May 11, 2008

Emergent Calvinism: Contradiction or Paradox?

WARNING: This week's post is very dry, theological and loaded with categories and labels. If you have no interest in Calvinism and/or the Emergent movement within American evangelicalism, please check back next week for a more interesting topic. You are also welcome to peruse my past reflections on more approachable subjects like Blogging vs. Facebook, the Beijing Olympics, Hillary vs. Obama, gender roles, capital punishment and Earth Day.

If that disclaimer didn't scare you off, maybe this next statement will: I am an Emergent Calvinist. Actually, I have no idea if I am or not or if there even is such a thing- I suppose it depends on your definitions. I just wanted to see how weird that sounded! Both of these labels are so loaded that I don't know why anyone would choose to refer to oneself as either one these days, much less both. Calling yourself a 'Calvinist' will drop your credibility faster than a lead balloon in the eyes of most NPR-listening, Sojourners-reading, Daily Show-watching 'evangelical progressives' (ie. conservative theology, liberal politics), a category which seems to describe me as well as any other inherently flawed label could. At the same time, calling yourself 'Emergent' (the hardcore version of 'Emerging' for those keeping track) is also akin to sticking a giant ecclesiological target on your forehead which is sure to draw attacks from those who are quick to dismiss you as an excessively trendy, theologically irresponsible relativist who has no respect for absolute Truth with a capital ‘T’. Another effect of calling myself an Emergent Calvinist could be that people might think I am a fan of Mark Driscoll, something I am not.

Anyone still reading? It seems strange at first to set up a dichotomy between Calvinism and Emergent Christianity since 'Calvinists' are usually contrasted with 'Arminians' while 'Emerging' churches are often distinguished from 'Attractional' or 'Seeker-Sensitive' churches. Did I mention that I am using way too many labels here?

Emergent Christianity, with its postmodern framework of ambiguity and skepticism, and Calvinism, with its modernist roots in logic and reason, seem quite incompatible on many levels. There are few ideas that Calvinists reject more frequently and fervently than postmodernism, with it's relativistic, anything-goes undertones. That's probably why much of the criticism directed toward the Emergents has come from Calvinists like Don Carson, Al Mohler and others from the Together for the Gospel network, which seems to be the most "diverse" collection of complementarian Calvinists you’ll find in America today.


Many Calvinists see the Emergent movement as a threat to the belief absolute Truth, an idea that many postmodern Christians are reluctant to discuss because of what they see as mean-spirited, authoritarian, hierarchical, divisive outcomes resulting from those discussions. Likewise, it's not surprising that mystery-loving, free-thinking, open-minded Emergents have expressed cynicism and skepticism regarding the theologically rigid confines of TULIP, the commonly used Calvinist acronym referencing Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irrisistable grace and Perseverance of the saints. Both groups have a case to be made, but there doesn't seem to be much respect and understanding between the two camps.

So why am I juxtaposing, dare I say mixing, these seemingly incompatible streams? Maybe it's because I've noticed some animosity and resentment developing between the two groups and I want them to peacefully coexist. The way things are right now, it seems like both Emergents and Calvinists are secretly (or not so secretly) hoping that the other camp will slowly fade into the sunset. In fact, I'll bet there are plenty of non-Calvinist, non-Emergent evangelicals who wouldn't mind if this happended to both movements! While this might bring some relief to those who are getting fed up with the dispute over who gets to claim the role of underdog remnant resisters of the evangelical mainstream, dismissing one or both groups would be a serious mistake.

I firmly believe that both Emergents and ‘New Calvinists’ (the energized generation of Young, Restless and Reformed described in Collin Hansen's recent book and September 2006 Christianity Today cover story of the same title) share more in common than either group would like to admit. Both Calvinists and Emergents are upset with the current state of American evangelicalism. Both movements are a protest against the growth-oriented, entertainment-driven, consumeristic gospels of prosperity and self-help that have domesticated and sanitized Christ’s cross, making it too cheap, too self-focused and too easily digested. Both Calvinists and Emergents love theological engagement and the concept of 'loving God with all your mind' by thinking deeply about the context, interpretation and application of the Scriptures. Both Calvinists and Emergents have an appreciation for the history and traditions of the Church, whether they take the form of confessions, creeds, liturgies or theological writings. Both like to discuss their opinions (and yours) when it comes to doctrines and theological controversies. Both are seeking to reclaim and renew the aspects of the Gospel that have transcended history and transformed lives.

