evaluating the new calvinism

Jeremy Walker’s recent book on the ‘New Calvinism’ is a useful and, as far as I can tell, accurate overview of this movement. By sometimes seeming to bend over backwards to be even handed, The New Calvinism Considered gives as warm an appreciation as could be hoped for, while delivering some pungent criticisms where deserved.

The so called New Calvinism is a conglomeration of big personalities with huge followings of mainly college age young people, mainly in the US, enjoying a sort of rediscovery of broadly Reformed theology in a contemporary (technological and cultural) setting.

Walker’s short book devotes a chapter to identifying characteristics that can be commended. These include the sincere intention to glorify God, joyful enthusiasm about grace, concern to reach the lost, commitment to ‘biblical manhood and womanhood,’ willingness to use cutting edge technology to consume and disseminate theological material, and valuing expository preaching. Walker makes these six commendations warmly and frankly, although not always unqualifiedly.

There follows a chapter of concerns. These include a tendency to pragmatism and commercialism, an unbalanced view of culture, a troubling approach to holiness, a potentially dangerous ecumenism, a tension with regard to spiritual gifts, and a degree of triumphalism. Walker raises these six concerns as gently as can be imagined.

So what characterises Walker’s treatment throughout is its evident striving for scrupulous fairness. There is a sense that his criticisms are offered with the greatest reluctance, and that a more positive verdict would have been much more to his liking. His is a painstakingly diplomatic assessment, where the objections are wrung out of him – not, you understand, that he regrets taking a stand for more biblical doctrines and practices, but more that he earnestly wants to avoid either indulging or licensing a censorious spirit from outwith the New Calvinist movement, and is most anxious not to stumble anyone within the movement who could be persuaded to settle down into a more firmly scriptural pattern. So far as I can see, Walker succeeds admirably both in avoiding swingeing accusations that can be called misleading, and in presenting a critique that gives any readers from within the movement maximum opportunity to reflect dispassionately rather than with instant defensiveness.

There are indeed places where you might sometimes be tempted to wonder at how damming the evidence brought out about elements of the New Calvinism is, and how surprisingly lenient the eventual conclusion. But on the one hand, there is an important question of balance – of giving as much credit as can be due to people being well meaning (in wanting to honour God) and successful (in communicating their enthusiasm for grace and the gospel). On the other hand, there is the question of their trajectory and direction of travel. People who have come from a background of doctrinal vagueness or evangelical legalism or plain irreligion can be forgiven a lot more by way of faults and shortcomings as they (hopefully) progress towards clearer and clearer views of the truth than can people whose starting point is a heritage of full orbed Calvinism and associated practice which they only seem inclined to jettison.* It will be interesting to see, in time, how the trajectory of this movement develops, and how much more closely it will converge on more scriptural belief and behaviour.

One perhaps surprising feature of The New Calvinism Considered is how non-theological it is. Calvinism, you might think, is primarily a theological system, a comprehensive body of doctrine. Of course, flowing from that doctrine is a particular kind of practice, more or less consistent with the doctrine professed. But what seems to most adequately describe the New Calvinism is apparently more sociological (even tribal) than theological. The main points of reference are names and figureheads rather than creeds, doctrines, or theological positions, especially if the charismatic gifts are treated as not worth taking a view on, while complementarianism (also wishfully known as ‘biblical manhood and womanhood’) is fundamentally non-negotiable.

In fact, one of the most striking points about the New Calvinism is how barely Calvinistic it is. Walker comments on how some of the leading lights can openly profess themselves ‘four point Calvinists’ without seeming either to raise any controversy or to show any inclination to relinquish the name of Calvin, even though rejecting any of the five points by definition puts you outside the theological circle labelled Calvinism. As Walker neatly puts it, ‘while there is a very real sense in which Calvinism is more than just the five points, it is not so easy to argue that it is less than those points’ (somewhere early in chapter 2 – what’s the convention for referencing kindle texts?).**

And if Calvinism proper is defined by doctrine, there is also something more indefinable that seems to have characterised those Calvinists and Calvinistic churches who flourished prior to the advent of the New Calvinist movement. That has to do with atmospheres and attitudes, priorities and perspectives – whether someone’s orientation is predominantly heavenly or predominantly earthly. Walker discusses how the valid desire among New Calvinists to be ‘relevant and accessible’ can drift into an unhealthy striving to be constantly cutting edge. ‘Not so long ago you had to reference The Matrix (although frankly that is already a little old school) and then it was The Lord of the Rings (and that will be out of date before long, but at least we have The Hobbit to keep us going for a while) … You get a mass of cultural buzzwords, riding the wave of the latest big film series or the book that everyone is or should be talking about.’ In short, this movement, however sympathetically it’s described, leaves you with the uncomfortable feeling that it’s really actually pretty worldly – not simply that it seeks to engage with contemporary culture in innovative ways, but that it actually cares about being cool.

