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Editorial: Old, Content, Reformed: The Resurgence of Calvinism?

Gregory Edward Reynolds

Christianity Today features a story in its September issue that surprises and excites even a cautious old Calvinist like your editor.[1] But should it? Should we be amazed that the doctrines of the Reformation are holding a renewed sway in the churches of the land? Depicted on the cover of that September issue is a sweatshirt with a picture of Jonathan Edwards and the caption "Jonathan Edwards Is My Homeboy." Not exactly my choice of sweatshirts, wording, or methods of promoting JE, but read on. The feature article is titled "Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback—and shaking up the church." I am told by a reliable source, however, that it is now "cool" to say you're a Calvinist on the campus of a well known evangelical seminary in New England. And in many cases beneath the label there is not much real understanding of the Reformed faith. So what are we to make of this latest phenomenon, especially since it is surprisingly about us?—I don't mean just the OPC, but the larger body of Presbyterian and Reformed churches throughout the world, especially in America, which is the focus of CT's feature.

Where We Have Been

In 1992 Jim Gidley already noted a "resurgence of interest" in Calvinism.[2] But when one looks at the early to mid-twentieth century the picture was bleak. The OPC and similar "remnant" organizations, like the Banner of Truth Trust, were among a few lone voices crying in the wilderness of the American ecclesiastical scene. Actually BTT thought they were mainly addressing Brits. But as it turns out their influence in the United States has been far greater than in the United Kingdom. As a case in point, the Banner of Truth magazine launched its maiden issue in September 1955. It was a modest quarterly on a very slim budget with a tiny readership. No beautiful colored covers with carefully crafted typography. During this time the republication of Puritan and Reformed classics began, and a nascent interest in Reformed Protestant roots can be detected. Noticeable in the first four years of the Banner of Truth magazine is the paucity of contemporary contributors. J. I. Packer was a rare exception. And it was so on this side of the pond as well. But also notable is the ecumenical range of books referred to in the first four years (16 issues). An alphabetical index of authors and books includes: Augustine, Calvin, Knox, Bucer, Zanchius, John Flavel, Richard Baxter, Jonathan Edwards, C. H. Spurgeon, J. W. Alexander, Charles and A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield, W. G. T. Shedd, John Murray, and N. B. Stonehouse. In his 1960 introduction to the bound volume of the first sixteen issues, editor Iain Murray already expressed optimism:

When we first put pen to paper in 1955 it was because, as far as our limited knowledge went, there was no other magazine in England expressing the burden which we felt. Happily the situation today is considerably changed. We are now in the midst of a movement back to the Theology of the Reformers and the New Testament. These are early days and no one can predict what this rising interest in old truths will lead to, yet there can be no question that through various influences which God has raised up, a movement is quietly progressing...

As George Marsden recently noted (in his lecture prior to the last general assembly of the OPC in Chicago), the early OPC was top-heavy with leadership. Murray observed the same regarding the "theological awakening" he was discerning in 1960 to be "largely confined to students and ministers." But it would not remain so for long.

When I became a Christian, a decade later, in 1971, I soon became aware of Calvinism while studying at Farel House at L'Abri Fellowship in Huemoz, Switzerland. I sat next to C. H. Spurgeon—well, actually his dozens of volumes of sermons. Iain Murray's The Forgotten Spurgeon got my attention. Before I knew it, I had entered a world I never knew existed, a vast world of literature and lives stretching back centuries—a mansion filled with treasures. At Covenant College and Westminster Seminary I discovered that I was not alone. As I entered the ministry in 1980 I was still sometimes painfully aware that little was known of the rich heritage I had discovered—been given—outside of a well connected remnant network of Calvinists, including a number of very small denominations.

A decade later in 1992, as noted above, Jim Gidley would single out the proliferation of Reformed seminaries and the optimism James Montgomery Boice expressed in his 1985 essay, "The Future of Reformed Theology," as signs that things might be looking up for us Calvinists. His was a prudently cautious optimism.

Now comes Collin Hanson's article in the September 2006 CT in which he suggests: "While the Emergent 'conversation' gets a lot of press for its appeal to the young, the new Reformed movement may be a larger and more pervasive phenomenon."[3]

The Next Generation: A Recipe for the Resurgence

"Baby boomer" has a slightly nicer ring to it than "generation X," so I prefer to call the latter the new or next generation. For the healthy church there will always be one of these; and we should always expect and encourage great things of these members of the body of Christ. But we must also pass on our loving concerns. I have a few ingredients that should be part of our recipe for feeding the resurgency.

Three large measures of humility. In pitching and real estate, there are three necessary ingredients to success: location, location, location. So in restoring the church to its Calvinistic roots: humility, humility, humility are three essential ingredients. This must be the basic seasoning of our recipe. New generation Calvinist pastor Joshua Harris recalls: "I remember some of the first encounters I had with Calvinists. I'm sorry to say they represented the doctrines of grace with a total lack of grace. They were spiteful, cliquish, and arrogant. I didn't even stick around to understand what they were teaching." We have all encountered such, perhaps even in ourselves.

One large measure of historical awareness. Here is where location will help. Knowing where we are in history—where we have been—guides us into the future. We must convince this new generation that it is not the first generation to know the liberating truth of Christianity. Nor, as far as we know, will it be the last. Hanson quotes Whitefield to the effect that he never read Calvin; his doctrines were from Christ. What easily passes for humility is actually what we might call an "arrogant humility." This, not surprisingly, is an underlying theme of the article. But, disdain for the insights of those who have gone before us, especially those whose writings have endured, is the ultimate hubris. Had Whitefield taken the time to read Calvin he might have had more respect for the visible church. Which brings me to the next ingredient.

