I Can…But You Can’t


Perhaps more a function of his own boyhood fantasy to live in caddy shack one summer, my father, upon my high school and college interim, managed to orchestrate a job for me on Mackinac Island. It was one of those milestone, coming-of-age experiences for various reasons. The rough links at Wawashkamo Golf Club are not for the faint-of-heart golfer. And this no less true for he who endeavors to cut greens for a greens keeper who considers his beloved club to be something of a second wife and third child. If the game itself derives from the land of Presbyterians, it is ironic how a Methodist in the order of Ned Flanders (like my summer slave driver) came to secure employment nurturing a Michigan historical marker like Wawashkamo.

One of the clearer memories of my experience was an exchange with an elderly member of the Club. Those who summer on the Island in the West and East Bluffs, by definition and description, are quite well to do. One August afternoon, in the courtyard, he relayed some advice to me as I spoke of my college and life plans. “Remember,” he interrupted, “the last four letters in American are ‘I-c-a-n.’” Only he didn’t spell it out but simply phrased it out as he simultaneously jutted out both chest and index finger.

Insofar as this is the general American sentiment about, well, everything, it is little wonder that revivalism is an American made thing. Standard issue religion is useless unless or until it can erase any shadow of human doubt and prop sinners up to make anything happen.

But the “I can” mentality has another interesting twist. While sunnier versions, like those of my courtyard friend, imply an unspoken, “…and so can you!” other more realistic suggestions can be, “But you can’t.” This is the message I tend to infer when Calvinists begin to assess movements that lie outside their domain. For example, take poor Rick Warren. He gets beat up on a regular basis by we Reformed types daily for his meddling in worldly affairs such as traveling to the Middle East to stick his nose into complicated geo-political problems, hosting nominees at Saddleback or accepting bids to speak at the presidential inauguration. But as I suggested in a post a while back, Rick is actually doing us a favor and should be getting more plaudits than hisses. Why? Because he shows us how one behaves in accord with his tradition. Rick is an evangelical. What he is doing is what a good evangelical leader does. Blaming him for not behaving like a Presbyterian is like blaming a Republican for wanting less government and taxes or a Baptist for not baptizing his household.

Meanwhile, the very same Reformed theonomists and transformationalists who boo down old Rick are busy advocating a worldview that seems awfully similar to the Sultan of Saddleback. In the final analysis, it’s very hard not to conclude that evangelicals are disallowed to behave like evangelicals when it comes to the nature of the two kingdoms and their relationship to each other, but Reformed can. It is not altogether dissimilar to the religious right faulting the mainline liberals for “social gospel.” What that apparently means is not so much that there is something categorically wrong with social gospel, but rather the sin of not having the correct social gospel.

Then there are those experimental Calvinists who want to distinguish between the First Great Awakening and the Second, saying the First was the good kind while the Second was bad. In order to head off the glaring problems that usually attend differentiating between things grounded in mere inward experience (i.e. “Awakenings”), these Calvinists draw merely soteriological boundary markers. It is simple enough: Those who have a Calvinist soteriology are the good guys, those with either Pelagian or semi-Pelagian views aren’t. But if Richard Muller is right …

“The Reformed faith includes reference to total inability, unconditional election, limited efficiency of Christ’s satisfaction, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints, not as the sum total of the church’s confession but as elements that can only be understood in the context of a larger body of teaching including the baptism of infants, justification by grace alone through faith, the necessity of a thankful obedience consequent upon our faith and justification, the identification of sacraments as means of grace, the so-called amillennial view of the end of the world.”

…then the experimental Calvinist trump card of soteriology doesn’t help solve much of anything. It is as if predestinarianism can be extracted from the housing of a Reformed system and, voila, all is well. Little wonder there are “Reformed Baptists,” various gradations of evangelical Reformed and a lot of brouhaha over evangelicals wearing Jonathon Edwards (and John Calvin) tee shirts. But it would seem that those who have grasped “a larger body of teaching” don’t take kindly to such a reckless reductionism.

Like Reformed transformationalists who suspend a high doctrine of sin want to tell us that the only people who can change the world for the better are believers, experimental Calvinists seem to think that revival is acceptable if we Calvinists do it. But when revivalists do it, not so much. Huh? This strikes me as not only pretty arrogant but to some degree passive-aggressive, to say nothing of showing us, contra Warren, how to actually break with one’s own tradition. Catholics do Catholicism best and Revivalists do revivalism best. It seems to me that one of the problems of our day is that folks don’t know their own traditions very well. It might be best to own up to that and get busy learning it. Whatever else my courtyard friend meant, I don’t think it was to steal someone else’s tradition and call it one’s own.

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4 Responses to I Can…But You Can’t

  1. sean says:


    Well, this is embarrasing. I posted my Rick Warren comments on a months old post. Oh well, here’s my follow up.


    So, basically use the term(evangelical) in a way that it is not currently used. Fine, that’s essentially jettisoning the term in it’s popular use.

    Yeah, some of us are confused (transformationalists, theonomists) et al. Some, like me, are just trying to get a “feel” for what confessional presbyterian looks like. It’s not recognizable even within our largest denomination (PCA). Outhouse may be too big, maybe a pantry or broom closet.

  2. Zrim says:


    I wondered.


    I can’t downsize any more than I have. Something about not squatting where you eat.

  3. David says:


    I kind of lost track of who you were critiquing at the end of your post. So a few clarifying questions:

    1. Do you believe that we shouldn’t be at least a little bit happy for our Christian brothers and sisters when they embrace a Calvinist soteriology rather than an Arminain one? They may not baptize babies, at least right away, but does that mean we shouldn’t be pleased that they no longer reject the “doctrines of grace”?

    2. I was always under the impression that the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings WERE very different (since the first was headed by our own Johnny Edwards). Is this not the case? Do you think that the first great awakening was a bad thing? Do you have some major disagreements with Edwards?

  4. Zrim says:


    1. Far, far be it from me to begrudge anyone embracing Calvinist (read: biblical) soteriology. I realize that soteriology abides in that place we reserve for “the heart of the matter.” But I think we often tend to forget that hearts work best when couched nice and snug in their rightful place amongst all the other internal organs—not ripped out and sitting on a pedestal or on dusty Durham trails.

    2. I’d suggest picking up Scott Clark’s recent “Recovering the Reformed Confession.” He states things well. Sure, the 1GA and the 2GA were different beasts if you make it all about soteriology. But that is part of my point: why Calvinists think it’s ok to behave like revivalists just because they have a Calvinist soteriology seems wide the mark. Ours is an organic project, and when we make it all about soteriology not only do we betray our tradition, we also seem to end up being pretty arrogant to believe that we can do revivalism better than revivalists. (Moreover, even as Clark points out, Edwards wasn’t exactly reckoned to have all his i’s crossed and t’s dotted when it came to the doctrine of justification.) It’s not so much that “the 1GA was a bad thing,” as much as I am highly skeptical that there is nearly as much to be gained by the 1GA as we typically assume.

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