This is markedly different from the (five points plus) Calvinists of the past, not to mention the apostles and prophets, whose focus was always more on eternal realities than on the ephemeral trivialities that absorb people before they know the Lord. It’s not that pastors can never relax with a book or film, or that believers should never have anything to say about things of interest in the world, but more that urgency for perishing souls, your own included, generally has a tendency to make the hip and trendy fade into insignificance, just because of its fatal tendency to distract fallen minds away from the pressing claims of divine authority, blunt the edge of scripture warnings, and take the shine off the glory of gospel blessings. If you’re not in the affluent West (even, if you’re not in the US), or if you’re elderly, ill, bereaved, overworked, needy, or otherwise not very cool, most of what’s cutting edge becomes transparently superficial, unsatisfying, and ultimately irrelevant. This was understood by old time Calvinists like the McCheynes, Bonars, Milnes and Guthries of the nineteenth century – educated and sophisticated as they were, they weren’t so bothered about engaging with culture and keeping their finger on the pulse of fashionable Edinburgh compared to engaging in prayer and immersing themselves in the truth (and to call them the young, restless and reformed of their day, as I read somewhere recently, is manifestly silly, and not only because they were, actually, reformed).

Walker concludes that those outside the movement should neither embrace nor reject the New Calvinism wholesale. His hope is clearly that at least some of the people within it will soon be looking for something with more depth and more closely conformed to scriptural doctrine and practice. This is something to look forward to and pray for. At the same time, ‘old’ style Calvinism could do worse than praying for a clearer grasp of the truths most surely believed and a more consistent way of living them out in the believer’s daily walk. Everyone building on the foundation should build with care, because eventually their work will be tried and tested to see what sort it is, whether gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or stubble.

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Jeremy Walker, The New Calvinism Considered, Evangelical Press, 2013. Amazon.

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*Compare, for instance, the thousands singing two thirds traditional hymns with a piano only sometimes, as reported in the Banner of Truth of the 2014 T4G conference, with a congregation of Highlanders, twenty on a good day, who just decided one day that purity of worship had a whole new meaning, even though they were totally brought up to know better.

** Similarly there seems little to no uneasiness about the concept of ‘Christian hedonism,’ John Piper’s revision of man’s chief end in the Shorter Catechism (‘to glorify God by enjoying him for ever,’ instead of ‘to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’). Jerrold Lewis’s discussion of several years back remains the go to critique of Christian hedonism: ‘Within the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition there is a clear understanding that the chief object of the Christian experience is holiness not happiness. Happiness is the unavoidable consequence of the long and often painful process of sanctification. Even then, the pleasures that are unveiled in Christ are not of this world.

 

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back in business

So, I’ve got me a tablet. This, I’m hoping, will be a technological fix to what’s mainly a problem of time – how to fit decent thinking and writing time into a whole new way of life, especially when I’m spending what still feels like far too big a chunk out of every day just getting to and from work.

My weeks so far have gone something like this.

Day 1. Rejoice that I’ve successfully got up only 10 minutes after the alarm’s gone off so I can get breakfast and we should still make the train. When we reach the final station, practice the Commuter Shuffle, that thing you have to do when all 600 of you pile off the train at the same moment and all press with equal fervour towards the same small number of turnstile exits.

Day 2. Note on the tube that flexibility of knees and toes is improving – less of those embarrassing drunken stumbles against fellow passengers every time the train changes speed. But wish they wouldn’t call it card clash when you try paying by contactless and it charges more than one card, as it’s clearly card conspiracy.

Day 3. Do a Napoleon. Mistake the 211 bus for the 11 and end up at Waterloo. Argh. Walk back and reach the office only 40 minutes late.

Day 4. Someone steals our seat on the train! Behaviour in this commuter eat commuter world hardly gets more outrageous. Have to sit facing the wrong direction all the way in – terrible start to the day.

Day 5. Friday, hooray. Noticeably fewer people on the train and everyone leaves the office mid afternoon. Resolve to get up early every day next week…

Apart from that, the main thing I’ve learned from married life so far is the great significance of sitting down together before embarking on anything and just having a wee chat about your values and priorities. When we had the good sense to do this, we established that I hated dishes and he hated ironing, and we made a solemn pact that he would do the dishes and I would do the ironing. Now, all these months and weeks on, he faithfully, timeously and uncomplainingly does all the washing up, and I, for my part, do as little ironing as I can get away with. Really, we’re very happy together.

Well, the plan for the next wee while will be to try and post up a couple of book reviews and then maybe see about settling into a more regular blogging routine. I know I’ve aired similar ambitions in the past, so you might be as well to treat this with a degree of scepticism. The only thing that’s different this time is that I’m tentatively hoping that what I couldn’t manage in the evenings on my laptop might just become more achievable on my nifty new tablet on the train. We’ll see how long it lasts.