Theological Pretention

By on Nov 22, 2013

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“Theology is the study of God and his ways. For all we know, dung beetles may study us and our ways and call it humanology. If so, we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.”[1]

Pretention and Certainty

“And you think your stuff doesn’t stink.” The adage is crass but the problem it highlights is crass: pretention. There are few things more repulsive than pretention. The teenager who knows it all, the sports fan who has never lost an argument, the theology major who has unlocked all the mysteries of the universe. An hour locked in a room with any of the aforementioned persons is enough to make the strongest heart weak.

And lots of things go into pretention: pride and projection, arrogance and insecurities, knowledge and ignorance. But at its very core pretention feeds on certainty, especially theological pretention. We get pretentious when we get certain, when we become convinced that there is simply no way we are wrong about this, when we cannot see any truth in alternative positions, when we can no longer feel the weight of dissenting voices and as such seek to squelch them out.

But of course when it comes to theology, certainty is impossible. Finite human beings are trying to make sense of an infinite God. We always know God subjectively, never objectively. Perhaps the most certain thing we can say about God is that we cannot be certain about anything. This is not to say we cannot be confident, that we cannot have good reason to believe what we believe. But it is to say that certainty will always lie just beyond our grasp. Certainty? No. Confidence? Yes.


Bad Tone and Bad Theology

In my estimation, the tone of modern American evangelical theological rhetoric belies a furious but ultimately impossible and misguided attempt for certainty. Allow me to speak from my context and experience. The Young, Restless, and Reformed movement and its vast web of associates (The Gospel Coalition, Sovereign Grace Ministries, Acts 29 Network, Passion Conferences, etc.) have experienced unbelievable growth and gained unbelievable influence. And yet for many who have ears to hear, it often strikes the shrill chord of pretention.

I used to be young, restless, and reformed. I understand why people embrace five or four point Calvinism. I see how they look at Scripture and think it teaches unconditional election and irresistible grace. And I see how they find any sort of free will theism problematic. Where do free decisions come from if not from God? How else do you translate Romans 9? I get it. I get how they could think it stinks.

What I don’t get is how they don’t smell, well, their own stink. How is God good, just, or loving in creating people for eternal damnation for sins he ordained they commit? Is Calvinism truly Christocentric? Are the emphases of the Gospels the emphases of Calvinism? How do we make sense of the thousands of places in the Bible that implore us to make decisions on the apparent assumption that we actually can or can’t? How is human moral responsibility coherent in a determinist framework? I’m not saying there aren’t answers to these questions. I am saying that to me (and many others) they all stink.

I’m ok with acknowledging that some of my answers to difficult questions stink (or will stink to others). And I’m ok with it because while I hold my beliefs with a great deal of confidence, I know I cannot hold them with certainty. Many in the YRR (and especially its leaders) just don’t seem to be able to smell the scent they’re putting off. They are just…so…certain. And they seem to think this certainty is a sign of knowledge and authority. Perhaps it’s just a sign of bad theology.


Transcending Transcendence

What is perhaps most ironic is that Calvinist theology has traditionally had a heavy emphasis on the transcendence of God. God is said to be so beyond human comprehension that we have no right to call into question his goodness, justice, or love, even in light of the reprobate. God operates on a plane for which there is little analogy. But if God is indeed so transcendent, how can they be so certain with their beliefs? Is TULIP an exception to God’s transcendence? Free will theism is often accused of belittling God’s transcendence, of forgetting how holy and other God is. And yet Neo-Calvinism appears to do far worse: it attempts to transcend God’s transcendence. This lies at the heart of theological pretention and the culture of certainty for where transcendence is honored, certainty and thus pretention are deflated and humility grows its roots.

Though I disagree with Calvinism, Calvinism isn’t the problem. The problem is theological pretention, which has become a dangerous bedfellow of Neo-Calvinism. Theological pretension needs to be ruthlessly stomped out but not merely because it is bad manners. It is bad theology. It is theology that has attempted to transcend transcendence. And bad theology produces bad disciples.


Theological Reconciliation

In a recent edition of Christianity Today, John Piper was asked about theological reconciliation. Borrowing from Frances Schaeffer, Piper suggests that theological reconciliation might look like throwing love bombs over the walls between us instead of hate bombs. Hmmm. While throwing love bombs over walls is certainly preferable to throwing hate bombs, I would think tearing down the walls (or at least making a nice, big door) would be more helpful for theological reconciliation. And to state the obvious, the throwing of bombs over walls would seem to assume we couldn’t get together in the same room, which is a bit of a shame. Messages taped to hurled bombs (podcasts, books, conferences, tweets) don’t exactly scream reconciliation. They scream, “I’m certain about this so you better come over here.” This shouldn’t be a surprise though. Reconciliation isn’t important in a culture of certainty.

