Neo-Calvinist, Neo-Reformed, or…Neo-Fundamentalist?

Labels are inevitable. We need need to understand and identify things. But labeling is difficult. Sometimes we assign a label and unintentionally or unnecessarily implicate individuals or groups who don’t really fit our intended description.

Such is the case with the conservative/evangelical Calvinistic-Baptist and Presbyterian resurgence that is busy championing the twin causes of the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation and damnation, and fixed complementarian gender roles in the church and home. You know, the ones coalesced by institutions like Southern Seminary, The Gospel Coalition, the Acts 29 Network, Sovereign Grace Ministries, and Together for the Gospel. How do we label this group?

Some call them Neo-Calvinists. Some call them the Young, Restless, and Reformed. Some call them Maurice. WAH-WAHHH.

(Not really, but that would be a lot easier.)

And most have been calling them, simply, Neo-Reformed. That was my label for the movement up until a few months ago – when I became sensitive to the fact that the label unnecessarily lumps other Reformed individuals and groups into this rather particular emphasis on a controlling, wrathful God and the practice of keeping women subordinated to men in most areas of life. So, I thought that Neo-Calvinist might be more accurate since it’s the particulars of Calvinist theology that this movement is really on about, not the broader scope of the Reformed tradition.

But then Bob Robinson wrote last week that Neo-Calvinist is already taken! And indeed it is. The Kuyperian Calvinists were pretty “Neo” at the turn of the 20th century, and those who occupy this tradition now are not emphasizing the same things as the TGC types. The Kuyper folks emphasize God’s sovereignty over creation and culture, while the TGC types emphasize his sovereignty in salvation and damnation (and, apparently, in making sure that only dudes get lead pastor jobs and gay people can’t get married). Bob suggests that we should call the latter group “Neo-Puritans.” But I honestly just don’t think that’s going to stick.

So I have a suggestion. And it’s one that I am becoming increasingly convinced of in light of what I believe are serious theological and practical (not to mention, legal) problems with the movement in question. I think there’s another label that is more appropriate for this group and its emphases.

Neo-Fundamentalist.

This was somewhat confirmed for me in Brian McLaren’s recent response to Tim Challies calling him a false teacher. Brian began by describing that Tim is not properly labeled “Reformed”:

First, I should say that “Neo-Reformed” is probably a better name than “Reformed” for folks in this camp. Reformed Christians of the broader designation don’t seek to think and say exactly what Calvin and the other Reformers thought and said, as the Neo-Reformed tend to do. Instead, they look at how creatively and insightfully the Reformers responded to issues in their context and they seek to respond to our very different context enlightened and inspired by the Reformers’ example.

Even though I’m a happy outsider to the Neo-Reformed system of belief, I have high regard for the broader Reformed tradition – which includes theological giants like Barth, Pannenberg, Bosch, Boesak, Newbigin, and Moltmann. (I know, not any women on the list – that’s a problem in all theology, but thankfully it is beginning to change.)

So, ok, Neo-Reformed can work. But it still implicates the broader Reformed tradition, and the people that McLaren himself looks up to. It’s confusing. And it still doesn’t get to the heart of what the movement in question is all about. It still doesn’t pinpoint the main issue. Brian continues:

Of course, when he calls me a false teacher, he is speaking from his vantage point as an articulate, committed, zealous, and sincere Christian fundamentalist. (I mean “fundamentalist” not in a pejorative sense, but in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen, to whom the author refers.) From that vantage point, he speaks the truth as he sees it.

Yes! That’s it! This movement of conservative/evangelical Calvinistic-Baptist and Presbyterian Christians is most accurately a revival of 1920′s fundamentalism, the historic movement led by the likes of B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and the Hodge brothers at old Princeton Seminary. This self-proclaimed fundamentalist surge was overwhelmingly Calvinistic and unabashedly devoted to the sovereignty of God in salvation and damnation as the essence of the gospel. Concurrently, it was linked to a near-obsession with the inerrancy of Scripture (the verbally and plenarily inspired variety, if you’re keeping score), which led to dogmatic systematic theologies and strict applications in ecclesiology and ethics – including the strong subordination of women in the church and home.

