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Are the “New Calvinists” Reformed?

Time Magazine ranks the “New Calvinism” as number three on the list of the top ten ideas changing the world. This is actually a self-applied term by the Mark Driscoll crowd, and basically it names a movement within the emergentish sector of evangelical Christians (i.e. middle class white people in their twenties and early thirties) toward a few theological emphases. Basically it amounts to an enthusiastic propagation of a strongly deterministic account divine providence and predestination, strong advocacy for a hierarchical theology of gender roles both in the church and home, and a zealous missiology.

One of the key adjectives for this group is the label “Reformed.” They take great delight in affirming their distinct status as the new heirs of the Reformed tradition. They love Spurgeon, Edwards, Calvin, and any and all things Puritan.

However, a look at the theological conflicts within the Presbyterian and Reformed churches in America reveal something interesting. Within actual Reformed churches there is massive infighting over what counts as truly being “Reformed.” Within the more conservative denominations there is a strong surge towards reasserting the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth century as the definition of what it means to belong to the Reformed tradition.

In short, in response to various theological developments, particularly related to Pauline scholarship, there is a massive resurgence of a rigid confessionalism as the definition of Reformed identity. And on the one hand, this is fairly reasonable, I think. After all, if you want the adjective to have an meaning as a moniker it has to have some concrete content. However, if the Reformed confessions are taken as a stable criterion of what counts as being “Reformed”, then the irony is that the New Calvinists are not Reformed at all. Key Reformed distinctives, like infant baptism, Christ’s Eucharistic presence, the threefold pattern of ministry, etc. are not embraced by the New Calvinists.

So, what we really have in this new movment is not actually a rebirth of “Reformed theology” in any historically meaningful sense. What we have is a typically evangelical gerrymandering of historical sources designed to support a few key theological commitments, namely to a strong theology of determinism and gender roles. So, the interesting question to be asking, then, is not “Why is Reformed theology making a comeback?” becuase it, in fact is not. Rather the interesting question is why is there such a substantial evangelical undertow attracting people to a strongly deterministic doctrine of God and rigidly defined gender roles?

8 Comments

  1. Paul wrote:

    That’s easy: post-modernism scares people. Historical criticism, despite being two centuries old, still scares people. Feminism, and an egalitarian pulpit, still scares people. A church without the cultural and political muscle it used to have (The American church up until the end of the 20th century), scares people. A world that looks like its rapidly going to shit, scares people.

    All of these except the last one I gladly embrace (except some aspects of feminism) and don’t consider enemies of the church. The “New Calvinists” look like reactionaries to me.

    Monday, March 30, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I agree. I think one would have to be quite blind to avoid seeing the supremely insecure sort of assertion of “masculinity” that is behind all of this stuff.

    Monday, March 30, 2009 at 3:08 pm | Permalink
  3. Robert wrote:

    I wouldn’t want to defend the New Calvinists if I could help it, but I thought I’d suggest something in regard to confessions. Many of the self-styled new Calvinists subscribe to what is known as the “1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith”–basically the Westminster confession with the portions about infant baptism excised and replaced.

    I find the movement an interesting twist in history because it resurrects with remarkable force a small but influential mini-stream of baptistic calvinists (or “particular baptists”) whose leading lights were John Bunyan, John Gill, and Charles Spurgeon. I know several such new Calvinists (and several who look askance at the new Calvinists and consider themselves more a part of the old-school particular baptists—basically new Calvinism without the manly (?), coolness factor of Driscoll), and the question of whether they are “truly reformed” which you raise here is a very red-button issue.

    Laughably obvious, though, eh?

    Monday, March 30, 2009 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Well, what’s fun about it is that the New Calvinist folk I encounter tend to make comments about how as soon as you deviate from “solid Reformed theology” you begin the sure and certain progression from Arminian to Unitarian and then end up a godless pagan. So letting them know that they’re not “really” Reformed, or I suppose, really Calvinist gives me some diabolical pleasure.

    Monday, March 30, 2009 at 3:35 pm | Permalink
  5. Robert wrote:

    I can see how that would be enjoyable.

    =)

    It saddens me to see so many (I go to a traditionally “reformed” college at the moment) wasting their polemical energy and missionary zeal in using their Bible mainly as a tool for deciding which confession to replace it with.

    Monday, March 30, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  6. Mike L wrote:

    In the combox so far, nobody has mentioned the determinism of both the old and the “new” Calvinists–or more specifically, double predestinationism. That’s the aspect of Calvinism which has always and fully turned me off. I’m a synergist, not a monergist.

    Of course, there’s always the appeal of it to those of reactionary and/or sexist temperament. I know a new Calvinist, an ex-Catholic, who believes that the Catholic Church is too liberal for allowing “natural family planning.”

    Monday, March 30, 2009 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
  7. Emily Jordan wrote:

    While I do not hold completely to Reformed theology or doctrine, I realize that there is Freedom in Christ and that each of us has our own personal convictions regarding gender roles, etc. That being said, I have fully accepted ALL who are saved as brothers and sisters in Christ. I am wondering why so many (as suggested by the comments left here) are not, and instead, talking as if they are the enemy. Maybe starting with the many commonalities that we hold and the only salvific one of eternal life through Jesus Christ is the first step toward unity.

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 5:27 am | Permalink
  8. Emily Jordan wrote:

    I found this article at “theresurgence.com” and think that it adds to my comment above:

    “Sadly, Cruel Calvinists are a small but loud bunch. Thus, now more than ever, it is vital that all Christians in general, and Reformed Christians in particular, demonstrate the kind of love and humility that our theology requires. The cruel, flame-thrown half-truths and misquotes between Christians do not speak well to the watching world of the love we are supposed to share. Therefore, it is vital that we distinguish between what I will call state and national theological borders.

    Theological National Boundaries
    Indeed, there are theological national borders that need to be retained, such as Scripture as God’s Word; God as Trinitarian community; humanity as sinful; Jesus as God and man; the virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus; and the necessity of Jesus alone for salvation from sin, hell, and the wrath of God.

    State Boundaries
    Beyond these sorts of national borders are state borders. State borders include spiritual gifts, baptism, communion, worship styles, Bible translations, sense of humor, and the like. Various states can have their own proverbial borders on these issues. Nonetheless, like states we must be able to live as a loving and unified nation. We cannot turn our state borders into national borders and refuse to live at peace in unity and love with those who live in other proverbial states. Simply, the state borders should not be battle lines where personal and theological wars are fought because bigger things are at stake, such as the evangelizing of lost people and the planting of missional churches.

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 6:38 am | Permalink

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