Are “The Neo-Reformed” Reformed? Or Are They Puritans? And Does it Even Matter?

As a follow-up to the post last week on Mark Driscoll’s escapade with Justin Brierley on his British radio program, Unbelievable, I’d like to respond to two substantive objections voiced in the comments (typified by Scot McKnight’s comments in the post). The objections were: 1.) It’s time to stop calling the Neo-Reformed people Reformed. Call them Puritan because they are not Reformed (Kuyperian) in the purest sense. 2.) Mark Driscoll is an outlier in the Neo-Reformed movement (er Neo-Puritan) that, in his excesses regarding sexuality and crude language and behavior,  does not represent the Neo-Reformed/Puritan movement.

1.) Are The New-Reformed Reformed?

I don’t know if I agree with Scot on this one. The fact is that the group as a whole has dubbed themselves as “Reformed.” By and large, they have not been challenged by their purist brothers and sisters in Grand Rapids or elsewhere. Why then should I not continue to use this nomenclature? Collin Hansen perhaps began the nomenclature when he wrote about the movement for Christianity Today (see here) and then wrote a book with the same title as the CT article, The Young, Restless and Reformed. Then Time magazine did a cover story basically lopping them into one group named the “New Calvinism” (see here). Since then the great majority of their organizations including the Gospel Coalition, various bloggers (for instance Tim Challies has “Reformed” in his blog title), and speakers accept the moniker. I recognize there is a difference between the Neo-Reformed and the purist Reformed, but isn’t who gets to garner the name an in-house squabble? Isn’t it up to the purist Kuyperians to defend their turf? If the more purist Calvinists (or less narrow culturally) do not want to be associated with this movement, isn’t it up to them to challenge them instead of ignoring them? Until there is some clarity, then, most people know what I am referring to when I say “Neo-Reformed” and it’s a term I have to use. Right?

Secondly, is not the alternative name Neo-Puritan confusing? Is not Puritan family a member within the Reformed family? In fact it is at times hard to distinguish the Puritans from the Reformed because they do overlap (the emphasis on the depravity of humanity for instance). Tim Keller seems to be of the Reformed camp and Don Carson of Puritan camp and yet they speak together here for the Gospel Coalition (one of the main forum sites for the Neo-Reformed bloggers/pastors etc.). Again, isn’t it picayune to differentiate? And if it isn’t, and it is important, isn’t this a job best left to those inside the camp? Please, work this out (Kuyperians from Grand Rapids and the Neo-Reformed), come to an agreement so I don’t have to worry about his any more :) . What say u?

Third, despite the differences between Reformed and Puritan camps, I would like to propose a linkage that I think is undeniable and also illuminating. As I and others have argued, there is a linkage between European Reformed theology shaped under the Majesterial Reformation in Europe and what now appears as this kind of Puritan Evangelicalism in N America?

As I see it, when Reformed theology was uprooted from its cultural moorings in the Majesterial Reformation and transported to N. America, it lost what it was “reforming.” It’s reason to be – reforming Catholic Europe- was gone. It had to find an integrity in itself. Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, and Sola Christus had to stand alone. Sola Scripture no longer stood as a reforming princple reforming the corrupt traditions of Catholic church structure. It had to stand on its own as an adequate understanding of Scripture’s authority and principle of interpretation unto itself.  Sola Fide no longer stood as a reforming principle against the corrupt sacramental systems that fostered abuse and a works righteousness in Roman Catholic Europe. It had to stand on its own as an adequate understanding of God’s saving operations in the world. And Sola Christus could no longer stand on its own as a reforming principle against a monolithic church structure that made all salvation take place through her structures. It had to stand on its own as an adequate understanding of the church. The developments here, so I suggest, eventually led to an individualization of Christian faith, one that is inherently aligned with modernity and certain democratic capitalist culture systems. (Read C. C. Pecknold’s brilliant and concise narrative of how this all took place in ch.5-8 of Christianity and Politics).  It looks a lot like the Neo-Reformed Neo Puritan evangelicalism of my brothers and sisters in the Neo-Reformed camps. I don’t know if I want to give this linkage up. It’s a main part of the questions I have concerning whether Neo- Reformed theology can lead a Missional engagement of the church into N America. I hate to obscure that linkage.

