New Calvinism and Anabaptism in conversationNow ice returns to the form it once was, as the God who took on flesh returns to his—spiritus, the world now forever altered by his having been in it; —altered now as the landscape is when we partake of its transformation as he partook in ours.
—From “Spring Break” by Sally Ito
This past winter – with its harsh weather, treacherous driving conditions and dismal power outages – reminded me that God is the sustainer of all things. As spring appears, I’m reminded that God is also the one who makes all things new: melts the ice, cracks the facades we hide behind, brings fresh hope, transforms our circumstances.
God – who conquered even the power of death – is always in the business of transformation. In our individual lives. In our churches. And in our denomination.
This spring, our provincial conferences will gather. We will consider afresh God’s call on the life of our denominational family. We will talk about budgets and boards. We will also discuss and discern important theological issues.
New Calvinism considered
Some of our recent theological conversation has centred on “New Calvinism,” a particular way of understanding Scripture and doctrine made popular by theologians such as Timothy Keller, John Piper and Mark Driscoll, and advocated by networks such as The Gospel Coalition and the Acts 29 Network.
In many ways, New Calvinism seems to be a response to the seeker-sensitive movement of the past two decades, which many New Calvinists see as soft on sin and weak on the reality of absolute truth.
Because several MB pastors, church planters and churches are affiliated in some way with the New Calvinist movement, it’s not surprising that New Calvinism is having a profound influence on our denomination.
A number of writers and teachers provide their perspective on New Calvinism in the fall 2013 Direction journal, a semi-annual publication of North American MB schools and conferences. Some believe the inter-action will enrich and sharpen our mission, while others wonder if New Calvinism and Anabaptism are compatible in any way.
An ox and a donkey together?
John Neufeld, pastor of Willingdon Church, Burnaby, B.C., and council member of The Gospel Coalition “was once introduced as a ‘Reformed Anabaptist’ to a member of the Coalition, and [the member] responded with the words of Deuteronomy 22:10 – ‘You shall not plow with an ox and donkey together.’ [Neufeld] smiled, but inwardly was not amused.” He sees no contradiction between the Reformed and Anabaptist streams, but believes they can inform each other in helpful ways:
The Reformed side of me wants to chastise the Anabaptist by saying that while you think of the church as the people of God and following Jesus as the calling upon the church, you have not asked how it is that individuals can become the people of God. It is the lack of a clear doctrinal formulation that leads to a church no longer founded on grace, premised instead on human opinion, and led astray by every wind of doctrine….
And yet the Anabaptist side of me wants to chastise the Reformed movement as well. Sharing a doctrine of grace without an ecclesiology premised on the priesthood of all believers in dangerous. It leads to abuse of power and trading a vision in which there is level ground before the Cross for one that places the priesthood into fewer and fewer hands.
However, not everyone sees the situation through such a positive lens. “Deep theological issues are at stake here,” writes Myron Penner. “There are also signs that a deep fissure is forming in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren landscape between the New Calvinists on one side and everyone else on the other.”
Our sovereign God
A key area of debate centres around our view of God and what it means for God to be sovereign. Does sovereignty mean that God orders and controls (“predestines”) every moment of our lives? Or does divine sovereignty mean that God sustains the world, while still allowing humans to choose freely in some matters – meaning that the events in our lives can have more than one outcome depending on how we respond?
There are implications here for the way we view salvation. From an “unconditional election” perspective, “God chooses his own apart from any merit they have in themselves. The common ‘mainline evangelical’ merit of ‘choosing for Christ’ is rejected here, for if even our power to choose has been invaded by sin, we are unable to choose for God,” explains Neufeld. Even our free will has been damaged by sin. No one can possibly choose Christ while living under the effects of sin. Therefore, every Christian has been preordained by God to become a Christian – and human free will does not come into play at all.
On the other hand, many Mennonites tend toward an Arminian understanding of election, which emphasizes the ability of humans to respond to the gospel. The MB Confession of Faith explains it this way: “From the beginning, God’s purpose has been to create for himself a people, to dwell among them and to bless them…. As people place their trust in Christ, they are saved by grace through faith, not of their own doing, but as a gift from God.”
Given that explanation, Anthony Siegrist and Gary Wiebe say that “it is difficult to square the practice of believer’s baptism with descriptions of providence that cannot locate human freedom within the will of God.”
The role of women
The conversation around New Calvinism has other practical implications, especially regarding women in ministry. Did God create women and men with distinct yet complementary roles? Or are men and women equal as followers of Christ irrespective of gender? The way we answer this depends on how we read Scripture, how we define truth, and how we view the interaction between the Bible and culture.
In 2006, the Canadian conference passed a resolution on women in ministry leadership, blessing “each member church in its own discernment of Scripture, conviction and practice to call and affirm gifted men and women to serve in ministry and pastoral leadership.” Essentially, we agreed to disagree without prejudice.
However, as Brian Cooper points out, “New Calvinist-minded members of the CCMBC consider allowing latitude on this point to be a troubling and dangerous step. New Calvinist advocates of complementarian theology view this as egalitarianism, motivated by an underlying feminist agenda. This egalitarianism, if followed to its logical hermeneutical and philosophical conclusions, could lead the CCMBC not only to disassemble biblical authority in the denomination but also ultimately to affirm the validity of homosexual practice.”
Others are not as alarmed by the 2006 resolution, believing that Scripture can speak in multiple ways about the issue of women in ministry leadership, without diminishing the truth found in its pages.
Writes Myron Penner: “Every act of biblical interpretation is a subjective experience mediated by tradition and reason (where ‘reason’ is understood to include the capacity to form inferences). There is no such thing as ‘the Bible alone’ – if by ‘alone’ one means separate from experience, tradition, and reason. This is not to say that biblical interpretation is completely subjective or that we should be skeptics about the Bible’s capacity to reveal truth. The postmodernist mistake…is thinking that the subjective dimension of interpretation entails the impossibility of access to objective truth.”
If God is truly in the business of transformation – both personal and corporate – then we should not be surprised by this frank and pointed conversation around New Calvinism. Denominations and cultures are always in a state of flux, influenced by a myriad of factors, including various theological trends.
As Jon Isaak reminds us, “MB churches have historically been open to new movements within evangelicalism,” such as the recent spiritual warfare movement or the Church Growth Movement in the 1980s. Even the first Mennonite Brethren were shaped by diverse influences – all the way from Lutheran Pietism to German Baptist theology. In many ways, nothing has changed within our movement.
Despite substantial challenges, we pray that change will be for the better – strengthening our movement rather than eroding our foundation to the point of fracture.
“Divergent theologies within the MB fellowship can help provide correctives to potential blind spots and facilitate good theological contextualization in a rapidly changing landscape,” says Brian Cooper.
Like sun and wind and rain, unseen forces rarely change a landscape overnight. But those forces will eventually alter the scenery. We wait prayerfully to see what type of transformation our Mennonite Brethren landscape will undergo in the coming years.
For more information on the fall 2013 Direction, including a full list of articles, or to order a copy, go to www.directionjournal.org.