A Reader’s Review of The New Calvinism Considered

Jeremy Walker has been writing at Reformation21 (the online magazine of The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals) for three years, and I have enjoyed much of what he has shared. I own the book that he co-authored with Rob Ventura, “A Portrait of Paul: Identifying a True Minister of Christ,” and although I have not had the pleasure of reading it yet, I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews. I was excited when I heard about the release of “The New Calvinism Considered: A Personal and Pastoral Assessment,” as I have had my own concerns about the movement and had not read much about the topic. When Cross Focused Media and Evangelical Press offered me the opportunity to review the book, I jumped at the chance.

I confess at the outset that I share many of the same theological views with the author (both of us being confessionally Reformed Baptists who hold to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith), so my expectations about the book were positive and my assumptions that we were in agreement about the content within were fairly accurate. One difference between myself and the author, however, is our nationality. Walker is a native of the United Kingdom, and I am a citizen of the Unites States. Given this distinction, his perception of the New Calvinism movement had the potential of being quite different than mine. Amidst all of the questions, concerns and criticism, the important thing to remember is that a majority of New Calvinists are brothers in Christ who love and preach the gospel.

The book is a relatively quick read, with just over 100 pages of material. Some of the theological terminology may be more difficult for new converts to Christianity, but the topic is not of interest to all who profess faith in Jesus. Those who are intimately involved with the subject matter (Calvinism, New Calvinism, etc.) will, however, find this a most important and timely book.

“The New Calvinism Considered” is divided up into five short chapters:

1. Comprehending the New Calvinism

2. Characteristics of the New Calvinism

3. Commendations

4. Cautions and Concerns

5. Conclusions and Counsels

Comprehending the New Calvinism

In this chapter, Walker shares his personal history and exposure to “New Calvinism,” which he briefly defines in the Preface as “the label applied to the resurgence of certain central aspects of Calvinistic doctrine within conservative evangelicalism” (pp. 8–9). He explains that while this movement has a large following in the United States, there has been a similar, albeit distinct manifestation in the United Kingdom as well. Walker points out that while there are elements to be valued, no movement is beyond critical examination. He then lays out the necessary approach for evaluation: Nature, Spirit, and Object.

The “nature” of his assessment is both personal and pastoral. He acknowledges the speed and variety of the development of such movements, and so the potentiality of erring in judgment is present. With humility, the author welcomes correction and instruction for any misconceptions and incorrect conclusions.

The “spirit” of the evaluation is “balanced and appropriately irenic appreciation” (p. 15). Walker recognizes that while he perceives concerns and possible dangers in the movement, most within the boundaries of New Calvinism are brothers (some even friends) in Christ. Nonetheless, neglecting to converse and warn others about faulty doctrine is not an option… but it requires wisdom. He writes, “I have no hesitation in affirming that it is not right to deal in a brotherly fashion with some who are increasingly dabbling with a Christianity that Is not merely on the fringes of the historic stream of orthodox faith but has pushed outside the envelope… while I have a desire for genuine understanding, true unity and gospel peace, we must remember that unity and peace at the expense of truth and righteousness is a wicked trade-off… a gentle and gracious approach is not the same as an endorsement of error, and is entirely consistent with a vigorously-held and ardently-promoted orthodoxy (see 2 Timothy 2:24–26)” (p. 16).

The “object” pertains to the fact that the movement is not a singular entity of uniformity. Walker explains: “there are degrees of association in this movement, and–working along the spectrum and through the various groupings–there are some who would fight shy of any sort of formal union or cooperation with certain others… we must be wary of assuming that this is some great and absolute theological or religious bloc that stands and falls together” (pp. 18–19). Given that the New Calvinism is not monolithic, the author acknowledges that his book is necessarily dealing with generalities and prefers not to be misunderstood by the reader.

Characteristics of the New Calvinism

The second chapter is quite obviously about the definitions and general properties of the New Calvinist movement. Walker claims that it is qualified by Calvinist doctrine, characterized by figureheads, marked by conglomeration, and in the process of consolidation (or transition).

