Before coming to Truett I served in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province, China, for two years with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). I have been blessed to be able to go back each summer since then. This summer, I had the opportunity to work with CBF’s Student.Go program in Chengdu.
My job was coordinating and preparing for a team of college students to come to Chengdu and do an English camp and college retreat for the registered Chinese church we work with. CBF works only with the registered churches in China in order to encourage and equip local Christians that are already in leadership roles. I was mainly doing prep work, scheduling, working with the Chinese church leaders to sign up students, and getting supplies. I also worked to organize a college retreat for the Chinese college fellowship.
One of my favorite things about the summer was getting to reconnect with many of the students and friends I knew before. While living in China, my focus was building relationships with students and taking opportunities to share with them and connect them with the local registered church. This gave me a unique opportunity to come alongside ministry that has already been started and find ways to encourage and support them rather than try to create my own idea of what the Chinese Church should look like. In many ways, what we learn about at Truett aligns with the strategies and ideas of the CBF China team.
Truett has given me ways to speak about and express many of the things I experienced while in China. It has provided an environment for me to dig deeper into the questions that I brought back and a place to unpack many of the things I learned. Truett has also helped me better understand some of the cultural mistakes I have made in my time overseas and has provided resources to learn from those and move forward in cross-cultural ministry.
By Roger Olson
When I look back over my life and career, I can confidently say there was no more important influence on my theological development than Dr. Ralph Powell who passed away at age 96 on Aug. 7 in Sioux Falls, S.D.
He was not a theological genius (in the usual sense of the term — a great innovater) or productive writer (I think he had one or two scholarly articles published). But he was one of the best teachers of balanced, sane, spiritually profound, insightful, wise evangelical theology I have ever known or heard of.
Dr. Powell taught theology at North American Baptist Seminary (the new name of the German Department of Rochester Theological Seminary where Walter Rauschenbusch taught) when it moved from New York to South Dakota. He earned his Th.D. degree from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary and taught theology at NABS from 1950 to 1981.
I was his student in several theology courses during my student years at NABS in the 1970s and fortunate enough to be in Sioux Falls when his retirement party was held in 1981. I attended it.
I visited Dr. Powell and his wife many times after that. Virtually every time I found myself in Sioux Falls I felt drawn to visit him. Stan Grenz, whose father was Dr. Powell’s pastor for some years, and I dedicated our book Who Needs Theology? to him.
I could tell many stories about Dr. Powell — as could any of his former students. He was a most dramatic lecturer with a very peculiar accent and he spit when he lectured. Here’s one memorable quote from one of his systematic theology lectures: “If it takes reading these [non-evangelical] theologians to sting you into appreciating the richness of your evangelical heritage, then, so be it! Be stung!” (Some students complained that he made us read Barth, Brunner, Tillich and other non-evangelical theologians.) When he said “Be stung!” he leaned way over the podium towards the students and saliva flew out of his mouth.
I remember that he served involuntarily as interim dean of the seminary when Gerald Borchert left NABS (a great loss to the seminary). Dr. Powell said to me: “Roger, never forget this. The road to scholarly perdition is paved with the stones of administration.” I have never forgotten and have steadfastly resisted any attempts to get me involved in administrative duties.
I remember one day during his systematic theology lecture on Luther’s idea of the “hidden God,” he went over to the windows and hid behind the curtains, occasionally peeking out at us with that unique grin of his. I was absolutely captivated by him — not because of his style but because of his wisdom and piety. I spent many hours in his office talking theology with him. I’m sure I drove him crazy with my questions, but he was always patient.
I came to NABS a confused, bewildered, deeply troubled young Bible college graduate. The Bible college I attended specialized in “Christian” anti-intellectualism. I wouldn’t even call it fundamentalist; it didn’t deserve such an august label.
Many of my professors (not all, thank God) took the approach to education expressed in the German saying “Eat up, little birdies, or die.” I was labeled a rebel just for asking questions my teachers couldn’t or didn’t want to answer. I had to educate myself by reading books and seeking out those few instructors who did deserve the posts they held for special help.
I came away from Bible college with no theology at all, just a bag of Bible verses and unquestionable (but highly dubious) dogmas. And a load of shame put on me by teachers, fellow students and administrators for daring to ask questions and challenge nonsense.
Seminary, especially Dr. Powell, rescued me from utter theological ruin which was quickly leading me to spiritual ruin. Cognitive dissonance was the general rule of my mind. I knew from my own reading that much of what I had been taught was unintelligible nonsense and I had not been taught any method of theological discernment or construction.
I really didn’t know where to turn. Dr. Powell rescued me. He became my trusted mentor and friend and a life-long example of how to develop a balanced, sane, evangelical theology and how to teach it.
If any of my students over 30 years think I did them any good at all, Dr. Powell gets much of the credit. I will miss him greatly. I feel like a milestone has been passed with Dr. Powell’s passing.
