Guest post by Austin Fischer re: the new Calvinism and preaching

Austin Fischer is teaching pastor at Vista Community Church in the Temple, Texas area.

#Neo-Calvinism Preaching

My Conversion…to Calvinism

I was converted to Calvinism because of the preaching of John Piper. I was in high school and somebody gave me a book he had written. I read it, understood some of it, and then began listening to his sermons and through the process of listening to sermon after sermon, eventually discovered I was a Calvinist.

My story isn’t unique. Indeed, I think most people’s conversion to Calvinism goes something along the lines of, “Well I started listening to Piper/Chandler/Driscoll/Chan’s preaching and woke up one day a Calvinist.” There’s no mystery here: it’s a rare occurrence when one consistently sits under someone’s preaching and doesn’t pick up on his/her theological presuppositions. The mystery is why so many people are currently listening to Neo-Calvinist preaching. And by this I mean, what are the causes for the proliferation of prominent Calvinist preachers with so much influence and appeal, especially among younger generations?

Better Preaching Material?

C. Michael Patton recently examined this issue on his blog and his hypothesis is that in the current cultural climate, Calvinism just preaches better (than its alternatives, Arminianism in particular). By this he means that in a world of ambiguity, skepticism, and uncertainty, Calvinism’s emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God is better preaching material than any sort of free will theism. As Patton says, “Evangelicals love to hear about the sovereignty of God, the glory of God in suffering, the security of God’s grace, the providence of God over missions, and yes, even the utter depravity of man. This stuff preaches. This stuff sells tickets.”[1]

In the opening chapter of Against Calvinism, Roger Olson makes a similar connection by suggesting that Calvinism’s emphasis on certainty and sovereignty has been an anchor for those seeking refuge from the difficulties of finding faith in a postmodern context.[2]

I think Patton and Olson are clearly on to something. Although I’m no specialist on the matter, it’s always seemed to me that Calvinism is far more at home in modernity than postmodernity. Calvinism, once accepted, provides an inner logic with virtually no loose ends that offers its adherents a strong sense of certainty. Calvinists believe God is in absolute control, that no event happens unless God ordains it, and so in any and all circumstances they can be absolutely certain that God’s exact plan is unfolding. So for those going through certainty withdrawals, Calvinistic preaching can be a welcome remedy, especially when it is articulated with the passion of people like Piper and Driscoll. In other words, they are preaching that we can have certainty and they are preaching it with certainty. And this stuff does indeed sell!

As such, I think the current appeal of Calvinist preaching has less to do with passion and more to do with certainty. Thus, I would contend that it is not so much that Calvinism preaches better as it is that certainty preaches better. It always has and always will, but it is especially appealing in a postmodern context (or post-postmodern, or whatever we are in now), which seems inundated with ambiguity. I might go even further and argue that at the heart of most passionate movements, you will find a message of certainty preached with certainty.

Of course the larger issue is whether or not certainty, while obviously desirable, is responsible. This is a nuanced and contentious issue, but one I think needs some serious attention. I have argued elsewhere that certainty in our beliefs about God is not merely bad manners but bad theology.[3] In other words, of course preaching certainty with certainty is going to sell and create a movement. But does it create good disciples?

Preaching with Authority?

This leads us to the issue of authority in preaching. When I ask people (and my college students in particular) why they like listening to Piper, Driscoll, or Chandler, their answer is usually something along the lines of, “They preach with such authority.” What exactly does this mean? What is the “authority” people are perceiving? While I’m sure it is a confluence of things, I think the primary cause of the perceived authority among prominent Neo-Calvinist preachers is the certainty with which they articulate their theology (which is itself a theology of certainty in the sense I have outlined above). Because many of them hold their beliefs with such certainty, they have a gravitas that makes them compelling and tends to draw you in.[4] To put it another way, their gravitas leaves the average listener little room for disagreement.

This raises some very interesting issues regarding the responsibilities preachers have to their congregations. To elaborate a bit, should preachers simply advocate their own position/interpretation as persuasively and “authoritatively” as possible? Or do they have a responsibility to check their gravitas so their listeners have space to disagree with them? As Olson once suggested, perhaps preachers have a responsibility to leave people enough space to use their critical faculties when listening.

I understand that checking your susceptibility to gravitas is so counterintuitive that the mere suggestion can feel absurd. And I understand that it certainly won’t be conducive to creating a passionate movement or a massive church or a powerful personal following. But it might just be very conducive to creating disciples. These are issues that need far more consideration.

Preaching from a Platform

Returning to the issue of authority in Neo-Calvinist preaching and preachers, I think platforms also have a great deal to do with their perceived authority. And generally speaking, Neo-Calvinist preachers have benefitted far more than others from platforms.

I was recently in a bookstore and stumbled across For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper. The first page of the book is a pencil sketch of Piper preaching. I thought you had to be dead at least a hundred years to be pencil-sketched on to the first page of a compilation of essays in your honor. This is a testament to the stunning veneration many Neo-Calvinist preachers receive. And this veneration would seem tied back to the aforementioned ethos of certainty that pervades Neo-Calvinism. People seem to innately desire the experience of looking up at someone preaching to them from the lofty perch of certainty.

As such, the platform is being built up from multiple sides. Neo-Calvinist preachers explicitly and implicitly platform themselves because of their (over?)confidence in their message. Their listeners platform them because they (the preachers) scratch the certainty itch that the “postmodern” situation has triggered. And their vast association of networks platform them by pumping out an endless supply of books and conferences. The Passion Conferences are a particularly effective form of platforming because they provide people like Piper face time with thousands of college students in a vibrant, worshipful setting that is especially conducive to the creation of a strong following. Then there’s the veritable farm system of Neo-Calvinism in which up and coming preachers are tagged and then hyped and then endorsed by a big name or asked to speak at a big conference, and you have the makings of the next “big thing” (see Matt Chandler, Jared Wilson, etc.).

