A Theological Critique of the New Calvinist Movement

Posted: January 5, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Calvinism, The Mysterious World of American Evangelicalism
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Recently, Kevin DeYoung linked to an article in The Christian Century about the New Calvinist movement.  In the article, Western Theological Seminary Professor J. Todd Billings evaluates the movement’s faithfulness to the broader Reformed tradition.  He believes that “The New Calvinists, with their God-centered message and their focus on dogmatic theology, make a robust contribution to contemporary ecclesial theological conversation.”  As DeYoung notes, Billings briefly highlights some of the ways that the movement has crossed racial boundaries (click here for my thoughts on this development):

Moreover, the New Calvinism displays considerable diversity. African-American rapper Curtis “Voice” Allen is known for his distinctively Calvinist lyrics (“I been exposed to bright lights, the doctrines of grace, I’m elected, imputed perfected . . . Cuz nothing can stop his plan, and as far as the east is from the west more than time zones, man”). The New Calvinists admire not only white Puritans but “black Puritan” voices like Lemuel Haynes and Anthony Carter, who gives an African-American take on the themes of the New Calvinism in On Being Black and Reformed.

At the same time, he believes that the movement focuses too much on TULIP at the expense of the rest of the Reformed theological heritage.  Billings doesn’t believe that TULIP works as a summary of Reformed theology and that wording of “limited atonement” and “irresistible grace” don’t really communicate the Reformed view very well.  See the article for his explanations.  Here are his main critiques:

When Reformed identity is summarized by TULIP, some key elements of the Reformed tradition are lost or distorted.

For example: Reformed theology operates with a catholic and biblical vision. Unlike some Protestants—including some of the New Calvinists—the classical Reformed tradition avoids acting as if the Spirit abandoned the church between the first and the 20th centuries. It believes that the Spirit has been active in the church throughout its history. For the first two centuries of the Reformed tradition in particular, its theologians read extensively from the church fathers and medieval theologians, seeking to discern the Spirit’s work in the past. Major portions of the Reformed confessions draw upon the patristic and medieval Christian teachings on the attributes of God, Christology and the Trinity. On topics like these, the Reformed tradition is catholic.

For the larger Reformed tradition, appropriating the Spirit’s work in the past is not just a task for academic theologians. John Calvin sought to bring the sermons of John Chrysostom to the level of the people by seeking to have them translated into French. In the 19th century, the first major project for translating the church fathers into English (in 38 volumes) was edited by a Reformed scholar, Philip Schaff. Like the contemporary Ancient-Future movement and like parts of the Emergent church, the Reformed tradition is profoundly interested in recovering the wisdom of ancient teachings and practices for today’s community of faith.

But how, amidst the great variety of theology and practice in the church’s past, are we to distinguish the Spirit’s work from error? To this question the Reformed tradition answers: on the basis of the Bible. Theological traditions do not constitute the final authority, but provide a means of moving deeper into a biblical reality.

The Reformed tradition has a sacramental vision. The New Calvinists tend to neglect a central feature of the Reformed faith: the important place given to the sacraments as divine instruments of transformation, presenting Jesus Christ himself to us as a gift, by the Spirit’s power. For Calvin and the early Reformed tradition, doctrines like election were combined with a strong sense that Jesus Christ himself is the mirror of election. Believers should look not to themselves to find assurance of election, but to Jesus Christ. In this context, the sensible, bodily signs and seals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper provide assurance of an intimate union with Christ. Christ alone is the believer’s righteousness, the ground for being chosen by God.

Torn from this sacramental context, the doctrines of election and assurance take on a different character. In a nonsacramental setting, election can quickly become a matter of subjective soul-searching or philosophical speculation about God’s decision made before the foundation of the world. The sacraments provide material assurance of God’s abiding love in uniting believers to Christ by the Spirit. Without a sacramental vision, the doctrine of election can produce anxiety rather than trust.

The Reformed tradition has a kingdomsized vision of God’s work. When it comes to seeing the ways in which God is active in the world, the Reformed tradition says, “Think big.” A Reformed view of the church avoids seeing it as a colony separated from society, or as the particular aspect of society that relates to “being religious.” The church is the community shaped by God through Word and sacrament to bear witness to Christ’s kingdom.

This community exists in the world and has eyes for God’s kingdom as it shows up in hospitals, homes, schools and nature preserves. Some call this emphasis the “cultural mandate” in the Reformed tradition—a mandate not to “take back” American culture through the formation of a Christian subculture, but to send a people formed by Word and sacrament to be salt and light in government, the arts, education and all areas of society. The Reformed tradition provides an alternative both to cultural triumphalism and cultural disengagement. Living ever deeper in their God-given identity in Christ, Chris tians [sic] are to act as agents of cultural transformation without collapsing their calling into uncritical advocacy of a particular cultural-political movement.

DeYoung offers these responses:

1. Not catholic enough. It is true, no doubt, that some neo-Calvinists are ignorant of church history and suspicious of all but their contemporary movements. So let’s make sure we are eager to look at all of Christian history, learn from it, and celebrate what is good. But, I would also add, the New Calvinism is not bereft of historical appreciation.  Clearly, we embrace the Reformers, the Puritans, and heroes of the faith like Edwards and Spurgeon. The New Calvinists I know see themselves as heirs of a tradition that stretches back at least to the Reformation. Where we are weaker is in learning from medieval theologians and early church fathers. But even here there are notable exceptions like Ligon Duncan’s expertise in Patristics and John Piper’s series of biographies, including men like Athanasius and Augustine.

2.  Not sacramental enough. Well, this one depends on where you look and what you are looking for. The New Calvinists are not going to make the Eucharist the center of their worship services. Most of us are not terribly liturgical (though getting more so). But I often hear of young reformed guys excited about Calvin’s view of “real presence” and eager for weekly communion. So I agree with Billings main point here: don’t ignore the sacraments. I would simply add: some New Calvinists may be a-sacramental, but most of the younger leaders I know, especially in Reformed/Presbyterian denominations, are not.

3. Not kingdom enough. Billings would like to see the New Calvinist think big, embrace the cultural mandate, and be salt and light in all areas of society. This one is tricky, because the neo-reformed movement is simply not agreed as to how important this emphasis should be. Some would applaud Billings’ point about cultural transformation. Some would be wary of it. Others would say, “sounds good, but that’s the role of individual Christians, not the church as church.” Be a salt and light? Absolutely. Be neo-Kuyperian? Depends on who you ask.


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