The New Calvinism considered #2 Commendations
Yesterday I began a well-intentioned survey of the New Calvinism with an attempt to capture some of its characteristics. Today we move on . . .
The first thing that I particularly appreciate about the New Calvinists is that they set out to be Christ-oriented and God-honoring. There may be questions as to the degree of their success in this, but I think it is right to acknowledge that it is their sincere intention. One of the springs of this movement has been John Piper’s concern that God should be glorified, bound up in his notion of “Christian hedonism.” He has recast the first question and answer of the Shorter Catechism to suggest that, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.” We are repeatedly told by Piper and others that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” This is the kind of language that drives much of this movement, seeking that Christ be known and made known to the glory of God. What it means to glorify God in Christ is very much a matter of Jonathan Edwards mediated through John Piper, and this distinctive understanding is a keystone in the movement. What we cannot deny is that this movement is substantially galvanized by concern for the supremacy of God in Christ and that the Lord of Glory be magnified in all things. That is a good thing and something we should embrace. While we may fine tune some of this down the line, we should recognize that this is the sincere aim and it is to be heartily commended.
Secondly, it is a grace-soaked movement. If you read the books, follow the blogs, listen to the conversations, you will hear “gospel-this” and “gospel-that” and “gospel-the-other,” almost to the point of inanity (there has to be another adjective you are allowed to use sometimes!). Nevertheless, the gospel is the great thing and Christ and Him crucified is at the heart of things. Grace has become and has remained amazing to these brothers and sisters. There is a freshness and enthusiasm that comes with this sense of discovery. For example, when you hear John Piper talk about Jonathan Edwards, you hear the abiding excitement of a man who has discovered something that he once did not know but which now has gripped his soul, and that gives him a vigor, an excitement, a freshness. For many in the movement, they have recently come to begin to begin to understand the beauty and the splendor of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and there is a corresponding enthusiasm: it is not old hat but rather new and delightful, and so this contributes to what is in many ways a vibrantly joyful movement. These friends are excited about the fact that God has loved them in Christ quite apart from their own deserving and that results in a contagious and attractive enthusiasm. They delight to be loved by God in Christ.
Thirdly, it is a missional movement. You may or may not like that buzz word, but it is the one in use. The New Calvinism tends to be passionately and sacrificially missional. There is a desire that the glory of God be known in all the earth and so these friends seek to preach the gospel and to make disciples (there is a good and healthy emphasis on discipleship in many circles). They want to plant churches and to train preachers. Their concern is local, national and international. This is a good model; it is, in many respects, a reflection of New Testament Christianity, and obviously that is to be heartily commended. They are ready to overlook and overcome boundaries that may cripple other people. They are reaching the lost; many of these friends are reaching people that we as Reformed Baptists are not. They are going to places we do not and perhaps will not. They are dealing with people of whom we may be scared. They are having doors opened before them that have never opened to some of us and they are taking these opportunities and they are going in to tell people about the Lord Jesus Christ. I think that this is wonderful and I wish that it were more characteristic of us.
Then, fourthly, it is a complementarian movement. By that I mean it seeks to regard men as men and women as women in their proper places and spheres as God has appointed them. Nevertheless, I want to qualify this slightly in two ways. First of all, in keeping with the movement as a whole, this is a spectrum, and there are manifestations of this complementarianism with which not everyone will agree: there would be differences in emphasis and perspective at certain points. Secondly, I find it rather amusing that – given all the things that the New Calvinism seems determined not to be about – complementarianism in the realm of gender and male/female relationships and responsibilities is such a big issue, so much so that I could almost put this in the list of defining qualities. The New Calvinists make a big deal about the fact that they are or intend to be biblically complementarian. That concern works itself out as a corresponding influence on what it is to have a healthy family life, what it means to have male leadership in the church, and other such areas. At times the masculinity that is presented becomes almost a caricature (drifting in some circles toward a sort of hairy, Neanderthal, breast-beating machismo) but generally they want men to be men and women to be women. They want that to be so in single life, in married life, in church life, in family life. This is a good and appropriate emphasis proving to be very attractive both to men and women. As women find men who really are men and as men are given opportunity to really be men (especially younger men who are finding models of masculine headship, of vigor, or passion, of endeavor in this movement) one gets a sense of deep answering unto deep. It is probably one of the reasons why this is a movement of so many younger preachers. They have gathered a spearhead of stable (usually), active, energetic and committed young men to carry the gospel out alongside of whom are many vigorous, active, energetic, and committed women. I think that is, in essence, a good thing.
Furthermore, the New Calvinists tend to be both immersed and inventive. They are immersed in many things. They are immersed in theology, they are readers. If you talk to some of the book publishing houses, including some of the more conservative ones, you will find that some of their major sales are in New Calvinistic circles. The New Calvinists are lapping up high grade theology. They are reading good books and big books. They love to know more about God. They are thinkers. They want to know how God’s truth relates to and works out in the church and the world. They are inventive and immersed in the online world. Many are what are called “early adopters.” The latest smart phone technology comes out and they are the first in line. And Apple – it’s got to be Apple. If you own a PC you are almost by definition not a New Calvinist. They blog exuberantly and exhaustively. They are at the cutting edge of technology in many respects. They are not afraid to use social media and to harness the power of online interaction. Again, you may have questions about the nature and impact of those media, the effect of the medium on the very message that it carries, but they – often taking account of those concerns – say, “It’s here, let’s get it, let’s use it in order to bring Christ and the gospel to bear on the people who are in these environments.” So they will use both old and new media very effectively to propagate the truth and the New Calvinist take on it. I put those two things together because it is very much the movement that carries along the gospel as they teach it. It is not quite one and the same thing, but they do not come separate from each other: the gospel comes dressed in New Calvinist colors and defined by New Calvinist convictions. All this makes them highly visible and very persuasive in the demographic group who are immersed in online culture, and that is almost everyone who is in their thirties and younger. When I first went to university not so long ago, students were encouraged to use computers to submit at least some of their essays; I wonder if anyone now uses a pen to write an essay. It is only in the last ten to twenty years that so much human social interaction has moved online. So anyone in their mid-thirties and younger is almost by definition immersed in that world unless they have deliberately decided to step away from it. And this is the world that the New Calvinist substantially inhabits, and it is this familiarity which makes them very potent in that narrow sphere. However, this raises other issues: What if you are not part of that significant online presence? What if you do not live online? What if you know nothing about what a friend calls “TwitFace”? This concentration can lock out some who are not immersed in the same media, but – whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or whatever else it may be or may become – these will be men and women who will be there first and they will be looking to take advantage of these things to the glory of God.
A sixth and final commendation is that this is a movement committed in principle to expository preaching. Again, there are styles and approaches to which I might and would take exception, and there are other things which adhere around the preaching which I would question, but the underlying commitment is to explain and apply the Bible as the Word of God. Many of the leading lights of the movement are pastors and preachers, committed either to systematic expository series or to some other form of expository ministry. The conferences are, by and large, preaching conferences. Discussions revolve around what the Bible says and what it means. Books are written expounding the Word of God. While there are and there will continue to be discussions about whether or not the expositions, conclusions and applications are accurate – the same sort of often-healthy discussions as happen within, across and between other circles – this commitment at least provides some common ground for the discussion to advance: “What does the Bible say?” Where this principle is espoused and not undermined, a common foundation allows for a mutual pursuit of the truth as it is in Jesus.
These are far from the only commendations, but they are at least six areas where I have appreciated and learned from some of the emphases of my brothers and sisters.
To be continued . . .
 This commendation has been added following feedback since the material was originally developed.