And of course it’s no big secret that moderates are terrible at platforming. Moderates cringe at the idea of a single preacher having a massive cult following and cry wolf at the slightest glimpse of authoritarianism. While they might really like the preaching of Will Willimon or Rob Bell or Donald Miller, they would never wear it on their sleeve and would be quick to let you know what they don’t like about their preaching as well. It’s just the moderate way, the moderate ethos.

Conclusion: Try Less, Try More

I’d like to end with proposals for both Neo-Calvinism and moderate free will theism. To many on the outside and some on the inside, the current explosion of Neo-Calvinist preaching doesn’t look so much like a movement of the Holy Spirit as a calculated and systematic power grab, the broken record of human interactions. It gives people what they want (certainty), the way they want it (with certainty), and suggests that veneration and unqualified loyalty is a most appropriate response. But do you want people believing that every word out of your mouth is the word of God or do you want people sifting through your words because you know they’re not? Perhaps Neo-Calvinism should pump the brakes on the platforming. Preachers could stop acting like they speak the words of God, listeners could stop inserting the sermons of Dr. Piper between Acts and Romans in their Bibles, and the Neo-Calvinist PR machine could quit trying so hard.

And perhaps moderate free will theism needs to try a little harder, or at least stop trying to sabotage itself. If Neo-Calvinist preaching needs to leave people more room to discern and question, moderate free will theism needs to encourage people to submit and accept good answers. Moderate preachers would do well to remember that moderate need not mean spineless and endlessly qualified. And if a given preacher clearly has a gift, then affirm it and point others to it instead of crying wolf at every rustling in the bushes.


[1] Patton, “Why Arminianism Doesn’t Sell”, http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2012/04/why-arminianism-doesnt-sell/#more-10788

[2] Roger Olson, Against Calvinism, 15-25.

[3] See my previous post “Certainty Not” at this blog.

[4] For example, Mark Driscoll might be telling you that Jesus would have been an MMA fighter, but he says it with such certainty that you might actually believe him.

  • http://www.danwhitejr.blogspot.com Dan Jr.

    Unbelievably well said. This has always been my suspicion. Thanks for articulating it so well.

  • http://www.mariuslombaard.net marius

    i don’t like being dogmatic, but the above post reeks of insinuations that calvinism is necessarily false, by way of various examples and narrative that doesn’t really prove the presupposition – but worse than that, it does so without biblical explanations.

    i love your blog olson, you get onto interesting subjects here and frequently make good points, but if you’re going to push arminian theology (whether through guest posts or your own writings), then at least educate me why you prefer arminianism over calvinism through a biblical exegesis so that i can better understand your view and at least critically consider it.

    if i have to offer any thoughts on the above post, it would be that my experience has been the exact opposite: most people I encounter vehemently deny strict TULIP calvinism and prefer a free will theology; the preachers I observe (and i’ve had a fair amount of exposure to many denominations of christianity) mostly favor the arminian position; lastly, i observe that arminians have a greater platform than calvinists. I could make a similar insinuation that the culture I observe is conducive to arminianism and therefore insinuate the fallaciousness of arminianism.

    But you wouldn’t appreciate that any more than I appreciate the above insinuations. You would rather expect me to explain on a more biblical basis why I disagree with arminianism if we were going to have any kind of meaningful or edifying two way discussion, wouldn’t you?

    • Austin

      Hey Marius…I’ll let Dr. Olson reply to some of this, but I’d just note a few things. First, the title of this blog is “my evangelical Arminian musings”…so I’m not sure why it is offensive to you that Arminian theology is advocated here. As to educating you in regards to why Dr. Olson (or myself) prefer Arminianism to Calvinism, that wasn’t the point of this post. There’s been plenty of books written on that.

      As to the point of the post, I have no doubt that Arminianism has greater sway in some quarters, but in my context (working with college students in the heart of the conservative evangelical subculture), it’s not even close. I can name several essentially Neo-Calvinist conferences that attract thousands of students yearly. Can you name any Arminian conferences? I can’t.

    • Percival

      Did you somehow miss that the author of the post is a Calvinist himself and is speaking as an insider?

      • rogereolson

        I am sure Austin is not a Calvinist now. He was.

    • Dean

      Huh? It’s a blog. Try reading some of his books or some older posts for why Dr. Olson is an Arminian. In any event, I don’t think anything in the GUEST post above insinuates at all that Calvinism is false (although I would think most people who come here would think that it is), the post simply provides some reflections on the reasons for Calvinism’s current resurgence. And who are you anyway that you deserve a two-way discussion on someone else’s blog? Go get your own blog and debate all you want there!

      • http://www.mariuslombaard.net marius

        Wow Dean, I’m sorry I offended you.

        If my initial understanding of the post was right, my assertion that “a view cannot be put down with insinuations” would in fact be correct. I confess however that I missed the main point of the article.

        Yes, this is a blog. Unlike books, blogs have readers contributing to a blog via comments. I see no reason why a 2 way discussion was such a bad thing to request from me. What would the alternative be? Blind faith and adherence to Olson and Austin’s views? I prefer testing the spirits, so to speak. Not that I have an issue with Olson and Austin, but I had concerns which I desired for them to address, and they did so politely and adequately.

        Austin and Olson certainly didn’t have an issue with 2 way dialogue – they both responded adequately to me. Isn’t that what we as Christians should do in the pursuit of truth?

    • Dustin Kunz

      I think you’ve missed the point of the post. It isn’t about a denial of Calvinism – Olson does that skillfully elsewhere, and the footnotes should be enough to show that the position is at least reasonably supported.

      Nor is it about strict statistical data about which is more prevalent, but rather about the experience of a college pastor and former Calvinist who ministers to students drawn towards Neo-Calvinism.

      The question has to do with platforms and platitudes and the manner in which we answer Luther’s question of “How can I know that I am saved?” in this context. You argue that Fischer’s post begs the question, when in fact it does not. It teases out the results of the actions and words offered by those who hold staunchly that the question is already answered.

