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.

_______

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

__________

*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.

 

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “evaluating the new calvinism

  1. I read this book by Jeremy Walker a while back. I found it so delicately nuanced, so desperately concerned to pull every punch before the author could even think of delivering it, that I was left with the unsatisfied feeling of not knowing whether he held any firm opinions on his subject and indeed wondering why he had attempted to write on the new Calvinism at all.

    Like

  2. I kind of agree – by the time you’ve ploughed through the preface and the first three chapters, it’s a bit like the soft play version of American football – not just the shoulder pads, chest protectors and helmets but also carefully positioned landing mats and every possible corner rounded off.

    But it doesn’t stop him making some fairly devastating comments. Even in the chapter of commendations, what he gives with one hand – they’re virtuously committed to complementarianism – he takes away with the other – female deacons, hairy Neanderthal chest-beating machismo, a puerile and ugly obsession with sex and sexuality…

    And if you do persevere to the chapter of concerns, the tone is always perfectly civilised but the content is impossible to misinterpret –
    * preaching informed in some circles by ‘explicit encouragement to study the methods and mannerisms of worldly entertainers’
    * incipient antinomianism, as if ‘we follow Christ but that is not related to embracing and obeying the ten commandments,’ plus ‘a false dichotomy is being established between faith and duty or effort’
    * on various notorious doctrinal disputes, ‘the silence was staggering. TGC – unelected, unanswerable to any but themselves, not a church, not a denomination, not much that can very easily be pinned down – essentially gave their imprimatur to some of this by a failure properly to censure it, and in so doing risked (and quite possibly achieved) a staggering and dangerous level of confusion and obfuscation among the many with whom their words (or lack of them) carry much weight’
    * keeping quiet on charismatic gifts to give the impression of nice happy unity
    * arrogance and triumphalism, which ‘can quickly breed overconfidence, even brashness… bombastic pronunciations about targets reached in church planting programmes … are par for the course’

    Juxtaposed with all the niceness, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that this isn’t so much YRR as NRR, not really reformed, but it’s not a verdict delivered out of mere cantankerousness.

    Like

  3. THEY BELIEVE THE BIBLE…..? BY STEVE FINNELL

    THE QUESTION: Do you believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God?

    THE ANSWER: Far too many believers in Christ say they believe the Bible is God’s word, however, they believe parts of it have been mistranslated and they assert that there any many contradictions and errors.

    WHAT PARTS OF THE BIBLE DO THEY BELIEVE?

    THEY BELIEVE: God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1)

    THEY DON’T BELIEVE: That God is smart enough to guide men to accurately translate the Bible.

    THEY BELIEVE: The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. (John14)

    THEY DON’T BELIEVE: The Word when He said, “Has been baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16)

    THEY BELIEVE: Naaman had his leprosy washed away by dipping in the water of the Jordan river, seven times. (2Kings 5:1-14)

    THEY DON’T BELIEVE: That Saul had his sins washed away by being baptized in water, one time. (Acts 22:16)

    THEY BELIEVE: That Jesus walked on water. (Mark 6:45-48)

    THEY DON’T BELIEVE: That Jesus washed the church using water and the word, sanctifying , cleansing her, making her holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27)

    THE BELIEVE: That God destroyed all flesh on the earth with the waters of the great flood; except for Noah and his family. (Genesis Chapters 7&8)

    THE DON’T BELIEVE: That God saves men with the waters of baptism. (1Peter 3:20-21)

    THEY BELIEVE: That God made an axe head of iron float in water. (2 Kings 6:1-7)

    THEY DON’T BELIEVE: That being baptized into Christ refers to water baptism. (Galatians 3:26-27)

    THEY BELIEVE : That the Lord parted the waters of the sea so the sons of Israel could cross on dry land. (Exodus 14:21-22)

    THEY DON’T BELIEVE: That believers were crucified with Christ when they were buried in the watery grave of baptism. They don’t believe that the body of sin was done away with at the point of water baptism. (Roman 6:3-11)

    THEY BELIEVE: That Jesus performed a miracle by turning the water into wine. (John 2:1-11)

    THEY DON’BELIEVE: Jesus when He spoke of water baptism as being part of the new birth. (John3:5)

    THEY BELIEVE: God gave the power to Moses to strike the rock at Horeb to make water flow from the rock. (Exodus 17:1-6)

    THEY DON’T BELIEVE: Being buried with Christ in water baptism results in forgiveness of all transgressions. (Colossians 2:12-13)

    THEY BELIEVE: That God split the hollow place that is in Lehi so that water came out and Samson could drink. (Judges 15:16-19)

    THEY DON’BELIEVE: That three thousand, on the Day of Pentecost, were baptized in water in order to have their sins forgiven. (Acts 2:37-38)

    THE BELIEVE: That the Lord provided water without rain for Jehoshaphat. (1 Kings 3:16-17)

    THEY DON’T BELIEVE: That God uses water for the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5)

    THEY BELIEVE: That all Scripture is inspired by God. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

    THEY DON’T BELIEVE: That God’s word endures forever as recorded in the Bible. (1 Peter 1:23-25)

    THEY BELIEVE: That man shall live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:4)

    THEY DON’T BELIEVE: That man should live by every word in the Bible because it is filled with errors, contradictions, and has been corrupted by man’s biases in various translations.

    You can either trust God to provide an inerrant translation of His word or you can trust none of the Bible.

    THE BIBLE IS NOT A THEOLOGICAL BUFFET FROM WHICH TO CHOOSE THE DOCTRINES THAT SUPPORT YOUR OPINIONS!

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY BLOG. http://steve-finnell.blogspot.com

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s