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Young Calvinism With and Without an Edge: A Review Article
D. G. Hart
Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists, by Collin Hansen. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008, 158 pages, $14.99, paper.
Minority Report: Unpopular Thoughts on Everything from Ancient Christianity to Zen-Calvinism, by Carl R. Trueman. Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 2008, 221 pages, $17.99, paper.
Members of the OPC may be surprised to know that a resurgence of Calvinism is underway in the United States and that Orthodox Presbyterians have little to do with it. According to Time magazine, the "new Calvinism" is the third most influential idea "changing the world right now." But Time's announcement is hardly newsworthy. Collin Hansen, a reporter for Christianity Today, beat the national news weekly to the punch with a 2008 article on the Calvinist resurgence. Young, Restless, Reformed is a book-length treatment of Hansen's initial investigation. Oddly, perhaps, almost none of the New Calvinist leaders are Presbyterian; most are Baptist; some are charismatic. Perhaps even odder is that the OPC, a denomination that was founded precisely over the loss of the PCUSA's Calvinistic witness, has no standing among the young Calvinists. Nor do young Orthodox Presbyterians merit Hansen's attention because the OPC's young people do not frequent the places and conferences where young Calvinism thrives.
Hansen's account begins with John Piper and ends with Mark Driscoll. In between chapters on the ever earnest Bethlehem Baptist pastor (Piper) and the tattooed, self-consciously macho, and sometimes vulgar Seattle pastor of Mars Hill Church (Driscoll) are reports on Hansen's visits to and interviews with Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Seminary, C. J. Mahaney, leader of the Sovereign Grace network of churches, and Joshua Harris, founder of the New Attitude Conference in Louisville (the man also responsible for making courting a plausible form of finding a mate among evangelicals). Others make cameo appearances, but Piper, Driscoll, Mohler, Mahaney, and Harrisalong with their various networks, Desiring God, Acts 29, Together for the Gospel, and Gospel Coalitiongive a measure of coherence to New Calvinism.
The book begins with the Passion Conference, a youth gathering at which John Piper has become a fixture. The music and speakers at these conferences apparently reinforce a conception of God as transcendent and sovereign, and that conception becomes the primary qualification for conferees to self-identify as Calvinists. Hansen admits that among old Calvinists, high marks for contemporary P&W music are lacking. But Piper, who is not exactly a young man, welcomes the praise songs accompanied by the standard pieces of a rock band. He claims that the worship songs being written today "are about a great God" and set the stage for Calvinistic theology. "The things that nineteen-year-olds are willing to say about God in their songs is mind-boggling," according to Piper (20). The theology in lyrics like "Wholly Yours""I am full of your earth, you are heaven's worth; I am stained with dirt, prone to depravity; you are everything that is bright and clean, the antonym of me, you are divinity"for both Piper and Hansen conveys a picture which for college students "feels new, appealing, and exciting." This combination of a high view of God communicated in the idiom of popular culture produces excitement among believing young adults and unites the various figures in Hansen's book. And it adds up, as he concludes, not simply to a Calvinist revival but a real revivalmarked by: "Hunger for God's word. Passion for evangelism. Zeal for holiness" (156).
These qualities were actually more characteristic generally of Wesleyan and revival-driven Protestants than Reformed and Presbyterians. That may sound like a minor quibble if not for the kind of confusion that ensues from Hansen's description of this odd collection of Baptists, charismatics, and emergents as Calvinist. Surely the term Calvinist is not patented, but it has typically been the provenance in America of Presbyterians, Reformed, and the heirs to the Puritans. Because of the potential befuddlement in Hansen's coverage, other books from within explicitly Reformed circles would be worthwhile for the youth who aspire to be Calvinists. Carl R. Trueman, academic dean at Westminster Seminary and Orthodox Presbyterian minister, may be precisely the author to help make young Calvinists transition into mature models. In fact, he is so close in sensibility and associations to young Calvinism that some readers might wonder why Hansen did not include Trueman in Young, Restless, Reformed. In the introduction to Minority Report, a collection of previously published pieces (many of which originally appeared in his "Wages of Spin" column for the on-line magazine Reformation 21), for instance, Trueman acknowledges the help of C. J. Mahaney, one of Hansen's young Calvinist leaders, for "prayer support, kind words, and sound wisdom" (10).
Beyond connections to real live young Calvinists, Trueman has a manner that would likely appeal to the folks who flock to Passion conferences. He is in tune with many features of popular culture, from rock 'n' roll to television shows. He peppers essays with sarcasm, wit, and exasperation. Even the titles of his essays are catchy and suggest an author who is much younger than your father's Oldsmobile-driving Presbyterian pastor. For instance, his review of Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom's book Is the Reformation Over? is entitled "It Ain't Over 'til the Fat Lady Sings." Likewise, "Zen-Calvinism and the Art of Motorvehicle Replacement," is an essay on the dangers of buying a used car from a Christian used car dealer.
