Not So “Young, Restless, Reformed” Anymore?

A few months ago, after reading Timon Cline’s review, I watched the recent documentary film Calvinist. The film is not a history of the Reformed tradition or even of the “doctrines of grace’ themselves.  Rather, it’s a celebration of a distinctly contemporary moment in American Christianity—namely, the “Calvinist turn” in evangelical theology and culture that goes by the moniker Young, Restless, and Reformed (often abbreviated “YRR”). In the film’s optimistic telling, this particular revival of interest in Calvinism will continue to have a lasting and positive impact on the American landscape.

Watching the movie in 2019 is a strangely anachronistic experience. Calvinist feels like it could’ve been made in 2007 or 2008, when YRR leaders’ books were bestsellers and YRR-inflected “church plants” were filling auditoriums. But the film feels somehow disconnected from the modern landscape, which has changed drastically since that initial flurry of enthusiasm.

The last few years have witnessed a series of extremely high-profile departures from the fold. Mark Driscoll, the “bad boy” pastor of the YRR movement, was sacked from his own church network (which subsequently splintered) amid various scandals, and denounced the whole project of Calvinist theology in a recent radio interview. Josh Harris—author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Reformed celebrity pastor extraordinaire—announced last week that he is divorcing his wife and no longer identifies as a Christian at all. Wayne Grudem—one of the YRR movement’s go-to theologians and author of the gigantic blue Systematic Theology volume on countless evangelical teens’ bookshelves—not long ago found himself accused of serious deviations from Trinitarian orthodoxy. 

It’s a little tough to describe how seismic these changes feel to those who didn’t come of age in early-aughts evangelical circles. In particular, Harris was the icon—a bestselling author, the influential founder of the “courtship” movement, a megachurch senior pastor at the age of 30, and so on. Even if I never agreed with his thesis that casual dating is the root of divorce (a sadly ironic stance, given his recent announcement), hearing that he’d effectively renounced the faith still felt like a punch in the gut. I suppose it’s the evangelical-kid equivalent of first hearing that Lance Armstrong was taking performance-enhancing drugs all the way along.

One thing seems painfully clear: Much of the YRR movement, to the extent it still exists, is not in particularly great shape. And this isn’t a matter of Reformed theology qua Reformed theology—which is quite healthy and robust, and rooted firmly in the heritage of the “Church catholic” (the great work of the Davenant Institute springs to mind). This sickness involves a particular expression of a particular aspect of that tradition.

Obviously it’s impossible to reduce any of these “big” developments to a single causal factor (especially a theological one). I also don’t claim to have extensive empirical data to back up these musings. But all that being said, it hasn’t been especially difficult to discern certain persistent themes in the lives of many YRR folks I’ve known: a moment of transformational intellectual clarity, a period of zealous advocacy of certain aspects of Reformed theology (sometimes nicknamed the “cage stage”—usually the fiercest possible approach to the TULIP set of doctrines), and finally a gradual process of disenchantment with the whole thing. And that trajectory, it seems to me, corresponds fairly closely to the accounts of disillusionment offered by the YRR movement’s higher-profile ex-members.

I think there are a couple different reasons for this trend.

First, and perhaps most importantly, the YRR strain of Reformed theology was never especially good at giving reasons for its various claims—instead amplifying a version of “divine command ethics” that eventually became brittle under pressure. 

Classical Reformed theology has virtually always affirmed some concept of natural law—in the simplest terms, positing that one may understand some things about the nature of right and wrong from the character of God’s creation. That is to say, God’s law is truly something that exists for our good—for example, a society that endorses the principle “thou shalt not murder” is a society that better ensures the objective flourishing of human beings than a society that does not. To be sure, there’s an enormous amount of room for disagreement about the precise applications of natural law, but the basic way of thinking is not particularly difficult.

