The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘John Calvin

Lessons from Calvin

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Kevin DeYoung has been reading Bruce Gordon’s Calvin and learning some lessons. There are seventeen in total:

1. If you want to make an impact beyond your little lifespan, teach people the Bible. “What made Calvin Calvin, and not another sixteenth-century writer was his brilliance as a thinker and writer, and, above all, his ability to interpret the Bible” (viii).

2. The big public personalities are often privately awkward. “In the public arena Calvin walked and spoke with stunning confidence. In private he was, by his own admission, shy and awkward” (x).

3. We read too much causality into our childhoods. “With his contemporaries, and much in contrast to our age, Calvin did not consider his childhood as psychologically formative: it was a brief and brutal preparation for adulthood associated primarily with ignorance, volatility and waywardness” (2).

Read the rest . . .

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 2 April 2011 at 07:58

Posted in History & biography

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Books and more books

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How many churches have recently heard a series or even a sermon drawn from the prophet Micah? How many Christians would recognise even the better known phrases of the man of Moresheth? He lurks among other prophets quickly overlooked as minor, rarely touched and probably little understood.

Dale Ralph Davies redresses the balance somewhat in this excellent commentary (Evangelical Press, 2010, 189pp). Beginning with a devastating illustration that leaves the liberal critic looking a little foolish, and providing an overview of the whole book, he then guides us through the three main sections of the book: through judgement to preservation, through judgement to peace, and through judgement to pardon. Under each section shorter elements are supplied in the author’s own vivid and illuminating translation, discussed briefly, and then pointedly and movingly applied to the church of Christ today.

The author’s ability and readiness to cut to the chase is welcome. He is clearly abreast of other material old and new, and gives us a swift and sure assessment of various interpretive issues, leaving us with little (or significantly reduced) doubt as to the Spirit’s probable intended meaning. Indeed, so surefooted and definite is the writer that there is a significant danger of simply being carried along and allowing him to do all the work for us. Micah’s messianic focus is made to shine brightly at appropriate points, and equally plain throughout is the Lord’s holy hatred of sin.

Those who have previously used and enjoyed the author’s commentaries on other Old Testament books will need little persuading to take up and read this new offering. For any reader who has not yet had the pleasure of making his acquaintance, this would be a fine place to start, and they may find themselves wondering how Micah so quickly yields up treasures they have never before appreciated.

I should imagine that many gospel ministers (who might otherwise not have touched the prophet with a reverent bargepole) are picking up this book and after a few pages beginning to wonder whether or not there might be a series or a few sermons in Micah after all. If they make this book a tool to help them and not merely a template to follow, then they will be right.

Moving on more swiftly, if you still have no idea why you should care about the fact that John Calvin has just had his 500th birthday, then Calvin for Today, edited by Joel Beeke (RHB, 2009, 296pp), may be the collection with which to start. Bringing together the addresses from the 2009 conference of the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, it is a deliberately popular, entry-level survey of Calvin the man and his faith and life. Considering Calvin and his Bible, as a theologian, Calvin and the church, Calvin’s ethics, and his contemporary impact, a range of contributors bring their minds and hearts to bear on some fifteen separate topics. If some of the material coming out of the quincentennial has seemed too dense and weighty, here is an antidote, providing accessible but careful scholarship in engaging fashion. (Amazon)

Following on from This Little Church Went to Market and This Little Church Stayed Home, in This Little Church Had None: A Church in Search of the Truth (Evangelical Press, 2009, 236pp) Gary Gilley continues his assessment of the illness of the church in the modern West, perhaps with particular emphasis on the US. Though by definition any snapshot of a situation dates quickly, there is plenty here that will remain relevant for some time. The author begins by looking at six problems the church faces: seeker-sensitivity, the emergent movement, paganism, the prosperity gospel, pragmatism and the new atheism. Having analysed the problems, he moves on to the solutions, calling for true spiritual leadership by men who are confident of the truth of God’s Word. His co-author steps in particularly in the final section, calling the saints to evangelism that speaks of a holy God, sinful men, judgment to come, and a great Saviour. One particular virtue of this book is its clarity and brevity in providing a helpful overview of present assaults on the church of Christ (from within and without), and calling her simply and plainly to stand where she should and trust whom she should and do what she should. Not ground-breaking, but earnest and helpful. (Amazon)

