The Epigenetics of Emergent Calvinism

Pt. 5 of The Postmodern Logic Behind Emergent Calvinism

Making My Calvinism More Emergent

As I worked on the intended “Epigenetics” post last night I had to face the question of how much stuff I’m reporting of is Tim Keller’s and how much is my own.

In my last post I gave some of the background of why Tim Keller is influencing the theology of the Christian Reformed Church, especially the young pastors. I should probably tell a bit of my own story.

Even though my cluster cohort and I met Tim Keller and visited Redeemer in June of 2006 my interest in him really didn’t become significant and earnest until that August. I was in a sort of a box in my ministry and personal life and I knew something needed to change and I stumbled across some MP3s from the Resurgence Conference and it rocked my world. What I heard was a synthesis of of a lot of what I was feeling, with some deep connections to my own roots in the earlier urban, black and reformed movements of the 70s and tapped into my own theological tradition with a new perspective on “the gospel”. Some of what I was feeling was also well summarized by Belcher’s list that I posted in part 3 of this series.

Over the next two years I listened to over 100 sermons, lectures and recordings from Tim Keller. If you look back in my blog during those years there are plenty of posts on Keller’s stuff. I began to outline some of his sermons that I thought were helpful to me. I began to try to reverse engineer some of his theology to try to figure out what made it tick. I’ve now been doing this for six years. Since I’m primarily an auditory learner the audio content was easy for me to digest and to remember.

I remember my church history professor at Calvin Seminary recommending to us the value of choosing a theologian to study in depth. His list was Augustine, Calvin, Luther or CS Lewis. If you study Keller you get Luther, Edwards and CS Lewis along with a lot of other Puritan thought.

Keller also in one recording (part of the weakness of learning from recordings is that it is hard to track down quotes, that’s partially why I blog) suggests (following Lewis if I recall) that in order to find your own voice you need to study deeply the voices of others. Don’t try to be original, just keep listening to others and in time your own voice will emerge.

I write this not just to give you a window into my noodle but also to make a disclaimer that I’m both indebted to Keller for a lot of what I’ve learned over the last 6 years but also that you shouldn’t necessarily hold him accountable what I write even if I’m exploring what I think he’s doing. I’ve had enough experience with pastors to know that often they are the least aware of what they are doing as anyone. We can’t see our selves so as I’m processing this stuff I’m aware that there will be some transference, projecting, etc. involved.

My hope is that as a community we can learn together. My goal is that we as a community can better know the gospel and communicate it to this amazing world we live in. What I think Tim Keller has helped me with is to rework some of my language to address a postmodern context. This isn’t a matter of just using new language to communicate old concepts. This was what the Seeker movement did. Again and again they insisted that their theology wasn’t changing, just the deployment of it. Many saw that as disingenuous and untrue. The work of the church in doing theology doesn’t change. New concepts need to challenge new contexts. The question is whether the new concepts are in faithful continuity with the old.

Culture and the missionary

The wikipedia definition of “plausibility structure” is a pretty good one. A “plausibility structures are the sociocultural contexts (or bases) of systems of meaning, action, or beliefs which are basic and tend to remain unquestioned by individuals in a given society.”

Every missionary needs to find a way to appeal to the target culture. There is a plausibility structure that must be encountered and adequately addressed if the appeal of the missionary is to get a hearing.

David Watson reminded me after my last post of another PCA pastor who influenced the CRC, and all of North American missiology: D. James Kennedy. He’s a terrific illustration of the speed of cultural transition missiologically in North America. My denomination, and many others followed his lead in his popular evangelistic tool “Evangelism Explosion”. Evangelism explosion was most famously known for their evangelistic one liner “If you were to die tonight and God were to ask you ‘why should I let you into my heaven’ what would you say?”

Now I’m sure that if you go cold calling with this question you will still find people who will give an expected response but many won’t be moved or anxious about the conversation. Why not? Because common plausibility structures have shifted for many into a post-Christian framework. Many are simply not anxious about the threat of hell so some Christians then switch operations to first try to convince people about the threat of hell. See again the NT Wright quote on seeker-modernity framework.

This isn’t to say that hell isn’t a real threat nor that part of what Jesus delivers us from are the everlasting consequences of our rebellion, but that the way the picture is framed reduces a far broader narrative into a binary judgment with some large unexplored assumptions. We’ll see in a moment why this has all shifted and why this particular approach is defeated by the postmodern plausibility structure. We’ll also see how Tim Keller’s change at the “epigenetic” level addresses this shift.