As I head into my final year at Truett Seminary, I was blessed to complete my mentoring experience this past summer at Antioch Church in Bend, Oregon. Antioch Church is a non-denominational, unaffiliated church in an absolutely beautiful part of the country. One of the unique aspects of Antioch Church is their focus upon justice. Their emphasis upon justice ultimately expressed itself in the creation of the Justice Conference three years ago.
Like many Truett students, I selected my mentoring site anticipating the opportunity to learn, grow, be challenged, and have the chance to put my learning from my time at Truett into practice. I was not disappointed as my mentoring was all that I could have hoped for and more. I am grateful to Antioch Church and specifically, my mentors Ken Wytsma and Brandon Reynolds for allowing me this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Yet, some of the most valuable learning that took place this summer was not outlined in my mentoring syllabus or my learning covenant. This learning occurred organically and I believe was due to the gentle whispers of the Spirit. The Spirit whispered to me through speakers like Richard Twiss, Nathan George, Keith Wright, and Dr. Soong-Chan Rah. The Spirit whispered to me through discussions with interns about life, dating and marriage. The Spirit whispered to me through a week with my family in Bend. The Spirit whispered to me through the hospitality of my host family. The Spirit whispered to me through intentional, uninterrupted time with my wife Heather.
I also heard the gentle whispers of the Spirit through nature. The Spirit whispered to me as I was laying in my hammock in 70-degree summer weather. The Spirit whispered to me on many hikes all over central Oregon. The Spirit whispered to me floating on the Deschutes River. And the Spirit SHOUTED to me in the glory and majesty of Crater Lake. There are simply no words to describe Crater Lake. I know without a doubt that there, I was in the majestic presence of God.
This summer, I heard from the Spirit more frequently and in ways that I never have before in my life. Perhaps, it was because for the first time in years, I slowed down. It was as if I pulled out the ear-buds from my ears, I turned off the iPhone, and then had moments were I was truly still before God. And you know what? He whispered.
Growing up, I hated Sunday afternoon naps. As a pastors kid, Sunday afternoon was an oasis of playtime in between Sunday morning and evening church. I never understood why my dad enjoyed his afternoon nap so much. In my mind’s eye I can still see my dad stretched out on that ugly old couch. I can still smell the Sunday roast, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole. And I can still hear my dad’s contented, relaxed breathing after lunch as he drifted off to sleep. It was as if the point of the whole day was the afternoon nap. Upon reflection it was like the Lord was saying, church was good today but THIS is where I wanted to find you. That moment was an act of worship. That moment was rest. That moment was refreshment.
So do you know what I heard from the Spirit? I heard in the gentlest of whispers, “find rest and refreshment.” Sure, I put rest on my learning covenant but lets be honest, I never really anticipated that I would actually rest this summer. So maybe then, rest found me? And as a result, I am refreshed in ways I cannot fully put into words. It was as if when I cliff jumped into Crater Lake, I was immersed into a new richness of life.
In addition to all that I learned this summer, this new richness of life can be summarized in four words that are continually at the tip of my tongue and the front of my brain: posture, partnership, contentment, and compassion. Keith Wright, of Food for the Hungry, discussed having the right posture before God and mankind so that we can have the right heart as we seek to partner with what God is doing in the world and the partnerships we participate in. This summer, I realized that when I am not rested and refreshed, my posture and partnership flow out of my own pride, rather than out of the humility of Christ (Philippians 2).
In Mission After Christendom, one of the books from my reading list, David Smith shares the idea of being church communities of contentment and compassion. It is my heart’s desire to live a life of contentment and compassion. Yet, when I get caught up in the busyness of life, I so often fail to be content and compassionate, instead defaulting to consumerism and callousness. I learned this summer that when I am rested and refreshed, I have a glimmer of hope to truly live in the way of Christ.
So like my dad found rest, found God, in between Sunday services, I believe I found God in between my mentoring syllabus and learning covenant. I do hope my mentoring folder accurately captures all that I learned and experienced this summer while mentoring. And again, I am grateful to Antioch Church and Truett Seminary for the opportunity to fulfill my mentoring requirements this summer in Bend, Oregon. I feel affirmed in God’s leading in my life, my passions, and my giftedness, having had this wonderful experience. Yet, in the midst of all of my learning, I am far more grateful and can only say, “thanks be to God,” for the new richness of life and gentle whispers of the Spirit that found me here in Bend.
May we hear the gentle whispers of the Spirit this day.
About the Author
Chad Mustain and his wife Heather are both in their fourth and final year at Truett Seminary. They currently serve as resident chaplains in North Village Residential Community, here at Baylor University.
This post originally appeared on Roger Olson’s Blog at Patheos
I know. I’m almost committing blasphemy by questioning Jonathan Edwards’ greatness. I wouldn’t be doing it except there seems to be a kind of cult of Edwards’ veneration–especially among American evangelicals. It’s not limited to American evangelicals, of course. Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson called Edwards “America’s Theologian.” New books are published every year about Edwards. The current (or now immediately previous) issue of Christian Century contains a review of a newly published b00k extolling Edwards’ virtues as a great Christian and great thinker. Most famously, perhaps, evangelical historian Mark Noll has often held up Edwards as THE paradigm of a great Christian intellectual whose example we should all follow.