It can be difficult to get along with someone who recognizes the same problem as you, but has a very different idea of how to fix it. This might be why Emergents and Calvinists don't think too highly of each other. Reformed/Calvinist (I’m using these terms interchangeably here) evangelicals tend to examine the world with a modernist compass, searching for correct answers, while Emergents look at life through a postmodern lens, searching for good questions (while being highly skeptical of "correct" answers).


The impasse also has a lot to do with the fact that both groups cling to what are considered "dealbreakers" for the other side. Emergents tend to emphasize progressive social action over theological correctness (often leading to more 'liberal' political views), which frustrates Calvinists to no end. Calvinists, on the other hand, are almost always complementarians (women are not permitted to be pastors), which is a dealbreaker for most Emergents who see the exclusion of women from church leadership as one of the great moral injustices condoned by Christendom. I'm not sure what would be more difficult, finding a way to describe the Lord's Supper that both Southern Baptists and Episcopalians would find acceptable, or finding language about the atonement that both Calvinists and Emergents would agree on.

Emergents criticize Calvinists for having a tendency to compartmentalize the gospel into hard and fast theological categories which can lead to an overly cerebral, transactional understanding of God's interaction with humanity, particularly the atonement. Calvinist preachers like Mark Dever are not afraid of saying things like, "We must distinguish the gospel itself from the implications of that gospel."
To the ears of Emergents and other spiritual progressives, this sounds like the separation of belief from action which inevitably narrows the Gospel to exclude the parts of the Kingdom. [Personally, I don't think that the message of the Gospel can or should ever be separated from the message of the Kingdom. Does this make me Emergent?]

On the flip side, Calvinists often denounce the Emergent tendency to irreverently and carelessly describe the views of those they disagree with, even while being evasive about what they actually believe. Emergents love to provide labels for those they disagree with: attractional, propositional, rationalistic, systematic. Yet most Emergents will not refer to themselves as Emergents (preferring other terms like missional, ancient-future, postmodern and 'Red-Letter Christians') even though they are the ones who came up with the word 'Emergent' in the first place!


Bart Campolo, a Red Letter Christian who I tend to agree with most of the time, was once a bit frustrated, justifiably so, with a Sunday School teacher who told a 9-year-old girl that God, in his sovereignty, must have allowed her to be gang-raped for a reason. In an article published by The Journal of Student Ministries, Campolo criticized the Sunday School teacher's callous view of God by saying "I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am." As you might imagine, Emergents (and others) were sympathetic to Campolo's brutal honesty while Calvinists (and others) found the language offensive. The evangelical blogosphere was all over this, with some accusing him of trying to 'create God in his own image.' Personally, I believe that Bart, in true postmodern fashion, was trying to provoke honest questions about our understanding of God and whether or not we have the correct understanding of Him. Campolo was not making a doctrinal pronouncement about epistemological truth. Still, these kinds of comments (which could also be interpreted as a reaction to the Calvinist idea of God's sovereignty) can come across as irresponsible, possibly heretical, to many Reformed Christians.

My own spiritual formation includes the fingerprints of both Reformed theology and the Emergent "conversation" which is interesting given the fact that there aren't many influential writers, thinkers or spiritual leaders who might consider themselves part of both groups. I can only think of two, but we'll get there soon enough. I have friends in both spheres and my sympathies lie with both, but I know very few Calvinists who support the ordination of women or Emergents who are not cynical about TULIP. I have found that most of the Christian progressives who inspire me, people like Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Anne Lamott, Jim Wallis and Mennonites like John Howard Yoder, have terrific Scriptural insights about fighting poverty, racism and violence. Sadly, I have never heard them describe God's holiness or matchless grace the way that John Piper, Arthur Pink, J.I. Packer, Charles Spurgeon or Puritans like Jonathan Edwards have.

When pondering the growing number of young Calvinists, I often wonder to myself: Are any of them not complementarians? And then I think of the growing number of young Emergents and I often wonder: Are any of them not Arminians?