    • Daniel W

      Marius,

      Dr. Olson has presented the scriptural evidence (as well as evidence from reason and experience) that leads him to embrace Arminianism over Calvinism elsewhere on this blog and more extensively in his books on the subject. I certainly hope you do not expect him to argue for Arminianism in every single post that mentions or critiques Calvinism. Such a practice would become quite cumbersome.
      Also, you should note that this is a guest post that was not written by Dr. Olson, though I’m sure he agrees with much that was said, if not every single detail.

    • John Inglis

      If you want to know about RO’s views on Arminianism, then read prior posts or his books. It’s not like he’s hiding his views.

      And get a thicker skin. The writer of the guest post, as far as one can tell, is still a Calvinist.

      J.

    • http://atdcross.blogspot.com/ Nelson Banuchi

      Marius, you said that “the above post reeks of insinuations that calvinism is necessarily false.” From my reading of the post, it seems you read more into it than what he actually stated and somehow missed the main (and I believe, legitimate) point, which seemed to me to be concerned with the manner in which the Gospel is preached wherein one preaches as if his very words are God’s (the neo-Calvinist) and the other preaches as if he’s not too sure he’s got it exactly right (the moderates).

      As as the post itself, I’ve had the same kind of thoughts over the years that people want certainty and, since Calvinism preaches “certainty”, that’s what makes it appealing. I agree when Fischer says, “I think the current appeal of Calvinist preaching has…more to do with certainty…appealing in a postmodern context…inundated with ambiguity.”

      Here are my thoughts on ths subject of certainty, although not looking at it from the same perspective or as well articulated as the post by Fischer: http://atdcross.blogspot.com/2012/02/however-uncertain-life-may-be.html

      I think preachers to let people know that not every thing in life is certain; even our salvation, even with all the promises of God, is not absoluely certain (and that’s not because God is unreliable but because of man’s fallen condition, whether he is a sinner or a believer). And, I don’t think there is anything blasphemous or heretical about it. That is just life, whether you are a “moderate” or a Calvinist (the only “certainty” of salvation a Calvinist can go by is subjective, which never really answers the question if one is in reality “the elect”).

      We’re not absolutely certain whether or not we will be alive tomorrow and we want to be absolutely certain when our the time comes our name will be on the roll of the by-and-by? Besides, if we were absolutely certain, what reason would there be for faith. That life is uncertain is the reason why faith is necessary, and why we are saved through faith by grace; for the one thing that is certain – whether or not we are absolutely certain to “persevere unto the end” – God loves and showed it by giving his Son to die on the Cross.

      Beside, it can be said that Jesus did not command us to be certain about the future but to be certain about the “now”…I’m comfortable with that.

  • http://soulfirekoeln.de Tobias Sänger

    Good word.

  • Joshua Wooden

    “Calvinism’s emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God is better preaching material than any sort of free will theism.”

    I wasn’t aware that “free will theism” was the epitome of Arminian theology.

    • rogereolson

      “Free will theism” is the larger category that includes Arminianism. Some Lutherans and most Anabaptists are free will theists but not technically Arminians. Also, there’s debate about whether open theists are Arminians, but everyone agrees they are one type of free will theists.

      • Joshua Wooden

        Ah, I see. Thanks for the clarification.

  • Aaron

    I would add that not only does certainty sell, but also the fear that comes from disagreeing with someone who is authoritative and certain. I think many people follow strong leaders because it is scary to disagree with such “prominent” and authoritative leaders. They ask “who am I to disagree” and “what if I am wrong, I might not even be saved if I disagree with these leaders.” Fear allows for a great deal of control over people.

  • http://www.billyymcmahon.wordpress.com billy mc

    This is a very thought-provoking post, Austin. I really like it.
    I was involved in a neo-calvinist community for several years. The pastor preached with such authority and boldness for sometimes 3 hours at a time. I absolutely respected it and appreciated it. I literally could not wait to attend these weekly services where “Pastor _______ will bring THE WORD to us” (as it was called). At this particular time in my life, I was facing a lot of uncertainty and changes. Having such certainty in the Bible was extremely comforting to me. Even things like total depravity we highly comforting. When the pastor told us how wretched we were in our human nature, and that God couldn’t even look at us (could it be that God HATED us as sinners?), I felt a lot of comfort in the certainty of this message. I absolutely knew without a doubt that this was true. It seemed as though the greater certainty in this, the greater certainty I began to have in the salvation in Christ.
    I think it’s also worth noting that a lot of what Piper/Driscoll/Chandler/etc. say is completely new and refreshing compared to what many have experienced in church. My past-self was feeling very critical of my denomenational upbringing (heavily Arminian) at the time as well, and I regarded the neo-calvinist’s message to be the next big thing (maybe even the correct way to look at everything).
    I find it pretty funny with how postmodernism is still considered to be a curse word among some. We undoubtedly live in a postmodern world and I think mechanisms like the internet are such obvious identity markers. Compared to the mental landscape even 70 years ago, we stand completely different. I believe it was sociologist of religion Rodney Stark (please correct me if I’m wrong!) who observed the many ways that religious groups/sects can react to major cultural changes. Oftentimes, a group will reinforce previous or “orthodox” doctrine in an attempt to defeat and even silence any new conflicting claims. Other times, one may deny that the existing new cultural shift is actually bogus. While I remember reading Stark’s work in the context of New Religious Movements, I think that neo-calvinism would undoubtedly be subject to the same mentality. Postmodernism is near, but ambiguity and rejecting metanarrative can be extremely scary things. Things like authority may easily fill the gaps of our subconscious doubts.
    While I am very grateful for this past chapter in my life as I continue to develop spiritually, in retrospect I can find some obvious targets of criticism. I’m not bitter towards the mentors I had, mainly I’m just critical of myself. My experience of neo-calvinism was oftentimes a formula where I knew (with certainty) a long list of things (ranging from depravity to attonement to imputed righteousness, etc.).
    I suppose a challenge I might have to neo-calvinism is to genuinely engage with surrounding culture and ideas. I was lead to believe by some that many authors not on the calvinist-approved reading list were absolutely unbiblical (whether it be McLaren, Bell, Camus, many contemporary philosophers). Guess what I did? I finally read some of those on the “banned books” list (in particular, the work of Albert Camus), and soon discovered that I had a huge gaping hole in my theology- I had absolutely no idea what had been going on outside of the church walls.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I’m not in the middle of this kind of conflict but have been reading about it with concern. Austin Fischer’s diagnosis seems to be spot on and is similar to the diagnosis many would offer for the extreme conservative vs more liberal political conflict. Liberals and moderates don’t do bumper stickers or T-shirts very well either – but the majority of folks love them. 

