There is a great deal of interest and confusion about a movement within conservative evangelicalism sometimes called “New Calvinism” or Neo-Calvinism. As with many movements it is not monolithic and therefore describing its teachings is not always easy. Some have labeled virtually everyone who is a member of the Gospel Coalition or speaks at Together for the Gospel conferences as a New-Calvinist but that is surely painting with too broad a brush. Some hail Neo-Calvinism as a breath of fresh air that has united the passionate ministry of the Holy Spirit with the solid doctrines of the Reformation. Others see it as a dangerous departure from the faith which opens the door to aberrant teachings of extreme Pentecostalism. While some fear the movement, others cheer it. Therefore it is important to take a careful look at what New Calvinism is and what it is not.
If there is a New Calvinism then by necessity there must be an “old” Calvinism. We need to start then with the teachings of classical Calvinism and see in what ways the new variety is similar and how it is different. Proponents of historical Calvinism would certainly trace its roots to Scripture. But the theological system known today as Calvinism finds its beginnings in the works of a number of theologians, the first of which was Augustine. Nevertheless, it was the famous Reformer John Calvin who mapped out the essential doctrines of the theological structure that bears his name.
Calvinism is often equated with what are called the “doctrines of grace” which distinguishes it from other theological approaches. But before we examine these dogmas, a few other doctrines that they hold, often in common with those who do not see themselves as Calvinists, should be identified.
Calvinists strongly believe in the five “solas,” which constituted the battle cries of the Reformation. These are: sola scriptura, the belief that Scripture alone is the authority for the Christian faith; sola gloria, the belief that all things are created for and should be done for the glory of God; sola gratia, the belief that salvation from beginning to end is a gift from God which flows from His grace alone; sola fide, the belief that God’s gift of grace is received by humans on the basis of faith alone apart from any works which they have done; and sola Christus, the belief that salvation has been made possible for sinful people on the basis of Christ and His finished work alone. While not all Christians embrace the five solas, many, even among those who would abhor being termed Calvinists, do.
Calvinists also place heavy emphasis on the sovereignty of God. He is Lord over everything and nothing happens apart from His direct action or indirect permission. He controls nature as well as nations; He controls demons as well as humans. No thing and no one can thwart His will. While aspects of God’s sovereignty are beyond our comprehension (Rom 11:33-36) most Christians recognize that a God who is not sovereign is a God who cannot be trusted. If there is a single thing in the universe which can frustrate or obstruct the will of God then our Lord is not all-powerful, and that would leave us with a God who is capable of losing control of His universe and/or those within it.
Calvinists have championed the doctrine of the sovereignty of God and have provided us with powerful arguments supporting it. It is true that a few have gone too far and drifted into fatalism, but the majority have maintained a good balance and assured the evangelical community that we serve an omnipotent Lord.
Doctrines of Grace
Nevertheless, when we think of Calvinism it is the doctrines of grace that come to mind, and rightly so. When Calvinists refer to these doctrines they are talking about five interlocking soteriological terms best remembered by the acronym TULIP.
(T)otal depravity: In a sense this is the heart of the system. How one defines total depravity will lead to how the other doctrines in the chain are understood. By total depravity Calvinists do not mean that people are as bad as they could be, nor that they are incapable of doing good things, as the world measures good. They mean instead that every aspect of our being has been affected and corrupted by sin.
Biblical texts such as Romans 3:10-18 and Ephesians 2:1-3 inform us that the bent of all unregenerate people is toward sin, and in fact there is nothing anyone can do that could ever please God or contribute to their salvation. From these passages and others we are informed that the unsaved are dead in sin and do not seek God, and left to themselves they would never turn to the Lord for redemption. And because our wills are as fallen and corrupt as our minds we would never independently choose to place our faith in Christ for salvation.
The Calvinist, therefore, does not reject the free will of man that many other Christians like to talk about; they simply believe that people, left to their own devices, will “freely” choose to reject Christ. It is because of the depravity of our fallen nature that we are unwilling and unable to turn to Christ unaided. God must do something in us and for us or else we would never find Him, nor even seek Him. Total depravity is not spiritual weakness, it is spiritual deadness—even spiritual inability; that is, left to our own ability, unaided and unenlightened by the Holy Spirit, humans would be unable to be regenerated. It is because of human depravity, defined in this way, that the rest of the links in the TULIP are necessary.
(U)nconditional election: If people are totally depraved, as defined above, then unconditional election becomes a necessity for, if man would never choose God left to their own volition, then God must choose man. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 3:37). A few moments later Jesus takes this further, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” Paul makes clear that the time in which God chose (Greek: elected) His people was before the foundation of the earth (Eph 1:4). It is important to note that the New Testament is clear that the Lord did not choose us because He saw something good in us, but simply according to His sovereign purpose (Rom 9:11, 16-18; 1 Cor 1:26-31).
