The New Calvinism considered #3 Cautions and concerns
Over the last couple of days I have been posting some material on the New Calvinism, the fruit of a reasonable period of time trying to get my head around the phenomenon and seeking to work out my relationship to it (and to those who populate the movement at their various points on the spectrum).
Other parts of the series can be traced using the links below. Of course, all being the irenic types that we are, this will no doubt be the least popular of the posts . . .
Cautions and concerns
I also have some cautions and concerns about the New Calvinism. While enjoying some of the emphases and appreciating some of the engagement that these brothers have with the world at large, is there anything here of which to take a more careful and less positive account? As I sought to understand and appreciate the New Calvinism, I was asking myself whether or not there is anything that I might wish to strain out, anything which particularly needs to be tempered? Let me suggest some of my cautions and concerns that may ring true with you.
First of all, there is a tendency to pragmatism and commercialism. I usually enjoy the American entrepreneurial spirit, the “Go west, young man” mentality that I still see in American culture but which is often lacking in Europe (having said that, west of Europe is the Atlantic, so there may be some legitimacy to our cynicism there). However, I wonder if in some parts of the New Calvinism the entrepreneurial spirit has run amok. A principle of pragmatism is applied where it was never meant to be applied. I see a more commercial attitude toward “doing church.” Listen to that phrase: how do you do church? The idea is to get big, stay big and then get bigger. You need to market yourself well and make sure you have got the right people in place. So, if Brother Barry is getting in the way of progress and Brother Barry is a deacon, you remove Brother Barry and replace him with someone who can actually do the job that Brother Barry is not prepared or able to do. That is almost a commercial hire-and-fire model. You need to expand the business? You get rid of the wrong people and find the right people, bringing in workers with the right skill sets to move things forward in accordance with your church (business) model. At points it seems to be a principial lack of principle, as if where the Bible does not overtly speak to a matter we are free to do whatever we please. I am not suggesting that I have heard that said, but if you step back and consider, it seems as if that is how it actually works in practice. It is almost as if a Normative Principle of Life is being applied, as if to say, “If God hasn’t explicitly said this isn’t a good idea, let’s try it!” Here is the flip side of that desire to engage and get the gospel out. The questions becomes not, “What is right?” but “What will work?” If something seems to work, it must be good because it is advancing the mission. Someone might respond by querying whether there are Biblical principles to apply, but – “No! We have to get the Word out and we’ll use whatever means we can to accomplish that.” This can lead to a pursuit of bigness, of numbers, of profile, almost for their own sake. When Time magazine proclaimed the New Calvinism as one of the “ten ideas changing the world right now,” immediately the blogosphere was awash with self-congratulation: “Oh, wow! We’re important, we’ve got a seat at culture’s table!” Really? Is that what it is all about? Is that what we are pursuing? What happens when the world does not recognize us? Will the gospel have lost its power, or will we need to change things to win back the world’s commendations? Does God not delight to turn these things on their heads? “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord of Hosts.
Alongside and because of this we are faced with reams of statistics – they love statistics! Listen to some of the sermons: the introduction is, “Statistics say that this is important, so this is a good and relevant topic to deal with this morning.” This survey says this, and churches are like that, and so we need to adapt and respond to what this latest survey says about the state of the church and the state of the world. Furthermore, there is a showmanship about some of it. There is an element of performance, something overly dramatic or slickly cultured in some of the preaching and presentation. There are gimmicks that creep in at points and I do think there are times in which men in this movement run the church more like a commercial enterprise than they minister to it as the body of Christ.