    However, the prescription offered, using the previous analogy, amounts to getting moderates to make better bumper stickers and T-shirts while asking extreme conservatives to use their abilities in this area less well. We could also suggest that maybe extreme conservatives offer tutorials on how to make more effective  bumper stickers and T-shirts. 

    Two things seem to be wrong with this approach. First, is presumes that the only problem is one of method – once again emphasizing our love affair with method and mechanism, which often reaches the point of idolatry. Second, it just doesn’t seem to be a reasonable type of behaviour modification one can expect from either side. The solution has to lie elsewhere.

    • Austin

      Hey Bev…I appreciate the thoughts and critiques. I’d only point out that I hope I’m not assuming that method is the heart of the problem; rather, it’s ethos of certainty that drives such a method that I’m pointing at.

      • Bev Mitchell

        Austin,

        Sorry if I seemed to imply that you were too heavy into method over substance. I only meant to observe that this can happen and, as you observe, we don’t want to go there. As for solutions, do you think there is any hope that the Bezan Calvinist could at least accept people with a more moderate form of Reformed evangelicalism? – something along the lines of T.F. Torrance or Christopher J.H. Wright of Langham Partnership International. 

        Wright is an OT scholar and very missions oriented. His 2006 book “The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative” IVP is absolutely outstanding. If anyone wants to get their head around the big picture and be inspired at the same time – this is the book!

        Now, if the Young, Restless and Reformed, Piper Cubs, or whatever they call themselves these days really want to get with it in the context of the Reformation, why don’t they focus more on Torrance, C.J.H. Wright and others like them and show Theodore Beza the door?

        • rogereolson

          I hope Austin will respond, but, speaking only for myself, I suspect they (the YRR leaders) consider Torrance and Wright revisionist Reformed theologians. The big hero of the YRR movement is Jonathan Edwards and anyone who seriously deviates from his theology is simply not seriously and sufficiently Reformed. For some of the older voices of evangelical Calvinism the theological guru forever is Charles Hodge whose thought David Wells baptized in Christianity Today some years ago as “The Stout and Persistent Theology of Charles Hodge.” Torrance and others like him would probably be considered neo-orthodox, Barthian, rather than classically Reformed.

  • K D

    I would really like for the author of this post to listen to a lecture by Chris Rosebrough called Resistance is Futile – You Will be Assimilated Into the community and get his opinion on it. Also an interview with this same speaker on Issues Etc. on 6/19/2012. (listed below in order) I’m afraid you’re only picking at the crust of a festering sore.
    http://www.fightingforthefaith.com/2012/05/resistance-is-futile-you-will-be-assimilated-into-the-community.html
    http://issuesetc.org/guest/chris-rosebrough/#

  • J.E. Edwards

    Wow! Now those are some stinging accusations! I’m not here to defend any names mentioned, but how much have you listened to any of those pastors listed? Yes, I would say these men expound the Scriptures with certainty. That kind of preaching always leads to a passionate movement. Your argument seems to want to disconnect this so-called movement from the Scripture that is being preached. To chalk it up to certainty and passionate preaching styles isn’t a very honest assessment. Preaching that reasons with peoples minds is a powerful thing. Your statement:
    ” …the current explosion of Neo-Calvinist preaching doesn’t look so much like a movement of the Holy Spirit as a calculated and systematic power grab, the broken record of human interactions.”
    Whether you agree with them or not, that is a dangerous statement that has certainty behind it. To imply that this doesn’t look like the work of the Holy Spirit is what the Pharisees said about Jesus, isn’t it? I’m not implying or saying that these men are God here. What I am saying here, is that Jesus was doing things they couldn’t explain or understand and accused them of doing them by the devil. Casting that kind of judgment around is dangerous for Christian brothers to do to each other. If it isn’t the Holy Spirit, what spirit is it?

    • rogereolson

      I will let Austin respond also, of course, but, speaking for myself… When I hear a preacher speak loudly with certainty that “If you accepted Jesus Christ for any other reason than the glory of God you might not be saved,” I get very concerned. If that’s the preachers’ opinion, that’s one thing. But to stand in front of an audience and preach that opinion with the same force as “God loves you and Christ died to save you” (the gospel) concerns me greatly. Forceful, authoritative preaching of opinions as if they were the gospel is what really concerns me and I see that happening in neo-fundamentalism. It certainly happened in the fundamentalist-Pentecostal milieu I grew up in and it took me a long time to work my way out of that and discern the difference between the gospel and preachers’ opinions.

      • J.E. Edwards

        Definitely agree. “If you accepted Jesus Christ for any other reason than the glory of God you might not be saved”… I don’t know why anyone would say that to a lost person. Obviously, I can’t listen to everything everyone preaches, so I don’t know who would say that. The hyper-fundamentalist circles have fought this idea of giving its leaders a lot of power for years. That is still taking its time working its way out of me. Freedom is a good air to breathe.

    • Austin

      Hey J.E…I have listed to all those preachers…lots…and grew up listening to every Piper sermon I could get my hands on. The point of the post wasn’t to suggest that any of these people are doing preaching that is “of the devil” or something absurd along those lines. I’ve benefited greatly from their preaching. The point was to examine some of the factors behind the unbelievable prominence of many Neo-Calvinist preachers, and to me at least, it seems clear that certainty is a strong factor. Simply put, certainty sells and they sell it well. The question for me then is, is certainty (especially on contentious matters like TULIP) responsible? I don’t think it is.

