The current fissure in pop-Calvinism

May 22, 2014

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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 DogmaticsDo 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.

25 Responses to “The current fissure in pop-Calvinism”

  1. Cuauhtemallan said

    All this mess that exists within low church Evangelicalism is one of the main reasons why I’m not a Protestant.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy have their own internal problems, quickly discovered by converts. But I will readily admit that Protestantism is in a sorry state, more than ever. We are living amidst revolutionary times, ecclesiastically-speaking, so I do not know what the future will hold.

      • Cuauhtemallan said

        The internal problems of those Churches are not nearly as messy as those of Protestantism (at least, those of low church Protestantism as Lutheranism and Anglicanism are very ordered). The idea that there are 30,000 Christian denominations (something that is actually a myth) comes precisely from what you detailed in your article. In actuality, there are just a few dozens at the most, but all the disorganization that exists within Evangelicalism is what has led to the anti-Chrsitian notion that there’s no order in Christianity and that there are too many versions of it to know which one is true.

      • Kevin Davis said

        Yes, I actually have no problem with admitting as much. I have been complaining about our divisions for years, especially in personal conversations and correspondence with others. I told a group of pastors recently that we have to “re-catholicize Protestantism.” The situation is dire, far more than evangelicals are willing to admit, still trading upon the success of recent generations. But that will change.

        I could just give-up altogether and embrace the loving arms of Rome or the Eastern patriarchs, but I am not at that point. I am still too focused on the clarity of the gospel in the local church and, for all of our pathetic divisions and general silliness, an evangelical Protestant church is where I believe this gospel is most clearly heard. Disagree as you will, this is what keeps me Protestant. I have to trust the Holy Spirit to sustain the church, not any fixed form or authoritative medium.

  2. Thanks for the post Kevin.

    Let me encourage you to hang in there. The only way to embrace the loving arms of Rome is to close one’s eyes to history and reality. Implicit faith might be a relief but it is a blind faith that someone, somewhere knows the unwritten apostolic tradition—about which the church knew nothing until the 4th century.

    If we actually consider the history and reality of Tridentine Romanism, as distinct from the shared pre-Tridentine Western church and the shared patristic church(es), I’m reasonably sure that “loving” isn’t the adjective I would use.

    Yes, the divisions among Protestants is a scandal but hiding the divisions under the robes of the Bishop of Rome is just as scandalous. I can’t even get Romanist traditionalists to submit to the magisterial teaching of Vatican II. They’re just as rebellious any Protestant. The only thing that actually unites Rome is formal submission to the Roman Bishop. Now, if we only knew who were or weren’t anti-popes in the 14th century or who the popes were in the 9th century and that’s just for starters.

    Clark a celebrity? That’s crazy talk.

    • Kevin Davis said

      When I was discussing all of this with my pastor recently, I told him that I knew too much history (and Roman dogma) to become Roman Catholic. Thanks for the encouragement. Embrace your semi-celebrity status!

      • No doubt the certainty of Rome’s institution has been considerably weakened by historical scholarship and the social sciences. But I can’t withhold from Rome its church status, not least since, from this Anglican’s perspective, she’s the trunk out of which we’re the protesting branches.

      • Kevin Davis said

        Yes, I would never withhold from Rome its church status either, and there is considerable ambiguity among the Reformers on this point, as I am sure you are well aware.

  3. Kim Fabricius said

    I share Kevin’s pathos over fissiparous Protestantism and R. Scott’s take on the clothesless emperor of Rome. Thanks, guys.

  4. You should have a conference about this.

  5. 2samuel127 said

    First time I have read your blog and I really like this entry. Adding my 2 cents, IMO the problem with American evangelicalism is the elevation of para-church groups such as T4G, TGC and 9Marks and their celebrity leaders over the local church. Many of these local churches have enough problems with their quasi-congregational polity which has been manipulated by heavy-handed authoritarian leaders to the point of being nothing more than a benevolent dictatorship in the best of circumstances and a tyrannical reign of terror in the worst. I lean to a presbyterian form of polity for several reasons. (Not to say it is perfect.) One reason I like presbyterianism is that, in theory, it allows a local church an avenue to reign in a pastor who is an out of control despot. I think a church actually operating under a proper form of congregational government can work nicely, but these churches are few and far between and it seems their success largely depends on having a humble, godly servant as pastor.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, I was trying to be a somewhat “objective observer” in my post, but those are my sentiments exactly. Para-church ministries can have their place and function, but they seem to have effectively replaced denominations instead of serving denominations. The result is that hype and fame are elevated, while the sacraments and the “mundane” matters of obedience (visitation to the housebound, etc.) are demoted or ignored.

