Scot McKnight and the "Neo-Reformed"

The reaction of the evangelical latitudinarians against the Young, Restless, and Reformed guys continues. Scot McKnight has been blogging about his blurb for N. T. Wright’s latest book. Justin Taylor has responded. This has been a topic on the HB before.  One of the commenters mentioned the essay, “Machen’s Warrior Children” as evidence that Reformed folk are inherently pugnacious. I reply below.

As one of Machen’s Warrior Children and happily so, I heartily agree with Mike Horton’s “Village Green” metaphor. This approach is the way to move beyond the question of “who is in charge of evangelicalism?” If it’s just a place to talk then no one is “in charge.” It’s ironic, however, that in that dialogue Roger Olson rejected the metaphor in favor of “the big tent”? Why? Because, arguably, the evangelical latitudinarians (e.g. Roger, Scot, and Frame) are now “in charge” of what remains of the movement. (See RRC, 212-20)

Further, we ought to consider Darryl Hart’s argument that there really is no such thing as “evangelicalism. There are too many particulars and not enough universals among contemporary evangelicals to form a coherent theological movement.

Were the Reformed confessionalists “contentious” in the 20th century? It depends upon who’s defining “contentious.” Pietists define it one way and confessionalists another. In the 20th century the effects of Modernity began to transform the American culture and mainline churches. That transformation created a more obvious antithesis between historic, confessional Reformed Christianity and the proposed alternatives. Working out and through those pressures created conflict.

One could argue that being contentious is obviously wrong but that “contending for the faith” (Jude 3; 1 Tim 6:12) is necessary and even required by holy Scripture.

Father Machen used to say, “fortiter in re, suaviter in modo” (“strongly in substance, winningly in manner”). Contemporary evangelicalism seem to have given up the “fortiter” bit and Scot and his allies are dreading dangerously close to falling away from the “suaviter” bit.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Dr. Clark:

    Scot McKnight may find it convenient to re-define terms in a way that favors his position, but it is rather disingenuous.

    He calls those of us who are opposed to lattitudinarianism “NeoReformed” when there is nothing “neo” about it. This can be demonstrated by asking a simple question: How open was Calvin to creating an “evangelical tent” that included Anabaptists and what would later be called Arminians? If that makes Calvin NeoReformed, who exactly qualifies as PaleoReformed?

    Best wishes,


  2. Hi David,

    In fairness to Scot, I doubt he’s thinking much about folks in the NAPARC world and he’s said on his blog that he doesn’t know much about Calvin. This is all about what is perceived by some to be a power struggle in “evangelicalism.” This struggle is particularly intense in the Southern Baptist Convention. I don’t see why the anti-predestinarians are uptight. The predestinarian or particular Baptists in the SBC control exactly one seminary out how many? Why is that so threatening to the General Baptists in the SBC? I don’t see big struggle in the E-Free and particularly I don’t see one in the Swedish Covenant churches. One suspects that, in broad evangelicalism, predestinarian people are supposed to be seen and not heard.

  3. Dear RSC,

    I’m not so sure that Darryl Hart’s argument about the incoherence of “evangelicalism” actually works. He looks at evangelicalism both sociologically (i.e. people who call themselves “evangelical”) and also confines it to the USA. However, if we defined reformed that way, it also would be incoherent, because Barth, Machen, and Schleiermacher all called themselves “reformed”.

    Most people who call themselves “evangelical” aren’t so historically. In other parts of the world, evangelicalism is understood along more historical lines. It makes thus for a very difficult discussion with words meaning different things to different people!

    Blessings, Marty.

  4. Marty,

    He didn’t claim to speak to/about evangelicals in places other than N. America did he? (He’s a scholar of American religion). That said, is English evangelicalism far behind the USA in its disintegration?

    What is are the genuinely universal “evangelical” doctrines in contemporary North American “evangelicalism?” I can find only one: a “personal encounter with the risen Christ.” Even ETS has only two: the Trinity and inerrancy. That’s pretty thin.

  5. The ETS only had the Trinity and inerrancy to define evangelical?? Uhm, wouldn’t that make Roman Catholics evangelical?

    • Well, on the surface it’s hard to see why not. Lots of Roman Catholics consider themselves “evangelical” now. Wheaton fired a prof for becoming Roman Catholic but it was controversial. Wheaton has a doctrinal standard but it’s not so unambiguously Protestant as to preclude RC faculty members. There are Greek Orthodox folk who regard themselves as “evangelical.” There’s a good argument to be made that evangelicalism after the first Great Awakening has little to do with historic Protestantism at all.

