Below is a solicited essay by Dr. Paul Owen. Dr. Owen is Professor of Greek and Religious Studies at Montreat College in North Carolina, where he has taught since 2001. Founded in 1916, Montreat College is the only liberal arts college in North Carolina that holds membership in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Dr. Owen’s academic articles and book reviews have been published in numerous venues, including the Calvin Theological Journal, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Journal of Biblical Literature, and Journal for the Study of the New Testament. (see a fuller bio at the article's end).
Dr. Owen is an occasional contributor on the comment threads at SBC Tomorrow, and it was his insightful comments on the so-called "young, restless, and reformed" theological trend which occasioned my request he tease his thoughts out further. He did.
Thus, the essay below is a spirited look at what TIME magazine listed in 2010 as one of 10 ideas changing the world right now--New Calvinism. Some will dismiss Dr. Owen's analysis as much too blustery. Others will praise his insight as spot on. Still others may raise suspicions concerning his conclusions since Dr. Owen's theological tradition is rooted in the Episcopal Church (unfortunately, we Baptists are at times prone to consider only Baptist contributions). What one cannot do, however, is ignore his studied, scholarly opinion.
I trust that whether or not one agrees with Dr. Owen, he will receive the respectful response a scholar deserves.
What Is Wrong With the Young, Restless and Reformed Movement?
Paul Owen, Ph.D.
I'm an Episcopalian. That means that I belong to the only major branch of historic Protestantism which has maintained apostolic succession through the historic episcopate (a linear succession of catholic bishops). My Christian beliefs and practices are shaped by the Bible (our only infallible source of doctrine), as read and interpreted by the undivided catholic Church, the consensual faith of the Patristic witness, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. But at the same time I'm also happy to be called a Calvinist. Clergymen from my Anglican church were present both at the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly.
In keeping with the Calvinist wing of Anglicanism, I affirm both the helpless depravity of man (his unwillingness to repent and believe without the operation of God's grace), and unconditional election (not based on God's foresight of human choice or use of his free will). That is to say, I believe that God's actual saving grace is bestowed only upon those persons whom God has chosen for eternal salvation before the foundation of the world. I also believe that the atonement which Jesus offered up to the Father on behalf of the whole world (strict adherents to limited atonement would differ), had its ultimate effect as its final and intended end—the salvation of all those elect believers out of the world. I believe that the grace God bestows on his elect people, because of its divinely intended effect, certainly and infallibly accomplishes their conversion unto eternal salvation. And I believe that none of God's elect saints, once truly converted by grace, can totally and finally fall away from the path of discipleship and salvation in Christ, but will certainly persevere to the end and be eternally saved. At the end of the day, I am still among those who see predestination as the primary reason why the grace offered to all becomes actual saving grace in the case of some, as opposed to my Arminian friends, who believe that it is the undetermined use of free will on the part of man which makes the primary difference.
So why then do I have so many misgivings about the state of Calvinism in the evangelical Church today? Why am I not more enthusiastic about what I see going on around me amongst the Young, Restless and Reformed? Why do I sometimes feel more of a kinship with non-Calvinists of various flavors, than with the children of Geneva? Having observed Calvinism "on the ground" (in America and Scotland) for around twenty years now, what follows are some of my misgivings and observations.
The TULIP Personality
Calvinism today seems to appeal mostly to a certain sort of personality, and that personality is not always healthy. I have discovered that the person who really spends a lot of time talking about the "doctrines of grace," tends to fit a typical profile. They tend to be male (rarely do you find women sitting around arguing about the details of TULIP), intellectually arrogant, argumentative, insecure (and therefore intolerant), and prone to constructing straw-man arguments. In order for the typical Calvinist's faith to remain secure, he seems to feel the need to imagine all others outside his theological box as evil, uninformed, or just plain stupid. I have seen this in men of all ages, some Baptist, some Presbyterian, some laymen, some ordained ministers.
I don't think there is any necessary connection between Calvinism and such traits, so why does it seem to be so prevalent today? Part of the reason, which I do not have time or space to develop here, is that the evangelical church has no robust ecclesiology, and thus no structured spirituality to put into practice as the body of Christ. And given the absence of a structured spiritual life, Reformed Christianity tends to be reduced to a set of doctrines to contemplate, which attracts mainly certain kinds of people, and encourages certain kinds of attitudes among believers. Thus, when you remove Reformed theology from its proper historical place in the structured life of Reformed religion and ecclesiology, and plant it in the foreign soil of modern evangelical gnostic spirituality, it takes a grotesque shape that is contrary to its origins.
