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The Calvinistic Resurgence in America

Author
Category Book Reviews
Date September 23, 2008

The first wave of Calvinism at the beginning of the 20th century was manifest in Princeton Seminary, in Louis Berkhof and the fledgling Christian Reformed Church and the Grand Rapids publishers, in Principal John Macleod and the Free Church and the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, in the Strict Baptists of England, in Arthur Pink, in the Sovereign Grace Union and in a group of self-conscious Protestant Evangelical men in the Church of England.

The second wave of Calvinism which began to roll in the middle of the 20th century was manifest in the emergence of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Jay Green and his Sovereign Grace Book Club, J.I.Packer, Geoffrey Williams and the Evangelical Library, Iain Murray, the Banner of Truth, Erroll Hulse, Al Martin, Reformed Seminary Jackson, the Evangelical Press, the Evangelical Movement of Wales, John Murray, Westminster Seminary, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Ernest Reisinger, the Reformed Baptists of the USA and of Zambia.

The third wave of Calvinism at the end of the 20th century has recently been chronicled in a slim paperback entitled Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists, written by Collin Hansen (Crossway, 2008; 160 pp, paperback, ISBN 978-1-58134-940-5) and reviewed here by Erroll Hulse.

Geoff Thomas


Even though China (population 1,300 million) topped the Olympic table for gold medals and put the USA (population 300 million) in second place, the USA is still in many respects the leading nation of the world. Especially is this the case with regard to Christianity. America sends out 70,000 missionaries which is far more than any other nation. When they are good they are very good and when they are bad they are very bad. America exports Arminianism on a larger scale than any other nation. Arminianism like Roman Catholicism is a merit-based religion, which is why Calvinists will always be uncomfortable with it. If there is a Calvinistic resurgence in the USA that is of great significance for the rest of the world. We need to sit up and take notice.

There was a time about 1959 when from London we looked northwards to the county of Yorkshire and wondered if there would ever be such a thing as a reformed pastor in that, the largest, of England’s thirty or so counties. We did not then know of one pastor who preached the doctrines of grace in Yorkshire. In 1960 a change began. Today pastors of the Yorkshire Reformed Ministers’ Fellowship meet regularly. They represent churches from Sheffield in the south to Reith, Ripon and Hambledon in the north and from Haworth in the west to York and Pickering in the east with about twenty between.

Very few reformed lights shone in the USA in the early 1960s. As for Calvinistic leaders in the USA in the 1950s, they would hardly number enough to fill a rowing boat. It was exciting to correspond with half a dozen contacts. Professor John Murray of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia was one of them and he was greatly esteemed in our eyes.

In contrast to those days we now read with intense interest this book describing the present day Reformed resurgence in the USA. In journalistic and anecdotal style Collin Hansen provides a litmus test on the state of the Reformed Faith in the USA. In his tour Collin interviewed leaders in six states. Out of fifty states that is only a small proportion. However since he visited some of the best-known leaders his survey represents a fairly accurate picture of Calvinistic resurgence. Small reformed denominations like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are not mentioned. The growing Association of Reformed Baptists (ARBCA) is omitted. Not mentioned are the smaller seminaries like the Puritan Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids whose leader is Joel Beeke. Beeke is the author of Meet the Puritans and other books which have an effective testimony for godliness.

At the beginning of his book Collin Hansen makes it crystal clear that he grasps and holds personally to the five points of Calvinism known by the acrostic TULIP. That is what he means by the Reformed Faith.

To this reviewer the Reformed Faith means four things. First, there is a love for Martin Luther and what God wrought through him in the amazing re-establishment of the doctrine of justification by faith and clarity about salvation which has its source in the sovereign grace of God and not in the merit of the free will of man. Second, the Reformed Faith is confessional. I subscribe to all the chapters of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, known as the 1689 Confession. That Confession is the legacy of the English Puritans. Third, there is the clarity of the Five Points (TULIP) formulated at the Synod of Dort. Fourth, there is passion. Another word for passion is love. The church at Ephesus was commended for orthodoxy but was running low on love (Rev. 2:1-7). The doctrines of grace mean little if they reside merely in the head and do not live with love and passion in the heart. And if grace rules in the heart we will not be sectarian, cultish, censorious, judgemental or superior to others who are not ruled by grace. I grew up in South Africa where the predominant European Church denomination is the Dutch Reformed Church, a denomination with a wonderful history of revival and missionary enterprise. Since the 1960s liberal theology has gone unchecked in the DRC seminaries. Liberalism has spread through that great denomination with devastating effects. Today it is difficult to find individuals within that body who know what the Reformed Faith is and who love it in their hearts.