      The doctrinal and ecclesiastical minimalism combined with the strong pietist influence in contemporary evangelicalism is a recipe for the sort of confusion that reigns. As I noted in RRC one can deny the omniscience of God or affirm it, deny justification sola fide or affirm it, deny sola Scriptura or affirm it, deny inerrancy or affirm it, deny the historic doctrine of the trinity or affirm it etc and still be “evangelical.”

  6. Again, this is to miss the point. Just because someone wants to call themselves “evangelical” it doesn’t make them evangelical–just like to call oneself “reformed” doesn’t either. Schleiermacher and Barth called themselves “reformed”. Some of the current Princeton theologians call themselves “reformed”.

    The issue hinges on what one means by historic evangelicalism. A good place to start is The Emergence of Evangelicalism ed. by Haykin and Stewart.

  7. Marty,

    I agree that, defined historically, many “evangelicals” are not “evangelical” at all. I like to distinguish between being “evangelical” and being “an evangelical.” I think that we can hold on to the adjective “evangelical” in the same way we can hold on to the adjective “catholic.”

  8. Scott,

    I’m happy to have Machen’s warrior children keeping watch, in the battles that I have to ocassionally fight, we could sure use them. But my problem is that some of these children have decided to try and purge Jerusalem of the folk they don’t like when they should be getting ready to repel the Romans who are setting siege to the city. For instance, Peter Enns, and N.T. Wright for all of their failings (and I don’t deny them) are not the big villains. I just wish Machen’s warrior children would spend more time fighting the real villains (religious pluralism, pansexuality, moral relativism, worldliness) than shooting co-belligerents in the back. In the USA you have the luxury of being able to divide into groups over secondary matters confident that you’ll still have big numbers on your side. In the rest of the world we don’t have this luxury and we have to major on the majors. I need help to stop the Romans from sacking cities from Asia to Europe, the last thing I need is having to watch my back that Machen’s warrior children are about to hamstring me because I didn’t cite enough Warfield in my doctrine of Scripture or because I dared to say that justification has a horizontal dimension. Can you appreciate the concern?

    On the unity of evangelicalism I would highly recommend the book by Packer and Oden, “One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus” as a good read. Evangelicalism is not an entirely nebulous entity (depending on how you definine it), but is one body with many parts. It is available on-line if you search my blog.

    • Mike,

      This is a two-front war. Before all Christians are the pressures created by the apparent decline of the culture and the growing antithesis between belief and unbelief. There is a second, however, and that is to prevent the adoption of lowest-common denominator evangelicalism in place of authentic, confessional Reformed Christianity. The only way we can be of use in the first battle is to maintain our confessional Reformed identity.

      Pete was teaching at a confessional Reformed school. He knew that when he took the job. There are lots of broad evangelical schools where he can teach his view of Scripture but WTS isn’t one of them. He can still help lead the battle (if he wants to) against the erosion of theism but not whilst drawing a salary at a confessional Reformed school and at the expense of the Reformed confession.

      The great enemy “out there,” the bogey man of cultural collapse may be used to justify any number of things. Well, It’s the same tune I hear from the FV. “We shouldn’t be fighting over this while the culture is….” Nonsense. The only thing we have to offer to the collapsing culture (and the broad evangelicals who seem to be bent on following the culture over the cliff) is an unadulterated doctrine of justification. The history is that the fellows who take the trajectory that Pete is taking don’t fight the first battle very long before they join the other side.

      In my view, being confessionally Reformed isn’t a “second blessing.” As regards the first front, I’m not demanding that the evangelicals all agree with me but I am insisting that those folk who call themselves Reformed actually be Reformed as defined by our confession. Our covenant theology and doctrine of justification are quite plain for anyone with enough sense to read our confessions.

      Finally, the doctrines of covenant and justification or the doctrine of Scripture, these are not “secondary matters.” Who gets to say what the “majors” are? The folks who don’t believe them any more? One benefit of Mike Horton’s village Green metaphor is that I don’t have to sign on to a lowest common denominator theology that includes Arminianism (Oden). Tom is a casual friend and a terrific guy but he wouldn’t be allowed at the communion table in my congregation! I’m happy to hang out with him at conferences and have dinner with him (as I have). That’s what one does on a village green.

      If I have to choose between being one of Machen’s Warrior Children and one of Eerdmans’ Latitudinarian Children (ELC) the choice is clear. The folks that followed Charles Eerdman don’t believe anything any more. The folks who compromised in the 20s, who played “nice,” who “got along,” who set aside their Reformed distinctives “for the greater good,” where are they? What happened to them? They were subsumed into the broader evangelical blob which morphed into an indistinct mass of moralism (don’t drink, don’t smoke, vote this way yaddah, yaddah, yaddah).

