In 2007, Mark Dever wrote a series of blog posts titled “Where’d All These Calvinists Come From?” He listed 10 reasons for the blossoming of Reformed theology’s Tulip within evangelicalism, including influential pastors like Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, Piper, and MacArthur. He also referenced the inerrancy controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention, authors like J.I. Packer, and publishers like Banner of Truth. From this wide range of sources, Dever unearthed the roots of the recent Reformed Resurgence.

I agree with all of Dever’s choices. But I wonder if there is a significant cultural event that could be added: September 11, 2001. It may be true that a variety of practices, preachers, and publishers laid the groundwork for the recent swell of Reformed theology. But why has the greatest growth of the movement taken place only in the past decade? What role has September 11 played in the Reformed Resurgence?

In speaking of September 11, I am referring not only to the terrorist attacks, but also the events set in motion by the terrorists. Two costly wars. Terrorism scares. The Great Recession. These related events compounded the cultural change initiated by the hijackers.

Furthermore, the past decade has delivered a number of horrible disasters (two massive tsunamis, Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes in Asia and Latin America, tornadoes in the Southeast). Though not related to September 11, perhaps these tragedies have also played a role in the New Calvinism by forcing Christians to wrestle with difficult doctrines. For many of us, the result has been an increased appreciation for the sovereignty of God in the midst of human suffering.

There is no way to measure the impact of September 11 on evangelicalism. At best, we can see hints here and there as to its theological repercussions. Other than the people who were there and experienced the horror, it’s unlikely that many people would attribute any sort of theological shift to the events of that dreadful day. I doubt that many of the Young, Restless, and Reformed would consider September 11 to be an important moment in their turn toward Reformed theology.

But sometimes, it’s not our personal journeys that carry the most influence. It’s the cultural air that we breathe. Is it possible that September 11 and its cultural aftershocks “changed the air” so to speak, so that a wide segment of evangelicalism began entertaining questions that didn’t seem as pressing before?

Let’s look at a few ways in which the post-9/11 culture may have created an environment conducive to the rise of New Calvinism:

1. September 11 forced “the problem of evil” to the forefront of theological reflection.

Terrorism brought the concept of “evil” back from a purgatory of positive thinking and practical theology. Politicians started using the term again. Preachers began sermon series on the reality of evil and suffering. Our society’s aversion to words like “evil” and “sin” suddenly appeared like an ostrich trying to avoid the truth.

But many young people went beyond mere recognition of evil’s existence. We began working through questions related to God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. The classic problem of evil (“If God is good and all-powerful, why does evil exist?”) came roaring back as a topic of intense discussion.

Before September 11, my beliefs about evil and suffering had always bowed to the reality of free will:
God wants to be loved.
Love cannot be forced.
Therefore, God gives us free will.
Anything bad that happens is a result of humans using their free will.
God cannot be blamed.

After September 11, this standard line of argumentation crumbled. Having witnessed the carnage of the terrorist attacks, I questioned whether free will was worth the trouble. Is it worth it having free will just so God can be loved without force? Isn’t there something bigger than our love for God?

I also realized that the free will response didn’t get God off the hook; it just pushed His presence into the distance a little further. I remember thinking: With a word, He could have altered the plane’s direction to miss the building. In an instant, He could have alerted security screeners’ eyes to the terrorists and exposed them before they ever got on the plane. He could have empowered the passengers of United 93 to not only burst into the cockpit but also take control of the plane before it crashed. Could, could, could. But He did not. Why not? Does choosing not to stop a tragedy you could prevent make you, in some way, partly culpable?

2. September 11 created an environment in which the easy answers of pop evangelicalism were no longer satisfying.

The typical evangelical response to “9/11 problem of evil” questions was to shrug them off and take comfort in the “God-moments” that occurred on that day. Emails circulated telling the story of the woman who narrowly escaped the tower before it fell, or the two beams forged together in the heat as a makeshift cross, or the Bible that was preserved in a smoldering section of the Pentagon. Rather than wrestle with the big questions, many Christians took comfort in the kindness of a providential God who kept the worst from occurring.