One thing I have noticed is that such features tend to display themselves most dramatically in those who experience Calvinism as a "second blessing." They grow up either in a non-Christian home, or a Christian environment that did not talk about issues related to Calvinism. When they first encounter the "doctrines of grace," they are suddenly captured by the intellectual beauty of a logical system that "makes sense" to them. When listening to Calvinist newbies over the years, as they describe their first exposure to Reformed theology, there is an evident "conversion narrative." New TULIP converts speak in hushed tones about when they first "came to accept" the doctrines of grace. You get the sense that they entered a deeper state of Christian spirituality and walk with Christ by discovering that God arbitrarily saves and arbitrarily destroys whomsoever He chooses. I think that there is a certain obnoxious personality that likes to feel superior to others, and unfortunately, the "doctrines of grace" seem to do this for them.
The TULIP Gospel
On numerous occasions, I have seen Calvinists equate the gospel with the doctrines of grace. Supposedly, the doctrines of grace are simply the pure expression of the Christian gospel, and Calvinism is simply Christianity without the corruption of human merit mixed into the equation. Unfortunately, I have seen even men of great learning, who really should know better than to fall into such over-simplifications, talk in this manner. So any dilution of Calvinism is effectively a dilution of the gospel itself. Given this way of thinking, no wonder Calvinists seem to have a hard time playing with their friends in the theological sandbox! Who wants to be nice to people who are mixing human merit in with the pure gospel of Christ? Didn't Paul pronounce an anathema on people like that in Galatians?
This makes it very difficult for some Calvinists to acknowledge common ground with non-Calvinist theologies, or to admit when they are making good points. I have tried to avoid this insular way of thinking in my own theological reflection. There are verses in the Bible that Arminians seem to handle with more integrity than the typical Calvinist does. As far as it is possible, I try to listen to Catholic, Arminian and Lutheran theologians, and be willing to modify my Calvinism when I perceive it to be chastened by the Word of God. And the broad stream of theology which I follow is enriched not only by the views of Calvin, Beza, Turretin, Owen and the Westminster Confession of Faith (which seem to dominate the landscape of Calvinism today), but also by more moderate tributaries: Augustine and Aquinas, Garrigou-Lagrange, Bullinger, Vermigli, Hooker, Amyraut, Ussher, Davenant, Ward and the Second Helvetic Confession.
What follows are some of my concessions to my non-Calvinist brothers:
- Non-Calvinists are certainly correct when they note that Scripture everywhere confronts man with the obligation (not only the duty) and the opportunity to repent of his sins and believe the gospel of the true God (Acts 17:27, 30). This must mean that man, even in his fallen state, retains the operative faculties of human nature which make conversion possible in principle. God does not command absurd impossibilities, nor does He tell people without eyes, to look, or people without ears, to listen. Notice how even a Calvinist-sounding text like Isaiah 6:10 presumes that the unsaved still possess the faculties which could embrace salvation, if they were to put them to good use. The problem is not that fallen man is literally unable to believe, but that (without divine grace) fallen man is unwilling to believe. Men still have operative mouths whereby they might feed on Christ, but in their fallen state they lack any and all appetite to do so. God's grace operates so as to give man a spiritual appetite, not a mouth to eat.
- Non-Calvinists are correct to see conversion as an active movement of the will of man, and not merely a passive reception of the gift of faith. God's grace does not exclude consent and a cooperative response on the part of man. Philippians 2:12-13, for example, says to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." God's being at work in them does not exclude their free response, but provides the rationale for it. Notice Paul does not say, "for it is God who works in you, to work for his good pleasure." That might give the impression that human effort or action is the mere effect of God's monocausality. Instead he says "both to will and to work," which means that the effort expended is caused both by God's working and the working of our human will. The working out of our salvation that we perform as we grow in sanctification surely begins with conversion and the first work of God's grace in us. But the work that we do (since it is we who do it by God's grace) is still our own doing, and thus the "willing" which characterizes the working out of our salvation is likewise still our own willing (not simply the irresistible effect of regeneration upon passive objects).
- Since this is the case, there is no reason for Calvinists to continually shy away from language which includes man's free consent and cooperation in conversion. When Ephesians 2:8 says of salvation by grace through faith, "And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God," it does not mean that we do not freely perform the act of believing. By way of parallel, 2:10 goes on to say, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand." The fact that the good works we do were "prepared beforehand" by God does not mean that we are not expected to willingly perform them. God's grace does not exclude our free, active, consenting, cooperating response in the arena of salvation; rather, it makes conversion possible for all, and actual in the elect (however "elect" be understood).
