The Westminster Captivity of Evangelicalism

By: Dale M. Coulter
Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Anyone paying attention to recent trends within evangelicalism knows about the “New Calvinism.” Time published a piece on the movement just over a year ago as one of the  10 ideas changing the world. The usual list of names associated with it are Albert Mohler, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and Mark Dever, among others. I have also seen Michael Horton on a list or two. Regardless of whether the “New Calvinism” is actually new, and some bloggers have their doubts, it is exposing the fault lines in Reformed theology within the U.S. More importantly, in my view, it is highlighting what I would describe as the “Westminster Captivity” of American evangelicalism, particularly its Reformed wing, which I see as a positive development.

Before explaining myself further, an admission: While I attended Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL, I am not Reformed. Rather, I am a Classical Pentecostal within the holiness stream that goes back to John Wesley. And, I now teach at an institution shaped by the Reformed charismatic theology of J. Rodman Williams whose heritage I wish to honor. Now, on to the explanation:


As I see it, there are three primary streams by which Reformed theology entered the early American colonies: 1) Puritan Congregationalist, 2) Scottish Presbyterian, and 3) Dutch Reformed.

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards is the most well-known representative of Puritan Congregationalism even though his “New Light Divinity” altered the theological landscape in his day. Edwards emphasized affective transformation within a strongly Reformed framework as a way of supporting revivalism. His desire was to preserve irresistible grace within a revivalist framework that allowed for extraordinary spiritual experiences. The heirs of Jonathan Edwards were folks like Timothy Dwight who welcomed revival to Yale in the early 1800s.

Abraham Kuyper

Another branch is Dutch Reformed theology, which has a  rich tradition that actually goes back to Heinrich Bullinger, the heir of Ulrich Zwingli, in addition to John Calvin. Dutch Reformed theology probably began to make its biggest impact on American evangelicalism through Abraham Kuyper (d. 1920) and Herman Bavinck (d. 1921). The contemporary heirs of this tradition are associated with the Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church of America, and their respecting institutions (Calvin College, Hope College, etc.).

B. B. Warfield

The final branch is Scottish Presbyterianism, which ultimately came to be associated with the theologians whose careers were spent at Princeton Seminary, founded in 1812. These theologians, such as Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, became powerful shapers of the Presbyterian mind in the 1800s.  With its founding by J. Gresham Machen in 1929, Westminster Theological Seminary saw (and still sees) itself as the heir of Old Princeton. Because of its location in the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, Westminster has been able to wield significant power–enough power to hold Reformed theology captive.


Old Princeton/Westminster is the most problematic of the three streams of Reformed Christianity in terms of forging an evangelical consensus. It is the Old Princeton/Westminster stream that not only de-emphasized the revivalism of Edwards and his followers, but actively worked against it. The proof of this is Warfield’s two volumes on perfectionism, which was a full-throated attack on the revivalist tradition. This stream promoted cessationism, beginning with Warfield, and then O. Palmer Robertson and Richard B. Gaffin. I recall having to work through texts by Gaffin and Robertson as part of my RTS training. In fact, 55% of the current biblical studies faculty in the RTS system have Westminster degrees. In addition, Old Princeton/Westminster continued to advance juridical models that emphasized forensic justification, penal substitution, and a positional sanctification as what the gospel is really all about. Finally, Old Princeton/Westminster has held captive the other vibrant branches of Reformed theology, and has, at times, viewed itself as the guardian of all things evangelical.  This stems in part from Machen’s modern Reformed classic Christianity and Liberalism, which was followed in turn by Cornelius Van Till’s Christianity and Barthianism, and the tradition of defining Christianity with ever-increasing degrees of precision continues. Insiders to Westminster know that the institution itself has not escaped the quest for doctrinal purity.

By “Westminster Captivity,” then, I am referring to the critical role that this single stream of Reformed Christianity has had within modern evangelical thought. And, most importantly, I am calling on evangelicals to reconsider whether this stream has been such a positive force after all, which is not to say that it has been wholly negative.

As a Pentecostal most of the criticisms I had to deal with came from those firmly embedded within this particular stream of Reformed theology, and I utilized the New Light Divinity of Jonathan Edwards to ward off such criticisms. However, the more I began to study the Reformed tradition, the more I realized how critical pneumatology, coupled with a powerful experiential dynamic of conversion, was to its core. You get this clearly from first-generation Reformed thinkers like Martin Bucer and Ulrich Zwingli, neither of whom really embraced forensic justification, but both of whom were concerned to articulate a theologically and experientially robust account of conversion centered on the Spirit. It is no wonder that Puritans retained this approach since Bucer was Regius Professor at Cambridge and Zwingli’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger, was deeply influential on England through his Decades. It is from this steam that one finds the language of a “school of the prophets,” which sought to emphasize the way in which preaching was about a divine encounter that was experientially rich.

