Are the Young/Restless/Reformed crowd jerks?

Or, to put a finer point on it, are we jerks more often than other guys are jerks?

The below started as a personal email to my friend James-Michael Smith, a college buddy whom I respect a great deal and with whom I often disagree on theological matters. JMS and I believe in a true “generous orthodoxy”: one in which we can both say “I think you’re wrong on this, and it matters,” and still be friends at the end of the day. At any rate, JMS asked if he could publish my email, then respond on his blog. I hope this can be helpful, if only as a demonstration of constructive theological discussion on the internet.

My words below are addressed to JMS, and can also be found at his blog. I’ll post his response here as well. Also, since I never get to write papers anymore I had some fun with this.


Historical Prologue

Much of the criticism of Rob Bell’s new book came from people in the Reformed camp. Most notably:

  • Justin Taylor quoted the publisher’s blurb and Bell’s video, calling the denial of hell “false doctrine.”
  • John Piper linked to Taylor’s post on Twitter, commenting “Farewell Rob Bell.”
  • Kevin DeYoung posted a long, detailed review of the book.

But the big story was more about the blogosphere’s reaction to the book than the book itself. Many criticized Taylor and others for commenting before the book was released. Once reviews came out, they were criticized for their alleged closed-mindedness. There was a common refrain: the young Calvinists are self-appointed doctrine police, quick to jump on anything they disagree with and pronounce it heresy. This post, which started as an email from me to James-Michael, is occasioned not by Bell’s book per se, but by this reaction to the Reformed crowd as a whole.

It has become conventional wisdom that “The Young/Restless/Reformed are jerks.” Like many stereotypes, this one is sometimes true. However, I suggest that many people outside the Reformed scene assume it when they read Reformed writers, although the evidence does not always support that conclusion, and in fact sometimes goes the other way.

Argument 1: Taylor et al were not being jerks toward Rob Bell.
Your chief angle on the Bell controversy has been the alleged eagerness of the YRR to pounce on anybody offering a different perspective. You’ve referred to JT’s post consistently as an example. Having read it several times, I just don’t see the meanness. I definitely see seriousness. If you wanted him to say “Bell says x, and that’s cool, whatevs,” he certainly wasn’t going to do that. But he doesn’t take potshots, he doesn’t use the word “heresy” (and neither did DeYoung, although you keep using it in your comments), and he doesn’t say “see, the Emergent guys are all pansies” or anything like that. He says 1) false doctrine is bad, 2) it’s better for guys to be honest about it, and 3) it sure looks like Rob Bell is embracing universalism. I know the “he hadn’t even read the book” angle, but he specifically says “if the publisher’s description is right,” then goes to the video of Bell talking, which Bell and his publisher definitely wanted people to watch and talk about.

On to Kevin DeYoung. His review is long, thorough, and very critical. He specifically describes the book as “heterodox.” Now, nobody uses that word by accident. It means you probably initially wanted to say “heresy,” but decided to be really careful. He uses the word “heresy” exactly once in the whole review, referring to universalism and “every other heresy.” He doesn’t make fun of Bell for being cool or edgy or Emergent; he deals with the merits of the book.

The bigger question is whether we should be worked up over this at all. Now, when Piper invited Rick Warren to speak at a conference, I don’t think that was worth getting worked up over. I think this is absolutely worth getting worked up over. The fact that others have embraced universalism, or inclusivism, does not make Bell’s view a legitimate strand of Christian orthodoxy. (That’s just the Bauer hypothesis; that the existence of non-orthodox thought means there’s no such thing as orthodoxy.) Universalism and inclusivism are bad doctrine, and they need to be called out for what they are. The fact that you’re willing to strongly critique dispensationalism (on which I agree with you), but chafe at these guys critiquing universalism, is strange to me.

