The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Reformed and reforming

with 9 comments

A few days ago I was slightly put out.  I had recently read the Time magazine article suggesting that “New Calvinism” was a significant player in the current marketplace of ideas, and the evangelical blogosphere was substantially awash with excitement.

But what is a “New Calvinist.”  Is it a style?  Do you have to be young?  Would restless and reformed help?  Do you have to be soteriologically Calvinistic, or will Amyraldian do?  If you have a concept of a sovereign God who saves sovereignly, does anything else go?

I think it is too soon for the kind of triumphalism (contra Don Carson’s oft-quoted warning from the blurb of Young, Restless, Reformed) that this article has spawned.  I also am intrigued by some of the attitudes that seem to be gaining ground among some of the “New Calvinists” as defined by Time or by themselves (see the above book title for an example).

I write this as one who is probably not a “New Calvinist” by my own or by their definition, but who does not recognise the caricature that is often painted of the “Old Calvinist” that I seem destined to be because someone else has made up a label to stick on me (for more on such labels, see here).  “Old Calvinists” seem to be stuck with the reputation of being cool, arrogant, exclusive, and passé.  However, while some of those accusations may be open to debate, there can be something arrogant and exclusive about the new Calvinism as well.  By this, I do not mean to do a reverse sweep and tar many evidently godly and humble men with the same brush.  It’s not a revenge attack, not even an attack, more of a concerned observation.

There are two things that I wish to identify, and the reaction to the Time article has brought them to the fore again.  Please note that I am not giving a blanket condemnation: these are things that can be true, not are invariably the case.

Firstly, some neo-Calvinists can be historically blinkered.  I acknowledge that this is far from universally true: witness some of John Piper’s excellent treatment of historical figures, for example, or the clear insights from the past gained and then given by other movers and shakers.  It may be a reflection of the freshness of the movement.  Many have only recently come to grasp some of these wonderful truths and are still digging into their foundations.  At the same time, a lack of historical awareness can become not only embarrassing but unfair and even dangerous.  Mark Driscoll – whom I appreciate in many ways – can be a culprit in this regard.  I have blogged before about his quite staggering assertion that until he managed to get Vintage Church into the marketplace, nothing of any substance post-Reformation had given any serious consideration of ecclesiology.  Mark swiftly responded to Time‘s piece with the following ‘insights’ into old and new Calvinism:

  1. Old Calvinism was fundamental or liberal and separated from or syncretized with culture. New Calvinism is missional and seeks to create and redeem culture.
  2. Old Calvinism fled from the cities. New Calvinism is flooding into cities.
  3. Old Calvinism was cessationistic and fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. New Calvinism is continuationist and joyful in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
  4. Old Calvinism was fearful and suspicious of other Christians and burned bridges. New Calvinism loves all Christians and builds bridges between them.

Talk about caricature!  Now, Mark seems to have backtracked a touch, and is now giving us a Long Live the Dead Guys Week at The Resurgence.  Athanasius is first up.  In this respect, I have changed the title of this section from ‘historically myopic’ to ‘historically blinkered.’  We all have a tendency to read into history – and Scripture, and other sources of data – just what we would like to find there.  By all means disagree with those who have gone before, wisely and sensitively and intelligently and – above all – Biblically i.e. with Scriptural grounds.  By all means assert that you do not think that they got it all right.  But do not suggest that because you have not read something that you agree with, or you do not like what history seems to teach, that no-one has ever taught it.  History is a handmaiden to Scripture, not her mistress, but assertions about church history need to be substantive, even if the interpretation can be debated.  Leaving that argument aside, I am still concerned at the initial caricature of “Old Calvinism” and the historical inaccuracy of the statements Mark makes.  It is not true of the past, and it is not true of the present.

