The new Calvinism considered
Note: for those interested in a more developed treatment of this same issue, you can find it beginning here.
A year or two ago it seemed that ‘the new Calvinism’ was all the rage. Perhaps it has already reached and passed its peak. Maybe the mission has already become a movement and will shortly become a museum. Only time will tell. Certainly the wild rush of the past few years has slowed a little; the river seems broader and flows more gently. Consolidation has occurred around such organisations as the Gospel Coalition and there are nexuses (nexi?) like Together for the Gospel (T4G) and Acts 29 that also function as anchor points. Not so long ago you could not read a book, website or news article in some Christian circles without coming up against one of a range of personalities. The new orthodoxy needed one of a string of names to back it up: “Piper/Grudem/Carson says . . .” almost became the equivalent in some circles of, “The Holy Spirit told me . . .” It seemed as if the new Calvinism was sweeping the board. More conservative evangelicals felt the pressure, often ‘losing’ their young people to the heady atmosphere of the new movement. There was a certain triumphalism in some quarters, a sense of having seen the working future. In others, there was a sometimes uninhibited aggression. However, there seemed to be little middle ground: you were either for or against, a committed friend or a committed foe.
I tried to understand what was taking place by immersing myself in the stream for a while: I read the books and the blogs and listened to the sermons and addresses. I hoped that I got a fair and accurate understanding of this movement. I found things that were attractive and stimulating and provocative and controversial and worrying.
At a little distance from the swirling storm of popularity and controversy, I recently saw a very brief list of those things which characterise the new Calvinism, written very much from within the movement. Looking at that list, I thought, “Yes, but . . .” and began to sketch out some other qualities that, it seems to me, are embedded in the mass of new Calvinistic identity. The list got reasonably long in the end, but I thought that I would work it up and put it out. It may prove useful, or interesting, or controversial, or pointless. I think that some new Calvinists would acknowledge and admit much of what follows, sometimes quite cheerfully, but not always. They might not agree with all the labels I use, or with my own stance on them, but I have set out to be fair and accurate.
Some caveats: I have attempted not to identify and discuss individuals (except where obvious and necessary, and for occasional examples) because this is not about supporting or attacking any one individual. I also recognise that there are exceptions to most if not all of these rules, hence the introductory wording to each suggestion: I am not trying to make out that the movement is more monolithic than is in fact the case. Furthermore, I have not attempted to distinguish between the positive and the negative (which will differ depending on where you stand anyway!) but have rather lumped them all in together. I have not attempted to list these characteristics in order of priority or significance.
That will probably do by way of introduction. So, then . . .
1. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a desire for the glory of God. In this sense, I do not think one can legitimately deny that this is a Reformed resurgence. There is an evident, open, sincere aim at the glory of God in all things, and I think that God is much glorified in many ways by the words and works of many of my new Calvinist brothers and sisters, and I rejoice at it.
2. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by deep-rooted spiritual joy. This may be one of the reasons why it is so attractive to so many, perhaps especially to those from more conservative Reformed circles who feel that this is one of the things that has been lacking in their spiritual experience. It flows, no doubt, in large part from the emphasis on the grace of God (see below) and it may flow into some of its more exuberant expressions of worship. Again, the public face of the new Calvinism is one in which men and women with their hearts made clean through the blood of the Lamb rejoice in their so-great salvation.
3. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by missonal zeal. As with any vibrant gospel movement, the desire to take the good news into all the world is central. Evangelising. Witnessing to Christ. Church strengthening. Church planting. Church rejuvenation. Training pastors and preachers. There is a Scriptural readiness to overcome or ignore the boundaries too readily established in the mind and the heart and to preach the gospel to every creature, and to use as many means as possible (although the Biblical legitimacy of some might be questioned) to promote the truth, propagate the gospel, and advance the kingdom of Christ Jesus. As the movement has advanced, neither the local nor the international elements of this have been left behind.
4. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an emphasis on the gospel of grace and the grace of the gospel. Everything is ‘gospel’: New Calvinists do ‘gospel-this’ and ‘gospel-centred that’ and ‘gospel-cored the other’, sometimes to the point of inanity. By that, I do not mean that the gospel ought not to be at the heart of things, but if we are genuinely evangelical then by definition the gospel should be at the heart of things, and the tendency to badge everything with the word ‘gospel’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it is gospel-soaked and gospel-centred, nor does it guarantee that it will be. That aside, this is a movement that desires to preach the good news as good news, to proclaim the free and undeserved favour of God to sinners in a way that is engaging, fresh, real and powerful. One of the great anathemas of new Calvinism is legalism. Whether or not this is rightly or fully understood I will not argue here, but these friends are desperate to highlight and declare the primacy of grace. Of course, this is intimately related to the joy they feel and the glory of God they pursue.
5. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by complementarianism. We are told by these friends to distinguish between the theological equivalents of national boundaries and state boundaries, to appreciate the different between distinction and division. At the same time, it appears that complementarianism is one of the new Calvinist shibboleths. That does not mean it is wrong, of course, but it is interesting that of all the things that we are told do not matter in the consideration of unity and separation, complementarianism has become something of a sine qua non.
6. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a return to a more Biblical masculinity. One could argue that at times this has almost become a caricature (and I would agree, and it has indeed been parodied and caricatured), but it is a welcome if sometimes extreme reaction to the anaemic and limp manhood too often displayed elsewhere in the nominally or actually Christian world. Alongside and arising from the complementarianism, dignified and vigorous male leadership has received a welcome fillip from the new Calvinism. Like many gospel movements of the past, this one has been characterised in many respects by the salvation of men (often young men), the calling of men to preach, and a readiness by men to take the brunt and lead from the front. This is not to say that women are excluded from the movement, but the Scriptural emphasis on male leadership has seen a welcome return.
7. Again related to complementarianism, it seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the promotion of the family as a basic unit of church and social life. Once again, such an emphasis can easily become an over-emphasis, but the evident loving affection for wives and sons and daughters that is characteristic of many of the leaders of the movement is an excellent testimony. The re-establishment of the God-ordained family unit, the outworking of masculinity and femininity in the family sphere, an encouragement to family worship, a readiness to discuss and instruct concerning relationships between men and women, single and married, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers and children, and the like, is often part and parcel of new Calvinism.
8. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by charismatic convictions with regard to spiritual gifts. It seems as if the nature, extent and degree of the Spirit’s work in what some would say we cannot call post-apostolic times has become almost a moot point in new Calvinism. What was for so long a genuine line of divide between Christians has seemed to be smoothed over with the rise of the so-called ‘Reformed Charismatic’, a label willingly embraced by many if not all of the leaders of new Calvinism, most of whom would be happy – to various degrees and in different ways – to acknowledge themselves to be continuationists, as the lingo has it. Interestingly, this is one of the fault lines that seems likely to become apparent again, not least because of its significance.
9. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by Calvinist soteriology, with some departures and aberrations. Again, here is one of the areas where the claim to the name ‘Reformed’ is at stake and much debated. Generally speaking, in line with the emphasis on the gospel of grace and the glory of God in salvation there has been a distinctively Calvinist take on this issue, and it is here – probably more than anywhere else – that the movement derives the ‘Calvinist’ part of its name. At the same time, there is – in many of those who are at the forefront of this group – more than a hint of Amyraldism, so I am not sure to what extent this is going to hold water for long. You will also note that I identify Calvinist soteriology as apart from other elements of historic Calvinism, many of which I think one could argue have been neglected, ignored, or abandoned by new Calvinists.
10. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a generally thoughtful ecumenism. You only need to look at or think about the names that are at or clustering about the centre to see how broad a movement this is. It has genuinely united Christians from a variety of backgrounds, and garnered sympathy from many who would nevertheless be unable to share all the distinctives of the movement as a whole. Issues such as baptism, ecclesiology, the spiritual gifts, and worship have – to some extent – not been allowed to prevent the coming together of believers to serve God either in community or at the very least in co-operation. Interestingly, though, this ecumenism seems to reach over the middle ground. By this I mean that there is a readiness to receive and relate to (and receive critique and input from) those close to the inner core of the movement, and then a readiness to reach quite far out from that core for critique and input and relationship, leaving those in the middle ground somewhat isolated. So, for example, consider the speaking list at some of the last few Desiring God conferences: where else would you find Piper, Dever, Driscoll, Warren, Wilson, Keller, Baucham, MacArthur, Sproul, Storms and Ferguson. At points on that list you are moved to cheer. At others, a very Scooby-Dooish cry of “Yoicks!” – mingled alarm and distress – rises from the lips.
11. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an often pragmatic ecclesiology. I am glad that it is characterised by ecclesiology at all, that the church of Jesus Christ is in many respects given its rightful place in his plans and purposes for the kingdom. At the same time, there is often more of the light of nature than the light of Scripture in some of the decisions that seem to be made. This, then, is a movement in which statistics matter. This is a movement in which, if you cannot keep up, you have to drop off. Are you in the way of progress? Then you are fired. We are moving onward and upward, so we will hire a worship pastor used to larger crowds or able to generate them; we will hire a technology deacon to take our presentations within and without the services to a new level. Are you not willing or able to move this fast? Then goodbye, because you are holding up the advance. Multi-campus doctrine is one of the examples of this pragmatism; branding and advertising are given a prominence beyond anything the Scripture provides for. Everything is made to serve the growth of the church numerically and the advance of the mission as stated by the church. At times the church seems less and less like an organic whole in which every member has her or his part and more like a business in which the chief executive and his team get to hire and fire at will, moulding the structure and its activity according to human will and purpose. If the church were a business, would I fire some of her workers? Sure. But it is not, and I am not at liberty to decide who I want or do not want in or working for the advance of a kingdom that belongs to and is ruled by a sovereign King. I should, however, add – in fairness – that perhaps at times others outside the movement have not been pragmatic enough, or dynamic enough, in seizing opportunities for gospel advance and employing means about which the Scriptures are silent (this comment is not about the regulative principle, by the way). By the way, you have to love the names of the churches: all portentous, bastardised Greek or catchy, thrusting urban vim? Fantastic!
12. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a neo-Kuyperian view of culture. Here the mantra is that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” There is much to be said for such a declaration, but it also needs to be read in terms of the already/not yet dichotomy. In new Calvinist orthodoxy, it seems to be very much ‘already’ and this often means that culture is considered neutral, and all to be claimed for Jesus. By extension, nothing seems to be out of bounds, and much that the world says and does can be tidied up, baptised, and brought into the service of Christ’s church. Of course, it tends to be the culture from which the converts are drawn (see below) that comes into the church, and so we get our reference points and illustrations from all the hip and cool sources, or those made trendy by the movers and shakers. Star Wars? Check. Lord of the Rings? Check. The Matrix? Check. So we get to be all funky and populist. Then we get to name check Lewis and Chesterton and Dostoevsky and O’Connor and come over all literary and high-brow. By and large, the new Calvinism seems ready to co-opt, co-operate with, and/or capture this culture now, without always making assessments about the origin, tendency and direction of particular elements. Under this heading I am willing to place the whole issue of contextualization, although it might be considered worthy of its own heading.
13. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by doctrinal if not practical antinomianism. Most of the movers and shakers appear ready to align themselves with New Covenant Theology in some form or other. As so often, the Lord’s day Sabbath is the first point of contact and conflict on this issue. However, the default position here, as – I believe – across broad evangelicalism as a whole – is that the moral law has no abiding relevance in the life of the new covenant believer. That assumption is woven throughout many of the key texts and declarations of the new Calvinism, from the ESV Study Bible downwards (for example, consider these comments in the ESVSB on Romans 14.5: “The weak thought some days were more important than others. Given the Jewish background here (see v. 14), the day that is supremely in view is certainly the Sabbath. The strong think every day is the same. Both views are permissible. Each person must follow his own conscience. What is remarkable is that the Sabbath is no longer a binding commitment for Paul but a matter of one’s personal conviction. Unlike the other nine commandments in Ex. 20:1–17, the Sabbath commandment seems to have been part of the “ceremonial laws” of the Mosaic covenant, like the dietary laws and the laws about sacrifices, all of which are no longer binding on new covenant believers (see also Gal. 4:10; Col. 2:16–17). However, it is still wise to take regular times of rest from work, and regular times of worship are commanded for Christians (Heb. 10:24–25; cf. Acts 20:7)”). This is having and will continue to have implications perhaps not so much in the sphere of justification (though that will follow) as in the sphere of sanctification. It is going to mean much for the development of true holiness, and it is only in the next two or three generations of the new Calvinists that these chickens will come home to roost. Key names among the new Calvinists have laid the foundation for this widespread antinomianism, and it is for me one of the most concerning aspects of the whole movement.
14. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by contemporary worship. By definition, all of the service ought to be worship, and by definition, anything done today is contemporary, however old-fashioned or new-fangled it may be considered, but you know what I mean. I personally have no difficulty with songs and music written in the present day, but that is not the same as a willingness simply to co-opt the forms and patterns of the entertainment of the world for the worship of the church. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sung worship of the church. Into the mix here also come the charismatic and cultural convictions of many of the key figures.
15. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the driving force of several key personalities. You know them: there is a centre circle reasonably well-defined, and then the concentric circles around them together and individually. Piper. Carson. Mahaney. Dever. Mohler. Driscoll. Keller. Grudem. Chandler. Anyabwile. Harris. DeYoung. Chan. Perhaps a little further out are Duncan and MacArthur and Sproul and Trueman. Among the bloggers, Challies and Taylor and others. Read long enough and widely enough and the same names will crop up time and time again. You might place them more or less close to the centre, but they will be there or thereabouts. My apologies to those who ought to be on the list and are not, and to the groupies who are now offended because I did not put their idol on the list. Here you see more than a little of that ecumenism mentioned before. No new Calvinist conference is complete without at least one and ideally more of these men on the platform. Each is a little chief in the centre of his fiefdom, many of which overlap. Of course, it can all seem a little nepotistic, even incestuous at times, as these figures read, invite, commend, and endorse one another in ever-decreasing circles. Again, God usually works by men in the world, and those men naturally attain to a right and reasonable prominence, but the concentration on a few key personalities, especially in the early days of the movement, was distinctive. Of course, some of those names are already second-generation names, and it will be interesting to see where things go from here.
16. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the ready embrace and employment of new technologies and media and the platforms that they provide. The new Calvinism is, to a large degree, an internet phenomenon. Sermons, videos, blogs, other social media, swirl around ceaselessly in this milieu. The exchange and discussion of ideas takes place largely online. Conferences are broadcast and live-blogged, and the lines and colours are laid down by a thousand artists simultaneously, often painting on the same canvas. Cross-reference and self-reference generate a stupendous amount of traffic. Look at some of the key blogs, for example, and you will find that they all tend to highlight the same books, events, people and things at almost precisely the same time. All these platforms nevertheless provide a potent thrust for new Calvinist dogma and praxis, and where others are left behind, the new Calvinism is often at the cutting edge, adopting and co-opting the latest technology (hardware and software) in order to promote either Christ or his servants, depending on your take on particular individuals and circles. Of course, we must state here that no self-respecting new Calvinist would be found dead using a PC. The Apple Macintosh and its related accessories are the technological sine qua non of the true new Calvinist. (I deleted the next bit because it counted as mockery, but let’s just say that it went in the direction of cool glasses and coffee shops, tattoos and T-shirts.)
17. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a concentration on a younger, more urban demographic. I recall one new Calvinist church-planting leader voicing his concern at how many church-planter/ing applications he saw targeted precisely the same group as all the others: the young, trendy, hip (when did this admittedly serviceable but not especially remarkable joint become so popular?), urban crowd. Although some of its leaders are getting old enough to be in them, you will not find much of the new Calvinism catering to the full range of society. It tends to be quite selective. I know of a number of churches that – when they began going in this direction – did begin to attract far larger numbers of a certain type and age, but they also began to lose many others. Again, you can only ride the crest of the wave for so long: what happens to the water ahead, and the waves coming in behind? This is one area where the willingness to preach the gospel to every creature perhaps needs to take account of the fact that every creature doesn’t like the same fashion, music, art, style, clothes, and approach as those who have made new Calvinism what it is.
18. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the desire to be big and to have a seat at culture’s table. Bigness does seem to be a great concern for many. Bigness – size and numbers – as a by-product of the pursuit of right things in a right way and for the glory of God is perfectly acceptable, but bigness as an end in itself is not something that the Bible promotes in isolation. Alongside of this goes what sometimes looks like an obsession with being accepted and heard in wider society. Consider the orgiastic and ecstatic applause and self-congratulation when the big names get on national television, or when the movement gets name-checked by Time magazine. Is there a danger here that the movement is too concerned with the applause and adulation and recognition of the world? Does this tie in with the attitude to culture, and what may be a failure to recognise that in this present evil age we are strangers in a strange land?
19. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an ambivalent relationship to church history. I know we all tend to pick and choose the bits that appear or tend to support what we now believe, but it is right there on the surface of the new Calvinist vehicle. Sometimes there is what I can only call a chronological snobbery. This is not meant to sound as pejorative as it does. It is part of the laudable enthusiasm of the movement. What I mean is that there is a freshness of discovery that excites us: we feel, if I may work through Wodehouse back to Keats,
. . . like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
However, just because I have recently discovered some theological gem does not mean that it has never been discovered before, or that I therefore become the sole guardian and interpreter of the tradition. There may be a whole bunch of trekker’s rubbish upon that peak in Darien from those who have been and camped before. Neither does the popularity or promotion of our discovery entitle us to be the arbiters of the canon. Anyway, there is a tendency among new Calvinists either to claim that ground long-broken has been only recently broken by them, or that it has never been broken before and now needs to be broken by them, or because they have broken it no one else is allowed to set foot on it, or that there is no other way of it being broken. In this way, the great and the good of the past all become proto-new Calvinists. Take a bow, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Bunyan, Cowper, Calvin, Lewis, Owen, Augustine, etc. etc. Of course, all this demands quite a bit of historical revision, of which there is perhaps no finer example than C. S. Lewis, one of the new Calvinism’s patron saints. I am not suggesting that these intelligent and well-read men are not aware of it, but at least let us not pretend nor give the impression that Lewis fits seamlessly into the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy!
20. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by sensitivity to the judicial and social aspects of the gospel at work in society. Perhaps in part because there is a left-wing as well as right-wing political input to new Calvinism, it is nevertheless a recovery of emphasis on the God who defends and protects the widow and the fatherless and the stranger, who is concerned for righteousness and justice in heaven and on earth, who takes note of the presence or absence of ethical integrity in the thoughts, words and deeds of men. Of course, this is very easily dismissed as politically correct or touchy-feely nonsense, but there is, perhaps, more of it in the Scriptures than others have always been ready to admit. So, on such matters as abortion, adoption, euthanasia, care for the poor and hungry, help for the homeless, and so on, there is a welcome re-engagement and re-appraisal. Confusion still exists (as, no doubt, it always will) about the relative roles of the church and the individual Christian citizen or subject (two kingdoms theology, anyone?), but there is an awareness of and sensitivity to these issues that is welcome.
21. It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by Americocentrism. Here let me bother with another caveat: this is not an instance of cultural jealousy or bitterness, nor is it in and of itself intended as a condemnation. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and of course the movement spills over, especially into the UK and Australia, where the linguistic heritage is shared (so perhaps I should speak more of ‘the West’ that I do of ‘the States’, although I think it is fair to say that America is probably the dominant Western culture, having more influence on others in the West than they have on it). However, while there are adherents, some of them prominent, outside the USA, the movement has its spiritual and cultural home in the States. Could this be where some of its cultural distinctive and pragmatic attitudes derive? Is this part of the reason for its determination and enthusiasm and can-do mentality? Is this driving the concentration on technology and the referents and foci of the movement? Time after time we hear men and women happily cradled in the bosom of American/Western culture assure us that the future of the church is in the so-called Third or Developing World. Is new Calvinism in danger of exporting more of America/the West than it is of Jesus? By definition, we are to some extent products of our culture, and that is part of God’s sovereign design for our sphere of influence and usefulness. But could it be that there is sometimes a lack of cultural awareness and a degree of cultural supremacism that penetrates new Calvinism further than we are aware? This, I acknowledge, is nebulous, easy both to defend and attack precisely because it is so hard to quantify, but it seems to me that this is an inherently Western movement, if not an inherently American one, a movement very much of a certain time and place. That does not make it inherently bad, but it certainly does call into the question the degree to which it can both last and spread beyond its immediate environs.
At this point, I see no reason to change the assessment I made several months ago, after reading Collin Hansen’s survey of the movement, although I hope I have a better grasp on the whole: “There is much that is splendid about the movement . . . but it contains within it some fascinating and fearful tensions, as well as some wonderful prospects. Much depends on the legacy of the present leaders, and the readiness of those who follow to pursue a comprehensive Scripturalism that will govern head and heart and hands. . . . observers and participants [need] to gauge both the trajectory and the likely terminus of this curious company, but [they] should also challenge us about the extent to which our faith and our life are keeping pace.”
So there you have it. Do you agree or disagree? Is there anything to add or remove? I should be interested to know what you have to say.