When I was in Elementary School my family packed up our Winnebago and took a road trip to Yellowstone National Park. This was before the days of digital photography, and every so often I come across some old stuck together 4×6 prints from that trip. To call them amateurish would be complimentary. Old Faithful looks like one of those under-pressurized drinking fountains you have to practically cup your mouth over to get a drink from (usually found in churches-why is that?), and I actually took a picture of a trash can.
This is not a post about Yellowstone, drinking fountains, or trash cans. I only mention that trip and those photos to give myself an excuse to talk about the bubbling sulfur hot-springs found in that particular park. And I only mention those by way of metaphor.
Something about those stinky, gurgling hot-springs must have captured my Elementary school heart, because I took about fifty pictures of them. If you’ve never had the pleasure, they are pools of mud that bubble and churn, occasionally burping up sulfur gas. Like this:
They are therefore an apt metaphor for Evangelicalism (a movement I consider myself a part of, so this is self-deprecating, not snarky. OK, it’s a little snarky). Leaving aside for the moment the very difficult question of defining ‘Evangelicalism’ (hopefully a topic of a future post), it is striking to notice the many similarities that movement has to those hot-springs which so captured my attention. When first looked at, there is the appearance of a calmly unified whole. Yet there is constant activity below the surface, as things churn about and elements slam into one another. Occasionally something bubbles up to the surface and pops, leaving a slight stink in the air.
Evangelicals are children of conflict. Whatever else it may be, Evangelicalism is certainly an effort to band together across various Christian traditions and denominations to find common ground and fight the good fight, wherever it is found. Much of that cooperative conflict is good and helpful- standing true against such foes as the depreciation of Scripture, theological liberalism, and various counterfeits such as the social and prosperity gospels. Yet the result of this trans-denominational cooperation is the creation of a movement which is on the one hand combative by definition and in the other diverse by nature. The result is predictable: an inter-denominational campaign of co-belligerency begets an intra-evangelical proclivity towards instability. To put it another way: we bicker a lot.
Recently, it seems that much of the in-fighting amongst evangelicals has surrounded the emergence of what has been called at times the ‘New Calvinism’ or the ‘Young, Restless, and Reformed’ movement (henceforth YRR). Organizing this movement into any sort of simple definition or explanation is at least an equal challenge to defining ‘Evangelicalism,’ and is again not the point of this post (but is again perhaps a topic for later). And it is also not my purpose at this point to evaluate this movement (ditto the other future post parenthetical comments). Rather, I want to start a discussion about vocabulary. Yes, it took a while to get there, but that is what this post is actually about.
As I said, the YRR movement has produced a fair amount of conflict and consternation in various quarters. There are some who are alarmed that something they see as dangerous (Calvinistic soteriology and its suspected implications) has so captured the hearts and minds of many younger Evangelicals. Yet there is another negative reaction which has occurred- this time from within established Calvinistic and Reformed pockets of Evangelicalsim. This objection seems to be at its root based on vocabulary. Carl Trueman recently addressed this issue over at the Reformation21 blog, writing
Reformed’ as a term has expanded its meaning over the years to the point where it is no longer a given. In the context of the Gospel Coalition (perhaps a bellwether for the contemporary evangelical scene), it seems to mean something akin to ‘broadly Calvinistic in soteriology’. Thus, adherence to all or a subset of the Five Points of Calvinism qualifies one as Reformed. Used in this way, it includes Baptists and Charismatics. Some object strongly to this. I cannot summon any emotional energy to combat it: it seems to me that as long as one knows the term is being used somewhat equivocally, no real harm is done.
Yet not all share Trueman’s impassibility. I don’t need to provide all the links, because if you are plugged in enough to the blog scene to be reading The Decablog you’ve most likely come across some of the various complaints which have been leveled in recent years regarding this very issue- the allegedly sloppy use of the words Calvinism and/or Reformed.
Reformed Baptists find themselves in an interesting place in this whole debate. Before Apple took over the world, kids used to go outside play a game called ‘pickle,’ where you simulated a run down on the base paths between first and second, with two fielders trying to catch a base runner in the middle and tag him out. That’s sort of the position Reformed Baptists are in, looking to the YRR crown on the one side and seeing much that falls short of our own use of the term Reformed, yet trying to avoid being tagged on the other side by those who see our ecclesiology and other Baptist convictions as making us something less than what that term historically represents to them.
I basically agree with Dr. Trueman on this one. Words change over time, people use them differently in different contexts, and in the end it’s difficult to get too excited about the whole thing. Plus, to return to the original metaphor, much of the conflict which has bubbled to the surface on these issues (on all sides) has been accompanied by a tribalism and persnicketyness which has been distasteful. Like those Yellowstone sulfur burps- it’s all a bit smelly.
Yet the whole situation does raise some interesting questions which are not without merit. Are we nearing a time when the meaning of words like ‘Calvinist’ or ‘Reformed’ have changed so much that they are no longer useful in the ways they were once utilized? The fact is that time both changes the meaning and wears out the usefulness of many words we use. When was the last time you visited a Particular Baptist church?
I’m still comfortable using the term Reformed Baptist to describe myself, but I am troubled by the fact that there is virtually no one outside of my own circles who understand exactly what I’m talking about. Yet somehow I don’t think that telling people I’m a 1689 BCF subscribing, regulative principle practicing, Lord’s day observing, law and gospel distinguishing, cessionistic, covenantal, Calvinistic, preaching centric, means of grace focused, evangelistic Baptist is a long term fix either.
Christians who believe the same things I do and who went to the same sort of churches I’m a part of used to have a different vocabulary to identify themselves with. Perhaps a similar change will take place in my own life time. After all, a T.U.L.I.P. by any other name…