The second concern is an unbalanced view of culture. A neo-Kuyperian perspective dominates the movement. Perhaps the keynote is this statement from Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not shout, ‘Mine!’” That translates into some parts of New Calvinist spectrum almost as a sense that this world is neutral territory. We are in no man’s land and therefore culture is all up for grabs. We are conquering culture for King Jesus. Therefore nothing is out of bounds. We can take anything this world produces and we Christianize it. One of the classic examples would be something like musical forms. We can take all musical forms, and the uniforms that go with them. We can apparently take the structures that communicate those particular things and embrace them as Christians. We can do this because the forms and the uniforms and the structures are all neutral and we just need to make them carry a Christian message. I think that this is over-realized, almost an over-realized eschatology, a confusion between what is “not yet” and what is “already” in the life of the kingdom. Such thinking has gone beyond the Scriptural norm. Some New Calvinists can be so concerned to be relevant and accessible that they become slaves to hipness. You read some of their books and everything is defined by a narrow target audience. You have to reference The Matrix and then The Lord of the Rings. Then you go for the artsy-fartsy bunch and reference Flannery O’Connor and then for the intellectuals by talking about C. S. Lewis. You get a mass of cultural buzz words, riding the wave of the latest big film series or the book that everyone is talking about. There is a sense in which our friends are doing something well here. They are looking into the sphere in which they are operating. They are trying to understand the language and the culture with which they are dealing and they are sincerely trying to bring the gospel to bear, but it sometimes feels like a checklist to prove how cool they are: “I’ve read all the latest books and I’ve seen all the latest films.” It is an almost-obsession that becomes very easy to mock and mimic. The assumption seems to be that culture is neutral and therefore up for grabs; we just need to use it as the vehicle to bring Christ to bear.
There are two particular areas in which you will see this working itself out: one is worship and the other is evangelism. Again, generally speaking, the New Calvinism does not embrace the Regulative Principle of Worship. It seems to me that the vast majority of New Calvinists believe that all of life is worship (that is one of the phrases you will hear time and time again). There is a sense in which that is true: “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). But what happens if everything becomes worship in precisely the same way? What happens if everything is flattened out? Then there are no peaks or troughs in our experience of coming before God to bring glory and honor to Him. There are no high points and rather than everything being worship, nothing is worship. It is this very reversal that often leads to an aping of the world. A deliberate process takes place in which our worship will be as much like the activity of the world as possible (after all, all of life is worship) but we will just Christianize it. So if our target audience is basically indie kids, we’ll get an indie-style Christian band to sing Christian lyrics in indie style (or indie lyrics with a Christian flavor – either way will work) and then we will preach the gospel. This process is embraced at various different points in various different spheres. So with regard to worship, if we accept that we are always worshipping God and all of culture is up for grabs, there is no needed distinction between the sacred and the profane. That also bleeds over into evangelism because the issue becomes a matter of finding that which attracts people, whatever seems to work. As long as they are coming to hear and as long as we have claimed this thing – whatever “this thing”may be – for Jesus than it no longer matters what forms it takes. I am not suggesting that no people are being reached and none of them are being saved, but the underlying pragmatism together with this view of culture have a tendency to make evangelism drift toward becoming more like the world in order to win the world. Some have suggested that this is really a Calvinistic soteriology allied to an Arminian methodology. The motive may be good, but the means are wrong.
The third caution or concern is a troubling approach to holiness. There are two elements here. The first is what I consider to be incipient antinomianism. Antinomianism in this context refers, in essence, to those who do not believe in the abiding validity of the moral law for those who are in Christ Jesus. I call it incipient because it is there in seed form even if it is not yet fully broken out in doctrine or in practice. As so often, the fourth commandment – the matter of the new covenant Sabbath, the Lord’s day – is almost the first point of contact. Many of the leading lights in the New Calvinist movement would formally embrace or at least align themselves toward what is sometimes called New Covenant Theology. This is where we come back to the fact that these are holy men who seem to be able to hold some curious things in tension – things that, frankly, are in conflict – and yet continue to pursue godliness. They are not always saying that there is no law; often it works out more as a neonomianism (like that of Richard Baxter). We are repeatedly informed that we are no longer under law but that we are under grace, and – here is the corollary that is argued over – that what that means is that we follow Christ but that is not related to embracing and obeying the Ten Commandments.