Number 1 is wrong.  There were and are fundamental and liberal strains of “Old Calvinism” which rapidly became and remain unworthy of the label.  However, Mark invests his own notions of what is Biblically credible in the ideas of mission and culture-creation and redemption.  With regard to mission, it is not for nothing that the academy in Geneva was called “Calvin’s school of death”: its nickname arose because so many of its alumni went forth to preach the gospel and perished as witnesses to the truth.  Yes, at times there seems to have been more introspection than we might appreciate and commend, but are we to believe that Whitefield, Carey, Judson, Brainerd, Martyn, and men of their stamp and kidney were not “missional”?  What about Spurgeon?  Furthermore, a distinctively Protestant art has been long recognised.  Men of God who were statesmen, scientists, artists, authors, poets, architects, musicians, and the like have long had a profound and God-honouring role to play in their cultures.  There are still men and women whom I imagine Mark would dismiss as “Old Calvinists” who are actively and prayerfully engaged in the work of gospel mission, even if their notions of creating and redeeming culture may not quite match those of Mark.

Number 2 is wrong.  Old Calvinism did not flee from the cities.  Paul headed for the cities.  Many of the church fathers (of varying reliabilities) were found preaching and teaching in cities.  Geneva was a city.  The Reformation spread through a network of cities.  The Puritans worked from the university cities and were prominent in London churches, spreading across the country.  Whitefield preached in the cities in the UK and the US.  Spurgeon headed for the city.  There may be a danger at times of wishing for a rural retreat, and the development of a fortress mentality – a danger with which I strongly agreed – but “Old Calvinism” was and is not running from the cities.

Number 3 is wrong.  As I have begun to argue elsewhere, what is labelled “cessationism” does not and should not imply being “fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”  Did the first Great Awakening not take place?  Did Spurgeon not preach in the power of the Holy Spirit?  What about Whitefield?  Did Edwards not begin the Humble Attempt concert of prayer?  Was it not revived by the eighteenth century Baptists?  Did the Calvinistic Methodists not exist – men who were, under God, used in some of the most Spirit-drenched periods of blessing upon the Western church?  Apart from the fact that cessationism and continuationism are not labels that refer to antagonism toward the Spirit on the one hand and his embrace upon the other, it is simply not accurate to say that “Old Calvinism” is simply fearful of and resistant to the Spirit of God, even though at times it may either give that impression or, indeed, be so (and arguments to be made on the other side for misunderstanding of the person and work of the Spirit of God among some New Calvinists).  (Furthermore, are all the men to whom Time made reference continuationists?  Al Mohler?)

Number 4 is wrong.  The best men have generally been the most irenic men.  Again, there have been exceptions and aberrations, but few would assault John Owen’s Old Calvinistic credentials, and he is on record as one of those who most ardently pursued every legitimate expression of Christian union.  Jeremiah Burroughs was of the same spirit.  Richard Baxter commented of the Westminster Assembly that “if all Episcopalians had been as Archbishop Ussher, all Presbyterians as Stephen Marshall (the great preacher of the Assembly), and Independents as Jeremiah Burroughs, the divisions of the church might soon have been healed.”  Spurgeon was an unashamed Baptist who preached against the baptismal regeneration implicit in the teaching of the Established Church, yet was not so narrow that he could not appoint a Presbyterian as Principal of his pastors’ college.  “New Calvinism” is sufficiently new to suggest withholding judgment at this point might be wise.  Loving all Christians is right, but the truth must not be sacrificed for the sake of unity.  Besides, Mark’s subsequent assertion that this is the most important point of the four is made to ring a little hollow at this point:

Sadly, Cruel Calvinists are a small but loud bunch. Thus, now more than ever, it is vital that all Christians in general, and Reformed Christians in particular, demonstrate the kind of love and humility that our theology requires. The cruel, flame-thrown half-truths and misquotes between Christians do not speak well to the watching world of the love we are supposed to share. Therefore, it is vital that we distinguish between what I will call state and national theological borders.

Very sweet, but Mark just made his ‘state theological borders’ grounds for calling “Old Calvinists” “Cruel Calvinists.”  Hardly the most irenic statement ever delivered!  Such swingeing assertions rather undermine Mark’s plea to overlook the state boundaries, do they not?

