Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Austin Fischer, "The New Calvinism and Preaching"

Austin Fischer:
My Conversion…to Calvinism

I was converted to Calvinism because of the preaching of John Piper. I was in high school and somebody gave me a book he had written. I read it, understood some of it, and then began listening to his sermons and through the process of listening to sermon after sermon, eventually discovered I was a Calvinist.

My story isn’t unique. Indeed, I think most people’s conversion to Calvinism goes something along the lines of, “Well I started listening to Piper/Chandler/Driscoll/Chan’s preaching and woke up one day a Calvinist.” There’s no mystery here: it’s a rare occurrence when one consistently sits under someone’s preaching and doesn’t pick up on his/her theological presuppositions. The mystery is why so many people are currently listening to Neo-Calvinist preaching. And by this I mean, what are the causes for the proliferation of prominent Calvinist preachers with so much influence and appeal, especially among younger generations?

Better Preaching Material?

C. Michael Patton recently examined this issue on his blog and his hypothesis is that in the current cultural climate, Calvinism just preaches better (than its alternatives, Arminianism in particular). By this he means that in a world of ambiguity, skepticism, and uncertainty, Calvinism’s emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God is better preaching material than any sort of free will theism. As Patton says, “Evangelicals love to hear about the sovereignty of God, the glory of God in suffering, the security of God’s grace, the providence of God over missions, and yes, even the utter depravity of man. This stuff preaches. This stuff sells tickets.”[1]

In the opening chapter of Against Calvinism, Roger Olson makes a similar connection by suggesting that Calvinism’s emphasis on certainty and sovereignty has been an anchor for those seeking refuge from the difficulties of finding faith in a postmodern context.[2]

I think Patton and Olson are clearly on to something. Although I’m no specialist on the matter, it’s always seemed to me that Calvinism is far more at home in modernity than postmodernity. 

Calvinism, once accepted, provides an inner logic with virtually no loose ends that offers its adherents a strong sense of certainty. Calvinists believe God is in absolute control, that no event happens unless God ordains it, and so in any and all circumstances they can be absolutely certain that God’s exact plan is unfolding. So for those going through certainty withdrawals, Calvinistic preaching can be a welcome remedy, especially when it is articulated with the passion of people like Piper and Driscoll. In other words, they are preaching that we can have certainty and they are preaching it with certainty. And this stuff does indeed sell!

As such, I think the current appeal of Calvinist preaching has less to do with passion and more to do with certainty. Thus, I would contend that it is not so much that Calvinism preaches better as it is that certainty preaches better. It always has and always will, but it is especially appealing in a postmodern context (or post-postmodern, or whatever we are in now), which seems inundated with ambiguity. I might go even further and argue that at the heart of most passionate movements, you will find a message of certainty preached with certainty.

Of course the larger issue is whether or not certainty, while obviously desirable, is responsible. This is a nuanced and contentious issue, but one I think needs some serious attention. I have argued elsewhere that certainty in our beliefs about God is not merely bad manners but bad theology.[3] In other words, of course preaching certainty with certainty is going to sell and create a movement. But does it create good disciples?
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