The current fissure in pop-Calvinism
May 22, 2014
The intramural debates within popular Calvinist movements in America, which I will call “pop-Calvinism” for short, are enormously difficult to navigate for the outside observer, even for many on the inside. Here is my attempt to explain some of them, partially and inadequately.
As for myself, I have had one foot in and one foot out of the conservative Reformed world for years, including its vast and complicated network of conferences, popular leaders, conferences, publishing houses, conferences, seminaries, and, oh, conferences. There is much to admire here, the feeding of a doctrinally-starved evangelicalism, but the current mess undermines the gospel imperative that is so loudly touted.
Brief Overview of the Movement
Pop-Calvinism is a mixture of “low church” populist, voluntarist action on the one hand, with doctrinal systems and stability on the other hand. It is a church movement, but the church as such is not the driving force. Its energy is derived from the parachurch ministries that feed the machine, so to speak. These ministries include Ligonier, Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition (TGC), The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (Ref21), and Together for the Gospel (T4G). It would be hard for anyone to tell the difference between them, especially the regular conferences sponsored by each. Ligonier and Desiring God have a certain seniority, founded by R. C. Sproul and John Piper respectively, although TGC is probably the most influential today. For the last decade or more, these conferences have featured the same dozen or so speakers. The leading publishing house within the movement is Crossway, producer of the popular ESV Study Bible and a wide array of other ESV Bibles. As an aside, I find it interesting to observe how the ESV has supplanted the NIV and NKJV within pop-Calvinist circles. I like the ESV, but I admit to proudly displaying my big NIV Study Bible in protest to the overblown rhetoric surrounding the ESV’s truthiness.
As for seminaries of influence, Southern in Louisville has emerged as a beacon for the movement, heavily dominated by the vision of Albert Mohler. There is also Westminster in Philly and the various RTS campuses throughout the South. Piper and MacArthur have each founded seminaries, both of which are as yet unaccredited by ATS. There are differences among all of these schools, especially depending upon whether they serve a more Presbyterian constituency or a more Baptist/Free-Church constituency. Also, those who identify with pop-Calvinism can be found within more broadly evangelical seminaries like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Gordon-Conwell. The latter is an interesting case to observe. Gordon-Conwell was once a favorite for Reformed evangelicals — where Tim Keller graduated, for example — but the seminary’s latitude on women’s ordination and overall moderation has resulted in most pop-Calvinists flocking elsewhere. In the 70’s and 80’s, Meredith Kline and Roger Nicole, both at Gordon-Conwell, represented a more moderate expression of conservative Reformed theology — “moderate” in today’s climate. I would say that Sproul is also representative of this, on the whole, especially now that he has (thankfully) backed away from his late conversion to Young Earth Creationism, which was definitely not a marker for biblical fidelity among Calvinists — though many pop-Calvinists today wish that it was.
The Divisions in the Movement
The most significant dissenting voice within pop-Calvinism is, not surprisingly, among those who would disassociate themselves from pop-Calvinism in favor of a more “old school,” church-centric expression of Reformed theology. Westminster Seminary California (WSC), the White Horse Inn radio program, and Modern Reformation magazine are at the center of this more scholastic, less pietistic Calvinism. Michael Horton, D. G. Hart, and R. Scott Clark are the big names. Horton will receive some invitations to pop-Calvinist conferences, but these guys are rather critical of pop-Calvinism’s obsession with conferences. They prefer the very unsexy ministry of Word and Sacraments. The celebrity culture of pop-Calvinism is, therefore, under heavy criticism from these fellows, though they have to admit their own celebrity status within their niche. This concern about celebrity pastors is now a common self-criticism from within the pop-Calvinist ranks, but (of course) the same pastors still speak at the same conferences throughout the year. No one wants to pay money to hear Joe Schmo from Podunk Presbyterian Church with 120 members.
While Westminster West has provided the intellectual criticism of pop-Calvinism, even though simultaneously benefiting from this movement and (partially) still located within the movement, the Tullian Tchividjian fiasco has occasioned a broader reconsideration of pop-Calvinism’s virtues and status within evangelicalism. Who is Tullian Tchividjian? He is the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida, succeeding the influential evangelical leader, D. James Kennedy. He is also the grandson of Billy Graham. Tchividjian has not been shy about targeting the moralism within evangelical culture. This does not make him a liberal anymore than I am a liberal. Tchividjian is a conservative on all of the standard litmus tests, just as I am. Nonetheless, Tchibidjian is not happy with the priorities and foci of evangelicalism, including many of the Reformed warriors at the intellectual helm. Tchividjian preaches a simple gospel, though not simplistic. Christ has done everything for our salvation. There are no conditions. Faith is not a virtue. Calvin taught the same.
To be sure, Tchividjian could use a more expansive exegetical apparatus. He is currently heavily concentrated on this liberating message of the gospel, hence the name of his ministry: Liberate. He has been careless at times. If you were to isolate some of his statements, the accusation of “antinomian” would make sense. But Tchividjian is a pastor first and foremost. He is not a scholar. He is still accountable to the essentials of Reformed theology, but he is not concerned with over-qualifying everything he says. For those of us who have listened to far too many punctilious sermons from perfectly orthodox Calvinists, Tchividjian is a welcome relief.
Obviously, the criticisms leveled at pop-Calvinism could also apply to Tchividjian. He has started a ministry, Liberate, heavily focused around himself and his vision for the church. This seems to be an unavoidable feature of today’s appetite for social media and media consumption. The advantage is that Tchividjian is offering a counterpoint to the dominance of TGC leaders. TGC is extraordinarily protective of itself and the networks within its influence. And this is Tchividjian’s understanding of why TGC and himself have parted ways. According to The Wartburg Watch, the real motivation behind his status as persona non grata is the sex abuse scandal within Sovereign Grace Ministries. Tchividjian has criticized the handling of the situation by SGM and especially the “old boys club” mentality seemingly exhibited by some key TGC leaders in their ready defense of C. J. Mahaney. You can listen to an interview with Tchividjian on the Janet Mefferd Show. Mefferd provides a helpful, though brief, background to the controversy at the beginning of the show.
Aside from the SGM scandal, I think it is helpful to see Tchividjian as a casualty within a larger and disconcerting trend within Reformed evangelicalism. Perhaps “casualty” is being a bit too dramatic, since Tchividjian is doing just fine for himself. Nonetheless, the evidence seems overwhelming that the pop-Calvinist guardians are closing ranks, purifying and fortifying for the sake of the gospel, or so they say. Tchividjian is not conforming to the prescribed modus operandi of the pop-Calvinist leaders. This may not be related, but I find it fascinating that Coral Ridge-founded Knox Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the PCA, quickly hired Bruce Waltke after his resignation from RTS for calling Creationism a cult. Also, Knox’s academic dean and associate systematics professor is R. Michael Allen, author of an irenic introduction to Reformed theology and a reader/introduction to Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Do not expect the same from the bastions of pop-Calvinism.
Lastly, I must commend Jonathan Merritt’s recent article at Religion News Service: “The troubling trends in America’s ‘Calvinist revival.'” Merritt identifies three trends: isolationism, tribalism, and egotism, providing an informed account of each. It is true that these trends can be identified in an any number of sub-cultures and movements within Christianity, and so it would not be too strenuous to discover the same trends in liberal/radical networks of oldline Protestantism. But, like all of those mentioned above, I care far more about evangelicalism than liberalism, which should motivate us toward greater self-scrutiny and accountability.
There is much more that I can say and needs to be said, but for the sake of blogging brevity I will stop.