Argument 2: Many non- or anti-Reformed writers can be jerks toward us.
You often link to Ben Witherington and Greg Boyd, two scholars you admire. I’ve read and used some of Witherington’s stuff, and he is indeed a good scholar. He’s also a jerk sometimes, particularly toward the Reformed. You may recall his spreading rumors about Grudem and the ESV a few years ago (for which he apologized, to his credit). He referred to Schreiner’s NT theology as a blot on God’s moral character. He spoke at RTS my first year, and I was excited that we’d brought in a respected voice from outside our tradition. Then he made biting, petty critiques of something he didn’t like, and my respect fell sharply.

Just last week, Witherington referred to Piper and Driscoll as representatives of “the hyper-Calvinist wing of the evangelical world“. Now this is a word with a definition. Hyper-Calvinism teaches that it’s improper to exhort nonbelievers to faith in Christ. It essentially says no evangelism, no missions. It’s roundly rejected by Calvinists, and specifically by John Piper. Witherington’s referring to Piper, Driscoll, and me as hyper-Calvinists either means 1) he doesn’t know what the word means or 2) he’s deliberately using it as a pejorative. Either one would be embarrassing, but the man’s a capable scholar and I just doubt that it’s #1.

The same could be said for Boyd, who, in an article you linked, equated Calvinism with determinism. Does he not know enough theology or philosophy to know the difference, even if he rejects them both? Of course he does. But he knows there’s rhetorical punch in equating the two. If John Piper wrote an article equating open theism and Arminianism, you would rightly be up in arms.

There are more examples. Roger Olson, who’s so disappointed that American evangelicals fuss over theology, wrote that he can’t tell the God of Calvinism apart from the devil. N. T. Wright can’t fathom how anybody might understand his work and just disagree, so whenever someone critiques him he just says they haven’t understood him. (D. A. Carson couldn’t understand you?) He has no problem with straw-man critiques either. I’m not the first person to point this out.

My point isn’t that these guys are bad or always wrong—they’re not—but that Reformed writers by no means have a monopoly on uncharitable language.

Reformed guys have the reputation of “attacking” those who differ from us. We certainly deserve it at times. But not only is the problem not limited to us, I’m not even sure it’s more true of us than it is any other crowd. Roger Olson says our God looks like the devil. Steve Chalke, quoted by Brian McLaren and many others, calls my view of the gospel “divine child abuse.” Rob Bell says my God isn’t good and can’t be trusted. These aren’t C- and D-level bloggers or commenters like me; these are respected guys publishing books.

So I suggest that you and others tend to jump on YRR guys for being mean, or uncharitable, or overly critical, while ignoring or downplaying the same tendency among guys that you like. Submitted for your consideration.


Sabbath thought for “professional Christians”

Pastors and others in ministry, for whom Sunday is the busiest work day, typically take another day (or half-day) off during the week. A few times I’ve heard people say “I take my Sabbath on Friday,” or something like that.

Minor quibble: I want to suggest we should take the extra day, but should not refer to it as a Sabbath. Sunday is the Sabbath*. The Fourth Commandment is not “Take a day off every week,” it’s “Honor the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

Keeping the day holy is about resting from things we normally do, but it’s not just about rest; it’s about setting the day apart, making it different. Sunday is the hardest day of my week, but I do try to prepare for it so that it can be as smooth as possible. And I do rest from the internet, housework, and whatever work isn’t necessary for the day. The phone usually stays upstairs until it’s time to get ready for worship.

The Sabbath is a weekly gift. Those of us who don’t have the day off do have to get creative with how we receive that gift, but with good preparation even a busy day can be holy. And, to some extent, restful– though I’m still taking my other day off.

*This post assumes my view that the Fourth Commandment is still valid, and that the Christian Sabbath moved from the seventh day of the week to the first. I’m not trying to defend that view here (I did write about it about it in the early days of the blog), though maybe I should soon.

Blog comment of the week

JT links to a WSJ article and asks “Why are we letting our daughters dress like prostitutes?”

