With a basic explanation of the Calvinistic aspect of the New Calvinism completed, it is time to move forward to an understanding of New Calvinism. What makes New Calvinists new? How do they differ from historic Calvinists?
New Calvinism is more easily identified and described than defined. E. S. Williams’ definition that it is “a growing perspective within conservative evangelicalism that embraces the fundamentals of 16th-century Calvinism while also trying to be relevant in the present-day world,”1 while somewhat helpful, could also define any number of modern evangelical efforts and movements which are trying, in one fashion or another, to reach postmodern people with the gospel.
The current wave flowing through evangelical cutting-edge ministries of all stripes is that the church is hopelessly out of step with the surrounding culture and that if it does not change it will die.2 As Hugh Halter and Matt Smay state in their book The Tangible Kingdom, “What worked in the past simply does not work today, and we must adjust to culture.”3 Virtually all of those associated with New Calvinism would subscribe to a similar philosophy, but this is not uniquely defining of the movement. Nor is New Calvinism exclusively found in an official organization or denomination, as it transcends such structures and is more ecumenical in nature. Rather it is better identified by personalities, conferences, blogs and websites which are promoting Reformed-charismatic philosophies, doctrines and concepts of engaging culture.
It seems to be a movement that is particularly attractive to younger evangelicals who have grown tired of watered-down, anemic, anti-intellectual forms of Christianity that no longer challenge them. Some of the personalities who will be listed below have offered meat-and-potatoes theology which engages the minds and hearts of youthful believers looking for something deeper and more relevant from their faith. As a matter of fact Colin Hansen entitled his book Young, Restless and Reformed to describe this very group.
Yet, a number of the key leaders are hardly young, I think in particular of John Piper, D. A. Carson, Timothy Keller, Wayne Grudem and C. J. Mahaney. Jeremy Walker, in his insightful book The New Calvinism Considered, goes so far as to say,
One could argue that the true father figure of the New Calvinism is probably more Jonathan Edwards than John Calvin, and even then it is Jonathan Edwards mediated through John Piper.4
This is arguably true, for Piper’s emphasis on the doctrines of grace, sovereignty of God, passionate preaching, intellectual faith, Christian hedonism (the idea that we are all joy-seekers, but the Christian is to seek their joy in Christ), and openness to charismatic teachings of the spiritual gifts are prevalent throughout the young, restless and Reformed. Piper’s fingerprints are all over the movement but he is hardly alone.
Some other prominent names include the following:
Keller’s apologetic methodology has hit the right note with those who have grown up surrounded by a largely postmodern worldview. Keller seems to be an interesting mix between old school Reformed, with its emphasis on orthodox doctrine, and postmodern apologist, alternating between the two approaches depending upon which group he is addressing.5 Keller’s focus on social and mercy ministries also resonates well with young adults today.
Carson is the co-founder, with Keller, of The Gospel Coalition, an extremely popular blog filled with articles promoting Reformed thinking and theology and with leanings toward New Calvinistic ideas. While an excellent theologian and commentator with many wonderful books to his credit, nevertheless Carson rejects cessationism. Carson and Keller are co-founders of The Gospel Coalition, which is defined by its website as a “broadly Reformed network of churches which encourages and educates current and next generation Christian leaders by advocating gospel-centered principles and practices that glorify the Savior and do good to those for whom He shed His life’s blood.” These goals are accomplished largely through its website as well as through conferences and publications.
Grudem has done more theologically to pave the way for this movement than perhaps anyone else. This is due to his prolific writings that combine both excellent, readable and solid Reformed theology with a defense of the charismatics’ teaching on the spiritual gifts. Grudem’s teaching on this subject will be examined more closely in a future article but, in general, in his book The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, as well as in his Systematic Theology, Grudem champions a position that all the gifts, including the sign gifts, especially that of prophecy, are viable today.
However prophecy in the New Testament era is not without error, according to Grudem. He believes that New Testament prophets, unlike Old Testament ones, are unreliable and non-authoritative. The Lord is giving prophecies today, but these are polluted prophecies because a portion of the revelation may be of God but another portion may be of one’s own imagination or even misunderstood by the receiver. This allows for the continuation of prophecies today, something highly prized by the young, restless and Reformed, but does not demand infallibility, as was required of the Old Testament prophet of God (Deut 18:20-22).
C. J. Mahaney
Mahaney is the former president of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) and former pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He resigned the presidency of SGM in 2013 in the midst of some strong accusations and resistance to his leadership. He now pastors the Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, Kentucky. In 2006 he co-founded Together for the Gospel (T4G), a coalition of Christian leaders who have found common ground in the gospel but differ on some other doctrinal issues such as charismatic gifts and cessationism.
Mahaney and SGM have been at the center of the birth of Neo-Calvinism and its growth, clearly combining Reformed theology with charismatic practices and musical styles. Together for the Gospel has been a means by which many outside the movement have been exposed to this emphasis. This is especially significant since some who are very strong cessationists, such as John MacArthur, regularly preach at T4G.
Driscoll has been one of the strongest leaders among the young, restless and Reformed. He was founder and pastor of Mars Hills, a megachurch in Seattle, Washington, which is spread out over 13 campuses, and founder of ACTS 29, a church planting network, now led by Matt Chandler, used to start and promote Mars Hills clones. On the one hand Driscoll’s Calvinistic beliefs are strong enough to receive the endorsement of the likes of John Piper; on the other hand he has described himself as a charismatic with a seat belt. However, reading some of Driscoll’s books would reveal that his seat belt has come unbuckled and, more recently, so has his life and church empire. Nevertheless it is claimed that Driscoll’s sermons are the most downloaded of any preacher in America and his influence would be hard to overestimate.6
Since New Calvinism is largely centered around personalities, websites, blogs and conferences, the above offers some flavor of the movement. Let’s move now to some other identifiable marks.
(Next: New Calvinism and the Charismatic Gifts)
1 E.S. Williams, The New Calvinists, Changing the Gospel (London: The Wakeman Trust, 2014), p. 7.
2 See Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, The Tangible Kingdom, Creating Incarnational Community: The Posture and Practices of Ancient Church Now (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), pp. 59, 94.
3 Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, p. 108.
4 Jeremy Walker, The New Calvinism Considered, a Personal and Pastoral Assessment (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2013), p. 22.
5 See Iain D. Campbell and William M. Schweitzer, ed, Engaging Keller, Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical (Darington, England: Evangelical Press, 2013), for documentation and discussion concerning this feature of Keller’s ministry, esp. p. 21.
6 Williams, p. 39.
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.