Would Someone Please Rein in Some of the “Young Calvinists?”

Would Someone Please Rein in Some of the “Young Calvinists?”

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For those of you who do not know, I have been involved in a controversy with the American neo-Calvinists (“Young, Restless, Reformed”)—especially their leaders—for many years. While I respect their passion for the glory of God, I have criticized them on for two errors: 1) A rampant, almost endemic (to the movement) arrogance about Calvinism, and 2) A frequent tendency to misrepresent alternative views. Even some Reformed theologians have addressed the first error; very few have stepped up to ask their followers to be fair to non-Calvinist Christians.

Please allow me to indulge in a bit of autobiography to help explain my frustration that led to my crusade to calm down the YRR crowd and get them to treat those of us who are non-Calvinist evangelicals fairly.

It all began…one day in (I think it was) 1985. I had begun teaching theology at evangelical Bethel College and Seminary in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota one year earlier. Very soon after joining that faculty I began to hear from both colleagues and students conflicting opinions about two former Bethel professors: John Piper and Wayne Grudem. Both had left Bethel and gone to teach at other positions before I arrived. (I had met Piper briefly and only in passing when I visited Bethel a couple years before I joined the faculty. He left Bethel to pastor Bethlehem Baptist Church in downtown Minneapolis.)

It soon became clear to me that Piper and Grudem had left a “bad taste” in some faculty members’ mouths due to perceived “pontificating” about certain theological and church-related issues. Others, however, were sorry to see them leave and missed them; they felt they had a good influence on the institution and especially the students. I had no opinion—yet. I only knew of Piper through an article he wrote in HIS magazine—the monthly publication of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I still have it in my files; it is about so-called “Christian Hedonism.” I found nothing especially objectionable about the article itself although I realized that many people would misunderstand the meaning of the apparent oxymoron.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

One day a very fine, eager, passionate theology student followed me from class to my office. (I still remember his name after all these years!) He sat next to my desk and said (I quote): “Dr. Olson, I am sorry to tell you this, but you are not a Christian.” Naturally, to say the least, I was taken aback. I asked him why he would say that. His answer was “Because you’re not a Calvinist.” I then asked him where he got the idea that a non-Calvinist could not be a Christian. His response: “From my pastor—John Piper.” Years later (in about 1998) I had occasion to speak directly with Piper about that and he insisted that he never said non-Calvinists could not be Christians. I pointed out to him that many of his “Piper cubs” (what we at Bethel came to call students who followed him) believed such. He admitted that was probably true but claimed they were misunderstanding him. Since then I have read many of Piper’s books and watched/listened to many of his podcasts and have indeed never heard him say that a non-Calvinist cannot be a Christian. However, I believe I do see how a naïve, impressionable, young, “newly minted” Calvinist might (mis)interpret some of what he says that way.

So I feel that there is a sense in which, unlike many others who have written and spoken about the YRRM, I was there “at the beginning.” Oh, of course, I knew about evangelical Calvinism long before that. James Montgomery Boice, a leading influencer for Calvinism among evangelical Christians in the U.S., was one of my seminary professors (during a sabbatical leave from his church in Philadelphia). And I knew about and read books by: J. I. Packer, R. C. Sproul and other Calvinist influencers. But I date the birth of the YRRM to Piper’s (and to a lesser extent Grudem’s) rise to fame and influence among American university, college and seminary students. I would say it “broke out” from a relatively small circle surrounding Piper’s pastors conference at Bethlehem Baptist Church into a much wider movement through the Passion conferences beginning in about 1999 (give or take a year or two).

My own involvement in this controversy among evangelicals really began with my Christianity Today article (which the editors titled) “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Arminian.” One Calvinist editor of CT, I was later told by another editor, tried to quash my article, keep it from being published. That article was written in response to the first issue of Modern Reformation in (I think it was) 1992. (Please don’t get hung up on dates; they are not important to my story!) That first edition was devoted to articles bashing Arminianism. I felt that my theology was seriously misrepresented there and began a lengthy dialog with editor Michael Horton. Then I wrote Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (InterVarsity Press) to correct the wild and widespread misrepresentations of Arminianism among the new Calvinists. (I sent complimentary copies to several leading Calvinists and never received any responses.)

Eventually, of course, because of the powerful influence of the new Calvinism among evangelicals I wrote Against Calvinism (Zondervan) which was accompanied by a companion book by Michael Horton entitled For Calvinism (also Zondervan published). Both books have sold very well. I had public dialogs and debates with Michael which were friendly if sharp.

Apparently, from what I am being told by students and others, many eager young, newly minted Calvinists are still going around misrepresenting Arminianism. In most cases, when they are asked where they got their (mis)information they point to another Calvinist. Hardly any that I have talked with or heard about have ever read any true Arminian authors—at least on this subject of divine sovereignty.

One reason I started this blog was to correct misinformation about and misrepresentation of Arminian theology. Every once in a while, however, I am contacted by a pastor, youth minister, residence hall director, etc., informing me that they have once again heard some enthusiastic young Calvinist, often returning from a Calvinist-influenced youth conference, bashing Arminianism while misrepresenting it. This pattern is so common that I have come to believe that bashing Arminianism is endemic to the new Calvinism (if not also the “old”). In other words, at least in America if not elsewhere, the new Calvinism is a “coin” with two equally important sides: 1) promoting Calvinism, and 2) bashing Arminianism. Of course, “bashing” is a relative term; must of it is in the eye of the beholder. So let me be specific. Here it means misrepresenting Arminianism in order to turn people away from it. Some who do this what they are doing; others do not know what they are doing.

I have here before and will often call out leaders of the YRRM and other leading Calvinists among evangelical Christians and ask them to stop this. For example, if you are a leader of a Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) chapter (or just a leader of the RUF in general), please include in your teaching of young Calvinists the truth about Arminianism. I heard one paid leader of a large RUF chapter say that Arminianism is just Pelagianism. This needs to stop. The truth about Arminianism is out there—through the writings and on line presences (podcasts, etc.) of people like yours truly, Jerry Walls and others.

Yes, for those of you who are suspicious and wonder—I have gone out of my way to represent Calvinism truly and faithfully in my teaching and in my writing. For example, whenever I have taught on Calvinism I invited an informed, intelligent, and articulate evangelical Calvinist to speak. I have used books by Calvinists as required reading in some of my classes—especially when God’s sovereignty is the main topic (e.g., during an elective course I taught on God’s Providence). I have invited evangelical Calvinist philosophers and theologians to interact with my students via “Skype” and conference calls. I invited the national director of a Calvinist organization to speak to one of my classes when I discovered he was going to be in town. He agreed and did speak and interact with my students. I have read numerous books of Calvinist theology by Calvinist theologians. I wrote an article for Christianity Today about John Calvin and it was mostly positive and appreciative of his theology—especially his emphasis on the Holy Spirit.

In contrast to all that, my impression is that evangelical Calvinists have not reciprocated, have not exposed their followers, those under their influence, to true Arminianism, but continue to either misrepresent it or allow it to be misrepresented. I hope to live to see the day when this will no longer be the case.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment solely to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).