Far be it from me to impugn Edwards’ deserved reputation as a great Christian preacher and intellectual. I just think it’s overblown. It tends to lead Christians who read these books (about Edwards) to overlook his flaws.
First, though, let me step back from criticism of Edwards (and those who extol him too much or too loudly) and criticize what our American public school system curriculum has done to him. I’ve taught college/university/seminary students for thirty years now and there’s one thing they (who attended public schools) agree on: they were misled about Edwards. The only thing most of them learned about Edwards in school was that he preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” They were led to picture him as a fire-breathing hell-fire preacher who denied the Lord’s Supper to parishioners he considered less than fully converted (viz., he was intolerant).
The facts are different, of course. His delivery of sermons, including that one, was not loud or coercive. Reports indicate that he read it or delivered it from memory in a calm voice (at least compared with the stereotypes of hell-fire and brimstone fundamentalist preachers). Also, Edwards was an intellectual who stood head and shoulders above most of his peers. He was well read in Enlightenment philosophy and science and ahead of his peers in understanding human psychology and nature.
What I like to tell students about Edwards is that he was harshly critical of New Englanders who stole land from the Native Americans. He told them to pay the Indians for the land they took from them and to treat them humanely. When his congregation expelled him from his pulpit (partly, at least, for that), he went off to the frontier and lived among the Indians. For his time, Edwards was progressive in some areas of social thinking. On the other hand, he owned a slave, so he wasn’t consistent.
Toward the end of his relatively brief life, Edwards became president of what is now Princeton University (the College of New Jersey). He died of a smallpox vaccination gone wrong. We have no idea what he would have gone on to do in terms of intellectual contributions to American philosophy, science and theology had he lived longer.
Without doubt, Edwards was a great man and deserves more and better respect than he gets in American public education.
Having said all that, I still do not understand why so many of his fans overlook or excuse Edwards’ very significant errors. I can identify with Charles Finney who said of Edwards “The man I adore; his errors I deplore.” It seems to me that many of Edwards’ fans (especially among American evangelicals) are too quick to pass over the obvious logical flaws in his theology.
For example (and here you will have to trust me or look at my chapter on Edwards in The Story of Christian Theology and my many allusions to him and his theology in Against Calvinism): Edwards argued that God’s sovereignty requires that he create the entire universe and everything in it ex nihilo at every moment. That goes far beyond garden variety creation ex nihilo or continuous creation. It is speculative and dangerous. He also asserted that God is space itself. And he came very close to denying that God’s creation of the world was free in any libertarian sense as if God could have done otherwise. (He said that God always does what is most wise, something with which few Christians would argue, but somehow one must admit the possibility that God might not have created at all. Otherwise the world becomes necessary even for God which undermines grace.)
All of those ideas can perhaps be dismissed as the speculations of a mind obsessed with God’s greatness, glory and sovereignty. But things get much, much worse when Edwards deals with free will. Free will, according to him, only means doing what you want to do–following the strongest inclination provided to the will by the affections. It does not mean being able to do otherwise. In fact, Edwards seemed to deny the whole idea of “otherwise”–even in God. He did not merely argue that libertarian free will as ability to do otherwise was lost in the fall; he argued that the very idea is incoherent. If that’s true, then we cannot attribute it to God, either. And the fall becomes not only inevitable but necessary.
The question that naturally arises is: from where did the first evil inclination come? Edwards claims a creature formed it; it arose from a creature’s (Lucifer’s and later Adam’s) own nature. God simply “left ‘em to themselves” so that sin and evil followed inevitably or necessarily. That is to say that God withdrew or withheld the grace creatures needed not to sin. God rendered the fall and all its horrible consequences inevitable or even necessary. And yet, creatures are to blame for sinning even thought they could not do otherwise.
Edwards wanted to get God off the hook for being the author of sin and evil, but ultimately he couldn’t. And he didn’t draw back from admitting that IN SOME SENSE God is the author of sin and evil. But he insisted that God is not guilty of sin or evil because…God’s motive in rendering them certain was good.
Now, let’s stop and examine this line of reasoning a bit. First, the very idea of libertarian free will is incoherent so even God cannot have it. God, too, is controlled by his strongest inclination/motive. Where do God’s inclinations come from? If one says “from his nature,” then, with the denial of libertarian free will, God becomes a machine. Everything God does is necessary–including rendering sin and evil certain. And why does God render sin and evil necessary? For his glory. (See Edwards’ Treatise Concerning the End for Which God Created the World.) So, sin and evil are necessary and serve God’s glory.
