The New Calvinism: A Triumph of the Old

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John Piper's address for Westminster Theological Seminary's Seventh-Annual Gaffin Lecture was a notable example of an event being the very embodiment of its message.  I say this because Piper spoke on the relationship of the New Calvinism to the Old Calvinism, a relationship that could hardly find better symbolism than New Calvinist Piper lecturing at Old Calvinist Westminster.  Predictably, blog articles have cropped up critiquing and interacting with Piper's remarks.  I would like to do the same, making observations about the intersection of the Old and the New within big-tent, big-God Calvinism in these early years of the 21st Century.

My observations will come in four posts that make these points:

1.       Old Calvinism should avoid being overly critical but should rejoice in the New. 

2.    Old Calvinism should not be threatened by or feel pressure to conform to the New. 

3.    Old Calvinism should humbly listen to the New, benefiting from its insights and critiques.

4.    Old Calvinism should zealously seek to serve rather than to undermine the New.

In this first post, I would suggest that Old Calvinism should avoid excessive criticism but should generally rejoice in the New Calvinism.  I say this because the New Calvinism represents a remarkable triumph of the Old.  As Piper pointed out, the New Calvinism has arisen directly from Old Calvinist sources like the Banner of Truth, James Boice & the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and R. C. Sproul & Ligonier Ministries.  It is in this respect that I consider the New Calvinism a triumph.  Not the triumph of Old Calvinism - that would be Old Calvinism itself! - but a signal achievement by God's grace, for which we could scarcely have hoped thirty years ago.  The most gospel-zealous leaders of the Old Calvinism longed to see the doctrines of God's sovereign grace spread far into the broader Baptist and Charismatic world of evangelicalism.  Now that this has happened, how can Old Calvinism fail to rejoice in it?

Much of the commentary that I have read on Piper's lecture has labored to highlight the deficiencies of the New Calvinism from the perspective of the Old.  As a committed son of the Old Calvinism, I may share some of these criticisms.  However, the overall attitude of Old Calvinism should be a delighted affection and brotherly delight in the big-God, sola gratia gospel trumpeted by John Piper and others.  We are seeing the Spirit-fueled spread of doctrines that we most cherish among fellow Christians who previously had forgotten or rejected them.  It is true, oddly enough, that Calvinistic Baptists have remained Baptists and that Charismatics who have discovered the glory of God's sovereign grace have not yet shed their view of continuing revelation.  Would I be happier if the New Calvinism included a commitment to covenant theology and sacraments, together with Reformed cessationism?  Of course I would.  But can I smile and offer a prayer of wondering thanks to God that these church bodies, so sociologically distant from mine, have embraced truths that I most cherish from God's Word?  How can I do otherwise?  Can I participate in preaching conferences that extol the big-God glory of our Lord without making snide remarks about matters in which we differ?  You bet I can.  And I praise God for it.

Along these lines, I will agree with observers who downplay the theological differences between New and Old Calvinism.  Theologically, the New Calvinism is mainly an extension of the broader rim of Old Calvinism that was expressed in Charles Spurgeon and populist Presbyterians like James Boice.  In fact, Boice's main target was the very evangelical audience that largely comprises the New Calvinism, and I often heard him predict and rejoice in the Reformed resurgence that blossomed shortly after his death.  Instead of a theological shift, the New Calvinism represents a major sociological and ecclesiastical extension of Calvinism in general.  The "Young, Restless, and Reformed" movement mainly involves Calvinistic soteriology being recovered in long-time Arminian strongholds like the Southern Baptist Convention and being discovered in once far-distant fields like the African American churches and Charismatic quasi-denominations.  This being the case, we should not be surprised that Calvinistic soteriology has not caused a similar penetration of Reformed sacramentology and ecclesiology, especially since the historical distinctives of these denominations lay in these very areas.  (They aren't called Baptists for nothing, after all!)  Despite these differences (Baptists remaining Baptists, etc.), Old Calvinists should look on the New as a signal advance achieved by the labors of our own preachers and authors, in answer to long-offered prayers, in spreading glorious salvation truths to brothers and sisters who need them.  We should heartily rejoice that while these fellow Christians retain secondary differences* they now embrace the sovereignty of God over salvation, giving glory to Him in all things.

This affection and joy should not keep Old Calvinists from offering the occasional advice of a loving uncle.  Like grandparents -- a metaphor I do not use for Old Calvinism, since we are most definitely not fading away! -- an uncle should be generally cheerful and selective in his advice.  For instance, from an Old Calvinist perspective, the current trend of multi-site, video satellite church campuses is a Finney-esque horror, and we would dearly love it if our friends in the New Calvinism would prayerfully reconsider this colossal mistake.**  With this being said, Presbyterian Old Calvinists should realize that we do not own the New Calvinism and that it is bound to reflect the more populist Baptist-Charismatic sociology in which it has emerged.

One of the best reasons for Old Calvinists to rejoice in the New Calvinism is that our young people are doing so.  A couple of years ago, I was attending the bi-annual Gospel Coalition Colloquium, in which the council members engage in the closed door celebrity hob-knobbing that drives Carl Trueman crazy.  I emailed my teenage son and asked him to pick one person whom I would ask to send him an electronic greeting.  I started rattling off names of people there: John Piper, Tim Keller, C. J. Mahaney, Lig Duncan, Shai Linne... "You know Shai Linne?!!" came back his response.  "Why, of course," I answered.  "Shai is an old friend from Tenth Presbyterian Church," the Old School bastion where the rap artist first fell in love with Reformed theology.***   So I walked over, hugged Shai and asked him to send an email to Matthew, and my cool rating went up enormously.  And so it is that my Old Calvinist children rejoice in the God-saturated Reformed message sounding out from the New Calvinist voices that are our ecclesiastical nephews and our dearly beloved brothers in Christ.  What a blessing the New Calvinism is, and my Old Calvinist heart rejoices for it with praise to God!


* To call differences secondary is not to label them as unimportant.  But the mode and recipients of baptism, for instance, should not be treated as a difference that bars fellowship or shared ministry.

**I lovingly dedicate this comment to Darrell Hart.

*** Pray for Shai, who has gone back to Philly to plant a church reaching out largely to the gospel-needy African-American community there.

Posted March 20, 2014 @ 12:00 PM by Rick Phillips

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