Most of us are aware of our DNA, the coding that is the building blocks of life. What we are less aware of is the layer above our DNA called Epigenetics. (For a couple of popular treatments of the subject check out the NOVA episode and a sermon by John Van Sloten.) Our DNA may be fairly fixed, but how those genes are expressed is determined by our epigenetics. Epigenetics determines which DNA gets activated and which DNA stays dormant.

Why bring up epigenetics in this discussion? Think about the Bible like DNA for the Christian community and think about epigenetics as the layer above that responds to environmental changes to determine which elements of the DNA get activated.

The Bible is a large book and we have long known that different parts of the Bible get a lot of attention during different periods of Christian history and in different places of the world. A modernistic approach called “Biblicism” by Christian Smith received very rough treatment in his book “The Bible Made Impossible”

The very same Bible—which biblicists insist is perspicuous and harmonious—gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest. Knowledge of “biblical” teachings, in short, is characterized by pervasive interpretive pluralism.

Smith, Christian (2011-08-01). Bible Made Impossible, The (Kindle Locations 481-483). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.

Smith’s point that when the Bible is viewed as some atomistic vat of nuggets of truth the assumed compilation of these nuggets has historically yielded interpretive pluralism. The Bible isn’t a syllogism inconveniently packaged in narrative, poetry, lists and epistles when what we needed was a database looking more like a book of systematic theology.

What we have instead is something more analogous to a genetic code for the church but at different points in history different readings, passages, ways of interpretation, etc. get activated. It is within the life of the church, conflict within the church, conversation among peoples of diverse cultures and times within the long term story of the church that the DNA gets applied to different contexts and times as is needed.

Some will of course object that this isn’t orderly and secure enough but I’m hard pressed to see what in fact they wish to assert. If you look at the New Testament’s view of prophecy in the Old Testament you’ll see that things weren’t catalogued like we would imagine it should have been according to our assumptions. Readers today might look at Old Testament citations in the New Testament and object that the citation doesn’t demonstrate the point it wishes to make. The point is that the authors clearly read the Old Testament text through a different contextual filter and for us to understand the point they were making we’ll have to do a bit of work to understand their filter.

What happens over the history of interpretation is that things do in fact migrate, positions change, and assumptions about prooftexts for particular positions change, even if there is long term harmony and continuity within the tradition.

What the missionary does is appropriate the theological tradition and the text and try to make it intelligible to the present context. In the process the outcomes may or may not seem in continuity with the old. Over time the new interpretations are tested by the community. Some will stick, some will not.

Augustine and Wisdom

We live with the same Biblical text that Augustine did. Modernistic American evangelicals of the late 20th century may try to reduce that Bible to “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. The Bible is the guide to get to heaven when you die. That is the great good that the Bible is sometimes reduced to as witnessed in the evangelistic shortcut used by Evangelism Explosion. Getting to heaven after you die is the great goal.

What we will find in Augustine, however, is that what he sought and the value he found from Christianity and the Bible was not hell avoidance primarily but Wisdom. Here is a quote from Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine.

“Cicero had urged Augustine to seek Wisdom: ‘I should not chase after this or that philosophical sect, but should love Wisdom, of whatever kind it should be; that I should search for it, follow hard upon it, hold on to it and embrace it with all my strength. That was what stirred me in that discourse, set me alight, and left me

The precise form of ‘Wisdom’ that Augustine might seek, would, of course, be very different from what Cicero would have recognized as ‘Wisdom’. Augustine was a boy from a Christian household. In an age where only the writings of adults have survived, it is extremely difficult to grasp the nature of the ‘residual’ Christianity of a young man. One thing, however, was certain: a pagan wisdom, a wisdom without the ‘name of Christ’ was quite out of the question.’ Paganism meant nothing to Augustine. In Carthage he will watch the great festivals that were still celebrated at the great temple of the Dea Caelestis: but he will do so in the manner of a Protestant Englishman witnessing the solemn Catholic processions of Italy — they were splendid and interesting; but they had nothing to do with religion as he knew it.

