The New Calvinism considered #1 Caveats and characteristics
As some may recall, many moons ago I produced a survey of the New Calvinism. Subsequently, and building upon that, I was invited to address the topic at a sister church in the US, which I sought to do. Following on from that, I was asked to put that material in print, to which I replied, “Tricky, as it’s only a series of headers with a few notes on a sheet of paper.” The upshot was that the original address got transcribed, and I got round – eventually – to editing it. I used the substance of that address recently for a series of adult Bible classes in the church which I serve, and it provoked a lot of profitable engagement. And, now, finally, I am posting it here in its slightly more polished, slightly less personable form. In truth, since I wrote this, the situation has moved on. When I dealt with the situation in the church here, I was obliged to deal with the Elephant Room fracas (where, as you will imagine, I dropped much of the language of brotherly engagement when dealing with those who deny the Trinity or or used it far more guardedly when dealing with those who welcome as brothers those who preach the same heresy), as well as to go into the issues of prophecy and other spiritual gifts in more detail.
[UPDATE: I see that Kevin DeYoung is also reviewing the Young, Restless, Reformed phenomenon at his blog.]
So, asking that you take into account that there are some elements, which – if I were writing it now – would be necessarily more robust, and that this is the briefest version without a lot of the colour and additional comments, I offer herewith . . .
The New Calvinism considered
What qualifications do I possess for the task of assessing a movement like the New Calvinism? I first came across some of the men who are now known as New Calvinists a few years after John Piper first published Desiring God. A friend of mine was enthusing about this book and told me, “You have to read this book, it will change your life.” I thought that if a friend was speaking of a book in this way then I should at least do him the honor of reading it. Since then I have been engaged with the New Calvinism in various ways. A number of my peers have been very much caught up with it, and I have felt the pressure to imbibe it, to embrace it, to be a part of it.
This interest and engagement have continued even though this movement is largely an American phenomenon. I therefore have something of an outside perspective. (The New Calvinism in the UK is not exactly the same as it is in the US – it does not have the same breadth.) I have appreciated much of what I have seen. I have benefited from some of it and I have disagreed with some of it. The process of evaluation has been (and remains) a long one in which reading, listening, discussing, and going to conferences all played a part. My sense was that this was a significant movement. That was one reason for the pressure to jump on the bandwagon. However, while I did not want to dismiss what was profitable, but neither did I want thoughtlessly to embrace something without careful consideration.
It is out of that tension and that developed process that I hope to bring some observations, as a Christian, a pastor and part of a generation that has seen the New Calvinism take off and take hold over a period of years. However, I also want to issue some caveats, some initial warnings which we must take into account as we look at the New Calvinism.
First of all, this is a personal and pastoral assessment. I am not pretending that I have a monopoly on insights into individual men and movement as a whole. I may be mistaken in what I suggest. There are thousands of blog posts and books and videos and conferences that I have not read or watched or been a part of. If I am ignorant, mistaken, or misguided at any point, I am readily prepared to be corrected and thus to fine tune my understanding.
Secondly, this is a fraternal and irenic assessment. In other words, I speak as a brother with a desire for genuine understanding, true unity and gospel peace. I am not setting out to attack those I consider lunatics and heretics, neither do I intend to lay waste to everything that is before me (even where I disagree). I have several friends who would call themselves New Calvinists, friends whom I respect and appreciate. I am by no means seeking to dismiss them or to trample them into the dust.
Thirdly, I am seeking to provide a balanced appreciation. This is not intended to be a hatchet job. My wife is American, and she suggests with much legitimacy that the British can be professional cynics. I do not wish to give vent to a sarcastic strain, nor fall into the trap of painting a caricature of New Calvinism that could easily be mocked (even in a gracious, brotherly spirit!). Such a straw man is tempting to erect precisely because it is easier to knock down than the real person. I should also point out that I am not setting out to accomplish a sort of Reformed Baptist whitewash, in which I climb up above everybody else, confident in our own superiority in all things, and – looking down on everybody else with a smug air – say, “We are the best. If only you were like us, how much better this world would be.” I it is not my intention to ignore or to defend Reformed Baptists, but to deal with the New Calvinism.
The fourth and the most important caveat is that the New Calvinism is not monolithic, by which I mean that it is not a single and uniform entity. The New Calvinism is a spectrum. It is a broad river with many currents, having different eddies with varying depths and shallows. In an assessment such as this I have to paint with a broad brush, not having the opportunity to nuance and finesse some of my comments. Exceptions to some of my general statements could easily be found. I understand that, but I am obliged to deal in generalities to some extent, recognizing that there will be exceptions. I will have to refer to points on a spectrum, but I do not mean to imply that all these things are universal or uniform when they are not.
Characteristics of the New Calvinism
What are the qualities of the New Calvinism? How do you define this movement, taking into account that it is a spectrum? Where do you start?
The first – and perhaps somewhat obvious quality – is Calvinism itself, but even this must be qualified. In general, this movement is united by convictions about the sovereignty of God in salvation, hence the name “New Calvinists.” Note, however, that an appreciation of God’s sovereignty in salvation is not necessarily the same thing as being “Reformed.” Furthermore, while there is a very real sense in which Calvinism is more than just the five points, it is not easy to argue that it is less than those points. Here we must take into account that not all the New Calvinists are, in fact, Calvinists. Some are what are called Amyraldians. Moïse (or Moses) Amyraut was a French theologian who developed what was basically a four point Calvinism. The primary point of contention is the nature and extent of the atonement. Several within the New Calvinist movement believe in what is sometimes described as “unlimited limited atonement” – the idea that the death of Jesus was intended for all men but that it is effectively applied only to the elect. (The Calvinist’s conviction would be that the death of Jesus was intended only for the elect and therefore did not fail or fall short in any degree.) Taking all this into account, we admit that the title of the well-known book by Collin Hansen which has become almost a label for the movement, Young, Restless, Reformed, is much catchier than Young, Restless and mainly Calvinistic, apart from those of us who are slightly Amyraldian. Nevertheless, for the sake of simplicity, and my fingers and keyboard, I will continue to use the phrase “New Calvinism” to describe this movement.
