Four Problems with the New Calvinism

So, we have been hearing for some time about the resurgence of Calvinism and the emergence of New Calvinism. The Resurgence, the Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, Desiring God, Enjoying God and leading preachers such as Piper, Driscoll and Chandler amongst others, has all played a part in this Calvinistic resurgence.

If the trendy conferences and podcasts are one side of this Calvinistic resurgence, Facebook groups are another. There are a number of Calvinistic discussion groups which have sprung up in the last number of years – with a few of them boasting large numbers of zealous new Calvinistic converts.

Calvinism, Fellowship, Discussion and Debate group has 7,545 members; Calvinism: The group that chooses you (boom boom) has 8, 382 members. Both of these groups are very active. Whatever we make of this, one thing is clear, Calvinism is popular.

However, recognising that I too have been influenced by (and am a product of) the recent resurgence, I do see a number of problems with the new breed of Calvinism. Perhaps I’m more sensitive to this development because my own theological study has led me towards reformed Presbyterianism (Old Calvinism). In other words, for me, it is not just about Calvinistic Soteriology – what I find attractive about the reformed faith is that it is far more robust and holistic than a simple “five points of Calvinism”. The Reformed Faith is a complete tradition with theological resources to be applied to every area of life.

With that being said, here are four problems I have identified amongst many new Calvinists.

 1.       Many New Calvinists Embrace Sovereignty and Reject Human Responsibility

Having been reared on semi-pelagian folk religion which makes man the centre of his own universe, the new Calvinists launch the pendulum in the opposite direction at top speed. God is sovereign. The end. Paranoid about anything that hints of humanistic arminianism, this new breed of Calvinists can sniff out anything that whiffs of free will from  a hundred mile radius.

There is a problem with this – it is not Calvinistic, and t is not reformed – and more importantly, it is not biblical. In many ways an increasing number of new Calvinists seem to be leaning towards hyper-calvinism. This is unhealthy, and will never result in any good. Rather than being helpful to the reformed faith, this brand of Calvinism is detrimental to the reformed faith.

This is where the reformed confessions prove helpful. In the confessions we see the truth that God is sovereign, but not the author of sin, and further he does not violate the will of his creation. The Westminster Confession puts it this way:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures…

There we have it. God is sovereign, whatever comes to pass is according to His will, but he is not the author of evil neither does he violate the will of the creature (human). It has been my observation that many new Calvinists do not like this. They do not like it for two reasons, 1) they only want sovereignty 2) they can’t handle theological tensions. Michael Horton puts it this way:

Hyper-Calvinists and hyper-Arminians share the same impatience with mystery. Neither position bows reverently before God's revelation, acknowledging its clear affirmations of divine sovereignty and human responsibility without answering all of our philosophical questions. Contradictions are abhorrent to the faith, but every important doctrine in Scripture is shrouded in mystery. Hyper-Calvinism and hyper-Arminianism are willing even to set Scripture against Scripture, rejecting some clear teachings in favour of others, for the sake of rational satisfaction. Yet both, in different ways, represent deadly errors—indeed, blasphemies—against the character of God.

The Confession may not be easy to understand – how do you reconcile the fact that God is completely sovereign, yet man is still accountable for his sin? We can’t really grasp this, but we can accept it because this is what the scripture reveals about God. It is the only position which does justice to the truth of God revealed in scripture. To deny human responsibility, is to make God the author of evil, to deny sovereignty is to believe in a God who is less than the scriptural portrayal of God.

2.       Many New Calvinists Do Not Know the Difference Between the Gospel and Soteriology

Many new Calvinists balk at the idea that people have a choice to respond to the gospel and that God will judge them on the basis of the choice they make. The gospel is simple: Christ died for our sins, and rose from the dead according to the scriptures—now repent and believe the gospel. The church is called to call others to faith in Christ. This is the means which God uses to reach the lost.

Many new Calvinists, having discovered the truths of irresistible grace, unconditional election and so on, end up with a distorted view of the gospel. They seem to think the gospel is: “you sinner, you are dead in sins and can do nothing about it unless God elects you. Ha ha!” In many ways, they are modern “Holy Willies”.