But I remember how these responses seemed so inadequate. The towers fell. Some people survived. Praise God! But others died. Do we still praise God? If God were involved in a person’s survival, was He not also involved in the life that perished? 

Then, there was the sentimental response. “Where was God on 9/11?” He was there, in all the heroic acts of that day. God was in the firefighters who plunged to their deaths with the towers. God was in the rescue workers treating people on the scene. God was in the volunteers who spent days trying to rescue people from the rubble.

But this response was inadequate too. It merely drew attention away from the bigger and more intense questions: Where was God when the hijackers took over the planes? Where was God when it really mattered? The vision of God put forth by many evangelicals was that of a doting grandfather who arrived too late to stop the tragedy, but in time to help us put the pieces back together again.

3. The post 9/11 culture was ripe for a generation of young people to dig into the Bible for answers to some of life’s most perplexing questions.

The typical evangelical responses were superficial, and I rejected them. They offered temporary comfort by pushing aside the hard questions. Judging from conversations I’ve had with many friends, the sentimental response didn’t resonate with them either. And the next few years only intensified the problem. The schmaltzy, family-friendly banter of Christian radio and books didn’t tell us why our friends were coming home from the Middle East in body bags.

September 11 did more than rock the foundations of the Twin Towers. It changed the cultural ethos and rocked the theological foundations of many younger evangelicals. We started questioning things we had always assumed. Many of us started digging deep. We wanted answers. And Reformed theology didn’t shy away from the hard questions.

When I think about the Christians I went to school with and the friends I had in my church youth group, I see two directions. Some of us wrestled with these issues and then stepped back, staying in the safe, sentimental view typical of evangelical responses. But the majority wound up becoming Reformed or at least Reformed-leaning. They found John Piper and the depth of his insight related to human suffering. They found other pastors and teachers who were not afraid to tackle the hard questions. My brother, who returned from Iraq last year, told me that the books being read by his fellow soldiers were written by men like Piper and Sproul, not Rob Bell and Donald Miller.

In a post 9/11 world, shallow evangelicalism didn’t have the answers that many younger evangelicals were longing for. Many of us eventually came to grips with a majestic, ferocious, and irresistibly attractive God who burst all the boxes we had wanted to keep Him in.
God was in control.
The evil of 9/11, though not approved by God, is somehow part of His master plan.
The cross reminds us that God can bring the greatest good from the greatest evil.
No pain is therefore senseless.
And God will one day defeat evil forever. 

Reformed theology gave a younger generation a vision of a God who is big enough to have unknown reasons for allowing evil acts to take place and big enough to defeat evil for good. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty wasn’t about scoring debate points with theological nerds, but a haven of rest and assurance in the midst of turbulent times.

4. September 11 has marked the ministry of a younger generation of pastors.

Many of today’s young preachers and teachers have different sensibilities than the baby boomer generation that proceeded them. Listen to Matt Chandler and David Platt and you won’t hear messages filled with practical tips to bettering your life today. Instead, you hear men with distinctive styles addressing some of the toughest questions of life. Chandler preaches through Habakkuk while recovering from brain surgery for a tumor. David Platt leads his church to reflection (theology) and action (service) on behalf of a Birmingham ravaged by tornadoes. The preaching ministry of many younger pastors has been significantly shaped by the reality of life in a post-9/11 world.

Yes, health and wealth teaching continues to rise unabated. The Emerging Church burst onto the scene and then faded. Some have found answers in Open Theism. Joel Osteen is America’s most influential pastor, and he is about as far from preaching about real pain and sorrow as any pastor could be. And yet, there is a large number of younger evangelicals who aren’t impressed with any of these other options. The post-9/11 culture indirectly shaped the questions and issues of younger evangelicals. Those of us who went looking for answers found help from the people and publishers mentioned in Mark Dever’s series.