    • Dustin Kunz

      The weakness to your refutation is this: too many of us who have listened to a great deal of what they have to say (many since before they became vogue), and we find it difficult to disagree. Even for those who agree it isn’t uncommon to hear “Driscoll’s problem isn’t that he’s wrong; it’s that he’s an asshole.”

      What Fischer offers here IS an explanation, which you implied does not exist. “What I am saying here, is that Jesus was doing things they couldn’t explain or understand and accused them of doing them by the devil.” “If it isn’t the HS, then what is it?” is a frightening litmus test, as the way you frame it attributing it to the work of the divine seems to be the default (which, judging by your evident critical thinking, isn’t the case). Though for the Calvinist, whatever occurs IS the work of the Divine, not as a default, but as an unassailable rule.

  • http://donttakemyword.blogspot.com/ scott f

    The other selling point to Calvinism is that it requires no work on the part of the recipient of God’s grace. If you’re in, it doesn’t matter wake you do or don’t do. Arminianism requires that you actually pick up the ball. Who wants the fuss?

    • Dustin Kunz

      That’s a weak mischaracterization of the position, an ad hominem attack, and if you’re going to make it you might need to account for the record of socially active and evangelistic Calvinists.

  • Scott Gay

    Among the non-believers, positivists are just as convinced and preach their certainty with certainty.
    In a small book on symbolism Professor A Whitehead says the human mind is functioning symbolically when some components of its experience elicit consciousness, beliefs, emotions, and usages, repecting other components of its experience. If a believer actually experiences God as causing disease, starvation, etc……where does that experience come from? If a non-believer experiences religion as a human construction where does that experience come from?
    In contemporary social science authority is a matter of debate. The two sides are (1) excercising ascendancy over group or(2) not a capacity but a relationship. IMHO our species has a built in ability to hide from oneself and others our need for the former. And the positivists and the determinists step up to confirm it most regularly. Both are philosophies that arose out of a time when our species could hardly imagine freedom, life as good, and an awareness of change as purposeful. You are not predestined or a “product of favored races in the struggle for life”. It’s accuarate to call both radical authoritarian ideologies.

  • K Gray

    Laypersons are not all credulous followers, influenced into particular theologies by dynamic preaching — or by certainty. It makes me uncomfortable when people speculate about why “we” believe a certain way. Here the explanation is that we – laypersons – prefer certainty to the Holy Spirit, therefore we prefer Neo-Calvinism. What is the evidence – the growth of Neo-Calvinism? That seems tautological

    • Austin

      For me the evidence is the reasons people give me for their admiration of Neo-Calvinist preachers, which I mention in the article. The experiences I cite are not isolated. Probably 70% of my students consistently place themselves before Neo-Calvinist preaching and when I ask them why, they always mention authority. My question then is, what’s the authority they perceive? My opinion is that one of the factors (not the only one) is certainty.

  • David Booth

    Thank you for this guest post. I think Neo Calvinist do work with a hermeneutic of certainty which too often equates “we just preach the word” (i.e. their interpretation) with the word of God. This unfortunately leads to the inference (rightly or wrongly) that those who disagree are not faithfully expounding the word. If postmodernism has any good thing to teach us, it is the need for a hermeneutic of humility which leaves open the possibility that our own interpretation of scripture mat be in error and not beyond correction.

    Thank you for your thoughts on this. It resonates with my own misgivings about many neo Calvinst preachers and congregations. But I do love and admire their desire to feed on the WORD!

    Cheers,
    david

  • Percival

    This gives me hope. I don’t know how much of a voice Fischer has among his tribe, but I hope they are listening. “Try less and try more” are good words for us in his conclusion, but they wouldn’t be my final admonition. We should also be admonished to pray and be patient while God corrects and guides his people.

  • Kyle

    I agree and disagree with Fischer’s evaluation of Calvinism and it’s current popularity. I agree with the claim about the speakers from the neo-calvinist camp being very certain in their tone and, thus, providing people with a firm hope (valid in God’s actual rule although I disagree with Calvinism’s soteriology and determinism). However, I think Calvinism’s “inner-logic” is only that — inner. As Fischer noted that Calvinism has to be accepted before the logic is tight, Calvinism actually causes a lot of uncertainty for people –certainty in God but uncertainty of what that means for people. Hence, you have the Calvinist apologists always playing the mystery card (As Olson has pointed out recently). I think Calvinism is actually very palatable to a post-modern worldview in some ways because of the certainty (although impossible to derive for any one human because there is no actual knowing anything about the elect) within a system of other beliefs that make it difficult to reconcile with reason.

  • http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com krwordgazer

    As the survivor of a spiritually abusive Christian cult, my problem with the overconfidence, the hype, the hero-worship, and even the certainty is that it is too conducive to authoritarian leadership, and authoritarian leadership is far too conducive to spiritual abuse. The group I was in had a large percentage of people who came out of authoritarian home lives and had learned to think of authoritarian control as normal and to feel uncomfortable without it. I was one of them. But that didn’t make it healthy, or right.
    I would be far less suspicious of New Calvinism if it didn’t seem to bear so many markings of authoritarian, coercive, spiritually abusive religious practice– just as you said in your conclusion. Jesus taught against a any form of Christian superstardom. Paul protested strongly when the members of a church tried to elevate him to that kind of status. I will never go to another church where there is no space to disagree with the leaders. And although I am an Arminian and always have been (the coercive group I was in was Arminian too) this isn’t about theology. It’s about control. I have no quarrel with Calvinists who aren’t into that. I do have a quarrel with Arminians who are.

    • rogereolson

      That’s a good word. Thank you. I, too, grew up in an Arminian (Pentecostal) environment riddled with spiritual abuse. (Not everyone was guilty of it, but too many were.) It’s not just neo-Calvinists who preach the way Austin criticizes, but right now it’s they who are primarily doing it and are all over youtube and etc. with it.