For all the reasons above then, I think one has to stick with “Neo-Reformed” until my friends in the movement itself and at Calvin/other Reformed institutions give me the signal to change (by hashing this out at a conference or something?). I’m waiting.

Is Mark Driscoll an Outlier?

Several people argued in the comments that Mark Driscoll is an outlier in the Neo-reformed movement. His behavior, brashness, excessive antagonistic outbursts should not be seen as characteristic of the Neo-Reformed group as a whole. In Scot’s words, Driscoll’s “brash and crude edges clash dramatically with the sanity, care, caution and focus of the Puritans.”

I agree with Scot on this one. I do not think Driscoll’s personality issues should be attributed to all of the good ministers/thinkers within the Neo-Reformed movement. But I wasn’t saying that. I was suggesting that Driscoll’s outburst may reveal a weakness in the theology itself and the practice of it. The defensive outburst may (or may not) be a clue to understanding this weakness. In the post I tried to show a disconnect between Driscoll’s theology (which I argue is canon Neo-Reformed thinking) and the post-Christendom context he found himself in (in Britian). He did not understand the context and therefore got defensive. But is this not emblematic of a larger reality? Again, take his personality out of it. Look at my analysis of what got Driscoll upset? Then ask, whether Driscoll’s explosion is not a symptom of something larger. Is there a reason why his defensive insulated yet bold posture seems to wear well in the Neo-Reformed world?

This is what I meant when I asked in the post, “is Mark Driscoll just an outlier for the Neo-Reformed movement or is he the truth that lies at its core?” Is he an eruption on the skin (thin skin) of the Neo-Reformed movement. I suggested that this episode at least warranted the Neo-Reformed taking a closer look at this episode, at the disconnect between the Neo-Reformed theology and practice and the post-Christendom context. This is where a conversation with the more purist cultural Reformeds from Grand Rapids might be able to help. I closed by saying, how Neo-Reformed leaders/bloggers respond to Driscoll, like Tim Challies,  Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung, Tim Keller, Collin Hansen,  James McDonald, will reveal more about the reality of this possible disconnect with post-Christendom. It will tell us whether they totally agree with Driscoll and therefore also don’t understand what just happened? Or whether they see that Brierley has some things to say and perhaps they will interact better than Driscoll in a way which is promising for future theology. In other words, how they react will indicate whether their theology can engage the post-Christendom context from where Brierely’s questions came from.

In summary, I sincerely hope the Driscoll flare-up, my post and all the other hundred or so posts on the Driscoll flare-up lead the Neo-Reformed movement to these kind of discussions for the furtherance of Christ and His Kingdom in the world.

In the meantime, what do you think? Should we have to change what we call the Neo-Reformed? or should we let them figure that out?



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24 comments on “Are “The Neo-Reformed” Reformed? Or Are They Puritans? And Does it Even Matter?
  1. James says:

    On another note, do you ever wonder if this type of blog is a waste of your time? I’m an outsider, not a pastor, haven’t gone to seminary, that kind of stuff. However, i guess you could say im an academic ( I do cancer research) and I find myself drawn to the Gospel coalition, Doug Wilson, you, Jesus Creed etc. These are probably not your every day blogs. Pretty heady at times. But every now and then I just get this feeling that your all living in a closed off world and honestly having debates like this last post. Do these debates help you? Is the time and energy you put into discovering the in’s and out’s of Neo-magesterial-puritan-reformed-Kuyperian theology really worth it? I’m sure it has implications, I guess. But it’s almost like the analogy of there being so many lawyers because they all just go around making more and more complex laws and creating a language that only they know, and that can’t even be read anymore by the non lawyer.
    My sincere apologies for pooping on this post. Like I said, im intrigued by your insight and knowledge which is why i keep coming back, but every now and then I just don’t get it.

    • Dustin says:

      I too appreciate the call to step back and think, “What does this really matter in the long run,” questions. I am interested in your background of cancer research. Within your field, are there specific languages and theoretical assumptions which influence the way different researchers carry out their practice?