I’m not sure we can connect the dots from September 11 to the rise of the New Calvinism in a way that makes sense of all the data. Still, when asking “where did all these Calvinists come from?” it’s interesting to note that in the 1990’s, there was a Reformed rumbling. But only after September 11 was there a Reformed resurgence.

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Comments:


38 thoughts on “September 11 and the Rise of New Calvinism”

  1. Tom Parker says:

    Trevin:

    Are you saying that non-Calvinists are missing something that Calvinists have discovered since 911?

  2. Rick Patrick says:

    This article is quite a reach, I think.

  3. Stephen Newell says:

    Tom,

    I don’t think he’s saying that at all. In fact, if you look at many of the young non-Calvinists of the same generation, they have done the exact same thing. We’ve asked the hard questions, found answers in the same theology; we have simply not been convinced completely of Calvinism. That’s all. ;-)

  4. Trevin Wax says:

    Tom,

    I’m not saying that non-Calvinists are missing something. I’m only saying that perhaps one of the reasons for the rise of Reformed theology among young people is the change in the cultural air we breathe after September 11. Some people are wrestling with big questions, and some have found satisfactory answers in Reformed theology. Of course, others have found answers in other theological streams too. It just seems to me like the cultural shift in the past decade has lent itself to a more serious approach to faith and preaching, which in turn has benefited the rise of new Calvinism.

  5. Trevin Wax says:

    Rick,

    You might very well be right. I’m not sure there’s a direct correlation between the two either. Just throwing out the suggestion of indirect conditions for discussion’s sake.

    Thanks for weighing in!

  6. Tom Parker says:

    Trevin:

    Sincere question. What are these tough questions that folks are finding the answers to in Reformed theology.

  7. Trevin Wax says:

    Questions related to the nature of evil, the pervasiveness of sin, why God permits suffering, what the cross says about God’s purposes and love, what God’s ultimate plan of redemption is.

    I recognize that there are many Christians who have found satisfactory answers in other streams of Christianity. (Augustine utilized the free will defense, after all.) The point of the post, however, was to show that for many young people, the Reformed response resonated more than any other Christian stream. Just an observation, not a declaration that there are no other legitimate Christian ways to approach these difficult subjects.

  8. Tom Parker says:

    Trevin:

    I am glad then that the younger folks are finding answers to these serious questions of theology.

  9. John Michael LaRue says:

    Very well written article, and I think it matches the resurgence that occurred in my life.

    I was one whom there were Reformed rumblings in the late 90’s, but the events of 9/11 were some of the major events in my life which cemented my conviction that these truths were both biblically grounded and practically vital to my comprehension of the world.

  10. Trevin, I am in agreement with you that 9/11 had an influence on the arise of the New Calvinism, but I don’t think it had much to do with going back to the Bible and coming to an agreement with a meticulous view of providence. If anything, 9/11 made the proposition that God causes all the evil events in the world all the more incredible, at least for me.

    What 9/11 did was put a bullet in the head of relativism and multiculturalism. It made us return to the grim categories of good and evil. It showed us how religion, when passionately believed, leads to public action (for better or worse). Religion became less about practical self-help and more about really living for the glory of God. Calvinism was once seen as “extreme Calvinism” by a famous apologist before 9/11. Now that label is laughable. After 9/11 people became less identified with the moderation and more committed ideologues. 9/11 taught us that ideas have consequences, and people have been more willing to buy into what was considered extreme 15 years ago.

  11. Trevin Wax says:

    Adam,

    I agree with you. It’s not about coming to terms with a meticulous view of providence, but God’s glory being the ultimate end of all things – including the bad things that take place.

  12. David E. Housholder says:

    Are you saying the Calvinists believe that while God did not approve of the 9/11 attack he still planned it (and the tsunamis and the plague)? And that helps them deal with the problem of evil?
    I once heard John Piper say, “Unril you know that life is war, you never know what prayer is for.” But when we pray “Thy will be done” are we really saying “go ahead, bring on the evil”?

