“Neo-Reformed” or “Neo-Fundamentalist?”

Roger Olson has a very interesting post on his blog from Mike Clawson, examining the phenomenon of “Neo-fundamentalism.”

According to Clawson, the more recent instantiations of fundamentalism

typically focus on contemporary social issues like gender roles or sexual orientation. And while they would still agree with earlier fundamentalists on issues of scriptural inerrancy or anti-evolution, their theological arguments more commonly focus on the nature of truth and Calvinistic soteriology. Institutionally, this movement is not arising from the older bastions of fundamentalism – Bob Jones University, Moody Bible Institute, or even Liberty University – but within mainstream evangelical circles – from Gordon-Conwell, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; from well-known and influential mega-church pastors in the Twin Cities, Seattle, and Southern California; and from massive worship festivals and ministry conferences popular with tens of thousands of evangelical college students as well as numerous pastors and lay-leaders. Leading voices associated with this trend include scholars like David Wells, DA Carson and Albert Mohler, Religious Right media-personalities like James Dobson, and well-known pastors like John MacArthur, John Piper and Mark Driscoll.

I’m quite familiar with this sub-culture within evangelicalism, but I hadn’t heard it described as neo-fundamentalist until Scot McKnight did so a few years ago.  I agree with Scot and Mike that “neo-fundamentalist” better describes this movement than “neo-Calvinist” or “neo-Reformed.”  There’s doubtless much more to be said, but here are just a few reasons why I say this.

First, there’s a strong anti-creation impulse that runs through this culture.  I remember hearing one of the above-mentioned people making the flippant remark that Christians shouldn’t worry about stepping on the grass or killing dolphins since it’s all going to burn in the end.  That sort of remark represents a deeper depreciation of creation and culture as expressions of worship.  Further, one could make the case that John Piper’s call for Christians to delight in God tends to come at the expense of creation rather than in and through creation.  While some elements of a Calvinistic soteriology are prominent within this culture, what is lacking is a broader and deeper Reformed worldview.  Most crucially, the tendency to emphasize redemption from creation runs counter to the Reformed vision of God’s redemption of creation.

Second, the movement’s militant posture toward the wider culture is manifest also in its lack of genuine engagement with other viewpoints–even evangelical ones–and its inability to enjoy mutually beneficial conversations with other Christian traditions.  This may be due to the movement’s exaltation of certain figures as “authoritative voices,” but there’s a strong impulse of suspicion toward fellow Christians who aren’t within the camp.  Again, this runs counter to the Reformed vision of seeking to grasp God’s truth wherever it may be found.  Further, it fails to heed the call to be “reformed and always reforming,” which happens through intellectual humility, self-reflection, and genuine conversation with others.

Just one example of this Reformed vision of vigorous learning and robust intellectual engagement: N. T. Wright is at Calvin College all this week, speaking at both the January Series and the Symposium on Worship.

I may be slightly understating things to say that N. T. Wright hasn’t been charitably engaged by many within the “neo-fundamentalist” sub-culture.

As I said, this movement does indeed draw upon certain elements of a Calvinistic soteriology, but it is largely disconnected from broader Reformed traditions and deeper Reformed theological resources. 

For at least these reasons it seems more appropriate to describe the movement as “neo-fundamentalist” rather than “neo-Reformed.”

17 thoughts on ““Neo-Reformed” or “Neo-Fundamentalist?”

  1. jonathan mcgill

    All good points. Though I would say that because their particular blend of soteriology is the lens through which they view almost everything, we should probably put “Calvinistic” before “Neo-Fundamentalist.” It’s pretty important to them; messing with their soteriology is messing with the gospel.

    1. timgombis

      I hear what you’re saying, Jon, but as Clawson notes, the movement is also male-dominated and largely patriarchal. So, in addition to one or two other issues, gender is close to the core for them. So, I don’t know that putting all their issues up-front is as important as naming the culture’s fundamentalist operating dynamic.

  2. athanasius96

    I like the distinction because my theology is Reformed as well, and yet, it is so unlike theirs. That wouldn’t bother me except that they tend to say their way is the only way to understand Reformed theology. Yes, that sounds like fundamentalism in the poorest sense of that term.

    1. timgombis

      I feel the same way. I also recall something McKnight said about a conversation he had a neo-fundamentalist who would have considered himself a Calvinist. McKnight said something about Barth and this young man reacted strongly to him. McKnight asked what was wrong with Barth, didn’t he know that Barth was Reformed? He had no idea and rejected the thought, altogether.

      1. athanasius96

        Yes, I have embraced Barth in the wake of questions that were not answered from my more conservative background. When I was a student under Dr. Carl Sagan (of Cosmos fame), the theology didn’t measure up.

        I usually lead with Thomas Torrance in such conversations because he is easier to justify to these folks. He also has some credibility among scientists because of his close association with Michael Polanyi and his rigorous study of Clerk Maxwell.

  3. Pingback: Neo-Reformed or Neo-Fundamentalist « Dappled Thoughts

  4. Dan Jr.

    I’d like to think of myself as Reformed in the classical/simplistic sense: God is great, we need God desperately and God’s grace is beautiful. But in the last 4 or 5 years it seems the “young, restless and reformed” camp has co-opted the term Reformed. Culturally it doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Words often don’t have static definitions but are more symbolic. At this point reformed in America automatically symbolizes things I can’t cozy up to.