Moreover, Augustine grew up in an age where men thought that they shared the physical world with malevolent demons. They felt this quite as intensely as we feel the presence of myriads of dangerous bacteria. The ‘name of Christ’ was applied to the Christian like a vaccination. It was the only guarantee of safety. As a child, Augustine had been ‘salted’ to keep out the demons; when he had suddenly fallen ill, as a boy, he would plead to be baptized.’ These Christian rites, of course, might influence a grown-up man’s conduct as little as the possession of a certificate of vaccination; but they expressed a mentality that had cut off, as positively ‘unhygienic’, the pagan religion of the classical past.

In Carthage, Augustine had remained loyal to the Catholic church. He had already grown to love the solemn Easter vigils of the great basilicas.’ A stranger from the provinces, he would, of course, go to church to find a girl-friend, much as another stranger, the Genoese, Christopher Columbus, will meet his wife in Seville Cathedral.

Above all, the Christianity of the fourth century would have been presented to such a boy as a form of ‘True Wisdom’. The Christ of the popular imagination was not a suffering Saviour. There are no crucifixes in the fourth century. He was, rather, ‘the Great Word of God, the Wisdom of God.” On the sarcophagi of the age, He is always shown as a Teacher, teaching His Wisdom to a coterie of budding philosophers. For a cultivated man, the essence of Christianity consisted in just this. Christ, as the ‘Wisdom of God’, had established a monopoly in Wisdom: the clear Christian revelation had trumped and replaced the conflicting opinions of the pagan philosophers; ‘Here, here is that for which all philosophers have sought throughout their life, but never once been able to track down, to embrace, to hold firm. . . . He who would be a wise man, a complete man, let him hear the voice of God.Peter Brown “Augustine of Hippo” pg. 30,31.

Same Bible, different culture, different mindset, different goals, same religion. Calvinists have long saw themselves in the Augustinian tradition but I have never heard a Calvinist evangelistic appeal based on wisdom. Evangelism Explosion does not go door to door offering wisdom.

The Bible is the DNA, current theological application and appeal is the epigenetics.

Challenges of Postmodern Culture

Is it difficult to see the postmodern critique of Evangelism Explosion? Surely there are latent power interests behind trying to gather people to your tribe and doing so based on fear. By suggesting that all others except your special group are facing everlasting torment you are presenting and unfair and powerful means of coercion against your neighbor.

But wait, it gets worse. The larger narrative assertion that the creator God of the universe would send people to hell for not signing up with his most favored group on earth (if you can sift between them) seems also like an illegitimate use of power. Such a god is morally objectionable and therefore certainly must not be a true god. If such a thing as god exists that god would be morally pure and would be beyond using power to coerce human beings into anything, much less threaten them. Listen to a young man on youtube essentially make this argument.

A system in which a god uses power against the will of people is automatically immoral in such a system. A moral god would not punish or judge but rather understand the limitations of the creatures and act in a therapeutic way towards them, that is if any god exists.

When Christians wade into the public conversation about their god and lead with a traditional narrative about the fact that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and have hell to pay for wrongs they didn’t even know they were doing, it simply is beyond the comprehension of many hearers, including many raised in the church.

How talk of hell has changed

“So are you saying they’re going to hell?” In a modern conversation this is dealing with a question primarily of selection. “What are the criteria that your god uses to assign either pleasant or painful afterlife accommodations?” For postmoderns “so are you saying they’re going to hell” is a conversation about the morality of your god. Modernism shifted the question to a binary end-of-time judgment, postmodernism reject the narrative as self-evidently immoral based on the use of coercive power.

The Task of Emergent Calvinism

Mark Driscoll’s Calvinism lines up more cleanly with a lot of traditionalists. When you listen to a conversation about hell many of them will dutifully go through the traditional narrative of “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, therefore you have hell coming to you unless you appropriate for yourself through faith the forgiveness earned for you by Jesus Christ on the cross.” They come by this narrative honestly. I grew up on the Heidelberg Catechism. It is certainly in there. (Later we’ll get into messing at the epigenetic level of the Heidelberg Catechism to help it address a postmodern context.)

For someone to embrace this confession they need to deny a basic assumption of a postmodern culture. If you’ve studied any missiology at all you know that the missionary’s goal is to not ask people to immediately violate their culture to come to the gospel. The gospel critiques all cultures but the gospel must also be incarnated within all cultures. You can’t begin missionary work by complaining about a culture and asking people to abandon it. Evangelism still happens with people embracing the traditional narrative, but the cultural divide will limit the number of people who can make the journey.

