Book Review - The New Calvinism Considered

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Book Review - The New Calvinism Considered

Image of The New Calvinism Considered: A Personal and Pastoral Assessment
by Jeremy Walker
Evangelical Press 2013
Paperback 128

The resurgence of Calvinism in the English speaking world in the last few decades has recently attracted a lot of attention. Christianity Today devoted an issue to the “Young, Restless, [and] Reformed” movement, and Time magazine dubbed the “new Calvinism” as one of the top ten ideas changing the world in 2009. And like any movement it has its detractors. Liberals inside and out of evangelicalism, are alarmed by its bold stand for complementarian (as in, non-egalitarian and anti-feminist) family values. Theological progressives deplore its “barbaric” insistence on penal, substitutionary (and by nature, blood-y) atonement. Mainstream evangelicals—charismatics, Baptists and non-denominational alike—are suspicious of the movement’s unabashed celebration of Calvinism. Groups who are more similar to the new Calvinism often decry the movement the loudest. The Reformed (with a capital “R”) are tempted to begrudge or belittle this movement: they were real Calvinists all along (and don’t see any need for a resurgence) and by nature, they are suspicious of anything not grounded in a several-hundred year-old Church confession or creed. Fundamentalists and those of their ilk, see a real threat in this movement: it can’t be easily pinned down and there is too much variety and not enough healthy separation from error.

New Calvinism is not exactly new anymore. And like any movement, it isn’t perfect. There are blind-spots, foibles and let-downs. Yet no one can deny the infusion of spiritual life that has accompanied this wide-ranging return to the Reformation. New and revitalized churches, a no-holds-barred approach to evangelism and mission, and a passionate advocacy of theology (and truth) are hallmarks of the movement. Even if you have quibbles with where some land on any number of doctrinal or practical issues, you should appreciate that by and large, the heart of this movement is one that yearns for God’s glory, that prizes a gospel of Grace, revels in the freedoms won by the cross of Christ, and both reveres Scripture and listens to the moving of the Spirit.

While the “new Calvinism” as it is often called, is mostly an American phenomenon, its influence is spreading to the United Kingdom and beyond. And it is from England that a new critique and thoughtful evaluation of new Calvinism has come. Jeremy Walker, a young pastor who contributes to the influential Reformation21 blog, has written a short examination of the movement: The New Calvinism Considered: A Personal and Pastoral Assessment (Evangelical Press, 2013).

This work is the first book-length critique of new Calvinism I have read, although throughout its pages Walker refers to countless internet discussions where critiques first surfaced. Having lived online through my blog, and interacting with some and reading others of the discussions first-hand, I can appreciate much that Walker is saying that some readers may miss. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The book attempts first to characterize and classify the movement of new Calvinism. This in itself is a chore, I’m sure. And after he helps readers have a better sense of what he is talking about, he begins by pointing out several good qualities and positive effects of the movement. He then rounds out the book with cautions, concerns and his concluding counsel.

Evaluation

At the onset, Walker lays out his motives and the nature of his critique—a personal and pastoral assessment. He understands that he won’t be able to avoid generalizations, but does a good job underlining the fact that there is a broad spectrum in this movement and that not every critique will be valid for all. That being said, we must still evaluate how successful he is in his attempts to fairly characterize the movement. In describing new Calvinism, I felt that Walker’s Britishness hampered his ability to clearly assess and comprehend the movement. He acknowledges as much when he claims “I have something of an outside perspective on those [American] aspects of it” (pg. 11). This is evident as he points out the movement’s tendency to lift up individuals as standard-bearers to rally around—a very American trait which is as common among most of new Calvinism’s American critics as it is in new Calvinism itself. For every critic who singles out someone like John Piper as being a personality around which people “fawn” and hang on his every word, there is an equal part of adulation for someone like John MacArthur and his ability both as a teacher and as one who points out the flaws in parts of the new Calvinism movement. Another example where Walker misjudges the movement is in his criticism’s of the movement’s pragmatism and commercialism. It could be argued that a significant portion of the movement has made great strides in pulling themselves and their churches away from the pragmatism-driven American Church circus of the 80′s and 90′s. Bill Hybels and Rick Warren aren’t new Calvinists, and it is their influence among others, that has propelled a market-driven approach filled with business practices that John Piper has so eloquently decried in his book Brothers, We are Not Professionals. The Together for the Gospel conference can look big, staged and pragmatic from afar, but in comparison to some of the over-the-top, marketing-focused, gimmicky Church growth conferences that abound in America, it is really quite tame.

Critique

Of necessity, Walker points out concrete example after example to illustrate his concerns. And while they do help gain a sense of where he is coming from, they can also blunt his critique when the example doesn’t quite fit, or the context of an incident is missed in his use of it. Several times he singles out Mark Driscoll as an someone who embodies his particular critique. I don’t know many new Calvinists who are total Driscoll fan-boys. Many of us have concerns with some of his ministerial choices and don’t hold him as a true bell-ringer for this movement. Another problem with his examples is that at times it feels like he is rehashing blog-wars in a book to expand their influence. Often the blog-wars are dirty and statements and events are blown out of proportion to make a point, and this book suffers from the same problem at times. John Piper is taken to task for inviting Douglas Wilson and Rick Warren at different times to his Desiring God National Conference. Yet the nature of such conferences and the way they are handled at Desiring God, is a forum for discussion more than a blanket endorsement of the speakers. And while, Walker admits that the new Calvinism is not a denomination or a Church, he laments that no official action is taken for errors or misjudgments like this. The Gospel Coalition’s lack of [enough] action in the case of the Elephant Room incident where James McDonald and Mark Driscoll invited T.D. Jakes and treated him like a brother in Christ (not directly challenging him on his anti-trinitarianism and prosperity gospel teachings) is a case in point. The Coalition can’t really act, and respects the privacy of its inner workings. Not long after the incident both Driscoll and McDonald stepped down from official positions with TGC. And TGC’s leaders, Tim Keller and Don Carson drafted a statement about the matter explaining their actions taken. This isn’t enough for Walker, and it wasn’t enough for many bloggers either. But it is some action, and it is short of an official churchly action precisely because TGC is not a church.

