The New Calvinism

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

TIMEA recent TIME (March 21, 2009) magazine cover story caught a lot of attention, especially among evangelical Christians. Right alongside of ideas like "Ecological Intelligence," "Africa: Open for Business" and "Reinventing the Highway" was "The New Calvinism." This short article, written by David Van Biema, the senior religion editor for TIME, is both insightful and simplistic. It is insightful because he tracks a movement that is gaining a measure of momentum. It is simplistic because the brevity of the piece doesn't allow for any serious interaction with the "ideas" that are explored. Biema writes:

If you really want to follow the development of conservative Christianity, track its musical hits. In the early 1900s you might have heard "The Old Rugged Cross," a celebration of the atonement. By the 1980s you could have shared the Jesus-is-my-buddy intimacy of "Shine, Jesus, Shine." And today, more and more top songs feature a God who is very big, while we are . . . well, hark the David Crowder Band: "I am full of earth/ You are heaven's worth/ I am stained with dirt/ Prone to depravity."

As popular as the David Crowder Band is, at least with some young Christians, I seriously doubt that we should equate the popularity of a little known band with "an idea that is changing the world right now." Van Biema then writes:

Calvinism is back, and not just musically. John Calvin's 16th-century reply to medieval Catholicism's buy-your-way-out-of-purgatory excesses is Evangelicalism's latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination's logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time's dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision.

This stereotypical representation of Calvinism is, at the very best, a "half-truth." With a name like Van Biema I would have thought the senior religion editor at TIME could have done better. (I wonder if he has a background in one of the Reformed denominations?) But this paragraph really sells the article, and thus makes it all the more interesting for many readers. The truth of American (and Dutch) Calvinism is, however, far more nuanced than this short paragraph expresses. The last line is most definitely not faithful to the confessional realities of historical Calvinism but rather to the common and popular misunderstandings of the doctrinal system this label represents.
This paragraph plainly equates Calvinism with fatalism, not with wholistic and healthy Reformed confessionalism. If I was required to believe what Van Biema calls Calvinism I would drop the label in a heartbeat. (This article seriously raises the problem with all these labels in general, thus it is one reason why I do not generally use them. Regular readers know why I do not like the pop-religious labels commonly employed in our culture; "evangelicalism," "Calvinism," "emergent," etc.)

Van Biema recovers some balance in this short piece when he concludes:

Calvinism, cousin to the Reformation's other pillar, Lutheranism, is a bit less dour than its critics claim: it offers a rock-steady deity who orchestrates absolutely everything, including illness (or home foreclosure!), by a logic we may not understand but don't have to second-guess. Our satisfaction — and our purpose — is fulfilled simply by "glorifying" him. In the 1700s, Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards invested Calvinism with a rapturous near mysticism.

The best part of this story occurs in the actual reporting that Van Biema does. His short analysis of the movement of "neo-Calvinism" is, well, quite brilliant. Here is what he writes:

Neo-Calvinist ministers and authors don't operate quite on a Rick Warren scale. But, notes Ted Olsen, a managing editor at Christianity Today, "everyone knows where the energy and the passion are in the Evangelical world" — with the pioneering new-Calvinist John Piper of Minneapolis, Seattle's pugnacious Mark Driscoll and Albert Mohler, head of the Southern Seminary of the huge Southern Baptist Convention. The Calvinist-flavored ESV Study Bible sold out its first printing, and Reformed blogs like Between Two Worlds are among cyber-Christendom's hottest links.

The article quotes Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler, an older leader among the younger neo-Calvinists: "The moment someone begins to define God's [being or actions] biblically, that person is drawn to conclusions that are traditionally classified as Calvinist." (Really? If this were so why then do so many with a genuinely classical and high view of God, such as Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, not embrace what we call Calvinism?) Van Biema then gets to the heart of this neo-Calvinist resurgence when he adds:

Of course, that presumption of inevitability has drawn accusations of arrogance and divisiveness since Calvin's time. Indeed, some of today's enthusiasts imply that non-Calvinists may actually not be Christians. Skirmishes among the Southern Baptists (who have a competing non-Calvinist camp) and online "flame wars" bode badly.

The irony here is that John Calvin was not arrogant or divisive, at least in the way so many neo-Calvinists are. John Calvin was a rather shy, retiring and generally reticent man. The real John Calvin is a lot more interesting, warts and all, than the popular neo-Calvinist stereotypes.
And those who call themselves Calvinists have always been of several types (Dutch, Swiss, French, Anglican, Scottish and American Presbyterian, American and English Puritan, Edwardsian, etc.) some fitting the portrait of these modern neo-Calvinists and some, like me, mortified by this description. (Again, the labels just don't help much when the truth is much more interesting!)

Take a much-maligned modern biblical scholar like N. T. Wright and consider my point. Wright is not a neo-Calvinist by anyone's account. Yet his exegetical and biblical work is as indebted to John Calvin (in a broad and positive sense) as any major academic New Testament scholar today. My friend Scot McKnight, who is not a Calvinist, writes of N.T. Wright's new book, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision (SPCK): NTW
"Tom Wright has out-Reformed America's newest religious zealots—the neo-Reformed—by taking them back to Scripture and to its meaning in its historical context. Wright reveals that the neo-Reformed are more committed to Tradition than to the Sacred Text. This irony is palpable on every page of this judicious, hard-hitting, respectful study."