The language and theory of natural law were not features of the popular-level YRR materials I read during the movement’s heyday (to the extent the YRR movement led people back to Reformation-era sources addressing this more comprehensively, I stand ready to be corrected). Nor was natural law a regular topic of conversation among my friends committed to this view. Rather, the focus was almost always the propositional directives contained in Scripture—“do this, not that” and so forth. There was simply no need to ponder or discuss the relationship between an individual directive and the flourishing of human beings: it was sufficient that the Bible commanded it. Now, for an orthodox Christian, that’s not wrong—obviously the Word of God binds the believer—but it runs the risk of denying any real intelligibility to moral disagreements. Moral disagreement, on this account, cannot really be framed as a clash of competing goods, but only as rebellion against God.

A natural outgrowth of this approach to ethics was a version of presuppositional apologetics that would likely be unrecognizable to its founder, legendary Reformed theologian Cornelius Van Til. Rather than exploring the essential relationship between rationality and first principles held by a kind of existential trust commitment, the new approach relied on the dogmatic assertion of biblical authority as the foundation for all epistemology. This too, needless to say, did not provide a particularly fruitful model for adjudicating competing truth-claims. 

For instance, if an interlocutor asks “why is it good for God to create sinners for the purpose of punishing them?” the response “because He is sovereign” is plainly not an especially satisfying rejoinder. Classical Reformed theology would not make such an assertion independent of a particular metaphysical backdrop involving natural law, multiple types of causality, and so forth, but the YRR movement largely jettisoned those supports. This, it seems to me, rendered the YRR movement’s theology distinctly susceptible to a “house-of-cards” effect: call into question some particular way of reading Scripture, and the whole edifice collapses.

Second, the YRR strain of Reformed theology tended to endorse a particularly ambitious version of the “change the world” message that was pushed on many millennials. Most memorably, in his book Don’t Waste Your Life, YRR godfather John Piper saves his harshest invective for a couple that chose to retire early and sail around the world collecting seashells: how could they choose to spend their lives so frivolously? Similarly, the Do Hard Things tour, which exhorted young people to “think big” and pursue ambitious goals, sold out venues across the country. Driscoll regularly berated from the pulpit those he viewed as weak or apathetic. And so on it went. 

Now, I don’t think “tough talk” motivational language is always inappropriate (heaven knows that plenty of teens could use some ambition). But when coupled with the YRR movement’s extreme focus on predestination, providence, and God’s sovereign will, the language of Don’t Waste Your Life becomes a kind of theological pressure-cooker. If you’re working long hours in a job you hate—a job unrelated to the church’s work—are you “wasting your life” and falling away? Are you failing to think audaciously for God if your hope is to have children and raise them faithfully? In short, this is a recipe for burnout and depression, since the very existence of unrealized expectations is framed as a failure to follow God’s plan. And so paradoxically, a theological system that tends to downplay human free will mutates in a semi-Pelagian direction.                                                           

What is lost in this approach is the idea of quiet faithfulness in the rhythms of everyday life—of living out one’s vocation, whatever that might be. Most of us, quite simply, will never be leaders dramatically reshaping the societal landscape. The mundane details of day-to-day existence—what Tish Harrison Warren calls the “Liturgy of the Ordinary”—are the features of life we know we will encounter every day. But in YRR literature and discourse, the language of transformative, “radical” change was commonplace.

This leaves little room for viewing the Christian life as a genuine tradition: faithful participation in an inheritance that precedes us and that we will hand on to another generation. On that understanding, stewardship of the tradition—“carrying the fire,” to shamelessly paraphrase Cormac McCarthy—is just as vital a task as bold cultural leadership. And, I think, it more accurately captures what most of us are called to do every day.

When all’s said and done, I have no doubt the YRR movement did a great deal of good in the lives of many, many people. As I’ve written here before, I have great appreciation for the seriousness with which my YRR-leaning friends viewed Scripture (and taught me to do likewise). I tend to think the movement preserved a proper sense of the holiness and transcendence of God over against those who would reduce Him to a kind of spiritual lacquer for their political positions. And to the extent that the movement led its adherents to study and embrace classical Reformed theology (or a different branch of the faith!) I admire that.

But it’s tough to swallow Calvinist’s bold declaration that the YRR moment in American Protestantism was an unqualified success. Looking back over the last several years, it seems more accurate to say that, like most trends, the YRR movement had its own strengths and weaknesses—the latter of which have manifested in some truly tragic ways. And that story, for all Christians, is something worth pondering.


John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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