Serving but Staying Off the New Calvinist Bandwagon

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Last week I began a four-part series of observations pertaining to the New Calvinism - Old Calvinism discussion.  My first post argued that Old Calvinists should be grateful for and generally happy about the New Calvinism (spurring a back-and-forth between Darryl Hart and me).  This second post will make the argument that Old Calvinists should not be threatened by or feel pressure to conform to the New.  I would offer four observations to this effect: 

1.  The numerical success of the New Calvinism is at least in large part a function of the sheer size of the ponds in which they are fishing.

2.  Like all other "movements," the New Calvinism is likely to diffuse and fragment

3.  The distinctive beliefs and practices of Old Calvinism are biblical and precious.

4.  Old Calvinists can best serve the New Calvinists by remaining who we are.

In speaking of Old Calvinism, I admit that I am using the expression loosely for the community of Calvinists generally connected with Old School Presbyterianism and their conservative Reformed Baptist counterparts.  One thinks of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and the Banner of Truth, and James Montgomery Boice and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (the host organization of this blog).  They are united by a commitment to Five-Point Calvinism, ordinary means of grace ministry, the regulative principle of worship, and a traditional elder-rule approach to church polity.  By New Calvinism, I mean the recent spread of a sovereign grace gospel into broader evangelicalism, led by figures such as John Piper, C. J. Mahaney and Mark Driscoll and exemplified by The Gospel Coalition, Sovereign Grace Ministries, and the Acts 29 church planting network.

Do many Old Calvinists do feel pressure to get with the New Calvinist program?  I think that they do, mainly because of the enthusiasm and excitement the New Calvinists generate.  New Calvinism boasts mega-conferences like T4G and Passion,  New York Times Best-Selling authors (cough, cough), and page views in the millions.  In typically pragmatic American thinking, if "they" are bringing in ten thousand and "we" are bringing in  a thousand to conferences, then "they" must be right and "we" must be outmoded or wrong.  Especially ministries with boards of directors, whose sworn duty involves financial oversight, the magnetic pull of New Calvinist style, form, and function can be very strong simply because of its outward success.

Let me offer, then, four reasons why Christians and churches in the Old Calvinism should not be threatened or pressured to conform to the New:

1.  The numerical success of the New Calvinism is at least in large part a function of the sheer size of the ponds in which they are fishing.  In other words, the world of Baptist, Charismatic, and broadly evangelical churches is exponentially larger than that of traditional Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  Their numerical success should not be seen as an indictment of now "smaller" Reformed ministries, but a measure of the broader world to which the New Calvinism has access.  Moreover, the positive energy infused into these ministries is a reflection of the impact that Reformed soteriology is making in these broader circles.  Many of us remember the impact to our own lives when we grasped that our salvation is by grace alone, giving us a refreshing assurance based on God's sovereign love.  "It was like being born again, again!" many of us have said.  Now this is happening on a broad scale outside of traditional Reformed circles through the ministry of New Calvinism preachers and writers.  We should praise the Lord for this and not feel threatened if this significant work of the Lord is being done by others rather than by us.  Moreover, we are ourselves likely to benefit from the broader influence of the New Calvinists, as new hearts and minds are drawn in our direction and come under the influence of our fully-orbed Reformed message.  A rising tide raises all ships, they say, and the influx of people to the New Calvinism can only strengthen the Old Calvinism as fresh resources are provided by God's grace.  In this respect, the New Calvinism is being used by the Lord to strengthen the Old Calvinism, making it unnecessary for those of more classically Reformed convictions to change or conform.

2.  Like all other "movements," the New Calvinism is likely to diffuse and fragment, so that "jumping on the bandwagon" may not be the wisest choice even for pragmatists.  Old Calvinists point out weaknesses and dangers in the New, and these weaknesses are likely to play out in negative ways.  Jim Cassidy has written what I think is a cogent statement of forces likely to undermine the New Calvinism.  He identifies continuing revelation, non-confessionalism, church polity, sacraments, and eschatology.  Some of these problems were present in Old Calvinist circles and have led to diffusion and fragmenting among us.  The same is likely to happen in New Calvinism both for good and for ill.  In fact, the fragmenting has already started, representing both diffusion and a positive clarification of doctrine.  Perhaps most notable was the resignation of Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald from The Gospel Coalition in 2012.  Kevin DeYoung recently noted that "some of the networks in the movement probably don't actually belong in the same movement and some of the popular voices in the movement may not really be singing from the same sheet of music." 

One factor noted by this blog has been the problem of celebrity-based ministries.  To the extent that New Calvinism is driven by the aggressive marketing of celebrity figures, it is likely to lead away from wholesome, sound spirituality.  Of course, the Old Calvinism had its celebrities as well.  Is one a "celebrity minister" if God has granted influence in the broader church by means of extraordinary gifts and leadership?  If so, then George Whitefield was no less a celebrity than James Boice or D. A. Carson.  In this sense, there are always "celebrity" figures, i.e., those whose gifts and ability are celebrated.  There is nothing wrong with this, although it does tend to a marketing of celebrity status, as any conference chairman today is keenly aware.  The chief problem is a much more noxious "celebrity" phenomenon, where celebrity is not merely an unavoidable byproduct, but where the chief aim of the "ministry" is to promote the celebrity status of its public figure.  This kind of "celebrity" approach will and does lead to unbiblical, dishonest, and spiritually-damaging forms of spiritual tyranny and crass marketing.  The fact that some of this is seen in New Calvinism (as it was in some of the Old Calvinism), should not be used to malign zealous, godly servants who are being much used by the Lord.  I do think, however, that the warnings about celebrity often issued on this blog by Carl Trueman and others are worth reflecting on, even among those who are not themselves guilty of its grossest forms.

3.  The distinctive beliefs and practices of Old Calvinism are so biblical and precious that they deserve to be held fast.  The main reason why Old Calvinists should not be threatened or pressured by the momentum and enthusiasm attached to New Calvinism is that our distinctives involve such precious truths and practices.  Five Point Calvinism is both true and vitally significant (yes, including Limited Atonement!).  Biblically regulated worship should continue to be honored so as to "offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe" (Heb. 12:28).  Biblical polity should be adhered to for the safety and health of the precious sheep in Christ's church.  The sufficiency of the Word, along with prayer and the sacraments, must be practiced because it really is the Word that alone conveys spiritual life, and it really is the Word, prayer, and the sacraments that God has empowered to strengthen faith (WCF 14:1).  Old Calvinists can look to the generally positive fruit of the New Calvinism with kindness and joy, and yet still refuse to move from the ministerial vision inherited from our Old Calvinist fathers, grounded in the prophetic and apostolic witness of God's Word.    

4.  Old Calvinists can best serve the New Calvinists by remaining who we are, proclaiming the mature message and exhibiting the spiritual vigor of the full-orbed Reformed faith .  True leaders do not join the bandwagon, but act out of conviction and passion.  Now is a time for these very qualities among more traditional Reformed pastors and churches.  With a loving critique, but even more with a compelling proclamation of the whole counsel of God for faith and life, Old Calvinists can help our brothers in the New Calvinism to steer clear of harmful errors.  By remaining who we are by God's grace, may the best expressions of Old Calvinism provide an example of spiritual vigor that flows directly from living springs of God's Word.

Posted March 25, 2014 @ 1:15 PM by Rick Phillips

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