You ask, "What is Wright saying and doing in this new book that Scot McKnight, a non-Calvinist, would praise so warmly?" Answer: He is correcting the neo-Reformed movement regarding its reading of a major biblical doctrine. He is particularly correcting John Piper's treatment of justification, which is one of weaker efforts to prop up ideas that are not a part of Paul's first-century context or the full biblical narrative, which has to include Genesis 15 and Deuteronomy 27-30 in the background to understand what Paul is saying in Romans and Galatians. (Piper began this rhetorical battle by writing The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Crossway, 2007). Piper's book, widely praised by a who's who list of the very neo-Calvinists that Van Biema's research mentions (and assumes), is so severely flawed that it staggers me to think credible people are actually excited about it. (I will write more about this issue in future blogs but my reason for citing Scot McKnight's endorsement is to show that there is a wide berth between these neo-Calvinists and those of us who are often attacked by these neo-Calvinists as non-Calvinists. The neo-Calvinists think we, many of us Reformed ministers and theologians, are not "Reformed enough." Some even think that we are dangerous because we do not say exactly what they say about justification, predestination and the church.

Young Restless
The bottom line here is that Van Biema has captured the rise of what I prefer to call "neo-Puritanism," not "neo-Calvinism." The movement that is represented by names mentioned in articles like this one, and popular books like that of Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists (Crossway, 2008), represents a very small slice of what is dubbed neo-Calvinism by religion writers and proponents alike.

Because this movement is driven by neo-Puritanism it has all the marks of previous Puritan movements without a great deal of the maturity and the historical context of the times in which these movements evolved spiritually. I am not, as some will know, an anti-Puritan. But I spent more than twenty-five years of my life within this neo-Calvinist American movement. At times I feel like these years of my life (between about age 25 and 50) so profoundly colored my thinking and living that they robbed me of spiritual fruitfulness and deep joy. I now enjoy such peace, assurance and joy that I wonder how I ever got into this kind of Calvinism.

Please read my words very carefully. I am not accusing specific people in this movement, many of whom remain my friends, of malignity or bad motives. I am not suggesting that I am, because of my own journey over the last decade, superior to them in any personal sense. My critics sometimes charge, on this blog and elsewhere, that my disagreements with neo-Calvinism sound this way. If so, please forgive me. I am simply attempting to be honest with myself while I am also trying to be critical in the most honest and helpful way that I know. Criticism of movements and leaders, done respectfully and carefully, is always right. Ad hominem and malicious character attacks are always sinful and wrong! If you want to see how this works I plead with you to read N. T. Wright's response to John Piper. He devastates Piper's arguments without turning against the man, which would have been so easy to do given how Piper wrote about him. (This book will be available in an American edition, from Inter Varsity Press, in May and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.) The simple fact is this: the majority of those who side with John Piper, and those who endorse his book, will very likely never read Wright's book. This is tragic since they will never rightly get the sense of this important pastoral and practical debate.

In discovering the catholicity of the Christian Church I was personally delivered from this strange mix of modernity and Puritanism that fostered deep personal doubt. (I was led to believe that it was a good thing to "doubt" God's grace in my life on a rather regular basis.) This mix of modernity and Puritanism gave me a deep angst toward much of evangelical Christianity. I developed a latent hostility toward all things mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox. I would never say it, but the truth is this: I felt like I was among the elect (when I wasn't led to doubt this sweet truth of comfort and assurance), the elite and the truly faithful. I was a Marine for the kingdom and everyone else, at their best, was not quite as sold-out, faithful and radical as me. I have come to believe that this type of arrogance is actually rooted in the theology and preaching of neo-Calvinism, or a mixture of modernity and Puritanism.

Van Biema ended his little article in TIME by writing:

Calvin's 500th birthday will be this July. It will be interesting to see whether Calvin's latest legacy will be classic Protestant backbiting or whether, during these hard times, more Christians searching for security will submit their wills to the austerely demanding God of their country's infancy.

That is a brilliant conclusion. "Classic Protestant backbiting" is precisely what neo-Calvinism is creating. Look at the divisions in the Southern Baptist Convention and you will see my point. (I have watched this movement for neo-Calvinism from its infancy. I personally attended the first meeting (and several more the years following) of the group that started this effort back in the 1980s. I personally knew the founder who dreamed up the idea of recovering Calvinism in the SBC and then spread the "doctrines of grace" very widely. He is now with the Lord.) Look at the quarrels between these neo-Calvinists and the various strands of emergent (and emerging) Christianity. I was also involved in the various "gospel" recovery groups which were begun, now creating large gatherings of folk who believe they are the people who are preaching and recovering the "biblical gospel." When I was involved back in the mid-1990s it was decided early on that Arminians (Wesleyans, Methodists, Pentecostals, etc.) were not welcome, along with all other Christians who were not Calvinists or Lutherans. It fascinates me now, looking back with hindsight, how these movements sought to unite conservative Lutherans and conservative Calvinists  in a growing alliance. This has not worked so well thus neo-Calvinism has no appeal to real Lutherans, rightly so. Historically these two groups were, and in some ways still are, fiercely divided! I guess if your target group is "popular" evangelicalism then you can try to unite in a common fight. It does sell books and create alliances for a new brand of evangelicalism marketed as the "old" brand.

What I personally hope and pray for is the recovery of the richer, fuller and more mature thought of John Calvin, without the neo-Puritan edges that are commonly used to present "an austerely demanding God," the God who was preached by most of the early American Puritans. Neo-Calvinism goes wrong precisely because in trying to find a God who is not too small, a truly worthy goal, it creates a church that is too small. More about this later, especially when my book, Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church, is published in early 2010 by Zondervan. If you want to read a few snippets of the material that will appear in this book check out my ACT 3 Weekly articles from the last few months of 2008. They are now archived as articles and podcasts at ACT 3 online.