And yet, Edwards insisted that God abhors sin and evil. Why? If they are determined by his wisdom and necessary for his glory, why would he abhore them? Edwards tried to resolve this by appealing to God’s larger and narrower views. In the grand scope of things, seen from the widest perspective possible, sin and evil are part of the grand scheme of God to glorify himself. On the other hand, in the narrower perspective, God abhors them and commands creatures not to do them. And punishes them with eternal suffering for doing what serves his glory and is necessary.
Need I go on making my case that Edwards’ theology contains massive flaws? The single greatest flaw is the character of God. This inevitably makes God the author of sin and evil (something Edwards reluctantly admitted) and makes sin and evil not really awful at all but necessary for the greater good. It’s not just that God brings good out of them. For Edwards they are necessary for God’s full glorification.
Now don’t anyone say “Only in this creation; not overall or in general.” That won’t work. This creation is necessary if God does not have libertarian free will which he cannot have if the concept itself is logically impossible (incoherent).
In attempting to pay God too many and too large metaphysical compliments, Edwards ends up chasing his tail and contradicting himself. Is that the mark of a great mind? Well, I’m not saying he didn’t have a great mind. I’m only saying that he either didn’t seem to notice his own contradictions or he chose to overlook them while vehemently pointing out and condemning contradictions he thought he saw in Arminianism.
About the author:
Dr. Roger Olson has been a member of the Truett Seminary faculty since 1999 as Professor of Christian Theology. You can keep up with Dr. Olson on his blog at Patheos.
This spring I received an email from a young woman who had graduated from Truett recently.
Hello! I hope Easter was wonderful!!! I think about our Truett and Waco community a lot!
I am preparing for ordination this summer and thought i would ask a few people in ministry if there were any books or resources that formative in their journey in ministry.
I appreciate it so much, have a great day.
I gave my reply a bit of thought, but realized that there is more to say. What books and writers have most deeply shaped my thinking, my beliefs, my practices? Maybe I’ll work on an official list sometime. Nevertheless, here’s my reply:
Books have been powerful influences on my formation along the way. It is a challenge to think about which ones have had the biggest impact. I should work on doing that intentionally some day — producing a bibliography of the top 25 or 50. I’ll suggest fewer to you. It is difficult to do this entirely by books, so let me do so by writers and mention those of their books that I recall as especially formative. Almost without exception, these are books that are worth reading more than once, in my opinion, and I have done that.
C. S. Lewis — I began reading him in high school (Screwtape Letters) and never really stopped. The Chronicles of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and A Grief Observed stand out.
Dallas Willard — I met him much later, but he and Lewis share a common way of writing and thinking. His work on spiritual disciplines (The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God, Knowing Christ) have been important to me, as is his work on the Christian life (The Divine Conspiracy).
Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline I have read several times with profit.
I’m no theologian, but have been helped by the writings of Jurgen Moltmann (especially Theology of Hope, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, and The Crucified God). I’m finding now that his thinking is helpful to me in talking about pastoral ministry.
Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship have been important as well
Wendell Berry’s essays, poetry, and novels have been inspiring and informative to me. Pick one. His novel Jayber Crow is a great parable of pastoral ministry.
I neglected fiction for a long time, but rediscovered it about ten years or so ago. Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and his Angle of Repose were both quite moving. Hanging out with writers like Stegner must have some effect on the way I learn to use language in speaking and writing. A Zen proverb reads, “If you walk in the mist, you will get wet.”
Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek taught me much about carefully observing and appreciating creation. Anne Lamott’s writing has entertained me and made me think (and weep a time or two).
Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (a small book that I buy every time I see it in a Half Price Bookstore so that I can give it away) has encouraged me to write and made writing a spiritual practice.
Henri Nouwen has a way of striking deep in the soul for me. His Wounded Healer was the first one I read and is still one of the best for pastoral ministry. Also In the Name of Jesus and The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Eugene Peterson’s “four book trilogy” The Contemplative Pastor, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Under the Unpredictable Plant, and Working the Angles are books I have read repeatedly over the years. I usually read one of those every year.
I would add a category of books I have only recently discovered — books of people writing about the life of the pastor from the inside. Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor (his memoirs), David Hansen’s The Art of Pastoring, Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets (the story of his first pastorate), Reinhold Niebuhr’s Leaves from the Diary of a Tamed Cynic (his journal from his first pastorate a hundred years ago), and Lillian Daniels and Martin Copenhaver’s This Odd and Wondrous Calling, along with Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead all fit this genre. Reading these makes me want to be a better pastor. I could add Stanley Hauerwas’s memoirs, Hannah’s Child, which makes me want to be a better teacher.
I’m sure there are others and I wouldn’t expect you to jump in and read all these. But you asked.
(As I copied and pasted this from my email, I began to realize all the other voices that were not included. I’ll have to save that for a future post.)
About the author:
Dr. Robert Creech has been a member of the Truett Seminary faculty since 2009 and serves as Professor of Christian Ministires and Director of Pastoral Ministries. You can keep up with Dr. Creech on his blog: The Journey Continues
I almost missed her. She thought I had left. And she could have left, too, but instead she sought me out so that she could give me a gift. I had just preached my first church service at Covenant Baptist Church, where Kyndall Renfro serves as senior pastor. She was an elderly lady who was just visiting on this particular Sunday. She knew the woman who had passed and had come for her memorial. How unlikely that our paths should cross, and yet, she had this gift for me.
