• Are the Young/Restless/Reformed crowd jerks??

Are the Young/Restless/Reformed crowd jerks??

In the wake of the hoopla surrounding Rob Bell’s book (i.e. “Bellgate”!) I’ve had the opportunity to discuss a number of issues with various friends who find themselves generally on the side of Bell’s sharpest critics. The conversations have been good and have challenged everyone involved (hopefully) to pursue truth and faithful orthodoxy, but with charity and Christian humility.

One such friend of mine, Jake Hunt, wrote me privately a few days ago with his thoughts on things and a loving challenge to me regarding some of my comments and posts I’ve shared over the past few weeks. Jake is my brother in Christ and a friend since my college days and I have always valued his criticism, particularly when we find ourselves on opposite sides of an issue.

As I read Jake’s letter I felt that his points were too good not to share with others and I invited him to let me post it as a guest post here in the Dojo. Jake agreed to it and our hope is that this can be an example of what Christian debate/dialogue/disagreement SHOULD look like. In other words, I want to give Jake an opportunity to criticize and challenge without having to worry about me becoming defensive or dismissive and vice versa.

I will respond to Jake’s letter in a subsequent post. In the meantime, stop by his blog, Wiser Time, and get to know this brother from another mother!  Also, feel free to respond or leave comments in the comments section below…BUT make sure they are civil and respectful. Theological disagreement can be sharp and passionate without being petty or mean-spirited. Any flaming or personal attacks will be deleted without hesitation. Remember grasshoppas…Disciple Dojo is where we verbally spar, not fight to the death!

Okay, here’s the post (and just for fun, Jake wrote it in the form of a mini-thesis paper…because he and I are both former seminary geeks!). Enjoy!


Historical Prologue

Much of the criticism of Rob Bell’s new book came from people in the Reformed camp. Most notably:

–          Justin Taylor quoted the publisher’s blurb and Bell’s video, calling the denial of hell “false doctrine.”

–          John Piper linked to Taylor’s post on Twitter, commenting “Farewell Rob Bell.”

–          Kevin DeYoung posted a long, detailed review of the book.

But the big story was more about the blogosphere’s reaction to the book than the book itself. Many criticized Taylor and others for commenting before the book was released. Once reviews came out, they were criticized for their alleged closed-mindedness. There was a common refrain: the young Calvinists are self-appointed doctrine police, quick to jump on anything they disagree with and pronounce it heresy. This post, which started as an email from me to James-Michael, is occasioned not by Bell’s book per se, but by this reaction to the Reformed crowd as a whole.

It has become conventional wisdom that “The Young/Restless/Reformed are jerks.” Like many stereotypes, this one is sometimes true. However, I suggest that many people outside the Reformed scene assume it when they read Reformed writers, although the evidence does not always support that conclusion, and in fact sometimes goes the other way.

Argument 1: Taylor et al were not being jerks toward Rob Bell.
Your chief angle on the Bell controversy has been the alleged eagerness of the YRR to pounce on anybody offering a different perspective. You’ve referred to JT’s post consistently as an example. Having read it several times, I just don’t see the meanness. I definitely see seriousness. If you wanted him to say “Bell says x, and that’s cool, whatevs,” he certainly wasn’t going to do that. But he doesn’t take potshots, he doesn’t use the word “heresy” (and neither did DeYoung, although you keep using it in your comments), and he doesn’t say “see, the Emergent guys are all pansies” or anything like that. He says 1) false doctrine is bad, 2) it’s better for guys to be honest about it, and 3) it sure looks like Rob Bell is embracing universalism. I know the “he hadn’t even read the book” angle, but he specifically says “if the publisher’s description is right,” then goes to the video of Bell talking, which Bell and his publisher definitely wanted people to watch and talk about.

On to Kevin DeYoung. His review is long, thorough, and very critical. He specifically describes the book as “heterodox.” Now, nobody uses that word by accident. It means you probably initially wanted to say “heresy,” but decided to be really careful. He uses the word “heresy” exactly once in the whole review, referring to universalism and “every other heresy.” He doesn’t make fun of Bell for being cool or edgy or Emergent; he deals with the merits of the book.

The bigger question is whether we should be worked up over this at all. Now, when Piper invited Rick Warren to speak at a conference, I don’t think that was worth getting worked up over. I think this is absolutely worth getting worked up over. The fact that others have embraced universalism, or inclusivism, does not make Bell’s view a legitimate strand of Christian orthodoxy. (That’s just the Bauer hypothesis; that the existence of non-orthodox thought means there’s no such thing as orthodoxy.) Universalism and inclusivism are bad doctrine, and they need to be called out for what they are. The fact that you’re willing to strongly critique dispensationalism (on which I agree with you), but chafe at these guys critiquing universalism, is strange to me.

