More on the new Calvinism

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I don't want to steal Rick Phillips' thunder, and I don't believe I will be trampling over his toes. However, I should also like to pick up on John Piper's lecture at Westminster, but from a different angle. Here are the twelve characteristics of the new Calvinism that Piper identified, as recorded by the friends at the Reformed Forum.
1.    The New Calvinism, in its allegiance to the inerrancy of the Bible, embraces the biblical truths behind the five points (TULIP), while having an aversion to using the acronym or any other systematic packaging, along with a sometimes qualified embrace of limited atonement. The focus is on Calvinistic soteriology but not to the exclusion or the appreciation of the broader scope of Calvin's vision.
2.    The New Calvinism embraces the sovereignty of God in salvation, and in all the affairs of life in history, including evil and suffering.
3.    The New Calvinism has a strong complementarian flavor as opposed to egalitarian, with an emphasis on the flourishing of men and women in relationships where men embrace a call to robust, humble, Christ-like servant leadership.
4.    The New Calvinism leans toward being culture-affirming rather than culture-denying, while holding fast to some very culturally alien positions, like positions on same-sex practice and abortion.
5.    The New Calvinism embraces the essential place of the local church. It is led mainly by pastors, has a vibrant church-planting bent, produces widely-sung worship music, and exalts the preached word as central to the work of God locally and globally.
6.    The New Calvinism is aggressively mission-driven, including missional impact on social evils, evangelistic impact on personal networks, and missionary impact on unreached peoples of the world.
7.    The New Calvinism is inter-denominational with a strong (some would say oxymoronic) Baptistic element.
8.    The New Calvinism includes charismatics and non-charismatics.
9.    The New Calvinism puts a priority on pietism or piety in the Puritan vein, with an emphasis on the essential role of affections in Christian living, while esteeming the life of the mind and being very productive in it, and embracing the value of serious scholarship. Jonathan Edwards would be invoked as a model of this combination of the affections and the life of the mind more often than John Calvin, whether that's fair to Calvin or not.
10.    The New Calvinism is vibrantly engaged in publishing books and even more remarkably in the world of the internet, with hundreds of energetic bloggers and social media activists, with Twitter as the increasingly default way of signaling things new and old that should be noticed and read.
11.    The New Calvinism is international in scope, multi-ethnic in expression, culturally diverse. There is no single geographic, racial, cultural governing center. There are no officers, no organization, nor any loose affiliation that would encompass the whole. I would dare say that there are outcroppings of this movement that nobody (including me) in this room has ever heard of.
12.    The New Calvinism is robustly gospel-centered, cross-centered, with dozens of books rolling off the presses, coming at the gospel from every conceivable angle, and applying it to all areas of life with a commitment to seeing the historic doctrine of justification, finding its fruit in sanctification personally and communally.
I have a particular interest in this because, as some may be aware, a few months ago Evangelical Press published a short study of mine called The New Calvinism Considered: A Personal and Pastoral Assessment (Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk). In it, I set out to consider the characteristics of the new Calvinism, offer some commendations, and then identify some cautions and concerns, before offering some conclusions.

Of course, it is vital to remember that the new Calvinism is not monolithic. John Piper is a key spokesman, but not the sole spokesman, so his assessment may not be endorsed by everyone else who carries the label of the new Calvinism. Indeed, we should also take into account the fact that what we label Calvinism, up to the end of the 20th century, could hardly be considered monolithic either. Beyond that, we must maintain some awareness of continuity and discontinuity between what many will call the old Calvinism and what is generally described as the new Calvinism.

Here I try to map Piper's assessment - "twelve features [not unique and exclusive distinctives] of the movement as I see it" which are, he said, "not dividing lines" between the old and the new Calvinism, matters of separation - over mine for the purpose of a very brief analysis. I understand that we are not always saying the same things, but it is interesting to look at the points of contact.

I suggested that the characteristics of the new Calvinism were:

  • Calvinism that owes a great deal to Edwards, and - in some - offers more than a nod to Amyraut. (Piper #1 and #2)
  • Characters (or figureheads, personalities, celebrities or gurus, depending on how pejorative a label you wish to apply, or what kind of a follower you are dealing with).
  • Conglomeration - it is a movement of coalitions, of conferences, of networks, and of networks of networks, numbers of men and churches operating together. (Piper #7 and #11)
  • Consolidation - a settling over time.

Then there were six qualified commendations:

  • New Calvinists set out to be Christ-oriented and God-honouring. (Piper #1 and #2)
  • The new Calvinism is in many respects a grace-soaked movement. (Piper #1, #2, #9 and #12)
  • The new Calvinism is an avowedly missional movement. (Piper #6, #11 and #12)
  • The new Calvinism is substantially a complementarian movement. (Piper #3)
  • New Calvinists tend to be both immersed and inventive. (Piper #4 and #10)
  • The new Calvinism is committed in principle to expository preaching. (Piper #5, #7 and #12)

Then six nuanced cautions and concerns:

  • A tendency in many new Calvinists to pragmatism and commercialism. (Piper #4, #5, #10 and #11)
  • There is in much of the new Calvinism an unbalanced view of culture. (Piper #4, #6, #10 and #11)
  • Many within new Calvinism manifest a troubling approach to holiness (incipient antinomianism and confusion about the nature of sanctification). (Piper #9)
  • There is within the new Calvinism a potentially dangerous ecumenism. (Piper #7 and #11)
  • For many new Calvinists there is a genuine tension with regard to spiritual gifts. (Piper #8)
  • A degree of arrogance and triumphalism in some new Calvinists.

I am not going to rehash all these here or offer particular conclusions (that is what the book is for). I must admit that - in the face of some reviews which suggested that my assessment lacked nuance (and I admitted all along that mine was a necessarily broad brush treatment) - there is some amusement in the fact that John Piper has suggested so much of the same substance with similarly and necessarily broad strokes.

What is of more interest in this comparison is that, despite the similarity of substance, there is a real difference of emphasis and appreciation. This is significant at times. For example, to choose a stark instance, there is agreement that the new Calvinism includes charismatics and non-charismatics. To Mr Piper and to many new Calvinists, that is evidently a neutral feature; to me and to others, that would be a matter of genuine concern. I do not know that that is a matter decided by one's allegiance to what is called old or new Calvinism.

For the record, I do not think of myself as an old Calvinist. Neither do I think of myself as a new Calvinist, and was somewhat interested that a number of those who have interacted with the book suggested that I was a de facto new Calvinist. That said, as a reasonably young Calvinist, I am an interested party, with a vested and sincere interest in the glory of God and the good of my fellow believers. If these two assessments, from different perspectives (and very different levels of prominence, opportunity and gift, lest anyone should think that I am suggesting parity), show anything, it is that there is at least a measure of agreement on what is prominent within the new Calvinism.

What remains, of course, is the disagreement about how much has been carried over, and what has been added, and how healthy or otherwise these features will prove to be. I have my own hopes and fears. I think that history suggests that many of these questions will be answered, one way or the other, not in the next thirty months, but in the next thirty years.
Posted March 20, 2014 @ 5:04 PM by Jeremy Walker
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