December 1, 2020

The Closing of The Calvinistic Mind by James Jordan: Must Reading

close.jpgYesterday, I came across an article by James Jordan called The Closing of the Calvinistic Mind. While written from a considerably different place within the world of Reformed Christianity than I occupy, it is simply sensational. The content and conclusions of this piece are spot on when I consider my own experience in the Reformed community this past year.

Jordan decries the death of a vigorous, deep, diverse, thoughtful, unafraid and bold reformed engagement with Biblical material, philosophy and cultural engagement. While none of us would agree with the total work of all the authors he lists- that would be absurd and impossible- he does make the devastating point that, if the publishing world is a measurement, we have moved from a healthy and confident kind of reformation thinking and writing to a narrower, more fearful, mostly devotional, and generally “fluffy” kind of Reformational thinking. While I am sure that Jordan has different issues and authors in mind in some cases, I believe that, as a Biblical scholar, he knows exactly what he’s talking about when he surveys the stifling of Biblical discussion within much of “official” Calvinism as popularly encountered.

Most notably, however, he points out the lesson to be learned from the reaction within the Reformed camp to N.T. Wright, the Federal Vision debate, the attempted defrocking of Mark Hornes, etc.

My burden here is to point out, to all the younger people reading this essay, that once upon a time it was not so. Once upon a time, a man being examined for presbytery could take issue with Calvin or the Westminster Standards, defend himself from the Bible and Reformed theology, and have a conversation. He could say that a flawed epistemology was found in some parts of these early works. He could say that pitting good works against grace was not true to the genius of the Reformed faith, or to the Bible. He could point out that there is no “merit theology” in the Bible. He could say that he preferred to speak of being united to the whole risen Christ rather than speak in the abstract about an imputed righteousness separated from that union. He could argue that the book of Romans is not after all a kind of proto-Berkhof systematic theology, but a book that is to a considerable extent about how Jew and Gentile, torn apart and dead to each other, were now reunited through resurrection in the kingdom of the Resurrected One.

In many places such conversations are no longer possible. Pastors have been cast out of or rejected by PCA presbyteries for believing what the Westminster Confession says about baptism. In others, the bullies who run the presbytery or classis have so cowed all the licentiates that they dare not raise any questions about anything. Here and there things are better, but from what I see, I’m not encouraged. The Calvinistic mind, if it has not closed already, appears to be closing fast.

Almost every word of this piece deserves to be written in large letters over the current reformed discussion. I hope all my readers- especially younger Reformational thinkers- will read and consider Jordan’s conclusions.

As I maintained in Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future, the Protestant age is coming to an end. That means that the Reformed faith and Presbyterianism are also coming to an end. The paradigm is exhausted, and the world in which it was worked out no longer exists. We must take all the great gains of the Calvinistic heritage and apply them with an open Bible to the new world in which we are now living. We must be aware that there is far more in the Bible than the Reformation dealt with, and that many of our problems today are addressed by those hitherto unnoticed or undeveloped aspects of the Bible. Those who want to bang the drum for a 450-year old tradition are dooming themselves to irrelevance. Our only concern is to avoid being beat up by them as they thrash about in their death-throes.

HIghly recommended. While I doubt that I agree with Jordan on many things- since there is a theonomic edge to much of what he’s writing- his assessment of Reformed intellectual life and the resulting atmosphere of intimidation and intolerance is completely accurate, in my opinion, at least.

Jordan’s website is Biblical Horizons.


  1. Very thought provoking, and so true.

  2. Despite the fact that you trumpeted it as a “must read,” I read Jordan’s essay. As someone who was very recently told that I could not call myself a Calvinist because I do not agree with all that Johnny said, I read it with some interest.

    It was, in the very least, heuristic; it may have been intentionally polemic, too, in order to arrest the attention and shift the balance a bit. It is, as you say, an important corrective.

    Jordan appears to be painting with a very wide brush – which is a good approach at times – and I found myself wondering whom (if anyone) he considers to be among the remaining thinkers in Calvinism. I have not found the NICNT commentary on Romans by Douglas Moo, for example, to be “fluffy stuff that reads like someoneÂ’s daily devotional thoughts.” Does Jordan consider “Justification and Variegated Nomism” by Carson,, to be “questionable scholarship that is compromised with critical thinking”? I just wonder where he draws the line.