Her skin had aged with the years, and there was a slight purple tint to her lips. Her voice was quiet and shaky, and she spoke slowly, but with assurance. Mostly though, she drew me in with her eyes. In them I saw deep kindness and wisdom. A bit teary, they gave away a mix of flooded emotion, partly suggesting a sense of victory and partly projecting the feeling of great relief. It was her eyes that made me throw off my insecurities for a moment. It was her eyes that made me believe her when she said there is a place for me.
“I go to a funny church” she said with a wink. Kyndall and I looked at each other and smiled. We knew this was code that actually meant she attended a church where women were not welcome in the pulpit. “I was really impressed by you this morning,” she went on, showering me with encouragement and compliments I felt sure I didn’t deserve.
Then came the gift.
She looked at us both and said something like “You know, there’s never really been a place for women”, and she motioned toward the pulpit. “But you’re showing that women can do it, and they can do it just as good.” In that moment she looked so proud and so victorious, as if the years of keeping quiet had finally been defeated. And those eyes of hers were dancing, portraying just how much she really meant it. And she smiled at us in a way that made me feel like I was just given a really important secret that I couldn’t keep to myself.
I don’t always know what it means to be called, but I would imagine it’s kind of like holding a water balloon in your hand. You can’t hold it too tightly, and its form is constantly changing as it rolls across your palm. But I do know one thing about calling. It is a gift. We don’t necessarily ask for it, but when it’s given to us, we feel compelled to open it and use it. That nameless elderly lady gave me a gift when she looked into my eyes and dared me to accept her words as truth. There is a place in the pulpit for men and women. There is a place in the pulpit for me.
About the Author
Aurelia Pratt is a May 2012 Truett Seminary alumna, receiving both a M.Div and a M.S.W. degree. She will also be serving as one of the teaching pastors at a new church plant, Grace Baptist Church, in Round Rock, Texas.
Several years ago I had one of those airplane conversations preachers are always telling about. I hate to admit it, but I usually try to avoid those conversations. Maybe I shouldn’t. But the truth is that when I’m flying, I have a difficult time with conversations. I don’t hear all that well with background noises, like jet engines. And I am a bit introverted. Still, one of those conversations found me.
I was returning from Minneapolis on a Continental flight. I found my seat that Wednesday afternoon next to a “technomaniac.” He was a forty-something business type, cradling his cell phone between his shoulder and his jaw while he was unzipping his laptop case and setting up shop. He was sounding pretty important: “Yeah, I’ll be there in about two hours. The fax machine is on. Just send me the contract. I’ll evaluate it and send it back to you.” I was just watching it all.
I opened my briefcase and took out materials to work on the weekend sermon. He glanced over at what I was reading and said, “Looks like pretty interesting stuff you’re reading there.” We got to talking about religion and freedom and things like that. He asked me what I did, and I admitted that I was the pastor of a Baptist church. He said, “Our daughter went to a Vacation Bible School last week in Denton at a Baptist church. A lady across the street named Kathy goes to that church and invited our little girl to go.”
I asked, “Do you go to church anywhere?”
“No, I quit going to church a long time ago. My wife is a Buddhist. She’s from Japan.”
“Are you a Buddhist?”
“Well, sort of.”
“You quit going to church?”
“Yeah. I grew up in a Methodist church but when I got old enough, I quit going.”
“Tell me about that. Why did you quit? What sent you away?
“To tell you the truth, the thing that bothered me most about it was that I knew everybody in this little town I grew up in. I’d see them in church on Sunday, and I knew what they did the rest of the week. Quite honestly, there was just no consistency between what they were doing on Sunday and how they lived the rest of the week. I decided I didn’t need that.”
So it had been more than twenty years since he had been in church. We talked a bit further, and he said, “But you know, this woman Kathy, across the street – she really lives it. She lives what she says. In fact, we had a party in our neighborhood for her. I got to give a little speech. She had been helping everybody in the neighborhood, and we had a surprise party for her. We invited her over to our house and gave her a present. She was completely flabbergasted. She really lives what she says.”
We talked a little further, and I said, “I’m the pastor of a church, and one of the things I’m interested in is finding people like you and helping them come to know God through Jesus Christ. How can I do that better?”
“Well, if you could get more people like Kathy…”
Storms are opportunities. The world around us will have a chance to see what we are made of, how our testimony matches our lives.
About the author:
Dr. Robert Creech has been a member of the Truett Seminary faculty since 2009 and serves as Professor of Christian Ministires and Director of Pastoral Ministries. You can keep up with Dr. Creech on his blog: The Journey Continues
This post was originally a guest post at Roger Olson’s blog.