On one hand, it does kind of make sense why 'liberal' Christians tend to de-emphasize God's control over everything since this view of God might come too close to a divine endorsement of the status-quo, where we find a world that is unmistakably rotten with injustice and brutality. Like Bono, we still haven't found what we're looking for: the complete arrival of Christ's Kingdom of peace and justice. In the same way, I can understand why Calvinists, who hold fast to the assurance that God has got everything worked out from eternal security for 'the elect' to the moment-by-moment sustenance of creation, often fall into the trap of de-emphasizing social justice since most societal problems can be explained by total depravity or a lack of 'personal responsibility.' Eternal concerns of the soul are elevated above temporal worries about society.

One way of viewing this disparity is to say that Reformed believers and progressive believers are merely different parts of the body of Christ, the head and the heart perhaps, which shows us just how much we need each other. However, I am not fully satisfied with this explanation because I know of one artist, songwriter Derek Webb, who sings about both truths: God's invincible mercy that is "more than a match for my heart" (from Thy Mercy) as well as the anti-capitalist revolutionary Jesus who suggests you should "sell your house, sell your SUV, sell your stock, sell your security and give it to the poor" (from Rich Young Ruler). Does one have to be a political conservative to be a Calvinist? Does one have to be an Arminian to speak out on issues of racial and economic justice? Derek Webb, who has performed at Sojourners conferences but also attends a Calvinist/PCA church in Nashville last I heard, leads me to believe that the answer is no.

I realize that all of these labels I'm throwing around are just ideological constructions that can never hope to fully describe the message and mission of Jesus, since following Him never was nor ever will be a predictable or neatly-packaged journey. I also don't think it's a major crisis if the community of faith doesn't all agree on this stuff. That said, I believe the Church needs to come to a point where we can fully trust in the supremacy of Christ even when we're doing our best to understand the racism, poverty and violence that characterize what Webb calls "Jesus' neighborhood, where He is hungry and not feeling so good from going through our trash." (lyrics again from Rich Young Ruler)

My current job working with Hawaii’s population of welfare recipients allows me the privilege of listening to people's stories of struggle to overcome poverty day in and day out. It remains a beautiful mystery how I will consistently hear Jesus speaking through them. These conversations are the closest thing I’ve experienced to a tangible fusion of God’s sovereignty and His compassion for the poor and outcast. Derek Webb’s is one of the few voices that seeks to tell both stories: that we serve a God whose matchless mercy has secured our souls, yet He is also found among the least of these. He may not call himself Emergent, but Derek Webb has given me hope for the ecumenical future of Christianity.

The only other ‘progressive Calvinist’ I’ve come across is Richard Mouw, Fuller Seminary’s president whose 'liberal' social justice advocacy is unusual for a TULIP-affirming Reformed theologian. Mouw’s Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport is my absolute favorite book about Calvinism written by a Calvinist. If Reformed theology were always explained with the reflective humility and grace found in this book, I doubt that postmodern Christians would be so reluctant to dismiss Calvinism as a stiff, archaic system of theological transactions. Mouw writes, "TULIP works best as a 'looking back' framework. A person has experienced the grace of God in a marvelous way in her life and she wants to look back about how it all happened. The TULIP doctrines are a summary- the right one, as I view things- of the way God goes about saving people. But TULIP is not something that is designed to attract a person to Christianity in the first place."

Rather than starting with TULIP, Mouw suggests the First Question and Answer of the Heidelberg Catechism (often referred to as "Heidelberg One") as an introduction to the Reformed understanding of God. The first part goes like this:

Q: What is thy only comfort in life and death?

A: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful savior Jesus Christ

Sam Storms, a self-described 'Charismatic Calvinist' who is a friend and former member of Wheaton's theology faculty, recently drew my attention to the work of B.B. Warfield, whose turn of the 20th century Reformed mind had some almost 21st century Emergent-sounding thoughts on John 3:16, particularly in reference to the "world" that God so loved. Warfield says that the intention of this famous text “is to arouse in our hearts a wondering sense of the marvel and the mystery of the love of God for the sinful world - conceived, here, not quantitatively but qualitatively as, in its very distinguishing characteristic, sinful."

I doubt that most Emergents would disagree with either Warfield’s words or the opening line of Heidelberg One. In fact, I think the reason that many people don’t like the ideas presented in TULIP has a lot to do with the perception that Calvinism is a quantitative, transactional understanding of God’s love that overly simplifies or devalues the mysterious and qualitative nature of His love. Many evangelicals have a very negative perception of Calvinism because of sound bytes they've heard about how Calvinists believe that Jesus didn't die for the whole world or that people don't have a choice about their salvation. It saddens me that this is how many evangelicals think of Calvinism, because this is probably more of a critique of the messengers of TULIP than the concepts themselves which, in my view, are still very helpful in leading us to that “wondering sense of the marvel and mystery” when properly understood.

