The Young, Restless, & Reformed—Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor—Getting to Know Their Calvinist History and Present

In light of my last post, and to help set up some of my next posts (which will be to review an interview that John Piper did with Matt Chandler on Chandler’s appropriation of 5 Point Calvinism, and how he now preaches it in every sermon he gives) I want to provide some clarification on where Calvinism came from. I have blown this trumpet for years, and this has become common fare in the theological literature (in other words this is not news to the theologian); but I don’t think I can sound this alarm enough, nor do I intend on necessarily speaking to the theologian. I want to speak to folk who don’t have exposure to this kind of stuff on a daily basis; I want you, the lay or even pastoral Christian to get a better grasp on the history of Christian ideas, as it has bequeathed what we know as Calvinism and Arminianism today.

My personal chapter for mine and Myk Habet’s forthcoming edited book has to do with an aspect that involves the particular issue that I am addressing in this post. The issue is what has been called classical theism. Classical theism is basically what happened when Thomas Aquinas (medieval theologian par excellence) synthesized Aristotle’s philosophical categories with Christian doctrine. This, in general, is what has given shape to most of Western Christianity in the centuries following; and what has given us the ongoing battle between Calvinism and Arminianism (which is an interesting battle because they are just two different sides of the same doctrinal coin). To help clarify and establish what classical theism is; and my assertion to what effect classical theism has had on ‘your’ Christianity today, I am going to appeal to Kevin Vanhoozer’s comments on the same subject. Vanhoozer writes:

“Evangelical theologians live in the house that Thomas built.” While this is too simplistic, it is true that most evangelical theologians embrace some form of classical theism of which Thomas Aquinas was the leading medieval exponent. Classical theism began when Christian apologists of the second century somewhat necessarily used then dominant concepts of Greek philosophy to commend the faith, and the Scriptures, to the cultured despisers of religion. Theists define God as being of infinite perfection.: all-holy, all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere present.

Classical theism refers to what has long been presumed as a synthesis worked out in the ancient and medieval church between biblical Christianity and Greek philosophy, and in particular between “God” and Aristotle’s notion of the “Unmoved Mover” (or Uncaused Cause). The Unmoved Mover is a perfect being: self-sufficient, eternal, and pure actuality (actus purus). From the latter — that God has no unrealized potential — Aristotle deduced that the Unmoved Mover must be immutable, because any change would be either for better or worse, and a perfect being is already as good as it can, and will for ever, be. God must not therefore have a body, because all bodies can be moved, so God is not material but immaterial. So: God sets the world into motion yet nothing moves God.

Thomas Aquians did not appropriate Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover wholesale. He realized that philosophy (a.k.a. “natural theology”) takes us only so far. Reason yields knowledge concerning the world of nature and, by extension, its Creator, but only revelation gives knowledge of the realm of grace and hence of the Son and Spirit. Nevertheless, by employing Aristotelian categories (e.g. substance, form, essence) and by conceding some knowledge of God to reason alone, the die of classical theism was arguably cast.

The first part of Aquinas’s Summa discusses the “one God (de Deo Uno) and treats themes accessible to natural reason — doctrines that would be held in common by Christians, Jews, and Arabs alike. Here we find discussions of God’s existence, unity, nature, and attributes. Aquinas treats the “three persons” (de Deo Trino) second, when he turns to the truths of revelation. He consequently presents the divine attributes before he even begins referring to the Incarnation and passion of the Son; in brief, he has been read as thinking about God apart from the gospel.

Seven hundred years later Charles Hodge would define theism in a way that seems to recall Aquinas: God is the ens perfectissimum (“most perfect being”) and theism is “the doctrine of an extra-mundane, personal God, the creator, preserver, and governor of the world.” Hodge also cites the Westminster Catechism, which gives what is “[p]robably the best definition of God ever penned by man”: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” (Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The triune God of the Gospel, in The Cambridge Companion To Evangelical Theology, edited by Timothy Larsen and Daniel J. Treier, p. 19-20)

My personal chapter for our book, interestingly, develops some of what Vanhoozer here sketches in his own chapter (I hadn’t read this until after I had already submitted my chapter, I probably would’ve at least footnoted Vanhoozer here). Anyway, What I would like you to see is that there is a history; and there is also a linkage between Thomas Aquinas, and then through a post-Reformation theologian named Francis Turretin, and then to Charles Hodge who translated Turretin’s Latin ‘Elenctic Theology’ which became what he taught from, and the ground for most Reformed and Evangelical theologies following through even into the present. Classical Theism’s reach is deep and wide, and whether you know it or not; you most likely have been and/or are being affected by its reach right now.