Calvinism

As can be expected, the movement aligns itself with the five-points of Calvinism (commonly referred to by the T.U.L.I.P. acrostic—Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints) and the biblical doctrine of divine sovereignty, but the author rightly points out that this over-simplification of Calvinism is not quite Calvinism (though it is to be commended). Furthermore, a number of proponents of New Calvinism reject the “L” in the acrostic, which is not Calvinism at all (though many refer to themselves as “4-Pointers”). This perspective has been historically recognized as Amyraldianism, which does not recognize the “classical Calvinist’s conviction… that the death of Jesus was intended only for the elect and therefore did not fail or fall short in any point or degree” (p. 22).

Characters

The New Calvinist movement is also influenced by personalities or even “celebrities” (within the American subculture of Evangelicalism). In some sense, any group or subculture will have figureheads who are admired and perhaps looked to for guidance and vision. It should be remembered, however, that we are dealing with categories in the context of Christianity. There are a number of popular Calvinistic pastors, theologians, authors, and bloggers who are the role models and “heavy hitters” in this movement, and Walker impresses upon the reader the potential dangers with this aspect of the movement: “The cult of celebrity in the modern West has infiltrated the church, so much so that we can seem to be presuming that the Lord is obliged to work or invariably will work when the right person or persons are present: get someone prominent to preach and people are bound to listen… this leads to at least three related dangers: the danger of slavish capitulation, the danger of mere imitation and the danger of unintended disconnection” (pp. 26–27).

Conglomeration

The third characteristic Walker points to is a fascination with networks and conferences. While parachurch ministries and Christian conventions are not dangers in and of themselves, they have the potential of confusing and blurring the roles and responsibilities of the local church. Unbridled ecumenism and a lack of antithesis are common issues that are a result of preoccupation with coalitions and seminars. I know many people (including myself) that have benefited from some of the ministries and conferences mentioned in the book, so I cannot say there is an objective and universal risk. While many people who frequent them are mature Christians (often pastors and ministry leaders) who are discerning and critically evaluate all they read and hear, this is not always the case. Furthermore, spiritual maturity and theological acumen are not vaccines that prevent potentially defective doctrine and practice from impacting leadership and the life of the local church.

Consolidation

Lastly, the author explains that the New Calvinism is decelerating: “The whole machine is slowing down. There is not the same buzz, the same energy, the same drive as once there was. The river is broader and it is slower. The enthusiasm has shifted slightly and the issues and arguments have developed… this is not the rushing mountain stream it once was, with the dynamism simply to carry light things before it” (p. 38). Walker points out that by and large, the movement is in a period of transition and succession.

Commendations

Chapter three points to many of the honorable aspects of New Calvinism. I am in hearty agreement with these features and God has used many within the movement to bring these truths to home in my heart and mind. I do not regret these emphases and I am grateful for those men who labor to promote many of these respectable properties.

Christ-Oriented and God-Honouring

The first and most important distinctive of New Calvinism is its orientation in christocentrism (the person and work of Jesus Christ being the central point). Walker offers his heartfelt approval of this tenet: “…this movement is substantially and explicitly galvanized by concern for the supremacy of God in Christ and that the Lord of Glory be magnified in all things. That is a good thing–it might even be properly described as being at the very core of what it means to be a Calvinist–and something we should embrace as giving us common ground with any man who holds truly to that conviction and its necessary corollaries” (p. 41). Amen! He continues, “There are men individually and churches corporately whose entire notions of what it means to be genuinely Christian have been healthily revolutionized or revitalized by this emphasis. Many have been set on a more biblical track as a result” (p. 41). This is something that I can personally attest to and I praise God for this fruit of New Calvinism.

Grace-Soaked

The second commendation offered by Walker is a commitment to the gospel and the practice of grace as a necessary result. Again, this is an element of the movement that has had a profound impact on my life; it is something that has helped my thinking and reminds me of my responsibility to God and neighbor. The author rightly points out the emotional vigor and evangelical zeal that is common amongst New Calvinists—something that any and all Christians should be thankful for.