    Still, he does seem to be generally correct: “thinking Calvinist” used to be redundant; more and more it is an oxymoron.

    But then I’m not a Calvinist according to some, so what would I know?

  3. >Despite the fact that you trumpeted it as a “must read,” I read Jordan’s essay.

    Did I miss something here?

  4. Sorry. I have a knee-jerk reaction to the word “must” that immediately propels me in the opposite direction. A character flaw to be sure.

    Thanks for drawing the article to our attention.

  5. I found a subtle but impressionable sub-tone in your essay. Though you apparently agree with Jordan on his lament on the closing of the Calvinist mind, in the same breath, you distance yourself from him.

    For example, “While written from a considerably different place within the world of Reformed Christianity than I occupy…” “While I am sure that Jordan has different issues and authors in mind in some cases…” “While I doubt that I agree with Jordan on many things..”

    Okay, we got the point. You do not agree with Jordan, but on this one essay..But basically such caveats were in almost every paragraph of your essay that was not quoting Jordan’s article.

    I hear the same thing in other’s (not yours) article that praise N. T. Wright while at the time saying “while we don’t agree with everything Wright says…”

    No kidding! Who agrees 100% with ANYONE else. What causes us to desire to distance ourselves in this way from other brothers in Christ?

    Might not this attitude of distancing be the underlying cause of the “closing of the Calvinist mind”?

  6. Gee. Could I have just saved all that ink and said, “I’m not a theonomist” or “I haven’t read all these books” or “I don’t really know what Jordan is all about?” I guess. Sorry.

    Am I correct that some Calvinists find Mr. Jordan’s piece mildly irritating? 😉

  7. Jordan wrote: “…the Protestant age is coming to an end. That means that the Reformed faith and Presbyterianism are also coming to an end. The paradigm is exhausted, and the world in which it was worked out no longer exists.”

    More “paradigm” theology ala Thomas Kuhn. So if Jordan wants to smoke the pomo pipe, then fine. But nothing in this essay supports such a far-reaching statement. Isn’t that just a tad triumphalist?

    Regarding federal vision and the “new perspective,” what I read him as saying is that those who disagree with those positions are being closed-minded. That’s a nice rhetorical trick.

    Finally, comparing reformed publishers of today to those of the 70’s is stretching it a bit when you think about the huge changes in the publishing industry.

    So I doubt too many Calvinists will be sweating bullets over what Jordan wrote.

  8. If Jordan doesn’t convince you, try Philip Jenkins’ *The Next Christendom*. That’s what convinced *me* of the coming sidelining of Western Reformed Protestantism long before I ever heard of Jordan.

    The fact is that most Christians on earth today are *not* Reformed. And given our attitudes and our priorities, I see little hope that that will change…

  9. I’ve been reading responses to Jordan all over the web. It’s like you just informed a bunch of old school investors that their buggy whip stock isn’t doing real well.

  10. While the author’s assessment is that Calvinists of today are generally stupid…it seems that assessment comes from the fact that many see his views as contra the Westminster Confession.

    He also takes issue with the Confession, and holds suspect those that do uphold it and actually require their pastors adhere to it. Apparently, they are the ones that are closed minded.

    I think I’ll stick with my close minded Confession made by a whole bunch of dead guys rather than be more open minded to a few living guys with chips on their shoulder ’cause they don’t feel other presbys play nice with them.

    He says most Calvinist writing is fluffy…which I don’t disagree with. Most of it today is introductory because of the rampant ignorance of evangelical truths. Strangely, he seems to view these items of fluff with disdain when in reality, it looks like he just really wants a “blankey” and wants the rest of us to shut up.

    The author speaks from a rather narrow perspective, painting with a brush too big for his own hand.

  11. Craig, regarding what Jordan said about the WCF, I think you’ve interpreted it exactly opposite from what he said, which was, “Pastors have been cast out of or rejected by PCA presbyteries for believing what the Westminster Confession says about baptism.”

    In other words, it’s exactly *because* candidates are trying to be faithful to the confession on the matter of baptism that they are rejected. Or at least that’s Jordan’s claim. If he’s correct (and I think that he is), it’s just one piece of evidence to back up his claim: not that today’s calvinists are “generally stupid,” but that they aren’t bothering to understand their own documented history and beliefs. It’s much easier to hide one’s ignorance (not stupidity) by being assertively dogmatic rather than permit challenges to unexamined interpretations.

