly or sufficiently cogent at a popular level to counter—or even engage in good dialogue with—the resurgent Calvinist paradigm.

  9. I wonder if the problem with finding a strong movement of “moderate evangelicals”, which I would be inclined to classify myself as, is akin to the difficulty of finding a cohesive political group of independents. While you can only go so far until you are no longer conservative — and the same applies to the liberal camp — you can balance a scale a number of different ways.

    For instance, I’ve noticed that a number of people who end up near the center are rather open with regard to homosexuality in the church. I, however, accept a more traditional view on that particular matter and consequently would adamantly disagree with those who think even monogamous homosexual partnerships are acceptable. On the other hand, I would tend to classify myself as a universalist which is something that those with a more traditional soteriology, center though they may be overall, would adamantly disagree with me about.

    Though we can, I hope, all agree in being open-minded and willing to discuss and debate doctrinal matters, unless that is all we mean by “strong movement,” it is rather hard to envision how moderates, that is when the whole calculus is said and done, can be very cohesive when, with regard to the particulars, we are all over the map.

  10. You all seem to be happy to now state that inerrancy is clearly divisive and wrong.

    But was it so clearly wrong 20-30 years ago when the Biblical Inerrancy conferences cemented it as an evangelical plank? Who was valuidly saying go slow then?

      1. neither was Carl Henry. In fact he said the dead opposite. He wasn’t denying his belief in inerrancy, just that it wasn’t a necessary component of an evangelical confession.

  11. In your introductions I thought you were in support of the position of the video, thank God I kept reading. Watching that video was a bit scary to me personally. I’m not a Calvinist (TULIP – is it sad that we have reduced Calvinism to this, I’m sure he had more to say about other biblical subjects?), and I’m a Pentecostal I am way outside of their tent.

  12. And where would St. Karl of Basel fit in this reformed big tent? Those of us who have been shaped by his theology may feel a little like step-children in places like the PCA.

  13. Daniel,

    I am a Calvinist (at least 4-point), complementarian and believe in innerancy yet I really love this post. In fact, I was really put off by that video and think too many new-calvinists are divisive. Too many times I have heard people question the salvation of others because they “don’t believe in the the doctrines of grace”. Uugghhhh. In fact, Michael Gorman is one of my favorite pauline scholars (see my interview with him here: http://thekingandhiskingdom.blogspot.com/2010/06/interview-with-michael-gorman.html). Well….I’m going to to go now.

  14. I am a Calvinist but not this form of “New Calvinism”. I am an egalitarian, probably more comfortable with infallibility of Scripture than inerrancy per se.

    Please take into mind that not all Calvinists fall into the category of these “New Calvinists”. Actually, there is a “Neo-Calvinist” movement that flow from Europe, especially Holland, rather than the Anglo-Scot movement in the English speaking evangelicalism, represented more here. Abraham Kuyper, for instance, would be a foundational Reformed thinker for the “Neo-Calvinist” tradition. I find myself more comfortable in that tradition that emphasizes more a worldview approach, takes seriously science and culture, social justice – all that moderate evangelicalism that you are searching for – though still holds onto TULIP but not in a hardcore sense.

    And, yet, of course, Christianity does not equal Calvinism of any brand! Nor reduced to any other tradition.

    But I do resent the fact that these more outspoken, media savvy hogging, New Calvinists have hijacked the calvinist label as if they are the only representatives, or even the “normative” representative of what a Calvinist is! People seem to forget the “other Calvinism.”

  15. Catholics and some Protestants & “Bible only” Christians believe in the universal or unlimited atonement of Christ, i.e. that He died on the cross for all men, the Elect (those predestined to heaven) and the Reprobate (those predestined to hell).

    The scriptural support that Christ died on the cross for everyone is overwhelming, among which:

    And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:15)

    And they sang a new song, saying: ”Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, (Revelation 5:9)

    Other verses like John 4:42 refers Christ as the Saviour of the world; 1 Timothy 4:10 calls God as the Saviour of all men, especially of those who believe; Hebrews 2:9 says that Christ tasted death for every one and 1 John 2:2 states that Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

    In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    “At the end of the parable of the lost sheep Jesus recalled that God’s love excludes no one: ‘So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.’

    He affirms that he came ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’; this last term is not restrictive, but contrasts the whole of humanity with the unique person of the redeemer who hands himself over to save us.

    The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: ‘There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 605)

  16. Hey everyone;

    I hate to interrupt a good conversation, but I have a question to field. I’m trying to get my mind around the whole “new” Calvinist thing. I want to explore both sides of it, both pro and con. The thing is, there’s no shortage of material to fill in the pro column; but I’m hard pressed to find critical scholarly work for the other side. I’ve so far read Dr. Olsons’ Against Calvinisms (synergist) , Jerry Vine’s (and others) Whosoever Will (four pointers); and I’m waiting on R. Scott Clarks Recovering Reformed Confession (five pointer). But I don’t know of any other critical scholarly. I sure would appreciate any suggestions. Thanks!

  17. OK, I admit, calling the authors of “Whosoever Will” four point Calvinists is a stretch. But in my defence they’re a confused bunch! I think they would identify, at best, as “Calvin-ish” – or maybe not? – (my head hurts!). What else is odd is that it seems as thought their trying to claim some neutral ground between Monergism and Synergism. Yet, on the other hand, the one thing in common is a defence of free will (ouch!). But it was an informative book none the less. And my guess is that their trying to avoid a split of the SBC. So I do admire their ecumenical spirit; but not so much their naivete. I mean, the young, restless, reformed will never go for this brand of, wish-washy, Calvin-light.

    The impression that I get so far in my studies – in trying to cut through the white-washing and dirty-politics (on all sides) – is that ultimately this comes down to a Mon vs. Syn debate; with a sub-context of Liberalism vs. Conservatism. I could have that backwards though? Maybe the Mon vs. Syn is only a paper tiger and the real context is Lib vs. Con? My suspicious is that it’s probably the latter.

    So I believe it’s inevitable that the SBC splits; their brand of “Calvin-washy” is simple to weak for ardent five point Calvinists; cast in the mold of Sproul, Edwards, Piper, and the like. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the young , restless, and reformers will stick around long enough to make as many converts as possible, then go. Viva la revolucion!

    So my goal is to taking an objective step back and weigh all sides before taking a stance. And what I’m particularly interested in at the moment is anymore five-point-defectors, although all suggestions are welcome. Thanks again!

    Belated Merry Christmas all!

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