A commenter points out that modesty and propriety are relative concepts (which is true to some extent, but…), and is answered by a mom:

[A]ny guy that tries to argue with any of my daughters that the way they dress is a “cultural construct” and simply a matter of social relativity is going to find his own body construct relatively-altered, courtesy of their Daddy.

Meet the new boss

In a delightful gift to lovers of irony worldwide, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and imperialist cowboy Barack Obama has launched the US into yet another war in yet another sovereign nation in the Middle East. Key difference: this time it’s to remove someone who nobody regards as a threat to the US.

Barack Obama, 19 March 2011:

Good afternoon, everybody. Today I authorized the Armed Forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya in support of an international effort to protect Libyan civilians. That action has now begun.

“In this effort, the United States is acting with a broad coalition that is committed to enforcing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which calls for the protection of the Libyan people. That coalition met in Paris today to send a unified message, and it brings together many of our European and Arab partners.

George W. Bush, 19 March 2003:

My fellow citizens, at this hour American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein’s ability to wage war. These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign.

More than 35 countries are giving crucial support, from the use of naval and air bases, to help with intelligence and logistics, to the deployment of combat units. Every nation in this coalition has chosen to bear the duty and share the honor of serving in our common defense.

Oh, and just for kicks and giggles, Barack Obama, December 2007:

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

One can only hope that there’s a brave state senator somewhere who, while not having to take a vote on the matter, will boldly declare his sense of outrage and moral superiority.

(PS This is quite possibly the right thing to do. And I’m sure it was a tough call. The President could, for once, show a modicum of human decency and acknowledge that others before him have had to make similar ones. I doubt W is sitting by the phone.)

My superpower, and two related stories

I have an interesting-but-not-all-that-useful superpower: The ability to remember with surprising specificity where I was the last time I heard a song. (This relates to my recent post Music = Home.)

It applies to some spoken-word recordings as well. For example, one day circa 2005, probably in the spring, I was out for a run and listening to a talk from the 2004 Desiring God National Conference, which was on “Sex and the Supremacy of Christ.” It was Piper’s Sunday morning sermon at the conclusion of the conference.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of the sermon was Piper talking about the supremacy and sovereignty of Christ. (You know, the Piper sermon where he talks about that.) But in this particular one, he actually spent 10 minutes or so listing all these aspects of Christ’s supremacy (his deity, his eternality, his knowledge, etc.), and then all these things he’s sovereign over (galaxies, atoms, governments, terrorists, etc.).

My short run in those days was a 2-mile loop in South Park. The first 3/4 mile was flat, but then there was this beast of a hill– not all that steep until the very end, but long– about a half mile. So as I approach the hill, Piper’s warming up with the supremacy section. Then I think, “He’s still going. This is pretty good.” I hit the hill and his volume and intensity are going up. Then he goes into the sovereignty section. He keeps going the whole time I’m climbing this hill, then right as I get to the top, hardest part of the run, he blows it up with the Kuyper quote that every self-respecting YRR guy has tattooed on his back:

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!”

I think I might have actually jumped and pumped my fists, Rocky-style. Man, that was a good run.

(Slightly cooler story: Another time I was listening to a bootleg from Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. At the end of the run I was on the beginning of the encore, and the band’s just sort of messing around, when suddenly Susan leads into a Wilson Pickett-esque “Hey Jude,” with horns and everything. It was so good that I ran an extra mile and a half.)

What it means to pray in Jesus’ name

I like how the Westminster Larger Catechism answers this question. We used it in worship a few weeks ago (lightly edited and broken into lines for readability).

To pray in the name of Christ is,
in obedience to His command,
and in confidence in His promises,
to ask mercy for His sake;
not by simply mentioning His name,
but by drawing our encouragement to pray,
and our boldness, strength, and hope of acceptance in prayer,
from Christ and His mediation.

