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Dancing, Arson, and a Plain Reading of Scripture: Brian Zahnd and Austin Fischer Debate Two New Calvinists in Chicago

Last Wednesday, Zondervan and the Sojourn Network (a New Calvinist church planting group) partnered to sponsor a debate on Calvinism in Chicago. The debate featured four participants: Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones representing Calvinism, along with Brian Zahnd and Austin Fischer representing non-Calvinist Christian theology. The reason Zondervan was involved is because the debate was designed as a promotional event for the two New Calvinists’ book: PROOF: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace published by Zonderan.

Debate Participants

Daniel Montgomery is a local pastor of a New Calvinist church in Louisville, KY affiliated with Mark Driscoll’s “Acts 29” church planting network. He received his ministerial and theological education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a school known for its outspoken, New Calvinist president Al Mohler. Timothy Paul Jones also received his education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, even being awarded a doctorate. He is well-known in conservative and New Calvinist Baptist circles for writing and lecturing on Christianity.

Representing non-Calvinist Christian theology were two pastors and authors: Brian Zahnd and Austin Fischer. Zahnd pastors Word of Life Church outside Kansas City and is the author of several books including his most recent book: A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. Austin Fischer is a pastor at Vista Community Church in Temple, TX. He is author of the book: Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism.

“New Calvinism”?

When the subject of “Calvinism is raised in conservative Evangelical circles, someone will inevitably launch the “Not All Calvinists are like that” objection. So, before the first commenter on this post embarrasses themselves, let me clearly say: It is a given that not all Calvinists are alike. And everyone grants that there is a diversity of views even among Calvinists. The specific type of Calvinism that is being discussed in this post—the kind promoted at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—and the kind espoused by the two representatives in the debate Wednesday is “New Calvinism.” This particular form of Calvinism has been made popular by, and is embodied in the teaching and ministries of, such popular figures as Mark Driscoll and John Piper. It is sometimes (I think rightfully) called Neo-Puritanism because it more resembles the views of Jonathan Edwards than John Calvin. New Calvinists do not share the emphasis that Calvin himself had on Christology and ecclesiology, for example. Instead, they are fixated on soteriology. Preferring to call their views “the Doctrines of Grace,” [1] New Calvinists take their soteriological system to be synonymous with “the Gospel.” This is why a group of New Calvinists have called themselves “The Gospel Coalition.” Calvinist preacher and New Calvinist hero Charles Spurgeon famously said, “Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.”

What’s the Debate?

Space does not permit an exhaustive definition nor historical exposition of the New Calvinist movement. So, I’ll constrain my description to the areas around which the debate was formed.

Proposition 1

First, New Calvinists emphasize their own interpretation of Scripture regarding the doctrines of Election and Predestination. They teach that God is meticulously in control of all that takes place in the universe. Calvinist thinker R. C. Sproul encapsulates the New Calvinist’s view of divine “sovereignty” this way: “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.” Therefore, all that happens in the universe and throughout history is 100% God’s doing, God’s will.

This obviously raises significant concerns when one considers all the evil, oppression, and injustice that has taken place in history and continues to take place even now. That’s why the New Calvinists more often than not refuse to acknowledge that this belief makes God the “author of evil.” Instead, New Calvinists claim it is simply a mystery how God can be “sovereign” (in their absolutely controlling conception), while also morally good, and yet evil still exists. They confess however that they are “comfortable with that tension.”

For non-Calvinists, this “tension” is incompatible with the revelation of God found in Jesus Christ crucified for all people (including his enemies). That is why the first “proposition” up for debate in Chicago on Wednesday was whether or not the New Calvinism was congruent with a christocentric vision of God.

