Evangelical Press have recently released a timely new book on the New Calvinism. The New Calvinism Considered: A Personal and Pastoral Assessment by Jeremy Walker is a sensitive, appreciative and often challenging critique of this evolving stream of evangelicalism. Walker’s book avoids blind acceptance of all that flies under the title New Calvinism on the one hand yet on the other hand he does not hold back from speaking out against several unhealthy elements within the movement. Consequently those who loyally follow many of the leading lights of the New Calvinism (Piper, Driscoll, Keller, et al.) will likely find many (all?) of Walker’s critiques unfair and those who are firmly rooted in historic calvinist churches may bemoan the fact that Walker expresses sincere approval of many of the good things which are found among the New Calvinists. This book is not an all out war against the New Calvinism but neither is it a blind acceptance of the principles, personalities and practices of the New Calvinism.
The outline of Walker’s book is as follows:
Chapter One: Comprehending the new Calvinism
In this chapter, Walker sets out the nature and purpose of his critique of the new Calvinism. The strengths of this chapter is the graciousness, humility and great care not to over-generalise, which so clearly characterises this chapter. On the down side: it is very short, at times over-cautious, and seems to present what feels like an unending a list of disclaimers for the criticisms which are to follow.
Chapter Two: Characteristics of the new Calvinism
The first characteristic which Walker deals with is Calvinism, Walker acknowledges that the players of the New Calvinism are ‘United by convictions about the sovereignty of God in salvation.’ Walker rejoices in this emphasis but also identifies that ‘Not all the new Calvinists, are, in fact, Calvinists.’ He goes on to demonstrate that many have more in common with Amyraldians, who are basically ‘four point’ point Calvinists. Walker is careful to demonstrate the distinction between the soteriology of some of the new Calvinists with that of the historical Calvinists.
Walker goes on to identify the fact that the New Calvinism is driven by personalities. (in addition to the aforementioned names, some readers may be surprised to find RC Sproul and John MacArthur lumped in with the New Calvinists – but Sproul and MacArthur are acknowledged as having a different role) In particular he looks at the characteristics of the celebrity culture which tends to dominate the movement. He also identifies that very often celebrity-type leaders tend to generate a cult-like following and very often popularity supplants the place of orthodoxy as the mark of a good ministry. Walker argues:
The danger of these figure heads is that, in the minds of some, they become celebrities and gurus, perhaps even idols. Slavishly following them, their disciples reproduce not only much of what is good but also exaggerate them at their points of weakness or aberration.
Walker highlights the fact that the New Calvinism is “A movement of coalitions, of conferences . . . of networks.” However, he argues that as a result the movement has a tendency towards introspection and unaccountability.’ Walker argues that the para-church nature of many of the leading networks can actually undermine the place of the local church. In particular, Walker highlights that biblical faithfulness becomes difficult to maintain in a para-church network that is bound by relational loyalty and minimalistic doctrinal commitments.
Walker claims that the movement itself is now maturing and evolving into a machine. In other words, as much as the New Calvinism has wanted to avoid institutionalism, it cannot – and the process of institutionalism is already taking place.
Chapter Three: Commendations
Walker identifies and praises the New Calvinism’s emphasis on being Christ-oriented and God-honouring, however he does question if Piper’s reformulation of the shorter catechism, and his emphasis on human satisfaction is shifting the emphasis from God -exaltation to human fulfilment. Walker rightly notes that ‘What it means to glorify God in Christ is often very much a matter of Jonathan Edwards mediated through John Piper.’ Later in the book, Walker demonstrates that this focus is too narrow and does not do justice to Jonathan Edwards.
A further commendation of the New Calvinism is the fact that the movement is “Grace-soaked”. Walker argues that we should rejoice in the fact that the New Calvinism seeks to magnify the grace of God in Christ Jesus. He deeply appreciates that the gospel is communicated by many people who clearly are living in the freshness of grace.
While Walker recognises that ‘missional’ has become something of a buzzword, he identifies that the New Calvinism’s emphasis on mission is excellent, biblical and to be admired. He acknowledges that the wider church has much to learn from the New Calvinists in this area. A further area of appreciation is the movement’s emphasis on Complementarianism. Walker argues that this focus on biblical gender-roles is a healthy corrective to the wider church. However, Walker is not blind to the caricatures which are also emerging in the area of complementarianism, he argues that complementarianism is often being presented in terms of “A sort of hairy, Neanderthal, chest-beating machismo.”
In addition to these areas, Walker highlights and is encouraged by the fact that the movement has a healthy focus on good theology and preaching. The New Calvinists read the works of ‘Dead guys’ and this is good. He also identifies the fact that social media and technology is effectively harnessed by the New Calvinists in order to spread their message. What the printing press was to the reformers, the internet is to the New Calvinists.
Chapter Four: Cautions and Concerns
Chapter Four is where the real action happens. So far Walker has been almost tacit in his critique, while he maintains a respectful grace, it is in this chapter that the gloves come off. Walker engages with a wide range of concerns, some of which will be expected by many readers but some also which may come as a surprise. Walker identifies the following problems: pragmatism and commercialism; An unbiblical approach to culture and contextualisation; a tendency towards antinomianism (perhaps the most serious charge); An evangelical ecumenism that tolerates heretics and undermines orthodoxy; an openness (or promotion) of the charismatic movement which inevitably conflicts with and undermines reformed theology and a triumphalism which fosters youthful arrogance, naivety and a downgrading of discernment. Walker sums up his assessment by concluding: “New Calvinism, at its worst, can seem or even be thoroughly man-centred.”
Chapter Five: Conclusions and counsels
In the final chapter, Walker makes the following appeal: “Be Calvinists. Don’t be new Calvinists or any particular brand or stripe of Calvinists, whatever these distinctions presently mean, or may come to mean.” He further argues that we should be sensible in our assessment of the movement:
With regard to the new Calvinism, we should avoid knee-jerk reactions, thoughtlessly dismissing or embracing something or someone, or everything and everyone, without proper consideration.
Overall the book is a fair treatment of the topic. Walker repeatedly acknowledges how difficult it is to define the movement, this is largely due to its recent appearance, its diverse nature and the fact that it is still developing.
Having been someone who has been influenced by the New Calvinism I found Walker’s book incredibly helpful. For myself, I have recognised many of the weaknesses not just within the New Calvinism but also the Charismatic Calvinism to which it is closely related. This is inevitable if New Calvinism leads you to read not just the works of the lead figures of the movement but the works of Calvin and the other reformers. Reformed theology is much more than a Calvinistic soteriology. If we engage with the reformers, they will soon disturb our contemporary church commitments.
They will challenge our contemporary culture, creed and compromise. They are after all, Reformers.