When the young neo-Evangelicals, Billy Graham, Carl F. H. Henry, & co. established Christianity Today in 1956 they did so to offer an alternative to the more liberal Christian Century magazine. In its early years there was a strong confessionally Reformed presence in the magazine as writers such as Gordon Clark, (Henry’s mentor), Corneilius Van Til, and G. C. Berkouwer appeared regularly. Further, though not confessionally or ecclesiastically Reformed, Henry was influenced by Reformed theology. In the fifty-three years since the relationship between broader evangelicalism and confessional Reformed Christianity has changed markedly.
For one thing, the influence among evangelicals of Old Princeton and Old Westminster has diminished considerably. Apart from J. I. Packer whose confessional Reformed credentials were stained by the Evangelicals and Catholics Together episode, and an occasional appearance by Westminster Seminary California’s Mike Horton (who ghosted as John Calvin for the 2009 Calvinpalooza in CT), confessional Reformed folk rarely appear in Christianity Today. The reality is that, considered proportionately, the odd appearance of the confessional Reformed types in CT is probably more proportional to their actual place within the broader evangelical world. The evangelical proletariat has achieved historical consciousness and they now know they have no need of their bourgeois oppressors. For more on the changes in relations between confessional Reformed Christians and the broader evangelical movement see Recovering the Reformed Confession.
At the same time confessional Reformed voices have been largely exiled from the flagship evangelical publication it is interesting to note Todd Billings’ recent essay in the pages of The Christian Century, “Calvin’s Comeback? The Irresistible Reformer.” Todd teaches at Western Theological Seminary (RCA) and is the author of the award-winning Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union With Christ (Oxford, 2007) which, along with Mike Horton’s Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ and Cornel Venema’s Accepted and Renewed in Christ (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007) offers a compelling alternative to the Gaffin-Garcia reading of Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ.
The CC essay is Todd’s response to the March piece in TIME discussing the so-called “New Calvinist” phenomenon. He notes that the TIME article captures
…a central theme of the new movement: a theology in which divine predestination and divine sovereignty are at the center. The New Calvinists’ emphasis on a God-centered gospel provides an alternative to the many forms of American religion that are preoccupied with the self. Instead, the New Calvinists delight in affirming God’s ultimate power in salvation and in God’s providential work.
He observes that for “the non-Reformed, TULIP provides a wonderfully convenient box into which Reformed theology can be placed—and criticized.” He raises the question whether the TULIP provides an “adequate or even accurate distillation of Reformed theology.” He reminds us that the TULIP is a modern summary of the Canons of the Synod of Dort, which were “never intended as a summary of Reformed theology.” Further, he argues, the TULIP acronym does not “not provide an accurate summary of Dort itself. While acronyms work well as memory aids, in this case the acronym is misleading on key points within the canons themselves.” He notes that the phrase “total depravity” tends to communicate misanthropy rather than the Reformed doctrine of sin. He charges that the expressions “limited atonement’ and “irresistible grace” are also liable to serious misunderstanding.
The greatest problem of the acronym TULIP is that it “perpetuates a basic misunderstanding about the Reformed tradition: that predestination is the center of Reformed theology from which all else flows.” Here Todd is echoing the criticism by Richard Muller and others against the “Central Dogma” theory of the history of doctrine, i.e., that the Lutheran “Central Dogma” was justification and the Reformed “Central Dogma” was predestination and that two distinct, parallel systems were deduced from these dogmas. This historiography has been thoroughly debunked but it continues to undergird the way many evangelicals and mainliners (and too many sideliners!) think about Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
In contrast to the caricature created by the TULIP Billings makes an argument that will be familiar to readers of RRC, namely, that there is much more to being Reformed, that to be Reformed is to be committed to a sacramental theology, to a “catholic” vision that connects the Reformed tradition to the whole church, and he argues less persuasively that it entails a “kingdom vision.” He says a, “Reformed view of the church avoids seeing it as a colony separated from society, or as the particular aspect of society that relates to ‘being religious.'” The truth of this claim depends on what one means by “church.” If by it one means “the visible, institutional, organized church” then his language is somewhat problematic. If,however, by “church” he means, “professing” Christians, then most would probably agree with him. The question of a sacred/secular distinction has been much controverted in this space. Todd’s identification of a Reformed “kingdom vision” with the “cultural mandate” is open to discussion and even debate. After the fall are they identical? See Calvin, Institutes 2.2.13, 20 where he clearly made a distinction between the “secular” and the “sacred” and associated the latter with the kingdom of God while not disparaging the goodness of the former.
We should certainly agree with Todd when he says the “New Calvinists pick the TULIP from the Reformed field, overlooking the other flowers. There is much besides the TULIP in this spacious field that has grown from the seed of God’s word.”
This is not to say that mainline has any clearer handle on what “Reformed” means than do the so-called “New Calvinists” or others who misappropriate the adjective “Reformed.” The mainline confusion over the definition of Reformed appears as part of a discussion of Jewish-Christian relations in a 2005 piece in The CC:
Bill Borrer…recalls a committee member charging that Avodat is not sufficiently Reformed—that is, aligned with traditional Presbyterian theology stemming from Calvin’s Reformation. When Borrer asked each committee member to define “Reformed,” however, he found there was no consensus. If denominational leaders cannot agree on what it means to be Reformed or Presbyterian, Borrer observed, how can they be sure Avodat is not?
Apparently the Reformed confession is no more influential in the mainline than it is among the so-called “New Calvinists.” In contrast, however, to both the mainline and the so-called “New Calvinists,” Todd’s essay is on the right track.