Postmodernism’s Clash With Calvinism

Putting aside perhaps, some of the extreme KJV only folks that I’ve encountered,  I have yet to find a group or mindset that is as "anti-Calvinism" as the Emerging Church Movement.  Sure, there are some like Mark Driscoll who have a background in this movement while simultaneously espousing Calvinism, but they are far from the majority of those who identify themselves with this postmodern re-thinking of church and Christianity.

From all of the reading that I’ve done so far of Emerging blogs, the best explanation that I can come up with for this clash has to do with something about Calvinists and also something about postmodernists.  Calvinists tend to value doctrinal precision, whereas Emerging Church postmodernists embrace mystery (some would say that they tend to shroud the revealed will of God in mystery) and prefer living with doctrinal gray areas.

When he wrote his 19th century "Warnings to the churches" J.C. Ryle could not have known about today’s Emerging movement, however – this statement of his – I think summarizes the conflict that we often see between Calvinists and Postmodernists:

"He who dares to say of one doctrine that ‘it is true,’ and of another that ‘it is false,’ must expect to be called narrow-minded and uncharitable…"

For the past several months I’ve been noticing an ordained Baptist pastor by the name of Henry (Rick) Frueh showing up on quite a number of blogs, expressing his anti-Calvinistic views.  Pastor Frueh, while vigorously rejecting the Emerging Church movement as recent as a few months ago, has lately been collaborating with, and doing podcasts on, an Emerging-friendly website. Many of his anti-Calvinism comments from around the blogosphere are themed around Limited Atonement being blasphemy (or as he calls it on a recent post on his blog "a great heresy"). My view of this mirrors that of Tom Ascol when he answered the same claim by the late Jerry Falwell.  I intend no disrespect to the memory of Jerry Falwell, however I wanted to provide this excellent quote written by Tom Ascol prior to Jerry Falwell’s departure to be with the Lord. From the Founders blog:

"…he added a statement that I find tragic. Here it is (about 10 minutes or so into the video): ‘We are not into particular love or limited atonement. As a matter of fact we consider it heresy‘. Don’t misunderstand me, I do not regard it as unfortunate that he articulated his and Liberty University’s honest beliefs, no matter how offensive they may be to me or to others. In fact, I applaud his willingness to state clearly not only what they believe but also what they do not believe. We need more such plain speaking in our day.

What I regret is that he finds particular atonement to be "heresy." This must mean that he and Liberty believe that those who hold to particular atonement to be heretics. Among the countless numbers of people whom he would brand with the H-word are many who would make any evangelical Who’s who list (including Bunyan, Owen, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Carey, Boyce, Mell, Dagg and Lloyd-Jones, to name but a few of the dead ones). I find this sad.

Does Jerry Falwell and Liberty University really judge John Piper to be a heretic? If we take his words seriously, as surely we ought if we are to honor him, then he believes that Al Mohler, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, D. James Kennedy, Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, Tom Nettles, Wayne Grudem, Sinclair Ferguson, James White and Fred Malone teach heresy."

You might be surprised to find out that some of the Emerging commenters on the site that Pastor Frueh is a contributor on, have actually objected to his Calvinism/heresy claim, after Pastor Frueh put a repost of it on that site. The reason that should surprise you is that so many of the Emerging Church participants there maintain an almost perpetual commentary against Calvinism on that site.  Take for example this post by the site’s owner – Chris Lyons, entitled "Why
Systematic Theology Leads to Divisive Failure
". The comments on that post demonstrated the clash between Calvinism and the postmodern mindset, and there are other similar posts there as well. 

So why the rejection of anti-Calvinistic ‘heresy’ terminology by some who have no love for Calvinism?  I think it’s because, to say that something of Calvinism is a heresy invokes that same J.C. Ryle sentiment that I quoted earlier.  Even if the heresy statement might have some merit to it in their way of thinking, saying something as dogmatic and certain as this is simply wrong and divisive to them. One of Pastor Rick Frueh’s fellow contributors recoiled at this terminology in the first comment on the post:

"With all due respect, calling this doctrine a heresy makes us no better than the other guys. I understand you have issues with this doctrine and you probably make some compelling arguments but once I got to the word, “heresy” I stopped reading. This post would have been better served (with that term in there) being put up on your blog."

And so it is that Pastor Frueh ended up taking the word heresy out of his repost on that blog, while leaving it in the copy on his own blog.  His fellow contributor, who is an Emerging Church writer on multiple websites, went on to further explain his problem with the wording choice:

"Here’s what I’m trying to say. [Calvinists] believe in Limited Atonement so they say all that don’t are heretics. You don’t believe in it so you say that all that do are heretics. Explain to me the difference?"

If you think like I do, and perhaps like J.C. Ryle did, you are wondering now, what if something actually is a heresy?  Can we speak out about it? Can we call it a heresy, or does postmodernism dictate to us that this is simply rude and out of bounds?  More than for this particular group alone, those are the questions that come to mind for the Emerging Church movement in general.  Are we now living in a time which parallels the title of David Wells’ book "No Place For Truth"?