The cross cultural missionary crosses over the divide and recasts the terms (changes the epigenetics) into the terms of the target culture.

Tim Keller is a conservative, but he’s changed the epigenetics of the traditionalists. He’s done it to speak to postmoderns, but he’s also a sharp enough theologian and reader of the tradition do it in a way that is intelligible to many traditionalists. He has, in a sense, built a bridge between the cultural groups.

Keller also knows his own tribe well enough to understand their system of shibboleth check boxes. I’m not saying that there’s anything disingenuous about it. I have no reason to believe he isn’t fully and wholeheartedly subscribing to all that he claims he does. What he is is bilingual culturally and theologically, like a good missionary is. What Keller has managed to do is appropriate the DNA of the Bible and his tradition, apply a postmodern epigenetic system to talk in terms that cause people who out of hand rejected more traditional formulas to listen to what he has to say.

Part of my thesis is that the seeker movement tried to change behavior without changing theology. That itself was a very pragmatic move because the last thing that Willow and others wanted to do was to ignite more theological bickering, which we will always have with us. Their assertion was that “the gospel” was set (they basically borrowed off the shelf 4 spiritual laws, evangelism explosion, etc.) and asserted that what we needed was primarily a new delivery system.

Given that the boomers are considerably more modern and more Christendom haunted than following generations I can understand their tactic. With the arrival of the emergent movement it basically fell apart. Theology could not be ignored.

Keller is doing theology as he goes. Conservatives might not like to admit it but Keller is doing the job of adjusting a Calvinist (and Puritan) theology for a postmodern context with a lot of help from CS Lewis. The big question that we will need to wrestle with is not different from what the confessionalists struggled with in contending with the seeker movement. Does reworking theology change theology? I think it always does and it is the healthy, natural process, but not one without risks.

Next: Understanding self-righteousness as law breaking in addressing a postmodern culture.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Institutional Church, Missional, theological and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Epigenetics of Emergent Calvinism

  1. Pingback: Stalking Tim Keller |

  2. Mark Hofman says:

    Good stuff again Paul. However, I’m wondering if a return to the sophistic tendencies of (pre-suppositionalist) Van-Tilians might also create problems for post-moderns who seem allergic to negative apologetics. I would like to see more of what Jamie Smith offers in his “cultural liturgies” trilogy embraced by the young, restless, and re-surging Reformed. Can’t we all love Augustine together? What I also love is that Keller seems to be reaching out to both his two-kingdom friends in Philadelphia and Escondido as well as those “nasty” neo-Kuyperians in west Michigan.

    I just finished a two-part evening sermon series on HC Lord’s Days 2-4. I found Fred Klooster’s discussion of “Elend” (misery) as exile very helpful. We’re all trying to find that first love we lost in Paradise…

    Looking forward to what you are finding.

  3. PaulVK says:

    Thanks Mark. And bless you for mentioning Fred Klooster on the Internet. I had him his last year of teaching at CTS. Did I ever tell you the story of the time he drove Karl Barth to the airport? 🙂 pvk

    • Mark Hofman says:

      I would love to hear that story. Fred gave a good chunk of his library to my uncle (John Medendorp) after his retirement. Those books travelled to the D.R. then through Houston, TX before making their way back to G.R. I was given the privilege of sorting through them and keeping what I wanted. Let me tell you – I get goosebumps every time I find one of Fred’s notes or bookmarks in between pages.

      What I appreciate about Fred was that while his Westminster, PA education provided steam for the rest of his career, he didn’t fell obligated to pay “homage” the rest of his life. He was truly (ecumenically) Reformed – bridging the gap before Greenway and Keller were on the scene.

  4. Paul,

    I’ll leave aside your appreciation of Tim Keller. Clearly, we disagree about Keller. What I take from this post with gratitude is your epigenetics metaphor for biblical interpretation. I think this metaphor is worth exploring. What is far from clear is what it means in the concrete case. What I meant to do in this post was explore the metaphor a bit, but as it happens in these sort of forums, it (my typing fingers) went in a different direction. What follows is far too long, for which I apologize, and constitutes a kind of apology (to use the word in it other sense or, rather, in both senses) for Boomers or Modernists or whoever is the bete noire in these posts.