  5. Rodney TeSlaa


    Neo-Reformed and Neo-Improvisation:

    Love the your title: “Faith Improvised”? I’d be curious to hear how much of what you mean by Faith Improvised is similar in thought to what was at the heart or start of “Reformed thinking”. If at the beginning the intention was to be a church that was indeed, “always reforming”, it seems to me the intention hints of improvisation. What do you think was the intent at the outset of the reformed movement, where is it now and what connection do you see that either has in common with what you intend by Faith Improvised.

    * Why is it when we see improv performed, we gravitate together (sit down front)?

    What does that tell us about ourselves and how we sit in church?

    forever curious,

    Rodney TeSlaa

    1. Steven McCarthy

      I’m not Tim, but, it seems to me, the idea that being Reformed means to be always improvising strikes me as potentially misleading. Let me try to explain and nuance. The whole slogan is “the Reformed Church, always reforming”. It starts with actually being a church with a defined theology, piety, and practice, which has been reformed in these areas according to the Scriptures. The idea of being Reformed, I believe, is to be a church re-formed back to the Scriptures and the best examples of the historic Christian church. The idea of always reforming is to continually reform the church in this manner against the tendency for errors and corruptions to creep in over time. The posture of this phrase is one of commitment to return to Biblical (ie. apostolic) purity in doctrine, worship, and government, and to fight to preserve that purity against doctrinal errors and corruptions in practice. This picture strikes me as rather different from the picture of improvisation. The goal is not to make it all up as we go along.

      Now, I realize that improvisation does not necessarily mean that exactly. Improvisation does, after all, carry with it the idea of a foundation upon which one is improvising. So, I’m not going to die fighting the analogy of improvisation. I do want to offer a caution against its potential abuse, however. The goal of the Reformed theologian is not so much to offer something new to people, but to help lead the Church back to to the faith once for all delivered to the saints in all it’s doctrinal and practical ramifications, and in the context of his or her own time and place.

      To further clarify, Reformed theology, as I see it, is not anti-traditional. Nor does it deny that the Church makes doctrinal progress over time. It does make progress, often times in the face of novel errors which it must respond to from the Scriptures and the history of exegesis. And, somewhat against the spirit of our day, the Reformed theologian holds Biblical, Systematic, and Historical theology to all be deeply important to his work, not just one of these academic disciplines against the rest.

      If what is meant by improvisation is clarifying our faith against a diversity of novel errors with the “faith once for all delivered to the saints”, then I wouldn’t say it’s the worst analogy, and perhaps that’s what has been meant. I do happily embrace the creative thinking that goes in to good theology as we try to find more helpful ways to summarize and illustrate what the Scriptures have said. I can appreciate that kind of improvisation. But, on the other hand, I want to stress that novelty should not be the goal of a theologian who is concerned for preserving the peace and purity of Christ’s church. These are just some improvised thoughts, offered with a desire for unity and clarity in understanding. Soli Deo Gloria!

      1. timgombis

        Hi Steven,

        I do think that the two notions are distinct, as well–the reformed impulse and improvisation. They’re related, but different. The title of my blog is meant to signal the tradition-rooted character of the faith that demands faithful expression in new settings and contexts rather than “novelty” or “making it up as we go along.” In fact, that wouldn’t be improvisation at all.

    2. timgombis

      Hey Rodney,

      I think that genuine improvisation and the reformed impulse (always reforming) are very closely related, though probably not the same. Improvisation is thoroughly rooted in tradition though always adapting to new situations and new challenges. It is always bringing to bear past faithfulness in order to render faithfulness in the present. So, it is always new, but it should continue in many ways to look the same, drawing on and adapting previous performances to meet unanticipated situations–both opportunities and challenges.

      The reformed impulse seems very closely related, seeking to remain a fresh expression and embodiment of the faith, but here the emphasis seems to be always coming into closer alignment with the truth, being nourished and transformed by the truth constantly.

      So, they’re both postures and patterns of community life that are transformative and life-giving and life-sustaining — and both necessary!

      Because of all of this, I’d consider myself Reformed. As far as church being a life-giving and compelling improvisation of Christian faith . . . I’m all for it! Now, how to get there . . .

  6. Dave

    As someone who grew up in a fundamentalist church, “educated” in a fundamentalist college, and then ventured away from that whole world, eventually, after five years, landing myself in the Young Restless Reformed “camp”….I am shocked to learn that I have returned to my roots!

    I do see some points that are valid in this essay and post, but I thought I might mention some points that I think are helpful for the discussion.

    To include James Dobson in this list is quite strange. And while some people in this wide stream might listen to Johnny Mac, many of us are interested in contextualization and Johnny is simply opposed to all such compromise.

    Those who I know and spend my time with in the YRR “tribe” will never turn on Focus on the Family, will delight in God and robustly delight in creation, have opted out of the culture wars, and seek to engage culture, will appreciate much of what NT Wright says (especially his work on Jesus and New Creation), and are generally open to learning from people who don’t enjoy a certain flower celebrated proudly in Holland, MI.

    I do cringe when I hear someone in my crew as “Is so-and-so reformed?” which is a code phrase for, should I give them any credence.

    This group is wider and varied than most realize. I do think a wing is in or leaning towards fundamentalism, and I can sense powerfully with what I like to call my funda-phobia.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks, Dave.

      I think he notes that Dobson is pivotal in the developing history, not that he’s currently important those within this sub-culture.

      If you’re part of a YRR group that engages more widely, that’s great! Any and every Christian group ought to be engaged in mutually-blessing sorts of relationships. Too often that doesn’t happen, however.

      Like you say, any group has diversity in it, but I think the value of Clawson’s essay is that it captures well the development behind the movement and some of the main attributes of its dynamics.

  7. Pingback: Last Week’s Reading : on Spectrums, Defining Success, and Creationism « New Ways Forward

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