The Narcissism of Evangelical Latitudinarianism


This essay was written before I published Recovering the Reformed Confession (2008), which, remarkably and quite unexpectedly, remains in print. In it I interacted with a book review published in Christianity Today which serves as a symbol of the way Pietists and modern evangelicals have approached theology. It is presented again, updated somewhat, as an opportunity to consider some perennial issues for Reformed Christians, who constitute a small minority, in a sea of broad, latitudinarian evangelicals. Since this essay first appeared I have completed a popular commentary on the Canons of Dort and am in the process of completing a Heidelcast series on the Canons of Dort. See the resources linked below for more on the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement and the Synod of Dort.

In a recent book review published in Christianity Today, David Neff interacts with Roger Olson’s argument that Arminians are the victims of mean Calvinists. Neff says, “Olson, responding to a handful of contemporary Reformed critics who exclude Arminians from the evangelical family, asserts that real Arminian theology is, historically speaking, a form of Calvinism.” He also adds that Olson is “responding to a handful of contemporary Reformed critics who exclude Arminians from the evangelical family…”. Neff points to Freud’s phrase,”the narcissism of small differences,” adding “We all want to feel special. Thus, we often attack those whose ideas are closest to us. Olson sees no virtue in Calvinists and Arminians treating each other as pariahs, and he pleads for understanding and cooperation.” He writes, “I agree. As an evangelical in a theologically liberal denomination, I embrace anyone who believes in total depravity, the priority of God’s saving grace over human response, and the affirmation, as Olson puts it, that ‘the saved person cannot boast because even faith is a gift of God.'”

Olson’s argument and Neff’s response says something about the way evangelicals relate to Reformed theology. They

It is true Arminianism is, historically considered, organically related to Reformed theology and to the Reformed churches, but Neff omits a crucial fact when he says that Arminianism “is a form of Calvinism,” and this omission says volumes about the nature of contemporary evangelicalism. As I pointed out in my review of Olson’s award-winning historical theology, the only reason the Synod of Dort assembled was to respond to the subversion of the gospel propounded from within the Reformed churches by the Remonstrants. It is the Reformed confessions that define the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformed churches. The Reformed churches sent delegates from across Europe and from England to the Netherlands to face the crisis created by the Remonstrants. They heard the Remonstrants at length. At times, at the Synod of Dort, it was not the Calvinists oppressing the Arminians, it was the incredibly long speeches by the Remonstrant Episcopius oppressing the Calvinists. They evaluated the Remonstrant claims, rejected them, and confessed together that Arminianism is not Reformed. Indeed, Synod used the word heresy several times to characterize the Remonstrant theology.

Therefore, Arminianism was not Reformed in 1619 and it has not become Reformed since. It was and remains in all its forms fundamentally a deviant movement relative to Reformed theology. It is an anti-Protestant movement. It subverts the doctrine of justification as much as it does the doctrine of predestination. Insofar as it was built on Arminius’ appropriation of Molina’s doctrine of middle knowledge and Gabriel Biel’s Pelagian theology (Synod also used that adjective to describe the Remonstrant theology) it was retrograde movement away from the Reformation. When Arminius and Episcopius spoke of “grace” and “faith” they did not mean by them what the Reformation meant by them. Bob Godfrey is correct. The Synod of Dort was Saving the Reformation.

It is striking that Neff overlooks the international consensus of the Reformed Churches reached at Dort as if it never happened. I suppose it should not be too surprising since the confessional Reformed churches were largely routed in the 20th century in the mainline (where Neff lives ecclesiastically), but there are still some of us who still believe and confess these documents. His comments also ignore the fact that in the early 17th century, there was no such thing as “evangelicalism,” as we know it today. There were “evangelicals,” i.e., Protestants who confessed the historic Protestant faith. There were Remonstrants, i.e., those who dissented in important ways from the faith confessed by the Reformed churches and that’s the point. The Reformed faith was confessed formally, constitutionally, as a covenant with one another before God and it was confessed by churches and as churches. It is not surprising that Neff overlooks these two ideas in his endorsement of Olson’s ostensibly irenic program. Neo-evangelicalism has been, since Carl Henry inaugurated it in the 1940’s an intentionally church-less, confessionally minimal (the statement of faith of the Evangelical Theological Society contains only two points, the Trinity and biblical inerrancy, the latter now being augmented by the Chicago Statement on inerrancy) movement.

In contrast, Reformed theology, piety, and practice has always been intentionally churchly and confessionally maximal. From 1523 to 1647 we wrote and published and adopted no less than one significant confession of faith every six years. If we consider the minor confessions (now forgotten) the frequency increases. We confess that Christ instituted a true, visible church to which he has entrusted the preaching of the gospel, the means of grace, and discipline. Evangelicalism, as we know it today, is the wild child of the 18th-century and 19th-century trans-ecclesial, trans-confessional, and often anti-ecclesial, anti-confessional and enthusiastic revivals. Modern, revivalist, evangelicalism and confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice, are two different approaches to Christianity.