Despite its reputation for theological hairsplitting that seems to constrain and discourage ‘human’ efforts to change the world, I believe Calvinism still has much to offer the growing number of postmodern/missional Christians like myself (you've noticed I'm reluctant to call myself Emergent). Though I can be skeptical of authoritarian church leadership, divisive statements and simplistic explanations of complex issues, I remain hungry for an understanding of God whose infinite love, mercy, justice and peace have the power to captivate and transform the mind beyond the realm of any cause or social movement.

So what is the way forward? Is there any hope for postmodern/Reformed/Emergent/Calvinist civility and collaboration in the near future? As it stands right now, Calvinists are still elevating the spiritual to the detriment of the social, while Emergents seem to have forgotten how Walther Rauschenbusch's 'social gospel' played a significant role in the decline of America's mainline denominations. My hope and prayer is that Emergents will begin to include Reformed voices in their "conversation" while the New Calvinists will begin to explore the Kingdom of God as a crucial part of, not a separate category from, the Gospel they defend so fiercely. Imagine a generation of Christ-followers who didn't feel the need to choose sides in the debate between the spiritual and social aspects of the gospel, orthodoxy and orthopraxis. I think that Christianity Today's current online dialogue between Calvinists (represented by Collin Hansen) and Emergents (represented by Tony Jones) is a noble place to begin, as is the recently released Evangelical Manifesto which I've enthusiastically signed.

I see no conflict between my concern for the poor and my agreement with the Calvinism described by Richard Mouw. If we are going to be messengers of something as revolutionary and counter-cultural as the Kingdom of God, we must first recognize that we belong, body and soul, to Jesus. Whether we are preaching the word, feeding the hungry or loving our enemies, we all could use a healthy dose of humility and reverence for the Creator as the One for whose glory this is all for.

I will conclude this way-too-long-for-a-blog post with a well known quote from Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian and politician whose support for voting rights and the labor movement (albeit in the Netherlands 100+
years ago) seems to meet my peculiar criteria for a ‘progressive Calvinist.’ Kuyper said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'"

Rob Bell’s postmodern notion that “Everything is Spiritual” (and therefore belongs to God) might have more in common with Kuyper's Calvinism than people realize.

6 comments:

Cheryl said...

And I thought an Arminian was somebody from Armenia...

PB said...

These are such difficult issues. But, as I haven't yet seen a picture of the 'Emergant' Church which is attractive to me, and as I no longer consider anything but the U (...and possibly P) of TULIP to be assured, I fear I can't add much by way of specifics to this discussion. I will say one thing though, we live in strange times, and one of the most surprising, growing features of current evangelicalism, across the board, has been a general trend away from rooting belief in the biblical texts. This is supremely dangerous. It is the same track the mainliners took more than a hundred years ago, and it hasn't faired them well. While I find it healthy that Christians are waking up to the fact that Christ is the center of our faith, and that the Bible, rather than being the center, is a wayfinder to Christ...I do believe very strongly that the Bible has been given to us by the Spirit as an anchor to keep us from drifting wrongly away, and making our thoughts and our conceptions king over Gods (verses like Hebrews 4:12 come to mind).
Anyway, somehow I fear this is sounding harsh, which wasn't my intention. All I mean to say is that in all the various issues we modern Christians are faced with, from evangelicalism, liberalism, calvanism, emergant-churchism, or whathaveyou, I do believe the Bible is a solid guide and source of wisdom through the confusion.

The Common Loon said...

Well said, PB. The postmodern cultural backdrop has made it trendy to pick and choose favorites from the buffet of Christian traditions, practices, interpretations and church models. With so many agendas clamoring for attention, we must always keep our understanding of spiritual formation and orthopraxy rooted in the biblical texts. As you said, it is the anchor. "Belief vs. Action" is a false dichotomy I've seen in both Calvinist and Emergent circles. Scripture doesn't downplay one in order to elevate the other.

beowulf2k8 said...

