A Return to an Oldie but Goodie: The NeoReformed

A Return to an Oldie but Goodie: The NeoReformed March 1, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But … and here’s our problem…

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

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

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

Well said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • KentonS
  • Ann

    What I find interesting is that I grew up in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and we never considered ourselves “Evangelical”. It wasn’t that Evangelical was seen as negative, we just weren’t Evangelical. I’m now Episcopalian, but I still don’t think my family in the RCA would call themselves Evangelical. Seems the Reformed tradition is dealing with an identity crisis of it’s own. Since when did Baptists become Calvinists! So much of that doesn’t make sense to me.

  • RJS4DQ

    All of your reasons may play a role. However, our commenting dropped precipitously with Disqus and has stayed low since. The system just doesn’t encourage the same kind of productive discussion. Occasional posts do well, but most don’t.

  • scotmcknight

    No.

  • DMH

    Good question. For myself, I have for the most part moved on. Whether neo-reformed or just good old fundamentalist, there is just no openness on their part for a discussion. Also, the term (evangelical) carries such a negative connotation in the wider culture that I wonder if it’s worth fighting for.

  • I spent a lot of time in SBC churches. Increasingly I saw an emphasis on marriage roles and an emphasis on men. In the youth group it was being reminded that only boys may lead prayer every single time some unfortunate girl volunteered to lead. The sorts of Bible studies they offered stopped being general subjects and soon became an endless series of his/hers classes. Young men were usually encouraged to study with the adults while young women were encouraged to watch the nursery. It seemed to me that it wasn’t so much what was taught, but the way it was expected to be lived out when they weren’t teaching it. They wanted us to live it.
    Village green, common hallway, big tent – all of it is the same idea, diversity allows for every possible way to worship God, to me nothing is more frightening then the idea that there is one true way because that means every other way isn’t the right way to worship God and then it becomes a frenzy to figure out which one is the right one and convert everyone to it by destroying any unique expression that varies from what is believed to be right.

  • John W. Frye

    Your Reformed friend’s observation that the NeoReformed “are the old fundamentalists in nicer clothes with better vocabularies. They are just as mean-spirited, just as graceless, and just as exclusive” And there always seems to be a *militancy* to any form of fundamentalistic ideology. Who exactly cast the NeoReformed as definers and guardians of the village green? Themselves? Isn’t that somewhat arrogant on their part?

  • Scot –
    If we zoom out, do evangelicals (however one might define that term) share a big tent or village green with non-evangelical Christians? It seems to me that you do exactly that which you critique – have “a sense of being most faithful is core to [evangelicalism].” Your fellowship of differents seems (from reading you here and elsewhere) to have limits, rejecting as unfaithful certain streams of Christian belief. How is your perspective any different than those who you critique here?

  • sanctusivo

    “Neoreformed” – the defiant, angry last gasp of a dying movement. What’s odd – and sad – about “complimentarianism” is that it effectively relegates women in the church to a lesser role than they are able to have in the secular society – especially in the West – by their authoritarian interpretation of scripture that in the first/second century gave women far more status in their churches than they could possibly have in their own society. Complimentarianism is no good news at all, no gospel that can convince many to accept a second-class status in self-serving religious clubs than they already grasp among the so-called unbelieving.

  • Ann

    My thought exactly regarding the negative connotation of evangelical. It surprises me that folks still WANT to be evangelical with all the baggage the name carries.

  • HamburgerHelper2

    While browsing through You Tube I have frequently happened upon several videos by Paul Washer. How does he fit into the larger Reformed picture?

  • DMH

    And thus the fight… and I understand it. I would like for there to be a term that unites people. But regardless of who “wins” (or maybe won) among those who think of themselves as evangelicals, is “evangelical” the term anyone would want to use- given the baggage?

  • patriciamc

    Most of the SBC leadership is now Calvinist. They’ve talked about “infiltrating,” “coming in the back door,” etc. Churches are having to be careful if they interview a young man for a pastor’s position because neo-Cals are hiding their real philosophy until they’ve gotten the job. Then, they try to change the church from congregation-led to elder or pastor-led. Look around on any of the spiritual abuse websites, and you’ll see that the neo-Cals have a certain MO: isolate the influence of the women so that the men are easy pickings, concentrate power with the pastor or his hand-picked elders, have the members sign a restrictive membership covenant, stress congregational submission to church leadership, and on and on. Google Karen Hinkley and The Village Church. Also, a large portion of the “nones” and “dones” are coming out of neo-Cal churches.

