Movements are funny things. Especially in the Internet Age, they can be like a summer monsoon in the Arizona desert, gathering impressive force with lightening and showers and then dissipating just as quickly. For example, the Tea Party movement in U.S. politics has been grabbing the headlines recently, but time will tell whether it’s a tempest in a teapot.
All the hoopla over John Piper’s invitation to Rick Warren to speak at an upcoming Desiring God conference points up the vitality and challenges of the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement. Almost as soon as TIME Magazine hailed this as the third of the ten trends shaping our world today (March 12, 2009), fissures and fault lines became apparent. Currently on Christianity Today’s liveblog, Collin Hansen (author of Young, Restless, and Reformed) has a good summary of the recent debate over the Warren invite. David Mills over at First Things has just added a thoughtful take on it. Since both of these quote some of my comments from this blog, I thought it might be worthwhile to expand a little bit on some wider concerns.
The Hallway and the Rooms
Evangelicalism is a movement, not a church, and that’s been part of its strength. In the wake of the Evangelical Revival in Britain and various “awakenings” in North America, a grassroots cooperation in missions and mercy ministries was formed between conservative Protestants ranging from Anglican to Anabaptist. Ever since Wesley and Whitefield, the evangelical movement has struggled to keep flying with its Arminian and Calvinist wings. Though dominated ever since the Second Great Awakening by Arminian sympathies, the “New Calvinism” of recent years has been nothing short of phenomenal.
However, evangelicalism—even in its “Calvinist” manifestation—is a movement, not a church. Movements are led by impressive and charismatic figures. Even Ben Franklin wanted to cozy up to George Whitefield, a Calvinistic Anglican leader of the Great Awakening who was the closest thing to a rock star in 18th-century America. Yet the tendency, then as now, has been to downplay the ordinary ministry of the church in favor of the extraordinary movements of the moment.
I’ve argued elsewhere that evangelicalism is like the village green in older parts of the country, especially New England. There may be two or three churches on the grounds, but the green itself is a wide open space where people from those churches can spill out in conversation and cooperation. Evangelicalism is not a church, though it often acts like one. It isn’t the big tent (more appropriate, given the history) that encompasses all of the churches on the green. It’s just…, well, the green. When it tries to adjudicate cases of faith and practice through conferences, press releases, and blogs, evangelicalism (including Calvinistic versions) exhibits its movement mentality.
My analogy echoes C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”: a hallway in a large house where believers mix and mingle, often opening the door as non-Christians knock. But, as Lewis insisted, it’s in the rooms where people actually live as a family—where they sleep, are warmed by the fire, fed and clothed, and grow. We are formed in the family life of Christ’s body by particular churches, with their distinct confessions and practices. You can’t live in the hallway.
I’m not against evangelicalism as a village green or hallway. In fact, I think it’s a wonderful meeting place. However, when it acts like a church, much less replaces the church, I get nervous.
Young, Restless and Reformed?
Like wider evangelicalism, the “young, restless and Reformed” movement is a grassroots trend among people who are, generally speaking, not Reformed. I’m energized by this movement every day, as I interact with people from a variety of churches, backgrounds, and traditions who are drawn to the doctrines of grace. I spend a lot of my time in this hallway and am enriched by it.
Nevertheless, not even a “Reformed” hallway is anything more than a hallway. “Reformed” has a specific meaning. It’s not defined by movements, parachurch ministries, or powerful leaders, but by a confession that is lived out in concrete contexts across a variety of times and places. The Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort) define what it means to be Reformed. Like Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Anabaptism, Reformed Christianity is a particular tradition. It’s not defined by a few fundamentals, but by a whole system of faith and practice. If being Reformed can be reduced to believing in the sovereignty of God and election, then Thomas Aquinas is as Reformed as R. C. Sproul. However, the Reformed confession is a lot more than that. Even the way it talks about these doctrines is framed within a wider context of covenant theology.
It’s intriguing to me that people can call themselves Reformed today when they don’t embrace this covenant theology. This goes to the heart of how we read the Bible, not just a few doctrines here or there. Yet what was once recognized as essential to Reformed faith and practice is now treated merely as a sub-set (and a small one at that) of the broader “Reformed” big tent. Yet now it would appear that the identity of the “young, restless and Reformed” movement is at stake over whether Rick Warren gets an invitation to speak at a national conference.
Nobody thinks a Roman Catholic person is narrow and exclusive for embracing papacy and the sacrifice of the Mass. People don’t call themselves Lutheran just because they believe in justification. Baptists (at least historically) do not even recognize as valid the baptism of non-Baptists. Yet increasingly those who affirm the Reformed confessions are treated with suspicion as narrow and divisive for actually being Reformed.