"'Belief vs. Action' is a false dichotomy"Exactly, Faith vs Works is a false dichotomy. If the Emergent Movement doesn't emerge away from Paul and his false dichotomy to an embracing of Jesus Himself and the genuine apostles, then it is nothing. But if the Emergents read Galatians as the Galatians themselves read it (for which cause all Asia finally rejected Paul as Paul himself says) and see Paul bashing the real apostles to make himself seem like an apostle (as I point out here) and recognize that it is more likely that Paul was merely an enemy of Christ who realized he would have more success destroying Christianity from within as a false apostle than from without as a violent persecutor, the perhaps true Christianity can actually finally emerge from the Pauline haze in which it has been held captive since Augustine popularized this "Paul" character in the 380s.

Jesus was all about calling sinners to repentance and having them obey "these sayings of mine", but Paul was all about predestination and faith vs works. Paul clearly is not a true apostle of Christ. His vision is nothing more than a hoax unless it is a genuine drug induced hallucination. For if Jesus really appeared to him to make him an apostle, then he would not be bashing Peter, James, and John in Galatians 1-2 for lack of any better way to defend his apostleship!

If we could just read the Bible as the original readers did, without 1500 years of bogus Catholic tradition regurgitated through the Reformation swirling around in our heads, then we would (1) analyze Paul's actual ARGUMENTS and see if they RIGHTLY use the Old Testament or not (2) compare Paul's ARGUMENT to the rest of the New Testament, not to mention his other statements on the same subject, and see if they really harmonize, and (3) we would NOT just simply always assume that Paul is right, even when he is saying that God is Satan and that anyone who disagrees is "talking back to God" as is the traditional Augustinian/Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9:20, and (4) we would always take JESUS above Paul and NEVER Paul above JESUS.

But that's just a dreamworld. Catho-Prot superstition will never go away just like Jewish superstition, Hindu superstition, and Buddhist superstition will never go away. People just prefer superstition to truth, and Paul is superstition.

beowulf2k8 said...

"Rob Bell’s postmodern notion that “Everything is Spiritual” (and therefore belongs to God) might have more in common with Kuyper's Calvinism than people realize."

Calvinism says that God is the author of sin and evil and that every sin and evil that takes place takes place because God decreed it to take place.

Emergents tend to say thing like "the evil Imperial system of power by violence is totally man's system and that the kingdom of God is about overcoming this evil by love and good works, and Jesus shows us this by dying on the cross as a victim rather than killing" and such things.

Are they compatible? No! The whole point of the Emergent thing seems to be a rejection of Calvinism. Latent in there somewhere is a rejection of Paul, but because Protestants hate morality they refuse to let go of the faith vs work (or belief vs action) false dichotomy of Paul.

They can't quite embrace the judgement based on works that Jesus teaches in John 5:29 ("And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.") But at the same time they can't embrace the radical ultra Paulinism that leads to God being the author of evil. So, they stay in the middle, with a minimal commitment to Paul as an apostle while rejecting his radical and crazy views of God being evil.

In this sense, the Emergent movement is not new at all. Its just that young people have been brainwashed into thinking that Paul's most radical views have always been accepted. But prior to 380, they weren't. Prior to 140, nobody seemed to have even know about there being a Paul. Marcion the Dualist popularized Paul in 140, but it wasn't until Augustine in 380 that a strict systematic literalist interpretation or Romans 9 was accepted by anyone. THen it split the church! Pelagius and various others, Julian of Eclanum among them, opposed Augustine BRAND NEW interpretation. They stuck with the old 'fathers' of the church, which all either ignored Paul completely (as Justin Martyr) or at least worked around Romans 9 and ignored it. Its only since 380 that anyone has accepted Romans 9. And even then, the Catholic church didn't buy into the full Agusutinian interpretation for long. Since 380 there has been a constant Emergent movement followed by a Reformation, which is nothing more than a return to hyper-literal Romans 9ism. Its time to end the vicious cycle and just remove Paul from the canon altogether.

The Common Loon said...

beowulf2k8,

So let me see if I've got this straight...

You're saying that the apostle Paul was not really a follower of Christ but an undercover "enemy of Christ" who never abandoned his pre-conversion attempts to destroy the church?

Based on your theory that Paul's epistles contradict what the gospels teach about Jesus, you're also throwing out Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and every other theologian who has taken Paul's epistles as inspired Scripture over the past 2 millenia?

Out of curiosity, which books are in your Bible?