Proposition 2

Secondly, the so-called “Doctrines of Grace” (aka T.U.L.l.P.) also constitute a view of God’s redemptive activity called “monergism.” The Monergist view holds that the redemption is an act of God entirely and completely independent of any response from human beings. From the New Calvinists’ perspective, if any response from human beings is involved in the redemptive work of God, God will not receive maximal “glory” for redemption. So New Calvinists reject “synergism,” which posits that human beings are granted the capacity to respond to God’s free offer of saving grace. For New Calvinists, redemption is accomplished through God’s eternal “decree” which occurred before creation, and through God’s “irresistible” grace. So, the second proposition debated was whether or not the cause of repentance and saving faith is monergistic or synergistic.

Observations and Comments

Whenever I watch a debate like this one, I tend to question the moving parts: the participants, the format, the moderator, etc. In this case, it seemed particularly lopsided in favor of the New Calvinists. The moderator, Mark Galli of Christianity Today, is a Calvinist and regularly writes on the subject. At one point during the debate he even quipped that he should be receiving royalties from the sale of Austin Fischer’s book, since its title riffs of the now-famous title of a Christianity Today article chronicling the rise of New Calvinism (“Young, Restless, Reformed”) which he claimed to have created. Even the venue favored the New Calvinists, since Missio Dei Church is part of the Sojourn Network of which Daniel Montgomery is Co-Founder and President.

Yet, even though the venue and moderator both favored the New Calvinist participants, Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd clearly owned the debate right from the start. From Fischer’s opening statement, in which he forewarns listeners to look out for an “avalanche of euphemisms” when it comes to what Calvin called the “terrible decree”—namely Reprobation [2]—Austin and Zahnd controlled the tone and content of the debate.

Austin’s prediction was impeccably correct. Montgomery and Jones never once tried to defend Reprobation, but consistently spoke of God’s election only of those predestined to be saved. That is, until, Timothy Paul Jones eventually and surprising confessed “Yes” to “Double Predestination” . To the uninitiated, this confession was meaningless. But, to those aware of Calvinist jargon, this confession is devastating. Double Predestination is the belief that God predetermines the destiny of both the Elect and the Reprobate. This is precisely what most Christians find appalling, and what the Church Catholic has condemned in councils and among both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. This is, most assuredly, a heresy to the Church Universal.

But the New Calvinists continued unrepentantly with their completely predictable presentation. They appealed to Ephesians 1, Romans 9, and John 15.16 like they were trump cards. They proceeded as if this were an undergraduate dorm room at Southern Baptist Seminary. But they were severely mistaken. With two metaphors, Fischer and Zahnd dismantled their arguments and pointed to a Jesus-looking God.

The Fire-fighting Arsonist

The first killer metaphor was employed by Fischer. He wanted those who would watch this debate to know that despite the New Calvinists’ clever attempts to disguise it, the reality is that whatever condition they claim God is saving humanity from, their theology necessitates that God caused it. If it is true, like the Calvinists claim, that God rescues a group of preselected people from the tortures of their conception of hell, it is only because God “ordained” that humanity would be damned in the first place.

Fischer’s metaphor of God wanting the world to “burn down” conjures the image of the firefighter who has a narcissistic pathology which tempts him or her to start the very fires he or she is charged to rescue citizens from. This firefighter puts lives in danger only for the “glory” of being the one who swoops in to the rescue.

The reason this metaphor is so damning (pun intended), is because the New Calvinist routinely use the idea of God “saving some” from hell as the pinnacle of their argument for God’s redemptive glory. “Everyone should go to hell for their sins” Calvinists routinely shout. But, this is only just if human beings are responsible for their sin. In New Calvinism’s conception of why people go to hell, it isn’t because they have sinned and must suffer the consequences. No, it is because God “ordained” that they would sin and suffer the consequences before God brought creation into being. If any theology “robs God of glory,” it is the one that makes God out to be a psychopathic firefighting arsonist.