Appreciation

As an appreciative member of the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement (although the middle descriptor doesn’t exactly fit, I think), I cannot but speak in defense as I have above. But let me stress, there is much in this book that is worthy of your time. He does point out some important issues, and we do ignore thoughtful critique of our movement at our own peril. He points out the openness to the charismatic gifts and a looser, more open view of culture as areas of concern. Both areas are places where one can easily drift along in the movement unthinkingly following the ethos of others. Each item warrants thoughtful and personal study of the Scriptures and we ignore this to our peril. His other most poignant critique hits hard on the area of sanctification and holiness. In new Calvinism’s zeal for the gospel of grace, he fears we run hard to the opposite error: antinomianism. Having been freed from legalism, we tend to view laws of any kind as the problem, rather than our hard hearts. He makes the intriguing parallel that while many profess to be recovering Pharisees, almost no one admits to being the “recovering tax collector” (pg. 79). He is worthy of quoting on this point:

Again, let me point out that legalism is the pursuit of obedience with the intention of earning acceptance or merit and not the pursuit of obedience in accordance with God’s law as one redeemed by grace…. My fear is that this view will become very attractive to people who want the privileges and benefits and eased conscience of a Christian profession without the demand for holiness being pressed into their hearts resulting in the vigorous pursuit of godliness. Clearly this is not the intention of the new Calvinists by and large…. But my concern is that this teaching may create an atmosphere in which liberty is made a cloak for license. (pg. 82-83)

Walker challenges his readers to just “be Calvinists” (pg. 107). He wants them to stay true to God’s Word no matter what movements swirl around them. His call is right even if some of his criticisms are ill-founded or off-base. We do need to be careful to pursue godliness. We should be wary of the deceitful pull of ecumenism and the dangers of an arrogant triumphalism that some are seeing as a byproduct of new Calvinism. We serve Christ not the latest fad. I do have confidence that much that has been gained through the rise of new Calvinism is not mere chaff to be blown around with the winds of change. I have seen lives transformed as they discover the gospel of Grace and the doctrines of Grace through the writings and ministry of many of the new Calvinist leaders. I trust that while I became a Calvinist through this new movement, that I will remain true to the Word of God and “be a Calvinist” no matter what happens as seasons come and go.

Commendation

Walker’s admonition to his audience of people not quite sure what to do with new Calvinism can be equally applied to those of us who are tempted to bristle at any criticism of our movement:

We are not called, first and foremost, to spend all our time worrying about other shepherds, but more to give ourselves to following the Great Shepherd in our convictions and actions. We must look first to ourselves in this regard and ensure that our doctrine and our practice marry, that we manifest degrees of heat and of light that are coordinate with and complementary to one another. We neither know all we should, nor do all that we know, and it is in the equal march of faith and life, knowing and doing, telling and showing, that we gain the platform that will enable us to serve our friends who differ from us in other respects. (pg. 107-108)

This kind of thoughtful reflection and eloquence of speech characterize this work. Walker is bold and forthright but he aims to be fair and charitable. His message deserves to be read widely, and his conclusion heeded by all on every side of this. May we all be found faithful, and my the Lord’s work continue, come what may.

About the author

Jeremy Walker was born to godly parents and was converted to Christ during his teenage years. he serves as a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, and is married to Alissa, with whom he enjoys the blessing of three children. He has authored several books and blogs at Reformation21 and The Wanderer.

Disclaimer


Bob Hayton has a BA in Pastoral Theology with a Greek emphasis and a MA in Bible from Fairhaven Baptist College and Seminary in Chesterton, IN. He is a happily married father of six who resides in St. Paul, MN. Since 2005, he has been blogging theology at FundamentallyReformed.com, where he has also published over 150 book reviews. He can also be found occasionally at KJVOnlyDebate.com.

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Wed, 6/3/09
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I don't think it will last

Thanks for the review, Bob.  Good thoughts.

I have to confess a long slow decline in enthusiasm for the YRR movement…a decline that has pretty much reached the point of “meh.”  There has been some good stuff, but I think the failings are too pronounced.  I think image became, and still is, much too important, which has made self-criticism difficult and superficial. It’s true TGC is not a church, so what is it?  Or a better question is: what good is it?  They exalt certain people, but can’t correct them?  Who will correct mega-church Kings who allow no dissent from within their churches if not their peers and associates? In the end, you can’t build a lasting movement when core doctrine is treated lightly. "Athanasius against the world" has been repaced with "Well, you know, he's my friend."

There is much to admire about John Piper, but he genuinely seems to lack discernment about people.  It’s not just that he dialogues with people, he embraces them.  He’s done that for decades. 

Other problems are hard to dismiss.  Acts 29 never has shown a level of maturity one could point to as a model. No real surprise there. Mark Driscoll…well, he does have a huge following, but would anyone want him on staff at their church? 

And then there is the authoritarian streak and the exaltation of the pastor’s authority which I find frightening and is slowing bringing the movement down.  SGM collapsed under the weight of apostolic pride.  Arrogance seems bound up with too much immature leadership that we kept being told would grow up, but never really has.  I think there is something wrong at the core…something that the movement’s Reformed forebears got right, but that many are missing.  Humility and holiness perhaps.  Two necessary things.

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Tue, 6/2/09
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Good Points Wayne

You raise some good points Wayne. The failings you see are also seen in much of the fundamentalist movement as well.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

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