      One distinction that you overlook is the distinction between the two kingdoms. As a citizen in two kingdoms I don’t need to compromise my theology in order to cooperate with a broad range of folks, as a private person, on social questions. As a Christian and a citizen in the heavenly kingdom my mandate is clear: advance the kingdom with the King’s royal Word (law and gospel), the King’s royal signs and seals, and using the keys he gave us.

  9. MB
    The doctrines of Inerrancy and Justification are not worth quibbling over? I am sorry, but as card carrying member of the ‘Das Machen’ fan club and vice president of Bennie Warfield society , I must demur.

  10. Scott,

    I can agree on not going for the lowest common denominator and entertaining a wishy washy theological centre for the sake of an overly flexible unity. But as for the rest, I shall just have to politely say that I think we are singing off two different sheets of gospel music!

    Then again I have to ask:

    1. Would you give Al Mohler communion?

    2. How can the “confessions” be the bottom line? Where was your Church before Westminster? Have you switched a Catholic ecclesiology (in the good sense) for a sectarian one?

    3. If this is a two-front war, then, are not Baptists, Arminians, Anglicans, EPC etc. your enemies just as much as the atheists, secularizers, ultra-liberals? All analogies break down of course, but you only fight enemies in a war.

    • Mike,

      There’s a division of opinion among American confessional Reformed folk over whether to commune Baptists. My congregation has adopted the policy of the Synod of Dort as I’ve already mentioned.

      The rhetoric of the question is meant to make it difficult for me to say no. If I say then I’m a bad guy for refusing to commune and obviously pious guy like Al Mohler or Mark Dever. More to the point, why would Al Mohler want to commune with a bunch of people whom he regards as unbaptized? Normally baptism is a prerequisite for communion, even in Baptist churches.

      If you’ll read RRC you’ll see that I use the noun “confession” broadly and narrowly. I’m not claiming that the confession is the bottom line for catholicity but for defining the adjective “Reformed.”

      I’m surprised to see you asking the papist question: where was your church…? Same place it’s always been. We confess and believe the holy catholic church. I demonstrate in my lectures on the ancient and medieval church that the Reformed faith is a genuinely catholic faith. We were just discussing the disagreement among 13th century canonists over the interpretation of Matt 16 — several of which anticipated the Reformation reading by several centuries. We confessional Protestants are members of the holy catholic church. With Perkins we don’t accept Rome as the definition of catholicity. We see her as a sect who has condemned the gospel! (never a mark of the church, that).

      As to the two front war, sure folks who actually believe what the Reformed churches confess necessarily reject what the Baptists, Arminians et al confess. So what?

  11. R. Scott Clark: “The doctrinal and ecclesiastical minimalism combined with the strong pietist influence in contemporary evangelicalism is a recipe for the sort of confusion that reigns.”

    I don’t disagree. Yet influential pastors, writers, and professors do advocate this “recipe”. What do you think of these comments by Professor Dan Wallace vis-a-vis your critique about doctrinal and ecclesiastical minimalism?

    Dan Wallace: “Jason, I fully agree with your minimum requirements of a Christian.”

    Jason: “Dan, this is why I have my “minimum requirements” of a Christian. As long as a person has pledged their allegiance to Jesus as Lord, accepts his sacrifice as the only way of satisfying God’s justice, and accepts the historical validity of the Resurrection then to my mind they are Christian enough for us to share fellowship. This of course leaves many liberal clergy out, but then it should. The divisions that people make such a fuss about leave me cold.”

    Read it all at 51% Protestant.

    • TU&XD

      Why the anonymity?

      Wallace isn’t Reformed, so far as I know. He’s still operating on the old “liberal v conservative” paradigm. I would rather analyze American Christianity on a different paradigm: confessional v non-confessional. Most American evangelicals are non-confessional which means they make it up as they go along (as the Spirit leads). Confessional Reformed folk don’t. We read the Scriptures with the church. We confess that reading on the most important issues in churchly documents.

      To be sure there are lots of American Presbyterians who would agree with Wallace about the standard for communion. My ecclesiastical tradition has historically held a higher standard for communion.

      With McKnight et al we’re not talking about communion are we? We’re talking about who qualifies as an “evangelical” and who are the gatekeepers and whether there should be gates etc. That’s a different discussion.

  12. Scott,

    I think your last post may get at some of what may drive the comments that Scot McKnight has made. First, regarding Peter Enns, is there no place for critique from within for a confessional Reformed school? How else is the adequacy of a doctrine or a theological system to be tested? By what means can an institution discover if it is mistaken?

