A Response/Review of Les Lanphere’s: Calvinist Film

Rather than a review I thought I would offer a response to Les Lanphere’s recently released film: Calvinist. Co-founder of the Reformed Pub and Pubcast, and film producer, Les Lanphere last year started a crowd-sourcing campaign to raise money to produce the film I’m offering response for now. The film just released September 12th, 2017 on vimeo, and it already appears to be getting quite a few views. It is available for $7.99 to rent (for 48 hours), or $20.00 to purchase. I was actually surprised that it cost anything given that it was a crowd-sourced undertaking; I’d wrongly assumed that the $50,000 or $60,000 raised from that would have been sufficient for producing and distributing this film—apparently it was not. Beyond that, for the rest of this response I will attempt to cover the main bases covered in the film, and try to provide an accurate feel for what to expect. Once I have finished with that I will offer my response (so I guess this will be something like a review). Here is the preview to the film:

Overview of the Film

The film starts out by describing the phenomenon of Christianity itself, but then quickly turns its focus to why the Protestant Reformation was needed and who was involved in that process. Before getting into anything else the film highlights the role that the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement has played in revitalizing the resurgence of Reformed theology in North America. The producer, Les Lanphere notes his own generational position within this movement, and frames the rest of the film through this lens. Once this frame is provided we get right into the thick of things with Martin Luther and his realization from his engagement with Scripture, in the original languages that the Roman Catholic Church had come to its current shape in the 16th century through an accretion of traditions that were actually unbiblical. The film notes how Luther’s realization led him to begin protesting what he considered to be unnecessary and burdensome religious tasks that had nothing to do with what the biblical Gospel entails. Moving on we are next introduced to John Calvin as the second generation reformer who provided the concrete impress into a doctrine of Scripture; what later would be known as sola Scriptura. The film emphasizes how a move in authority shifted from the magisterium of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to Holy Scripture; and then notes how things developed from there. Pretty quickly we are introduced to Jacobus Arminius, and the development of Arminianism; the debate between the Arminians and Calvinists is noted with reference to the Synod and Canons of Dordt. Accordingly we move from this entrée into an introduction of what the 5 points of Calvinism entail; each point of the TULIP is given some depth of coverage. Much of that coverage involves interviews with various participants who describe what a particular point involves, and how they see it functioning both personally and corporately in the church. As we finish up with the “P”, and in closing, the Calvinist touches upon a potential weakness that has plagued Reformed theology since its inception; that is its ostensible lack of penetration into the more marginalized demographic of people groups. It speaks to this primarily through the impact that the Young, Restless, and Reformed resurgence has brought to Reformed theology by interacting with some Christian rap artists, most prominently with Shai Linne, and their thoughts on the impact that Reformed theology is having within the minority communities as it has contact through rap music in particular.

The film features these voices: R.C. Sproul, Collin Hansen Paul Washer, Shai Linne, Ligon Duncon, Michael Horton, Timothy Brindle, Steven Lawson, Joel Beeke, Kevin DeYoung, James White, Joe Thorn, R. Scott Clark, Tim Challies, Carl Trueman, Jeff Durbin, Peter Lilliback, Scott Oliphant, Robert Godfrey,  and some lesser known folks. There is reference made to Matt Chandler, John Piper, J.I. Packer, Martin Lloyd Jones, Marc Driscoll; with particular focus on Piper as a kind of codifying godfather of the Young, Restless, and Reformed resurgence. The film also singles out Driscoll as a kind of golden-child of the movement, but then also as a representative of what happens when celebrity takes over instead of the doctrines of grace; and the kind of ruin that can come if perspective is not kept.

Calvinist makes a hard case for the 5 points of Calvinism and attempts to demonstrate how the TULIP simply represents a straightforward prima facie reading of Holy Scripture. It contrasts its reading of Scripture with the mainstream evangelical understanding of salvation which it aligns with the man-centered part Roman Catholic/part Arminian concept offering of the salvific envelope. The film wants to provide a hard and fast distinction between the orthodox Gospel of grace that Calvinist theology offers, versus the shallow offering that mainstream seeker-sensitive churches offer; or more extreme what televangelists like Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen offer their parishioners. There is a binary set up between what Calvinism offers, and what the rest of evangelicalism offers. It does attempt to soften how folks approach this by warning of what is often called the cage stage; the stage that happens when someone is “converted” to the ‘truth’ of Calvinism, and they want everyone to know it (and if people don’t accept it then folks in this stage are prone to look at these people as possibly not even Christian).