There is no doubt that the so called Young, Restless, & Reformed like Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor and their mentors like Tim Keller, John Piper, D. A. Carson, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, et al. have all been heavily influenced by—in fact are steeped in it—by classical theism. This is the philosophical basis that has been given both academic and popular expression in what we know as Calvinism and Arminianism today. It will not be until someone grasps this, that there will be the ability present for pastors, theologians, and lay folk alike to disentangle the actual gospel from the captivity the Gospel has been in, in the clutches of classical theism.

Stay tuned for a brief engagement with Matt Chandler’s Calvinism as we watch a video interview of him with Piper on his appropriation of Calvinism; in the days to come. Not only will I use what we just described here as classical theism to understand what informs Chandler’s (et al.) Calvinism, but I will also expand the discussion out to critique something else that Chandler just barely mentions (I’ve heard him give a whole sermon on it in the past); that is, what he believes are ‘the two wills of God’—something Chandler feels he must have to deal with what he perceives as two mutually exclusive movements of God that cannot be reconciled without appealing to two wills. I will show how this comes from not only classical theism, but from an even more focused perspective; how it flows from the nominalist understanding of God’s ‘absolute power’ V. his ‘ordained power’. It would be great if Chandler and other guys in his movement would read along, but I doubt that! I hope you’ll read it though!!

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On Being a ‘Christian Theologian-Exegete’: Warfield, Ryrie versus “______________”

There is a certain methodology a theologian or exegete should follow if they want to be considered a Christian Theologian or Exegete. The methodology a Christian Theologian or Exegete should follow is one that principally starts with Jesus as the goal (telos) of their theological and exegetical work; one that sees Jesus as the inner-coherence and unity of meaning inherent to the Christian’s formal source of witness, the Bible. Insofar as the theologian and/or exegete proximates their work to this standard; then what they produce can be considered, Christian.

[I thought a good practice for me, here at the blog, would be to start my posts out with an intentional thesis statement. And so the above attempts to do that. Of course how I develop and defend said thesis may remain in an undeveloped state given time constraints, and the nature of blogging (at least for) itself.]

In thinking about this post I wanted to provide a counter-voice to the voice I want to feature as the featured voice for this post. I used to have an excellent quote on hand that would have done a great job in providing the foil I am looking for to at least illustrate my thesis statement above. The quote I once had (but has since been deleted from one of my multitudinous blogs) was from that stalwart Fundamentalist theologian B. B. Warfield of pre-Westminster Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary fame. In summary, what his quote stated was axiomatic for what provided the general shape of the ‘Christian’ Fundamentalist Faith; and that is that Christian Fundamentalism, according to one of her best (Warfield), was an Apologetic Faith. Meaning that contrary to the Liberal Theological tradition that was seeping into places like Warfield’s Princeton; that Warfield’s (Fundamentalist) Christianity was one that sought to meet Liberal Theologie’s claims upon their grounds. In other words, if the ground of ‘Liberal Theology’ was primarily one that found purchase from rationalistic and so called ‘man-centered’ ground (like positivism, historicism, pietism, etc.); then Fundamentalist Christianity was eager to meet this ‘problem’ by doing so on the same grounds. In brief (and this nut-shells that quote from Warfield I once had): the one who could out-think and out-argue the other (Liberal versus Fundy), wins! Warfield (and Fundamentalist, and even American Evangelicalism) attempted to defeat Liberal Christianity by adopting their principles of proof; by using positivistic logic; by seeking to establish the veracity of the Bible, and the miracles therein, thus providing ‘something’ upon which Christians could indubitably stand and believe. Warfield & co. were not alone in trying to preserve the integrity of “Conservative-Classical-Christianity;” the yester-year preceding someone like Warfield had seen an apologetic Christianity thrive and take shape as well. A Christianity wherein we could have something like a systematic theology entitled Enlectic Theology (Turretin’s — meaning apologetic or defensive theology). This ground swell provided a tradition that Warfield could appeal to, and in this tradition he was given a methodology that sought to provide proof of God’s existence through philosophical reasoning (in the Medieval era this was called the via negativa or negative theology).