      For example, let’s hypothetically suggest there is a researcher who believes in using method A because of theory X. Yet, there are other researches who see method A as harmful to the patient (through their own research). What Fitch is doing here is looking past the method A and seeing if there are implications in theory X that might suggest method A is helpful when it is really harmful. Fitch goes one step further and even suggest Theory X looks a lot like Theories Y and Z which have been known to be harmful in the past.

      Now, if the “patient” of the Theologian is the spiritual walk of the lay person, it is extremely important that we develop theories and methods that heal and disciple our “patients” rather than cause them more pain and sickness.

      • James says:

        Thats a valid point. However the language of science has evolved and expanded because our knowledge has expanded. There are real tangible “things” (cell, proteins, molecules, systems) that were unknown before. So when something new is discovered it needs a new term. This is man made but in a different way. We are just giving names to things that God has already created and we are just now discovering. Theology as applied to this blog seems man made from the get go and doesn’t seem to be strictly exegetical. Otherwise lets open that Canon back up. It just seems like we have centuries of mirk that was created, that only complicates and doesn’t illuminate. I’m back and forth on this. I guess I get your point. I guess some of this is even our greatest aspirations towards godliness are tainted by a fallen world. Thanks

        • Dustin says:

          “I guess some of this is even our greatest aspirations towards godliness are tainted by a fallen world.” – well said James.

          Also, I think we can continue the discussion with your emphasis on science research being the application of Language to “real, tangible things.” The issue with scripture is that it is always contextualized in a “real, tangible, history.” In much of the same way Christ was a “real, tangible, person” who is the Incarnate “Word” of the “intangible God-the Father”, the scriptures are the “word” of God’s interaction with this world. We as theologians need to “discover” God’s interaction in this world through the language of Scripture, Yes, but these words always exist in a historical context.

          The tough part about History though, is that we are interpreting someone else’s interpretations of the events. (Just as you use the language of Science to interpret natural phenomenon – no matter how tangible it is, it is still an interpretation-, Theologians use the language of scripture and history to see how theology applies to today).

          What do you think?

  2. davidfitch says:

    It’s always good to ask these kind of questions. Are we wasting our time? So thanks …
    On parsing these theological issues like I have here with the Neo-Reformed group, and I might add the Emergent group and my own proclivities toward defining a Neo-Anabaptist approach, I see this as essential to the shaping of the future church in N America. I think it’s a crucial time, and theology is needed. These kind of posts, deconstructing the history, cultural implications of certain beliefs, are really necessary if we are to go forward faithfully. Belief + practice = the kinds of people we become in the world. I see Neo-Reformed and Emergent groups possibly making some old mistakes and not meeting the challenge.

  3. Jake Belder says:

    David, you might find this and this helpful. These are two Neocalvinist/Kuyperian guys trying to articulate the differences between themselves and the Neo-Puritans. As a Neocalvinist myself, I wouldn’t withhold the label ‘Reformed’ from the others, I just think their ‘Reformed-ness’ is more narrow, limited mostly to their soteriology.

  4. Dustin says:


    Is there any way you can contact people like Tim Keller, Kevin Deyoung, and Tim Challies to get them to interact and respond to these past two posts. There seems to be an awkward silence on the Neo-Reformed/Neo-Puritan blogosphere concerning these issues.

    Also, I am glad we are finally moving beyond focusing on Mark Driscoll as an individual person, but we are beginning to consider the theological assumptions made by people like Driscoll which enables this type of “Macho-Americanized” Christianity.

    I loved your illustration that Driscoll is a type of irruption for the Neo-Reformed/Puritan theological movement forces one to look past the individual to the theology.

  5. Joe says:

    While taking in The Elephant Room 2 yesterday, I was struck by the rock star-like adoration young Acts 29 church planters give Driscoll, not just his theology, but his brash style, sarcastic tone. He may be an outlier now, but may be the center in 3-5 years.

  6. Eric says:

    Life-long member of the CRC and dyed-in-the-wool Kuyperian here. “Neo-Reformed” doesn’t actually bother me. I’ve always referred to Kuyperians as “neo-calvinists” and (in my mind at least) there is a difference between “Neo-Reformed” and “neo-calvinist.” I can see how the distinction might not be seen by others, however.

