A Return to an Oldie but Goodie: The NeoReformed

The re-posting of this this post from 2009 was triggered by a recent letter from a reader who in the Far West is struggling with the rise — autocratically, non-congregationally, without consultation — of Calvinism, complementarianism, and other themes in her church by the NeoReformed. Yes, the usuals got mentioned (Piper, Driscoll). I went back to 2009 to this post to see what I said then and want to propose that set of ideas, with many modifications and additions and subtractions, as still a viable set of issues to consider.

Are the NeoReformed growing or have they had their day on stage?

On the term “NeoReformed” — I think I began using this term but am not sure. I have been convinced at times it is not the best term and that Neo-Puritan is a better term, and some agree — but no one agrees with any of the terms — and some bristle at being called Puritan of any sort (I’ve had a fond place for the Puritans since high school). So, I will use NeoReformed for this post, leaving it to you to frame the movement in your own term. (New Calvinists, NeoReformed, NeoPuritans … )

I began using the term “NeoReformed” some 6 or 7 years ago and then a few of my friends asked me what I meant and why I didn’t just calls such folks “Reformed.” This post will sketch who they are and why I call them “Neo” Reformed. I have never had any problems with the variety of theologies at work in the big tent of evangelicalism. Calvinists are not only among us, they have important elements to bring to the table. I sat on the essence of the original post for months, but eventually decided to make it public. I did so to further unity or at least thinking about unity. In some ways I have found more unity with some Reformed than I have with the NeoReformed. I consider the Reformed the broad range of those connected to the Calvinist Reformation, a global movement today, with a wide variety of thinkers and practices. (Barth was Reformed, after all, and I remember the days when Barth was verboten among evangelicals.)

The evangelical tent is big enough to welcome under its shade Calvinists and Arminians, anabaptists and charismatics, Anglicans and Methodists and Baptists, and I love it when Catholics and the Orthodox join. This is not a personal battle for me with Calvinists; it’s a particular kind of divisive Calvinist that I have in view. (One of my friends says the NeoReformed are soteriological Calvinists who are mostly Baptists who don’t baptize babies, which is a hallmark of Reformed theology and practice.)

Formerly the disagreements with Calvinists or the ones they had with others didn’t stop us from gathering inside the big tent. But in the last decade something happened, and I call it the rise of the NeoReformed. Here we go but first a question or two:

Are you (still) seeing a rise of reformed folks? Do you see some militancy — whatever their strengths? What are your thoughts? Why do you think some youth are attracted to this new form of Reformed theology? Do you think the movement has toned down or lost some of its initial fervor? 

One of my favorite Reformed theologians is Michael Horton. We don’t agree on all things in theology but I like this guy and I like to read his stuff. Michael wrote a piece that uses a different image than the big tent image above. He says evangelicalism is like the village green of early American communities. It was where folks, all folks, gathered to chat and share commonalities. He says evangelicalism is the village green but evangelicalism is not the church. Churches have confessions, and his confession is Reformed (and mine is Anglican). He says we need to worship in our churches and that the village green is not enough; it is where we join with Christians most like us. The key point I make here is the distinction between being evangelical (village green, big tent) and being Reformed or Anglican (confessional). Michael Horton, I am assuming, thinks the best form of evangelicalism (maybe he doesn’t care if it is called “evangelical”) is Reformed; and he probably thinks Arminians and Anabaptists are wrong at some important points. Fine. I think the same of Reformed, and I think they are sometimes wrong at central points. But Michael Horton knows that a local church (or denomination) is not the village green. I agree with him 100%.

But … and here’s our problem…

The NeoReformed, for a variety of reasons, some of them good, don’t recognize that evangelicalism is a village green. Perhaps they do reluctantly, but they look down their noses at the non-Reformed. A sense of being the most faithful is core to the NeoReformed. (Agree?) Instead of wanting a village green of diversity they want to build a gate at the gate-less village green and require (Neo or not) Reformed confessions and credentials to enter onto the village green. Put differently, they think the only truly faithful evangelicals are Reformed. Really Reformed. In other words, they are “confessing” evangelicals. They are more than happy to call into question the legitimacy and fidelity of any evangelical who doesn’t believe in classic Reformed doctrines. The palpable observation here is that many of us think the NeoReformed are as attached to Tradition (read Westminster etc) as they are to sola scriptura.