Yet, Trueman's youthful sensibility may have less appeal because the Westminster academic dean calls 'em as he sees 'em and his judgments are not always as uplifting or as earnest as those coming from the lips of the most famous Minneapolis Baptist since William Bell Riley. For instance, in his Zen-Calvinism piece Trueman writes that "Christians can be horrible people; and ... cannot be trusted to sell you chewing gum, let alone a used car" (210). Or to take another example, in his review of the Noll and Nystrom book, Trueman concludes that the fortunes of Protestantism rest on shaky legs if it depends on evangelicalism, an identity that "is in danger of becoming next to meaningless" (98). When Trueman adds that he, "as a confessional, Reformed Christian, [has] far more in common with many Roman Catholic theologians than others who routinely claim the title evangelical," one can imagine the young Calvinists becoming exceedingly restless to the point of closing Minority Report. Unfortunately for Trueman, his taste in rock 'n' roll may not endear him to the younger set. His preferences for The Who, Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Jimmy Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin may likely be too R-rated for evangelicals who sing the following lyrics from Chris Tomlin's song "Indescribable": "All powerful, untamable, awestruck we fall to our knees as we humbly proclaim you are amazing God" (Hansen, 20). Nor, for that matter, would Trueman's apology for psalm-singing likely resonate with teens reared on Christian pop.
Yet, if young Calvinists could mellow sufficiently to prepare for Trueman's jolts, they would learn a lot about Calvinism, especially that it has much more to say than simply being inspired to holiness by God's sovereignty. For instance, here's one passage where Trueman gives a handy description of the differences between Rome and Protestants on the nature of grace (and this from a piece about Jack Chick's comics, no less):
Catholics see grace as coming through sacramental participation in the church; Protestants see grace as coming to them through the promise of the Word grasped by faith as it is read and preached. Then, allied to these differences are others: Catholicism sees justification as a process whereby the righteousness of Christ is imparted to the believers through this sacramental participation; Reformation Protestantism sees the righteousness of Christ as imputed to the believer by grace through faith in Christ. Catholicism understands human nature in terms of substance; Protestantism understands it in terms of relation. Salvation for Catholics thus involves a substantial change; for Protestantism, it involves a change of relation or status. (146)
Granted, this may be more than young Calvinists can handle without a good youth pastor at the ready to explain the theology involved in these distinctionsall the more reason for the youthful Calvinists to seek instruction from Trueman. They will also find him very helpful on the alleged nastiness of Reformed orthodoxy: "doctrines don't kill people; people kill people. Yes, there has been much unpleasantness in the history of Reformed theology, but that is the product of the unpleasantness of theologians rather than any overly dogmatic essence of Reformed Orthodoxy" (30). Likewise, young Calvinists could well learn from Trueman the value of creeds, that they reflect the consensus of a church which is more than a "collection of individuals" with their own interpretations of the Bible (120).
At the same time, Minority Report should come with a PG 13 rating because it contains elements that will be hard going for young Calvinists. For instance, Trueman can be particularly hard on evangelicals, such as when he comments on the basis of Wheaton College's dismissal of a professor who converted to Rome and sees in the decision "considerable common ground in the practice between the liberal theological tradition of Schleiermacher and the theological shibboleths of evangelicalism" (129). The author is also unimpressed by evangelical attempts to transform American society: "Modern American evangelicalism has neither critiqued nor transformed the political landscape" but has "largely bought into the polarized politics of the two party system and lost its ability to be critical of the American way" (58). Trueman also recommends psalm-singing in ways that will likely not go over well with youth. He regards life as essentially tragic, the psalms as an honest expression of life's sufferings, and contemporary praise songs as substantially incapable of expressing the depths of the human condition (154). Nor will young readers feel affirmed by Trueman's sensible critique of youth culture: "Youth is exceptionally arrogant in its self-belief. Have you ever met an eighteen-year-old male who did not think, at least in practice, that he was going to live forever?" (205). And then there is Trueman's critique of celebrity culture among evangelicalsbut he also traces it back to the early churchwhich could be read as a good counterweight to the kind of fame and popularity that fuels the figures that loom large in Hansen's book. If you have a combination of positions of power with "crowds of adoring followers and a culture which judges success by numbers, wealth, access to the media," Trueman believes you have "a situation where the capacity for human self-love and self-deception can potentially spiral out of control" (187).
This is not to say that Trueman will not end up in a revised edition of Hansen's Young, Restless, Reformed. If the mid-sixties Piper can have appeal to teens and young adults, hope exists for all of us who are approaching retirement, even the young-middle-aged like Trueman. To be sure, Trueman's variety of Calvinism would be a welcome addition to Hansen's version if only because the Westminster professor shows the depths, subtlety, and scope of the Reformed tradition. At the same time, if young Calvinists are going to embrace Trueman's rendition of the Reformed faith and be comfortable with his applications, they will need to spend more time reading Calvin, Turretin, Owen, Warfield, and even Trueman while attending less frequently youth conferences made popular by evangelical celebrity preachers.
Darryl Hart, a ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, serves at Calvary OPC, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant November 2009.