This self-proclaimed fundamentalist movement hinged upon antagonism with “modernist” and “scientific” cultural norms that they felt challenged the authority of Scripture. For decades afterwards, it resulted in antagonism and division in the church as well, as more centrist and progressive people (not to mention liberals) were ousted from the “faithful” fundamentalist movements. Of course, we have all manner of church controversy and splitting occurring right now over similar issues, but interestingly, the conservative entrenchment that calls anything outside of its bounds “liberalism” has its roots in this historic fundamentalist surge.

The inability to see any third way is a uniquely fundamentalist characteristic.

And that is precisely the characteristic that has come to define this current movement of conservative/evangelical Calvinistic-Baptists and Presbyterians.

Here are some other emerging characteristics within this Neo-Fundamentalism (not necessarily universal at all points):

  • Heavy-handed (male) authority structures.
  • Rationalist/Modernist approach to interpreting Scripture.
  • Antagonistic posture toward evolutionary science (and other scientific disciplines).
  • Antagonistic posture toward psychology and psychiatry.
  • Intolerance of/active opposition to feminism and LGBT rights.
  • Christian/church privilege at the expense of legal/safety concerns (e.g., protecting child abusers in the church from law enforcement, defending businesses refusing service to LGBT, anger over lost “rights”/”persecution” in the culture).
  • Denial of systemic racial injustice in Christian institutions or broader culture.
  • Hostility toward any theological variance from the all-controlling God who sovereignly damns the non-elect to eternal torture in hell.

Again, these things are not true of many denominational Reformed or Calvinistic Christians, especially of the more centrist or progressive variety. And they are not true of the growing contingent of centrist and progressive evangelicals. We certainly have some Neo’s here, like the Neo-Anabaptists. And there are some good old Holiness/Wesleyan folks in our midst too. And the weird charismatic Wesleyanabaptists like myself.

But honestly, I like to simplify us centrist/progressive folks with a more accurate and compelling label.

I call us…the Gangsters of Love.

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • Stephen Murray

    Ok here we go – against my better judgment, I’m calling BS on this post and every post like it that appears on this blog. I’ve been reading here for over a year and I’ve tried to look for common ground and a way to further discussion with “nuance”, but Zach, dude, you seem to be about everything but “nuance”.

    Try this on for size. As a neo-puritan/neo-reformed/neo-fundamentalist I’m a Westminster Confession confessing, Presbyterian pastor who has, in the past, helped plant an Acts29 church, attended YRR conferences, trained under the auspices of Redeemer City to City, count some of the YRR leaders as mentors, friends and fellow laborers in the gospel, and right now have formal links to organizations that would fall under the broad umbrella of the YRR movement. That’s my YRR street cred. I’m also 33 so I think I still qualify for the “Y”. So now I, and my friends, should fit your “nuanced” description of me. Let’s test that out:

    Heavy-handed (male) authority structures.

    Yup, my church is full of that and I’m sure if you spoke to all the female professionals who play a huge part in running our church they’d all agree. So we only have male elders (our conclusion after nothing but sincere, honest reflection the text – we really think God has said this) – but our women serve in every other capacity in our church and have a huge role in shaping the direction and ethos of our church. I’m pretty sure – and because our church is small I actually know this – that there isn’t a single women in our church who feels even slightly oppressed or marginalized. If anything I think most of them feel that, from the pulpit, and our general demeanor, our church has an air of liberation and empowerment when it comes to women issues. Oh, and I don’t think we’re the exception among my “tribe” – at least that’s not the impression I get when I speak to my colleagues.

    Rationalist/Modernist approach to interpreting Scripture.

    Better not tell the powers that be that I wrote my last post-grad dissertation on “redemptive historical theology and narratival approaches to Scripture”. I mean come on, “covenant theology” that’s real modernist. You’ve jumped on the sovereignty of God doctrine so much you’ve missed the wood for the trees in historically Reformed approaches to Scripture. The Reformers were doing narratival readings of Scripture long before the present progressive fascination with story. And again, when I talk to my colleagues, I really don’t think I’m alone here.