(L)imited atonement: Some, but not all Calvinists, accept limited atonement or, as it is often called, “particular redemption.” The idea is that Christ’s atoning blood, while sufficient for all sin, was efficacious only for the sins of the elect. Christ did not die merely to make salvation possible; He died in order to atone for the sins of those who God had specifically chosen for His own. Even among Calvinists this leaf of the TULIP is often hotly debated. This is because, while certain verses of Scripture seem to support this view, others point to Christ dying for all (e.g. 1 John 2:2; John 3:16).
Everyone, except Universalists, believes in some form of limited atonement. Those embracing “unlimited atonement” (and that includes some Calvinists) believe that Christ’s death was sufficient for the sins of all, but that only those who turn to Christ by faith are actually redeemed. Those believing in limited atonement believe that Christ died only for the elect. It is my opinion that limited atonement is accepted more on the basis of inference and deduction than by direct biblical support.
(I)rresistable grace: Since totally depraved individuals would always resist the call to the gospel it becomes necessary for the Lord to irresistibly draw sinners to Himself. John 6:44, quoted above, is a key verse supporting this doctrine. While in our natural, unregenerate state, we by nature resist the Lord and His grace due to our spiritual blindness (2 Cor 4:4, cf. Eph 2:1-3), when the Lord opens our eyes and draws us to Himself we will come willingly (2 Cor 4:6; Eph 2:4-9, Acts 26:18).
(P)erseverance of the saints: All those who have been irresistibly drawn to Christ and regenerated to newness of life will persevere in the faith until the end of their lives. Those whom the Lord saves will be kept saved by His power and love (Rom 8:28-39; 1 Pet 1:3-5). While all Calvinists recognize that believers sin, and sometimes grievously and for considerable time, still they believe that none will totally reject the faith or fully apostatize. In the context of those who have been reconciled to God by the work of Christ, Colossians 1:23 reads, “If indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel.” This verse, and others like it, are used to support perseverance.
While much more can be said concerning the doctrines of grace, and arguments pro and con could be presented, it is not within the scope of this paper to address them. At this point we are only attempting to provide a framework in which to understand the New Calvinists. As Calvinists they would embrace the five solas and at least four of the five doctrines of Grace. In addition, most would also identify with covenantal theology. However, there are many dispensationalists who are Calvinists as well, and accept all that has been outlined above. In that sense they would be considered Reformed evangelicals. However dispensational Calvinists and many Reformed Calvinists divide over the doctrine of covenantalism.
Covenantal Theology often confuses people because it does not directly reference the biblical covenants. Rather it is a system that unites all the dispensations and biblical covenants as phases under the Covenant of Grace. According to Louis Berkof, Caspar Oevianus (1536-1587) was the founder of Covenant Theology and it was not until 1647, when it was included in the Westminster Confession, that it was incorporated into any formal creed or confession.1 Therefore, while many Calvinists accept covenantalism, it is not directly drawn from the writings of John Calvin. It is the idea that all of human history is covered by one to three covenants. The reason for the divide over the number of the covenants is that none of them is actually mentioned in the Scriptures; they are recognized on the basis of inference and logical deduction. The three covenants are as follows:
The Covenant of Works which was between God and Adam
This is seen as an agreement between God and Adam promising life to Adam for perfect obedience and promising death as the penalty for failure. Adam sinned and thus man failed to meet the requirements of the Covenant of Works.2 Michael Horton, a strong advocate of Covenant Theology, admits that the Covenant of Works cannot be found explicitly in Scripture but believes it is implied in the creation narrative.3
The Covenant of Grace between God and sinful mankind
As a result of man’s failure a second covenant became necessary. This is viewed as the gracious agreement between the offended God and the offending but elect sinner in which God promises salvation through faith in Christ and the sinner accepts this promise by faith.
The Covenant of Redemption
This covenant, an agreement between the Father and Son, is held by some but not all covenantalists. O. Palmer Robertson challenges this covenant on the basis of exegesis. He writes,
Scripture simply does not say much on the pre-creation shape of the decrees of God. [To speak of such] is to extend the bounds of scriptural evidence beyond propriety.4
Nevertheless this is believed by some to be an agreement between the Father and the Son in which the Father gives His Son as the Redeemer of the elect, and the Son voluntarily takes the place of those whom the Father had given Him.
The covenantal system has many implications, not the least of which is that it recognizes no discontinuity between Israel and the church. That is, the promises to the nation of Israel, found especially in the Old Testament, are now being fulfilled in spiritual form in the church which is spiritual Israel. Physical and land promises yet to be fulfilled by Israel are either renounced because of Israel’s rebelliousness or have been fulfilled symbolically. In the Old Testament Israel was the church, in the New Testament the church is comprised of both Jews and Gentiles. No future remains for the nation of Israel in the program of God.
This interpretation is made possible because covenantal theologians, who faithfully employ historical-grammatical hermeneutics throughout most of Scripture, selectively employ an allegorical/symbolic hermeneutic especially involving the future prophetic portions of the Bible. Covenantalists see most prophecies as already fulfilled allegorically or symbolically and see the church as the recipient of the Old Testament covenant promises to Israel. Most also equate the church with the kingdom of God and believe we are presently in the kingdom, at least in its initial stage.
(Next: Understanding the New Calvinism: Personalities and Networks)
Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.