The above serves as a brief sketch (longer than I wanted — and very oversimplified) of maybe an organic relationship that inhered between the 17th and late 19th early 20th centuries Anglo-European/American theological development. In this vein, and for this post, I thought I would take a look at an old Systematic Theology text-books we used during one of my under-grad experiences; Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology. I was not let down by the method and order that Ryrie appropriated for his “Theology.” It is one that he inherited from many in the Medieval-scholastic era; one that has pedigree with someone like Francis Turretin’s Enlectic Theology (and I mean in mode); and one that fulfills the on-going trajectory set by the Fundamentalist Warrior, B. B. Warfield. Starting in Ryrie’s Chapter 5, entitled Revelation of God, he starts his discussion out, on General Revelation, by providing the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God (a classical argument that argues for the existence of finite creation by positing the need for an infinite cause); then he gives us the Teleological Argument, the Moral Argument, and the infamous Ontological Argument — all classic philosophical proofs seeking to provide rational proof for the existence of God.

I sketch all of the above in order to provide a salient quote that throws the above approach into relief. Christian Theology does not start where Warfield or Ryrie started; it does not feel the need to prove the material content of what it seeks to provide grammar for. Christian Theology should assume (as the Scripture’s do) the triune God whom she worships, and this supposition should present us with the categories and theological furniture necessary to carry out the vocation of what it means to be a Christian Theologian or Exegete. In short, Apologetics should not provide the methodological ground for how we proceed in our Dogmatic reflection as Christians. If we are Christians we don’t need to prove to ourselves the belief that God is triune; our self-identity already presupposes said belief (and this is evidenced in the way that someone like the Apostle Paul wrote his epistles; he didn’t argue for the Trinity or the existence of God prior to penning his letters, he presupposes this as the reality that shapes his identity and thus the material that he exhorts his brothers and sisters through in the various churches he wrote to). With this is mind I have come across a great quote from someone who will remain un-named (you can try and guess who it is though 😉 ); and with this quote I will close:

[I]t is obvious that an adherent of some other faith might perhaps be completely convinced by the above account that what we have set forth is really the peculiar essence of Christianity, without being thereby so convinced that Christianity is actually the truth, as to be compelled to accept it. Everything we say in this place is relative to Dogmatics, and Dogmatics is only for Christians; and so this account is only for those who live within the pale of Christianity, and is intended only to give guidance, in the interests of Dogmatics, for determining whether the expressions of any religious consciousness are Christian or not, and whether the Christian quality is strongly expressed in them, or rather doubtfully. We entirely renounce all attempt to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity; and we presuppose, on the contrary, that every Christian, before he enters at all upon inquires of this kind, has already the inward certainty that his religion cannot taken any higher form than this. [ _______________ cited by Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 72]

I am withholding the name of the theologian cited, because it may be a source of stumbling for some; and thus cause them to not appreciate what he is communicating (I will say that it is not Karl Barth). Evangelical Calvinist theological-exegetical methodology operates from this posture. It seeks to follow a Christian methodology, like, for example, the Apostle Paul assumed in his writings. It is not our intention to prove God’s existence, the veracity of the Scriptures, etc. before we feel that we can then do theology or exegesis. Instead, as Christians, we recognize that our self-identity necessitates that we move and breathe as such; and this self-conscious reality has a dramatic impact (or should) upon how we proceed as theologians and exegetes. It is this movement that I believe allows someone to say, in general, that they are operating as a genuine Christian theologian or exegete. What do you think?