Monday, 6 April 2009

I wanna be young, restless and reformed!

Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless and Reformed: A Journalists Journey with the New Calvinists (Wheaton, Ill; Crossway Books, 2008) has already generated considerable debate and discussion on the blogosphere, here goes my contribution with some reflections on what this might have to say to Calvinists in Britain!
Charting the resurgence of Reformed convictions in the United States associated with names such as John Piper, the Calvinist Charismatic C. J. Mahaney of Sovereign Grace Ministries, Al Mohler the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mark Driscoll of the phenomenal Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Hansen has written a wonderfully evocative and sympathetic portrayal that disabuses readers of many of the popular misconceptions of Calvinism. The emphasis throughout the book is on the life-transforming impact that the discovery of Reformed theology has had on a whole range of individuals. While John Piper is very much the father-figure of the movement, he’s the one individual that links all of the others, Jonathan Edwards, is never far away either! The New Calvinists are predominantly young, passionately committed to Scripture and the centrality of preaching; they are thorough-going five-point Calvinists, embrace the best of modern worship music, are culturally engaged, missional and socially aware. However, the book has received a relatively lukewarm reception in Britain. Apart from Erroll Hulse’s hope that the resurgence might be the precursor to another Great Awakening [Evangelicals Now, (October, 2008)], most British commentators have bemoaned the movement’s almost exclusive focus on the Five Points; the Calvinism of this new generation is not yet your grandfather’s Calvinism as one British reviewer has put it []. Another reviewer, with a complete lack of historical nuance, has gone so far as to claim that this is actually the third wave of Calvinist renewal in the twentieth century; the first being associated with the founding of Westminster Seminary, the Grand Rapids publishers, the Free Church of Scotland and the irascible practically Hyper-Calvinist A. W. Pink of all people! The second wave was that led by Jim Packer and Martyn Lloyd-Jones]. In one of the most revealing comments from a British perspective, Jim Packer comments that the Reformed recovery during the 1950s and 1960s was something of a false dawn, swept away by the charismatic renewal with its emphasis on experience rather than theology. Those who carried on the legacy of Packer and Lloyd-Jones tended to lack their breadth of vision and personal magnanimity, and their positive work was hi-jacked by those who made commitment to Calvinism a badge of honour and retreated to the kind of Reformed ghettos that John Piper talks about in this book. Some of the individuals which figure in this book are becoming better known on this side of the Atlantic. Despite receiving a frosty reception from some at the Banner of Truth conference in the early 1990s, John Piper is now a frequent visitor to Britain. C. J. Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries have outposts in Britain, and are in some respects closely akin to the New Frontiers Churches. Mark Driscoll has recently visited Britain, although it maybe that many from the Reformed community would find his style of preaching off-putting, which would be a great pity. But over and above this the American New Calvinists have much to teach Reformed Christians in Britain, and a sober consideration of some of the reasons for their success might pay dividends for Reformed Churches in Britain. One of the most remarkable features of the churches which Hansen visits is their sheer size. Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis having over 4,000 members, Mars Hill, 6,000, Mahaney’s Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, 3,000, to say nothing of the 6,000 15-24 year olds who attend the New Attitude Conferences or the 40,000 students who gathered in Memphis to listen to Piper on ‘Don’t Waste Your Life’. By contrast most Reformed churches in Britain are small and embattled. Many either hark back to a perceived golden age, whether that be the 1950s, 1859, the 1730s or even further back. Others have circled the wagons in the hope of revival and better days ahead.
Of course the nature of a book like this is that it can quickly become out of date. The Calvinist resurgence in the US has gone from strength to strength in last few months. Incredibly, the New Calvinism was listed as the third most powerful idea changing the world today in a recent issue of Time magazine [,28804,1884779_1884782_1884760,00.html] and Mark Driscoll's profile is increasing, witness his recent appearances on CNN.
The genius of the Protestant Reformers was that they were always reforming, and it may be that some of these new vibrant and culturally relevant expressions of reformed theology in the twenty-first century are actually much more faithful to the spirit of the Reformers and Puritans than many of their latter day champions in Britain would care to admit! The challenge of the New Calvinist resurgence in the United States is that many are looking for something deeper than the personality-driven, entertainment-obsessed faddishness that blights much contemporary evangelicalism. Reformed Christians in Britain could do worse than follow Mark Driscoll’s example and become missional Christians, taking their Calvinism and dressing it in new twenty-first century clothes, not to make Jesus relevant, but to show he is already relevant’. Who knows, there might then be a Reformed resurgence on this side of the Atlantic as well.

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