My Response

As The Evangelical Calvinist we are automatically going to have problems with how the Calvinist film set things up. For one thing it trivializes the history and development of Reformed theology. It glosses over huge aspects and developments of Calvinist theology, and as a result it ends up reducing things to an unfortunate and binary level. For example because it almost immediately sets things up within the context of Calvinists versus Arminians, and it does so by noting the Remonstrant articles and the Synod of Dordt’s subsequent response and articles (which much later would be captured by the acronym known as the TULIP), it sets things up as necessarily combative from the get go. Because the film moves so quickly in this direction it doesn’t give the proper focus to the development of the guts of what classical Reformed or Protestant theology involves; viz. Covenant or Federal theology. It doesn’t note how this framework in the historical milieu sets up the conditions that gave rise to Arminius’s own theology; and ultimately how Reformed theology culminates in something like the Westminster Confession of Faith. It does acknowledge that this history is present, but only with a quick reference and comment made by Carl Trueman. Without this context all the Calvinist could be left with is what it ended up emphasizing and presenting: TULIP theology. While it noted that there is more to Calvinist theology than the TULIP, and it noted, quickly, the various streams and developments of the Reformed Confessions and catechisms, it failed to discuss in any meaningful way what type of theology was present in these important confessions.

To be fair it is a film that only had about 90 minutes to work with (although I would imagine they could have made it longer at the discretion of Lanphere), but because of this limitation the film unfortunately comes off rather flat; and I mean in regard to the picture that it paints of Calvinist or Reformed theology. Furthermore, because of this kind of flat development, in regard to the material ideas that shapes Calvinist theology in the history, it didn’t have the capacity to offer any type of meaningful nuance and distinctions that were actually present in the history. The film comes by this lacuna honestly though; in other words, the scholars it relies on are committed to an idea that the Reformed faith is basically a monolithic reality. Not that there aren’t nuances in and among the various theologians say of the 16th and 17th centuries, when what is called Post Reformed orthodoxy developed, but they would argue that there is an essentialist type of congruency at a basic thematic level that would allow all of these theologians in one way or another to affirm what we find, for example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Unfortunately what these scholars, and subsequently, this film fail to recognize is that the history itself reflects different strains of Reformed theologians who were actually contemporary with the construction of something like the Westminster Confession of Faith. There were the Marrow men in England and Scotland who were averse to the hard Federal theology that prevailed at Westminster; there were Puritans like Richard Sibbes, John Cotton (in America), et al. who have been called The Spiritual Fathers who contested the so called Intellectual Fathers who came to be known as the orthodox champions of Reformed theology. But things were never as tidy as the scholars in this film would like us all to think.

I was not surprised by the direction of the film; it delivered exactly what I expected. It is not a film that will provide any new information for anyone who has had any exposure to Calvinism for any length of time—even at the most rudimentary of levels. I see the Calvinist as a kind of introductory or orientation film for the newly ingratiated Calvinists; folks who aren’t totally sure yet what it is all about. Or maybe for folks who are, indeed, in the so called stage cage, who would like to be bolstered in their new found tradition.

As far as its relationship to Evangelical Calvinism; there is none. This film offers a version of Reformed theology, 5-Pointism that Evangelical Calvinism stands at total odds with. What the film doesn’t do, because it skims across the surface as it does, is that it doesn’t delve into any of the background depth theological and metaphysical levels that funds the theology they are promoting. Unfortunately, as is typical, it doesn’t note the role that Aristotelianism, Scotism, Ramism, Agricolanism, Voluntarism, Nominalism, so on and so forth plays in the development of the apparatus that supplies the 5 point Calvinist with their hermeneutic and subsequent exegetical conclusions. In other words, it oversimplifies to the point that things are left too sterile and clean; it doesn’t complexify the history enough in order to problematize or self-criticize in anyway. Honestly I wouldn’t expect this with a film like this—not even the scholars and pastors it relies on take this tact typically—but that’s what a film called the Calvinist should be about. It makes a point about how the Young, Restless, and Reformed represent a generation that wants to get deep, but then ironically the film itself doesn’t illustrate what that looks like for them. It doesn’t dig deep into the history of Reformed theology; it doesn’t refer to scholars like Michael Allen or Scott Swain who are aware of some of the challenges in the history and development of Reformed theology (even though both of them argue, along with folks like Carl Trueman that Federal or Covenant theology is the way to go). The film’s producer[s] doesn’t seek out other strains that have developed in Reformed theology; like the strain that we flow from as Evangelical Calvinists (which can be found primarily in Scottish, English, and American contexts in the history). So the Calvinist fails to layer things in the deep kind of way that its self-identified audience, by their own description, is looking for; for depth of understanding in regard to the development of Reformed Protestant theology. In this respondent’s view this was a seriously missed opportunity by the Calvinist.

