NEOPURITAN RESURGENCE: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
One of the biggest shakeups in the past 15-20 years in evangelicalism has occurred in the Southern Baptist Convention. It is called various things (depending on who you’re listening to), including “The Controversy” and “The Conservative Resurgence.” It started when inerrantists in the SBC fought to make the convention very conservative on the authority of Scripture.
But that was just the start. Collin Hansen, in his book Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists, interviewed Southern Seminary professor Tom Nettles, who wrote By His Grace and For His Glory: A Historical, Theological, and Practical Study of the Doctrines Of Grace in Baptist Life and explained that the SBC had solid Calvinist roots. This in spite of a long time in which the prevalent Southern Baptist motto was, “No creed but the Bible, no cause but Christ.” The Calvinists wanted to take their denomination back, and an early success was in electing Albert Mohler as president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky at the age of 33. As soon as he entered this office, Mohler drafted a policy that stated that the Seminary would only hire professors who agreed to sign an SBC’s Abstract of Principles. Those who refused to sign were dismissed or resigned. Much of the Abstract of Principles speaks about doctrines related to salvation. For instance, Principle IV is “Providence,” Principle V is “Election,” and Principle XI is “Justification.”
But as the Calvinists take more and more control, the SBC is losing more and more influence in the culture, though there may not be a one-to-one correlation. However, Mohler is not going to give up. Newsweek’s Jon Meacham says that “Al Mohler keeps vigil over the culture.” He refers to Mohler’s online column talking about new church planters where Mohler wrote, "This new generation of young pastors intends to push back against hell in bold and visionary ministry. Expect to see the sparks fly.”
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has become the stalwart of conservative Baptist Calvinism in America. It is very popular with young men seeking to be Reformed Baptist preachers in order to proclaim the Doctrines of Grace (though they may not hold to all five points of TULIP). For Southern Baptist Calvinists, SBTS is the best model for change in the denomination and for the country as a whole. The thinking is, Make Calvinistic pastors, have them preach Calvinism in the pulpits, and watch the nation be transformed.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite happened that way. Ed Stetzer reports that “the SBC declined again this year in both membership and baptisms.”
NEOCALVINIST RESURGENCE: Calvin College
A very telling difference between neopuritanism and neocalvinism is this: The resurgence of neocalvinism is not most acutely felt at a seminary, but at a college. The goal of neocalvinism is to transform the world through everyday Christians living out their faith in their vocations. Calvin College is the epitome of this kind of education.
Neocalvinists take seriously the “Cultural Mandate” of Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:15. Human beings, created in the image of God, are commanded to “fill the earth, subdue it, and rule” and to “cultivate” the good creation for the glory of God. For neocalvinists, the “Cultural Mandate” informs the Gospel as to its intention.
Al Wolters clarifies what this means:
In theological shorthand that intuition can be formulated in the phrase: "grace restores nature." This means simply that the new life brought about by redemption in Jesus Christ does not (A) stand in opposition to created reality, nor does it merely (B) supplement or (C) parallel it, but rather (D) seeks to penetrate and restore the reality of creational life. Redemption is a comprehensive salvage operation, the goal of which is nothing short of recovering all of life as it was meant to be lived according to God's creational design from the very beginning. On the question of the relationship between grace and nature (and thus Christ and culture, church and world, theology and philosophy), historic Christian orthodoxy has chosen for options A, B, C, or D. In my opinion, neocalvinism is a particularly strong and consistent manifestation of the D option in a modern western cultural context. It is characterized by both its strong allegiance to Scripture and its critical relevance to modern culture.
In my opinion, Neopuritanism struggles with choices A, B, C, and D in that it does not have a solid creational foundation to its theology. Therefore it wavers between standing in opposition to cultural realities and trying to penetrate and restore culture.
Also, neocalvinism is less militant than neopuritanism. The reason lies in the embrace of the doctrine of Common Grace. Common Grace is the non-saving favor of God to all humans; an operation of the Holy Spirit within even unbelievers which, without regenerating them, restrains sin in them so that they have the ability, by virtue of this grace of God, to do good in culture.
So here I'm making another nuanced difference: The “New Calvinists” (which I’ve identified as being better called “Neo-Puritans") see the hope for society in the change of individuals through personal salvation. They rally around the motto, “Change the world one soul at a time.” Thus, we see the emphasis on seminary training for Calvinist pastors who will start new churches and preach Calvinist doctrine.
The other “New Calvinists” (the ones that have been called neocalvinists for over 100 years) see the hope for society in Christian work to change societal structures and the culture itself. They train followers of Christ to live out a Christian worldview in every aspect of life so that culture itself reflects the redemption of God. They rally around the motto, “Every Square Inch” from Kuyper’s famous quote). Thus, the emphasis is on college education that trains for all vocations (as exemplified by Calvin College and neocalvinist ministries like CCO), and churches are seen as training centers for engaging society (as Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church has so elegantly done with its Center for Faith and Work).
Other posts in this series:
- Which is the new Calvinism? “Neo-Puritanism” or “Neo-Calvinism?”
- Deciphering the Nuanced Differences Between Neopuritanism and Neocalvinism
- John Piper and Tim Keller
- Jonathan Edwards and Abraham Kuyper
- Passion Conference and Jubilee Conference
- Mark Driscoll and Gabe Lyons