The second element is related to this. An ongoing discussion continues about the nature of sanctification. Two men who have engaged in this most recently are Tullian Tchividjian of Cape Coral, Florida, and Kevin DeYoung in Lansing, Michigan. Kevin DeYoung is pushing for the more orthodox perspective, and doing so very helpfully, whereas Tchividjian is concerned that there is not enough grace in that process and suggesting more that we are sanctified by faith. You might well ask, “But can you be sanctified without faith? Can you become more like Jesus Christ without faith? ” Of course you cannot! This is a process in which we continue to rely upon the grace of God in Christ. It is in union with Jesus Christ in his death to sin and resurrection life that His power works in us. It is on account of our relationship to Christ that the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our hearts, and we are then conformed to the image of God’s Son. This is a gracious relationship grounded in faith. So there is certainly a need for faith if we are to be sanctified, and we depend upon the grace of God every moment in our sanctification, but we are not sanctified by faith in the same way that we are justified by faith. Rather, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in us both to will and to do for His good pleasure. A false dichotomy is being established between faith and duty or effort and I think that some of this goes back to Piper’s idea that we glorify God by enjoying Him forever (although I know that John Piper speaks very definitely of the need to pursue and attain genuine holiness as a part of our being saved). But why be afraid of the words duty and obedience and commandment? Our friends are so concerned to talk about grace that it is almost as if an overreaction has occurred against some of these notions of effort and obedience and duty and commandment, which are part of what we do as those who enjoy the grace of God in Jesus Christ. A concern not to be or become legalists has driven some back toward antinomianism. But I am liberated in order to be holy! What is the pattern and framework of my holiness? It is God as He makes Himself known in Jesus Christ, Christ being the perfect transcript of what God is like and the perfect embodiment of God’s holiness, a holiness also made known in His law.
Where this incipient antinomianism makes its entrance, together with this concern that we do not evacuate grace and faith from the process of sanctification to such an extent that you are left with a process that consists in faith alone, these tensions take root. As you work down and out from the men who seem able to hold these things while simultaneously pursuing Biblical holiness, the patterns of history suggest that succeeding generations will fail to hold those elements in tension and the result will be an increasing abandonment of genuine, full-orbed new covenant holiness. I am not suggesting that this is the intention, but I believe that this will be the result.
I recognize that by suggesting that many New Calvinists are in principle antinomians I will be accused of being grossly uncharitable: “How dare you call us antinomian!” But the very next accusation is likely to be that I am a legalist, so at least we are all square! However, in all seriousness, I have seen some insightful comments on this: someone had dared to use the word “antinomianism” to describe the kind of approach outlined above, and it had immediately sparked the usual accusations of a legal spirit in the man who had used the word. It was at this point that someone else who did not believe in the abiding validity of the moral law stepped in with a sensible and sincere response: “Why,” he said, “are we getting so angry about the use of the word ‘antinomian’? If they are right, that is precisely what we are. I do not believe that they are right, and so I would deny the label. But if they are right, then that is the accurate term for what I believe.” This is refreshing honesty! If then, we are right in our assessment above – and I am persuaded from Scripture and history that we are – then this is a nascent form of antinomianism. My fear is that this view will become very attractive to people who want the privileges and benefits and eased consciences of a Christian profession without the demand for holiness being pressed into their hearts resulting in the vigorous pursuit of godliness. Clearly this is not the intention of the New Calvinists by and large. They are not saying, “Let us sin, then, that grace may abound.” My concern is that this teaching may create an atmosphere in which liberty is made a cloak for license.
A fourth caution or concern is a potentially dangerous ecumenism. There is a concern for unity that may end up being at the expense of truth. Remember that this is an eclectic movement, a spectrum not a monolith. There are men all along the spectrum who do not see eye to eye on certain things. The fact that they can be united on things that are of critical and central importance is a wonderful testimony to Christian unity. It is a good and a healthy thing and peace among brothers is a genuine blessing and much to be desired and pursued. However, within New Calvinism a distinction is sometimes made between state and national boundaries. So, for example, the national boundary is what make us all part of the same kingdom: we are all Christians together. State boundaries, for example, are the distinctions between denominations, or with regard to certain practices or convictions. So some of us are more confessional; some of us are more charismatic. Some of us are baptists; some are paedobaptists. These are lower walls between states within a single nation under God, as it were! But who gets to decide which are the state boundaries and which are the national boundaries? I would suggest it is not just those who like the idea of state and national boundaries! My perspective or yours on what should or should not be a national and what should or should not be a state boundary might be different – perhaps radically different – from someone else’s perspective. Depending on who is allowed to categorize and to draw the boundaries, the result can be some very strange bedfellows.