Why have I gone substantially to history to make these points?  Because Mark puts “Old Calvinism” in the past tense.  He is wrong.  The “Old Calvinists” of history were not what he paints them to be (quite how this ties in with “Dead Guys Week” I am not sure), though they doubtless failed at many points.  The “Old Calvinists” of the present are – in many respects – failing to live up to their inheritance, and I would be among the first to recognise it, mourn it, and respond to it.  But the caricature is not accurate, the inheritance is not the one that Mark pictures, and some Old Calvinists remain alive and kicking.

[I should note that - since beginning this piece - I have seen that the insightful R. Scott Clark has also entered the fray at this point.  It will be quickly clear that Dr Clark and I will not agree at many points.  For example, he sees the Reformation as coming to its final expression at a high-water mark that he puts at a very definite point in the history of the church and the development of doctrine.  My understanding of its past and present progress is different to his.  Nevertheless, I have often appreciated many of the points he makes and warnings he gives.]

Secondly, some neo-Calvinists can be immediately blinkered.  This may be in part due to its American bias.  I am not suggesting that there is no international flavour to “New Calvinism,” and I applaud such a flavour, but America is not a nation always noted for its awareness and insights of life beyond its own borders.  I have remarked before that there is something a touch incestuous about the fact that nearly all of the people who puffed Young, Restless and Reformed were either referenced in the book itself, or are intimately associated with those referenced.  “D’ya wanna be in my gang?”  If not, you may be out of the loop.  This struck me forcibly again the other day when I was reading the blurb for a new book.  Some of the movers and shakers of neo-Calvinism (among others) were falling over each other to praise this book to the hilt.  Several of them mentioned the novelty of the treatment.  “At last,” rings out the cry, “someone has addressed this most vital topic!”

“Actually, brothers, there have been books written on this topic, and that quite recently.  Some of them cover the same ground.  You may be discovering certain things for the first time, and I relish your excitement and the fresh sense of God’s wonder.  In fact, I have a holy envy of some of it.  But you are not the first to discover, record, and broadcast these things, not even in the present days.”

I freely acknowledge that none of us have a monopoly on truth.  None of us can read everything that is written: especially today it seems that “of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh” (Ecc 12.12).  None of us can know everything.  None of us are infallible in our assertions, unless those assertions reproduce Biblical truth.

But the world is bigger than certain churches, preachers, authors, hymn-writers.  If the Old Calvinists are called upon to break out of their ghettoes and recognise that grace operates in more spheres than their own, then it does the neo-Calvinists just as well to face the same fact.  The kingdom is bigger than their stake in it.  I love some of the preaching and teaching that these men are doing; I read their books with critical relish; I appreciate their labours; I rejoice in the souls brought into the kingdom by these means; I wish I knew more of the blessing that they enjoy.  But just because the neo-Calvinist gang is big and powerful doesn’t mean that they have a monopoly on the grace, glory, and progress of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It might be wise to remember that when they are patting each other on the back.

I am not an old Calvinist.  I may be an Old Calvinist by some measures and definitions.  I am far too new by others.  But none of us can afford to be historically or immediately blinkered.  God is greater and more glorious than any of us can imagine him to be.  God’s church is bigger than any one part of it.  We have no scope for bitterness, pride, triumphalism, or self-congratulation, on any side of any divide.  Let my Old Calvinist brothers not deny the work of God among the New Calvinists, but rather encourage and support it, be encouraged and taught by it, and invest in it insofar as they can with a good conscience, and set out to instruct it where they cannot.  Let my New Calvinist brothers not ignore the work of God before and apart from them, but pray for it and learn from it where they can, listen to it and accept it.  Let us remember that each of us are called by God to serve him: to our own master we will stand or fall.  Do you have work to do?  Do it with all your might.

Update: Paul Grimmond at The Sola Panel has some reasoned and reasonable things to say.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 16 March 2009 at 13:13

9 Responses

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  1. Excellent post Jeremy, I have linked to it and added a few comments of my own, I hope you don’t mind if I have went a little further than you!