“Go home to your friends”

Mark 5 tells of one of Jesus’ more dramatic exorcisms: a man with a “legion” of demons, who lived among the tombs, couldn’t be restrained even with chains, and ran around screaming and cutting himself with stones. Jesus casts the demons out of the man, but permits them to enter a nearby herd of pigs, which pigs immediately run down a hill into the sea and drown.

The man who’s been freed from this demonic oppression, not surprisingly, wants to join Jesus and the disciples. Jesus’ reply to him is kind of surprising.

As [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.

Lots of times when people become Christians, or when Christians begin to take Jesus more seriously, they can get restless. Could I really be serving God in the job I’m in, in the house I’m in? Sometimes we begin to think that to really serve God, to really be radically committed to Jesus, we need to hang it all up and go into some kind of vocational ministry.

Sometimes, for some people, that’s true. If God’s calling you to step out, then you better step out!

But a lot of the time, he wants us to do exactly what he told this man: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” If everybody becomes a pastor, the people at your office or in your class or playgroup or squash team or neighborhood might not have anyone to tell them how great God’s mercy is.


Do the young Reformed only see black & white?

My friend James-Michael Smith raised a question here last week that I think deserves a fuller answer, because it is an example of a regularly-heard complaint against young Reformed types.

Now I’m not interested in getting the young Reformed movement out of every critique from outside; we deserve lots of them. I do think some common critiques are overblown, though, and this is one.

In a comment on my Rob Bell post, JMS asked why guys like John Piper and Kevin DeYoung are so quick to write Bell off, while John Stott, a hero in the Reformed crowd who holds (“tentatively,” he says) to annihilationism, “gets a pass”. In a comment on another blog JMS gave C. S. Lewis as another example of someone loved by Reformed guys, but who held views that are outside the Reformed fold.

I trust JMS won’t be offended if I generalize a bit from his comment. The young Reformed crowd is sometimes accused of having tightly-defined circles of who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s bad and who’s good. Like most stereotypes, this one is true plenty of times. But I don’t think it holds as a defining characteristic.

Let’s stick with the example at hand. Are Piper and DeYoung inconsistent in criticizing Bell but not Stott or Lewis? In fact, no. I came up with a few examples off the top of my head in about 3 minutes (with verification from Google).

  • In 1992, one of Piper’s weekly letters to his church expressed his disappointment with Stott’s view on hell.
  • In 2009, Piper critiqued one aspect of Lewis’ writing on hell. (He linked to this article again last week.)
  • Last year DeYoung devoted a three-part post (link is to Part 1) to disagreeing with Stott over a much less important topic: gender roles in the church.
  • In January of this year– a few weeks before JMS said he gave Lewis a pass– DeYoung wrote an article with cautions on two big problems in Lewis’ Mere Christianity— a book he appreciates. One of them was Lewis’ inclusivism, which is more or less what Bell advocates in his new book.
  • Piper linked to DeYoung’s Lewis critique with the words, “Kevin DeYoung is more reliable than C.S. Lewis.”

We can go broader than this and look at the young Reformed scene in general. Mark Dever once publicly rebuked J. I. Packer, a friend and mentor, over his signing of Evangelicals and Catholics Together– at an event in Packer’s honor! Piper and Dever disagree strongly on whether paedobaptists should be allowed to join their Baptist churches. A few years ago Piper publicly cautioned Mark Driscoll about letting his “cleverness” get in the way of preaching the Gospel (Driscoll, while thanking him for the critique, said he wished it had been in private). John MacArthur is not shy about criticizing, well, anybody– including Driscoll and charismatics in general, yet has invited C. J. Mahaney to preach at his church. These are all guys who are “in,” yet aren’t “given a pass” when there’s disagreement.

Then we can get anecdotal. I went to a staunchly conservative Reformed seminary. My profs were not shy about expressing their opinions. But it’s not like they would only give somebody a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. One theology prof said he owed his soul, under God, to John Stott– he became a Christian reading Basic Christianity. In the next breath, he said Stott was dead wrong on hell, and that it was troubling. I remember at least 2 other professors saying similar things, specifically about Stott and his annihilationism.