Argument 2: Many non- or anti-Reformed writers can be jerks toward us.
You often link to Ben Witherington and Greg Boyd, two scholars you admire. I’ve read and used some of Witherington’s stuff, and he is indeed a good scholar. He’s also a jerk sometimes, particularly toward the Reformed. You may recall his spreading rumors about Grudem and the ESV a few years ago (for which he apologized, to his credit). He referred to Schreiner’s NT theology as a blot on God’s moral character. He spoke at RTS my first year, and I was excited that we’d brought in a respected voice from outside our tradition. Then he made biting, petty critiques of something he didn’t like, and my respect fell sharply.

Just last week, Witherington referred to Piper and Driscoll as representatives of “the hyper-Calvinist wing of the evangelical world“. Now this is a word with a definition. Hyper-Calvinism teaches that it’s improper to exhort nonbelievers to faith in Christ. It essentially says no evangelism, no missions. It’s roundly rejected by Calvinists, and specifically by John Piper. Witherington’s referring to Piper, Driscoll, and me as hyper-Calvinists either means 1) he doesn’t know what the word means or 2) he’s deliberately using it as a pejorative. Either one would be embarrassing, but the man’s a capable scholar and I just doubt that it’s #1.

The same could be said for Boyd, who, in an article you linked, equated Calvinism with determinism. Does he not know enough theology or philosophy to know the difference, even if he rejects them both? Of course he does. But he knows there’s rhetorical punch in equating the two. If John Piper wrote an article equating open theism and Arminianism, you would rightly be up in arms.

There are more examples. Roger Olson, who’s so disappointed that American evangelicals fuss over theology, wrote that he can’t tell the God of Calvinism apart from the devil. N. T. Wright can’t fathom how anybody might understand his work and just disagree, so whenever someone critiques him he just says they haven’t understood him. (D. A. Carson couldn’t understand you?) He has no problem with straw-man critiques either. I’m not the first person to point this out.

My point isn’t that these guys are bad or always wrong—they’re not—but that Reformed writers by no means have a monopoly on uncharitable language.

Reformed guys have the reputation of “attacking” those who differ from us. We certainly deserve it at times. But not only is the problem not limited to us, I’m not even sure it’s more true of us than it is any other crowd. Roger Olson says our God looks like the devil. Steve Chalke, quoted by Brian McLaren and many others, calls my view of the gospel “divine child abuse.” Rob Bell says my God isn’t good and can’t be trusted. These aren’t C- and D-level bloggers or commenters like me; these are respected guys publishing books.

So I suggest that you and others tend to jump on YRR guys for being mean, or uncharitable, or overly critical, while ignoring or downplaying the same tendency among guys that you like. Submitted for your consideration.


Stay tuned to the Dojo for my response to Jake.


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  1. Many of us find Reformed theology itself distasteful.That’s the problem. Nothing in this defense makes me feel any differently. No doubt the author is a nice guy. But, the relationship between Whitefield and Wesley was stained as well, and theology was the reason.


    jm Reply:

    Yes, Craig, I agree that having as deep a theological divide as Calvinists and non-Calvinists do can be straining to any relationship; but that is why the Body of Christ is urged to embrace a true love for one another (the famous “love” chapter in Corinthians ISN’T written about marriage–it’s about normal Christian love between believers!). It’s hard sometimes because it strikes at the very core of how we perceive and proclaim the Gospel.

    But it’s encouraging to go back and read Wesley’s eulogy of Whitfield and see that in the end, in terms of that relationship at least, love definitely wins. I hope the same can be said of my relationship with Jake and other Calvinist brothers and sisters in the end as well.


    Comment by Craig L. Adams on March 30, 2011 at 5:28 pm

  2. Gordon Spivey

    Not fighting here… truly interested.

    Could somebody point me to a discussion on how Calvinism isnt equated with determinism. It seemed to me that Calvin was a theological determinist, but I am so open to being wrong about that.

    In the comparision that is made, is Open Theism to Arminianism as Determinism is to Calvinism? There seems to be some catagorical differences there. But again, I could be wrong.


    jm Reply:

    Gordon, that’s a good point. I think I could see the spectrum looking something like this, in order of most deterministic to least:

    Determinism (i.e. Hyper-Calvinism)
    Classical Reformed
    Reformed Baptist
    Classical Arminian
    Communal Arminian
    Open Theism

    I could be wrong or over simplifying, but this is how it seems to me. I welcome any correction though.


    Gordon Spivey Reply:

    Its interesting that philosophically Calvinism and Open Theism (seen as opposite ends of the spectrum) are kind of weird cousins… brothers even. They both start from the same presupposition that if God knows the future, its because he’s determined it. From there they take it in different directions.