Missional

Building from the previous two points–and closely related–is a preoccupation with the mission of God to save sinners. “The new Calvinism tends to be passionately and sacrificially missional. There is a desire that the glory of God be known in all the earth and so most of those involved seek to preach the gospel and to make disciples (there is a good and healthy emphasis on discipleship in many circles). They want to plant churches and to train preachers…It is, in many respects, a reflection of New Testament Christianity, and obviously that it is to be heartily commended. It is a model that too many churches have lost sight of, both in their prayers and in their practices and pursuits” (pp. 44–45). While “missional” has been (and largely remains) a vague buzzword that has wide application, the general principle here addressed by Walker is a radical servanthood characterized by self-sacrifice and love of others.

Complementarian

Another common thread amongst the New Calvinists is the biblical teaching of complimentarianism. This is essentially an understanding of the equal value, but unique roles and responsibilities of men and women as ordained by God. With a spectrum analysis there are bound to be exceptions and variations, but by and large, this is a movement marked by complementarianism. It is an interesting distinctive when one considers the whole of biblical revelation, for there are any number of doctrines that can be championed as pillars of a ministry. Walker explains, “I find it rather amusing that–given all the things about the new Calvinism seems determined not to be about–complementarianism in the realm of gender and male/female relationships is such a significant issue, so much so that I could almost put this in the list of defining qualities” (p. 47). While this position is a necessary response to much of the unbiblical teachings on sexuality, the author sees cause for concern. “…in some circles there seems to be an obsession with sex and sexuality–often excused on the basis of the hypsersexuality of the Western culture–which is, at best out of kilter with the biblical treatment of the topic, and at worst, a gross example of darkness masquerading as light” (p. 48).

Immersed and Inventive

Of the many interests that are characteristic of this movement, Walker focuses on two—theology and technology. Many New Calvinists are biblically informed and technologically savvy. These are two qualities that I personally admire… I am grateful for (and sometimes jealous of) the theological prowess and technological creativity of many of my New Calvinist brothers. I have learned much from them and appreciated much of the risk and ingenuity involved in investigating new apps and software and introducing Christians to the potential usefulness of such technology. This is not to say that others outside the movement are not immersed and inventive, but it seems as though a majority of the New Calvinists have a lasting interest in reading ministry-related books and investing in technology for the glory of God.

Preaching

Preaching–particularly expository preaching–is also a favorable component. There is a great deal of promise here as there is a correlation with the “character” and “conglomeration” features that were presented earlier in chapter two. Walker observes: “Many of the leading lights of the movement are pastors and preachers, committed either to systematic expository preaching series or to some other form of expository ministry. The conferences have been, by and large, preaching conferences. Discussions often revolve around what the Bible says and what it means. Books are written expounding the Word of God. There are and there will continue to be discussions about whether or not the expositions, conclusions and applications are accurate—the same sort of often-healthy discussions as happen within, across and between other circles” (p. 53). When the leading personalities and ministries truly subject themselves to biblical fidelity (and in so doing, avoid worldliness and renounce what Walker calls “slavish capitulation”) there is an auspicious potential for a lasting positive impact.

Summary

As Walker closes the chapter, he points out that this is not an exhaustive list and that variety within the movement demands wisdom and discernment on a case by case basis. Above all things, the author rightly exhorts us to “recognise the grace of God and to be glad when we see it” (p. 55), rejoice when God uses New Calvinism to redeem sinners (p. 56), and “stand together on matters of first importance and shared interest” with mutual affection (p. 56).

Cautions and Concerns

Although the New Calvinism has many commendable attributes, like other movements, it is not beyond criticism. Using pastoral care and analytical precision, Walker sets forth his concerns about this compelling camp.