    Second and much more serious, Thomas Oden could be denied the bread and the cup? I’m not quite sure what to make of this. This seems to throw us back upon ourselves to be responsible to ensure that we are doctrinally acceptable to God. Does not the sacrament do the exact opposite by inviting us to look away to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ? Does not Paul’s robust doctrine of justification result in his rebuke of Peter’s not breaking bread with the Gentiles at Antioch?

    My sense is that Scot has identified an ethos that he finds problematic (as I do), one that would lead to Enns’s dismissal and one where Thomas Oden would not be welcome at the table.

    • Alan,

      WTS/P is a confessional school founded by confessionalist and confessional folk. Confessions are a boundary. How does one challenge boundaries? By publishing a controversial book that subverts the very foundation of the school and its boundaries or by initiating an internal dialogue? The latter is much wiser than the former. Pete put a gun to the school’s head. He gambled that he could undermine the very foundation of the school and get away with it. Gamblers usually lose and he did.

      See RRC where I discuss how confessions may (and ought!) to be revised. We have a process.

      As to Oden and the church, well, I’m a man under authority. Our Belgic Confession stipulates who may come to the table in a Reformed Church. The Synod of Dort spoke to this in the post-Acta. Baptists don’t think that I’m baptized but no one is offended by that! Why is that okay but we can’t fence the table in a Reformed congregation? Why does Reformed piety have to conform to Anabaptist or pietist standards?

      It’s not about persons. It’s about principles and confession. Confessional Lutherans don’t commune anyone but confessional Lutherans. They act on principle. They don’t care if they don’t seem like nice evangelicals. I think Reformed folk should take note.

  13. I just wish Machen’s warrior children would spend more time fighting the real villains (religious pluralism, pansexuality, moral relativism, worldliness) than shooting co-belligerents in the back.

    Mike Bird,

    In light of something like 1 Cor. 5 (especially v. 12), and to the extent that these are all things which seem to be marks of the outside world, as well as the general NT thrust where speakers seem to only have “their own” in mind, I wonder if you might unpack this sort of comment? Is Paul shooting co-belligerents in the back who have bewitched the (foolish) Galatians? And by “worldliness” do you mean the confusion of the Pauline eschatology which pits this age against the coming one, or something to do with what the pietsist old-timers called “worldly amusements,” you know, dice and whiskey and girls doing flips on movie screens?

  14. Scott,

    Thanks for your reply. Was not Peter’s book the initiation of a dialog? I guess I have a difficult time understanding as to why the book (albeit controversial) was seen as being subversive or as having crossed a boundary. It raises the question as to who are the true confessional folk. The faculty? The Board? The donors? Who owns the thought of the institution? To some, the gun to the head may have been a .357 Magnum. To others, it may have merely been a pop-gun.

    Regarding Oden, is he not one of the baptized? I’m not sure what exactly disqualifies him. I’m sure you would agree that indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ and therefore we have fellowship with Tom Oden. So then why the fence? There comes a time where principles and confessions must be questioned to see if indeed they do accurately and adequately reflect the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  15. Alan,

    WTS’s past and future are closely tied to the doctrine of Scripture. One does not begin a dialogue (at least not helpfully) but publishing a work that calls into question a fundamental part of the doctrine and identity of the school.

    If one is genuinely interested in dialogue, one writes a paper and delivers it to the faculty and there is give and take. That is dialogue. Undermining the stated doctrine of the school in class and in public is not genuinely dialogical nor is it collegial.

    Tom Oden is one of the baptized but he is also an avowed Arminian. We had a Synod to address that issue. It’s called the Synod of Dort.

    We don’t commune lots of Baptized persons, including Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. There is a higher standard for communion in most Dutch Reformed Churches than Baptism.

    The difference is that this is for us about the doctrine of the visible church not the church considered in its invisible aspect. It’s not our business to judge who is and isn’t elect or who and isn’t a member of the holy catholic church. That belongs to God.

    It does belong to the visible church to distinguish between one profession of faith or one church membership and another. One chief difference between Reformed confessionalists and broad evangelicals is the doctrine of the visible church and sacraments.

    After all, I doubt that Mark Dever wouldn’t commune me. Why should he? In his eyes, I’m not baptized. To his credit he has a high (Baptist) doctrine of the visible church and sacraments.

    Finally, this isn’t a matter of private judgment. It’s a matter of public, ecclesiastical judgments. As I say, this was decided at Dort a long time ago and on a sound basis.

  16. Dear Professor Clark,

    Out of speculative curiosity, do you think Professor McKnight would regard you as being one of those “Neo-Reformed” that he is writing about?

Comments are closed.