    Antagonistic posture toward evolutionary science (and other scientific disciplines).

    Well I’m sort of a theistic evolutionist, or maybe better, a progressive creationist (my jury is still a little out on this one). As is one of the founders of TGC, and I can point you to plenty more – an inconvenient truth.

    Antagonistic posture toward psychology and psychiatry.

    One of my closest confidants in ministry in our church is a doctor of psychiatry. And, shock and horror, she’s a woman! For a pretty small church I seem to have a disproportionate number of mental health professionals here – all who play an important part in helping me formulate approaches to ministry and pastoral care.

    Intolerance of/active opposition to feminism and LGBT rights.

    The neighbourhood that I live in is the gay capital of Africa – it is the seat of LGBT and feminist rights movements. I also minster in a country that has had legal gay marriage for over a 4 years already. It’s kinda hard here to walk to the supermarket to buy milk and bread without interacting with the LGBT community. So far I’ve resisted the urge to parade my Westboro style banner.

    Christian/church privilege at the expense of legal/safety concerns (e.g., protecting child abusers in the church from law enforcement).

    Yes, I’m sure all the mental health professionals in our church would dig it if that was our vibe. Painting SGM’s scandal onto all of us is real “nuanced”. Oh and conveniently forget abuse scandals and cover ups in multiple other denominations and tribes – this must surely a be a defining feature of the “neo-fundies”, not the rest of them of course.

    Denial of racial injustice in Christian institutions or broader culture.

    That one too, purely definitive of the “neo-fundies” not the other groups – never. And by the way, it was primarily Kuyperian reformed theology that had the biggest influence on apartheid here.

    Hostility toward any theological variance from the all-controlling God who sovereignly damns the non-elect to eternal torture in hell.

    I’m sure my Methodist, Charismatic and Anglican friends, who I’ve worked with in the past, will be just as shocked as me to hear that I secretly harbor deep seated hostility towards them because we have a few doctrinal differences (better burn all my John Stott books). And just so you know, many many YRRs don’t affirm double predestination. Even some of us confessional reformed types have a hesitancy over that doctrine.

    Now my guess is that my YRR buddies are going to disown, or at least crucify me, after this comment – at least that’s what they should do if you’ve described them appropriately. Somehow I don’t think they will.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Hi, Stephen. Thanks for the impassioned (antagonistic?) response. Question: if given the chance/vote/etc. to overturn gay marriage in your country, would you? And can you deny that the American version of your movement is overwhelmingly active in keeping gay marriage illegal?

    That said, I appreciate that the shoe doesn’t fit at every point. That’s the trouble with trying to name things. But going back to the main point of the post: would you identify with the general theology/posture/agenda of the Princeton fundamentalists?

  • Orton1227

    I don’t think labels are necessary, but they do seem to be inevitable because we’re all bastard-coated bastards with bastard filling.

    The irony to me, having once been YRR, is that we would get so frustrated with other people’s “false doctrine” and slam them and force them to change….but also believe in Total Depravity. What? A paradox! We taught that man is so screwed up that he can’t help but stumble constantly, yet we’d treat others in a way that contradicted that.

    I just finished Frank Schaeffer’s “Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes In God” and I really resonate with it. He talks about how the question shouldn’t be “what church do you go to?” or “what do you believe?” but rather “what are you becoming?”

    He freely admits that was he says contradicts his actions. He doesn’t like much of the Greek Orthodox Church’s teachings, but he has attended for 25 years. And the reason he left the evangelical church wasn’t so much doctrine related, but just the environment. And that’s the way I feel these days. I, too, want to leave the evangelical church for something different, not because I align more with their beliefs, but because it’s time for a change, a safer place. (Of course, I have a wife and 4 kids fully entrenched in our YRR/Acts 29 mega-church we’ve been a part of for 10 years; so we’re not going anywhere).