    Regarding your last post, I wouldn’t say any of the 3 points about Driscoll is true of Kuyperians. In my experience, we are much more likely to hold to the multi-faceted approach of McKnight than Driscoll’s view. I’ve never sensed substituationary atonement being stressed as it is in the neo-reformed camp. Regarding hierarchy, sphere-sovereignty is obviously anti-hierarchical, or flat as you say. To quote Kuyper:

    “In the same way Calvinism has derived from its fundamental relation to God a peculiar interpretation of man’s relation to man, and it is this only true relation which since the 16th century has ennobled social life, If Calvinism places our entire human life immediately before God, then it follows that all men or women, rich or poor, weak or strong, dull or talented, as creatures of God, and as lost sinners, have no claim whatsoever to lord over one another, and that we stand as equals before God, and consequently equal as man to man.”

    Your third point – numbers equaling success – I’ve NEVER seen in the churches I’ve worshiped in and since I was knee-high it has been pretty clearly taught in word and in deed that church is not only a Sunday morning sermon.

    I think your point in this post is closer to the mark. My own interpretation is that what the neo-Reformed, neo-Puritans and the Kuyperians have mainly in common is soteriology. And when Calvinist soteriology meets individualism you can get the sort of thing you are describing here. I don’t quite understand how Kuyperians can get there, but I do see it.

    • David Fitch says:

      Eric, this is helpful. It’s an exposition of what I’ve heard but never really seen the Neo-reformed media engaged with. So I again, see the difference. There is no question Calvin’s soteriology does not look like that of the proto-type Piper, Driscoll or Mohler soteriology.
      Likewise, Kuyper’s sphere-sovereignty is different/but related to the evangelical’s uncritical friendliness towards capitalism and other social structures. To me, this is a church-culture relation that makes sense out of untied Christendom context, but does not have the critical nexus necessarily to do the work necessary when the powers/structures or spheres have become rebellious…

      To see how Calvinism, neo Calvinism can lead to individualism, read Pecknold’s book, the chapter on from Calvin to Hobbes. I find that argument compelling.

      All in all, I think a protracted discussion on these issues, would help both the Neo-Reformeds and the Kuyperians clarify mission and doctrine to fund mission. It also might uncover the lacks within Reformed theology itself for a post Chrsitendom context

  7. Ryan Mahoney says:

    Sometimes they just don’t know what they are talking about. Read my post about the Trinitarian failure @ The Elephant Room yesterday.

  8. Nathan Smith says:


    I’m glad you followed up with Scot’s critique. Cards on the table, I had never heard of “Neo-Puritan” until lately. Having moved to Grand Rapids a year ago, I’m only beginning to understand the nuances of Dutch culture, Reformed Tradition and their perception of other traditions. We live at Cornerstone University, a bastion of conservative evangelical baptistic type Christianity and also Scot McKnight’s alma mater. But on either side of us, and each only 5 minutes away, are Kuyper College and Calvin College.

    I learned only recently that assuming that Reformed people are “Evangelical” in the cultural sense is mostly wrong. I had always assumed we were on the same team (evangelical team) and that they just had a different style of play. What I’ve discovered is that they are not on the same “team” as evangelicals but actually consider themselves to be more in the major leagues and that evangelicals are the farm team or a spring league. That might be an unfair caricature but the main point is that they don’t consider themselves evangelicals, the way I or you would or at all.

    So I think the distinction, as I have learned, that they would want to make is that they don’t want to be considered as evangelicals and because the Neo-Reformed community are all still evangelicals, they might not have a problem with them wanting to be more Reformed – but ultimately – they are not Reformed. Beyond just distinguishing themselves from the Calvinist-Baptists by defining what it means to Reformed differently (Jamie Smith – Letters to A Young Calvinist) they also don’t want to be known as evangelicals – almost in the same fashion as catholics don’t want to be deemed as eastern orthodox.

    I think in my observations, it could be possible that they don’t think it necessary to distinguish themselves apart from John Piper and company because they may have never considered themselves to be related in any way to begin with. Obviously, there are similarities and overlap, but that may be all. Their core identity is still very different, even though other traditions may draw from the Reformed heritage – those different others are still not Reformed and just because they use the nomenclature of Reformed doesn’t mean that they are.

    I think we would get a much more roused response/reaction from Grand Rapids if we started assuming that they were evangelicals first with a Reformed twist second (which is how they perceive the neo-reformed).