So how do things stand now in the USA? To discover more about the Calvinistic resurgence Collin Hansen’s first call was to the ministry of John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Hansen describes Piper (whose signature book Desiring God has sold 275,000 copies) as the chief spokesman for the Calvinist resurgence among young evangelicals. In the year 2000 40,000 students gathered at a venue near Memphis to listen to John Piper on the theme ‘Don’t Waste Your Life’. Subsequently 250,000 copies of Piper’s book with that title have sold. If Piper is the most influential living leader in the resurgence then Jonathan Edwards is the most read theologian from the past. In 2003 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Edwards’ birth, 2,500, mostly pastors, met for a three-day conference in Minneapolis.

Next stop for Hansen was Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Here he met Josh Moody who is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church with 300 members. In 1999 there were fewer than thirty members. Josh Moody earned his PhD at Cambridge University in England with a thesis on Jonathan Edwards. While at Yale, Hansen probed into the extent of the ministry of RUF (Reformed University Fellowship) which has increased from ministry on 35 campuses in 1998 to over one hundred today. Hansen also managed to interview J I Packer who has a fine grasp of the state of Puritanism over sixty years and who made this perceptive observation:

The sixties saw a new movement of the Holy Spirit. The charismatic renewal emphasised experience and affections – topics important to the Puritans. But this new wave lacked the patience to plumb the depths of Puritan theology. Like a tsunami it swept away most of what we thought we had been building and growing for more than ten years.

The next port of call in Collin’s tour was Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. The upgrade at Southern is now well known. We are accustomed to downgrades but Southern represents a phenomenal upgrade out of liberalism. This came about under the leadership of Albert Mohler Jr. who was only 33 when he was appointed to the presidency of Southern Seminary. Mohler began a purge at Southern. The liberals were outraged and predicted the demise of Southern which is the first and best known Southern Baptist Seminary out of six in the USA. This dire prophecy proved false. Southern with 4,300 students is now the largest seminary in America.

Collin Hansen is to be congratulated for the way he has grasped the nature of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) which is the largest Protestant denomination in America and like Presbyterian denominations has a problem with unregenerate members. This of course is not due to baptising babies but on account of easy believism without repentance. It is easy to get young children to make a decision for Christ. The SBC hovers between Semi-Pelagianism (which encourages the heresy of decisional regeneration) and Arminianism. The historic roots of the SBC go back to the Philadelphia Confession of Faith which is a sister Confession to the 1689 Confession. The Founders’ Movement represents a body within the SBC calling for a return to the roots. The Pelagian mentality is appalled by the sovereignty of God in salvation. The worst caricatures and most hateful expressions against Calvinism emanate from some SBC leaders such as ‘Calvinists are worse than Muslims!’ (Could that be said of Bunyan or Spurgeon and many Baptist leaders who were five-pointers? Or the leaders described in Hansen’s book?). Hansen understands the SBC ethos and the swiftness with which pastors are fired (the average tenure is about two years). But ultimately he does not provide any detailed progress of the resurgence within the SBC. However Pastor Tom Ascol, pastor of a Southern Baptist church in Cape Coral, Florida, informs us that,

Over its twenty-five year history Founders developed a variety of ministries including a quarterly theological journal, six regional conferences, two dozen pastors’ fraternals, a publishing house, a high-traffic website, an online theological training institute and an internship ministry.

In late 2006, two thousand recent graduates from Southern Baptist seminaries were surveyed on their commitment to Calvinistic doctrines. Twenty-nine percent were discovered to be ‘five-point Calvinists’. This research strongly suggests that the growth of Calvinism among Southern Baptists is being experienced primarily among the rising generation. This does not mean that one-third of all Southern Baptist pastors are Calvinists, only recent graduates. The alarmists however, would warn that eventually the Calvinists will take over the Convention if the seminaries continue to indoctrinate graduates with Calvinist leanings. We know that a number of reformed Baptist churches have been formed as an outcome of splits. A considerable number of SBC pastors preach free grace in expository style without mentioning Calvinism. Some have succeeded in bringing their churches all the way back to their historic confessional foundations. An example of complete reformation is Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. where Mark Dever is pastor. Dever earned his PhD at Cambridge with a thesis on the English Puritans. Capitol Hill was a dying Southern Baptist church which has revived greatly under Dever.

Turning northwards Hansen visited leader C J Mahaney, founder in 1977 of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a charismatic church of 3,800 members. TULIP is treasured as much as the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Mahaney was converted when he was a hippie in Arminian charismatic circles. On conversion he had an immediate appetite to read and soon came to the doctrines of grace. He is an extraordinarily dynamic and lively personality – very attractive, charismatic, and fervently reformed, a preacher who tells everyone to read more books by dead people – especially John Owen on sin.