Soteriology is how we understand the work of salvation. It is not exactly the same as how we preach the gospel to the lost. The Gospel is the general call, — it is for “whosoever will”, soteriology is for the saved – it helps them grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. It helps them understand what has happened to them. We need to distinguish between the general call and the effective call. Many new Calvinists understand the effective call, but they have neglected the general call.

3.       Many New Calvinists Have Embraced Reformed Soteriology but Have Failed to Adopt Reformed Hermeneutics

Listening to new Calvinists debate theology is not for the faint hearted. It is a dog fight. It’s also a bit like a sword drill fight, where contestants battle it out in the hope that they can slay their opponent with their sword of scripture.

Many new Calvinists have come from fundamentalist churches. Fundamentalist churches tend to build their doctrines on isolated scripture verses. Therefore theological debate is all about blasting each other with bible verses.

New Calvinists very often approach the reformed faith with a proof-text hermeneutic. They grasp on to verses, wrestled from context in an attempt to construct a biblical worldview.

The reformed faith does not work like that. The Bible is not read in isolated proof-texts, it is read as a whole. It is read with an over-arching meta-narrative – and that meta-narrative is grounded in the concept of Covenant. When seeking to establish a truth of a doctrine, reformed Christians do not divide conflicting verses and declare the side with the most verses the winner – reformed Christians consider the truth claim in the light of the whole teaching of scripture.

This is why the baptism question can never be settled in a simple proof-text war. In order to understand baptism, you need to understand what it represents and how what it represents was practiced in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Once we understand the nature of the covenant, and the covenant signs and seals in the OT and NT, we will then be more equipped to discuss who the recipients to baptism should be.

If the new Calvinist movement is to mature, I would argue that new Calvinists need to adopt more than reformed soteriology, they need to adopt reformed hermeneutics. That is, they need to approach the bible in a whole new way.

4.       Many New Calvinists Don't Realise that Reformed Theology is Confessional and not Individualistic

The hermeneutic question brings me to my final point. Many new Calvinists still approach the bible in an independent spirit. In the independent evangelical church scene, in theory, sola scriptura is held in high esteem. So this means that the bible has the final say. Therefore every pastor and sermon, should be judged by the hearer, in light of the bible. However the problem with this should be obvious – if everyone is filtering what a preacher says through the bible, the bible is not actually the final authority – the understanding of the hearer is. In other words, my opinion about scripture, and not the scripture itself, is the highest authority for faith and practice.

This is anarchy. And it is reflective of evangelical churches. The problem with this approach to scripture and theology is that it puts the individual at the centre of interpretation. But the reality, is not everyone understands the bible well or correctly. So each one simply believes what they think is right in their own eyes.

The reformed approach on the other hand is very different. The church has searched the scriptures and produced a confession of faith. This confession of faith is what the forefathers believed to be a true summary of scripture. We live in an age when we have very little respect for the past, tradition or human authority – yet the outworking of this simply means we only value our own opinion. Hence, confessionalism is a great corrective to the individualistic and self-exalting spirit of the age.

But what if some parts of the confession are wrong? Well, join a confessional church, raise it with the leaders and ask that it be reviewed. The courts of the church are at liberty to review confessions. However, wisdom recognises that tradition is of more value than innovation. Change should not be made in a whim. Not in this generation when churches change their vision statements and brand name every time they get a new pastor.

Many new Calvinists need to lay down the opinion that they are the most qualified person to judge what a text means. Instead they should seek to read the reformers and the confessions in the light of scripture. Having done so, they may just discover that there is more to Calvinism than a few pet doctrines – there is a rich and robust worldview which is rooted and grounded in a holistic approach to scripture.

So – it’s great that many are turning to the teaching of Calvin – but Calvin’s Institutes has more than one book. He didn’t just write about soteriology, he wrote about the church and many other matters. Further, Calvin is not the authority within the reformed faith – the church confessions are. If we take up the name Calvinist, we should at least take time to discover the rich theological tradition he represented.