He also seems to want to reduce the conflict between Arminians and confessional Calvinists to a matter of evangelical politics. As a confessional Calvinist I hereby promise that I do not want to exclude the Arminians from Evangelicalism. They can have it as it is currently configured. I don’t know if Neff has read the exchange in The Christian Scholar’s Review of a few years ago between Mike Horton and Roger Olson, but in it Mike proposed that, instead of thinking of evangelicalism (or ETS) as a sort of grand quasi-ecclesial assembly, which is bound to create these arguments about who is “in” and who is “out” and who is “winning” and who is “losing,” we should agree to think of Evangelicalism as a village green where folks from different ecclesiastical traditions with a common interest in the Bible might gather and talk. After all, no one (except perhaps the homeless) actually lives on the village green. We do our worshiping in our churches. The village green is not a church. It is a commons. Ironically, however, Olson rejected this proposal in favor of the reigning metaphor of the Big Tent. Doctrinal minimalism reigns and power struggles continue in the Big Tent. Someone has to be a gate-keeper and someone has to be in charge. So, as it turns out, maybe Roger is not so much the oppressed as oppressor? I am trying to get out of his big tent (he can have it) and go hang out on the village green (maybe to talk with the emergent guys lighting candles there?) and Roger does  not seem to want to let me out.

Part of what Neff is about is politics. This is all really about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention and the future of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is about 60 million people in North America. The Southern Baptist Convention is nominally 16–18 million folks, so they constitute about 1/3 of the movement. To a certain degree, as goes the SBC, so goes evangelicalism. The rest of the evangelicals are scattered among other denominations, including mainline denominations, and house churches and tent meetings. The recent Christianity Today cover story about the Young, Restless and Reformed movement demonstrated the broad evangelical concern over the potentially growing influence of predestinarian Baptists such as Mark Dever and John Piper. In the world of the broad evangelical coalition it is okay to hang out in the mainline but it is threatening to form an Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals or to call for a Modern Reformation.

His perception of the relative importance of the differences between Reformed and Arminian theology is skewed by the fact that the mainline is intentionally non-confessional. They are intentionally inclusive (see Lefferts Loetscher, The Broadening Church). They are intentionally pluralist and practically non-confessional. The only universal that unites everyone in any mainline denomination is that they all, on some level, love Jesus. As J. Gresham Machen noted in 1923, it may not even be the same Jesus, but they all love him, whoever he may be to you. They all love religious experience whether it be the Schleiermachian quest to replicate Jesus’ religious experience of divine dependence or the evangelical quiet time. This approach to the faith isn’t Reformed nor is it compatible with confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

Finally, Neff’s plea that we should embrace anyone who holds total depravity and the priority of grace over human response is telling. He has just embraced the Council of Trent and that was the point of the Synod of Dort. It is not enough simply to affirm depravity. Arminius affirmed a version of the doctrine of depravity but the Reformed churches rejected that version of the doctrine of depravity because what it gave with the right hand, it took away with the left. As it turned out, sinners are not so depraved as to be unable to cooperate with grace (and, in Remonstrant theology, grace is not grace, it is nature). It is not enough to affirm the priority of grace. Arminius did that too, but he modified it by adding, as Trent did, the necessity of human cooperation with grace. He affirmed faith, but he modified it so that it was no longer, in the act of justification, solely “resting and relying” on Christ and his finished work. He included in faith Spirit-wrought sanctity and human cooperation. Election is no longer unconditional, and in that case, grace is no longer grace.

What Neff is pleading for is exactly the thing that confessional Reformed folk need to flee as fast and as far as they can: latitudinarianism. My colleague Julius Kim has done good work on this topic and he reflects on the history and nature of latitudinarianism in his chapter in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. The Latitudinarians opened the way for the wrecking of the church of England. I, for one, am grateful that the Synod of Dort did not conclude that there is a “real” underlying agreement between the Remonstrants and the Reformed confession.

In point of fact, Reformed churches are not latitudinarian. They are not tolerant of gross errors nor should we be.

As to who is oppressing whom, I found it amusing when Olson first published his essay in Christianity Today complaining about being hated by Calvinists. That sounded to me like the guy in the oval office complaining that the folks in Uganda were throwing rocks at him. Olson may feel oppressed (in Waco?) but he gets to complain about it from the loudest microphone in evangelicalism: in the pages of Christianity Today. According to their rate sheet they claim 150,000 subscribers and a readership of 315,000.

As far as historical distortion goes, if we are looking for victims here, it seems to me that confessional Reformed theology has taken a pretty serious beating in physically (we were actually beaten for being Reformed) and historiographically. Where is the French Reformed church? They were martyred. When was the last time “Arminian” was used pejoratively in the mass media? Now, do the same search for “Calvinist” or “Puritan” and see what happens.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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