In sum, this movement can be described (slightly inaccurately) as Calvinistic insofar as it maintains a general unity around the notion that God is sovereign in the salvation of sinners. Indeed, one could argue that the true father figure of the New Calvinism is probably more Jonathan Edwards than John Calvin, and even then it is Jonathan Edwards mediated through John Piper.
Secondly, this is a movement of characters (or figureheads, personalities, celebrities or gurus, depending on how pejorative a label you wish to apply, or what kind of a follower you are dealing with). If you spend enough time in this environment you might eventually theorize that there is somewhere an inner sanctum where these magisterial figures sit. These are the men who appear on the key websites, videoed in cool monochrome sitting around discussing great principles and actions and movements while we sit in humble awe as they deliver their weighty opinions. Often these are established figures, the big names who need to be at the conferences in order for them to be real New Calvinist conferences. Alongside of them are the rising stars of the upcoming generation.
You will hear names such as John Piper, Mark Dever, C. J. Mahaney, Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Francis Chan, Kevin DeYoung, Ligon Duncan, Tim Keller, Don Carson, Josh Harris, Wayne Grudem. On the websites and in the blogosphere names like Justin Taylor and Tim Challies are prominent. More on the fringes perhaps, and with a more ambivalent relationship, are men like R. C. Sproul and John MacArthur (they are referenced by the movement and have connections within it, but do not necessarily fit into the spectrum). When you enter the world of the New Calvinism these are the names that you will find in almost every place. For example, in the online realm you will find that the hundreds if not thousands of New Calvinistic blogs are rehashing the same videos, passing on the same references, locked in a potentially nepotistic world of self-reference.
This leads to at least two related dangers: the danger of mere imitation and the danger of unintended disconnection. Early in his life Andrew Fuller – who was to become a preeminent Particular Baptist theologian – discovered that the mark of a master plowman was to be able to plow a straight furrow across a field. Fuller assumed that such a standard could easily be achieved simply by laying your plow alongside an existing furrow created by a master and following it. Putting his theory to the test, he took a plow and went along the straight line of the master plowman. When he had finished he looked back to see that although there was a degree of straightness because of the model that he followed, he had also copied and exaggerated all the kinks in the master plowman’s furrow. Fuller vowed at that moment never to be an imitator. The danger of these figureheads is that, in the minds of some, they become celebrities and gurus. Slavishly following them, their disciples reproduce not only much of what is good but also exaggerate them at their points of weakness or aberration.
Furthermore, as we consider some of these followers we find that there is a disconnect between some of the men at the top of the hierarchy – men of profound mental and emotional depth, who seek to hold unusual things in tension in their thinking and practice – and those lower down the tree with, perhaps, lesser vision and capacity. A struggle follows, often issuing in a failure to hold those potentially fruitful or perhaps implicitly contradictory tensions. One or the other side must govern, leading to deviations from the doctrine and practice of the greater man by those of lesser magnitude. In other words, some of what is happens on the ground at grass-roots level can be very far and very unhealthily removed from what is being proposed and modeled at the top.
Thirdly, this is a movement marked by conglomeration. It is a movement of coalitions, of conferences, of networks, and of networks of networks, numbers of men and churches operating together. As mentioned before, this can seem a little introspective at times (not that they are the only ones guilty of that!): they all endorse one another’s books and DVDs, they all refer to one another’s blogs and videos. Together For The Gospel (T4G) and The Gospel Coalition (TGC) are two of the big overarching events or organizations that holding some of these things together. In addition, there are such groups as the Acts 29 network, Sovereign Grace Ministries, or the Resolved conference series. It is a broad and somewhat eclectic mix, reinforcing the idea of the spectrum and underlining the pursuit of a broad unity.
Fourthly and finally, it is a movement of consolidation. Since its beginning, I think it is discernibly evident that this river is broadening out and slowing down. At least one of its figureheads is very and vocally opposed to the notion of things slowing down. He says, in effect, “Things begin as missions, become movements, then museums and monuments . . . and we are on mission!” And yet it is already a movement, and such a change is of the nature of things; in part it is the process of maturation. The whole machine is slowing down. There is not the same buzz, the same energy, the same drive as once there was. The river is broader and it is slower. The enthusiasm has shifted slightly. I am not saying that there is any less vigor, but this is not the rushing mountain stream it once was, with the dynamism simply to carry things before it. Interestingly, one of the issues coming up more regularly is the idea of succession. Some of the father figures in the movement have sat around to be filmed in weighty monochrome talking about what is going to happen after they have moved on. I cannot be absolute, but there seems to be a slowing down and an awareness that we are entering a period of transition with regard to New Calvinism.
While this list of defining features is brief and broad and far from exhaustive, I trust that those familiar with the New Calvinism as a whole or with specific manifestations of it will be able to see some recognizable points of reference in this overview. Taking all these things about the New Calvinism into account, I want to offer first some commendations and then some cautions and concerns, engaging with these brothers as brothers, and as someone who has appreciated and learned from them in many ways.
 In recent days, John MacArthur has delivered a series of quite vigorous addresses to the ‘young, restless and reformed’ crowd, and several of his points were very poorly received, in the main, although some gave a more seasoned and dignified response.