I recently wrote to a friend of mine, a well-known and respected Reformed theologian and Bible scholar, and described what is the essence of this post and this is what he wrote back:

The problem, as I see it is these, whom you are calling neoreformed, are to me simply the old fundamentalists in nicer clothes with better vocabularies.  They are just as mean-spirited, just as graceless, and just as exclusive.  I believe that the fundamentalism of my youth was harmful to the gospel. I believe that anyone who refuses to come out of his “room” (confessional church) and into the hall of “mere Christianity”, to use Lewis’s term, is doomed to a narrow and problematic exegesis of the text.  Who is going to tell us that we are wrong if we only stay in our room and speak to people who agree with us all the time?

Well said.

The NeoReformed movement of which I speak is an attempt to capture evangelicalism, redefine it by some clearly-defined doctrines that are Reformed, and kick the rest of us — and there are lots more “of us” than the NeoReformed — off the village green. (Or at least imply that the rest of us are not courageous enough to embrace the truth.) When we are in need of profound degrees of cooperation (as we see in someone like J.I. Packer), we are finding a division of the evangelical village green. No, in fact, they are not dividing the village green; they are constructing a Reformed fence around it.

When I say “kicked” off there is no official evangelical gate but there are gatekeepers who approve and disapprove, so I’m talking about recognized NeoReformed leaders routinely approving and disapproving the theology of others. These gatekeepers are, to give two examples, the leaders of TGC and T4G. No one questions that Al Mohler sees it as his calling to approve and disapprove. More than occasionally one gets the impression these folks see themselves as official guardians of what it means to be an evangelical. (Here is an expression — google it — “You can be an evangelical if…”.) That’s all I mean by “kick off.” It means to disapprove of one’s theology as insufficiently evangelical.

Furthermore, the NeoReformed have almost equated “gospel” with particular versions of “Reformed theology.” And those who aren’t Reformed are somehow or in some ways denying the gospel itself. When gospel is equated with the doctrines of grace (as defined), we are seeing a good example of the spirit of a NeoReformed approach.

The groups they’ve chosen to exclude from participation in their groups and events and conferences and pulpits and books and publishing endeavors witness to the new kind of Reformed. The sweeping impacts of the Finney revivals and Wesleyan gospel preaching and the charismatics are simply not, in the view of the NeoReformed, sufficiently evangelical. Anabaptists aren’t even on the map. A number of historians have clearly demonstrated that evangelicalism in the USA cannot be properly understood without reference to the powerful revivals of the Wesleyans; one thinks of David Hempton or Donald Dayton. Their careful studies on the rise of American evangelicalism are often ignored. Sometimes the approach of Mark Noll and David Bebbington, which is broader based than just a list of Reformed theological ideas, is also rejected as inaccurate (or in need of clarification). Molly Worthen’s book (Apostles of Reason) has proven there are four solid dimensions of evangelicalism: the Reformed, the Wesleyan/Holiness, the Neo-anabaptist, and the Restoration movement. When only one is “truly” evangelical we deny our brothers and sisters a place at the table. This has, in fact, happened: many Wesleyans, Anabaptists, and Restorationists balk at being called “evangelical.” Why? The Reformed side has written the rules.

Oddly enough, a group not formerly connected with evangelicalism, the Southern Baptists, have (from the Reagan years on) become increasingly associated with evangelicalism. And many of them are now advocating very strong forms of Calvinism — something previously not at all characteristic of the SBC. I could be wrong here, but my own reading of Southern Baptist stuff over the years shows a dramatic rise of Calvinism and a desire to be called evangelicals. I’m open to hear how the SBC see this trend.

And here’s another issue: the NeoReformed are deeply concerned with complementarianism and see it as a test case of fidelity. Fine, argue your points, but complementarianism is hardly the center of orthodoxy and never has been. You wouldn’t know that by the way they write or talk. Some see it as the litmus test of evangelical orthodoxy these days. This grieves me. Don’t we have more significant battles to wage?

And they also have chosen to make one of their targets today the New Perspective on Paul, and for some odd reason they’ve landed squarely on the door step of Tom Wright. They see him as the problem. The Problem. When Tom Wright is our problem, it is we who have the problem. 7 years later and this critical posture toward Tom Wright, while at times a bit more improved, still rises above the surface for a gasp or two.

My brothers and sisters, because God in his mercy has made room for all of us at the cross and at the table, there’s room enough for all of us on the village green. Grace would make it so. We might not be able to agree on theology or in some of the finer points of our confessions, but the village green — evangelicalism — is covered by a big tent, and there’s room for all of us who call ourselves evangelicals.

What are options? I keep asking myself. Welcome one another in a common mission or send those we don’t agree with to another location?

Make your decision. Our decision, friends, will shape the future of American evangelicalism. I pray to God we will find a way to focus on the mission of God.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.