The Westminster Captivity of Evangelicalism

This is a must read for those looking over the landscape of resurgent neo-calvinism in the American church today. It accurately identifies that the reformed thought channeled by WTS, with its high suspicion of “conversionism” and its protestant scholasticism, is not the only reformed option . I would add that Professors Jack Miller, Robert Strimple, Harvie Conn and Robert Godfrey represented the broader reformed tradition and warmed up the atmosphere of this “colder” form of Reformed thought. The Old Princeton model has kept the reformed from whole hearted participation in the evangelical movement and disables it from any kind of consensual Christianity. It is not even interested in such. It ends up by making Wesleyan strains contributing to the faith stream that feeds evangelicalism worse than paganism itself, for it is a betrayal of the Gospel in Westminster’s eyes, the same way that Benedict Arnold in the American mind is more of an enemy than the Bristish being fought in the American Revolution. While I was studying there, this use to drive me nuts. I didn’t have the maturity and wisdom at that time to realize what was going on and how I could take the best of what was being offered to me and let the rest go. I ended up being a Westminsterian but could only do so half-heartedly, defending what could not really be defended.

By: Dale M. Coulter

Anyone paying attention to recent trends within evangelicalism knows about the “New Calvinism.” Time published a piece on the movement just over a year ago as one of the  10 ideas changing the world. The usual list of names associated with it are Albert Mohler, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and Mark Dever, among others. I have also seen Michael Horton on a list or two. Regardless of whether the “New Calvinism” is actually new, and some bloggers have their doubts, it is exposing the fault lines in Reformed theology within the U.S. More importantly, in my view, it is highlighting what I would describe as the “Westminster Captivity” of American evangelicalism, particularly its Reformed wing, which I see as a positive development.

Before explaining myself further, an admission: While I attended Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL, I am not Reformed. Rather, I am a Classical Pentecostal within the holiness stream that goes back to John Wesley. And, I now teach at an institution shaped by the Reformed charismatic theology of J. Rodman Williams whose heritage I wish to honor. Now, on to the explanation:

As I see it, there are three primary streams by which Reformed theology entered the early American colonies: 1) Puritan Congregationalist, 2) Scottish Presbyterian, and 3) Dutch Reformed.
Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards is the most well-known representative of Puritan Congregationalism even though his “New Light Divinity” altered the theological landscape in his day. Edwards emphasized affective transformation within a strongly Reformed framework as a way of supporting revivalism. His desire was to preserve irresistible grace within a revivalist framework that allowed for extraordinary spiritual experiences. The heirs of Jonathan Edwards were folks like Timothy Dwight who welcomed revival to Yale in the early 1800s.
Abraham Kuyper
Another branch is Dutch Reformed theology, which has a  rich tradition that actually goes back to Heinrich Bullinger, the heir of Ulrich Zwingli, in addition to John Calvin. Dutch Reformed theology probably began to make its biggest impact on American evangelicalism through Abraham Kuyper (d. 1920) and Herman Bavinck (d. 1921). The contemporary heirs of this tradition are associated with the Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church of America, and their respecting institutions (Calvin College, Hope College, etc.).
B. B. Warfield
The final branch is Scottish Presbyterianism, which ultimately came to be associated with the theologians whose careers were spent at Princeton Seminary, founded in 1812. These theologians, such as Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, became powerful shapers of the Presbyterian mind in the 1800s.  With its founding by J. Gresham Machen in 1929, Westminster Theological Seminary saw (and still sees) itself as the heir of Old Princeton. Because of its location in the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, Westminster has been able to wield significant power–enough power to hold Reformed theology captive.

Old Princeton/Westminster is the most problematic of the three streams of Reformed Christianity in terms of forging an evangelical consensus. It is the Old Princeton/Westminster stream that not only de-emphasized the revivalism of Edwards and his followers, but actively worked against it. The proof of this is Warfield’s two volumes on perfectionism, which was a full-throated attack on the revivalist tradition. This stream promoted cessationism, beginning with Warfield, and then O. Palmer Robertson and Richard B. Gaffin. I recall having to work through texts by Gaffin and Robertson as part of my RTS training. In fact, 55% of the current biblical studies faculty in the RTS system have Westminster degrees. In addition, Old Princeton/Westminster continued to advance juridical models that emphasized forensic justification, penal substitution, and a positional sanctification as what the gospel is really all about. Finally, Old Princeton/Westminster has held captive the other vibrant branches of Reformed theology, and has, at times, viewed itself as the guardian of all things evangelical.  This stems in part from Machen’s modern Reformed classic Christianity and Liberalism, which was followed in turn by Cornelius Van Till’s Christianity and Barthianism, and the tradition of defining Christianity with ever-increasing degrees of precision continues. Insiders to Westminster know that the institution itself has not escaped the quest for doctrinal purity.

By “Westminster Captivity,” then, I am referring to the critical role that this single stream of Reformed Christianity has had within modern evangelical thought. And, most importantly, I am calling on evangelicals to reconsider whether this stream has been such a positive force after all, which is not to say that it has been wholly negative.

As a Pentecostal most of the criticisms I had to deal with came from those firmly embedded within this particular stream of Reformed theology, and I utilized the New Light Divinity of Jonathan Edwards to ward off such criticisms. However, the more I began to study the Reformed tradition, the more I realized how critical pneumatology, coupled with a powerful experiential dynamic of conversion, was to its core. You get this clearly from first-generation Reformed thinkers like Martin Bucer and Ulrich Zwingli, neither of whom really embraced forensic justification, but both of whom were concerned to articulate a theologically and experientially robust account of conversion centered on the Spirit. It is no wonder that Puritans retained this approach since Bucer was Regius Professor at Cambridge and Zwingli’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger, was deeply influential on England through his Decades. It is from this steam that one finds the language of a “school of the prophets,” which sought to emphasize the way in which preaching was about a divine encounter that was experientially rich.

So, if the “New Calvinism” becomes a way of recovering the Reformed emphasis on conversion as an experientially-driven encounter and this, in turn, allows for the on-going role of the charismatic, then I am all for it. Such emphases will allow for greater continuity between Reformed and Wesleyan branches of the evangelical movement rather than continually reviving the antagonism of Old Princeton/Westminster. It is time that evangelicalism, and particularly its Reformed wing, freed itself from its Westminster captivity and begin to recover the notion that the gospel is the wonder-working power of God to alter the interior landscape of the heart, to heal diseases, to liberate from all forms of sin, and to usher in the gifts of the kingdom. When juridical models dominate, their emphasis on legal exchanges occurring in a heavenly court obscures the living reality that regeneration, sanctification, and the charismatic life are. Let the renewal begin.

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