C J Mahaney is president of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a family of seventy-five churches. This grouping prioritises evangelism and has close ties with Spanish-speaking churches in Bolivia. Two years ago Mahaney handed leadership of the main Covenant Life Church to Joshua Harris aged 33. Harris has worked hard among the younger generation and has been the key individual in the sponsoring of the ‘New Attitude Conferences’. This gathering is for 15-24 year old singles. 6000 have attended in Louisville for the last two years.

In April 2006 a Gospel Conference was organised in Louisville, Kentucky, in which good friends Dever, Mahaney, Ligon Duncan and Albert Mohler invited three of their heroes, John Piper, John MacArthur and R C Sproul to be the preachers. 3,000 pastors attended. It was not easy to settle on the music style. There were differences among these leaders such as baptism and eschatology. TULIP was the cement that cemented unity.

In this new resurgence it is Baptists and Charismatics who are now sharing the leadership and who are at the cutting edge for theology and for missions. Two to three decades ago some Presbyterians thought that it was out of place for any but Presbyterians to call themselves reformed.

Collin’s tour took him to the north west corner of America to Mars Hill Church, Seattle, Washington State. This is the home of 38 year old Mark Driscoll. Driscoll’s teaching is uncompromisingly complementarian on the man/woman issue, and unflinching on the issues of homosexuality, inerrancy of Scripture, the eternal punishment of the wicked and penal substitution. The church began in 1996 and is now attended by 6,000. This is impressive since only ten percent in Seattle are regular church-goers. Mars Hill is mother church to about a hundred churches nick-named Acts 29 churches. Driscoll affirms his indebtedness to Wayne Grudem and of Grudem’s Systematic Theology declares it is ‘the finest on the market and the standard for Mars Hill Church and many of the churches we are affiliated with within the Acts 29 Network.’

The above centres of influence are described in this book which shows that many have become weary of churches that seek to entertain rather than preach the great truths of God’s sovereign grace. The young especially have sought out places where they can be fed with spiritual meat. Examples of large churches have come under review. What about thousands of small places where the truth is adored and obeyed? What about 300 to 400 prisons in America where Chapel Library (Mt Zion Bible Church, Pensacola) has achieved an amazing network of hundreds of groupings where sovereign grace literature is loved?

We must hold on our radar screens the black churches. One of the leading black reformed ministers in America is Eric Redmond. He serves a church in Maryland, not far from where Mark Dever is in DC. Also on our screens is the home school factor. The home school movement is extensive in the US and has paved the way for many since much of the curriculum comes from a Reformed persuasion.

Collin Hansen has not forgotten small churches and rural areas. To round things off he visited his original home in South Dakota, a little place of his childhood called Dell Rapids. There he discovered a newly planted church with about fifty in attendance. Andy Wright is the pastor. He enjoys fellowship with a number of pastors in South Dakota who share his Calvinistic views. One of these is Pastor Ryan Franchuk, First Baptist Church, Emery, South Dakota (population 450). Ryan has published a booklet called, The Handy Dandy Doctrines of Grace Bible Verse Reference Guide which lists proof texts for TULIP.

Hansen’s experience in South Dakota was positive. Many other areas are negative. For example, in Rhode Island we know of only two small Calvinistic Baptist assemblies and one tiny Reformed Presbyterian church while Connecticut has only two or three and Massachusetts fewer than ten. This is a far cry from the days of the New Light Calvinists, the tremendous influence of Jonathan Edwards and the days of Isaac Backus when there were hundreds of such churches. Also some Reformed groups that flourished briefly have declined numerically or become extinct. These reflections remind us of areas in the vastness of the USA which are miserably barren and in which it is difficult to find a sovereign grace church. Nevertheless Hansen’s book highlights positive scenarios which should surely fuel our prayers and encourage us to use the now enormous arsenal of free grace literature to encourage reformation and revival.

Criticisms? No! This is an easy to read book with a fine balance of personal testimonies and reports of interviews. Suggestions? Yes! In the next edition Collin Hansen should seek again an interview with John MacArthur Jr., his first request having been declined. The ministries led by MacArthur represent a large proportion of the Calvinistic resurgence. Likewise interviews with R C Sproul who leads a large annual conference and Tim Keller of Manhattan, New York, will help give a balanced perspective. A review of the ministry of the Reformed Theological Seminaries will add value to the volume.

150 years ago a great revival began in New York City and spread not only across America but to other countries too. Is this resurgence a divine preparation for another great spiritual awakening?

D A Carson in his endorsement of this book provides a timely warning,

This is not the time for Reformed triumphalism. It is time for quiet gratitude to God and earnest intercessory prayer, with tears, that what has begun will flourish beyond all human expectation.

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