My Conversion…to Calvinism
I was converted to Calvinism because of the preaching of John Piper. I was in high school and somebody gave me a book he had written. I read it, understood some of it, and then began listening to his sermons and through the process of listening to sermon after sermon, eventually discovered I was a Calvinist.
My story isn’t unique. Indeed, I think most people’s conversion to Calvinism goes something along the lines of, “Well I started listening to Piper/Chandler/Driscoll/Chan’s preaching and woke up one day a Calvinist.” There’s no mystery here: it’s a rare occurrence when one consistently sits under someone’s preaching and doesn’t pick up on his/her theological presuppositions. The mystery is why so many people are currently listening to Neo-Calvinist preaching. And by this I mean, what are the causes for the proliferation of prominent Calvinist preachers with so much influence and appeal, especially among younger generations?
Better Preaching Material?
C. Michael Patton recently examined this issue on his blog and his hypothesis is that in the current cultural climate, Calvinism just preaches better (than its alternatives, Arminianism in particular). By this he means that in a world of ambiguity, skepticism, and uncertainty, Calvinism’s emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God is better preaching material than any sort of free will theism. As Patton says, “Evangelicals love to hear about the sovereignty of God, the glory of God in suffering, the security of God’s grace, the providence of God over missions, and yes, even the utter depravity of man. This stuff preaches. This stuff sells tickets.”
In the opening chapter of Against Calvinism, Roger Olson makes a similar connection by suggesting that Calvinism’s emphasis on certainty and sovereignty has been an anchor for those seeking refuge from the difficulties of finding faith in a postmodern context.
I think Patton and Olson are clearly on to something. Although I’m no specialist on the matter, it’s always seemed to me that Calvinism is far more at home in modernity than postmodernity. Calvinism, once accepted, provides an inner logic with virtually no loose ends that offers its adherents a strong sense of certainty. Calvinists believe God is in absolute control, that no event happens unless God ordains it, and so in any and all circumstances they can be absolutely certain that God’s exact plan is unfolding. So for those going through certainty withdrawals, Calvinistic preaching can be a welcome remedy, especially when it is articulated with the passion of people like Piper and Driscoll. In other words, they are preaching that we can have certainty and they are preaching it with certainty. And this stuff does indeed sell!
As such, I think the current appeal of Calvinist preaching has less to do with passion and more to do with certainty. Thus, I would contend that it is not so much that Calvinism preaches better as it is that certainty preaches better. It always has and always will, but it is especially appealing in a postmodern context (or post-postmodern, or whatever we are in now), which seems inundated with ambiguity. I might go even further and argue that at the heart of most passionate movements, you will find a message of certainty preached with certainty.
Of course the larger issue is whether or not certainty, while obviously desirable, is responsible. This is a nuanced and contentious issue, but one I think needs some serious attention. I have argued elsewhere that certainty in our beliefs about God is not merely bad manners but bad theology. In other words, of course preaching certainty with certainty is going to sell and create a movement. But does it create good disciples?
Preaching with Authority?
This leads us to the issue of authority in preaching. When I ask people (and my college students in particular) why they like listening to Piper, Driscoll, or Chandler, their answer is usually something along the lines of, “They preach with such authority.” What exactly does this mean? What is the “authority” people are perceiving? While I’m sure it is a confluence of things, I think the primary cause of the perceived authority among prominent Neo-Calvinist preachers is the certainty with which they articulate their theology (which is itself a theology of certainty in the sense I have outlined above). Because many of them hold their beliefs with such certainty, they have a gravitas that makes them compelling and tends to draw you in. To put it another way, their gravitas leaves the average listener little room for disagreement.
This raises some very interesting issues regarding the responsibilities preachers have to their congregations. To elaborate a bit, should preachers simply advocate their own position/interpretation as persuasively and “authoritatively” as possible? Or do they have a responsibility to check their gravitas so their listeners have space to disagree with them? As Olson once suggested, perhaps preachers have a responsibility to leave people enough space to use their critical faculties when listening.
I understand that checking your susceptibility to gravitas is so counterintuitive that the mere suggestion can feel absurd. And I understand that it certainly won’t be conducive to creating a passionate movement or a massive church or a powerful personal following. But it might just be very conducive to creating disciples. These are issues that need far more consideration.
Preaching from a Platform
Returning to the issue of authority in Neo-Calvinist preaching and preachers, I think platforms also have a great deal to do with their perceived authority. And generally speaking, Neo-Calvinist preachers have benefitted far more than others from platforms.
I was recently in a bookstore and stumbled across For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper. The first page of the book is a pencil sketch of Piper preaching. I thought you had to be dead at least a hundred years to be pencil-sketched on to the first page of a compilation of essays in your honor. This is a testament to the stunning veneration many Neo-Calvinist preachers receive. And this veneration would seem tied back to the aforementioned ethos of certainty that pervades Neo-Calvinism. People seem to innately desire the experience of looking up at someone preaching to them from the lofty perch of certainty.
