September 11 and the Rise of New Calvinism
In 2007, Mark Dever wrote a series of blog posts titled “Where’d All These Calvinists Come From?” He listed 10 reasons for the blossoming of Reformed theology’s Tulip within evangelicalism, including influential pastors like Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, Piper, and MacArthur. He also referenced the inerrancy controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention, authors like J.I. Packer, and publishers like Banner of Truth. From this wide range of sources, Dever unearthed the roots of the recent Reformed Resurgence.
I agree with all of Dever’s choices. But I wonder if there is a significant cultural event that could be added: September 11, 2001. It may be true that a variety of practices, preachers, and publishers laid the groundwork for the recent swell of Reformed theology. But why has the greatest growth of the movement taken place only in the past decade? What role has September 11 played in the Reformed Resurgence?
In speaking of September 11, I am referring not only to the terrorist attacks, but also the events set in motion by the terrorists. Two costly wars. Terrorism scares. The Great Recession. These related events compounded the cultural change initiated by the hijackers.
Furthermore, the past decade has delivered a number of horrible disasters (two massive tsunamis, Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes in Asia and Latin America, tornadoes in the Southeast). Though not related to September 11, perhaps these tragedies have also played a role in the New Calvinism by forcing Christians to wrestle with difficult doctrines. For many of us, the result has been an increased appreciation for the sovereignty of God in the midst of human suffering.
There is no way to measure the impact of September 11 on evangelicalism. At best, we can see hints here and there as to its theological repercussions. Other than the people who were there and experienced the horror, it’s unlikely that many people would attribute any sort of theological shift to the events of that dreadful day. I doubt that many of the Young, Restless, and Reformed would consider September 11 to be an important moment in their turn toward Reformed theology.
But sometimes, it’s not our personal journeys that carry the most influence. It’s the cultural air that we breathe. Is it possible that September 11 and its cultural aftershocks “changed the air” so to speak, so that a wide segment of evangelicalism began entertaining questions that didn’t seem as pressing before?
Let’s look at a few ways in which the post-9/11 culture may have created an environment conducive to the rise of New Calvinism:
1. September 11 forced “the problem of evil” to the forefront of theological reflection.
Terrorism brought the concept of “evil” back from a purgatory of positive thinking and practical theology. Politicians started using the term again. Preachers began sermon series on the reality of evil and suffering. Our society’s aversion to words like “evil” and “sin” suddenly appeared like an ostrich trying to avoid the truth.
But many young people went beyond mere recognition of evil’s existence. We began working through questions related to God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. The classic problem of evil (“If God is good and all-powerful, why does evil exist?”) came roaring back as a topic of intense discussion.
Before September 11, my beliefs about evil and suffering had always bowed to the reality of free will:
God wants to be loved.
Love cannot be forced.
Therefore, God gives us free will.
Anything bad that happens is a result of humans using their free will.
God cannot be blamed.
After September 11, this standard line of argumentation crumbled. Having witnessed the carnage of the terrorist attacks, I questioned whether free will was worth the trouble. Is it worth it having free will just so God can be loved without force? Isn’t there something bigger than our love for God?
I also realized that the free will response didn’t get God off the hook; it just pushed His presence into the distance a little further. I remember thinking: With a word, He could have altered the plane’s direction to miss the building. In an instant, He could have alerted security screeners’ eyes to the terrorists and exposed them before they ever got on the plane. He could have empowered the passengers of United 93 to not only burst into the cockpit but also take control of the plane before it crashed. Could, could, could. But He did not. Why not? Does choosing not to stop a tragedy you could prevent make you, in some way, partly culpable?
2. September 11 created an environment in which the easy answers of pop evangelicalism were no longer satisfying.
The typical evangelical response to “9/11 problem of evil” questions was to shrug them off and take comfort in the “God-moments” that occurred on that day. Emails circulated telling the story of the woman who narrowly escaped the tower before it fell, or the two beams forged together in the heat as a makeshift cross, or the Bible that was preserved in a smoldering section of the Pentagon. Rather than wrestle with the big questions, many Christians took comfort in the kindness of a providential God who kept the worst from occurring.