- But are we not "dead" in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1)? How can a dead corpse do anything to contribute to his conversion? We often hear Reformed people talking like this. But it's a bad argument, and needs to be set aside by Calvinists who wish to speak biblically on these matters. A similar statement appears in Colossians 2:13, "And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him." This obviously does not mean that man is purely passive in the process of conversion, since the previous verse says that "you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God" (2:12). Being "raised with him" is a plain image of new life or regeneration, and yet Paul insists that regeneration happens "through faith"! Since regeneration happens through the operation of faith (an act on our part), man's consent and cooperative response to God's grace is constitutive of that regeneration, and not only the effect of it (as Calvinists sometimes assert when they wrongly insist that regeneration precedes faith).
- Non-Calvinists are correct to insist that God gives sufficient grace to everyone so as to constitute a real opportunity to respond to the summons of the gospel. Whenever men hear the gospel, it is truly possible for them to put to good use their natural faculties in the process of conversion. The preaching and hearing of the Word of God is always accompanied by the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the audience. Romans 10:17 says that "faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." The "word of Christ" is the gospel, and wherever the gospel is heard, faith is truly possible (otherwise Paul could not call hearing the source of faith). Reformed theology has sometimes given the impression that the Word and the Sacraments are inwardly operative in the elect alone, and only outwardly operative in the lives of the non-elect. This does not seem to be the view of Paul, who says that faith comes from hearing (something not limited to the elect). He does not simply say that the command to believe, or the appeal to believe, or the outward call to believe, comes from hearing, but faith itself. If hearing the word of Christ does not make faith truly possible for everyone, then this would be odd thing to say, since, again, the elect are not the only ones who hear the gospel. I am not saying that Calvinists who disagree cannot explain this (by saying that hearing is the instrument God uses in regenerating the elect); but I am saying that a person who believed what Calvinists typically assert, would not naturally talk about faith as the effect of hearing the gospel, as the apostle Paul does here.
- Note also how 1 Peter 1:23-25 attributes regeneration ("since you have been born again") to "the good news that was preached to you." Who is the "you" here? Clearly, the good news was not only preached to the elect, but to elect and non-elect. And yet regeneration is directly attributed to this preached word (not simply to the Spirit's secret operation in the elect). Such an assertion makes no sense if the preached word did not provide a real opportunity for regeneration to all who hear; and since we know fallen men will not make good use of their natural faculties without the help of God's grace, this must mean that the preached word is accompanied by the operation of the Spirit, which supplies grace sufficient to make actual conversion a real possibility. Some of those who heard the good news responded with "obedience to the truth," which "purified" their souls (1:22). Man's obedient response to the gospel is (from the human end) what distinguishes between those who are regenerated "through the living and abiding word of God" (1:23) and those who do not benefit from the grace put at their disposal through the preaching of the good news.
- Non-Calvinists often raise points that make better sense of numerous other texts of Scripture. Why would Stephen fault those who are "uncircumcised in heart" (i.e., unregenerate) for "resisting the Holy Spirit" (Acts 7:51), unless cooperating with the Holy Spirit could produce a circumcised heart (i.e., regeneration)? Since those addressed by Stephen remained unregenerate, it must mean that they were resisting the grace of God which was sufficient to bring about their conversion. And is it not clear that since Jesus is the "true light, which gives light to everyone" (John 1:9), that all who are presented with the gospel have the real opportunity to receive Christ? What kind of light would it be, that leaves people without the chance to escape from the darkness? And is not that opportunity itself a real operation of God's grace? When John 1:11-12 goes on to distinguish between those who received him and those who did not, it seems clear that the fact that Jesus "gives light to everyone" was not highlighted in verse 9 to make a comment about the elect only, but also to show why those who did not receive him were fully culpable. "And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light" (John 3:19).
The TULIP Cult
People are sometimes surprised to hear me speak of the TULIP cult. What do I mean when I speak this way? By a cult, I mean a sect within the broad landscape of Christianity which takes as its operating center some principle other than Christ crucified. This is certainly the case for the Young, Restless and Reformed. It is obvious that the operating center which holds this movement together is TULIP, not the gospel of the cross. One gets the impression that their sense of identity is inseparable from their sense of superiority, and thus it is tied to their adherence to and promotion of the doctrines of grace.