    Basically, I love his idea that we all need to stop being idiots and liars and embrace that we are all walking contradictions who believe in paradoxial ideas…and ultimately have no idea what we’re doing.

    He says throughout every day he has moments where he believes in God clearly, moments where he doesn’t, and moments where both seem to be true. That’s me, and that’s always been me. I think it’s pretty typical of the artist group, the “creatives”, who are almost always marginalized in a YRR church.

    I think the reason for that is that artists see the world differently from academics. They turn physical creation into spiritual realities in their art and that’s scary to the academic YRRs who lead these mega churches like mine. They want to control the theology not realizing that it’s not meant to be controlled.

    This isn’t a surprise. Psychology has longed pegged that trait of academics – the need for control, the need to create a safe, sacred space away from what’s “unclean” to them. That goes for religious and non-religious alike. And I think the more academics can see that in themselves and be honest with themselves, the more unified we’ll become in America.

    Not sure any of that was relevant to your post, but I think so. :)

  • Matt Stout

    I agree! I also love the label of Wesleyanabaptist, which I think describes really well the place I’m finding myself these days. Although, I think I prefer the label Space Cowboy to anything else.

  • Stephen Murray

    Hi Zach – yes impassioned antagonistic – but I figured you could handle it ;) To your 2 questions…

    I probably wouldn’t vote to overturn gay marriage (in fact I voted for a party that is pro-gay marriage in the last national elections, but there’s more to that..) I know most of my American YRR colleagues would probably disagree with me here (in fact my thinking here has been influenced by UK YRRs) and I think the US scene is becoming unhealthily fascinated with all things LGBT and it’s really messing with theology, both public and private. I still hold to traditional views about the appropriate use of sexuality within the Christian community (maybe I’m guilty of leaning a little into the anabaptist tradition here). That being said, I think it still possible to oppose gay marriage and not be completely “intolerant of and in active opposition” to everything LGBT. I think there are some Roman Catholics, for example, who model this (Ron Belgau, Eve Tushnet, etc.)

    Question 2 about Princetonian fundamentalists – I think some of that sort of fundamentalism is needed when we’re talking issues like the divinity of Jesus, inspiration of Scripture, the supremacy of revelation, and the historicity of the resurrection – all things that were up for grabs when Machen and co made their stand. Do I think that fundamentalism can take on unhelpful narrow trajectories? Of course – although I perceive that as more of a dispensational baptist thing than a Reformed thing. In fact many of the characteristics in your list I experienced in Arminian Baptist Churches. Warfield, Machen, Hodge and others need to be understood in their context. I was taught, by Reformed church history profs, to read them that way.

  • http://restoringpangea.com/ Nathan Smith

    Zach – this has been my concern from the first years that these organizations formed – most of them came out strong when I was in my Seminary days. While at Seminary, I took a class with Ed Stetzer on the Missional Church. He asked our class how many of us would have identified as “Emergent” 3-5 years earlier (this was in 2009). About 1/3 of the class raised their hands. He then asked how many would now consider themselves neo-Reformed. Almost all the same people raised their hands. with a few extras.

    It’s always been about belonging to something for a lot of people as much as it has been about coming to a reasoned and thought out conclusion for one’s theological leanings/convictions. I remember watching a video of Al Mohler basically resigning himself to the conclusion that people who care about the church, about their faith, about historic orthodoxy, etc. would all end up as YRR/Neo-Reformed. I was angry that he held such a monolithic view of the possibilities of faith-based belonging and of course telescoped the best faith-based belonging into his community. I’m tired of powerful/influential elites trying to find a place for young adults to belong instead of giving them the tools and fortitude to be disciples of Jesus. Paul Hiebert argued that eras of church history and traditions in those eras represent pages of a blueprint needed of the whole church, global and historic, to be completed. I wrote this open letter to Al in response.

    “Dr. Al Mohler, Please Reconsider Your Comments” -http://restoringpangea.com/dr-al-mohler-please-reconsider-your-comments/

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Thanks for fleshing that out. I may be less opposed to your practice at points, but still take major issue on theology/ethics. The Neo-Fundamentalist “root” is still right there in your theology. And it doesn’t matter much how extreme you are – being AGAINST civil rights for gay people & FOR the subordination of women in church and home is what it is.