    • David Fitch says:

      good insight,
      and this confirms much of what I have been assuming. And so believe I get why they are different, especially culturally.
      The question is, what do we do, when a large audience being hugely affected by this Neo-Reformed movement (the evangelicals) doesn’t really know much about the ethnic Reformed’s … but is being hugely influenced by the Neo-Puritans who they call Neo-Reformed and see it as a positive identity marker. Does someone like me try to please Grand Rapids? or let them fight their own battles if they’re so bent out of shape every time someone in the media labels these folk Reformed.
      Because, not a whole lot of people know who we’re talking about when we say Neo-Puritan.
      I’m just saying

    • I thought about your post a lot, Nathan, and Dr. Fitch’s response. It stirred up something, and here’s what resulted.

      If only Gregory House, MD, would make a home visit to conduct a “differential diagnosis” on God’s House!

      But, I don’t think the biggest battle here is about differentiating the titles and doctrinal content overlap among the classic- and neo-reformed movements and their relative integration level with evangelicalism. Important and valid as that general long-term task is with ALL streams of doctrine (if we’re all trying to move toward a comprehensive and robust Christianity that helps us live in the world without being of the world), I think the more timely issue is about specific leaders and followers. If/when a Christian celebrity demonstrates himself to be a Deotrophes, who loves to have pre-eminence and whose actions harm the Body of Christ, isn’t that always the time to say/do something rather than sit in silence?

      I think a valuable question to ask at this point is the same one my mentor in Theological Field Education asked me to consider in the wake of a ministry experience that went disastrously sour:

      *Is there something in you that made you susceptible to this situation – - in this case, being “played” by this leader?*

      It took me over six months of reflection to explore, discover, and affirm the presence of some characteristics in me that needed changing.

      Some days I wonder if many are being more influenced by the charismaticity of leaders than by the commendability of the content of the doctrinal perspective. If, for instance, there were no Mark Driscoll around to peddle his particular brand of whatchumuhcallit neo-reformitan christimanity, would those currently under his influence otherwise be attracted to classic Neo-Reformed theology? Or – if it’s really about his followers’ susceptibility to apparent lack of critical thinking – would they latch onto whatever doctrinal system their charismatic leader fed them?

      All the epistemological and theological distinctives aside – and if there is no heresy involved – when a Christian in the public realm demonstrates dubious character qualities/qualifications for ministry (or outright disqualifications), isn’t it time to speak up? Regardless of what other theological issues might be at play?

      In my opinion, the Body of Christ as a whole can claim Mr. Driscoll as a member – regardless of whether he or we are Neo or Non-Reformed, -Puritan, -Anabaptist, -Evangelical, or whatever. In the public eye, he is representing Christ and Christians, and on that basis the Body has the right and responsibility to call him out responsibly.

  9. Perhaps the element that causes each of these perspectives to appear thin skinned is that each leaves too great a place for interaction between the church and the state. Further, none of them takes a sufficiently subversive position in employing non-violence and sacrifice. The speck of yeast is bound to leaven.
    I believe there is room for an anarchist Christianity which treats the state as a given.

    Oh. And just for laughs, there was once a two year period where I did not attend any church, but instead subsisted by watching preaching videos from Driscol and Jakes, sometimes both in the same day.
    From: @jurisnaturalist

    • @Nathanael, for a couple days now I’ve been trying to figure out what you meant by the first part of your comment: “Perhaps the element that causes each of these perspectives to appear thin skinned is that each leaves too great a place for interaction between the church and the state. Further, none of them takes a sufficiently subversive position in employing non-violence and sacrifice. The speck of yeast is bound to leaven. I believe there is room for an anarchist Christianity which treats the state as a given.”

      I sense there’s something important there about church-and-state issues. But I’m just not getting it yet. Do you mean we should prepare for lawsuits? Or that the state should regulate certain kinds of church-related activities since they are registered non-profit entities and reaping some benefits therefrom? Could you expand on it when you get a chance? Thanks …

  10. len says:

    I have a whole book on Calvin and Hobbes. Oh – you mean THAT Calvin and Hobbes. The one I have is more colorful AND more amusing.