    The other bit of evidence is how the subject matter and level of scholarship has changed over the last 30-50 years of published calvinist works. That’s a factual claim that is either true or not. If it’s true, then we can either stay on the anti-intellectual path of generic evangelicals, or we can try to remedy the situation. I don’t think Jordan deserves your belittling insults for trying to make his observations.

  12. Joel,
    I imagine that what Jordan doesn’t define baptism the same way the WCF does…since he’s affiliated with the Auburn four or the Federal Vision, then I imagine his idea of baptism is more related to the Lutheran view or Rome’s view.

    The problem with these men isn’t that the sacraments are important to them, it’s that their view elevates them above the word. These sacraments, to these men, seem to have a power of their own and are not made effective by the Word appropriated by faith.

    Jordan states from one side of his mouth that the PCA doesn’t believe the WCF…from the other side he bashes Calvinists for holding too strongly to it and not allowing for people to take exception.

    The problem I see in the PCA isn’t so much a strict adherence to the WCF, but too much room is given for exceptions. Men may take exception to Sabbath observance. They may take exception to the 2nd commandment. They may hold dispensational views on eschatalogy.

    The PCA is the most mainstream of Reformed churches, and also about the most “open” even allowing paedocommunion.

    So, Jordan’s problem is related more to his heterodox views and not related to his desire to see Calvinists more open minded…it seems that is the call of most people with questionable theology: “open mindedness”(I am not calling Jordan a heretic, I don’t know completely his beliefs). Jordan should find solace in postmodern brands of Christianity but weeps that historic reformed theology rejects him.

    Again, he can’t have it both ways. The Confession is supposed to place the boundary lines. Is he upset that we have those lines, or is he upset that we have misinterpreted them? He’s unclear because he relies on sloppy thinking and “yes” men. I can relate to sloppy thinking, but I’m a lay person and am not seeking to redirect a whole tradition of theology.

  13. “Jordan should find solace in postmodern brands of Christianity but weeps that historic reformed theology rejects him. Again, he can’t have it both ways. The Confession is supposed to place the boundary lines. Is he upset that we have those lines, or is he upset that we have misinterpreted them?”

    Those boundaries were drawn by men who were seeking to understand and apply the Word in their situation. Did they do such a great job that everything they came up with (especially the Sabbath, the relation of the Word to the Sacraments, eschatology, etc) is not up for re-examination, *ever*?

    If that’s the case, then the Reformed tradion *is* backing itself into a corner, and perhaps Jordan will end up elsewhere. But I might suggest that Jordan is closer to the spirit of the original Reformation (the Church reformed and *always* reforming) than those who insist on keeping every jot and tittle drawn up by a committee of English Presbyterians 350-odd years ago…

  14. Craig, if Zwingli’s understanding of the sacraments is the one correct timeless one, then you’re right: we have no business examining current belief and practice as to how it stands up against the whole counsel of the Scriptures. We need to stop asking questions because, like Zwingli’s self-confidence in his interpretation of the sacraments, he had nothing more to say to Luther in 1529. So if Zwingli’s the man, is it heterdox to have musical instruments in church or permit congregational singing?

    The issue isn’t *exceptions* to the WCF, it’s the refusal to engage in historically-grounded and informed *interpretation* of the WCF. Hence, the lack of interest in what the reformers (other than Zwingli) actually thought on these matters. Hence, the lack of scholarship. Hence, the reduction of choices to dogmatic fundamentalism or generic evangelicalism.

  15. Having known and read Jim Jordan for quite some time, I can tell you that he is not a theonomist. He had/has profound disagreements with Bahnsen and Rushdoony and other theonomists and Christian Reconstructionists. He just doesn’t think Christendom was all bad, nor that we should stive to maintain a sharp sepaparation of church and state for the future – which isn’t all that different from Radical Orthodoxy, it would seem.

  16. I think JBJ’s criticism mixes up some different things.

    First, JBJ himself predicted 15 years ago (maybe even longer ago) that changes in how U.S. tax laws treated business inventory would be the death of scholarship published by small presses like P&R. (It would no longer be profitable for small presses to make big runs of low-volume scholarly works, the have them sit around as they slowly sold their stock.)