    Double predestination? Sovereign election is enough of a bummer regardless of how active God is in consigning the vast majority of human beings to eternal torture.

  • Orton1227

    As I posted on the TGC blog:
    As a former YRR, I fully expect to open my “Neo-Reformed Study Bible” (fictional, I hope, haha) one day and read the story of the Good Samaritan wherein the Good Samaritan says to the traveller, “I’ll help you, but first tell me, do you ascribe to TULIP? If not, let’s fix that first, then we’ll worry about other things.”
    That’s what my experience in the YRR church was. Prioritizing doctrine over people.

  • http://carolesmithturner.com/ CaroleTurner

    I love our new label, “Gangsters of Love”! Perfection. I coined a term the other day on my blog, http://www.carolesmithturner.com/2014/05/in-land-of-gods-and-monsters.html, “Americhrist” because they are made specifically here in America.

  • Alan Noble

    yes

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Mine too.

  • lmalone

    About the only thing I could think of when reading this is the last 8 years SBC Reformed/Calvinist/YRR pastor blogs have insisted on calling those who are NOT them either Non Calvinists or Arminians or Semi Pelagians. We were not allowed to name ourselves. They insisted we be called what they think we are. So when a group who are NOT them came up with the name Traditionalist, they went ballistic.
    I have never seen anything like this movement. It is like they (seminaries, gurus, churches, etc) are turning out little indoctrinated stepford pastors/followers.

  • AtalantaBethulia

    Doctrine over people is also found in the non-reformed strains of free-will Fundamentalism (see: SBC, IFB). “Proper belief” about Jesus has (as far as I’ve been involved in these denominations) trumped living like Jesus. “Proper” orthodoxy is more important than orthopraxy, because, IMHO and observations:

    1) “For by grace are you saved through FAITH” has been central to their doctrine. Salvation, for them, is impossible without the free-will choosing to believe the right things about Jesus. (Though they heap in non-essentials in their purity of doctrine vigor, they do not see this as transactional faith nor a means of people participating in their own salvation, but, under careful review, this is what it often amounts to.)

    2) “NOT of works lest any man should boast.” Being strict interpreters and literalists they are so fearful of the not of works passage that works are too often avoided all together and the only “works” of Christian faith that are lauded are ego-building, personal development or church enhancing: sin avoidance, rule-following, bible-reading, daily prayer, church attendence and soul-winning. There is rarely a service element of helping others outside the church community that isn’t geared toward proselytizing, in my experience.

    When believing the right things about Jesus is the means of salvation and Christ-likeness is understood as sinlessness not compassionate, selfless service to others, it would seem very difficult to not put doctrine over people.

  • joshua

    Stephen, You’ve been following Zach for a year; you have seen this case
    come together. Look at the picture to this post, these descriptions
    may not fit you, but then again you might not fit you, I mean that
    scene has changed, we’ve watched it change. I was in an Acts29 church,
    led by an Acts29 regional director, I’ve watched it change.
    Zach’s
    concerns here are real, look at the picture of you’re leaders. He’s not
    talking about every person who might identify as a YRR, he’s talking
    about your leaders.
    I think Zach was nuanced. He didn’t term you
    neo-Baal worshipers, but if we’re blunt, that’s what the eternal
    torment Creator God looks like. The God who causes Bridges to collapse
    (Piper.) The God who Hates you (Driscol.)
    If Kuyper’s philosophy
    led to Apartied, that should concern you. Zach was warning you; Kuyper (and Keller) look moderate (even Christian) compared to the rest of the American Neo-Puritan
    brand.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    thanks joshua! my sentiments exactly.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    I’ve seen it. It’s true.

  • http://www.defeatingthedragons.wordpress.com SamanthaField

    There’s also a danger to over-emphasizing the “third way” approach– sometimes, if someone firmly believes there isn’t a “third way” and that people advocating for a “third way” are advocating for something they find harmful, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re a “fundamentalist.”

