In the 1980s and 1990s when I was first introduced to Reformed theology three names dominated the seen were James Montgomery Boice (Senior Minister at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia), Sinclair Ferguson who was teaching full-time at the time at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and R.C. Sproul. They are all Presbyterians. In those days “Calvinism”/”Reformed” and Presbyterian were synonyms.
Something happened, however. The Presbyterians lost their voice some would say and I’m not sure how to explain how that happened. Somehow “Reformed” today (2012) is more associated with Baptists (or Baptistic folks) D.A. Carson, John Piper, and Mark Driscoll.
How did this shift happen? How did the Presbyterians lose their popularity in Reformed America? I’d love your thoughts, insights, and perspective on how that happened. I’m not an historian nor am I familiar with all of the movements in all of the circles that now claim to be “Calvinist” so your thoughts are very helpful!
Can you all help me figure this out? How would you explain the shift? All insights welcomed! Thanks in advance!!! (And yes, this is for a project I’m working on)
(Editor’s Note: We have included the responses from Sunday. We encourage our readers to go the source link (at the end of this posting) and continue the discussion on Anthony’s blog)
I think there are several reasons. The most obvious is that John Piper was prominent speaker at the Passion events over the past decade, and a number of young evangelicals, particularly Baptists, discovered their theological vision from his influence, in conferences and books. These young evangelicals are now leaders in the church planting movement, prominent young pastors, or seminary professors. Since they are prominent, the evangelical publishers vigorously promote their books and they and their influence continues.
It is interesting that this brand of “Calvinism” is not a unified Calvinistic vision, as in Kuyper, but is centered on soteriology and missions. I don’t know what to make of this but this could be a reason for the popularity of “baptistic calvinists”, due to their heavy emphasis on missions and evangelism.
Scott F. Oaklna
I think it is basically due to Piper et al’s access to baptistic evangelicalism, which has a much larger reach. It’s ironic that, with all of their numbers and heavyweights in their own right, they were unable to keep me baptistic, and as a result, I’ve been Presbyterian for two years now and never looked back.
Prior to the “Gospel Coalition” and “Together for the Gospel” there was a Boice led conference called “The Philadelphia Conference for Reformed Theology” PCRT. (We hosted one of the sites at our church in Chicago). It then led to the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (still hosting this conference).
PCRT did have Baptists, Lutherans and Anglicans, but the primary movers and shakers were Presbyterians. It was not marketed as well, nor attended as well, but was the for-runner. Michael Horton was also an annual part of the conference.
During those years the Dispensationalism-Reformed battles raged. That kept Presbyterians from having too many open Baptist friends and Reformed Baptists hush-hush in large sections of American Evangelicalism. In the same way that Jeb Bush said that Reagan wouldn’t be a welcome part of current Republican circles, Tim Keller and others would not have been a welcome part to MANY in the battle ground years.
GC and TGC have allowed a more vigorous dialogue about the gospel and given a platform for that reformed stance on the gospel to come equally easily from a Baptist or Presbyterian position. (Something virtually impossible in the PCRT format)
Now the Disp-Ref battles are mostly a thing of the past; leaving a comfortable middle ground of discussion. The rise of Crossway books and its ESV with Reformed influences a part of the common dialogue of Evangelicals.
At the end of the day there are simply far more Baptists in the US and many of them have been significantly influenced by Piper, Keller, Stott, Carson and many others in such a way as to move away from strident dispensationalism toward a gospel centered theology.
Take that as a stab in the dark from my vantage point.
I’m no historian and may be completely off base, but here’s my guess:
I think you may have a flawed assumption that Presbyterians have lost their popularity to Baptists. My guess is that it’s not a matter of Reformed people becoming Baptists, but of Baptists becoming Reformed (at least in their soteriology). My guess is that Presbyterians like Sproul are actually as (more?) popular as ever in general…they just haven’t had the same level of growth as the YRR Baptists.
My perspective is that the SBC the largest denomination in the USA seems to be reflective of the evangelical world. Lifeway Book Store is a SBC run entity. If you review the theological history of the SBC, it’s pretty reflective of evangelicals in general. When the SBC went through its liberal period, much of the prominent preachers in the evangelical world were not reformed. As the Conservative Resurgence happened, the most visible leaders were non reformed evangelicals mainly, Adrian Rogers. As congregants, young pastors and seminary students looked towards the popular writers; they are getting teaching that in many ways was anti reformed. Add to the fact that the Internet hadn’t boomed and the constant sense of evangelistic/missions zeal in evangelical life with a lack of “Calvinistic” pastors who emphasized evangelism and missions and the evangelical culture heads into a non-reformed direction.