So, if the “New Calvinism” becomes a way of recovering the Reformed emphasis on conversion as an experientially-driven encounter and this, in turn, allows for the on-going role of the charismatic, then I am all for it. Such emphases will allow for greater continuity between Reformed and Wesleyan branches of the evangelical movement rather than continually reviving the antagonism of Old Princeton/Westminster. It is time that evangelicalism, and particularly its Reformed wing, freed itself from its Westminster captivity and begin to recover the notion that the gospel is the wonder-working power of God to alter the interior landscape of the heart, to heal diseases, to liberate from all forms of sin, and to usher in the gifts of the kingdom. When juridical models dominate, their emphasis on legal exchanges occurring in a heavenly court obscures the living reality that regeneration, sanctification, and the charismatic life are. Let the renewal begin.

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Friday, April 23rd, 2010 at 6:30 am and is filed under Church History, Renewal Studies, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

14 Responses to “The Westminster Captivity of Evangelicalism”

  1. James M. Henderson says:

    I encountered something like the Westminster Captivity when I attended Fuller TS in the early eighties. While the professors there were kind and respectful (and very helpful; a thanks to Richard Muller for all he did for me), I found that they simply did not understand Wesleyan or Arminian thinking. Their cessationist sensibilities are what actually drove John Wimber out of the School of World Mission (now Intercultural Studies) in my view. The difference between Fuller and other seminaries, perhaps, is that Westminster-ish divines such as Daniel P. Fuller and Richard Muller allowed me to dissent without penalty. Perhaps becasue they were Christians first (and very concerned about the conversion of their students) they drove me to think more deeply and express myself more clearly rather than rejecting my thought outright. This is in sharp contrast to most of the Reformed brethren with whom I have had conversation. My question to you is would be, is the difference you describe -that of being open and desirous for revival or conversion- something that will work to overcome the exclusionary preference among Westminster types for a Christianisty that is rationalistic in a very Modern fashion? Or, do you see this leading in any sense toward what Olson calls post-conservative?

    • Jim,

      Thanks for the question. In one sense, we’ll have to wait and see. I am not calling for any new label or movement. While labels have their uses, primarily as rallying points, they can also fracture an already fractured situation. My hope is that Reformed folks will a) acknowledge the diversity among their own ranks and b) see that there are streams of Reformed Christianity more accommodating to the emphasis on conversion and the charismatic. Even if the current crop of Westminster-inclined folks cannot “go there,” I would ask them at least to recognize the legitimacy of others “going there” instead of calling it some kind of compromise of the gospel.

  2. Boy did I appreciate this. Thank you so much. I’ve noticed these attitudes in Christian blogs over the past several years and wondered why, why they seemed so prevalent. I’ve wondered, why this movement now. I wondered why the SBC seemed so anxious to recover its Calvinist roots when its roots are much broader. I wondered, why the heart-mind dichotomy. Why the widespread diss of pietists, charismatics, and so-called “fuzzy-wuzzy” theology and worship. Why declare the church “feminized.” Why insist upon the clarity of certain Scriptures when even the foremost scholars within the same theological strains can’t agree with one another on exact interpretation. Etc. etc.

    At the same time, I’ve appreciated the enthusiasm and intellectualism behind the pursuit of refined theology. Some clarity has been found, and good rebuttal of modern inaccuracies made. Yet these have occurred amidst what seems to me to be more inaccuracy.

    I thought this trend must reflect a strong conservatism, regardless of how it tries to cast itself as “reforming” and culture-battling and so on. And I still think so. But maybe there’s more to it than that, having to do with a fear of the Spirit. Your article has shown me the context, and more of the reason behind the “why.”

    I wish I could share your gracious and optimistic hope for renewal. But I sense that, should it come, it may be a long time in coming. Too many other trends to play out first. The change we both hope for could be several generations away.

    • Bonnie,

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. I really appreciate the struggle between seeing the positive pursuit of theology as well as the negative side effects of further and further division. You may be right–too many trends. And, on top of that, the highly politicized climate we now work in prevents us sometimes from having healthy conversations, even with those who are most like us. We trample postmodernism, on the one hand, and then apply a good dose of one methodology–the hermeneutics of suspicion–it employs, on the other hand. It can become a “circle the wagons” mentality where the circle keeps getting smaller.