But I remember how these responses seemed so inadequate. The towers fell. Some people survived. Praise God! But others died. Do we still praise God? If God were involved in a person’s survival, was He not also involved in the life that perished?
Then, there was the sentimental response. “Where was God on 9/11?” He was there, in all the heroic acts of that day. God was in the firefighters who plunged to their deaths with the towers. God was in the rescue workers treating people on the scene. God was in the volunteers who spent days trying to rescue people from the rubble.
But this response was inadequate too. It merely drew attention away from the bigger and more intense questions: Where was God when the hijackers took over the planes? Where was God when it really mattered? The vision of God put forth by many evangelicals was that of a doting grandfather who arrived too late to stop the tragedy, but in time to help us put the pieces back together again.
3. The post 9/11 culture was ripe for a generation of young people to dig into the Bible for answers to some of life’s most perplexing questions.
The typical evangelical responses were superficial, and I rejected them. They offered temporary comfort by pushing aside the hard questions. Judging from conversations I’ve had with many friends, the sentimental response didn’t resonate with them either. And the next few years only intensified the problem. The schmaltzy, family-friendly banter of Christian radio and books didn’t tell us why our friends were coming home from the Middle East in body bags.
September 11 did more than rock the foundations of the Twin Towers. It changed the cultural ethos and rocked the theological foundations of many younger evangelicals. We started questioning things we had always assumed. Many of us started digging deep. We wanted answers. And Reformed theology didn’t shy away from the hard questions.
When I think about the Christians I went to school with and the friends I had in my church youth group, I see two directions. Some of us wrestled with these issues and then stepped back, staying in the safe, sentimental view typical of evangelical responses. But the majority wound up becoming Reformed or at least Reformed-leaning. They found John Piper and the depth of his insight related to human suffering. They found other pastors and teachers who were not afraid to tackle the hard questions. My brother, who returned from Iraq last year, told me that the books being read by his fellow soldiers were written by men like Piper and Sproul, not Rob Bell and Donald Miller.
In a post 9/11 world, shallow evangelicalism didn’t have the answers that many younger evangelicals were longing for. Many of us eventually came to grips with a majestic, ferocious, and irresistibly attractive God who burst all the boxes we had wanted to keep Him in.
God was in control.
The evil of 9/11, though not approved by God, is somehow part of His master plan.
The cross reminds us that God can bring the greatest good from the greatest evil.
No pain is therefore senseless.
And God will one day defeat evil forever.
Reformed theology gave a younger generation a vision of a God who is big enough to have unknown reasons for allowing evil acts to take place and big enough to defeat evil for good. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty wasn’t about scoring debate points with theological nerds, but a haven of rest and assurance in the midst of turbulent times.
4. September 11 has marked the ministry of a younger generation of pastors.
Many of today’s young preachers and teachers have different sensibilities than the baby boomer generation that proceeded them. Listen to Matt Chandler and David Platt and you won’t hear messages filled with practical tips to bettering your life today. Instead, you hear men with distinctive styles addressing some of the toughest questions of life. Chandler preaches through Habakkuk while recovering from brain surgery for a tumor. David Platt leads his church to reflection (theology) and action (service) on behalf of a Birmingham ravaged by tornadoes. The preaching ministry of many younger pastors has been significantly shaped by the reality of life in a post-9/11 world.
Yes, health and wealth teaching continues to rise unabated. The Emerging Church burst onto the scene and then faded. Some have found answers in Open Theism. Joel Osteen is America’s most influential pastor, and he is about as far from preaching about real pain and sorrow as any pastor could be. And yet, there is a large number of younger evangelicals who aren’t impressed with any of these other options. The post-9/11 culture indirectly shaped the questions and issues of younger evangelicals. Those of us who went looking for answers found help from the people and publishers mentioned in Mark Dever’s series.
I’m not sure we can connect the dots from September 11 to the rise of the New Calvinism in a way that makes sense of all the data. Still, when asking “where did all these Calvinists come from?” it’s interesting to note that in the 1990′s, there was a Reformed rumbling. But only after September 11 was there a Reformed resurgence.