Let me wrap it up and say this:
The reformed resurgence has mainly been about soteriology and it seems that the Calvinists have won the day on it in this time in history. Why has it won? Because it answering the evangelistic/mission question that many want: Who saves people? The answer that many have always believed and finally have substance to is God and now they have latched onto reformed soteriology, which best answers the question evangelicals seem to care most about: How does someone go to heaven?
Kenneth Harrell (via Anthony Bradley)
This is From Kenneth Harrell who wrote this on my Facebook Wall: “Anthony, I think that the answer is very simple though so little regarded; while Presbyterians have always been the best scholars among the orthodox Protestants and perhaps always will be, Baptists have always been better preachers.
My point here is that if the average person based their acceptance of Reformed theology on what they heard across the pulpit rather than what they read, the Baptists will always be more popular. I think it is because Baptist preaching is a little more applicable to the actual lives of its adherents. For instance, for all of the robust discussions about the nature of sin and its devastating consequences in Presbyterian circles, these discussions usually end with an acknowledgement of our need for God’s grace and our need to accept and understand the all sufficiency of Christ as a remedy for the sin in our lives.
Baptists take it a step further and come as close to actually naming particular sins as you will get in the Reformed tradition and have an expectation that true believers will actually depart from such iniquity. While church discipline is important for both Baptist and Presbyterian traditions, Baptist preaching sets the parameters for that discipline more explicitly than Presbyterian preaching does. Finally Particular Baptists are more open to the extraordinary work on the Holy Spirit in ways that make Presbyterians uncomfortable.
Generally speaking Reformed Baptists lean towards New Divinity Jonathan Edwards style and against the anti Revivalism of the old school Princeton theology and its legitimate successors. As a result they often see no contradiction in articulating a Calvinistic soteriology while allowing and sometimes encouraging practices in the Revivalistic Evangelical tradition. This is more in line with how American Christians think and feel and resonates with them in a way that Presbyterianism fails to do so.
of us are attracted to the intellectual vitality of the Reformed tradition. Most of us were introduced to it through contact with the Reformed Anglicans such as Ryle, Packer and Stott and by Presbyterianism. Most us soon left them behind once we were introduced to the experimental piety of the Puritans, Edwards and particular Lloyd-Jones. In my case reading the Puritans, Edwards and Lloyd-Jones sent me back to my own tradition which started with John Wesley. I realized after tremendous soul searching that I was not Reformed by conviction but by desire to have an intellectually stimulating faith.
I am now comfortable in my Classical Pentecostal skin. Most of my dear friends, however, have discovered after the same reading that they are indeed Reformed but need an outlet for more emotional worship and an emphasis on historically rooted spiritual disciplines. For them the Reformed Baptists are the best of both worlds, heady and stimulating but also warm in the heart. My point is the popularity of the Baptists should take no one by surprise; Presbyterianism was a worthy schoolmaster pointing the way to the Particular Baptist tradition. Anthony and anyone else, would love to hear your thoughts on my contention.”
Here’s an anecdotal response–you can interpret. When I was at the Desiring God conference of 2006-“The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World,” during Driscoll’s talk he made a comment about having to get rid of all the crazy baby baptizers in his young church before it could grow. I then realized, as a Presbyterian, that things weren’t what I thought they were. Not that I want to hold that remark against Driscoll, but this was one of the largest gatherings of “calvinists” around and that comment just disappeared in the air.
I am an African-American southern Baptist. As a college student in the 90’s, l was looking for a campus ministry that taught the Word of God with depth and didn’t feel like a shallow youth group. For me, RUF was that ministry. I learned about Christ in all of Scripture, allowing your faith to inform every area of your life. That experience completely changed how I view my faith. It had the same effect on many of fellow students.
I would also suggest that perhaps Presbyterian polity and ecclesiology are a little more rigorous and that aspect doesn’t necessarily attract Americans. Even in my PCA church there are folks that complain and yawn when we talk about presbytery, etc.
Everybody wants good covenantal theology, but they don’t want to baptize no babies! (So they don’t want to be *too* covenantal.) 🙂
Fascinating, especially the contribution from Kenneth Harrell. My basic explanation would be that the Baptists won the internet.
Anthony Bradley is an Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at The King’s College, NYC. This commentary is taken from Bradley’s blog, The Institute and is used with permission of the author. To join the comment stream with your own thoughts, click on The Institute link.