As such, the platform is being built up from multiple sides. Neo-Calvinist preachers explicitly and implicitly platform themselves because of their (over?)confidence in their message. Their listeners platform them because they (the preachers) scratch the certainty itch that the “postmodern” situation has triggered. And their vast association of networks platform them by pumping out an endless supply of books and conferences. The Passion Conferences are a particularly effective form of platforming because they provide people like Piper face time with thousands of college students in a vibrant, worshipful setting that is especially conducive to the creation of a strong following. Then there’s the veritable farm system of Neo-Calvinism in which up and coming preachers are tagged and then hyped and then endorsed by a big name or asked to speak at a big conference, and you have the makings of the next “big thing” (see Matt Chandler, Jared Wilson, etc.).
And of course it’s no big secret that moderates are terrible at platforming. Moderates cringe at the idea of a single preacher having a massive cult following and cry wolf at the slightest glimpse of authoritarianism. While they might really like the preaching of Will Willimon or Rob Bell or Donald Miller, they would never wear it on their sleeve and would be quick to let you know what they don’t like about their preaching as well. It’s just the moderate way, the moderate ethos.
Conclusion: Try Less, Try More
I’d like to end with proposals for both Neo-Calvinism and moderate free will theism. To many on the outside and some on the inside, the current explosion of Neo-Calvinist preaching doesn’t look so much like a movement of the Holy Spirit as a calculated and systematic power grab, the broken record of human interactions. It gives people what they want (certainty), the way they want it (with certainty), and suggests that veneration and unqualified loyalty is a most appropriate response. But do you want people believing that every word out of your mouth is the word of God or do you want people sifting through your words because you know they’re not? Perhaps Neo-Calvinism should pump the brakes on the platforming. Preachers could stop acting like they speak the words of God, listeners could stop inserting the sermons of Dr. Piper between Acts and Romans in their Bibles, and the Neo-Calvinist PR machine could quit trying so hard.
And perhaps moderate free will theism needs to try a little harder, or at least stop trying to sabotage itself. If Neo-Calvinist preaching needs to leave people more room to discern and question, moderate free will theism needs to encourage people to submit and accept good answers. Moderate preachers would do well to remember that moderate need not mean spineless and endlessly qualified. And if a given preacher clearly has a gift, then affirm it and point others to it instead of crying wolf at every rustling in the bushes.
 Patton, “Why Arminianism Doesn’t Sell”, http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2012/04/why-arminianism-doesnt-sell/#more-10788
 Roger Olson, Against Calvinism, 15-25.
 See my previous post “Certainty Not” at this blog.
This post originally appeared on Dr. Roger Olson’s Blog at Patheos
Some of my theological friends criticize me for holding on to my “Baptist” identity in the current theological and political context (especially the U.S.A.) where these labels have largely come to mean mean-spirited, narrow-minded, legalistic, even hypocritical religiosity and where they are virtually equated with the Religious Right, of which I am not a part.
Many Baptist churches have dropped the word “Baptist” from their names because it has been so tarnished by television evangelists, right-wing religious politicians and the so-called “Baptist wars” of the last twenty-five to thirty-five years.
Besides, they say, Baptists have very little in common beyond getting people wet. Many (perhaps most) no longer believe in separation of church and state. In fact, Baptists have become known for opposing it. Many no longer believe in or practice congregational autonomy. All the traditional hallmarks of Baptist faith and practice have been sacrificed on various altars political, theological and practical.
Who have been in the forefront of the church growth movement, the Religious Right, neo-fundamentalism, rationalistic theology and apologetics, so-called “complementarianism,” etc., etc.? Baptists.
My friends challenge me to realize it’s too late to rescue the label; the barbarians have invaded and taken over and there’s no point in trying to rescue what is now a hopelessly sullied label and identity.
Besides, as I said (and they keep reminding me) there is very little that has ever or now holds “Baptists” together as an identifiable tradition. So, they tell me, stop reifying or hypostasizing “Baptist” as if it were a real phenomenon. Stop essentializing it, they say.
Also, my northern friends tell me “Baptist” has become a primarily southern phenomenon.
A few years ago my late friend Stan Grenz, who proudly called himself both Baptist and evangelical, told me an interesting little story of an incident at his (then) institution of higher education. A well-known Anglican theologian, a colleague, had traveled to the American South (from Canada) to give some lectures at a Baptist university and seminary. When he returned, at a gathering of professors, this Anglican theologian said (commenting on his trip to the South) “Baptists are uncouth.” Of course, Stan spoke up to him and said “Am I included?” The Anglican theologian said “Present company excepted.”
Well, I’m just stubborn enough not to give “Baptist” over to the barbarians or give in to non-Baptists who vilify it; I will defend the label and tradition, as it really was and should be, until I die. Every label has its problems. I prefer to do the hard work of rescuing “Baptist” from all the distortions that surround it in popular culture and even among those who proudly proclaim it.
What I find ironic is that some of my friends who, though moderate, proudly identify as Baptist tell me I should give up calling myself “evangelical” or identifying myself with that movement–for the same reason others tell me to give up calling myself “Baptist” or identifying with that tradition.