    Zack Reply:

    As someone who falls squarely within the Classical Reformed field (with significant Baptist leanings), I would highly recommend R C Sproul’s Chosen by God. It’s a fairly short, (and by no means academic), book which directly addresses the issues of free will and double-predestination (which is roughly equated to determinism) from a Classical Reformed position.

    In short, he explains how, from a Classical Reformed perspective, predestination for salvation does not abrogate free will and does not equate to double-predestination. In fact, Sproul, along with those on the Classical Reformed end of the spectrum, argue that double-predestination is an outright heresy and is miles from the nearest incarnation Reformed theology. From reading Sproul’s discussion of double-predestination, I would almost venture to guess that a theologian like him would find more fellowship with a Wesleyan than with someone who espoused double-predestination.

    Obviously, you may disagree with his positions, but for an average read, I feel that this book is one of the most concise, well-written explanations of a Reformed view of soteriology (written from the perspective of a Reformed theologian) that I have ever read.

    I know that simply recommending a book always seems like a cop-out for questions like this, but, over the years, when I discuss these thorny issues, I always revert back to Sproul’s explanations. Over time, I’ve found that I simply cannot come up with anything more concise or more direct on my own.


    Gordon Spivey Reply:

    If I get a chance, Ill check it out. I use to listen to Sproul a good bit, but I still never saw a difference. I know he WANTS there to be a distinction, but I just didn’t see it. I haven’t read that book though.

    Interesting how far his son goes though…



    JMH Reply:

    Good question, Gordon, and good replies JMS. (I’m intrigued by your separating classical Reformed and Reformed Baptists; I’ll have to think about that.) The only thing I’d add is a quick take on the difference between Calvinism and determinism.

    Determinism basically holds that everything is fixed, and there’s nothing you can do to change it; human choice is irrelevant or an illusion. Calvinism differs in many ways, but two key points for now: First, Calvinism teaches not that everything is prearranged by fate, but that everything is foreordained by a good, wise, powerful, and personal God. Secondly, the way God executes what he’s foreordained includes what we call “second causes”, including human decision. So our choices aren’t irrelevant; they’re real, and part of the way God carries out his good, pleasing and perfect will.


    Comment by Gordon Spivey on March 30, 2011 at 5:58 pm

  3. Chris Paytas

    I’ve no issue with Calvinism or the reviews by those in “that” camp. I find DeYoung to be off base but I didn’t find him to be mean. My complaint of the “calvinism” camp is those who follow Piper, Driscoll, DeYoung, et al. The comments on Witherington’s blog, Dalrymples blog, etc…are mean and nasty. Not to mention, in many cases, devoid of logic or reason. The following as an example from Dalrymple’s blog.

    “Incredible!! Bell is a mega-church pastor. He claims he can talk to “post-moderns.” The mega-church is the most “modern” form of ministry there is based on the “cult of personality.” This is mainly how Bell has built his ministry. He is “the” guy with “the” word. It is alienating and isolating and irrelevant. I was chatting with a friend of Bell’s who said that Bell tried to step away from his church but he couldn’t because it would all fall apart. If he was committed to the church as family and not to his own cult of personality he could let it fall apart and he could give up the video-star persona and place his congregation into the hands of God. Those who seek to be most relevant become irrelevant in short order. The gospel is always relevant because we are sinners and it always comes with an offense. Get over yourself Rob Bell.”



    jm Reply:

    I too am often more annoyed with Piper/DeYoung/Driscoll’s followers than I am at they themselves. Of course the same goes for fans of almost any “Christian celebrity/writer/uber-pastor” on all sides of theological discourse. As much as I love, say, N.T. Wright, I am troubled by people who agree with him 100% on everything and act as if he’s the final word on matters of doctrine. It’s easy to do with those whom we admire…which is why discussions like this are incredibly helpful to the Body of Christ and should happen more often!


    JMH Reply:

    You’re right, Chris; there’s a lot of meanness in blog comments. I don’t dispute this at all, or that it comes from my side. But if you go to Between Two Worlds or Challies or DeYoung’s blog, you’ll see the same thing from the other side: uncalled for, over-the-top meanness, lack of logic, ad-homs, etc.

    Two points I’m trying to make here are 1) This is more a characteristic of the blogosphere than it is of the Reformed world and 2) In some cases, the leaders of the non- or anti-Reformed crowd are guilty of the same kind of inflammatory language they decry from no-name commenters on the other side.