I’m well over my word limit, but another example: N. T. Wright. Piper wrote a whole book against his New Perspective on Paul. The young Reformed crowd is largely dead set against the New Perspective, while many others take it as settled fact. If Reformed guys could only see black & white, one place where you’d definitely expect to see Wright on the black list would be my seminary. But the short take we were given was “He’s very helpful on many things; we have some disagreements with him on justification.” (Similarly, Piper’s interaction with him in The Future of Justification is thoughtful and courteous, appreciating some of his insights.)


So, no, we Reformed guys are not afraid to disagree with writers we love. What’s the difference between Stott or Lewis being wrong on hell and Bell being wrong on hell? With Stott and Lewis, it’s a flaw in an otherwise reliable guide. With Bell, it’s one more step on a bad trajectory.

Jesus: “I’ve bound the strong man.”

Upon being accused of having a demon, and using demonic power to cast out other demons, Jesus’ response in Mark 3 is familiar but confusing:

22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”  23 And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.  27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.

I’ve heard this verse used as a tactic in spiritual warfare: You speak to the “strong man” in a demonized person, binding him in Jesus’ name, so that you can get past the demonic influence and deal with the person directly.

I do believe there are people today who are oppressed by demons, just as there were in Jesus’ day, and that at times believers should cast out demons in Jesus’ name. But I don’t think Jesus is giving us tips here on how to do that. He’s telling us something bigger and better.

Let’s look at his argument. Remember, he’s answering an accusation: that his power to cast out demons comes from Satan. He gives two statements as a response:

  1. Satan can’t cast out Satan; if he were divided against himself his house could not stand (vv. 23-26). In other words, the accusation that Jesus uses Satan’s power to fight Satan is absurd on its face.
  2. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and take his property without first binding the strong man (v. 27).

Notice his use of house in both points. What’s clear is that Satan’s house is in trouble: he’s losing his kingdom, his influence. Jesus says the house isn’t crumbling because of an attack from the inside (point 1); instead, someone is coming in from the outside, binding the owner of the house, and taking his stuff (point 2). Jesus is saying, “I’ve bound the strong man.”

This interpretation makes the best sense of the situation: Jesus isn’t being asked how to cast out a demon; he’s being challenged on the authority by which he casts out demons. In response, he says in effect, “My power most assuredly doesn’t come from Satan. In fact, I’ve overpowered Satan, defeated him, and I’m bringing his whole house down.”

It also fits well with how Jesus describes his mission elsewhere:

  • In the parallel passage in Matthew, he says that his casting out of demons by the Spirit proves that “the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt 12:28).
  • In Luke 10, when the disciples return rejoicing that the demons submit to the name of Jesus, he replies “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). In other words, the demons submitting to Jesus’ name proves that Satan has been dethroned.
  • In John 12, as Jesus realizes that his death and resurrection are imminent, he says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31).

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has defeated Satan. Yes, he still “prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour,” but that’s because “he knows his time is short.” Our King’s victory– and therefore ours– is already accomplished. The strong man is bound, and very soon he will trouble us no longer.

Patting Jesus on the head

In Mark 3:21, Jesus’ family thinks he’s mentally ill. They come to take custody of him, which is the right thing for your family to do if you’re mentally ill.

In Mark 3:22, some of the scribes think Jesus is demon-possessed, and they let everybody know it: “He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”

That Mark places these two reactions together is no accident. His gospel is brief and highly selective; he’s not trying to write an exhaustive account. What’s his point?

Whether you reject Jesus with sympathy (perhaps as a good moral teacher who was tragically misunderstood) or with anger (perhaps as a demon or an outright fabrication) doesn’t matter. What matters is whether you accept him or reject him. As Doug Wilson puts it, “We don’t get to pat Jesus on the head.”