How many well-intentioned efforts to read systematically through the Scriptures have come a cropper on the book of Numbers (Evangelical Press, 2009, 479pp)? With his final commentary on the Pentateuch in this EP Study Commentary series, John Currid puts in the hands of believers a helpful guide not merely to get us through this book but to feed us from it. Showing how the Book of Numbers centres on the worship of the God who is present with his people in the wilderness, guiding us carefully through alternating sections of lawgiving and historical narrative with penetrating insights, and with thoughtful applications along the way, the author equips us to profit from our tour through the wilderness to the borders of Canaan. Currid says no more than needs to be said, never allowing us to get bogged down in multiple competing perspectives but rather giving a clear and concise understanding of the text. Knowledge and wisdom combine to make this a very helpful addition to any library for those who need stimulating direction through this portion of God’s Word. (WTS/Amazon)

Another helpful commentary in this line, in Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (Evangelical Press, 2010, 255pp) Iain Duguid illuminates the three too-often neglected prophets who close out our Old Testament. Taking particular pains to demonstrate how much these authors are taken up with the Messiah and his coming, and with this series’ familiar pattern of clear exegesis and crisp application, Duguid uses these low-key authors in low-key settings to highlight lessons for churches like ours, too readily obsessed with glitz and glamour, who forget that our true glory is God with us, whether or not that glory is publicly displayed. Preachers or leaders of Bible studies or Christians working through their Bibles – anyone who has wondered at Haggai’s concern for God’s house, stumbled through Zechariah’s visions, or felt that they are missing something in Malachi – will find clear instruction, helpful guidance and heartening exhortation in this volume. Where many readers might feel that they are not quite getting what they might, here is a commentator who takes us by the hand, and – without treating us like nincompoops – helps to clear a way for us to enjoy the treasures of these men of God. (Amazon/Monergism)

Why On Earth Did Jesus Come? by John Blanchard (Evangelical Press, 2009, 40pp) is a booklet about Jesus Christ. Debunking all manner of myths and mistakes along the way, it sets out the reality of and reason for the incarnation of Christ with the author’s customary clarity and logic. Drawing constantly upon the gospel records, setting forth the truth and addressing objections along the way, Mr Blanchard builds to a punchy climax with a call to acknowledge the truth, repent of sin and believe in the Son of God. If you are giving gifts this Christmas, and want to add to the stack something that will bring Christ to bear, Why On Earth? would make a very useful addition to your Christmas stockpile. (WTS/Amazon/Monergism)

Born of the author’s own excitement at his discovery of the overarching theme of Scripture and how the great mountain chain of God’s covenants binds the whole together, From the Garden of Eden to the Glory of Heaven: God’s Unfolding Plan and How it Relates to Christians Today by James R. Williamson (Calvary Press, 2008, 240pp) sets out to bring that perspective within the reach of all of God’s people. With simplicity and balance, James Williamson treads along that mountain range, introducing the concept of covenants and zeroing in on God’s redemptive promises and purposes, before leaping from peak to peak, from Noah to Abraham to Moses to David and then to the New Covenant in Christ Jesus, before driving home some further lessons. The whole is thoroughly orthodox. The author’s Baptistic convictions naturally colour his approach at certain points; many will appreciate a book on covenant theology grounded in such a perspective. Enthusiastic and earnest, this is an excellent and thought-provoking introduction to covenant theology. As such, readers should not anticipate engagement at every point of contention and debate. This is essentially a positive book from which – caught up with the splendour of God’s saving plan – readers can progress to further study and rumination. (Amazon)

Piety’s Wisdom: A Summary of Calvin’s Institutes with Study Questions (RHB, 2010, 368pp), a series of studies by J. Mark Beach through Calvin’s Institutes, would be a useful tool for those who might have missed the opportunity that the 500th anniversary year provided to dig into the man himself, or those who felt that they simply lacked the capacity to do so. After brief introductions to man and book, Beach guides us through the Institutes in brief segments, beginning with an orientation (allowing us to follow the flow and development of the whole) and then a summary of each chapter of Calvin’s work (sometimes further subdivided for ease of understanding). Each unit ends with questions for reflection and discussion. Eschewing the infantile exercise in basic comprehension provided by many study questions, here we face demands for genuine and critical engagement with Calvin’s thought. All in all, whether for groups or individuals, this would be an excellent means of studying the Institutes at a slight distance, or as an insightful guide alongside them. (WTS/Amazon/Monergism)

The Philippian church is sometimes considered as the one model church to which an epistle was written. While not denying the blessings that they had received, Hywel Jones also recognises that Paul had good reason for writing to the Philippian church, and it is this perspective which guides his straightforward but helpful commentary, For the Sake of the Gospel (Philippians Simply Explained) (Evangelical Press, 2010, 167pp). Determined to protect the church from stagnation, division and declension, Paul writes a letter of instruction and exhortation, urging these saints to walk worthy of the gospel. While the language is generally simple, the occasional knotty problems of exegesis and application quickly reveal the author’s depth of understanding and degree of insight. Thus guided, we are able to enjoy this commentary communicating a stirring call to hold fast to the truth and to live a life of godliness. Those looking for a simple overview of the letter, or an easy introduction to it, might confidently start here. (Amazon)

Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway [RE:LIT], 2010, 176pp) is Don Carson’s attempt to get to the heart of the gospel and to address it in brief scope. He does so with a written record of five addresses on significant passages of Scripture concerning Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. Delivered at a conference in Seattle, these still have something of the flow and form of speech. As we would expect from Mr Carson, there is a wide range of reference outside the Scriptures, helpfully illustrating the text or its principles, and demonstrating the continuing applicability of those principles to our world. Occasional passages are particularly penetrating and powerful. In one sense, there is nothing new here, nor should there be; rather, we have the simple presentation of the scandal of the cross, the gospel of the crucified Christ which remains the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. (WTS/Amazon/Monergism)

This careful and colourful biography makes splendid reading: carefully constructing the context into which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born and in which he was raised, tracing the influences intellectual and spiritual which contributed to his formation as man and Christian, and considering the principles and practices which he inculcated and worked out in his own life and the life of others, in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010, 608pp) Eric Metaxas gives what seems an honest view of this complex, even contradictory character. For the most part, while the author’s esteem of his subject is evident, readers are left to make their own judgement of Bonhoeffer’s faith and life. His historical circumstances, theological convictions, intellectual pursuits, ecumenical commitments, educational dreams, spiritual aspirations and political actions are all laid out in their intricate relationships, revealing both harmony and tension. So much here to commend, so much to admire, and yet at points serious questions to raise. A book to engage both the mind and heart. (WTS/Amazon)

Wider reading

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Under the pseudonym John Ploughman, Charles Spurgeon published earthy articles in his magazine, The Sword & Trowel, which were later collected into two volumes, John Ploughman’s Talk and John Ploughman’s Pictures.  These two volumes are themselves now collected to form Spurgeon’s Practical Wisdom: Or, Plain Advice for Plain People (Banner of Truth, 2009).  They were intended to be humorous (but not light), simple, colourful and blunt.  Read today, the stance may seem a little condescending and the humour lacking subtlety, but the points are still made very effectively.  Spurgeon takes broad swipes at all manner of vice, and stands up without apology for virtue.  It is practical religion, with the emphasis on practical, although the Christian underpinnings of the proposed morality float readily and naturally to the surface.  There seems to be something distinctively Victorian about the relentless nature of his genius, and it can be a little overwhelming at times (paragraph after paragraph of the same point made using waves of different illustrations and analogies) but it is also the reason for its effectiveness.  As a study in how to communicate truth to a chosen audience, it is brilliant.  Spurgeon seeks to enter the world of those to whom he is writing – adopting the appropriate frame of reference, vocabulary, tone, humour – and use it as a means to do good men’s souls and bodies.  It should be read, then, in two minds: with one, we ought to take the plain advice; with the other, we should learn how to give it.  In both regards, Spurgeon serves us well.

Not a new book, this, but a reset volume: John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Banner of Truth, 2009).  This work has been available for a long time, but the previous edition had somewhat poor paper quality and binding which was quite quickly chewed up (I replaced mine at least once).  For those who do not know it, it is divided into two parts.  For some, the second part is the easier introduction, being a little more popular in style, and consisting of ten short chapters taking readers through the ordo salutis (order of salvation, the sequence of events in God’s saving sinners).  The first part – on the necessity, nature, perfection and extent of the atonement – is not more or less profound but is denser and perhaps a little less accessible to those not accustomed to Murray’s style.  The author never wastes a word: there is no flab in his writing, which makes it brief and clear and crisp (a tonic for the mind) but also means that concentration and acuity are required for reading.  Some will appreciate this, others will find it more difficult.  For all willing and able to penetrate to the substance, this volume will prove a rich treat, a draught of pure, cold water when there is so much brackish fluid swilling around.  Murray reaches the heart by way of the mind: here we see that the truth makes us free indeed, free not least to honour and adore the God of our so great salvation.  This ought to be required reading for all who desire to know the how and why of God’s gracious dealings with sinners, and this newly reset edition will make it all the more accessible and attractive.  If you already have it, consider investing afresh in this clear and readable edition.  If you do not have it, you have no choice: go and get one.

Fire from Heaven: Times of Extraordinary Revival (Evangelical Press, 2009) by Paul E. G. Cook is a curious combination of topical and historical material, in which instruction and application is interwoven with and arises from historical detail.  Mr Cook focuses on the period 1791-1840 and the unusual works of God that occurred in England during this time.  Assuming much of the vocabulary of revival, he contends that revival does not differ from the essence of normal religious experience, but in its degree, both intensively and extensively (he insists that revival is a Christian experience, but does tend to focus on its impact outside the church).  Mr Cook rightly emphasises a ‘supernaturalistic’ view of salvation, bemoaning the impact of Finneyism, and calling saints not to seek revivals, but to seek God himself.  The historical material is enlightening and moving, carefully researched and clearly laid out.  The didactic material is earnest, even passionate, but some readers would doubtless wish to nuance or disagree with Mr Cook.  What none will deny is the vibrant and vigorous godliness, tinged with a sense of eternity, which clearly characterises the subjects of this stimulating book, and which ought to stir up a sense of holy desire for more of the same in every true saint.

Kevin DeYoung gives us a title that I suspect no one else ever will: Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will (Or, How to Make A Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc. (Moody Publishers, 2009).  This is a straightforward, popular treatment concerning the knowledge of God’s will for our lives.  DeYoung attempts to make plain what we can know and how we can know it, and what we can’t know and how to get on with life anyway.  He exposes some of the nonsense (however well-meaning) identified in his elaborate sub-sub-title, and urges God’s children to get on with doing the known will of their heavenly Father, not looking for guidance where God has never given it, but using sanctified common-sense to work hard and plan well and trust fully.  Some will feel that he is not quite ‘spiritual’ or mystical enough, while others will fear that he has left open a door for continuing revelation (he has, incidentally, after a fashion).  Probably a book to read yourself before you put it into the hands of others, to ensure that it meets the particular needs in question, but a helpful, short, straightforward, straight-talking volume.

James Fraser of Brea was born in the north of Scotland in 1639 and converted shortly before his twentieth birthday, though not without much agony of soul.  From his longer autobiographical memoir is extracted this Pocket Puritan volume, Am I A Christian? (Banner of Truth, 2009).  Here he identifies twenty “objective grounds” for doubting whether he is genuinely converted, with his Scripture-soaked answers to each.  Those who suffer similar trials and wrestle with similar doubts and fears may find here either specific answers to their own particular questions, or at least a sound method to follow in examining their own standing.  There is some sweet balm here for wounded souls, for Fraser pulls no punches in dealing with the stark realities both of sin and of grace.  (Fraser’s use of the word ‘conversion’ is interesting, and also treated here, and there is a brief biographical note.)

I recommend unstintingly Psalm 119 For Life: Living Today in the Light of the Word by Hywel R. Jones (Evangelical Press, 2010).  Having its genesis in a series of expository studies in the Chapel of Westminster Seminary (California), our author walks us through each stanza of Psalm 119.  Each chapter is brief, with a veiled but evident deep understanding of the text supporting the clear and pointed explanation and application.  Dr Jones brings out the full-orbed relationship of a saved man and his saving Lord, not least in the matter of faith and obedience.  Excellent as a daily devotional, a pattern for Bible study, or just as a refresher for the soul, this is a volume of rich poetry and rich piety.  Take it up and read it.

The One True God (3rd edition, revised and expanded, Granted Ministries Press, 2009) is a spiral-bound but solid workbook by Paul David Washer intended to bring readers face-to-face with the God of the Bible: the student effectively undertakes his own exegesis.  The questions demand Scriptural answers, the concern being to hear what God says about himself.  At the same time – and it is plain from the very structure of this work – there is an evident appreciation of the stream of historic Biblical Christianity, within which this volume stands.  Fourteen lessons deal with specific attributes of the Godhead, asking questions, giving space for answers, and providing a brief summary.  More technical vocabulary is explained where necessary.  The section on the names of God is a little gem.  Perhaps best for group study under a competent guide, this also function well as an individual workbook, and well serves the intended aim of promoting an encounter with God through his Word.

One of many Calvin biographies that was produced in the quincentennial year, Bruce Gordon’s Calvin (Yale University Press, 2009) is an outstanding contribution to the field.  Thoroughly-researched and broad of scope, situating Calvin in the theological, cultural and political currents of his time, this stands very well alongside older and other more current biographies.  It is a modern treatment in the sense that hero-worship is very far from the agenda.  Indeed, one sometimes gets the sense that – so keen is our author to avoid hagiography – there is something that borders on relish when the feet of clay are uncovered.  Determined to be fair and frank, Dr Gordon provides a corrective to more defensive biographies but sometimes falls short in the empathy/sympathy department.  There is more evident interest in the man than in his God.  Again, this may be because, to write what certainly deserves to be one of the academic standards, one is obliged to bow to the standards of the academy.  Still, Calvin the man and the minister are here before us, warts and all.  We see Calvin as he saw himself and as others saw him, and should be left delighted in and grateful for the enduring kingdom which Christ himself rules.

The new Calvinism considered

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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.

The Westminster Conference 2009: “Calvin, Geneva and Revival”

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Westminster Conference 2009The Westminster Conference for 2009 – “Calvin, Geneva and Revival” – will take place later this year on Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th December at the Whitefield Memorial Church in Tottenham Court Road, London.  The brochure will be mailed out shortly, but you can download a pdf copy here (or click the picture on the right) which can be printed out.

The schedule for the conference is as follows, God willing:

  • John Calvin’s agenda: issues in the separation with Rome (Garry Williams)
  • Calvin as commentator and theologian (Don Carson)
  • 1859 – a year of grace (Stephen Clark)
  • Elizabeth and Calvin (Robert Oliver)
  • Darwin before and after (Ken Brownell)
  • The Moravians and missionary passion (Bruce Jenkins)

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 7 October 2009 at 16:26

Bruce Gordon on Calvin

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I spotted this a few weeks ago, and have had it brewing in the basket ever since, waiting hopefully for it to come down in price.  It isn’t dropping, which is more than a little grievous.

It is especially disappointing given that Sean Lucas has just given Calvin a glowing review.

I hope that this book receives wide notice, not only among Reformation specialists and theological students, but especially among educated laypeople. Many of our people in Reformed and Presbyterian churches are woefully ignorant of Calvin’s contribution; the few that know something about him are as likely to idolize him as to understand him. Bruce Gordon’s Calvin is a marvelous corrective to both faults: informative, accessible, and realistic, it is the book to give to interested church members. And read with the eyes of faith, Gordon helps us move from seeing Calvin as a hero to seeing the True Hero, Jesus himself, whom Calvin loved and served.

If you have been reading up on this man of God, it sounds like you have another volume to add to your wish/reading list (that’s the list of books you wish you had, the list of books you will read, or the list of books you wish you will get round to reading).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 28 August 2009 at 22:59

Posted in Book notices

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“Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters 1-7)”

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Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters 1-7) by John Calvin, trans. Rob Roy McGregor

Banner of Truth, 2008 (688pp, hbk)

john-calvin-4In the midst of the proliferation of material related to Calvin being published around the quincentenary you will find scattered a few gems of original Calvin.  One such is this collection of John Calvin’s sermons on the opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles.  It is sadly incomplete, not only in the sense that we can proceed no further than chapter 7, but also insofar as one or two of the sermons in the series are also missing.  This does not impede the reader so much as it disappoints him.

The translation – at least from the perspective of a reader only in the English – seems rich, even ripe.  The bite and drive of Calvin’s simple vocabulary, plain delivery, and sometimes sarcastic humour are all well communicated.  No hearer of these sermons – and no reader either – is left in any doubt as to what the Word of God says and more, what it means, and further, what it means to and for me right here, right now.  Faithfulness to the text marks each sermon.  Some verses lend themselves to object lessons in particular doctrines or issues, but without disrupting the even flow of regular exposition.  While at points Calvin shows himself a man of his times, one rarely gets the sense that he is forcing anything upon the text.  The reader is stunned (or, at least, this reader was) by the occasional insight into a particular verse that stops him in his tracks and makes him ponder the truth, and where it takes him.

The organisation of the material is also fascinating.  Calvin is not without order and system in his individual sermons, but they are not usually structured in the obvious way we often see in, say, Spurgeon.  There is rather a natural progression in line with the text, with series of points attaching to a particular issue raised rather than framing the whole.

Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles (Calvin)While there are some typical emphases – the accurately low view of man’s heart, the importance of the church, the demand for consistent holiness of life, the demand for faith, the role of the Spirit, the centrality of Christ – the ignorant or prejudiced reader may be surprised at the breadth of Calvin’s reach.  This is the advantage of being governed by the text.  The preacher does not generally come across as riding particular hobby-horses, although – as one would expect – the Roman Catholic communion presents a ready and often-struck target (interestingly, yoked more often that you might anticipate with Islam, as representative of gross spiritual dangers).  Reading Calvin’s pulpit addresses gives one a sense of what Calvin’s ‘Calvinism’ really sounded and looked like, what it looked for and demanded, what it pointed to and exalted.  That is not to deny that a coherent, Scriptural system lies behind the whole, but rather to highlight the range and tone of this attempt to bring into being a full-orbed Biblical Christianity.

There are lessons here for Christians as Christians, in what it means to live in a fallen world.  There are lessons for preachers as preachers: lessons in a natural and easy style, in a close and pointed application of the truth, in the manifestation of one’s own humanity in preaching, and in how to close a sermon with a prayer that captures the nuggets of gold panned in the course of one’s exposition.

In short, this collection will leave you ready for more.  It will leave you regretting the sermons that are missing, and the fact that we have nothing beyond chapter seven.  It might, and should, whet the readers appetite for more of Calvin, and those who – like him – are governed by their Bibles in both the arc and the detail of exposition, seeking after Christ and seeking to make him known in the minds, hearts and lives of those whom they serve.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 21 August 2009 at 12:36

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