In giving specific examples, it is necessary to identify particular individuals. In the last few years John Piper’s national conferences have included – among some who many of us would be more than eager to hear preach and who a few of us might cross oceans simply to hear pray – such speakers as Douglas Wilson and Rick Warren. These men are receiving what is in essence the Piper stamp of approval. Remember that John Piper is one of the men who is prominent to the point of pre-eminent, one of the figureheads of this movement. I would suggest to you that, however attractive their personalities and impressive their profiles, such men as Douglas Wilson and Rick Warren are moving – if not already – beyond the pale of historic Biblical Christianity. To bring these men in and to give them one of the most visible platforms in this movement is an exceedingly dangerous thing. Again, although Piper may be able to say, “I’ll take this but I won’t take that,” the result for many will be, “Well, Doug Wilson must be good to go,” or, “Rick Warren must be a credible guide.” It easily leads to a suspension of discernment in which one is tempted to take a draught of poison alongside a drop of tonic. While the desire for Christian unity is a good thing in itself, there is a potentially dangerous ecumenism in which some of these men are reaching beyond the bounds of what is safe and orthodox in terms of credible Biblical Christianity.
Furthermore, there is a genuine tension with regard to spiritual gifts. This has been identified even within the movement itself as a potential faultline, a point of division which could cause significant dissension. I think the men who have recognized that tension are right, but the present response is often to keep papering over the cracks even while some are driving in the wedges (please work with the analogy!). So for many the issue of spiritual gifts and the nature of the continuing work of the Spirit of Christ seems to be a moot point: it will not be addressed; it will be overlooked; it will not be allowed to become an issue. In a recent book a number of prominent confessional figures were interviewed (for not only the New Calvinists have their figureheads!), some of whom are working within or on the fringes of this movement. The only contributor to those interviews who specifically suggested that the charismatic influence is a dangerous one was Conrad Mbewe, a Zambian pastor. Almost no one else wanted to address the fact that actually this is a point of genuine tension, a point of potential and actual divide. But it is a significant issue. Indeed, it is becoming more so: just recently Mark Driscoll suggested that the “current global movement in Christianity” is characterized by four theological distinctives: Reformed theology, complementarian relationships, Spirit-filled lives, and missional churches. In the course of this address he made the assertion that “cessationism is worldliness,” a sort of rationalistic, modernistic, Cartesian, Humean skepticism with regard to the supernatural. Not long afterward, John Piper asserted that “God humbles Charismatics by making their children Calvinists; and Calvinists by making their children speak in tongues.” Ahem!
So who is this person, this Holy Spirit, and what does He do? How does He do what he does? When and in what ways does He do it? Is there any difference of nature or of degree between what He was doing in the days of the Apostles and what He is doing now? There are some men within the movement who would, I think, be very close to a more orthodox Reformed perspective (a narrower spectrum), but I think the broad stream of New Calvinism is essentially a continuationist stream. I do not like that language. I do not like being labeled a cessationist, because of the implications that language often carries. I do not believe, in any absolute sense, that the Holy Spirit has stopped working. We depend upon Him entirely, in every moment of our living, our serving, our worshipping. He is the One by whom Christ is made known to us and through whom we enter into and experience and enjoy our union with the risen Lord. We do not want to be driven into a corner where we become so worried about abuses regarding the Holy Spirit that we give Him up. If so, we would become absolute cessationists, and that would be blasphemous. We are in danger of saying, or of seeming to say, “We are so worried about abuses regarding the Holy Spirit, we will relinquish Him altogether. You charismatics may have Him. We will be absolute cessationists and you will be the continuationists.” That is a caricature of us that we must not embrace. But we must answer the questions: What is the nature of His work? What are the nature, extent and degree of His work in times past, present and future? Are we to expect prophecies, healings, miracles?
When people gather at some of the big New Calvinist conferences, some of these things get put aside. Everybody gets together and gives the impression of a quite complete unity (ironing over a few choppy patches during some of the singing, perhaps). But what happens when everybody goes back to their individual churches? At that level there are radical and significant differences in approach to these things. Ultimately, though, this is not just about whether or not one church believes in prophetic utterances and speaking in unknown or angelic tongues, but with the whole nature of authority in its relation to divine revelation. Where does God speak to us? How does He make His will known today? That has become and must be a flashpoint; it is another place in which many have a strong desire to hold together things that simply do not belong together. You will hear the phrase “Reformed Charismatic.” Some would suggest, with some credibility, that those two things are mutually exclusive, precisely because of this issue of authority and revelation. The questions surely arise, which of those two influences is going to take the ascendancy, and what will be the outcome?
My sixth concern is with what I perceive as a degree of arrogance and triumphalism. I say that exceedingly conscious that I am prone to the very same spirit, but – while recognizing our own frailties in this area – let me suggest more specifically what I mean. This is a young and seemingly successful movement. What tends to happen when you are young and successful? Often you get a big head and you think that you must be right and you just need to keep going and that everyone and everything will eventually fall before you. I fear a developing – and, in some, developed – sense of being above contradiction, that they have it made, and that the movement will continue to roll over all that stands in its way. This is true especially of some of those who are coming in just behind and around some of the figureheads. Such triumphalism breeds overconfidence. At times you will hear men speaking as if they have just reinvented the wheel. For example, one treatment of the church was introduced with the staggering assertion that there has not been a serious consideration of the issue since the days of the Protestant Reformation, the implication being that the gap was about to be plugged. Now if that isn’t a dose of hubristic nonsense, kindly fax me an explanation of what is! I think there may have been just the one or two books dealing with ecclesiology written since the Reformation. Could it be that our friend simply failed to read them? Again, it goes along with the enthusiasm of the movement: “Hey, look! I am just discovering these things!” “That’s great,” we respond, “but so have other people.” “I’ve discovered Edwards,” says one, “let me tell you what Edwards says!” “That’s wonderful!” we reply, “but other people have been reading Edwards before and with you and they also have some valid perspectives on what Edwards says.” Some of these areas or interpretations of theology have simply been co-opted by the New Calvinists. It is seen in their handling of history; I think at times they can give the impression if you just read history properly you will see that it vindicates the New Calvinism. This is not an isolated problem, and certainly not one from which Reformed Baptists are immune. When you read history, what you tend to find are the examples that say that you are doing the right thing right now, and so we vindicate ourselves: in my own reading, history proves that I am right. This is not a legitimate way of handling the past.
Alongside of this is a tendency only to dialogue and receive criticism within their own, relatively closed circle. They talk to each other, even about each other, they interact with each other, but if you are someone who has been judged or placed “outside” for some reason, and you have the temerity to suggest that one of the figureheads may have something wrong, then woe betide!
But the issue should not be whether something seems to be working or failing, whether it is big or small, or if one of the big dogs is barking; the issue is whether it is right or wrong. I do think that there are times at which the sense that this movement is young and vigorous and moving – really going places and fast – can blind some of my brothers to some of its inherent weaknesses and can close their ears to those of us who desire their good and believe we have something to offer them as much as they have something to offer us.
To be concluded . . .
 See http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1884779_1884782_1884760,00.html, accessed 20 Sep 11.
 http://theresurgence.com/2011/07/25/four-points-of-the-movement, accessed 20 Sep 11.
 http://twitter.com/#!/JohnPiper/status/108222441356136449, posted on 29 Aug 11.