About the author:
Dr. Roger Olson has been a member of the Truett Seminary faculty since 1999 as Professor of Christian Theology. You can keep up with Dr. Olson on his blog at Patheos.
Mrs. Weeks, my senior English teacher at Waltrip High School used to say, “Sometimes I think ‘Well…’ and then again I don’t know.” I know the feeling. Understanding all that is going on in one’s life is not so easy to do. We try. We really try. We get all the pieces out and lay them on the table and move them around and try to make sense of them. Like assembling a 1000 piece jig saw puzzle (which, by the way, is near the top of things I really do not like doing), we look for corner pieces, straight edges, colors that seem to go together, anything to begin making sense of the disarray scattered in front of us. One of our disadvantages is that we don’t have the puzzle box with the picture on it. We’re not even sure what it is this thing is supposed to look like when we’re done.
So the best we can do is make stuff up. We fictionalize. We rationalize. We assign meaning to events and episodes whether there is meaning there or not. We ascribe motives to people that will make their behaviors make sense in our plot. (At the same time they are making up motives for us so that their plot will cohere.) Or to return to my puzzle metaphor, we use an Exacto knife to trim up pieces that don’t fit and we force them into place. We must do this. We human beings are a meaning-driven people. We are confident that somehow it all makes sense and that it does so in a way that we can know and understand. Sometimes I think, “Well…”
Occasionally I can see patterns, connections, mysterious sequences, and synchronicities in the puzzle-piece events of my life that give me reason to hope that I might soon grasp the big picture. Sometimes it is like those pictures that you stare at until they become 3-D and you see a picture of a sailing vessel or a dinosaur and then you blink and lose it. But just a glimpse is enough to keep me fooling with the pieces. I pray and I hope that God will give me enough clues to let me figure it out.
And then again, I don’t know. At times I think stuff just happens. Like today. I planned to mow the farm property. I prepared to do that. It was a beautiful morning for it. I just got the shift lever on the 1998 Murray lawn tractor repaired and it was working perfectly. I filled it with gas. I checked the oil. I donned my work gloves and turned the key. It started right up. Then, one lap into the section of the lawn I was working on, the engine experienced catastrophic failure. It belched lots of white smoke for about 30 seconds and then stopped, never to restart.
OK, I knew that was coming someday. I just didn’t want it to be today. So I decided that I was not prepared to replace it today – need to do some research before I do that. Instead I would go into town and rent a riding mower and take care of the place before it reverted to the jungle it was last year. I pushed the mower into the garage, closed the door and walked over to Willie. That’s when I saw that his left rear tire was flat. All the way flat.
So I located the jack and tire tools, opened the manual to page 579 and did my best to decipher the instructions on getting to the spare and operating the jack. In fifteen minutes he had a new tire on and we headed into town for repairs. I found a rental, but they wanted $135 for the day, and knowing that I would need to replace the mower, I didn’t really want to spend that much for a rental, so I passed on that. When I got back to the farm I sharpened my hoe and went after the paper leaf mulberry trees who once ruled the backyard and who were already plotting a takeover. I removed about a bazillion of them with a hoe and lots of sweat by noon.
So what does all this mean? Weeds grow. Things break. Sometimes life is a series of unfortunate events, not just one. I don’t think they really mean anything. These are minor inconveniences, as are most of the things we complain about. They are problems to be solved, which most of life is. Sometimes I think, “Well…”
Meanwhile the puzzle pieces I ponder are something else. A van wreck in Arizona with seven of our church members on mission to the Navajo. I learned of this while in the middle of my hoeing. A war in Afghanistan and Iraq that has occupied seven years, cost more money than I can imagine, and that has taken thousands of lives –and now my son is there. A world with plenty of food where people starve. A world with more wealth and more poverty than can be imagined. Babies that die and the elderly that suffer. The list goes on. And then again, I don’t know.
I believe (which is itself a way of knowing) that there is a big picture. It involves the Kingdom of God, God putting the world upright again through his rule and reign. I believe that Kingdom is already present among us, like yeast in the dough, permeating and transforming. I believe that I can choose to side with that Kingdom Among Us and contribute to its effect. But it is still early morning. Only the first rays of dawn are appearing, driving away some of the darkness. Eventually it will be noon. All the darkness will be gone. Not even the shadows will survive that light. I believe that the Kingdom of God will come and God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.
I am not always able to grasp how the events of my life fit in to all that. I’m not sure I’m supposed to grasp that. My assignment ultimately is pretty simple: Love God and Love People. Change the tire. Chop the weeds. Pray. Don’t be afraid. Risk. Hope. Sometimes I think, “Well…”
About the author:
Dr. Robert Creech has been a member of the Truett Seminary faculty since 2009 and serves as Professor of Christian Ministires and Director of Pastoral Ministries. You can keep up with Dr. Creech on his blog: The Journey Continues.