    Brad, good point. In the wider sense we all claim relatedness to Mark. Similar to your discovery of a reactionary part of yourself, I find it hard to stay cool after hearing the interview with Driscoll that was “Unbelievable.” I don’t know if he is an Outlier or not, but I can certainly tell he is “Unhealed,” and that arrogance gets under my skin.

  11. Len, maybe we need to commission R. Manius to create graphic novels on a different theology … You’ve heard of his work, I presume.

    Meanwhile, I’ve been working through a very serious question on the “taxonomy of toxic versus cultic” that is relevant here. Over the last 40 years, I’ve observed as several local churches and parachurch organizations shifted from being just places where “something is off” with the charismatic leaders and their doctrines and practices, to being labeled as outright cults where it’s no longer just questionable but clearly anti-biblical in both beliefs and ways people are treated. The question I’m working on is this:

    When does an entity shift from being “merely” toxic – - bad as that is – - to being definitely cultic?

    This issue of the dividing lines between toxic and cultic came back to the forefront recently. I had after a heart-breaking conversation with someone whose spouse has fallen prey to a toxic fellowship where the ishy-squishy doctrine gradually shifted to the point where it is finally clear: It is a cult. How did it cross that line?

    As best I can discern thus far, the *turning point* for this particular group was when some of their key elements morphed from just being particular doctrines and peculiar practices to being elevated to the status of “special revelation.” No longer did they just put their system on par with Scripture (which was perhaps a marker of the shift from unhealthy to toxic), but now their system surpassed it (marking a final shift from toxic to cultic). After that point, their own special system intensified as their modus operandi, while their Scriptural base disintegrated, and both the doctrinal content and oppressive practices went really wonky.

    The big point being, maybe it is possible for what seems even a reasonably biblical theological system at one point in time to turn cultic when it becomes viewed as “special revelation” – - especially when filtered through the persona of a charismatic promoter thereof.

    Should we fear this as a plausible future of the fervorous Neo-Puritan system? For some of its followers, this theological configuration of biblical texts seems to have been nearly elevated to the status of de fide special revelation … not a good sign.

    Much more to consider about this.

  12. Miguel says:

    “Neo-Puritan” is a brilliant term, and perhaps more accurate. It fits well with independent, non-denominational, or baptist churches embracing reformed soteriology, because they tend to have a fairly heavy emphasis on practical sanctification, or personal holiness. Very much in line with the puritans. Also, they are very willing to divide from established structures to pursue their own ways of being faithful to Jesus. However, leaders who remain in old, traditional denominations, really do qualify as “reformed,” even if they are puritans as well. Sproul, Keller, and Horton are all Presbyterians, and as such they submit to accountability and oversight of denominational structures (which I personally advocate as well). So Piper, Driscoll, Mahaney, etc… I would call Puritans, but for those in the PCA, CRC, or other historic groups, the “reformed” label still fits.

  13. Coleen Sharp says:

    Interesting question. The problem with it, is that the Neo Reformed don’t refer to themselves as such,but many of them call themselves Reformed. I see them as Calvinistic Baptists for the most part. Being Reformed encompasses far more than believing in election. Covenant Theology for instance. Some of them will claim to believe in it, but without a correct understanding of infant baptism, they redefine covenant theology.

    I do find the whole thing fascinating. There is now a great attraction to the movement. It has grown so much since the early nineties when I began listening to the white horse inn. And in the mid nineties when I was attending the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, and ligonier conferences, it was common to have some Calvinistic Bap t ists speaking, like Begg or John Armstrong.And soli deo gloria was always there, selling their Puritan books.

    Reading The Lost Soul of American Protestantism by Hart really changed the way I saw things. Hart splits early American Protestantism into two camps:the Confessional and the Pietistic .The truly Reformed are Confessional, and many of the Neo Reformed are attracted to the puritans, who were pietists.

    Good Post. Suffering with a debilitating illness as I do, I enjoy reading what others are thinking and saying about these things.Had I not gotten sick, maybe I would have finished writing the book I had started;:The Reformed movement in America in the Last 20 years. But then again, it seems to keep on changing.

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  1. [...] actions taken to change the structures that produce those real world wounds. The pietistic move, or for McKnight, the neo-Puritan revival tends to couch human need in only the “up and in.” Structures are created to attend to [...]

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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