Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What About the "New Calvinism?"

Time Magazine recently offered an article on what they are calling the "New Calvinism" (http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1884779_1884782_1884760,00.html) and Calvinist Mark Driscoll has responded in his blog to the article (http://www.acts29network.org/acts-29-blog/time-magazine-names-new-calvinism-3rd-most-powerful-idea/). So what's all the fuss and why should Christians take note?

As one trained in "old" Calvinism (M.Div. (1973) Th.M (1979), Westminster Theological Seminary/Phila), and one who has ministered in "old" Calvinistic circles (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) and now in a non-Calvinistic or non-Reformed setting (Brethren in Christ), I have witnessed with some fascination this "new" surge in Reformed theology and churches along with popular speakers and writers, like John Piper and Tim Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, NY). Some of my comments on the Time article and what Driscoll wrote are below.

First, it is not at all surprising to me that Calvinism is strong and flourishing today in many circles and venues. I had a non-Christian philosophy professor in college once say that if he ever became a Christian he would have to become a "Calvinist" because of its rigorous logic and philosophic credentials. He noted that all of the other kinds of evangelical faiths were much too subjectivistic and had no rigorous world-and-life view. I would agree with that assessment. Arminian Wesleyanism does not have the rigor or theological preciseness, and Anabaptism has no theology, so to speak. The varieties of Pentecostalism and charismatic groups are much too one-sided in their focus and emphasis on spiritual gifts, prophecy, and so forth. So, for an integrated, tightly-woven and philosophically thought-out theology, Calvinism wins the day.

Second, I agree that Calvinism or Reformed theology appeals to a younger generation and especially young adults. The "me-centered" Jesus-only banter of the 60s and 70s and into the 80s has proved insufficient for their questions of meaning, truth and the nature and work of God in a world gone valueless and post-modern. The "feel-good" Christianity of modern day evangelicalism has left them wanting something deeper, more satisfying and more God-centered. Calvinism fits the bill.

Third, Calvinism is broad-based in its approach to culture, the arts, business and so forth. It's integrated world-and-life viewpoint can successfully challenge the -isms that are brought against the Bible and the church. It can deal with creation and evolution on a deeper and more intellectually satisfying level than any other evangelical thought. It approaches business problems and dilemmas with forcefulness and is absent of fundamentalism's "proof-texting." It offers so much more than "Just trust Jesus!" type of answers to complicated and tenacious world problems. It provides real answers to real problems in a real world because it sees the Scriptures as broad-based and sufficient enough to give those answers, once you understand them.

However, the Time article is correct when it points to Calvinism's perennial and historical problem of exclusiveness and in-fighting among Christians. I left the Calvinistic church fold because of snobbery and petty in-fighting and its rejection of non-Reformed Christians as "less" than truly Christian. That was in the 80s. SO I am glad to see that this "new" Calvinism is much more loving and broad-minded in receiving and working with non-Reformed brothers and sisters. There is indeed a small and vocally present group of Reformed Christians who believe that they "have the truth" and all other Christians must come their way to get it. In my journey, this has ALWAYS been the case with some. And, it is not so much that these Calvinists are mean people as it is that they have drunk so deeply at the well of Reformational thought through the centuries that anything less is almost unScriptural to them.

"New" Calvinism will succeed only if the majority of these new Calvinists stay free from the theological pettiness of their forefathers. Whether a ruling elder is able to read the Scriptures in a Sunday morning service or not cannot become the debating point of newer Calvinists and their churches. "Cessationism" is not any more an option in a church world where the Holy Spirit is needed in power and infusion in the lives and thoughts of its constituents. The next battle will be the "role of women" in these churches and how women can help lead in their churches. If new Calvinists do not resolve this battle in a way that honors Scripture and yet keeps the theological tie with historic Calvinism, the verbal chant and articles against it will not go away. Calvinists have always had the battle armor in their closets, ready for a fight against all comers and any infraction against the well-worn truths of the Reformation.

The other final thing that this "new" Calvinism must get right is their perspective of the Christian life. J.I. Packer is right when he points to the greatest weakness of Calvinism a la Augustinianism as sounding and being "ethically negative and pessimistic to the last degree" (Packer, Keep In Step With the Spirit, 109). Calvinists have not been known as joyful and fulfilled Christians. Their preachers and writers keep telling them, and they are reminded in their catechisms as well, that they are wretched, miserable sinners saved only by grace and that to believe or feel otherwise is to contradict the Bible. No wonder the "T" in their TULIP theology comes first, namely "total depravity." Again, I happen to agree with the Reformed formulations here, but I also believe in a victorious, Spirit-filled, joyful Christian life and experience that radiates the joy of the Lord and the power of the Spirit.

As Reformed Christians everywhere celebrate the 500th anniversary of their namesake and founder, John Calvin, my hope and prayer is that God would continue to help us all grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ as a unified body of believers. I believe Calvin himself would want no less.