  • Wesman

    Austin, great insights! I might also add into the mix the difference between teaching people how to think versus telling people what to believe. Generally, the Neo-Calvinists, in my opinion, lean much more in the direction of telling people what to believe; they perceive this as their God-given duty. When more often than not, what is needed is teaching people how to think for themselves–to think biblically, to critically analyze, and to take the responsibility to own one’s faith.

  • James Petticrew

    Driscoll caused offence and amusement over here in the UK recently. He attacked British pastors as being unable to preach as there weren’t any well known ones ( he could name ) I think most British pastors were amused, as we could name well known and excellent UK bible teachers so he was factually wrong and was simply displaying his ignorance and cultural imperialism, if they ain’t known in the States, they aint important! What I found offensive was the equating of having a high profile in his circles and being an excellent bible teacher. Thankfully although we are not immune to it, the cult of the super star pastor hasn’t infected us to say degree it has the church in the states. I still have the naive belief that there are excellent bible teachers preaching to large and small congregations all over the UK who feel called to do that and don’t feel any calling to validate their ability by the number of people who pay to come to hear them.

  • David Hess

    I couldn’t disagree more with the statement that somehow Calvinism “preaches better”. The implications of the Calvinist system and the horrible picture of God at its core is deplorable. If it in fact it was the Apostolic understanding (which the entire pre-Augustine Church contradicts), I would be looking for another faith (I can sympathize with Protestant who are attracted to Orthodoxy for the very reason that it never ‘ingested’ the gnosticism and/or stoicism that Augustine inadvertently introduced to western Christendom). Ironically, I’d be predestined according to the Reformed for so doing. Calvinism has NO answer to the Problem of Evil. Their cry of “consistency” only appears that way until one takes a deeper, more careful look.

    • rogereolson

      I think Austin was saying that Calvinism preaches better because listeners crave certainty and despise or fear ambiguity.

  • Jon

    “I have argued elsewhere that certainty in our beliefs about God is not merely bad manners but bad theology.” Are you certain about this statement?

    This post is so self-contradictory. You have no place for authority, but should I accept your authority?

    I also dislike the celebrity pastor model, but for much different reasons. And for every one “Calvinist” celebrity preacher, there are a dozen free-willers

    • rogereolson

      Please. Get real. Austin was not saying you’re not a fulfilled Christian if you disagree with him. His merely expressing his opinion. That’s not what the preachers he’s talking about claim they are doing.

      • Jon

        Huh? I didn’t even mention being a “fulfilled” Christian. Did you even read my post?

        • rogereolson

          Of course. I was responding to some of the people Austin was writing about to explain why I agree with him. Whatever you may think, at least some of the people he calls “neo-Calvinists” talk as if non-Calvinists cannot possibly be fulfilled Christians or fully converted.

    • Austin

      I’ve found that those who don’t understand the difference between certainty and confidence get the most bent out of shape when I poke at certainty. Why do you assume that you can only accept someone’s authority if they (or you) are certain they’re right? That’s simply faulty logic. When you accept someone’s authority, you take a risk. No way around it.

  • http://fbcbiglake.org Gerald Bastin

    When all the questions are answered, everything becomes easier, especially when it comes to religion! The article highlights the problem not so much with people speaking with authority, that happens all the time in all kinds of arenas but with the people who listen with little or no discernment to what they hear.

  • Rob

    Full disclosure: I am not a Calvinist. The post articulated many of my own concerns about Calvinism and some of its most famous proponents. I have no problem with Christians(Calvinsit, Arminian, etc.) being certain about the gospel (Jesus/Kingdom) . However, I get nervous when one’s entire systematic theology is communicated with the same level of certainty. I believe this is what some of the Neo-Calvinists (some more than others) are in danger of doing (read: orthodoxy police). I agree that certainty is attractive to many people, but that doesn’t necessarily make it healthy or right. I, personally, am suspicious of religious formulations that primarily seem to ease existential fears/anxiety. It’s just little too convenient. However, I appreciate there are varieties of faith/religious experience and I don’t expect everyone to confirm to my preferences.

  • gingoro

    “Calvinists believe God is in absolute control, that no event happens unless God ordains it, and so in any and all circumstances they can be absolutely certain that God’s exact plan is unfolding.”
    I’m curious is there is any Christian reading this blog who would disagree that “God’s exact plan is unfolding”. It seems to me that the issue is over how meticulous God’s plan is plus over monergism. Even though I am a Calvinist I do not believe that God pre-planned, at the micro level, all that occurs although I do agree that high Calvinists do believe that God ordains every event that occurs in the universe. I see such high Calvinists as determinists.
    By the way I don’t read Piper/Chandler/Driscoll/Chan/Sproul… but rather read N T Wright, John Stott, C S Lewis…
    Dave W

    • rogereolson

      I disagree with it (viz., “God’s exact plan is unfolding”). I prefer to say that God’s ultimate plan cannot be thwarted by the very real and unplanned (by God) resistance of men and women.

      • gingoro

        I was using the words of the author and not something that I would normally say. Further more I’d also prefer your term of ultimate plan. But my point was that in either case God’s ultimate plan is on track and what you Arminians and the high Calvinists disagree about is how detailed and particular that plan is. On this matter I’m probably closer to you than I am to the high Calvinists. As a result some of the high Calvinists call me a Pelagian since I don’t accept meticulous providence as the way that God always or even normally acts although sometimes God does arrange the circumstances of our lives in great detail.
        DaveW

        • rogereolson

          That’s clearly a misuse of the word “Pelagian” which has relevance only in soteriology, not the doctrine of providence.

  • holdon

    The logic of the Calvinist is simple: God controls all things and elected before the foundation of the world certain people only to salvation. The purpose of the people is only to glorify His wrath, because they are sinners only meriting the just recompense. If any believe, it is only because God wanted them to. And therefore “to God is all the glory”. It’s like the simplistic logic of Job’s 3 friends: God rewards the good, punishes the bad, and Job, since you’re being punished, you must have done something bad. (of course we know that God in the end rebuke those 3 saying they had spoken right about God!)

