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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boring is fine but it has to be real

johnmurrayThere’s a post newly appeared on Old Life on the topic of conversion. It includes a suggestion (in the middle of a lengthy quotation) that rather than being a moment of crisis, ‘it could just as likely be the case that the movement from spiritual death to spiritual life is gradual and life-long.’

Since some nasty gremlin seems to be thwarting my recent attempts to post comments on Old Life, here’s a quick blog post instead.

Two things to agree with in general.

1) It’s okay not to have a testimony. It’s doctrinally wrong and pastorally unhelpful to ‘insist upon experiences and encounters and restrictions and insights’ to prove whether someone is a believer or not.

2) It’s important not to confuse the work of the Spirit with gushes of emotion. We’re saved by faith, not by feeling – by faith in Christ’s work for us, not by sensing the Spirit’s work in us. (Or as a comment on the post so aptly puts it, ‘the important thing about “faith” is not the “experience” but the object of faith.’)

But two cautions deserve a mention too.

1) It’s unhelpful to use the term ‘conversion’ to refer to the whole course of someone’s career as a believer. Our confession and catechisms distinguish between effectual calling, regeneration and sanctification. Both effectual calling and sanctification (can) take place over a period of time. But regeneration is instantaneous. It happens in a moment, a specific point in time. Whether or not it is subjectively experienced as a crisis, it is nevertheless objectively a one-off event. We can be ‘converted to God little by little’ if by conversion there you mean effectual calling. We can be ‘converted to God little by little’ if by conversion there you mean sanctification. But it is a faithful saying, unworthy of all sarcastic tone, that ‘a person is either alive or dead, and to go from the wretched state of the latter to the exalted state of the former requires a monumental form of divine intervention.’ That divine intervention is what we otherwise call regeneration, and regeneration does not happen ‘little by little, by stages.’

2) Boring is fine. Conversions don’t have to be dramatic. But conversion does have to happen. Otherwise you won’t be saved.

Many people may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved (WCF 10.3). Contrary to what is asserted in the quoted article, it has never been the case that ‘affirmative answers to questions commonly asked at a public affirmation of faith were a sufficient gauge to a man or woman’s standing before God.’ Giving the right answers is a sufficient gauge to someone’s standing within the visible church – sure. That’s right and proper, but that’s not the same as their standing before God, which is presumably what ultimately matters.

Effectual calling, as the work of God the Spirit, involves convincing us of our sin and misery, in a way different from the expedient ‘I have sinned’ of a pharaoh or the compulsive trembling of a Felix. It involves enlightening the mind spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God – which is something other than understanding the technicalities on only a theoretical level. It involves renewing the will, in such a way that the natural choice stops being sin and is instead Christ. All of this might quite likely happen ‘little by little, and by stages,’ and the point when it culminates in being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit might not be discernible either to the person being called or anyone else, but it is all qualitatively and supernaturally different both from what they themselves were like before the Spirit began to work and from anyone who the Spirit does not work in.

Whether the switchover is experienced as some awful crisis or barely perceived at all, its necessary outcome is spiritual reality in the mind, will, and affections – a renewed nature which should embrace the church, clergy, creeds, and liturgy, but which is not the product of the most reformed of creed or liturgy.

The bottom line

* The fact that Calvin uttered the words ‘we are converted to God little by little, and by stages’ does not warrant today’s Calvinists blurring the distinction between the instantaneousness of regeneration and the extended-in-time-ness of effectual calling and sanctification.

* The fact that some people misguidedly insist on dramatic conversion narratives and intense religious experiences does not warrant blurring the distinction between being unconverted and being converted, blaming some ‘revivalist impulse’ of the eighteenth century, when the teaching of our pre-existing confessional documents is so clear.

Unsearchable Riches

Unsearchable Riches - selected sermons of Rev Donald MacLeanUnsearchable Riches,’ an edited collection of sermons preached by Rev Donald MacLean, is now available to order from here:

– in your choice of ebook, paperback, or hardback.

The sermons included here range from the very good to the excellent – just the right mix of doctrine and experience, and simultaneously plain-speaking and profound.

(Disclosure of interest – I was involved in a bit of the transcription. But everyone should still rush off and order a copy straight away. And tell everyone at church who doesn’t read blogs!)

chalmers

To my astonishment I learned last week that Thomas Chalmers has been accused of both Sandemanianism and Amyraldianism.

Frankly, I’m not sure which is worse.

Does anyone know if there is any substance to these accusations? If you google, you’ll only find people with axes to grind. So don’t google. Just tell me off your own bat what you know about Chalmers and his orthodoxy.

 

the risk

Still slowly working my way through the complete set of John Owen, currently in my custody until its rightful owners reclaim it, which hopefully won’t be any time too soon.

~

Faith is, actually, taking a leap. Not a leap into the unknown, though, but into the known, the truth. It’s still heart-stopping in its awfulness though, because of how your everything depends on the truth being true. Is it safe to take God’s word at face value? And look at all your stuff you’ve got to leave behind.

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John Owen, Vol 9, p106:

In the midst of all our obedience which is our own, we must believe and accept of a righteousness which is not our own, nor at all wrought or procured by us – of which we have no assurance that there is any such thing, but by the faith we have in the promise of God: and thereupon, renouncing all that is in or of ourselves, we must merely and solely rest on that for righteousness and acceptance with God.

… [Paul] reckons up all his own duties – is encompassed with them – sees them lying in great abundance on every hand – every one of them offering its assistance, perhaps painting its face, and crying that it is gain. But saith the apostle, ‘You are all loss and dung – I look for another righteousness than any you can give me.’

