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.


5 thoughts on “Do the young Reformed only see black & white?

  1. I think one cause for the constant refrain of “young Reformed types are so mean” is that Reformational thinking is just not as focused on niceness as is contemporary evangelicalism.

    True love isn’t always “nice.” It doesn’t act unbecomingly (and here we often fail!) But, true love will often fail the “to be a Christian means to be the nicest guy in the room” standard which is promoted by many today.

  2. Jake- I have to get some more context on the quote by piper about deyoung being more reliable than Lewis…I won’t assume anything until you let me know, but at first glance, I am nervous….

  3. Clay-
    DeYoung’s article expresses appreciation for Mere Xianity,but also explains a couple of areas where Lewis is fuzzy or off biblically. I take Piper to mean that DeYoung is more consistently reliable theologically than Lewis.

    Piper loves Lewis, DeYoung loves Lewis, most Reformed folks love Lewis. (I love Lewis.) But he has some soft spots theologically (not to detract from how incredible he is on most things.) Most Reformed people note this, which is my point here– it’s not like we always ignore areas of disagreement with our heroes, and train the guns on everybody else.

  4. Jake,
    Thanks for this response. I think my biggest problem is that Kevin and the Gospel Coalition company warn of the dangers and heresy of Rob and others OVER THE SAME ISSUES that they only critique Lewis, Stott and others over. In other words, I would not have had a problem if Kevin or Justin or even John Piper had at least mentioned somewhere in all of this hoopla that what Rob is teaching has already been taught–and rejected by them–by Lewis and Stott, among others.

    But by not mentioning it or giving the greater context of decades of Evangelical disagreement on soteriology, theories of atonement or duration of eternal punishment, their words leave the casual reader and average Christian with the impression that Rob is raising these questions WHICH NO OTHER ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS have ever raised and therefore he must be bid “farewell.” Those who don’t take the time to look up the things you have noted above and have seen that the same things Rob is getting flack for are also things Stott and Lewis have gotten flack for are left thinking Bell is some Johnny-come-lately “Liberal” who’s left the Christian faith altogether.

    To disagree so vehemently and publicly, and to basically say that he has left the orthodox apostolic faith once for all entrusted to the saints and is in reality a false teacher masquerading as an angel of light (as Justin Taylor initially did, but then retracted and as Kevin DeYoung’s full review of the book ends up doing) is not wrong because it’s “mean spirited” or “argumentative”…it’s wrong because by not offering “full disclosure” about how solid evangelical figures such as Stott and Lewis have held similar beliefs without being dismissed from the fold, it is, in my opinion, irresponsible at best and intellectually dishonest at worst (albeit unintentionally, due to the favor which Lewis and Stott have earned but which Bell has not) to dismiss and malign Rob Bell in such a way.

    That is my critique of their critique…which I leave for you to critique! :)

    Blessings brother,

    • Thanks, JM. Not expecting us to get on the same page, but I appreciate your perspective. A few bullet points.

      – This might seem like hair-splitting, but I just read through all of Taylor’s, DeYoung’s and Piper’s articles (Piper’s being three words). As far as I could tell (and I word-searched), not one of them used the word “heresy” or “heretic”. They do use the phrase “false doctrine,” and I think that’s entirely fair. DeYoung’s review said “heterodox.” Now if you use that word in a sentence, it means you thought about whether to say “heresy” and decided to hold off on the big guns.

      – A Gospel Coalition article started by saying Bell was raising “perennial questions” about heaven and hell. Nobody said he was the first to say this stuff.

      – There’s a difference between Stott tentatively holding to annihilationism and Bell being an inclusivist or universalist. On a slightly lesser note, it also matters that Stott and Bell are pastors, while Lewis was an English professor and amazing writer who happened to be a Christian and write on Christian themes.

      – These guys are being no more vehement or public than Bell. He put his video on the Internet; he published a book. In that book he says the doctrine of hell is “toxic,” that it amounts to making God evil, etc. He’s saying Piper and DeYoung believe in an evil God. His rhetoric is no more cautious than theirs.

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