Pragmatism and Commercialism

“In many new Calvinists,” says Walker, “there is a tendency to pragmatism and commercialism… in some parts of the new Calvinism the entrepreneurial spirit has run amok” (p. 59). While this is largely true of American evangelicalism, the author gives specific examples of “celebrity pastors” within New Calvinism who employ pragmatism and corporate strategy in their ecclesiastical endeavors. He also points out the common obsession with numerical growth, recognition, and cultural adaptation among many as well: “There is more than a hint of performance, often something overly dramatic or slickly cultured in some of the preaching and presentation… in some circles, there is explicit encouragement to study the methods and mannerisms of worldly entertainers and to employ them for the kingdom…There are times in which men in and around this movement run the church more like a commercial enterprise than they minister to it as the body of Christ” (p. 63).

Culture

Another difficulty with the movement is over-contextualization. Walker claims that to some in new Calvinism, the sovereignty of God translates to the world being “neutral territory” (p. 67). Since God is in control, “culture is all up for grabs: no distinction is permitted between the sacred and the secular, or even the profane—for some, such distinctions are part of evangelicalism’s anti-intellectualism. We are conquering culture for King Jesus, therefore nothing is out of bounds. We can take anything this world produces and we can Christianize it” (p. 67). Sadly, this can often result in an obsession with relevance, or as Walker says, “Some new Calvinists can be so concerned to be relevant and accessible that they become slaves to hipness” (pp. 68–69). There is some to be commended here, for it is important for us to understand the environment we minister in and seek to address issues in an effective way. Nonetheless, we should not become engrossed in the culture to the detriment of the church.

Holiness

There is also, in this group, “a troubling approach to holiness” according to the author. He claims that there is both an “incipient antinomianism” (anti = against; nomos = law) and a “false dichotomy… between faith and duty” which is the result of an improper understanding of sanctification. “The focus,” writes Walker, “has ended up on self-satisfaction rather than God-glorification” (p. 78). While some over-react against obedience out of fear of legalism, he points out that their worry is unfounded. He correctly asserts that “the Christian is liberated in order to be holy! Principled obedience is not legalism” (p. 79). Walker is worried (with good cause) that “the focus on gospel indicatives has blinded some to their connection to gospel imperatives” (p. 80). It is not an either-or, but a both-and.

Ecumenism

The pursuit of unity is not necessarily a bad thing. There is, however, a danger in doing so at the expense of truth. In his book, Walker gives the example of the Elephant Room fiasco involving mega-church pastors Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald (both council members of The Gospel Coalition at the time), and “Bishop” T.D. Jakes (who is a Modalist and word-faith prosperity preacher). While the Elephant Room (both of them) was a ridiculous spectacle of rampant ecumenism,  Walker also points out the lack of accountability towards those involved. He suggests that “this ecumenism is not that Scriptural communion and cooperation which any right-minded believer would pursue, but rather a watering down of that crisp and clear definition which serves the church of Christ best” (p. 91).

Spiritual Gifts

Pneumatology (the study of spiritual things) is also a challenging area for some in the movement. Besides the disparity between cessationists and continuationists in New Calvinism, there is a third group who refuses to address the issue. For instance, one will hear the term “open, but cautious” used in these discussions. Though Walker warns the cessationist of becoming so jaded and worried about the abuses of some charismatics that they “give up” the Holy Spirit, he also points to the real issue: “the whole nature of authority in its relation to divine revelation” (p. 98). One point especially is worth comtemplating: “You will hear the phrase ‘Reformed Charismatic.’ Some would suggest, with credibility, that those two things are mutually exclusive, precisely because of this issue of authority and revelation” (p. 98).

Triumphalism

Those who deal in absolutes and hold to the truth of Scriptures have a susceptibility to theological and/or intellectual elitism. This is not unique to New Calvinism. In fact, Walker admits his own inclination to pride and arrogance, and all of us should too—we would not make claims about the truth if we believed we were wrong. But with the New Calvinism, the combination of celebrity culture, theological rigor, cultutral relevance, and commercial pragmatism creates a hotbed for triumphalism. There is also a prevailing sense of what C.S. Lewis (another darling of New Calvinism) called “chronological snobbery.” Walker asserts, “This is true especially of some of those who are coming in around and just behind some of the figureheads. You can read assertions from fairly prominent individuals that in the past something similar to this movement has happened, but it all fell apart… but this time it’s different, this time it’s better, this time we’ve got it right, this time it’s here to stay, this time it will last, this time the onward march will not falter” (p. 99). There is an overconfidence here that is characteristic of a young and relatively successful endeavor.

