Sermon on Colossians 1:15-23 - The Supremacy of Jesus: Pursuing depth of spirituality the right way
Theological Reviews of The Shack by William P. Young

Putting the Conservative Reformed Theology movement (Piper, MacArthur, and Dever) in perspective

Summary of this post:

I think the Conservative Reformed Theology movement's emphasis on solid theology is good but I think there is a lot of other great theology being done today outside this movement. 

Why does the Conservative Reformed Theology movement matter?  

  1. Recently a reader of my blog from the UK emailed to ask me for seminary advice.  One of the things he mentioned was that one of his three favorite authors was John Piper
  2. Another friend recently told me that his congregation wished he preached more like John MacArthur
  3. Another friend who attends a United Methodist Church (not-Reformed) expressed her frustration with her own church and her appreciation for Mark Dever and his Reformed Theology
  4. One of my best friends attends Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

What do these four things all have in common?  Conservative Reformed Theology.   

Christianity Today's Collin Hansen described the movement in his September 2006 Christianity Today cover story positively as: "Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback—and shaking up the church."

Collin has now written a book called Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists (Mar 30, 2008) (which I haven't yet read).  Hansen covers the Passion Conference in Atlanta, John Piper's Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minnesota, Yale University's Jonathan Edwards Center, The Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville (Al Mohler), Covenant Life Church in Maryland (CJ Mahaney & Josh Harris), The New Attitude Conference in Louisville, and Mars Hill Church in Seattle (Mark Driscoll).

John Piper is perhaps the best known of these Conservative Reformed leaders and is also a leader in some organizations that are not explicitly Reformed but are strongly influenced by Conservative Reformed Theology:   

Piper's fans admire him for his passion and academic rigor.  Who doesn't like that? 

But problems develop when Piper's fans don't realize that the Conservative Reformed Theology movement is only one slice of the church-renewing substantive theology being done today in a variety of places in a variety of theological traditions. 

1. Conservative Reformed Theology is just one particular kind of Reformed Theology.

I call this Piper-associated movement "Conservative Reformed Theology," because there is Reformed Theology that is associated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), Princeton Theological Seminary, Jurgen Moltmann, Lesslie Newbigin, and Karl Barth which would not be related at all to the Conservative Reformed Theology of Piper and friends.   I use the adjective "Conservative" because this is the operative word within American theological circles.  It is left over from the Fundamentalist / Modernist and Conservative / Liberal controversies within the United States in the twentieth century.  It bothers me that the Piper movement sometimes seems to portray themselves as the only theological heirs of Calvin when there are many more "Reformed Theology," "contemporary Calvinist" and "evangelical Calvinist" theologians.

2. Much of the Conservative Reformed Theology movement is Baptist-leaning.

Some significant parts of the Piper / Dever /MacArthur / Mohler "Conservative Reformed Theology" are very Baptist (rather than Reformed in their polity).  For example, unlike Calvin and the Puritans they often cite, many embrace Believer's Baptism rather than Infant Baptism.  Non-Presbyterians Jonathan Edwards (Congregationalist) and Charles Spurgeon (Baptist) are some of the people these Baptist-like Conservative Reformed Theology people see as their theological fathers. 

3. Some of the Conservative Reformed Theology movement is Reformed in polity (that is, Presbyterian). 

But Piper and friends see theological kinship even with others who disagree with them about Baptism and other polity issues.  Piper writes, "I would gladly admit Ligon Duncan or Sinclair Ferguson or R. C. Sproul or Philip Ryken to membership at Bethlehem (if I were allowed by our constitution), and in doing so I would not be giving up my view on the proper nature of baptism" (from John Piper's dialogue with Wayne Grudem on infant baptism). As Piper indicates, there are people who are Reformed in their polity (church structure) who Piper sees as colleagues in the Conservative Reformed Theology movement.  Presbyterian Church of America people include Tim Keller and Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Westminster Theological Seminary, R.C. Sproul's church, Reformed Theological Seminary are not officially part of the Presbyterian Church of America but are part of the Conservative Reformed Theology movement. Michael Horton of Westminister Seminary California (Reformed Episcopal Church and United Reformed Churches in North America) and Modern Reformation is also associated with the what I am calling the Conservative Reformed Theology movement. 

All of that to say, that one of the main things that unites this disparate group is the Conservative part of their theology.  The "Reformed" part varies greatly.   

4. What the Conservative Reformed Theology people have in common is the "the study of doctrine" and particular emphases on substitutionary atonement and limiting women's roles in church leadership.

The two greatest "doctrines" that I hear unanimously emphasized by the Conservative Reformed Theology people are (1) an emphasis on substitutionary atonement and justification by faith (See Piper's book in response to N.T. Wright) as the uniquely true interpretation of the cross; and (2) opposition to women in church leadership.  Piper was one of the founders of Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood with his Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.  I see very little else that starkly differentiates the insiders of the Conservative Reformed Theology movement from those outside. 

I agree with them that the inerrancy of Scripture is not something that is unique to their movement. That doctrine is closely associated with places that are not explicitly Reformed like Dallas Theological Seminary.  Furthermore, there are many people those who agree with them about the inerrancy of Scripture but would argue the Bible describes the work of the cross with a variety of metaphors not just substitutionary atonement.  There are also those who would subscribe to inerrancy but would argue the Bible teaches ministry according to gifts regardless of gender.  See for example the work of Craig Keener, William Webb and Gordon Fee - exemplified in Discovering Biblical Equality.   

5. The Conservative Reformed Theology movement wants to see theological depth.  This goal is being pursued as well by theologians from other traditions. 

