Is the Problem Calvinism or Fundamentalism (or the Combination)?

Is the Problem Calvinism or Fundamentalism (or the Combination)?

According to a recent article in the New York Times I am the leading opponent of Calvinism (or the New Calvinism) in America today. I don’t know where the writer (Mark Oppenheimer) got that idea. Certainly not from me. Someone else must have said that to him. If it’s true it’s only because there are very few people with a public platform speaking out against it. It was never my intention to be “the” or even “a” leading opponent of Calvinism. In fact, when I sit back and look at my involvement in the evangelical controversy over God’s sovereignty I believe it has been mainly anti-fundamentalist rather than anti-Calvinist. The Calvinism I oppose is fundamentalist Calvinism. I would never have spoken out publicly against Calvinism if that combination were not such a visible and vocal phenomenon in American evangelical life.

So why did I write Against Calvinism? That’s easy. Because of the rise and influence of aggressive, fundamentalist Calvinism in contemporary evangelicalism. Otherwise, I would not have written it.

Recently I posted here a link (which didn’t work as a hyper-link so people had to figure out their own ways to get to the article) to an article on Peter Lumpkin’s blog by a non-fundamentalist, evangelical Calvinist blasting the new Calvinism (at least part of the Young, Restless, Reformed movement) for over emphasizing TULIP and taking a certain attitude toward it—as the whole of what it means to be Reformed and as equivalent to the gospel itself such that anyone who does not accept TULIP is somehow denying the gospel. If all Calvinists were like him, I would never have written Against Calvinism.

So what is the “fundamentalism” in much contemporary American Calvinism that makes it so objectionable?

What I’m describing here is a “fundamentalist ethos.” It comes in varieties and degrees. But here are some of its common features and family resemblances: 1) a tendency to elevate most secondary doctrines, non-essential to being an orthodox Christian, to essential status, 2) a tendency to avoid Christian fellowship and cooperation with people who claim to be Christian but are not “like minded,” 3) a tendency to be highly suspicious of the spirituality of anyone who thinks differently about secondary and tertiary doctrines, however slight the disagreement may be, 4) a tendency to elevate to sacrosanct status a whole system of theology and consider any deviation from it as (at best) on a slippery slope toward apostasy, 5) a tendency to focus obsessively on one or more beliefs or practices that, in the larger scheme of orthodox Protestantism, is relatively minor (e.g., modern Bible translations that include inclusive language about human beings, pretribulation rapture, young earth creationism, etc.), 6) a tendency to be harshest (using the “rhetoric of exclusion”) toward those closest theologically but flawed doctrinally at one or a few points.

I have a recording of two well-known leaders of the new Calvinism who promote themselves as mainstream evangelicals. They are answering questions from an audience. The recording does not include where or when this took place but its seems to be at a Christian college sometime in the 1990s. The two speakers’ names never appear on the recording but their voices are distinct and easily recognizable to anyone who knows them (and I know both of them—one personally and the other through hearing him speak). Both are all over “Youtube,” so anyone who wants to compare their voices on the recording with theirs on their Youtube clips will immediately recognize them. Remember—these are men who are not usually thought of as fundamentalists and they are widely regarded as mainstream evangelical leaders of the new Calvinism movement. (Explanatory note: In my taxonomy the “new Calvinism” is larger than the “Young, Restless, Reformed movement.” The latter grew out of the former. The former, the “new Calvinism,” began to appear within evangelicalism in the 1990s as certain leading evangelical Calvinists began to network with each other to promote “five point Calvinism” as the correct evangelical theology to the exclusion of all others. The “Young, Restless, Reformed movement” grew out of this as some of these evangelical Calvinist leaders began to promote five point Calvinism at large youth conferences, at evangelical colleges and seminaries, etc.)

On the recording one of the two new Calvinists is asked by an audience member about Clark Pinnock and open theism. He, the evangelical theologian, says he considers Clark’s theology non-Christian and even pagan. He claims that Pinnock denied biblical inerrancy and God’s omnipotence. (Which is not true.) But his main criticism is about open theism. He says he would not have Christian fellowship with Pinnock (although he once did). (Lots of laughter from the audience.) He then turns to the other one and asks what he has to say about Clark Pinnock. The second theologian says “Well, nothing harsher than that.” (Again, much laughter from the audience.) The first theologian is clearly annoyed and, in a rather harsh tone, demands the second one say something about Pinnock and open theism. The second one is reluctant to declare Pinnock not a Christian. He reminds the first one that Pinnock did claim to believe in God’s omnipotence. The first one replies that he clearly didn’t believe in it. Then the conversation segues into one about Arminianism. The first theologian says he accepts “Semi-Pelagians” as Christians (he clearly means Arminians) because at least they claim to believe in God’s sovereignty. Then he says that when Arminians explain what they believe “there’s precious little sovereignty left.” The second theologian reminds the first one that Pinnock claimed to believe in God’s omnipotence and omniscience (so why are Arminians Christians but Pinnock isn’t?). The first one falls silent for a moment but then says they will have to agree to disagree about Pinnock. Then they discuss open theism and suddenly the second theologian goes ballistic—calling on people to call Christian colleges that harbor open theist professors and protest. This clearly pleases the first theologian and the audience. The recording ends with the two theologians agreeing that open theism is a serious error that should be removed from Christian colleges and agreeing that Arminians, though Christians, are “all headed there” (viz., into open theism).

This was a very eye-opening conversation to me. For one thing, I seriously doubt these two theologians would have been quite so open about their antipathies if they were not in front of a friendly audience but speaking into an open, diverse space. They are not generally known for being so harsh. In public, when I have seen and heard them, they seem more irenic.

Around the time that I received that recording (sent to me by a friend) I attended a weekend meeting of Calvinists, Arminians, and open theists. The meeting was hosted by a group of very well-known Calvinists. Most of their names would be familiar to nearly all evangelical leaders and to anyone who has read Christianity Today for very long. The Calvinists declined to have table fellowship or pray with the open theists and Arminians.

I have been told by “Young, Restless, Reformed” people that I’m not a Christian because I’m not a Calvinist. I’ve been told by Calvinist evangelicals that I’m not an evangelical (though I might be a Christian) because I’m not a Calvinist. I’ve been told by a Calvinist theologian friend that my Arminianism is evidence of “humanism” in my thinking. I’ve been told that I’m a Pelagian because I’m an Arminian. A well-known and highly regarded Calvinist theologian tried to block an article I wrote on Arminian theology from being published (he was on the periodical’s editorial board). On and on and on.

None of this was the case during my formative years in evangelicalism—Youth for Christ, Campus Life, Billy Graham evangelistic crusades, evangelical union services, etc. It wasn’t the case in my family. The Christian Reformed branch and the Methodist branch and the Pentecostal branch all got along just fine—no felt need to proselytize the others. No separatism. No hint of exclusivism or superiority. Sure, the various branches thought their theologies were more correct, but that did not lead to spiritual elitism or theological exclusivism.

So what’s happened in the new Calvinism? It’s infected with fundamentalist elitism, exclusivism and even, at times, separatism. It’s often intolerant of differences about secondary doctrinal matters. Is that unique to the new Calvinism? Hardly. But that doesn’t free it from criticism.

My main criticism of the new Calvinism is that it harbors a fundamentalist ethos. I have never had a quarrel with classical Calvinists, Reformed Christians, who value their heritage and their theology but do not imply that those not sharing it are lesser Christians.


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