Man sees and knows his own duty, his own righteousness and walking with God – he sees what it costs and stands him in. He knows what pains he has taken about it – what waiting, fasting, labouring, praying it hath cost him – how he hath cut himself short in his natural desires, and mortified his flesh in abstinence from sin. These are the things of a man, wrought in him, performed by him, and the spirit of a man knows them. And they will promise fair to the heart of any man that hath been sincere in them, for any end and purpose that he shall use them.

But now, for the righteousness of Christ – that is outside him. He sees it not, experiences it not – the spirit that is within him knows nothing of it. He has no acquaintance with it, but merely as it is revealed and proposed in the promises – wherein yet it is nowhere said to him, in particular, that it is his, and was provided for him, but only that it is so, to and for believers.

Now, for a man to cast away that which he hath seen, for that which he hath not seen – to refuse that which promises to give him a fair support in the presence of God, and which he is sure is his own, and cannot be taken from him, for that which he must venture on upon the word of promise, against ten thousand doubts, and fears, and temptations that it belongs not to him: – this the heart of a man is not easily brought unto.

Every man must make a venture for his future state and condition. The question only is, upon what he shall venture it? Our own obedience is at hand, and promises fairly to give assistance and help: for a man, therefore, wholly to cast it aside upon the naked promise of God to receive him in Christ, is a thing that the heart of man must be humbled unto. There is nothing in a man that will not dispute against this captivity of itself: innumerable proud reasonings and imaginations are set up against it, and when the mind and discursive, notional part of the mind is overpowered with the truth, yet the practical principle of the will and the affections exceedingly tumultuate against it.

But this is the law of God’s grace, which must be submitted unto, if we will walk with him. The most holy, wise, and zealous, who have yielded the most constant obedience unto God – whose good works and godly conversation have shone as lights in the world – must cast down all these crowns at the foot of Jesus, renounce all for him, and the righteousness that he hath wrought out for us. All must be sold for this pearl – all parted with for Christ.

In the strictest course of exactest obedience in us, we are to look for a righteousness wholly outside us.

certainties vs circumstances

You know that thing that happens when you read something and think it has beautifully captured a thought you’d vaguely had but could never have expressed like that, and then, on closer reading, it turns out to be saying something a bit different?

The vague thought, clumsily expressed: that faith has to rely on rock solid truths, and these truths do not include (a) the conclusions you’ve come to after attempting to interpret what particular providences mean, or (b) the marks of grace you may be able to identify internal to yourself. So, when things get confusing and disappointing, the answer is not (necessarily, or not ultimately) to struggle for greater understanding on the providential front or less failure on the personal front. The rock solid truths are things like the faithful saying that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, or the fact that God is good and does good even when it isn’t particularly enjoyable, or the fact that Christ is making continual intercession for his people, even when they are a bit rubbish. Your soul could be a barren wasteland as far as spiritual exercise goes, and in providence security and creature comforts could be crumbling all around you, but faith and hope were never meant to terminate on yourself or your providences anyway – they can only cling to the absolute certainties about the person and work of the Saviour.

What I momentarily thought was a better way of expressing all of this was another section from that book of Hugh Martin’s sermons I quoted the other day. He talks about crosses, difficulties, illness, sin, and all the other things that make it seem nonsensical for beleaguered believers to claim the status of sons and daughters of the Almighty. Asaph was perplexed by the relative lack of prosperity of the godly – Paul complained of a sense of wretchedness – how can problems like these be compatible with the “bold and firm assertion” of 1 John 3, that we are now the sons of God? So the sermon discusses at length the “candid acknowledgement” that it is not yet apparent what we shall be. “If they say that, granting we are the sons of God, we do not look like it, … frankly we admit the difficulty!”

The section itself is as follows, but as a second glance showed, it is mainly targeted against the view that God is a father to everyone in the same way, a view that was becoming popular at the time as the doctrine of God’s ‘universal fatherhood’ (on which see ideally John Kennedy’s 1869 treatise ‘Man’s Relations to God’). The bits that jumped out at me were the recognition that we need to get beyond “this sphere of dark and complicated providence,” in the search for comfort in the face of “sense, shame, and sorrow, … conflict and the cross”, and the mention of “propitiation,” which at first glance I took to be synonymous with the title of the volume, Christ For Us, and the be all and end all as far as sources of comfort and encouragement in the Christian life goes. Except that in this context, it’s more a question of “for me” personally and particularly in my own individual circumstances, than “for us” in the sense of a more general confession of what is true for the Lord’s people en masse. Which is just another way of saying that even if a believer is perfectly safe without the conscious sense of being personally justified and adopted, maximum comfort can’t be had without it.

“Be very sure that it is on the peculiar love of God, his special call, and personal fellowship with the Son that you must rest your sonship, if you would distance its security and truth from this conflict with sense, shame, and sorrow, while the glory, the victory, and the joy are not yet apparent. Vainly will you try to defend your sonship against shame and sorrow, conflict and the cross, merely on the basis of the fatherly benignity of God the Creator which is in no sense peculiar but embraces all alike. Whatever may be traced to this beneficience is visible in precisely the same earthly sphere of the world’s history in which all the pains and griefs of your earthly state reside. These pains and griefs, therefore, meeting with the general benignity of God in the self-same realm and sphere, limit its obviousness and effectiveness, and cloud with real difficulties that general Fatherhood of God. If you only rest on such paternal love, taking no hold on the special sovereign love of God in Christ Jesus, the propitiation for your sins, making no account of God’s special call, addressed personally to you, summoning you to special sonship, and not asserting by faith a special union and communion with the Eternal Son, – then you do not rise from this sphere of dark and complicated providence at all into the higher and unclouded sphere and kingdom of the Son of his love into which no counteracting doubt can come. Alas! you are helpless in the grasp of the trials and humiliations of time, and conscious, craven weakness will choke your utterance if you attempt the bold and glorious protestation, ‘Now are we the sons of God.'”