Overall, other than viewing this for “critical” purposes I wouldn’t recommend this film. I think most people who already identify as Calvinist won’t find anything new here, and for those in the ‘cage stage’ it will only add unnecessary fuel to your fires. I think it glosses things too quickly; that it doesn’t provide the depth its audience would be looking for; and it presents the Calvinist or Reformed faith too reductionistically.


6 thoughts on “A Response/Review of Les Lanphere’s: Calvinist Film

  1. Mark

    Good analysis. For confirmation my initial critique comes off similar to yours. It’s a nicely done piece, but in a kind way I want to say, nothing new here.


  2. Pingback: A Response/Review of Les Lanphere’s: Calvinist Film — The Evangelical Calvinist | Talmidimblogging

  3. jedidiahpaschall

    I have close to zero interest in viewing this film, but your comments on the historical development of Calvinism brings up a few thoughts, so thanks for that. It seems like modern Calvinist represented in the NAPARC denominations as well as the qasi-Calvinistic vision promoted by The Gospel Coalition (to a degree) want to present monolithic, unified Calvinism. But, even as Richard Muller notes, “Calvinism” is a slippery term when we try to use it to describe Reformed Christianity. It has only been since I have dug into some of the primary sources that I have seen that the repristination movement in some Calvinist circles today seem to ignore the diversity in Reformed churches from the beginning.

    For instance, how do we account for the differences between Bullinger and Calvin? Why do the Westminster Standards read so differently from the earlier Reformed catechisms and confessions (especially pre-Dordt)?

    I’ve really been enjoying exploring the Evangelical Calvinism that you and others are proposing, I can’t say I have sufficient exposure to how they are appropriating the Reformed tradition through Barth and Torrance to know exactly where I land on these issues. But, I do think that there is much to be gained in dispensing with the reductive TULIP as the only way to view Calvinism and Reformed Christianity. My sense is the future of Reformed Christianity needs to have a serious re-assessment of the diversity that typified the first generation of the Reformers. Further rapprochement with other Protestant communions as well as Catholics and the Orthodox would be nice, but given the current disposition among conservative NAPARC type Calvinists, I think that this is a task that might be too tall.


  4. Bobby Grow Post author


    Yeah, the complexity represented by the Reformed faith makes it not monolithic or Deus ex machina as so many presume. In the history there is of course going to be similarity by way of theological categories and grammar; but often, when viewed more closely, I think, the usage of said categories and grammar is more equivocal rather than univocal. Even though Muller’ thesis seeks to complexify the face of the Reformed history I think he ends up still reducing things into a nice tidy Aristotelian Christianity (his language). In other words he doesn’t seem content with leaving things dangling; he wants to package it all in a way wherein an actual “orthodoxy” can be identified. But as Janice Knight and others have argued what has come to be known as orthodoxy today was actually not so back in the 17th century; that what she calls The Spiritual Brethren of people like Sibbes, Eaton, Preston, et al was at least equal to if not the dominant orthodoxy prevailing during that time. This was a Reformed prong that was at odds with Westminster confessionalism.

    And yes, even Muller and most educated Reformed proponents, even of the classical type, reject the reduction of the Reformed faith to the TULIP. The irony of the film is that I know its producer wants the Reformed faith to be understood beyond the TULIP, but then all the film is about is explicating the TULIP.


  5. Bobby Grow Post author


    “… nothing new here.” I wasn’t going for anything “new,” per se, just attempting to accurately represent the film and offer a response. The “new” stuff is what can be found in many many of my posts on my blog here relative to an alternative understanding of the Reformed faith.


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