    I long ago made the observation that a certain kind of biblical legalism is attractive to those whose lives are otherwise chaotic. It brings order and wisdom to life (have you ever read Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe? Check out the “sugar rule”). For others, those who have perhaps grown up on this sort of legalism, it’s the New Testament passages about freedom that resonate. (This seems to follow from your epigenetics metaphor; different biblical expressions in different settings.) If this is true on a micro basis, perhaps it is also true on a macro basis. Why is Driscoll popular? In part because many people find themselves caught in emotional and social chaos. He provides rules, authority (I don’t think that this explains Keller, who is quite different from Driscoll). Part of the difference between the Boomers and those who follow on after is that the Boomers actually experienced the 50’s (and early 60’s) when black people were required to use separate facilities, women were told to stay in the home, and rock and roll was denounced from church pulpits–when, if you showed up to preach in a beard, you were asked to leave. We saw in Jesus a radical prophet, not an upholder of the status quo. Our prophet was Bob Dylan singing a kind of eschatological vision of the new kingdom. We read Amos, not Deuteronomy; the Sermon on the Mount, not the Pastorals. (That is, the culture seemed to require certain expressions of the Bible.)

    In the process we forgot some things. We forgot that order once lost is hard to restore. We forgot that once things start to unravel, like cheap sweaters, they keep on unraveling. We allowed, even encouraged, the sort of neo-late-Roman culture we now have, in which entertainment has degenerated to the point that it would be at home in the arenas of provincial Rome (The Hunger Games expresses this elegantly). Is it any wonder that other parts of the biblical tradition are coming to expression? Such things as defined doctrine and rules–rules about everything? But I suspect that this has less to do with modernism vs. post-modernism (we who fancy ourselves the purveyors of ideas always flatter ourselves to think whatever is happening has to do with ideas) than with a deep spiritual crisis in late-empire America. Part of the counter-Boomer narrative (often expressed by Boomers themselves) is that the Woodstock generation (whoever that actually is) betrayed America (or Christianity or both: AmeroChristianity). People are looking for someone to blame for the loss of power and prestige in America and in Organized Christianity (Ross Douthat). They want a restoration of the empire. We ought to be careful about encouraging this narrative.

    So how can we present a counter-cultural faith in such circumstances? Perhaps the best models are not the Tim Kellers or Mark Driscolls or Rob Bells of the world, but those who are trying to follow Jesus in small ways and small communities. Not double predestination (which is always attractive to the powerful; look at me, I’m chosen by God), but the call to the cross, to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow him. Not Bill Hybels but Mark Scandrette. Perhaps the epigenetics that are called for are local: an expression of the truth of the Bible in specific places. What has Blaine to do with New York?

    Adria and I have found something like this is a very small Episcopal Church here, much to our surprise. We weren’t looking for anything at all, but it found us. Maybe that’s the meaning of election. Sorry for the sermon. I appreciated your post.


    • Leonard Vander Zee says:

      Clay, your last paragraph on the “little Episcopal church” caught me, Jeanne and I had the same experience after I left the pastorate in South Bend, A little Episcopal church there, with a priest who grew up in Lyndon WA by the way, sustained us in the beauty of the prayer book, the warmth of an amazingly eclectic fellowship, and the dogged determination to make a difference in their crumbling neighborhood. We still miss the place, having moved to good old Grand Rapids,
      Oh, and I agree with your uneasiness with Keller. I haven’t “listened” to him as much as Paul to be sure, but I find his bridge-building with post-moderns a bit disingenuous.

      • Yes, we have also found all those things in our little parish and–and this was the surprise–amazing preaching. Our pastor, a Yale Divinity grad, weekly engages us the gospel in ways that challenge and encourage. We were expecting good liturgy (Bk. of Common Prayer), okay music, and so-so preaching. We got good liturgy, so-so music, and great preaching. We know that we should be supporting the CRC community in this area, but we can’t bring ourselves to leave Christ Church.

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  8. Duston Stout says:

    Hi Paul! Thanks for your work. I wanted to send this article linking Theological Anthropology and the findings of recent studies confirming Epigenetic factors in the evolution of humans. Albeit a Catholic author, I think it makes some fascinating points about current Evolutionary thought weighing in on Catholic Christian Anthropology. As you know, this debate over evolution in christian circles impacts the doctrine of original sin and the need for a savior and ultimately what man is and what is his good. Thought it might interest you in terms Of reconciling the ‘JBP evolutionary biology’ perspective within a Christian anthropology.

    Thanks again!

    Duston Stout

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