This is further fleshed out by Piper’s remarks regarding his infamous “farewell Rob Bell” tweet wherein he explains what he meant:


When I watched the video of Rob Bell that was put up on Justin Taylor’s website, which was, I think, a link to his book on hell, my issue there was not primarily his view of hell. It was his cynicism concerning the Cross of Jesus Christ as a place where the Father atoned for the sins of his children and dealt with his own wrath by punishing me in his son. Rob Bell does not admire that. He doesn’t view the Cross that way, as a penal substitution. I consider that the essence of the Cross and my salvation, and the heart of God for me, and that ticked me off royally…And so, there’s a point for “Thus far, no further, farewell.” There are other points where we ought to be cultivating all those courtesies.


First off, Bell doesn’t deny penal substitution in the video. He implicitly criticizes a certain understanding of penal substitution (some would say a caricature) wherein a select few are saved from a bloodthirsty God by the intervention of Jesus. But more to our point, Piper seems to indicate that he is willing to say “farewell” to people who don’t share his particular understanding of penal substitution or view it as the “heart of God”.

Does he realize how many Christians he is saying “farewell” to? Is he so insulated that he is unaware of just how many orthodox, evangelical Christians don’t consider penal substitution the very “heart of God”? But that’s the thing. He probably does know, he just doesn’t care, and he doesn’t care because he’s so certain he’s right. As noted above, theological reconciliation will never be organic in a culture of certainty. The same could be said for humility, which lies at the root of theological reconciliation. What will be organic in a culture of certainty is pretention, and its seeds are currently blooming for the whole world to see.

And while I am hesitant to pull the Jesus card here, I just can’t help myself. Piper claims throwing love bombs and sending “farewell” tweets is justified because Jesus was “really hard on certain theological differences.” And I’m sure at this point Mark Driscoll would chime in and note that when Jesus comes back (taking a breather from him eternal MMA cage match with the Holy Spirit) he will have a sword, a tattoo, and is coming for blood. But to state the obvious, none of us are Jesus; therefore we don’t use swords or throw bombs.

Additionally, I can’t help but notice that Jesus’ anger was almost exclusively (exclusively?) stoked by people who were pushing for theologies of exclusion, theologies rooted in pretention (Jesus’ diatribe against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 and the cleansing of the Temple stand out). So if we insist on throwing love bombs, how about we at least throw the bombs Jesus threw?


A Way Forward: More Transcendence

Of course everything I have noted could be turned the opposite way. Neo-Calvinism certainly hasn’t cornered the market on pretention. But the simple fact is that in American evangelicalism, neo-Calvinism now has the microphone and the world is listening. What does it hear? I think it hears some good things, but I think it also smells something that stinks: pretention.

If I may make a bit of a pretentious suggestion myself, I would encourage the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement (and especially its leaders) to take transcendence more seriously. Don’t treat TULIP like the one exception to God’s transcendence. Don’t just tolerate dissident voices but understand that you need them because you can’t be certain that you’re right. Invite “them” to speak at your conferences, request their presence on your boards, and perhaps quit creating private clubs where they’re not allowed.[2]

If you do it, I have no doubt you’ll lose followers and probably lose influence. But you’ll also gain something invaluable, both for yourself and your followers: humility. You can beat the humility drum all day long but it will never stick in a culture of certainty. So what will it be…power or humility, influence or reconciliation? Jesus could be trusted with both. I’m pretty sure most of us can’t.

[1] Wishful Thinking, 112.

[2] The Gospel Coalition serves a striking case in point. The organization claims to represent the deep and broad evangelical consensus regarding the truth of the gospel (see their Preamble). One can’t help but catch a whiff of pretention here and this whiff is no doubt reinforced by the fact that there is not a single free-will theist of any sort on the Gospel Coalition council or staff. Apparently the deep and broad evangelical consensus of the gospel does not need the voice of free-will theism.

  • Elaine Fish

    Austin, you’re a huge breath of theological fresh air! I’m encouraged you’re speaking at the UMHB Writer’s Festival. As a recovering 20+ year
    evangelical psychologist, I have come to similar conclusions. I don’t believe we should ever stop asking questions. This pretention I believe truly grieves God’s heart. Thanks for speaking out–

    • Austin Fischer

      Thanks Elaine! Couldn’t agree more and thanks for the kind words.

  • David Pitchford

    This is a really good point. I think I had kind of conflated the two before, but what really “stinks” about lots of Calvinists (as well as some Arminians) is not so much what they believe, but the pretentious way in which they believe it. Pretentious Christians often support their beliefs with language like “the Bible clearly says…” as if disagreeing with them is equivalent to disagreeing with the Bible, which (according to their usually-high view of Scripture) is equivalent to disagreeing with God. This leaves no room for anyone to legitimately disagree with them, and thus no room for conversation. One of my favorite bloggers, Morgan Guyton, wrote a few weeks ago about his response to The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul and how he puts himself on God’s side of the mysterium tremendum of God’s holiness that separates God from humanity. This sounds similar to what you say about TULIP: God’s ways are unknowable and higher than ours, but I (the enlightened theologian) am going to make them plain to you. You can’t have it both ways.