  13. Ken says:

    I’ve always been a mild Calvinist (three-point at most). My family had been through a series of tragedies in 2001 before 9/11. My sister died of a brain tumor in January, and then my Dad died just three months later. While these were tragic, they did renew my confidence that God is sovereign.

    I didn’t always agree with Jerry Falwell, and I still don’t usually agree with Pat Robertson, but I still think their explanation of 9/11 makes a great deal of sense. Read Jeremiah 2:26-28. Is it possible God is giving us what we wanted?

  14. Justin says:

    David,

    I don’t think Trevin is saying that. You may want to read his further insights in his reply to Brent White (linked below).

    Isn’t there a inherent struggle in our minds between God working all things according to His plan (Isa 46:8-11) and the ultimate good (Rom 8:28), while at the same time accomplishing it in the midst of human evil. The story of Joseph and Jesus on the cross are two examples of God allowing evil towards His purposes, yet not causing it.

    It may help to define what we mean by “planning”. Planning as in actaully conspiring the evil…certainly not; planning as in allowing to happen towards His ultimate purpose…absolutely (again, see Isa 46, Acts 2:23, Gen 45:5-8). Joseph’s account is very clear that in all the “bad/evil” circumstances surrounding Joseph, God was actively working and sending according to His plan.

    Granted, there is a great mystery between God’s active and passive will, i.e., what He allows as opposed to what He directly causes. However, I don’t think we’re being honest with Scripture if we don’t recognize that in all things, whether directly or indirectly, God is working out and accomplishing his ultimate plan.

  15. Last year on September 11th weekend, I was going to write a sermon in which I made some kind of ideological point based upon 9/11. I was talking to a group of friends about it to test the waters, including a retired Lt Col in the US Army who burst into tears while I was talking. He had lost one of his good friends in the Pentagon. I think it was Theodore Adorno who said there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. I feel the same way about profiting ideologically from 9/11. After seeing my friend’s tears, I decided not to ever try to score ideological points off an event that has left people wounded for life. That’s why it’s offensive to me for you to make 9/11 into part of the triumphalist march of Calvinism.

  16. Trevin, that’s an interesting proposal and a good conversation starter. But in the end I have to reject it on the grounds that it is counter-intuitive. You are right that 9/11 brought a heightened awareness of “evil” and of “sin” but it seems that such renewed interest in this subject would bring with it an emphasis on the corruption of the creation and a need to set things right. This is opposed to the proposal above that the heightened awareness of “evil” would draw attention to God’s sovereignty. I don’t think people want to worship a God who would cause 9/11 any more than they would want to worship Bin Laden (I’m speaking from a non-Calvinist bias and not trying to objectively compare Calvinists version of God with Bin Laden). To word this another way that is contrary to your suggestion, I suggest that 9/11 would emphasize Free-Will over Divine Meticulous Control. Yes there is always the problem of why God didn’t step in, there is always a mystery somewhere down the logical-train, but eventually people will ask the same question about Eve or Adam, why didn’t God stop it in? But I think people would rather leave that question as a mystery than entertain the idea that God caused all of those things.

    All of that to suggest an alternative proposal: maybe 9/11 fostered a cultural environment that helped give rise to the Emergent Church (and the Emergence folk), with the imbalanced emphasis on free-will. Consider #2 above:

    “[9/11] changed the cultural ethos and rocked the theological foundations of many younger evangelicals. We started questioning things we had always assumed. Many of us started digging deep. We wanted answers. And Reformed theology didn’t shy away from the hard questions.”

    But neither did Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, heck, even Rob Bell. Certainly one of the features that made Bell’s Love_Wins so popular is his post-9/11 rhetoric. To import that rhetoric back on to 9/11 and the neo-Calvinist worldview:

    Neo-Calvinist writes: “Reality check, God caused 9/11″

    Bell: “God caused 9/11, he did? And someone knows this for use, and felt the need to let the rest of us know? Did God pre-determine cause only a few people to make it out of those towers and did he pre-determine and cause specifically which thousands of individuals would die that day?