Summary

In closing the chapter, the author shares a fascinating observation. Although the New Calvinism seeks to be christocentric and God-honoring, at it’s worst it can be very anthropocentric (man-centered). “There are sometimes prominent indications of concern for human approval, reliance on worldly means and principles, embrace of worldly models, and subsequent departure from or wooliness on historic orthodox Christianity at various important points” he says (p. 102). Certainly, this is a worst-case scenario. We should be thankful for the good fruit produced by the movement, but seek to identify and prune that which causes decay. “On the one hand,” says Walker, “we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater; on the other hand, if the baby has swallowed all the bathwater, we may not have a great deal of choice” (p. 103). At its best, New Calvinism is a commendable effort at practical Christianity; but at its worst, it is the product of egotistical worldliness.

Conclusions and Counsels

Walker concludes the book with a bold exhortation and plea for biblical Christianity: “Be Calvinists. Don’t be new Calvinists or any other particular brand or stripe of Calvinists, whatever those distinctions may presently mean, or may come to mean. Fundamentally, I would urge you to live before God rather than before men. This means that we should consider what it means to serve the Lord in our particular circumstances and follow that course humbly and faithfully, individually and corporately, regardless of the pleasures or pains which that course seems to hold out” (p. 104). In responding to the New Calvinism, “we should avoid knee-jerk reactions, thoughtlessly dismissing or embracing something or someone, or everything and everyone, without proper consideration,” “avoid blanket judgments,” and “show discernment as believers,” says Walker (p. 105). He closes with a plea for unity with true believers in the movement, and an argument for the submission to Scripture for the sake of the church. This, says Walker, is best displayed in confessionalism: “An intelligent and wholehearted commitment to a more comprehensive, tried-and-tested expression of Scriptural truth provides a buffer against the kind of shocks that drive men and churches off their feet… we need to set our feet upon a doctrinal rock where others have proved that a saint can safely stand when buffeted by the winds and waves of falsehood” (pp. 111–112).

Review

For such a small book, there is certainly a lot to digest. I am impressed with the author’s ability to be concise, for while this is a generalization, the book could easily be a few hundred pages longer if some of the issues and themes were teased out. This book has a limited target audience, so I would not recommend it to everyone—but I would recommend it to any pastor (particularly Calvinist or New Calvinist) who has been involved with or has questions about this popular movement in contemporary Christianity. At the risk of criticizing this work for something it did not intend to do, I would have liked to see more Scripture references in the book (I counted just over a dozen). This will be a problem for some readers—especially those who disagree with the author and seek to discredit him. Nevertheless, the book is full of biblical wisdom and the principles within are the result of a minister critically assessing the New Calvinism with Scriptural lenses after much rumination and meditation on God’s Word. I believe that Jeremy Walker has succeeded in what he set out to do: give an honest and balanced evaluation of the New Calvinism and encourage Christians to think biblically and critically about it; to be grateful for the good qualities, but vocal about the potential dangers.

For more on this subject…

Jeremy Walker interview with The Confessing Baptist

Jeremy Walker interview with Shaun Tabatt of Author Talks

Kevin DeYoung on the New Calvinism

Recommended reading:

 

Effective December 1, 2009, Federal Trade Commission guidelines state that bloggers receiving any kind of compensation should disclose that information clearly on their blog when posting a review of the product… that being said: I RECEIVED A FREE COPY OF THE BOOK.

 

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2 thoughts on “A Reader’s Review of The New Calvinism Considered

  1. Pingback: The New Calvinism Considered Blog Tour - EP Books Blog | EP Books Blog

  2. Pingback: Review: Life in Christ | ACTIVE/didactic

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