Understanding the New Calvinism: Identifying Marks

In the first three posts on the subject of New Calvinism we explored some definitions and examined the essential ingredient of the movement which is the co-mingling of Calvinistic theology with at least openness to charismatic practices. I believe this to be the unique and defining characteristic of New Calvinism. It is the one feature that all involved have in common. However, there are other traits that are shared by many of those immersed in the system. To these we will now turn.

It should be remembered that those promoting neo-Calvinism are not monolithic in every aspect, and some of the features mentioned below would be true of any number of evangelicals who are neither Calvinistic nor charismatic. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon to find these identifying marks embraced by adherents of the movement.

Serious about theology and Christian living

This is the most commendable aspect of the majority of the “young, restless, and Reformed” crowd. All of the leadership, and most of the enthusiasts, are serious students of Scripture and substantial theological works that are concerned with truth. They seek preachers and teachers that deliver solid and thoughtful exegesis. They have little tolerance for sloppy thinking, weak answers and careless preaching. They want to be challenged and they want to be part of the debate, not merely passive consumers.

This is a clear improvement over many in the recent past who were content with superficial teaching as long as their “needs” were being met and going to church was light and fun. Many of these young 20 and 30-somethings are reading Spurgeon, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, J. C. Ryle and the Puritans, as well as contemporary authors such as D. A. Carson, John Piper, Michael Horton, John MacArthur and Albert Mohler. Even if we disagree with some of the teachings of such men, this is an important upgrade over those who haven’t read anything deeper than Joel Osteen in their entire lives. If this generation can be guided in the right theological direction and challenged with hermeneutically sound preaching and writings, then the future of evangelicalism is looking brighter.

Under this heading, a major emphasis on the gospel is the norm. Preaching the gospel, to others and to ourselves, permeates the New Calvinist’s writings and teachings. If anything negative can be stated about this it would be that the term “gospel” is so widely used that it is difficult at times to determine what is meant. In its broadest form some, like John Piper, have gone so far as to entitle one of his books, God Is the Gospel.

But what most are meaning when they encourage focusing on the gospel is that we are to live our lives on the basis of God’s grace. Sinners who have been redeemed by a holy God cannot point to themselves as the means of salvation since there is nothing they can do to win the favor of God. The Lord’s grace is essential to salvation. But many Christians stop at conversion, which is a mistake. Grace is indispensable at every stage of our Christian life. We are not only saved by grace, we also live by grace. We never mature to the point that grace becomes unnecessary. When we sin, we should confess that sin and repent, but our repentance does not win new favor with God, who has flooded us with grace all along.

In addition, when we sin we become cognizant afresh that we stand in grace alone. Moreover, our Lord is not stingy with dispensing grace at our time of need. The neo-Calvinists have immersed themselves in grace, and rightly so. Unfortunately, as Paul warned in Romans 6:1, some have taken grace too far. There are those so enamored with grace as to see any emphasis on good works, or even obedience as symptoms of legalism. Some are teaching that the Christian ought not be concerned with growth and maturity, which they say leads to despair, but rather should focus on grace and glory in their weakness and failure. This emphasis has actually led, of late, to some division within the ranks and I will be writing on this issue soon.

The New Calvinists have been active in church planting and other means of spreading the gospel and making disciples. The Acts 29 Network, which is the primary organization devoted to planting like-minded churches, has over 500 churches in 30 countries. It was founded by Mark Driscoll in 1998 who turned over the leadership to Matt Chandler in 2012. According to its website, the stated mission of Acts 29 is to band together churches, which, for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, plant new churches and revitalize dead and dying churches around the world. The network publishes the following core values, which demonstrates not only solid theology but the centrality of the local church.

  1. Gospel centrality in all of life.
  2. The sovereignty of God in saving sinners.
  3. The empowering presence of the Holy Spirit for all of life and ministry.
  4. The fundamental moral and spiritual equality of male and female and to men as responsible servant-leaders in the home and church.
  5. The local church as the primary means by which God chooses to establish His kingdom on earth.1

Happily, but surprisingly, the New Calvinists reject equalitarianism and embrace complementarianism, as point four above demonstrates. This is in clear contrast to the seeker-sensitive movement which often sees no difference between the leadership roles of men and women in the home and in the church. Perhaps this is due to leading theologians in the movement such as Wayne Grudem and John Piper, who have written extensively defending the traditional biblical understanding of the role of men and women. Nevertheless this is a welcomed emphasis, demonstrating both the desire to be scripturally sound and a willingness to resist the political correctness of the culture when convinced of the truthfulness of their position.