    In most cases Calvinists don’t tell the rest of the story, because most right feeling people would reject it’s horribleness and injustice:
    1. Whatever (including all sin and evil) comes to pass is willed by God.
    2. If some are saved only because God willed them to be saved, He therefore does not want the rest to be saved, but wants them in hell. And this is necessarily determined before they “had done good or bad” as their cherished text says in Rom. 9:11.
    3. If God saves anyone it is only because of His power overriding the will of man and God is absolutely Sovereign. Therefore God simply doesn’t want to save the rest although it would perfectly in His power to do so.

    Think about it: God sowed the seeds of sin and evil in this world? What does that God make?
    God sends people willy-nilly to eternal torment, before they had a chance to do bad or good.
    The Sovereign God could certainly save all people, but he doesn’t; He is also glorified that the rest perishes.
    And of course to the natural mind this sounds all like injustice and so they haste to add that Paul was anticipating that reaction in Rom. 9:14 and saying that “God can do what He wants” and of course the story of the Potter is insisted on: does the Potter not throw away certain “miscreants”?

    If you’re thinking: but doesn’t God want none of the world to perish, all to be saved, all come to repentance, and that the answer is on the part of man: come, repent, believe, etc.. you’re certainly right: that’s what the Bible says.
    What about election then? It’s certainly there but never “unto salvation”. Plenty of “non-elect” were saved and “elect” not saved.
    What about Rom 9:11? It’s certainly there but is not about “salvation” but serves to show that despite all the goodness of election (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the Jews from Paul’s era), it didn’t do them much good: the elect people had rejected Jesus and the Gentiles were being brought in.
    What about the Potter? It serves to show that the Sovereign Potter can bring in anyone including the non elect Gentiles and discard the hardened clay that has become useless. A hardening had come over the Jews (at least partially).

    The Calvinistic theology has completely distorted the teachings of the bible and the view of the Sovereign God. That is my opinion.

  • TimNation

    I thought this article was very interesting and insightful in a lot of the reasons that the Neo Calvinist movement is so attractive to many right now, but he loses me at the presupposition that “certainty in our beliefs about God is not merely bad manners but bad theology”.

    To be certain, we can only be certain of those things which God has revealed about himself through the person and work of Christ as well as the Word of God. As men who proclaim his gospel, does it not betray a lack of faith in the Bible (which provides a tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability/free will) if we do not proclaim what is taught clearly in Scripture?

    Side note that I think is worth adding, when forwarded on to a pastor friend of mine, he joked “Paul may or may not have punched someone in the face if they tried to tell him that preaching with less certainty was somehow superior.”

    • rogereolson

      I think when Austin talks about “certainty” as a negative thing he means a human attitude that brooks no criticism or disagreement or even doubt but treats those who express them with shaming. “If you question what I say you are automatically unspiritual.” Besides, no contemporary preacher is Paul; Paul was an apostle. Do you know any living apostles who possess the authority of Paul (and therefore could write inspired Scripture)? I won’t speak for Austin, but I am not opposed to what Lesslie Newbigin called “proper confidence.” Claims to absolute certainty that admits of no doubt or possibility of being wrong make me wonder about the person’s honesty (to himself or herself as well as to his hearers or readers). Even Paul admitted to seeing “through a glass darkly” and not “face to face” (yet).

  • Tom Montelauro

    Along with all that “certainty” often come the anti-Christian side effects of hard-handedness, arrogance, summary rejection of other views, and divisiveness.

  • http://lifeandbuilding.com Kyle

    Great analysis. I wonder the same thing. The “postmodern remedy” seems really spot on. But is their certainty certain?

  • http://www.mariuslombaard.net marius

    bottom line: you can disagree with calvinism, that’s fine – just don’t put calvinism down on the basis of “certainty preaching”. that’s just bad theology and philosophy. put it down based on biblical grounds instead and I’ll listen. that’s the only issue i have with the above post.

    when you say ” “If you accepted Jesus Christ for any other reason than the glory of God you might not be saved,” I get very concerned. ” – i agree. that’s taking certain theological elements to the extreme, but there are extreme cases of calvinist theology as well as arminian theology.

    case in point, i was part of a very strict arminian movement from 1999-2003. with strict, i literally mean preaching that you have to constantly do good works (in their case street evangelism) to maintain your salvation, which is equally extreme as your case which i’ve referenced a few sentences earlier.

    extremists are everywhere. you get “milder” calvinists and arminians as well. you shouldn’t judge a subject based upon its “extreme” cases, but rather based on it’s on what it objectively is most of the time. why? well, i could judge you for making mistakes, but does your mistakes dominate your lifestyle? No! I should judge you rather for who you are and what you represent the majority of the time.

    that’s simply the more reasonable and intellectually tenable approach.

    • rogereolson

      Again, as many others have pointed out, you missed the point of Austin’s post. He wasn’t addressing Calvinism. He was addressing the style of preaching of the current crop of Calvinist preachers who don’t distinguish between certainty about the gospel of Jesus Christ and certainty about their own theological opinions. Absolutely, yes, there are Arminians (e.g., many Pentecostal) preachers who also fail to make that distinction. But Austin hasn’t experienced them. If he had, he would lump them together with the preachers he is calling into question. As he asks in another response today, do you know of any Arminian student conferences drawing thousands and thousands of college students to hear preachers who proclaim their theology (not the gospel) with absolute certainty? I don’t.

      • http://www.mariuslombaard.net marius

        This in response to both Austin and Olson’s remarks to mine:

        “First, the title of this blog is “my evangelical Arminian musings”…so I’m not sure why it is offensive to you that Arminian theology is advocated here”

        I’m not offended by someone promoting an arminian view. I’ve been studying both views for the last year, although not conclusively.

        Although the main point of the post was not to promote or defend a specific view (And I’ll confess, I missed the main point), it did come across as putting down a certain view quite strongly with nothing more than insinuations, and it is this that I took offense at.

        I humbly apologise for this. That was my mistake. I understand now what the main idea of the post was. And in light of that I understand why you didn’t need to reference any sources to further discuss arminian/calvinist theology.