Incidentally, Tom Ascol went on to say something that the Emerging Church blogger above would probably be very surprised to hear from a Calvinist:

"That certainly is his and Liberty’s right to believe [that Limited Atonement is a heresy]. I simply regret that they believe it. I do not regard my universal redemptionist brothers to be heretics because of their views of general atonement. I think they are wrong and they think the same of me. But that does not mean that we have to accuse each other of being heretics."

I’m hoping that this post will give those of you who have had little or no exposure to the Emerging Church an idea of what to expect from many who are friendly to this new way of thinking. It is a movement which does not appreciate doctrinal certainty beyond the very basics, in fact – they often see it as something divisive and unattainable.

The best sources I’ve found for understanding the worldview clash between Postmodernists and those who put a high value on doctrinal precision are, Phil Johnson’s Team Pyro blog, and Bob DeWaay’s Critical Issues Commentatry.  While my post was not intended to be a defense of Limited Atonement, I can recommend James White’s post entitled "Was Anyone Saved At The Cross?" (which I believe is available as a tract pamphlet as well), and also John Owen’s classic book: Death of Death in the Death of Christ.

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9 Comments on “Postmodernism’s Clash With Calvinism”

  1. Keith Says:

    Good post, Jim. I have a friend (an Elder in a Restoration Movement church) that has used the “heresy” label more than once, even in personal conversations. It makes me sad.

    You can’t beat Tom Ascol when it come to being gracious.

  2. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    Just to touch on something that you said about heresy. Can we honestly discuss it? Or, has it become the untouchable Biblical topic like the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified by the Jews at the hands of the Romans for the redemption of men? I much appreciate Tom Ascol and the work that he is doing. But, I distance myself from him on this aspect. Garrett’s assertions where that Dortian Calvinism is acceptable and tolerably consistent with Baptistic and church history. However, as Gene Bridges pointed out, it is not just the Doctrines of Grace that are the issue. Beneath these doctrines are foundational doctrines. To efface the DoG, does not merely suppose that they are in error as if standing alone, but declare the knowledge of the foundation to be sand, also. This is why Paul was so adamant about what was built upon the foundation which is Christ. The structure seen, must align itself with the unseen, for it is the unseen that gives form to the seen.

    The emergent movement echews systematics because the idea of propositional truths disallows the freedom to believe what we want. When Falwell made his claim, he was not just targeting the Atonement. Underlying his assertion was a fundamental understanding of the nature of God.

    I went back and forth with my pastor over this issue of God’s omnicience. Just what does God know? A deacon in the church stated unequivocably that God did not know his name before he became a believer. Where does such understanding come from? Another inactive deacon declared that predestination was unbiblical. I was teaching my daughter a form of “open theology” based on the Arminian scheme of autonomous choice. All this, because, without even mentioning universalism or it contradiction, limited atonement, the general teaching moves everyone to the conclusion that God has yet to learn who will be saved.

    It is not enough to just claim that we merely have differing perspectives, our pet Scriptures, and our own interpretations. That is exactly the postition of the EC’ers. To them in their postmodernist mindset there can be no truth claims except that all truth is opinion. A mindset by the way is a system(atic) of beliefs that lead to a certain mode of behaviors. Their perspective did not arise in a vacuum. It was taught to them by a church that allows for differences in opinions.

    “I do not regard my universal redemptionist brothers to be heretics because of their views of general atonement. I think they are wrong and they think the same of me. But that does not mean that we have to accuse each other of being heretics.”

    I take it here that he means unbelievers, for even Paul considered Peter’s actions heretical and anathema, and Peter was a believer. Here is the problem. The other sides in this controversy do consider the Dortian perspective heresy. Garrett, like the EC’ers do not like to use that term because it is divisive. And TA does not like it for the same reason. It puts an end to dialogue. But, the otherside, does not care to continue the dialogue, anyway. They only do it out of a desire to survive. To cite Dort is to engage the subject of heresy. The point of Dort was to clearly articulate what Christianity was not. To attack the heart of TULIP, the doctrines of the Atonement is to declare Calvinistic theology, heresy, whether the term is used or not, whether there is surrendered congeniality, or not.

    My contention is this. If it does not matter what the truth is. If it does not matter that some is “false-teaching” and therefore heresy, then there is no need to continue the conversation. Declare the truce. Exalt evangelism above propositional truth. Make wide the way. Why not?

    The Word of God however does not grant us the leaway. It demands that if anyone speaks he is to speak as an oracle of God. We are to learn, as Paul said, not to go beyond what is written. And, to study to show ourselves approved, workmen who do not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth. We are to rebuke and command others not to teach what is error. We are not even to teach opinion, even if that opinion is true. We are to establish all things, to prove what is the acceptable will of God. We do not have hearsay, we have “Thus says….”