      I suppose part of my hope is grounded in good history, but that’s because I am a historian. I think if we can all get a better sense not only of what happened, but, as you say, why it happened, then maybe we are better positioned to see trends as just that, trends. This could have the positive effect of decreasing their importance so that we come to realize that some issues are not as critical as we once thought, or turn out to be altogether different than we thought.

  3. Interesting to here the history from someone not of the tradition but if you look at the sheer numbers of Arminian and Charismatic churches compared to the conservative orthodox Protestant churches (i.e. churches like the OPC, URC and some PCA churches for example) we are dwarfed.

    While the number of good Reformed seminaries has increased of late there are still more Arminian based and Pentecostal based seminaries out there. If you are saying you would like to pick and choose from Reformed theology like a lot of the “New Reformed” then I would say its been done many times in the past. Zwingli being a great example. Edwards another.

    But Westminster has not hold on Reformed thought and there is not “captivity” of it that I can see. Only another group of people who decide they don’t like certain items in Reformed doctrine like the Regulative Principle for example.

    • Alvin,

      Thanks for posting a response here. I am glad that you find my take interesting because I do have great respect for the Reformed tradition as a whole, and I hope that I conveyed some sense of that respect even in the spatial constraints of a blog post. You are no doubt correct about the empirical evidence. Pentecostals alone out number the Reformed churches, not to mention the Wesleyan-holiness folks. My point was not about the empirical dimension, but a theological hegemony that Old Princeton/Westminster has attempted to maintain, primarily through published writings and the degree programs. I may need to say more at some point, but let me just say that the anecdotal evidence kept mounting for me through conversations with lots of different folks about Reformed Christianity. Many times–not all–when I encountered a person saying “this is what it means to be Reformed,” it usually came back to the Old Princeton/Westminster brand.

  4. That is so true, keep me up to date. Great Blog by the way :-)

  5. Jeff Doles says:

    Thanks, Dale. You have identified something I have experienced in discussion with certain Calvinists. There seems to be a strain that is very militant and for whom the discussion is more like a Thunderdome cage fight — “two go in, one comes out”. There is often a very hard-edged, ungracious spirit to them that goes on the attack against all who disagree with them. I recently engaged with one at FirstThings/Evangel who often resorted to ad hominems, condescension and alternately suggesting that my views were akin to atheism, mormonism and universalism.

    This sort of thing has a lineage and I think you have identified it pretty well. This particular fellow was a teaching assistant at RTS. I’ve experienced the same “slash and burn” attitude in a number of others and it usually traces back to the same source. Thankfully, there are other Calvinists from different strains who can work and play with others, and discussions with them have been much more peaceful and, consequently, have led to more understanding on both sides. Even back when I was a Calvinist myself (up until about five years ago, I quickly tired of the arrogance I met, from the strain you describe, when I began to question the Calvinist system.

    • Thanks for the support Jeff. Yes, I followed that debate at the FT Evangel site a little. It was intense no doubt. However, I am hopeful, as I said to Bonnie, that we can begin to have a conversation here, and I think we’ll all be better for it.

  6. Hi, Dale…

    As a former pentecostal/charismatic and a former Arminian I have to disagree with your post. First of all, your emphasis on “healing” borrows its theology mostly from the Word of Faith movement which is essentially a syncretism of Christian Science/New Thought with Pentecostal/Arminian theology. It is a subtle shift between the synergism of Arminianism to a full blown positive confession that changes reality in the matters of health and prosperity.

    Secondly, arguments for non-cessationism beg the question since there is no direct evidence in Scripture for the ongoing signs, wonders, and miracles of the apostles to continue until the return of Christ. Since the majority of healings and miracles today cannot be documented and/or do not meet the same criteria as the astounding miracles Jesus and the original apostles did, I don’t think they are the same at all. This is particularly true when the miracles recorded in Scripture are obligatory to the believer while modern anecdotes are fallible at best.

    And lastly, the de-emphasizing of the forensic nature of justification goes beyond what even John Wesley taught in the 52 Standard Sermons. Having studied at Asbury I can tell you that Wesley did teach the doctrine of a forensic justification by faith alone and a penal substitutionary atonement, although modern Methodists are not comfortable with that doctrine. The move away from justification by faith alone by a forensic declaration by God on our behalf is in fact contradictory to Scripture and is a move in the direction of Rome. If salvation is something infused into the heart by the dynamic experience of the Holy Spirit, then what you are really saying is that justification is based on our performance, our keeping of the law, and our sanctification. To confuse justification with sanctification is to commit the error of semi-pelagianism and to deny the very Gospel itself as it was condemned in the canons of the Council of Trent.