One large measure of commitment to the visible church. Reformed theology must form the church and all of the living stones which make up its architecture. The CT article does not include the doctrine of the church in its description of Calvinism. The "Five Points" takes center stage. But that is accurate reporting since many of the "Reformed" fail to see the centrality of the church in Reformed theology. Doctrine and intellect must not be pitted against Christian piety and practice. The two are of a piece. This is where the church comes in. It is where doctrine and life coalesce. The church gives form to the Christian life. One of the major weaknesses of the last half century of resurgence is underestimating the centrality of biblical ecclesiology to reformation. And to the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Calvin's treatise "The Necessity of Reforming the Church" stood at the heart of his life's work. What is it we are re-forming? Individual beliefs? Para-ecclesiastical organizations? No—the visible body of Christ. In this regard our consumption of Reformed literature often borders on narcissism. "Feed me, feed me. Meet my doctrinal and intellectual needs." This demon will not come out easy in this new generation. Whether it's the mind or the emotions such self-centeredness is all the same disease.

As Iain Murray (and others) sought to call Christians to a renewed interest in the old truths, he recognized the centrality of the church in that hoped-for resurgence. "The old truths have to be re-applied in new ways and the visible church has to be reformed..." Since the doctrine of the church is integral to Reformed theology, many of us who embraced historic Christianity in the sixties and seventies invested our reforming energies in the church. We believed this was the calling of our Lord, however despised the church might be in the modern situation. This, Machen had done so eloquently a generation before. He, too, was largely ignored.

We also need one large measure of critical awareness of our culture. I worry about the new generation's involvement in electronic culture: the generation that knows little of such things as books, conversation, and letter writing. There is an illusion of sophistication that knows no bounds with some. Technological snobbery is a major manifestation of Lewis's "chronological snobbery"—the idea that the latest gadget bestows wisdom and superiority. Meanwhile, the memory of what deep reading, meaningful conversation, and thoughtful writing are, is actually disappearing before our eyes. Do not be fooled by the fact, dear church officer, that you are interested in these things. Much of the culture around us is not.

Beyond these concerns we need to be critical of the church's accommodation to culture along the lines of Ken Myer's quip: "The church is of the culture but not in it." We must help the new generation understand how the forms of things, especially electronic things, have everything to do with the messages they send both overtly and covertly. The doctrines of creation and the Incarnation commit us to the idea that form and substance are inextricably united. If we are naïve about this, the message we end up sending to the world is that we are no different than they, except that we labor under the illusion that we are somehow superior. Thus, the need for the next ingredient.

One large measure of service in our culture. If the church is an embassy of the risen Lord, we must never be content with simply protecting the identity of the embassy and the message of its King. We will need to demonstrate to our neighbors, in Jeremiah 29 style, the beauty of Christianity by serving them for their temporal and eternal good.

Then we need to add one large measure of biblical ecumenicity. This means that the church knows no national or ethnic boundaries. She is a heavenly nation among the nations, and made up of the elect from every nation. Doctrinally this means we will be as narrow and as broad as our confessional standards. We must convince the next generation of the value of such standards, but not by using them to promote a narrower agenda. We must demonstrate how our Confession and Catechisms work to truly unite Christians, rather than divide them. Then, when genuine heresy threatens, we can take a sure-footed stand, showing the life-preserving importance of boundaries.

The recipe is finally seasoned with an additional healthy sprinkling of humility to top everything off. Yes, we already had three large measures of this at the beginning of our recipe. But truly one can never have too much of this precious seasoning. Sprinkle generously. It will never ruin the flavor of the whole. Remember in a moment when you struggle with pride that CT does not list the OPC among "Leading institutions of the resurgence."

After re-reading the CT article several times, I came away thinking there is a slight uneasiness in Hanson's report. While he properly points up a healthy desire among the Calvinists that he interviewed to promote "humble orthodoxy," the last section of the article is titled "Scripture Triumphs Systems." And we might add "institutions," especially the church.

What Next? Christianity Tomorrow

With all of our concerns we must refuse to harbor that hand-wringing generational provincialism—obtuseness?—that says "I don't know what will become of this generation." Precisely because I worship a sovereign God—who incidentally rescued many of us from the swagger of the counterculture—I believe that what Christianity Today has reported represents something wonderful—if nascent—occurring in our midst. McLuhan insisted that, however much the electronic world may sap energy and wisdom from us humans, the God-imaging souls of people cannot be eradicated. We must not underestimate the God-sized space in every human being waiting to be filled. This is what we have been praying and waiting and hoping for for decades. Now the work of spiritual formation really begins. So let's not wring our hands. Let's put them to the plow where they belong. Let's embrace these young men and women with enthusiasm and wisdom.

I have titled this editorial in a way to get your attention—"Old, content, Reformed." However, this is not entirely accurate. I am old, but not yet very old—maybe by the Galbraith-Williamson standard just a little over half way. And while I am content with my confessional convictions, I am still very restless. I cannot wait to preach another sermon, to speak to another person about Jesus Christ. I am restless to see the church grow in likeness to its risen Lord. I am restless to see churches mature by being formed by the whole counsel of God. And I am Reformed—yes, that I meant without reservation, but with one addition— I am hoping to continue reforming. Whatever is happening with Calvinism in American Christendom, it is only a beginning; and one that promises to involve us in as much toil as our former obscurity. Our posture must be that of Paul, who commended his ministry to the trendy and easily impressed Corinthian church: "as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things" (2 Corinthians 6:9-10).


[1] I owe the first part of the title to elder Jim Graves, colleague and friend.

[2] James S. Gidley, "The Future of Calvinism," Ordained Servant 2.2 (April, 1993).

[3] Collin Hanson, "Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback—and shaking up the church," Christianity Today September 2006, 34.

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