        I would agree with the main idea then, that the certainty preaching of doctrines that are non-essential and by no means as clear from scripture as it is being preached, is something that surely needs to be addressed.

        “I can name several essentially Neo-Calvinist conferences that attract thousands of students yearly. Can you name any Arminian conferences? I can’t.”

        This is of course a very good point.

  • Calvin Chen

    As a Reformed (and Neo-Calvinist) Christian I’d like to ask Fischer to please carefully note the distinction between the New Calvinists / Neo-reformed / Young, Restless, and Reformed (all interchangeable) and Neo-Calvinism. Neo-Calvinism is a theological, intellectual, and civic movement more than a century old built around Dutch American statesman Abraham Kuyper’s interpretation and application of Calvinist theology to multiple facets of life and society as exemplified at Calvin College, the Christian Reformed Church, and to some extent evangelical institutions like Regent College and Fuller Seminary. New Calvinism / Neo-reformed / Young, Restless, Reformed is largely an early 21st century interest in and alliance built around predestination and complementarianism often found among Baptists, low-church evangelicals, and some charismatics and Presbyterians exemplified by preachers like Piper / Driscoll / Chandler / Mohler / Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and to a lesser extent Carson, Keller, the Gospel Coalition, Together For the Gospel, etc.

    • rogereolson

      Well, the terminology gets confusing, doesn’t it. I think Austin was clear about who he was talking about even if his use of a label is confusing to some. I know some leading Reformed theologians who would object to calling the people Austin was talking about “Reformed” or even “Neo-Reformed.” Mike Horton (rightly, I judge) says Baptists cannot be Reformed. They can be Calvinists but not really Reformed as “Reformed” points back to certain post-Reformation “symbols of unity” that all imply infant baptism and federal theology.

  • Steve Dal

    Calvinists sound a lot more convincing than Arminians but some of that has to do with the fact that they have had the ‘running’ for a while and it seems to me that Arminians are playing catchup. But lets face it Calvinism offers nice feelings. I mean, who wouldn’t want to feel as if they were chosen before the foundation of the world etc etc. So it’s pretty potent stuff. The problem, of course, is does the Scritpure actually teach that. My conviction at this point is that there is substantial doubt around this. Or more to the point there are better hypotheses.

  • Frank

    I don’t believe in Calvinism. The Lord did not create robots. John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world”. The world means just that; The WORLD. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes about predestination, but it says nothing about predestination for SOME. Christ’s blood was a gift to all humanity, those that choose to accept it are saved. The judizers of the new testament thought they were special in some way and they were in some respects. They carried the Abhramic covenant that God entrusted to the people but they were still men. They were not saved by the law or because God thought they were special.
    The teachings of Calvin deny free will of man, which were created in the image of thier maker. God chose us all to be inheritors of his kingdom. The Lord also knows that a great multitude will not accept this inheritance, and in His eternal wisdom I am sure he knows those that will accept his perfect sacrifice.
    Many Calvinists point to the Genesis story of Esau and Jacob; they inevitably ask the question: why did God hate Esau? Human logic brings them to a point where God chooses good people and bad people. But human loguc is failable to say the least. The reason God hates Esau was because he would sell his birthright, Esau was not the one to carry the Abrahamic covenant into the new era. The same applies for those in humanity which would sell thier birthright for the things of this world.
    Calvinism has the potential to be dangerous, because many people take a hands off attitude to discipling and discipleship, when they conclude that our Creator has judged those that are worthy. They question thier zeal and rightly so, because if the work has been done,then what need is thier for them to spread the Gospel. Of course, many Calvinists are not like this but many are; at least in my experiences.
    I know I will get some flack for my statement, but I want to say that I have many brothers and sisters in Christ that I worship with that subscribe to the Calvinist doctrine and it should not be a barrier from worshiping the Lord together.
    In conclusion, just follow the Word and the Lord will guide your path. God is in Control, and it is up to us to trust him, this is what Paul meant by predestination.

  • http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com krwordgazer

    To Steve Dal:
    You said, “Who wouldn’t want to feel as if they were chosen before the foundation of the world?”

    I would not want to feel as if I were chosen before the foundation of the world while millions of other people were rejected before the foundation of the world. I don’t feel as if I could possibly enjoy that kind of election.

  • Lucas

    Interesting how you only attack the leaders and the deliverance of their message rather than their message itself. Would you ever take the time to read one of Piper/Chandler/Driscoll’s sermons and point out several Biblical errors? Or is it easier to attack Calvinism as a whole? An entity?

    In Piper’s writing against Bell’s teaching, he writes on his specific remarks in regards to written Biblical truth. I have yet to see you do likewise. Your motive does not seem to be that of revealing truth. Until then, what does a well-written essay with no theological truth really matter?

    • rogereolson

      To whom is this comment addressed? Did you miss that Austin used to be a part of the young, restless, Reformed movement who read those authors and believed what they wrote? And what’s wrong with criticizing the manner in which a person delivers his or her message without engaging the truth of the message itself? Do you think only the latter is ever worthwhile? Can you not imagine being “turned off,” as it were, by the way a person communicates even as you agree with the message being communicated? I can’t imagine that you can’t imagine that.

    • http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com krwordgazer

      Here are theological truths that have to do directly with the deliverance of their message:
      “The rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, but it is not to be so among you.”
      “Each of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I am of Apollos,’ and ‘I am of Cephas’ . . . Paul was not crucified for you, was he?”
      “If anyone among you thinks he is wise in this age, let him become foolish, that he may become wise.”

      Christian superstardom, authoritarian leadership and excessive certainty are not of the Spirit of Christ.

    • Austin

      Hey Lucas…I think you missed the point of the essay. It wasn’t an essay on whether or not I agree or disagree with Calvinism, hence I don’t know why would expect me to address this. Additionally (and as Dr. Olson pointed out), I don’t think you read the intro. I’ve listened to countless sermons by the people you’ve mentioned and read virtually every book Piper has written. But thanks for saying it was well written :)!


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