Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What do emergents and new Calvinists have in common?

I just read Collin Hansen's new book Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists, which grew out of his 2006 Christianity Today article on the phenomenon. He opens the book by talking about how when he started at CT, the emerging church was all the rage, but he found himself noticing a different kind of young movement that paralleled it but offered a distinctive counterpoint. So Collin chronicled the emergence of the neo-Calvinists, a generation of young adults who are passionate about Reformed theology and avid followers of John Piper, Albert Mohler, Mark Driscoll and the like.

What's interesting to me about Collin's book is that despite the fact that the new Calvinists and emergent folks might seem poles apart in many ways, they do share a common concern - that contemporary evangelicalism is not what it ought to be. Both critique evangelical Christianity for being shallow, ahistorical, more focused on pragmatic issues than authentic spirituality and transformation. Both communities are calling the church to recover its heritage, the depth and breadth of Christian theology and worship, with a keen eye to missional ministry in this postmodern world, to the glory of God.

Of course, John Piper and Doug Pagitt, while both Minnesotan pastors, have somewhat different visions for the church. And Mars Hill (Seattle, Mark Driscoll) is a different kind of church from Mars Hill (Grand Rapids, Rob Bell). But for all the differences, I think folks on all sides can charitably affirm that everybody wants Christianity to be more faithful, more vibrant, more missional than it currently is.

What's also interesting to me is that both communities claim underdog status. Many emergent Christians feel like persecuted minorities in their churches or denominations. And new Calvinists often think of themselves as the righteous remnant in a morass of nominal Christianity. I was fascinated by Collin's chapter on Calvinism among the Southern Baptists. I don't move in Southern Baptist circles much, so it was news to me that Southern Baptist churches are splitting over the issue of Calvinism, which many Baptists see as wrongheaded. New Calvinists are actually experiencing criticism similar to what emergents are getting from non-emergents, being labeled as heretics and having their theology ruled out of bounds. It seems that emergents and new Calvinists would be sympathetic to each other's challenges!

So here's my question - are these different tribes and subcultures just doing different things in different corners of the church, and never the twain shall meet (except to denounce each other every once in a while), or are there opportunities for fruitful collaboration between the two, for the benefit of evangelical Christianity overall? At risk of making gross overgeneralizations, it seems to me that different groups bring different things to the table. Emergents are great at asking questions and challenging the way things have been done. They're willing to reexamine everything in pursuit of a better way. New Calvinists have a passionate zeal for knowing God, understanding Scripture, and a particular appreciation for historical theology. Emergents can help new Calvinists temper their zeal with a bit of epistemic humility. New Calvinists can help emergents to appreciate the historical tradition and not reinvent the wheel.

Maybe both communities will blast me for this post (people in the middle get shot at by both sides), but as a moderate centrist evangelical who reads both Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog and Justin Taylor's Between Two Worlds blog, I have to think that there are others like me that would like to see more fruitful collaboration and dialogue on all sides.


Anonymous said...

I've always sensed a connection between the two groups, but the leaders of both groups seem to firmly reject each other. I feel like I am a part of both and that creates tension for me. That is why, for a while, I called my blog "The Postmodern Puritian." I wrote a bit about this topic here:

Al Hsu said...

Thanks for pointing to that earlier post. Maybe I'll post a follow-up entry that references your typology. I think you're spot on - I'm one of those "former pragmatic evangelicals" and ended up as an ancient-future Anglican.

Anonymous said...

"Of course, John Piper and Doug Pagitt, while both Minnesotan pastors, have somewhat different visions for the church."

Wow, that has to be the understatement of the year.

Scott Childress said...

i have a very real world example of own church.

in a shameless effort to promote my own blog - i'll lead to you my response (which has become my blog post today)

Scott Childress said...

woops - forgot the link:

Mark (under construction) said...

I am on the Emergent side of the scales but come from a calvinistic background, yeah - what you are saying gets my head, nodding in agreement - well put.

Anonymous said...

"A more fruitful dialogue"

Something we can all wish, and hope for. Like all burgeoning sects of Christianity; Emergent is going through the formative years of youth, much like a teenager in the in-between years of puberty.

Can Neo-Calvinists and Emergents collaborate? I certainly hope so, as I hope that others across the theological spectrum of American Christianity can as well. Writing off Emergent as liberal, relativistic, neo-orthodox, etc. may help in drawing old boundary lines, but it does not assist in stretching American Christianity to new depths.

My hope and prayer is that we can move beyond these differences and engage in real serious dialogue.

Anonymous said...

I'm right there with you, lots to learn from both sides, i just wish they played nicer...

Unknown said...

Thank you for the insightful post. And I appreciate the desire among all those commenters for a more constructive dialogue. To speak from the neo-Calvinist side, I've often found myself in agreement with Emergent/Emerging critiques of the evangelical church.

At the same time, may I suggest that what I perceive to be the foundational epistemological differences between the Reformed and Emergent camps are significant. Agreeing on the disease doesn't mean agreeing on the medicine. And time typically makes this apparent as the conversation shifts away from diagnosing the disease to prescribing a medicine.

I don't say this be divisive; I do mean to shed light on what I believe are real differences.

Yet I'm happy to be corrected! Thanks again.

Jonathan Leeman

Al Hsu said...

Thanks for the comments, everybody! Good thoughts. And yes, Jonathan, I'd agree that there are certainly very real differences in epistemology and other core issues. I'm not saying we sweep these differences under the rug. I guess the challenge is how we all actually relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, despite the very real differences and divisions.

And Collin Hansen and friends at Christianity Today have tipped me off that Collin is going to have an online dialogue with Tony Jones about their respective books and this very topic of New Calvinists and New Christians. Not sure when that's going to post, but keep your eyes open for it! Should be interesting.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post... this is obviously a hot button for many and there will be so many different opinions on the issue. However, in my humble opinion, the boundaries that the Acts 29 folks have set do walk this thin line. As I say, I am sure many would argue otherwise... but if you look at the principles they speak of it seems to bridge the best of both worlds.

I realize that emerging churches would not agree with the multi-stie video venue strategy but they do not say that this is the only way to do biblical church. The true principle issues though, I think, do a good job of straddling what you describe.

Mike Clawson said...

I posted on this division back in September.

I find it ironic since I was led into postmodern philosophy by way of Calvinism (specifically through the idea of epistemic depravity and thus the need for epistemic humility), which then led me to the emerging church. So there was a time for me back in grad school when I sort of straddled both of these two worlds and really could have ended up going either way. There were a lot factors involved of course, but truth be told, it was the doctrinal absolutism of people like Piper and Driscoll, as well as their attitude of antagonism and disrespect for people who disagree with them, not to mention their views against women (and that one is definitely the deal-breaker for me) that eventually led me to disassociate from the neo-Calvinist movement.

Anonymous said...

Driscoll has said that he is a 5.5 point Calvinist and believes in an unlimited-limited atonement. But, I haven't found in any of his sermons or in his books where he explains this more. I'm sure he covers it in some of his preaching, I haven't listened to all of them, though.

I curious as to what he means.

Dan Stringer said...

I don't know why I didn't come across this post earlier, but you're exactly right. Reminds me of what I observed here: