Forgive me if I don’t seem to be enamored with the new “emerging” breed of Calvinists that has cropped up and become all the rage in Reformed and conservative evangelical circles during the past 7-10 years. And forgive me if I dismiss them as five-point evangelicals and ‘sovereign-grace antinomians.’ But, frankly, based on what I have seen over the last few years, that is how I perceive them.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that the term ‘Calvinist’ now carries less of the baggage and unwarranted stigma of “cold, narrow, non-evangelistic” and even “heartless” Christianity that it did in the bad old days prior to the mid-to-late-20th-century revival of interest in the Puritans and Puritan theology. The Genevan Reformer and ‘prince of commentators’ has been much maligned and maliciously slandered for too many years by too many “Bible-believing” Christians.
What I am not glad to see is that what is being passed off to the Christian public as “new Calvinism” — i.e., a badly-needed update and remix of the “old” Calvinism — appears to me to be really just a thin veneer of Reformed doctrine applied to the existing populist hull of American evangelicalism.
The first time I heard about “New Calvinism,” was probably only about three years ago when I was doing some online searching for a Reformed theological topic. I don’t remember exactly what the topic was, but I know it had something to do with Calvinism (and probably eschatology). I came across a TIME magazine article from 2009 that mentioned New Calvinism as one of the “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” Seemed like a bit of really good news at the time.
Finally! The legacy of John Calvin is getting its due. The recognition, vindication and audience it deserves — and in a venerable old “mainstream media” outlet like TIME. At last, the seeds sown by 20th-century purveyors of predestination, election and TULIP-driven theology were starting to sprout amongst the newest generation of younger Christians. “Generation C.” Finally, rampant evangelical Arminianism had met its cultural and ecclesiastical match. Score one for our side!
But, alas, that sense of elation, gratification and vindication was short-lived. At least for me. Once I became more aware and more familiar with what some of the ‘New Calvinists’ were teaching and preaching (and in some instances, how they were preaching it) — given the more holistic covenantal Calvinism, theonomic-postmillennial-Reconstructionist theology and historic Reformed doctrine and creedal confessions that I subscribe to — I became more uncomfortable and less enchanted with the latent anti-Calvinist, antinomian and quasi-biblical aspects of it.
No small, cultish phenomenon, this. It has caught on like wildfire in some Reformed and evangelical churches. It has taken the Southern Baptist Convention by storm. (And not a perfect one, either.) It has found its way into ‘conservative’ Reformed and Presbyterian denominations. It has opened up a whole new market for charismatic continuationist theology! And it has resulted in a lot of ‘young, restless and reformed’ Christians packing non-traditional churches to hear “unchurchy” sermons preached by “unchurchy” pastors, and worship to “unchurchy” music.
What’s Going On Here?
I have first-hand experience with some of the changes wrought by New Calvinism as it finds its way into the sanctuaries, pews and pulpits (the “DNA”) of otherwise Reformed-Calvinist churches. Some of the changes are more architectural and visual rather than doctrinal. But they are subtle (and some not so subtle) and unmistakable.
First, the pews get taken out. (That’s so Old Calvinist!) Upgrading to the new, plastic, fold-up chairs. Out with those warm, inviting community and family-friendly benches. In with the new, individualistic, one-size-fits-all, pack-em-in-like-sardines-for-Jesus theater seats!
Then the accoutrements of traditional Christianity get removed, especially well-lit worship spaces. Replaced by dark, spooky, theater-like venues with all sorts of lighting effects to “enhance” the worship experience. LOUD, pulsing musical numbers combined with soft, sentimental ballads played by talented and gifted folks who transform every worship service into a garage-band, ultra-casual, youth-group-style performance. An occasional hymn, updated, for old time’s sake. “A” for effort, guys (and gals). But, whatever happened to being offered a choice between “contemporary” and “traditional” worship?
But What Are They Teaching?
Well, they’re not teaching Calvinism, that’s for sure. At least not Calvin’s Calvinism, in my opinion.
Oh, there’s talk about God’s sovereignty, grace, the depravity of man, the holiness of God, authority of the Bible, power of the Holy Spirit, transformative impact of the Gospel, etc.. Generic Calvinism. But beyond that, what’s missing is the full-orbed, rich and all-encompassing theology of historic Calvinism. The “new” version is more of a truncated, boiled-down mixture of pietism, TULIP soteriology (with a few bulbs missing) and mainstream evangelical-cultural accommodation, and a heaping helping of doctrinal ecumenism.
A Case in Point
Here is what one of New Calvinism’s pastoral frontmen, Mark Driscoll, had to say when commenting on that TIME magazine article:
FOUR WAYS ‘NEW CALVINISM’ IS SO POWERFUL
- Old Calvinism was fundamental or liberal and separated from or syncretized with culture. New Calvinism is missional and seeks to create and redeem culture.
- Old Calvinism fled from the cities. New Calvinism is flooding into cities.
- Old Calvinism was cessationistic and fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. New Calvinism is continuationist and joyful in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
- Old Calvinism was fearful and suspicious of other Christians and burned bridges. New Calvinism loves all Christians and builds bridges between them.
Now, go back and read through those four points again, slowly…
Is it just me or is this just a REALLY misinformed and badly distorted misrepresentation of “Old” vs. “New” Calvinism?
“Old Calvinism was fundamental or liberal.” “Separated from or syncretized with culture.” “Fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”
“New Calvinism is missional” “Seeks to create and redeem culture” “… is joyful in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit”
“New Calvinism loves all Christians and builds bridges between them.”
“Old Calvinism was fearful and suspicious of other Christians and burned bridges.”
A better name for this would be, “Four-Point ANTI-Calvinism”! Historically inaccurate and theologically misleading about what it claims to be a resurgence of.
In the short time that New Calvinism has been with us, it has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy and interest. Its leaders have become household names (and lightning rods) in their own right among “Bible-believing” Christians around the world. Besides Mark Driscoll, there is Albert Mohler, C.J. Mahaney, Tim Keller, and of course, New Calvinism’s “senior pastor,” John Piper, and others. Obviously, these men have all had very good and quite biblical things to say about any number of issues over the years. But there have also been some troubling aspects to their teachings and beliefs — publicly stated and publicly propagated, which means it is perfectly legitimate and valid to criticize them and ‘call them out’ on it in public — things which should dismay a good number of you, and ought to otherwise undermine some of their credibility and “disqualify” them from occupying their lofty perches as peerless, unassailable fonts of theological knowledge, as many conservative and Reformed Christians hold them out to be.
What Would Calvin Do?
‘New Calvinism’ has gained such a foothold and garnered such a sizable audience and made its formidable presence known in such a big way across the evangelical and Reformed landscape during the past decade, that I think I may take a closer look at it in future posts.
I’m just a layman. And I’ve got no “dog in the hunt” here. And I may be completely off-base in my impressions and my analysis. But I just wanted to share my two cents’ worth and voice my personal perspective on this. As a Calvinist and as a Reconstructionist.