I agree with Jeremy Walker who writes in his book, The New Calvinism Considered, “At its best, the new Calvinism is a God-centered movement. Insofar as this is so, we should both recognize it and rejoice because of it.”2 Unfortunately, as we will see below, we cannot rejoice unreservedly on all fronts.

Pragmatism

On the positive side, the New Calvinists are willing to use every means possible to spread the good news and their understanding of theology and the church. Many of their leaders are profound and prolific writers, not just of books and magazine articles but of blogs and websites. The Gospel Coalition is one of the primary means of propagating and discussing their views, even though the blog includes more traditional Reformed theologians and pastors as well. Still many could be identified as New Calvinists if we are using the essential two characteristics of Reformed theology combined with charismatic practices (or at least openness to the continuation of the sign gifts).

The founders of The Gospel Coalition, D.A. Carson and Timothy Keller, would both fit this description. Neither man could be described as a traditional charismatic, nor do the charismatic gifts play a major role in their theology or writings. Nevertheless both embrace continuationism, which teaches that all the sign gifts (prophecy, miracles, healings, tongues, etc.) are still active in the body of Christ today. The New Calvinists also spread their views via conferences, especially Together for the Gospel, founded in part by C.J. Mahaney and influenced heavily by Sovereign Grace Ministries, which in turn is perhaps the best known of the New Calvinists organizations.

Yet, as with many others in evangelicalism, there is a definite undercurrent within the movement that implies that bigger is better. If a church is successful numerically then it must be doing something right. If a man is well-known, popular with the masses, a great communicator and has built a megachurch, he apparently should be followed, even if his doctrines or conduct are questionable. The unspoken (and sometimes spoken, as in the case of Driscoll) idea is that what works trumps what is right. This is certainly not an exclusive problem with the New Calvinists but examples within this circle abound:

  • Take the conduct of Mark Driscoll. From his earliest days of prominence, his bullying, anger, abuse of those under his leadership, and his coarse, offensive language, not to mention his explicit, virtually pornographic discussion of sex, has been evident. James 3:13-18 makes it clear that such a man is exhibiting a worldly wisdom which is the opposite of godly wisdom described as “first pure then peaceable…” (v. 17). Nevertheless, until recently he has been all but idolized by tens of thousands of admirers and officially endorsed by the likes of John Piper and Paul Tripp. Why? It would appear that the reason is his success. He has built an empire of sorts: he had a church with numerous campuses spread out over several states; he founded a church planting ministry (Acts 29) which has started over 500 churches, and he is an engaging speaker. In other words he has been successful. When he imploded recently, was booted from Acts 29, resigned his pastorate, and watched as his empire unraveled and collapsed, those who had been his allies pointed to the fact that he had been a loose cannon since the beginning of his ministry. Driscoll did not hide who he was, but those who should be guarding the sheep looked the other way because his methods, as ungodly as some of them were, seemed to work.
  • When James MacDonald decided to legitimize Oneness Pentecostal preacher T. D. Jakes and his non-Trinitarian theology, at the now infamous Elephant Room 2 interview, he and Mark Driscoll in effect lobbed easy questions to Jakes so that he would appear to be in agreement with Trinitarian doctrine while maintaining his Oneness views. Those with doctrinal knowledge concerning this debate saw through Jakes, but MacDonald in effect gave him a pass, virtually declaring Jakes “one of us.” In addition, not one word was mentioned concerning Jakes’ prosperity gospel heresy which has led perhaps millions around the globe toward an unbiblical lifestyle. Why was Jakes afforded such charity? It would appear that he is “too big to fail.” His ministry is among the biggest in the world; could he possibly be wrong?

We could move on to John Piper’s endorsement of Rick Warren; Steve Furtick’s mass baptism antics; James MacDonald’s public discipline of elders who dared challenge his leadership style, followed by a public apology some years later for his slanderous actions; and the Sovereign Grace’s and C. J. Mahaney’s cover up of a child abuse scandal. The common denominator seems to be that despite shameful behavior and bad theology, these men and organizations are still being touted as examples to follow because they are successful— what they do seems to work and that is enough for many.

Notes

2 Jeremy Walker, The New Calvinism Considered, a Personal and Pastoral Assessment, (Darlington, England, Evangelical Press 2013), p. 57 (emphasis his).

Gary Gilley Bio


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.

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There are 6 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

I have enjoyed all these articles very, very much!  They are thorough and balanced, fair and to the point.

In some regards, this movement has its parallels in traditional fundamentalism of the Hyles type:  personality-cult strong leaders, bigger is better, numerical success trumps ethical/spiritual issues, and unbridled arrogance.

They have their fad term "Gospel" which they must constantly repeat over and over (though the Bible uses the term only occasionally) to create the aura of their movement (much like others keep repeating the word "worship" or "passion" or "house of hte Lord"  over and over and over).