Hansen writes in the following quote that Calvinism does partly unify the Conservative Reformed Theology movement but that opposition to shallow theological thinking may be the real common ground. 

Perhaps an attraction to serious doctrine brought about 3,000 ministry leaders to Louisville in April for a Together for the Gospel conference. The conference's sponsors included Mohler and Mahaney, and Piper also spoke. Most of the audience were in their 20s and 30s. Each of the seven speakers holds to the five points of TULIP. Yet none of them spoke of Calvinism unless I asked about it. They did express worry about perceived evangelical accommodation to postmodernism and criticized churches for applying business models to ministry. They mostly joked about their many differences on such historically difficult issues as baptism, church government, eschatology, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They drew unity as Calvinist evangelicals from their concerns: with seeker churches, church-growth marketing, and manipulative revival techniques. Roger Olson, professor of theology at Truett Seminary, Baylor University, said more than just Calvinists worry about these problems. "A lot of us evangelical Arminians agree with them in their criticisms of popular folk religion," Olson said. "I agree with their basic theological underpinnings—that doctrine is important, that grace is the decisive factor in salvation, not a decision we make."

I agree with Olson that the Conservative Reformed Theology movement''s concern about the shallowness of much Christianity is not unique to them.  What I think the Conservative Reformed Theology people fail to recognize is that many other Christians are seeking to deepen churches but are drawing from different theological resources than they are.  Some of the Conservative Reformed Theology people like to cite Charles Spurgeon's quote: "It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else."  At Duke Divinity School, a United Methodist Church school, it is easy to see that there is much gospel work that does not call itself Calvinist.  It is remarkable to me how circumscribed these groups are. The Calvinists read Calvinist books.  The non-Calvinists can smell the Calvinists books a mile away and ignore them.   

In my limited knowledge of what is going on theologically, I would submit that the strengthening of the church theologically is being resourced by a variety of different movements today. 

  • The Conservative Reformed Theology people turn to Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon and the Puritans. 
  • Evangelicals and Biblical studies people look for more depth by turning to the Scriptures. Examples of this mentality are as diverse as N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, Scot McKnight, Walter Brueggemann, Eugene Peterson, Dallas Theological Seminary, Rob Bell, and the Evangelical Theological Society. 
  • Others look for answers in reading the Church Fathers, the Great Tradition and liturgy. Examples of this include Chris Hall, Thomas Oden, Bryan Litfin - see CT interview, Robert Webber, see Chris Armstrong's CT cover story, Warren Smith at Duke Divinity School, and Rowan Williams. 
  • Many post-liberal mainline theologians at Duke Divinity School and Princeton Theological Seminary turn to Karl Barth as a way of exploding liberal theology and forming a biblically-rooted theology.
  • Tony Jones of Emergent Village likes Jurgen Moltmann.  Brian McLaren draws eclectically from all of the above. 


This is my take!  This is my perception of what is going on in the theological landscape!  I have not read all of the books by the 100 or so people mentioned in this post!  I am happy to have my perception corrected by others who have carefully read particular people mentioned above.   My goal is to sketch the theological landscape and my hope is that my orienting might help some people understand where they are and perhaps where else they might want to explore!  Two years ago I wrote a post called Seminaries for Evangelicals which similarly aimed to help orient people about the seminary landscape however fallibly.   Grace and peace, andy

Related Reading:

a. Conservative Reformed Theology movement News
Justin Taylor often covers (he is like a reporter) what is happening among the Conservative Reformed Theology crowd at his Between Two Worlds blog.

b. Responses to the Conservative Reformed Theology movement
A guest blogger on Between Two Worlds, Thomas McCall, assistant professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, wrote a post April 29, 2008 called Two Cheers for the Resurgence of Calvinism in Evangelicalism: A Wesleyan-Arminian Perspective. McCall is not Reformed but appreciates much of what these young Calvinists are about.  Still he warns them about a few things.  Because of his appreciative but critical perspective, this is a very helpful way of seeing the movement in my opinion. 

On November 26, 2007, North Park New Testament professor Scot McKnight posted a letter from someone about his experience with some Conservative Reformed Theology people.  There were over 200 comments from people discussing the phenomenon.  See Letter about those pesky Calvinists

This week there has also been a five-part dialogue at Christianity Today:

Tony Jones and Collin Hansen find connections as they discuss each other's books and movements.
Collin Hansen and Tony Jones | posted 5/01/2008

c. Non-Reformed Theological Reflection
It is worth noting that there are explicitly non-Reformed theologians pushing for depth and vitality.  For example, in the blogosphere, there are some good United Methodist blogs worth watching:    

Adam Hamilton - Seeing Gray - megachurch UMC pastor in Kansas
Andrew Thompson - Gen-X Rising, UMC pastor and Th.D. student at Duke
Ben Witherington - Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary
Scott Jones - Kansas UMC Bishop Blogs and Columns
Will Willimon - A Peculiar Prophet - Alabama UMC Bishop

Many of the other blogs on my List of 80 Church Leadership Blogs I am watching would not call themselves Reformed or Arminian/Wesleyan categories.  They would probably call themselves "ecumenical," "evangelical," "emergent," "Anglican," "Baptist," "Presbyterian," or something else. 

d. More Conservative Reformed Theology links
From the Conservative Reformed Theology perspective, you might read Mark Dever's 10 post series entitled: Where'd All These Calvinists Come From?
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10

See also my post from two years ago February 14, 2006 John MacArthur Attacks the Emergent Church For Questioning the Clarity of the Scriptures