    Comment by Chris Paytas on March 31, 2011 at 12:33 am

  4. […] Should Learn About the Holocaust – Mohammed Dajini Daoudi and Robert Satloff, New York Times Are the Young/Restless/Reformed Crowd Jerks? – James-Michael Smith Can the Catholic Church Change? – Michael Leach, Huffington Post […]

    Pingback by Thursday Headlines & Links - Shane Raynor on March 31, 2011 at 7:30 pm

  5. Jonny Five

    James Michael,

    It’s J. Wyatt. Been a long time, brother. Glad to see you are bringing some civil debate to the topics at hand. Too many folks seem to be posting nonsense these days without actually speaking to the issues and without any respectful debate.

    Case in point is Matthew Paul Turner’s blog about Mark Driscol’s Hell: (http://www.jesusneedsnewpr.net/my-thoughts-on-mark-driscolls-hell/). Not only was the original post scathing and chaotic in its thought, but the pile on from other replies was just ridiculous. I added my two cents at one point to a string on the post hoping to give some clarity to an issue being disccused, but it appears that was a futile effort. Folks want to argue and quickly type their curt responses rather than taking any time to seriously engage in dialogue. Glad to see you will be doing so with Jake.

    For the most part I tend to agree with Jake here. There is much animosity on both sides, and I don’t think any side has the monopoly on bad manners. Here’s to grace that prevails despite our grandest efforts (failures) at being good!

    I also like your point in one of the replies above that we shouldn’t base our convictions solely on the thoughts of one single author/theologian on all subjects. While I do tend to agree with Piper/Driscoll on many points of theology, I’m not going to believe something just because they said it. Also, I do think Driscoll could calm down a bit from time to time. Usually, I don’t mind it when Piper gets worked up, because I love his passion for the gospel and he is willing to examine himself and apologize if he believes he’s gone off track.

    In general, I think we all could probably use a little more humility in our approach, even when taking on what we believe is heterodoxy.

    Looking forward to more good dialogue.


    Comment by Jonny Five on March 31, 2011 at 9:34 pm

  6. Colin McFerren

    I’ll probably write a more substantial comment when time allows. But I’ll share one of my reactions right away.

    First, so everyone knows where I stand, I agree with Jake’s thesis.

    I never had issues sharing/debating/loving brothers and sisters who were not Reformed in their theology. Disagreements happen in the church and in my experience they’ve been constructive and civil.

    Which brings me to recent events… I have been more offended and put-off by mean, petty, nasty notes directed toward “my camp” by recent blog posts and comments than ever before. So “the feeling is mutual”.

    “We” don’t have the monopoly on meanness. I’d say it’s prevalent.

    That reality strikes me however as patently applicable to this post. It’s case-in-point for Jake.

    And if the “mini-thesis” needed point #3. I’d suggest that where meanness rears it’s ugly head, it’s often provoked. “[YRR] comments are…Not to mention, in many cases, devoid of logic or reason” is sure to elicit a [likely negative] reaction! So as to be sure I don’t get included in the “mean” crowd…I’ll click ‘submit’ before I respond in detail how I really feel about that.


    I hope my next statement won’t be written off as a cliche Reformed… but this whole ‘battle’ that’s raging is because of sin. It’s the primary unifying characteristic of each person on both “sides”. It’s not how God wants it and it’s not how it should be.

    God made Him who had so sin to be sin for us, so that we might become His righteousness.

    In service of the King,


    Comment by Colin McFerren on March 31, 2011 at 10:13 pm

  7. […] you’re enjoying the discussion here in the Dojo with my buddy Jake (“Are the Young/Restless/Reformed crowd jerks??“), stay tuned for more that I will share in coming posts as I deal with the specific issues […]

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  8. The point that American Calvinists are not the only jerks in public theology is indisputable. However, in my experience, the vitriol written and spoken by American Calvinists—at least in the last few decades—has far exceeded those of their targets.

    Mr. Hunt is correct that non-Calvinists can and have been jerks, but even the examples he cites of non-Calvinist jerkiness were weak. Boyd calls Calvinism determinism and that qualifies as jerky? Wright claims to be misunderstood and that qualifies as jerky?

    I’m all for spreading around the blame for the current depressing state of dialogue in American public theology, but I don’t think that the comparison is equal. American Calvinists have certainly owned the lion-share of the jerkiness.

    Jon Stewart made this same mistake by equating liberal/Democrat jerkiness with conservative/Republican jerkiness. It simply isn’t an equal comparison.

    Where is Bell calling anyone wolves in sheep’s clothing? Where is Boyd calling anyone a heretic? Where is Olson attempting to have Piper thrown out of the ETS?


    jm Reply:

    T.C. I pretty much feel the same way. I hope to address the difference between critiquing someone’s position/theology and questioning their relationship with Jesus, their devotion to accurate teaching of Scripture (even if they are wrong in their understanding of what that entails), and their place within the Evangelical tradition. I believe this is what turns “criticism” in to “jerkiness.” 🙂


    Comment by T. C. Moore on April 26, 2011 at 7:41 am

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