Looking forward to more.  My biggest heartbreak (and those who know me are not surprised) is how they have forsaken Israel -- and the hermeneutic that gives later, "secret" meanings to the terms Israel or the Jews, rather than understanding things in their original contexts.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

....between a concern for theology and a love of that which is big.  One would figure that the love for theology would start to mitigate the love for the big, but I guess that is a blind spot for all of us.  Reminds me of this parallel post.

And along those lines, I know from personal experience that the "big boys" of this movement (and other movements) can be tremendously influential in small town churches, to the point that pointing out what Gary points out about those like Driscoll and MacDonald results not in a close view of these issues, but rather in closing ranks more or less because "we like this teaching."     Lesson learned; examine closely the thinking of the men you elevate to the pulpit and to the diaconate.  If they can't clue in that ER2 is establishing modalism and prosperity theology, NEXT them.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

AndrewSuttles's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:

In some regards, this movement has its parallels in traditional fundamentalism of the Hyles type:  personality-cult strong leaders, bigger is better, numerical success trumps ethical/spiritual issues, and unbridled arrogance.

The way this group is characterized does sounds somewhat like some of the problem groups in fundamentalism.  I think these issues face any leader of a mega-church.  Are the people following the Lord or the man?

Ed Vasicek wrote:

They have their fad term "Gospel" which they must constantly repeat over and over (though the Bible uses the term only occasionally)...

I don't have enough experience with these folks to know how they use the term 'gospel' or to know whether they repeat mantras, but certainly you aren't stating that too much emphasis on the gospel is un-biblical?

 

Ed Vasicek wrote:

My biggest heartbreak (and those who know me are not surprised) is how they have forsaken Israel -- and the hermeneutic that gives later, "secret" meanings to the terms Israel or the Jews, rather than understanding things in their original contexts.

The word the Apostle Paul uses to describe how that the gentiles (who were once foreigners from Israel) are now today fellow citizens (Eph 2:12-20) is mystery (Eph 3:3).  A mystery, according to Paul, is a truth that "which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel" (Eph 3:5-6)

 

Ed Vasicek's picture

Andrew, here are my thoughts.

 don't have enough experience with these folks to know how they use the term 'gospel' or to know whether they repeat mantras, but certainly you aren't stating that too much emphasis on the gospel is un-biblical?

I do not know if it is possible to emphasize the Gospel too much or not.  But what I am talking about is calling everything pertaining to the Christian life, "the Gospel" (sanctification, discipleship, Biblical relationships); the Gospel is the central, life-changing message, but its fruit is the fruit of the Gospel, not the Gospel.  The New Testament uses the term Gospel for the message of good news, not as synonymous with discipleship or maturity.

The word the Apostle Paul uses to describe how that the gentiles (who were once foreigners from Israel) are now today fellow citizens (Eph 2:12-20) is mystery (Eph 3:3).  A mystery, according to Paul, is a truth that "which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel" (Eph 3:5-6)

The idea of "mystery" adds ADDITIONAL information not clearly understood in the past.  It does not negate the clearly understood original information.  God often provides more than he promises, but not less.  It is the taking away -- not the addition -- of God's grace that troubles me.  For example, God literally commanded Moses and the Hebrews to build a literal, physical tabernacle. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that this foreshadows the work of Christ.  Because the spiritual lessons are added does not negate the fact of the literal, physical tabernacle.  Nothing is taken away by mystery, only added.

"The Midrash Detective"

AndrewSuttles's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:

...what I am talking about is calling everything pertaining to the Christian life, "the Gospel" (sanctification, discipleship, Biblical relationships); the Gospel is the central, life-changing message, but its fruit is the fruit of the Gospel, not the Gospel.  The New Testament uses the term Gospel for the message of good news, not as synonymous with discipleship or maturity.

If that is how they are using the word gospel, I agree with you totally.  If the word means everything, it will come to mean nothing.

Ed Vasicek wrote:

The idea of "mystery" adds ADDITIONAL information not clearly understood in the past.  It does not negate the clearly understood original information.  God often provides more than he promises, but not less. 

I agree wholeheartedly.  The Lord hasn't taken Israel away, but has added to their numbers in a way not before imagined (as described in Romans 11).

Ed Vasicek's picture

AndrewSuttles wrote:

I agree wholeheartedly.  The Lord hasn't taken Israel away, but has added to their numbers in a way not before imagined (as described in Romans 11).

 

Andrew, we are two peas in a peapod.  We see things alike -- at least on these matters.  Wish more people agreed with these simple concepts: the Gospel is a message of good news and God is faithful and above board. God bless you, my brother.

"The Midrash Detective"

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