    For all the talk of the conservative resurgence, and its claim to inerrancy, the counter claim of not knowing what is amply revealed, undermines any surety we might have to inerrancy. We must establish its truth before we can without shame advance its veracity.

    When my pastor issued a paper claiming Calvinism to contain heresies. I simply said prove it. I was met with deafening silence. Shrill outbursts like Falwell’s and other’s is a shill. They are not interested in the resolution of the issues. The controversy, to them, is the means of gathering to them those given to the need of identifying with a cause. They tickle the ears, teach their ideas, but when confronted, they respond with the ever conquering trump, “Well, that’s your opinion.” Which as I said, effectively makes their position vacuous, and destroys the efficacy and sufficency of Scripture as the the final rule and authority in all matters of controversy.

    This is as you noted of Spurgeon, not a matter of each man to his own. But just who is Christ? The unfortunate thing when it comes to the Atonement is that those who claim its universality make it a common thing. The Scripture however does not portray the blood as in a bucket waiting for the multitudes to dip the sop and apply it to themselves. In fact we have the testimony of Scripture that the blood sanctified Christ. Once and for all. It is through his sanctification that we are sanctified by that same blood, shed once, applied once to the only begotten Son of God. And it is not spilled repeatedly each time a confessor wishes to join the flock. Indeed, this issue of the blood, which is so central to the Baptists, is taken so lightly as to make it a mockery.

    http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/search/?q=Hebrews+9%3A11-14

  3. Nathan White Says:

    Jim,

    Thank you for clarifying the real issues.

    For those of you who are not real familiar with J.C. Ryle: start getting familiar with him today. Oh that more people in the church today would take a close study of this great man!

    My friend and brother, Andrew, has actually posted a short note on Ryle, which can be found here.

    By the way, Jim, you are a heretic for having the audacity to claim that we can define the term ‘heretic’. 🙂

  4. Joe Martino Says:

    Jim,
    Thanks for posting about me here and other places. I do appreciate the love. May I assume you also pray for me with equal vigor? This post was a wonderful reminder to me about how little you really know of someone when you post about them. I believe there are things that are heretical. I even believe you can and should discuss them, I’m not sure that particular BLOG is the place. But that is for another day. I just wanted to stop by and say, “Thanks.” I prayed for you and your back today.
    P.S. I was defending Calvinism here and I challenge you find a post where I wrote against it.
    Peace

  5. Jim Says:

    Joe:

    When in the article above you say “[Calvinists] believe in Limited Atonement so they say all that don’t are heretics”, I think is just one of the places where you wrote against Calvinism in a way that misrepresents it (or at least broadbrushes it). But the bigger issue that I have with some of your writings is all of the places that you say that people who believe in doctrinal precision “have the truth cornered”, or in the case of my blog you sometimes write that “I have a corner on the old truth”. I think your certainty that Calvinists can’t be right in the doctrinal areas that they are certain about, ends up being a kind of dogmatic certainty of it’s own. But you seem to have great confidence in *that* certainty. I don’t mean to single you out on that one alone, as this is a widespread characteristic that is apparent in many who identify with the emerging church, it’s the denial of one person’s certainty in favor of their own ie: “I’m certain you can’t be certain about…”. As far as you and I are concerned; feel free to email me, I won’t use this thread to discuss any personal issues. I do appreciate the prayer that you mentioned however. Thank you.

  6. Joe Martino Says:

    Jim,
    If you go back and look at the whole context of the above comment I said, “THEY” which is a reference to the “other guys” which is CRN.com and such, not Calvinist as a whole.
    Thanks for allowing me to clarify your misunderstanding.
    Joe

  7. genembridges Says:

    Thank you, Jim.

    Why do I think this is the same “Henry” that visited Triablogue awhile back?


  8. I think your article was fair and measured. I took no offense with an honest and even passionate disagreement, and I took that perspective from your writing.

    Thank you for remaining scholarly and within a general spirit of brotherhood. I have a strong opinion about some of the Calvinist teachings but claim them as brothers, I do believe the greatest God honoring attribute that usually comes with many reformed/Calvinistic believers is an unusual committment to the sacredness of Scripture.

    In that I am edifyed.

  9. terriergal Says:

    “For the past several months I’ve been noticing an ordained Baptist pastor by the name of Henry (Rick) Frueh showing up on quite a number of blogs, expressing his anti-Calvinistic views. Pastor Frueh, while vigorously rejecting the Emerging Church movement as recent as a few months ago, has lately been collaborating with, and doing podcasts on, an Emerging-friendly website.”

    Rick Frueh runs a lawn care business in Florida. See page 14 here
    http://www.tampaport.com/userfiles/files/SBE%20by%20Firm%20April.pdf
    I wonder why his profile page on his blog doesn’t say that, but instead says he’s an “ordained baptist pastor” — it says he has a Bible College degree but no mention of seminary. Strange what he chooses to say and what he chooses not to say about himself when speaking for the Lord.


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