  6. Joel said

    Around the time I started going, my church dialed the lead pastor’s proportion of the preaching time down to around 70%. There were a few different reasons for this, but one was to avoid a cult of personality.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Interesting, I have never heard of that tact being taken. I know that United Methodists rotate their pastors every few years for the same reason: not centering the church around the pastor.

    • Joel said

      He still preaches the full sermon, but not every Sunday – just in case it wasn’t clear. We have an excellent education pastor and some other pastoral support staff to fill in, so it works pretty well.

  7. Cal said

    It’s actually a bit interesting seeing how the “low-church” evangelicalism here created mega-persons and repeats the same errors. It can be a lens into the first few centuries of the church, where small, loosely-linked communities began to be united around certain “chairs”, that were congregationally defined. Instead of questions like “who is filling in for the bishop of Rome?” there’s now “who is filling in for Sovereign Grace?”

    And the whole host of practices, be they liturgical (i.e. musical aesthetics) or organizational (i.e. ‘9 marks’), is setting itself down. Just like the early years, there are legions of Epiphanius’ to hammer out the dissenters, whether rightly or wrongly. And, probably, Vigilantius’ will continue to speak and be generally ignored and tossed.

    I’m sympathetic to Presbyterianism, and am apart of a presbyterian congregation, but I’m no friend of that system either, though it tries to swim through the insanity.

    I agree with Clark that the Tiber and the Bosporous are illusions of unity. Globally, Scott Hahns and John Behrs are the outstanding American abberations of ethnically and cultically conditioned Catholicisms and Eastern Orthodoxies respectively. I certainly understand the appeal of Rome. I sat through a traditional latin mass in Rome, and my head was spinning. The choir, wow, blown away musically.

    I’m all for catholicity, but the question is what the center is. Rome is catholic in appealing to “Peter’s chair”, and the East in respect to Constantine’s. Yet I can’t get behind denominationalism either.

    Thought for food,
    Cal

    • Kevin Davis said

      I encourage folks to identify with a denomination and a tradition — for the sake of catholicity. As for myself, it has been through the Reformed tradition and Presbyterian polity that I have discovered catholicity.

  8. Mike Cheek said

    Permit me to add my thanks for this blog entry. I am on the outside looking in on this “pop-Calvinism” movement. These types of blogs are helpful to the bewildered outsider. This is one reason I tune in to your blog. Also, just because it’s usually interesting and stimulating!

  9. […] The Current Fissure in Pop-Calvinism by Kevin Davis […]

  10. I just saw an article about this Tullian guy (never listened/read anything of his, and I bet no one has ever spelled his name right the first time) and the gospel coalition hulabaloo. Pardon my french, but this seems to be a case of ‘what a bunch of drama queens’.

    • Kevin Davis said

      There is a problem of insularity that breeds this sort of over-dramatization.

      There is also the problem, for which Tullian is also partly to blame, that these guys think the gospel hinges upon their particular abilities to safeguard it or faithfully articulate it.

      And, while I’m complaining, there is also the apparent insecurity of a movement that never reaches outside of itself for dialogue and greater perspective. For example, they love, love, love panel discussions — whether at their many conferences or hosted by seminaries like Southern. I’ve seen several of these panel discussions, and I’ve benefited from some of them, but they are — with almost no exceptions — four or five guys on a stage (or around a table) who are all conservative Calvinist complementarians. If you do not fit their narrow list of acceptable “partners in the gospel,” then you will not get invited. Having parameters is fine, but this sort of homogeneity is not healthy — and I think it will hurt them in the long run.

  11. I would say that Sproul is also representative of this [moderate expression], on the whole . . .

    You’ve no idea how badly I want to vamp on this.

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