    I like to think of truth as a mountain, with Christ at the pinnacle (Jhn 14:6). People may approach the summit (or not) from a variety of directions, but anyone other than Christ who claims to have reached the summit and seen the view is mistaken.

    • Austin Fischer

      Great thoughts David. I actually read The Holiness of God a long time ago and the diagnosis you mention is really perceptive. It also gives me a shiver of guilt because I know how often I do the same thing–putting myself on God’s side of the mysterium trendum…

  • Joel

    I think you nailed it. Part of the problem with the Young, Restless & Reformed movement is precisely the fact that they are so “restless” (or insecure) in the apology of an ideal perfect state of “reformedness”. It is exactly because theology is so partial and open-ended that I think of myself, rather, as “Young, Rested and Reforming”. I can only finally Rest in God’s gracious reconciliation through Christ when I understand that “reforming” will never, in this dimension, reach a finalized state of absolute “refomed”. Not in theology, not in discipleship. Great post, Austin.

    • Austin Fischer

      Thanks, Joel. Yea, I love the idea of reformed and always reforming. Roger does a good job explaining this too. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Matt

    Thank you for your blog! This post articulates beautifully what I (and many others, I think) have felt for a quite some time. I am uncomfortable with the attitude of the YRR crowd, and I’m glad you have addressed these concerns. Even the fact that the Gospel Coalition calls themselves the *Gospel* Coalition strikes me as curious. A more apt name would be the North American neo-Reformed Coalition. But calling themselves the GC smacks of a theologically pretentious spirit.

    • Austin Fischer

      Thanks Matt. I really try to check myself on all this because I can get real pretentious real quick, but I do think there is a strong undercurrent of it in conservative evangelicalism right now.

      • Matt

        I agree. It is far too easy to miss the pretentious theological logs in my own eye. Thanks for the reply.

  • Jacobo77

    Thanks, Austin, for this post and your book (I have read about half of it so far). I admit I never got as far into Calvinism as you did, nor was my rejection of it as carefully considered as yours. It was more of an instinctive thing for me.

    And, to get back to your subject here… my grasp of church history is undoubtedly incomplete, although I have taught different areas of it in the past.

    But my take on this issue of pretentiousness in relationship to Calvinism is that it is not a recent problem; it has infected the movement since very, very early. I could take the Dutch reformation, with which I have a bit more than a passing acquaintance, as a case to support my understanding. Would you agree?

    • Austin Fischer

      Hey Jacob…I would probably tend to agree, but I just want to be careful about claiming something along the lines of “Calvinism inevitably produces pretension.” I know lots of Calvinist who aren’t pretentious.

      That said, Calvinism is a meticulous, fine-tuned, systematic theological model that has at its center a very difficult doctrine to accept…and I do think this would lend itself to a certain rigidity and perhaps “insider arrogance.” Isaiah says we become like the gods we worship…

      • Jacobo77

        100% agreed; to paint all as representing the same attitude would be entirely inappropriate. Also agreed that the rigidity and ‘insider arrogance’ is pretty well built into the system, although some escape adopting those characteristics. But I’ve seen plenty of these things displayed as well.

        Heard a radio commentator recently comment that whether or not you agreed with Calvinist thought, the arrogance with which it is at times held is objectionable. Don’t know where he came from theologically nor what prompted the remark as I did not hear the entire broadcast.

        On the other hand, there is political pretentiousness, cultural pretentiousness, and who knows how many other varieties. Your last comment reminds us all that whether in theology or politics or the American dream or whatever, we are very prone to set up our “gods”. Keeping ourselves straight in all of this is a full-time challenge!

  • chalesdor

    Dear austin, it seems to me that calvanism is just the christian teaching of the jews. The jews say that they are chosen to be saved an rule over the earth an the goem…christians say they are chosen to be saved an rule the earth….and so doez the moslem…every one wants to be a ruller…nobody wants to be a sevant,,,,like jesus sez of YHVH….

  • Dave Anfenson

    Piper has certainly given me a “farewell.” How can you say farewell to people that don’t believe in the penal substituion THEORY of the Atonement!? There are a lot of theories out there concerning the cross and its meaning for the Christian. Honestly, I’m not sure what neo-Calvinism would look like without pretension anymore.

  • Nate

    “. . . He will have a sword, a tattoo, and is coming for blood.” This looks to me like a gross misunderstanding of the message John was likely trying to get across when he described Jesus that way.