    Perhaps this is where the Wesleyan-Arminian steps in and corrects the imbalance of the neo-Reforms aggressive determinism on one hand, and the Liberal minded humanism on the other. :)

    But that’s just my humble opinion (and theological bias).

  17. Trevin Wax says:

    Morgan,

    Far be it from me to think of 9/11 in terms of triumphalistic Calvinism. The point of the post isn’t to celebrate tragedy, but to ask questions about the environment created by such unspeakable horror. It’s a post that deals with the ramifications of the attacks.

    Just like we talk about political implications of Sept 11 (many say that Bush won reelection on the 13th when he stood up on the rubble and rallied the rescue workers, or the Iraq war, or the economic recession), I think it’s acceptable to talk about some theological ramifications. But I hear you – in no way should we seek to minimize the pain and suffering caused that day.

  18. Trevin Wax says:

    Derek,

    I do not claim that God caused 9/11. It is clear that humans are responsible for the tragedy. And yet God’s choice to permit or allow such suffering clearly puts us back into theodicy territory. Either way you cut it, God had 9/11 as part of his master plan. Otherwise, He is not really in control.

    But aside from that… Neither am I claiming that all young evangelicals found answers in Reformed theology. I know there are guys like you (and others) who have wrestled with these questions and come to different conclusions. The point of the post was not to say that Calvinism offers the only legitimate Christian answer to the problem of evil. Instead, my goal was to point out that 9/11 created certain conditions (‘changed the air’ so to speak) which were favorable to the rise of the new Calvinism.

    Certainly others found answers elsewhere, but for me (and a good number in our generation), an increased appreciation for God’s sovereignty was the result. This in turn led to an environment conducive to other Reformed doctrines.

  19. Gabe says:

    Trevin, a very thought-provoking and insightful post! Well done!

  20. Trevin, to say that “God had 9/11 as part of his master plan. Otherwise, He is not really in control” is not necessarily a true statement (depending on what is meant by “control” and how meticulous one must be to make something a part of one’s “master plan” and whether that master plan must entail every detail along the way et cetera.) So of course I don’t share many of those assumptions, but to carry on that discussion would lead off topic.

    I thought the proposed discussion was from a non-neo-Reformed perspective, i.e. I knew you were of the Calvinist tradition, but I always took you as more of a moderate than the neo branch for some reason.

    In the end I’m sure, like you said, many young people found answers to 9/11 in many different places. I just found it interesting that the Emergent movement arose & cruised along side the neo-Reformed. For my own part, I don’t stand with the Emergent, but I cannot share the neo-Reformed worldview… I found my embrace in the character and theology of Arminius, Hooker, Wesley, Wright and so on.

    But I suppose for the specific proposal of your article, you may be right. Able to put the implications of an all-determining and all-causing worldview of God in the back of their minds, many people must have found comfort in his Glory.

    To sing “you give and take away, still my heart will choose to say, Blessed be Your Name” (Matt Redman) is a wonderful thing. With that I can hold my Calvinists brethren in an amen.

