Paul's Passing Thoughts

Gospel Sanctification and Sonship’s Gospel-Driven Genealogy, Part 8: The Brinsmead / Zens Affair Gives Birth To New Calvinism

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul M. Dohse Sr. on June 2, 2011

As I continue to absorb an astounding document written by Jon Zens, “Law And Ministry In The Church: An Informal Essay On Some Historical Developments (1972-1984),” the Zens/Brinsmead connection and its contribution to the birth of New Calvinism becomes evident. Zens’ essay covers the early years of the movement until the time when it took on a life of its own—1984.

Zens became a Calvinist in 1967 and joined Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Prospectville, PA in 1972. During this time, according to him, he began his quest into the “law/gospel issue.” He became a teacher there and started preparing Sunday school lessons that refuted Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Apparently, these theologies contradicted where he wanted to go with the law/gospel issue. At least ten students from Westminster Seminary were in his class. In the same timeframe, he became a student at Westminster and was receiving Present Truth (hereafter PT), the theological journal of the Australian Forum. It seems that the journal had a wide readership there because it was “the largest English-speaking theological journal in the world at the time.” Hence, the father of New Covenant Theology (hereafter NCT) and the Australian Forum were impregnating Westminster with elements of New Calvinism from the very beginning. The infusion of other Reformed Baptist such as John Piper could have happened in a number of different ways as Zens was a Reformed Baptist and PT had a wide readership among Reformed Baptist as well.

Furthermore, Zens moved to Nashville in 1975 and  was writing articles for the Baptist Reformed Review (hereafter BRR) which was started by Norbert Ward in 1972. It is clear that Zens turned the magazine into a vessel for promoting a “Christ-centered approach to ethics.” In reading this historical account by Zens, it makes one’s head spin as it seems he was on a mission with a vengeance while living out of a suitcase—to create and spread some sort of new twist on “the centrality of Christ in obedience.” Nevertheless, the vessels at his disposal were very influential; and therefore, it is surprising that it has taken thirty-six years for this movement to arrive at its present zenith. BRR later became the official theological journal for the Continental Baptist who split from Reformed Baptist over NCT.

Meanwhile, the desire to synthesize justification and sanctification is nothing new. JC Ryle said: “ But the plain truth is, that men will persist in confounding two things that differ—that is, justification and sanctification.” Overemphasizing Christ to the exclusion of the Father and the Holy Spirit in order to do so is not that difficult. In fact, that’s exactly the error Ryle was contending with in his time. But in regard to eschatology, God’s emphasis on last things seems to bring up all kinds of pesky issues that eclipse the centrality of His Son, like Israel etc. What to do? Answer: invoke good ole’ fashioned Hagelian Historicism (pp. 67, 68, Tim Black: The Biblical Hermeneutics of Geerhardus Vos). It is clear that the Australian Forum (hereafter AF) was a think tank seeking to codify sanctification by justification alone into a unified theological system (with the primary motive of reforming Adventism). In doing this, law/gospel; obedience, and eschatology would have been key considerations. The Zens/Af connection filled the order.

Zens met with Brinsmead at length in 1979 and pointed out a contradiction in the AF’s view of law verses the centrality of Christ in evangelism. Zens said that the result was “brilliant” essays appearing in Verdict (formally PT). Zens wrote at least one article for the AF (when it was still PT) that apes the NC motif that any other consideration of Scripture apart from a redemptive-historical view is existentialism. This is also a major theme in Michael Horton’s writings. In 1981 and 1982, Zens spoke at “several” Verdict (AF seminars) seminars on the west coast, and admits that he changed the name of BRR to “Searching Together” in order to accommodate Adventist readers. Toward the end of the essay, Zens quotes Brinsmead from Judged by the Gospel in which Brinsmead states the AF’s affirmation that all of history must be seen through the gospel, a NCT staple.

It is clear that remnants of sanctification by justification alone were loosely about along with attempts to convert eschatology into a plenary gospel historicism, but there is little doubt that Zens and the AF were the ones who did the heavy lifting in regard to forming these ideas into a systematic theology. Without that systematic theology, the New Calvinism movement is not what it is today, if anything at all. In fact, Zens’ cohorts among Reformed Baptist (including John Reisinger, a longtime friend of Zens) sought to form their own association because they feared  the “movement” would end up being a “flash in the pan.”


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