Foundations: No.76 Spring 2019

Book Reviews

The New Calvinism: New Reformation or Theological Fad?

Josh Buice (Editor), Christian Focus, 2017, 127pp, £9.99 (Amazon) / £4.33 (Kindle)

Collin Hansen's Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists, published in 2008, brought the movement to the attention of a worldwide audience, and spoke of it as a “Reformed resurgence”. This book, which is a symposium with five contributors, attempts to evaluate the movement, and although many healthy features are identified, the lasting impression is that the verdict tends more towards “Theological Fad” than “New Reformation”. The “fad” also seems to be more cultural than it is theological.

Josh Buice comments that “the people who make up the movement are not necessarily young” (11), but it is nevertheless quite clear that the appeal is mainly to a youthful, largely white, educated, American, and generally social-media-savvy section of the population. One of his more worrying observations is that “many New Calvinists have a lack of desire to submit to pastoral authority and to be used in a stable local church over a long period of successive years”.  There appears to be “an anti-institutional vein that runs through this modern movement that doesn’t follow in the footsteps of the leaders” (13).

Buice identifies a pragmatism which characterises so much of this movement. In a telling observation, he notes that “perhaps at the heart of pragmatic methodology is the fact that nobody wants to be viewed as a failure. Success is a drug that entices Christians across the evangelical spectrum” (24). The real danger here is that pastors and churches which are not slick and sophisticated in terms of their presentation might be viewed as “failures” and will be shunned by a younger generation who are on the lookout for a certain style of church rather than the substance of what is believed and taught. Buice adds that “Historic Calvinism was not about an edgy cultural appearance or a rogue religious attitude – it was about the gospel… The world will never think the gospel is cool” (27).

Paul Washer’s analysis is typically courageous, searching and indeed unsettling. In particular, he underlines the need for careful and responsible stewardship of the local church. He highlights the distinction between the character of a theological conference, which he likens to “three or four days of heaven on earth”, and that of the local church, where the minister “knows no such glory” (53). Washer rightly argues that a true reformation ushers in changes which are not merely doctrinal, but which “make real changes in our own personal lives and in the Lord’s church” (47). His chapter is less a critique of New Calvinism and more an exhortation to pastors not to trust in an arm of flesh, while they shepherd God’s flock.

Stephen Lawson deals with the subject of holiness, and his central argument is that God “is fundamentally concerned with our godliness before He is with our giftedness… God is principally focused upon the depth of our maturity before the breadth of our ministry” (73). He calls Christians to a life of disciplined thinking, to gird up their minds with God’s truth: “Every aspect of living a holy life begins with sound thinking” (77). Lawson hits one particular nail on the head when he identifies the tendency for many Christians to confuse holiness with legalism, which takes place “when we isolate divine grace from divine law” (75).

Conrad Mbewe writes against a background of charismatic excess and confusion which he has encountered during his ministry. He counsels against believers seeking “individual Pentecosts” without denying that God can himself work in ways that we might reasonably label miraculous. Mbewe longs to see “Spirit empowerment” but he looks for it not in the demonstration of “extraordinary revelations” (108) but in biblical preaching which is effective.

Finally, Tim Challies, in one of the more balanced chapters of the book, sets out the historical context of the development of New Calvinism, demonstrating that it was “a response to the church growth movement” (116) which found its focus in the ministries of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels.  These observations might more helpfully have been made at the beginning of the book. He rightly cautions against the cult of “celebrityism” and warns that mega-conferences “point to a desire to hear celebrities and be where the action is” (122). Challies shows that the reaction to the church growth movement took two forms: the first focused on “authentic Christian community” and became the Emerging Church. The second sought to recover “authentic Christian doctrine” and this became the New Calvinism this book describes.

But a genuine work of God will surely not result in a community-doctrine dichotomy. The immediate consequence of Pentecost was that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship” (Acts 2:42). Doctrine was studied within the context of community; this becomes the prototype for the church in every age.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that New Calvinism is inseparably connected to new technologies. These technologies, and even the presentational means used to try and draw people, are not necessarily bad or sinful. It could be argued, quite reasonably, that the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago would not have happened without the advent of the printing press. But as the philosopher Neil Postman has perceptively noted elsewhere, it is easy for the medium to so shape the message that the medium actually becomes the message.

A work of God which takes place within in a certain culture must, of course, interact with that culture. But which factor will determine the essential character of a movement like New Calvinism: the Word of God or the culture in which it takes place? The present dominance of social media may well result in people being more concerned about gaining “likes”, and the instant acclaim of fellow human-beings, rather than to spend time in prayer with the Father who sees in secret.

It is worth noting that Jonathan Edwards and Robert Murray M’Cheyne are both mentioned several times in the course of this book. Whilst much of Edwards’ theology has been well-publicised in New Calvinism, especially by John Piper, it is the inner, coram deo piety of these two men of God, and others, that so needs rediscovery. The best doctrine arises out of this genuine piety and it tends towards doxology. Theology must never be pursued as if it were an intellectual hobby that can be detached from the heart, the attitudes, the emotions and the whole of life.

It is not easy to define the limits of “New Calvinism” and to state precisely which individuals and agencies belong within it. Would it be accurate to class Ligonier Ministries, or the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, as part of the New Calvinist movement? At one point Challies appears to name Washer, among others, as proponents of “theology in mission” and in so doing appears to identify him with New Calvinism. This is somewhat confusing because, as this book amply demonstrates, Washer is critical of the movement – can it be claimed that he stands within it?

My own reflection is that this book is not so much a critique of “New Calvinism” as of contemporary trends across the western evangelical church, and for that reason it is of interest to Christians on both sides of the Atlantic.  It is a necessary and healthy call to wisdom rather than sophistication, to piety rather than popularity, to faithfulness rather than fame.

Paul Yeulett
Pastor, Grove Chapel, Camberwell, London

 

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