  • Excellent! This topic has also been on my mind and here’s my two cents: http://www.faithbraised.com/2016/03/street-skirmishes-politics-personal.html

  • Wayfaring Michael

    John,

    I am in no ways an intellectual historian, but as a student of colonial North America and teacher of the broad sweep of USAmerican history, I see this fitting into a very long and deeply entrenched pattern in our body politic. In our rhetoric and national myths–I use that word in its technical sense–we talk about individualism and having the right to your opinion, etc. But in practice there have always been groups who believed in some kind of orthodoxy against which there is simply no dissent. And who were the originators of this? Literally, it derives from the reformed churches that came to North America among the very earliest colonists, the Pilgrims and the Puritans. Remember, they left England because they did not feel that the English church had reformed enough, that it remained too “popish.”

    If you can remember back to your college early American history survey, whose names do you remember as the great thinkers and writers of the time? John Winthrop, Increase Mather, William Bradford, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards were all staunch believers in the Reformed tradition that would eventually coalesce into the Congregational Church, and much of our national ethos comes out of their writings. You don’t really get any Southerners in the canon of “American” literature until the late eighteenth century.

    It’s particularly ironic what was noted about the SBC because witches weren’t the only ones executed in colonial New England, so were a few Baptist missionaries! We actually didn’t get a “big” Protestant tent in the colonies until during, and as a result of, the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s.

    And despite that, as Roger Olsen has documented so ably, Arminianism is still being treated by a huge swath of Protestants in this country as a heresy almost three hundred years later, and lots of Baptists are now calling themselves Calvinists of one stripe or another.

    Huh?

    I deleted a long paragraph about the parallel between what we’re discussing here and the status of democratic socialism as a political position in the U.S. In every other Western/advanced industrial democracy, democratic socialism is unquestionably mainstream. Here it’s beyond the Pale. Who decided that? Why has the news media gone along with that since the late 1800s? Why, especially after 2007, are they still working out of that style guide and manual of practice?

    And to address your final question, John, I have to paraphrase the great Doonesbury cartoon from last weekend: isn’t arrogance a core brand value of Evangelicalism the Movement?

    (Sometimes I just have to vent….)

  • SteveSherwood

    Personally, I’ve largely decided there are other “greens” to play on, and so being allowed onto theirs (or allowed to remain where I’d always been before they roped it off) seems less important than a few years ago. Not in any leaving Christianity sense, but more a “if you want private ownership of the term evangelical, so be it, I know who I am.”

  • SteveSherwood

    This is true. I used to comment more. Disqus has not always been user friendly.

  • scotmcknight

    I would want the village green to be available to all who are in Christ, who are embraced by and have embraced the gospel. Without exception.

  • so…I know you have declined to answer this question in the past…but I’ll ask again.
    Do you believe that Christian couples who are gay should be accepted in the fellowship of differents, or are they are an exception (or are they, in your opinion, not in Christ?).

  • D.C. Eagle

    I told my story at The Wartburg Watch and I write my own blog in which I write about some of this stuff. In my story I was unsuccessfully recruited to a former Sovereign Grace church plant in the D.C. area called Redeemer Arlington. We clashed a lot, the guy was pretty militant, however, to be fair I was also militant but I was in a faith crisis. Then something happened that stunned me. The guy from Sovereign Grace made manufactured a false accusation that took aim at my name, reputation, employment, etc… Dee Parsons walked with me and I had to re-assemble my life. It was the darkest season of my life. You should also know that as I moved out of my faith crisis I approached 140 people in person and sought forgiveness and wanted to work things out with each person. The only Christian who refused and spurned my forgiveness was this guy from Sovereign Grace who thought the world of Mark Driscoll, claimed his former SGM church was the healthiest thing he saw. I wrote about this at my blog but the in my story the guy who made a false accusation was an Air Force Captain and I learned why the military struggles with rape. Its about abuse of power and authority. In the end this is nothing but fundamentalism. The sad part is that no one calls it out….some of the emails people send me are disturbing and the more I blog the more I have a feeling I will hear more.