  21. Clay Jones says:

    Thanks for your post, Trevin. May I suggest several things to consider? First, to believe in free will, in the libertarian sense, doesn’t mean that God just lets people do absolutely anything they want. I don’t know any libertarians, even any open theists, that go that far. Of course God could have stopped the 9/11 terrorists but perhaps He had deeper lessons for us? Second, I regularly teach on why God allows evil and it often seems to me that those who take the determinist approach don’t look at human evil deeply enough. If determinism is true, and God has determined every creature’s every thought and deed so that no being could ever do otherwise, then the man who fantasized about how he would rape and torture to death the little girl next door, and then actually carried out his wicked scheme, was not able to do otherwise. This means that every exquisite torture, every penetration, burn, cut, crush, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, was indeed efficaciously arranged by God so that this torturer could not have done other than he did. Third, I have yet to see a persuasive explanation as to how determinism can be reconciled with verses like 1 Cor. 10:13. After all, determinism is true, then when you or I, as Christians, have ever lusted, even once, that we could never have done otherwise. Are you willing to say that there has never been a time, even once, when you have lusted, that you could not have done otherwise? If so, how do you reconcile that with 1 Cor. 10:13 and similar verses (by the way, see the latest Journal of the Evangelical Society publication for an analysis of this verse). Fourth, and related to the above, being a libertarian doesn’t mean that God doesn’t determine anything. No libertarian believes that. For example, I do believe that God predetermines those who will be saved.

  22. Trevin Wax says:

    Clay,

    I am not a determinist, but a compatibilist. I know that for many outside of Reformed-leaning traditions, there isn’t a distinction, but for me, that’s a big one.

    Also, just to keep things on track… let’s limit our comments to the merits of the post, particularly the theological fall-out from the 9/11 attacks. It would be easy for this comment stream to degenerate into Calvinism vs. Arminianism talking points. There are other blogs where that conversation is ongoing, and I don’t want this to be one of them. ;)

    Thanks all!

  23. Clay Jones says:

    Hi Trevin,
    Just one clarification: a compatibilist believes that the statement “God determines everything” is compatible with the statement “humans have free will.” That position doen’t negate that God determines everything.By the way, I know this may sound strange but I’m not an Arminian.
    Blessings, my brother!
    Clay

  24. Matt says:

    Trevin, that was a very good article, one that I really enjoyed. I have but one issue. I don’t think that people turned to Reformed Theology for the answers after 9/11. I think they turned to the Scriptures, to the Word of God. I know that’s, in effect, what you mean, but to me, hanging it all on Calvinism (new or old) and Reformed Theology is stopping short of the goal. People returned to the Truths of Scripture, and there they saw a God Who was sovereign over every situation, Who was firmly in control, and Who had worked the greatest good out of the most horrible of crimes on the cross. I know that’s semantics, but I think it’s worth saying! God bless!

  25. Steve says:

    Trevin,
    Thanks for posting a great article that was thought-provoking. I appreciate your tone and grace-filled responses. May God bless you and your family!

  26. Theology Samurai says:

    In Acts 2:22-24, who did what?

    This is compatibalism biblically illustrated–not a caricature.

    Thanks

  27. Fábio Silva says:

    Very well writen article…

    Some may say it is a reach…and maybe it might be for some…

    But i do relate with this article, as that in 2001 i was just 13 years old, and was starting to attend a prosperity church, and was asking myself this exact same questions…only a few years later found the reformed theology…

    9/11 has shaped the way people see, think, and act in all aspects of life, not only in the US but also all over the western civilization, I am Portuguese and i know that a lot of things changed after the event…of course there would also be repercussions in christian thinking, we shouldn’t forget that this attack was religious not political…

    Translated your article into Portuguese and posted it on my blog, the linkback to this source is there, hope you don’t mind

    in Christ,
    Fábio Silva

  28. Ken Jones says:

    Trevin,

    I appreciate your keen observations here. I think you are on to something very significant. When you consider John Starke’s article New York’s Post-9/11 Church Boom with Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church leading the way and the pervasive influence of teachers such as R.C. Sproul, who incidentally wrote a fine book as a Reformed response to 9/11, it is not hard at all to favorably entertain your proposals. Even so, when you read Mr. Silva’s response to your blog it seems to confirm them.

    Ken

  29. Well I guess history is over again kind of like it was for Fukuyama in ’92. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_End_of_History_and_the_Last_Man

  30. Pingback: My Nine Eleven
  31. Kurt Boemler says:

    For every problem the is a solution which is simple, neat, and wrong. – H.L. Mencken

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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