For centuries, the “Reformed” label has been embraced by people from Anglican, Presbyterian, and Reformed traditions. Only in the last few decades has it included those who do not embrace a covenantal interpretation of Scripture, which encompasses baptism and the Supper, the connectional government of the church, eschatology, and a host of other issues that distinguish Reformed from non-Reformed positions. I often run into Christians who say that they are Reformed—and also dispensational or charismatic, Baptist or Barthian, and a variety of other combinations. Like the term “evangelical,” “Reformed” is whatever you want it to be. It’s hard to challenge pragmatic evangelicalism’s cafeteria-style approach to truth when “Reformed” versions seem to be going down the same path.
In this situation, whatever divides confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian folks from others who affirm the five points of Calvinism has to be treated as secondary. Most obviously, the baptism of covenant children and the nature of the Lord’s Supper are treated merely as relatively unimportant. But the nature of the visible church and its ministry, especially the sacraments, have always been regarded as relatively unimportant in evangelicalism. By the way, when a Baptist brother refuses to acknowledge our baptism as valid, it’s hardly secondary to Baptists. I respect those who hold this view at least for the importance that they give to a crucial biblical doctrine.
Evangelicalism’s conversion-centered paradigm is different from Reformed Christianity’s covenantal paradigm. It’s not just a divergence here and there, but a difference that affects (or should affect) how we understand, experience, and live out our faith in the world. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hang out in the hallway from time to time; we should just be aware that it’s the hallway.
Regular listeners to White Horse Inn and readers of Modern Reformation are familiar with our regular reminder that we’re not a church, but a conversation. Our organization isn’t Reformed, but a conversation between Calvinistic Baptists, Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglicans, drawing from our common agreement in the truths rediscovered in the Reformation. Sometimes views are expressed that I don’t agree with as a Reformed person, but that’s fine. Even when we defend truths we all agree on in substance, we are coming at it from the depth of our own traditions, which we did not invent. We’re not looking for a lowest-common-denominator, a quasi-confession for a movement, but are hoping to provoke discussions that lead people back to their rooms with more understanding of the other rooms and resources for vital engagement with the issues of our time and place. The old-style evangelicalism, where the movement is defined by parachurch conferences, networks, and personalities, is hopefully on the wane, as younger generations enjoy the conversation in the hallway but take the church more seriously.
Movements can serve an important role in shifting broad currents, but they are shallow. They rise and fall in the court of public opinion, not in the courts of the churches where Christ has installed officers to shepherd his flock. That doesn’t mean that they are wrong: it’s wonderful when thousands of brothers and sisters encounter the God of glorious grace in a deeper way. Yet movements can’t go very deep: when they do, differences are bound to emerge. The usually rise and fall with the personalities who lead them. Nor can movements pass the faith down from generation to generation. Only churches can do that.
If Not “Reformed,” Then What?
So I’ve wondered about a new term that we can use for the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement: “Evangelical Calvinism.” Why not? It’s the sort of term that can encompass J. I. Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John MacArthur, John Piper, and R. C. Sproul. Reformed Christians should swell with excitement when brothers and sisters embrace the doctrines of grace and “evangelical Calvinism” distinguishes us from evangelical Arminianism.
I’m suggesting this not just out of a concern to protect the distinctives that I believe are essential to Reformed Christianity, but also out of a concern for the ongoing vitality of the movement toward the doctrines of grace. Right now, it seems to me, this movement is being threatened by the movement mentality that characterizes evangelicalism more broadly. The very lack of a doctrine of the church lies at the heart of this. There are “evangelical Calvinists” from other traditions who realize this. For example, my friend Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church has a strong Baptist ecclesiology. In comparison with mainstream evangelicalism, it isn’t “weak” in the least, although it’s also not Reformed. He hasn’t settled for a movement-oriented evangelical ecclesiology, but bases his ministry in the local church. In other words, for him, the hallway isn’t a substitute for the Baptist room.
Right now, though, the “young, restless and Reformed” movement is in danger of succumbing to the fate of all movements at their peak: splintering. Our confessions help us major on the majors, leaving secondary matters open. Yet the “New Calvinism” movement is already showing signs of stress over questions like the age of the earth. Churches have ways of dealing with questions of fraternal relations and cooperation, but leader-driven movements can’t handle the stress. Conferences operate as quasi-official church courts, with vigilante benedictions and excommunications determining who’s in or out. It’s like the wild west.
Christ promised to be with his church to the end, expanding his embassy to the ends of the earth. Christ pledged that the gates of hell cannot prevail against his church. The same promise can’t be invoked for a movement. May God swell the hallway with new visitors! And may we all have the charity to come out of our rooms every now and again to bless each other and bear witness together to God’s sovereign grace. But discipleship has to be formed in the rooms—in real churches, where the depth and breadth of God’s Word is explored and lived.