    Take child abuse, for example. That seems obviously wrong, right?

    But then we get into what child abuse is, exactly, and that’s where the trouble starts. Personally, I believe that if hitting an adult is assault/battery, than so is hitting a child (and this even ignores the mounting medical/psychological studies that seem to indicate that corporal punishment is almost always deleterious mentally/socially).

    Not everyone agrees with me, and a lot of people accuse me of refusing to seek a “third way” because I believe striking a child is always morally wrong. Because I live in America, though, there’s not a whole lot I can do about people spanking their children besides attempting to educate them– I’m certainly not going to call CPS on people just because they spank their children, or call parents who do heretics, or anything besides holding grace and compassion and a heavy dose of realism.

    I believe that my attitude about spanking isn’t fundamentalist, but I also do not think there is a “third way.”

    There are other examples, but when it comes down to it I really do think it is appropriate to view some things as black or white, right or wrong, and thinking that way isn’t the only requirement for being a fundamentalist, although that’s been hurled at me quite a bit.

  • antimule

    Out of curiosity, do you believe that all non-Christians go to hell?

  • sharon peters

    ‘Doctrine over people’, ‘the party line’, ‘group think’, ‘tribe’, ‘my country right or wrong’, ‘they should all go to hell except cave 17!’~mel brooks as the 2,000 year old man

  • sharon peters

    I too am tired of powerful/influential elites trying to find a place for young adults to belong instead of giving them the tools and fortitude to be disciples of Jesus. i am tired of powerful/influential elites trying to find a place for anyone. if you read between the lines anything that encourages ppl of any age to think outside the box challenges powerful/influential elites control of resources. we are the ‘resources ‘.
    if we follow them we become their disciples not Jesus.

  • sharon peters

    (this is a tweet from
    futureguy) If a group thinks & acts like they own

    “the Gospel,” is it actually their OWN
    gospel & not THE REAL

    gospel?

  • sharon peters

    “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.
    Matthew 23;27
    For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition
    Mark 7;8

  • sharon peters

    litmus test #1

  • http://restoringpangea.com/ Nathan Smith

    Sharon – true. I do think it’s okay in some ways to encourage emulation through admiration of another human being when it comes to discipleship. The problem comes when they start marking off boundaries, defining the Gospel for everyone else over and against anyone else and self-appoint as the new arbiters of theological accuracy for everyone. It’s ok to arbitrate on behalf of your own tradition but then to shove that into everyone else’s – that’s arrogance and immaturity. We should all be open to critique from other traditions, but not to taking authority away from those traditions. Other than that, I agree with Zach’s appraisal – too much fundy juice in everything for me. Thanks for your reply.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    I agree. The third way always depends on the identification of the poles. A good third way solves the problem of bad/unhealthy polarization. A bad third way excuses injustice/abuse and is more of a cop out than anything.

  • http://www.soulation.org/ Dale Fincher

    Why not “Reformed Neo-Fundamentalists”? Too long?

    I think the trouble with third way talk is that is steers in reference to poles too easily. Sometimes the poles themselves think backwardly about an issue and a new paradigm altogether is needed.

    It’s like “conservative vs progressive.” It’s tedious and too identity shaping sometimes to be helpful (and may skirt truth with certain other prejudices). I often don’t fit in either camp and feel strong armed out of the dialog as irrelevant. And that’s no good.

    It is disheartening that a broad and somewhat inclusive idea like “evangelical” had experienced such a coup by the Reformed Neo-Findamentalists. Has it an hope?

  • http://henryimler.com/ Henry Imler

    Yup. Sometimes there’s really just one way (but we argue as if there is two… or three), but perhaps more often than not, we need to break out of the 1, 2, and 3 way thinking and realize there are no poles, and the field for solutions is wide open.

  • Tim

    Regardless of what label ends up sticking (Neo-Fundie is as good as any) I’ll just stick with my label for them: ‘Wrong’.

  • Dean

    What about Nouveau Calvinists? Is that taken? :)


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