(Read the entire series.)
The New Calvinists are quite concerned about social justice, and rightly so. As citizens of this planet we have an obligation to care for the world and the people in it, not only spiritually but physically as well. But many make the mistake of not distinguishing between the mission of individual Christians, as dual citizens of both heaven and earth, and the mandate given to the church as the corporate people of God, which is outlined in the Great Commission. As a result not only can the church lose its unique place in the world as the one institution ordained by God to preach the Word, function as Christ’s body and make disciples, but the gospel itself can be mutated.
Timothy Keller perhaps is the most influential representative of the social agenda approach to ministry within New Calvinists ranks. The official vision statement for the church he pastors, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, in New York City, reads:
As a church of Jesus Christ, Redeemer exists to help build a great city for all people through a movement of the gospel that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice, and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, to the world.1
Keller and Redeemer clearly see the mission of the church as having a social dimension in which the church helps to bring about cultural renewal, social justice, elimination of poverty, and more. And while this has the appearance of benevolence and love, it is lacking any New Testament mandate or warrant for the church. Historically when the church has added solving the world’s social problems to its mandate it has eventually lost its way and the social agenda became its primary ministry. The theologically liberal denominations and institutions stemming from the late 1800s in America are “Exhibit A” proving this thesis. They exchanged their gospel mandate for mercy ministries and ultimately forfeited their uniqueness as the church.
And there is a further concern—confusing the gospel. Drawing from N.T. Wright and the “missional” understanding of Christianity, Keller infuses a social dimension into his gospel definition. Keller’s gospel is more than the good news that Christ has come to reconcile us to God; it is also the call to solve the world’s problems of injustice, poverty and ecological concerns. He quotes N. T. Wright, not Scripture, to support his view:
The message of the resurrection is that this world matters! That the injustices and pains of this present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice, and love have won… If Easter means Jesus Christ is only raised in a spiritual sense—[then] it is only about me, and finding a new dimension in my personal life. But if Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes good news for the whole world—news which warms our hearts precisely because it isn’t just about warming hearts. Easter means that in a world where injustice, violence and degradation are endemic, God is not prepared to tolerate such things—and that we will work and plan, with all the energy of God, to implement victory of Jesus over them all.2
Later in The Reason for God, Keller makes clear what he means:
The purpose of Jesus’ coming is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it. It is not just to bring personal forgiveness and peace, but also justice and shalom to the world…. The work of the Spirit of God is not only to save souls but also to care and cultivate the face of the earth, the material world.3
Scripture knows nothing of this type of gospel message. Nowhere in the New Testament will you find such a commission given to the people of God. And as E. S. Williams points out, “Of the many works of the Holy Spirit revealed in Scripture, caring for and cultivating the material world for its restoration and purity is not one.”4 You will, however, find a similar message in the emergent church, N.T. Wright’s “New Perspective on Paul,” and those reviving the old “Social Gospel” agenda.
Williams documents that Keller’s book Generous Justice speaks of and leans on the teachings of Gustavo Gutierrez and his book, A Theology of Liberation. “But he does not tell his readers that Gutierrez was [is] a Dominican priest, widely accepted as the founder of liberation theology.”5 This should be considered carefully before one follows Keller and others too far down the social justice road as the mission of the church.
As one author writes, “At root…is a question of how to engage the culture without losing one’s soul. Fundamentalism feared losing its soul and did not engage the culture; evangelicalism feared being different from the culture and is in danger of losing its soul.”6
In 2009 Time Magazine published its list of ten ideas changing the world today. Number three on that list was New Calvinism.
If you really want to follow the development of conservative Christianity, track its musical hits. In the early 1900s you might have heard “The Old Rugged Cross,” a celebration of the atonement. By the 1980s you could have shared the Jesus-is-my-buddy intimacy of “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” And today, more and more top songs feature a God who is very big, while we are…well, hark the David Crowder Band: “I am full of earth / You are heaven’s worth / I am stained with dirt / Prone to depravity.” Calvinism is back, and not just musically.7
The article goes on to point out it is not traditional Calvinism that is changing the world, but the New Calvinism variety that is being described in this paper. Some of the things I have detailed in this article and the last concerning New Calvinism have been positive. But much is challenging the very definitions of the church, as well as having powerful theological ramifications. We dare not ignore New Calvinism, but as always it is to be examined in the light of Scripture.
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.