Scholars tell us that there are at about 60 million evangelicals in North America. It is an ongoing debate among them, however, as to how to define “evangelical.” In the 16th century it meant something like this: “One who agrees with the Reformation doctrines of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solo Christo), and Scripture alone (sola scriptura) as the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. By the 18th century, however, what it meant to be an evangelical began to shift away from the objective, i.e., the gospel and the Scriptures, toward the subjective. By the early 18th century, under the influence of pietism Protestants were less focused on what Christ had done for me and what the Scripture says than on what the Spirit was or was not doing within me. Am I having the right sort of religious experience? That trend only continued through the 19the century. At the same time, especially in North America, the “evangelicals” had begun to lose track of the objective truths of the Reformation, that Christ accomplished freely, graciously salvation for me, that the Spirit graciously and sovereignly applies it to me. In the 18th century, the Remonstrant or Arminian theology that had been rejected at the Synod of Dort returned with a fury. Over the next two centuries it would eclipse the Reformation theology. At the same time, the theology, piety, and practice of the Anabaptists made great inroads. Neo-Pentecostalism emerged at the beginning of the 19th century and spread through the 20th century.
At least one other factor greatly disfigured the old evangelical theology of the Reformation: the rise of Protestant liberalism and the reaction by the fundamentalists. To be sure, some of the earliest fundamentalists were nothing but old fashioned Reformation theologians who sided with “fundamentalists” in the interests of defending the fundamentals of the Christian faith taught in God’s Word and confessed since the early 2nd century. Some fundamentalists, however, had an Arminian theology, a novel piety, and a practice shaped more by the 18th and 19th centuries than by the Reformation understanding of Scripture. By the 1940s the emerging “neo-evangelical” theology was the child of fundamentalism and already removed from the Reformation theology, piety, and practice.
Tensions Between The YRR Movement And The Reformation
It is against this background that we must interpret the rise of the so-called “Young, Restless, and Reformed” (YRR) movement or the New Calvinism of the last ten or fifteen years. A while back, at a conference, one of the attendees asked me why I sometimes say, “Young, Restless, and Augustinian” rather than YRR. I speak this way because what animates the YRR movement is not the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation as confessed by the Reformed Churches (e.g., in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, or the Westminster Standards) but they are children of the neo-evangelical movement who have rediscovered aspects of Reformed theology. That rediscovery focuses chiefly on one aspect of Reformed theology: divine sovereignty. They are not typically members of actual Reformed congregations nor do they seem devoted to the rest of the Reformed confession. E.g., many of them hold to
- The Anabaptist and Pentecostal doctrine of continuing revelation (as distinct from sola scriptura).
- The doctrine that God the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father (ESS). This doctrine comes perilously close to the Arian heresy rejected at the Council of Nicea (AD 325). It is flatly contrary to the Word of God as confessed by the Reformed Churches.
- A two-stage doctrine of salvation—something that has roots in Romanist theology and in the theology of Richard Baxter but not in Reformation theology at all—in which we are said to be justified by grace alone, through faith alone initially but justified and saved finally through works. This doctrine is a repudiation of the Reformation.
- Believer’s Baptism and thus reject the Reformation doctrine of the sacraments.
- The same sort of subjectivism that turned evangelicals away from the Reformation in the 18th century.
In short, the YRR movement has sought to append to existing neo-Evangelical theology mainly one one part of one Reformed doctrine and thus to re-define radically the adjective Reformed.
If they are not Reformed, what are they? Certainly they are predestinarian. Perhaps that would be the most accurate thing to say about them: Young, Restless, and Predestinarian. I have sometimes said, Young, Restless, and Augustinian since that is a broad category that encompasses a variety of movements over a long period of time. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) was baptized and raised in a Christian home by his mother, Monica, but rejected the faith as a teen. His rebellion lasted several years as he pursued an academic career as a pagan and taught Manichaean philosophy. He was converted under the ministry of Ambrose of Milan, after which he entered a monastery in North Africa. He was not allowed to remain there, however, and was made Bishop of Hippo along with another man and became sole bishop upon his colleague’s death.
As he grew in his understanding of the Scriptures and the faith, he found himself in conflict with a British monk, Pelagius, who was teaching in Rome that we did not all fall in Adam, that we become sinners when we sin, and that if we put our minds to it we can live a sinlessly perfect life. He taught that grace was for those who fall but we need not fall if we will not. He was greatly offended by Augustine’s talk of sin and grace. He challenged Augustine who replied at some length. There was a great conflict and through it Augustine worked out what are commonly called “the doctrines of grace.” Most of what we know as the Five Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619) were originally worked out by Augustine or by his followers. There is nothing new about the “doctrines of grace.” They are quite ancient in the history of the church.
The high Augustinians would become a minority in the history of the church but there were always present. In the 9th century the monk Gottschalk defended them vigorously with the help of some friends and was beaten and placed under house arrest for it. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas taught unconditional election and the doctrine of reprobation. He arguably taught that Christ died only for the elect. In the late-medieval period, in reaction to a renewed Pelagianism (e.g., William of Ockham and his )followers in the 14th and 15th centuries, there arose a neo-Augustinian movement, to which Martin Luther was exposed and which he embraced as part of his movement toward the Reformation doctrines of salvation sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo.
The Reformation Of Augustine’s Theology
Yet, Luther and the Protestants who followed him (e.g., Philipp Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin) did not accept some of what Augustine had assumed and taught. Augustine understood that there was a forensic (legal) aspect to our justification by grace, through faith but he assumed that God could only say of us “righteous” if we really are inherently righteous. In this sense, then, those YRR theologians who have turned to a two-stage doctrine of justification have gone back to Augustine, by-passing the Reformation. Of course, there are ways in which the YRR are not Augustinian. They reject his doctrine of infant baptism (indeed, the Reformed Churches agree with Augustine that the children of believers should be baptized but they disagree as to why and over the effect that baptism has). So there are ways in which the YRR are not Augustinian but to the degree that they dissent from the Reformed confession, they certainly are not Reformed either.
We should be thankful for Augustine of Hippo. We owe him a great debt. His brilliant defense of the grace of God against the Pelagians was truly epochal. All Reformation Christians are Augustinians but the Reformed are also Protestant. They are deeply indebted to Luther’s and Calvin’s revisions of Augustine’s theology. As we are thankful for Augustine so we are thankful that the YRR movement is a gateway for modern evangelicals and fundamentalists out of evangelicalism and fundamentalism and into the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
If you find yourself part of the YRR movement: October is Reformation month and this is a great time to rediscover the Reformed Reformation and the glorious, liberating truths of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and the Christian faith and life governed by Scripture alone. The YRR is a great starting point but it is just that.