    What Jordan predicted back then seemed to come true — a long time before anyone in the PCA heard of NT Wright or the Federalist Vision thing.

    Secondly, who besides laypeople think that scholarship is mainly published in books rather than in scholarly journals? Pick up a copy of the Westminster Theological Journal, or the ETS’s journal, there’s lots of serious scholarship and interaction going on in those covers. But Jim can’t or won’t publish in those venues.

    Third, the source of JBJ’s lament might be driven by one press only — P&R publishers. In the P&R’s small pond, Van Til and Rushdooney (and Jordan himself, at least in aspiration) were big fish. They’re much, much smaller fish in the bigger pond broad conservative/evangelical/Reformed theology rather than OPC/PCA theology.

    Relatedly, there’s a tinch of personal lament in his criticism. If you read the stuff from the 1980s coming from Tyler, Texas, in particular, they were the next “big thing” — at least according to themselves. And they boiled it down to a few “slogans”: presuppositionalism, postmillenialism & etc.

    Well, instead of setting things on fire, Tyler turned out to be a flash in the pan. Jim was relegated to the margins of the PCA as a result, something that I suspect underplaces his work with respect to what he thinks it deserves.

    John Frame and Vern Poythress still get published these days — but they’re intersted in different things than the Tyler camp.

    So I wonder whether some (but not all) of JBJ’s lament isn’t really that the Calvinistic mind has declined, but rather that the Claavinistic mind doesn’t happen to be interested in what he has to say. (Which is too bad in itself — I think JBJ has a gifted, if quirky and insular, mind.)

  17. The rhetoric about 350-yr old doctrinal disputes being irrelevant disturbs me. Justification by faith will always be the center of the Gospel, regardless of the age.

    However, I’ve heard most Federal Vision guys affirm this doctrine specifically and enthusiastically.

    Of course, Jordan is unhappy with (Zwinglian) misinterpretation of WCF, not WCF’s existence and boundaries. The first response when our status quo confessional assumptions are challenged is always to draw in the reins, clamp down, defend; instead of seek to understand the critique. This is what Jordan bemoans.

    Regarding sacraments: some err by saying they operate automatically (ex opere operato) as ice cools a drink. Others err in the other direction, saying the sacraments don’t do anything (Zwingli). As the Federal Vision guys push us away from Zwingli’s position, they get accused of holding the Catholic position. It’s hard to win when you’re walking the tightrope of Reformed sacramental views. But is it so hard to say that sacraments actually nourish and unite to Christ those with true faith?

  18. Joel,
    I hate to dissappoint you…but I’m not Zwinglian in my views of the sacraments…I’m thoroughly Calvinist.

    You said:
    “The issue isn’t *exceptions* to the WCF, it’s the refusal to engage in historically-grounded and informed *interpretation* of the WCF.”

    My main point about the article was the authors complete contradiction: on the one hand, he’s ticked that some are thorough-bred WCF subscriptionists…on the other, he tries to say he’s the one holding to it while others don’t. He can’t have it both ways. I am open to minor deviance to the Confession. I’m open to seeing how others interpret it…I am not open to a complete reinterpretation of what justification by faith means and come up with a corporate view of election and try to say this is a Reformed view.

    One of the main problems with these infantile intellectual wannabes (IIW for short) is that the reformulate and change the meanings of theological terms and piss and moan when people take a step back to observe what they really mean. The IIW’s love to speak of the “objectivity” of the covenant and love to mingle terms such as sanctification with justification. They call those with more precision “close minded”. To those foolish enough to buy into this, the path to Rome is already paved. They claim to like the fences that protect God’s sheep…all the while they’ve made a little gate letting wolves in. They don’t figure the fence is there for a good reason. There was no builder who knew of the dangers that lay outside of it. No, the fence is there to be reinterpreted…moved…lowered…heck, can’t we get a bunch of those mosquito repelling candles? Surely that’s what the reformers wanted.

    What the IIW’s need to recall is the need for theological precision (which is a discpline…a “closed minded” one). The application of these doctrines must be maintained throughout the ages. Faith is a living faith. Regeneration bears works of sanctification…Calvin agreed. The Westminster Divines agreed. I agree. What I don’t agree with is thier desire to confuse these things.