Making Baptists Uncomfortable

The second killer metaphor in this debate was utilized by Brian Zahnd. Zahnd is no novice at debate and as a veteran preacher his rhetorical skills are masterful. With one metaphor he shifted the imaginations of listeners and buried the New Calvinists beneath a conceptual mountain they could not uphold. In reference to the redemptive work of God, Zahnd compared God’s electing call to a dance. “Anything but *dancing*!!” cry the Baptists. But Zahnd would not let up. He compared the New Calvinists’ monergistic view to a sad image of God dancing “forlornly” with a mannequin. It will be difficult for anyone who watches this debate to remove that image from their imaginations. Here Zahnd borrows from some excellent and ancient theology. The image of God dancing harkens to mind the doctrine of perichoresis: the inter-penetration of the Persons of the Godhead of one another. This is pictured as a dance into which humanity is invited to join. But if the New Calvinists’ monergism is correct, God has elected to dance with a mannequin: the inanimate figures who only resemble responsible persons. What a devastating picture! The New Calvinists never recovered.

The Two Very Worst Calvinist Arguments Ever Uttered

But, if I’m being fair, Fischer and Zahnd didn’t only win this debate because these two metaphors overshadowed anything Montgomery or Jones said. No, to be fair, the New Calvinists did a tremendous job of presenting the very worst arguments in favor of their views, and that was just as responsible for their defeat as the skill of their opponents.

For example, one argument Montgomery made repeatedly was that Fischer and Zahnd simply were not employing a “plain reading” of Scripture. At one point he asserted this bizarre accusation three times in the span of a minute. The problem with this assertion, of course, is that a “plain reading” of Scripture doesn’t exist. There is no such thing. This rhetorical move has been made famous by Fundamentalists: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” But this approach to biblical interpretation is nothing short of an illusion. Every person who comes to the Scriptures does so from their subjective perspective. There is absolutely no guarantee any thing that is “plain” to one person will be plain to another. Here, the New Calvinists assume their particular, subjective reading of Scripture is the “plain” reading.

This is not just a failure for Montgomery and Jones. No, this is a failure for evangelical hermeneutics. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary should be ashamed of themselves after watching that debate. Montgomery and Jones should march back to their alma mater and demand every cent they spent on their M.Div. and Ph.D. respectively. There is no justification for how they can be trained in biblical interpretation and remain that misguided outside of gross educational negligence or intentional indoctrination.

But, unfortunately, their disastrous arguments did not end with presumptuous interpretation. They also attempted to pile guilt onto Fischer and Zahnd for “questioning God.” To the New Calvinists, their interpretation of Scripture is synonymous with God himself. To question their interpretation is to question God. That is why throughout the debate, both Montgomery and Jones attempted to shame Fischer and Zahnd by rhetorically asking them the question Paul poses in Romans 9: “Who are you O man to talk back to your maker?” Ironically, it was not Fischer and Zahnd who dripped with arrogance, it was the New Calvinists. They arrogantly equated their interpretation of Scripture with God’s authority itself.

Bill Cosby Reacts to New Calvinism from T. C. Moore on Vimeo.

Concluding thoughts

Obviously, Wednesday’s debate will not settle the matter for many if any. In fact, it may serve to intensify the debate for some. But what’s clear is that two of the brightest lights in the New Calvinism movement hosted a debate that heavily favored them for the promotion of their new book on Calvinism and lost. The debate wasn’t close.

Hopefully, what will come from this will be more substantive future discussions. I’d personally like to see the New Calvinist move beyond arrogant and presumptuous shaming. If New Calvinists can acknowledge that they approach the Scriptures like everyone else, with presuppositions, then a more fruitful discussion may be had. But until then, the same old proof-text wielding debate will continue to repel thoughtful Christians.

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1. The tenets of New Calvinism can be summarized in the acronym T.U.L.I.P., which stands for: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints. For more on New Calvinism, see:

Against Calvinism by Roger Olson (Read my review here: http://www.academia.edu/1181701/To_Kill_a_Tulip_A_Review_of_Roger_Olsons_Against_Calvinism)

– “The New Calvinism” by PBS [http://video.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365215800]

– “Young, Restless, Reformed” – [http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/september/42.32.html]

2. Reprobation is the doctrine which holds that God predetermines who will be punished in hell for eternity before God created the universe. These people never have a chance to repent; they are “damned” before their birth.