    While this is not a humorous subject, I must confess I smiled (quite widely) when I read this sentence referring to R. Scott Clark,

    ” For example, he sees the Reformation as coming to its final expression at a high-water mark that he puts at a very definite point in the history of the church and the development of doctrine.”

    “High water mark” was that deliberately ironic? :-)

    Paul

    Monday 16 March 2009 at 14:47

    • Now, Paul, you know me better than to imagine that I am obliged to be deliberately ironic . . . instinctively ironic sometimes, but not always deliberately.

      I think I am, perhaps, a little more positive than you with regard to Mark Driscoll, but that does not mean that you cannot go beyond me if you wish.

      I think what is important – having read your post – is that we recognise that God has put Mark where he is, for the glory of his name and the good of his church. If Mark were not so forthright, he would not receive half the criticism he gets, nor would he probably do half as much good. I may disagree with him on matters both of substance and style, and at some significant points of both, but it is important that we pray for our brother. The Lord God has given him the profile he has. We might pray that he might go on growing so as to fill it, and might be used to bring much glory to God and kept from dishonouring Christ (or “dishonouring Christ more”, if persuaded that some of that style and substance besmirches the name of our Lord). Our Lord’s disciples got all hoity-toity with the man of sufficient faith in Jesus to cast out demons (compare their own earlier failure) because “He does not follow us . . .” How foolish we are: who are we to be followed? The Lord Christ located himself with us: “He who is not against us is on our side” (Mk 9.40). We need to be careful how much we criticise those who are on our side, even as we seek to help them understand what it means to be for Jesus (and go on learning ourselves).

      I imagine that Mark is past reading even the merest hint of an iota of what is written about him. I hope that if he does read something that we write that he would appreciate our meeting his forthrightness with our own robust and loving forthrightness, soundly reasoned from Scripture, well grounded in church history, careful in doctrine and earnest in experience, and that – in doing so – we might help him toward clearer views of the truth just as we learn from him ourselves.

      You will know, brother, that this is no rebuke. I appreciate your insights and concerns. I am simply conscious that it is all too easy for the wrong spirit to creep into otherwise healthy criticisms – the unspoken implication that if only Jesus gave me that platform, I would get it all right all the time, the tacit suggestion that that man does not deserve the profile he has. I do not deserve anything I have, so I must be careful how and why I point the finger. I still think that Mark goofed on this one, and fairly badly. It may well be that he does not care what I think, but I hope that in a full and frank exchange of views, we might still show respect and affection for each other, and each end up with a better understanding of the truth.

      Jeremy Walker

      Monday 16 March 2009 at 22:40

  2. [...] Read the Jeremy’s post here. [...]

  3. Hi Jeremy, I am new to your blog and thought this was really a thoughtful post. I am also quite uncomfortable with such broad, sweeping generalizations of the differences between “old” and “new” Calvinism. You really made some good points to the contrary. Blessings.
    Thad

    Thad

    Monday 16 March 2009 at 18:12

    • Thanks, Thad. I appreciate your stopping by, and your kind comments, and your own blog.

      Jeremy Walker

      Monday 16 March 2009 at 22:41

  4. Hi there
    Thought that this was an excellent article.I must confess that some of the names i have never heard of.We are a bit backward in Ulster! I myself don’t have a problem with being termed an old calvanist if it helps people understand where i’m coming from.I know at times though it can be counter productive ie the barriers go up when discussion ensues! I will continue to follow your blog with interest

    God Bless

    Rob

    robert

    Monday 16 March 2009 at 22:16

  5. [...] Following the recent Time Magazine article concerning “New Calvinism,” there has been quite a backlash from the “truly reformed” against those of us who don’t embrace their [...]

  6. Thanks for this.

    I guess that Driscoll’s post was too brief to be helpful, too vague to identify who he was criticizing, too pointed to build bridges, and so generalized that it makes it far too easy to find numerous counter examples.

    Hey, I’m typing this with one hand!

    Martin Downes

    Tuesday 17 March 2009 at 19:06


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