    These people don’t redefine the terms to preserve the people of God nor the guard them…they do it for academic accolades. What the IIW’s ought to realize is this: the church has no need for mere scholastics. Ironically, they pay lip service to presuppositional apologetics while expressing what appears to me to be a “greek” or Enlightenment view of learning: They divorce it from Christian love and are ready to turn God’s people over to viscious wolves all in the name of “learning”.

  19. Craig,

    Whatever your personal opinions, I assume you know that the PCA is full of Zwinglians, both in the pulpit and in the pew.

    I once challenged a PCA pastor actually to read the WCF’s article on baptism at a baptism. He refused. He said it would only confuse people — meaning that people would think it meant something more than Zwinglianism.

    He and pastors like him are not disciplined in the PCA, at least not to my knowledge — and they do not take “exceptions” to the WCF.

    But if a pastor simply and unapologetically affirms the WCF’s full teaching on baptism, he is suspect as a “Romanist.”

    I think I know where honesty and frankness lies between those positions in a denomination that still nominally states its allegiance to the WCF.

  20. I realize there are Zwinglians within the PCA…but, for me, this is an acceptable position.

    This sort of an error isn’t particularly dangerous. I can live with a Zwinglian better than I can an IIW.

  21. Craig, what “sort of an error” does a Zwinglian hold?

    You say that the IIWs are muddying things up that are already clear. Well then you’d have to include the Reformers in your category of IIWs on the subjects of regeneration, grace and the sacraments. Calvin uses ‘regeneration’ (from Titus 3:5, for example) in a different sense than Melanchthon, and the Formula of Concord is different still. Several of the Westminster divines (e.g., Cornelius Burges and Samuel Ward) even held to baptismal regeneration. Among the reformers there simply was not a singular, monolithic meaning given to the word ‘regeneration’. Some equated it with ‘justification’, others did not. Your claim that the reformers were theologically precise AND unanimous on exactly what is the “efficacy of baptism” (WCF 28:6) is untenable. Heck, Calvin wasn’t even consistent with *himself* in his theology of baptism.

    You may be right that IIWs are discussing these issues because they want “academic accolades.” But outside of the PCA, who cares enough about what a bunch of reformed theologians with an interest in history think to give them accolades? I think your suggestion of more sinister motives at work is a very serious charge to level against a brother. If the historical evidence is aplenty that the issues of regeneration, grace and the sacraments were unsettled amongst the reformers, then why is it so important to shut down the discussion now?

  22. What do you mean by “confusion”, Craig? Somebody’s not saying exactly what we’ve always said before on justification? Now we’re all confused! “Why can’t they just stick to the confessional language?” Because Scriptural language is different, sometimes. Doesn’t make the confessions wrong – they’re the best summary we have, but there is MORE in Scripture…

    The dynamics here remind me very much of the Church demanding Luther’s submission without debate. “Just say what the church says.” “But what about…” “Just say it!”

    I prefer to say Federal Vision (FV) guys, instead of IIW’s, which is a slanderous ad hominem attack. I think the FV guys see the Reformed world drifting away from the solid ground between Catholicism and Anabaptism, toward the latter. As they point it out and push us back to the center, those who don’t see the point accuse them of Catholicism.

    If you’re going home to Chicago from LA, could someone accuse you of being on the road to New York? Well, yes, we’re going that direction, but we’re not going that far…

  23. Hey, Imonk…

    My apologies..

    Compared to the above, you were very gracious and restrained regarding James B. Jordan.

  24. “if the publishing world is a measurement, we have moved from a healthy and confident kind of reformation thinking and writing to a narrower, more fearful, mostly devotional, and generally “fluffy” kind of Reformational thinking.” [quote from your post]

    While I can see that this is probably a good assessment of the publishing world, I think the Reformed publishing world probably just mirrors the broader culture here. Theologian David Wells was about to go on the sabbatical out of which came his book “No Place for Truth.” He told us, his students, that he was going to be researching why evangelicals were not doing theology. His tentative answer at that point had to do with how media had changed the way people processed information. At the time I thought that was an odd answer. Now I accept it as true.

    I don’t think that the Reformed are dooming themselves to irrelevance when they repristinate. If they attempt to be relevant to the TV culture as such, their impact will truly be doomed to triviality. The ones writing those great old books may have been speaking to their own times in a contemporary idiom, but they had the advantage of a more bookish culture, whether they were deeply steeped in the Reformed tradition, or mostly following its broader contours.