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.