It is not the name of the Lamb that is constantly on the lips of these men, but the names of Calvin (though I have found most of the YRR have actually read very little of him) and the personalities featured at Calvinist conferences, gatherings and websites. What seems to be of paramount importance to these people is the demonstration of the superiority of the arguments for TULIP and its consequences for thinking out the logic of the Christian faith. The Christian faith, in other words, finds its coherence in the "doctrines of grace," rather than in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Rather than glory in Christ, and see in Christ's face the focus of divine revelation, Calvinists these days glory in the doctrines of grace, and see the focus of God's revelation in today's preachers of TULIP religion. And just as reflecting on Christ makes us more like Christ (2 Cor. 3:18), reflecting on these Calvinist personalities seems to shape many Christians into a far less pleasing image.
Some of these Calvinist ministries have been plagued with scandals of a sexual nature in recent days. I can't say this surprises me. I strongly suspect it is because they are expressions of the TULIP cult. When Christianity is reduced to talking, singing, arguing, and teaching about the "doctrines of grace" and their manifold ramifications, their spiritual well is bound to run dry pretty quickly. This is simply because the TULIP cult is not the time-tested, historic Christian religion. It is no different from the Prosperity Gospel movement, although it operates on different theological principles. In both cases, you have a movement which derives its theological center from something other than Christ crucified. The Christian religion starts at Calvary and works outward from there. The Prosperity Gospel works outward from the principle of material blessing in response to human faithfulness (at best a sub-theme developed in parts of the Bible). And the TULIP cult works outward from the principles of the doctrines of grace, though not as cautiously expressed in Scripture, but as dogmatically expressed in the highly fallible writings and sermons of men who have attempted to popularize Reformed theology for the masses.
The Spirit of God is not going to be present and operative in the promotion of TULIP as the essence of the Christian religion, any more than He would ever participate in promoting the empty "gospel" of the prosperity message. Where the Spirit of God is not present, you will only find the doctrines and myths of men, and where people are being fed on such a diet of spiritual junk food, it should not shock us to see all manner of spiritual diseases and dysfunctions. It is particularly dangerous when the pious-sounding doctrines of universal human depravity, and Christ's perfect active and passive obedience on our behalf, are distorted by unstable and untaught men, so that the gravity of sin and the necessary obligations of Christian holiness are minimized. No wonder people begin to think that it is normal for Christians to use filthy speech, to adopt the world's view of sexuality, and to engage in heinous sex crimes. (We're all just wretched sinners after all!) But thank God for his unconditional grace, and that perfect, imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ! Let's sing a few cool songs about that….
One final note. I am not a Baptist, but I suspect much of the discussion about Calvinism in the SBC is looking more at the symptoms than the disease. The disease is not Calvinism. There have been strict Baptist Calvinists on the scene since at least the seventeenth century. The disease is the TULIP cult of today's spiritually sick Church. It is the TULIP cult mindset that seems to be tearing apart the SBC. For whatever else you can say about the Baptist tradition, it is most certainly a version of Christianity which finds the gospel of the Cross and the offer of free forgiveness through the shed blood of Jesus as its operating center. When you have men in the SBC who are more zealous evangelists for conversions to Calvinism than conversions to Christ, more earnest in their apologetics for TULIP than for the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, more excited about the doctrines of grace than the gospel itself—coexistence is going to be difficult.
And there are further related problems. When adherence to TULIP is the ultimate priority, other things, which should be of greater priority take a back seat. As long as the "doctrines of grace" are promoted, it matters very little to these men how the Church worships, how the pastor dresses and conducts himself, the order of the service, the form and content of the prayers, the atmosphere promoted through the structure of the service, the tone and substance of the sermons, the tempo, content and style of the music, and the themes which are viewed as suitable subjects for Christian teaching and reflection. There should be (and have been) distinctively Baptist patterns for "doing" church, grounded in a distinctive theology of what the Church is, and what exactly is its purpose. But in the TULIP cult, rather than being based on principled theological convictions, all these matters are up for grabs, for they have no substantive, distinctive theology to undergird preaching, ministry and worship. At least no theology that they have the time to reflect upon. Thus, you have churches today which are making all manner of compromises and accommodations to the trends of our shallow culture, but pride themselves on their adherence to the "doctrines of grace." The TULIP cult is certainly not alone in this regard (as seeker-sensitive church growth fads have shown for decades); but it is ironic that men who claim to be building on the insights of the Reformation and its recovery of the sovereign majesty of God, the sole authority of the Bible, the power of expository and doctrinal preaching, and a Reformed worship that is humbly subject to the commandments of Scripture, can be so tolerant of worldliness, shallowness and cultic devotion to know-nothing Calvinist celebrities.