    This is why traditional Reformed theology opposes your pentecostalism. It is because your view is inherently a pelagian one. Despite all the talk in charismatic circles about “sovereign moves of the Holy Spirit” and “miracles” the real truth is you think you have to work up all these things yourself by your “cooperation” with God. This cooperation really amounts to man being sovereign over God and thus God becomes your heavenly bellhop who jumps at your command.

    No, I became a Calvinist in 1995 after my experience at Asbury precisely because I saw through all the smoke and saw the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Arminian view for what it really is: Works righteousness and a performance trap.

    I would much rather trust in all the promises of God which are in Christ, yea and amen!

    For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. (2 Corinthians 1:20 ESV)

    • Thanks Charlie for taking the time to engage my post. I really appreciate it. First, you are correct that folks on both sides have hurled accusations. Again, witness the recent discussion at the FT Evangel blog. Secondly, if you don’t mind, I’m going to resist any theological engagement on the differences between Reformed and Wesleyan theology because my post was not primarily about such theological differences. This does not mean that I don’t recognize them; to be sure, I do. Instead, my post was about historical truth rather than theological truth, if I can put it that way (of course, I don’t deny that these are interrelated as the final lines of my initial post indicate). With that said, I would ask you to examine the historical record on the theology of healing, which preceded pentecostalism as you no doubt know. One of its early proponents was the former presbyterian A B. Simpson. There has been a lot of good historical work done on this recently. You might begin with a book by Kim Alexander called Pentecostal Healing in which she traces out the doctrine. In one of those ironic twists, the Word of Faith stream actually owes more to forensic ideas than it does to the Wesleyan dynamic.

      Being at Asbury you probably studied with Ken Collins so you know about the debate between him and Randy Maddox over how best to understand what Wesley was doing in his doctrine of salvation. And, this is really my point, there are a variety of historical interpretations possible on these matters, even within Reformed circles. This does not mean that there is no historical truth, but it is to say that historians are still working to get a richer picture of what happened. If we can agree on that point, then let’s use it as a basis to have a conversation.

    • James M. Henderson says:

      Dr. Ray, I am opposed to the Word-Faith concept of healing as a result of one’s mind-set/confession. I do not find Kenyon, Hagin, etc to be healthy thinking for Christians. Having said that, let me point out that the idea of divine healing as a benefit of the atonement predates Kenyon and has nothing to do (necessarily) with Word Faith or its doctrines. The first healing evangelist began before the civil war. Asa Mahan, Gordon, Boardman, and Moody all taught that God would heal in answer to prayer beginning in the 1870s. A. B. Simpson was also part of this movement. Paul Chappel’s article in the first Dictionary of Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements is instructive on this history. Unfortunately the article does not appear in the second version. While a cessationist viewpoint would reject God’s intervention in healing this does not appear to me to be necessary to a Reformed tradition. Warfield’s cessationism appears to be a poorly informed reaction to Roman Catholic claims of miracles at Lourdes and Fatima rather than a legitimate extension of Dortian theology.

  7. I might add that the cage fight mentality exists in the charismatic movement as well. It’s really a form of triumphalistic theology that says anyone who dares to disagree is out. Charismatics dare not question their leaders or what they say.

    • Jeff Doles says:

      Yes, Dr. Ray, there is a strain of that mentality among the Charismatics, but you paint with way too broad a brush to apply that tar to charismatics in general. Perhaps that was true of your own experience, but there are many others for whom it is not.

      Robert Bowman addresses the question of whether Word of Faith is a syncretism with Christian Science / New Thought and demonstrates that, though there were are few minor points in common, there were far more and significant differences between them (The Word-Faith Controversy, by Robert Bowman, Baker Books, 2001).

      My early background and heritage is in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, founded by a Presbyterian, A. B. Simpson who had a healing theology before E. W. Kenyon. There were others in the early CMA who are well-known for their healing theology, including T. J. McCrossan, who was a Presbyterian minister, professor of Greek at Manitoba University and author of *Bodily Healing and the Atonement.” Also, F. F. Bosworth, healing minister and author *Christ the Healer*, worked with the CMA.

      Before that, in the 19th century, there was Congregational minister Horace Bushnell, Lutheran minister Johann Christof Blumhardt in Germany, Dorothea Trudel in Switzerland (Spurgeon commended her healing ministry) and a number of others — all these ministered with a healing theology and saw many people supernaturally healed. Even C. H. Spurgeon, Reformed and Baptist, saw numerous divine healings and miraculous recoveries, often immediately, through his personal ministry.

      I written about all of these, using contemporary accounts of healings that occurred through their ministries, in *Miracles and Manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the History of the Church*.