Here’s an interesting article in the usually left-of-center Christian Century on the New Calvinism. It is written by Todd Billings, professor of theology at Western Theological Seminary (Holland, Michigan). Billings covers some familiar ground: John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Between Two Worlds, Jonathan Edwards, ESVSB, and Al Mohler (though he makes a mistake in suggesting that Mohler “introduced” a Calvinist doctrinal statement at Southern; he merely asked the faculty to sign the existing statement). I was glad to see him also mention the African-American element in the reformed resurgence. In the second half of the article, Billings explains how TULIP is often misunderstood. Finally, he argues that TULIP is not the only flower in the Calvinist garden.

The article is somewhat sympathetic, but offers some concluding challenges.

The New Calvinists, with their God-centered message and their focus on dogmatic theology, make a robust contribution to contemporary ecclesial theological conversation. But they tend to obscure the fact that the Reformed tradition has a deeply catholic heritage, a Christ-centered sacramental practice and a wide-lens, kingdom vision for the Christian’s vocation in the world. The New Calvinists pick the TULIP from the Reformed field, overlooking the other flowers. There is much besides the TULIP in this spacious field that has grown from the seed of God’s word.

How might we respond to these three challenges (all of which are explained in greater detail in the article)?

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.

As always, take time to read the whole article. Todd Billings is a fellow RCA guy and I’ve heard good things about him. At the very least, it is good to get an outsiders’ perspective on the circles many of us travel in and what some of our blindspots might be.

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17 thoughts on “The Christian Century and the New Calvinism”

  1. I highly commend Todd’s book, “Calvin, Participation, and the Gift” (Oxford UP, 2008)–though it can be tough slogging (and is horribly expensive). I think some of his current projects will be more accessible but will still embody the more generous, catholic Calvinism he’s emphasizing.

    The CC article is a nice summary, and I’m encouraged that you resonate with some of these emphases. I think you’re location within the RCA is important for attuning you to these concerns. Not all of our “new Calvinist” friends have the same ecclesiological frameworks. And I’m sympathetic with your worries on the third point re: kingdom and culture. I share Todd’s concern there, but I also share your concern about Kuyperian confidence. (I have similar concerns about the recent fascination with “two kingdom” thought amongst Reformed folk.)

    I was intrigued to see Todd’s piece last week since I just sent off the manuscript for my next book, “Letters to a Young Calvinist,” which will cover similar ground, though with some different emphases and concerns.

    [By the way, do folks now use “neo-Calvinist” the way you just did? I thought that term was reserved for a Kuyperian stream, especially one inherited through Dooyeweerd. It seems to me describing the “new Calvinists” as “neo-Calvinists” could lead to some real confusion.]

  2. Sorry, “you’re” should read “your.”

  3. Michael says:

    I found this interesting…

    In these conversations, only if one is a “five-point Calvinist” is one truly Reformed.

    Of course, he did go own to say being Reformed is more than TULIP. It appears Billings is trying to stress that being Reformed means accepting everything the reformers held. Which goes back to R. Scott Clark’s argument that “Reformed” is reserved for those who practice, among other things, paedobaptism.

  4. Bill Burns says:

    I’m pretty sure most folks reading this blog at least know about the folks over at Feeding on Christ and their excellent podcast, Christ the Center (or Reformed Forum, whatever). Their current offering, their 100th podcast, goes all over the ground this post and these comments are covering so far, specifically Michael’s comment above about what it is to be ‘truly Reformed, and even Scott Clark’s (& others’ views about paedobaptism, etc.). I’m pretty sure as well, that the Christ the Center guys, on their OTHER podcast, the Reformed Media Review (about books), have discussed Billing’s OUP book mentioned above. You’d have to search their bibliographies to locate which one, though.

  5. Kevin DeYoung says:

    I’m not sure about the labels. I use neo-reformed, neo-Calvinist, New Calvinism, and “young, restless, and reformed” as synonyms. Maybe I need to be more careful. I’m sure most of the people I’m thinking about don’t read Dooyeweerd. I know I haven’t.

  6. Bill Burns says:

    Found the specific link on the blogsite for Reformed Media Review, should anyone want to hear their treatment of the book:

    http://reformedforum.org/rmr9/

  7. Calvin Chen says:

    I do think in theological circles, “neo-Calvinist” is synonymous with Kuyperian, at least to the same extent that “Reformed” should mean Calvinistic, so I second James Smith’s concern and I really hope “neo-calvinist” continues to mean Kuyperian for the sake of clarity and sanity — it’s hard keeping up with all of these labels! However, “neo-reformed,” “New Calvinism,” and “young, restless, and reformed” are fairly interchangeable in my mind.

    I affirm Scott Clark and @Michael’s concern that “Reformed” as a denominational and theological identity is again evolving. I’m OK with Mohler, Piper, Dever, Driscoll et all calling themselves “Reformed” because they are “Reformed Baptists” and there is certainly a reverence for the legacy of John Calvin and re-aligning our faith with historic, biblical Christianity along the lines of his teaching. There are certainly degrees of Reformed, though, and I hear those asking for a separate designation (confessionally Reformed?)

  8. Drew K says:

    I liked the New Century article for the sake of clarity. And Kevin has added further clarity. I was appalled at Scott Clark’s recent blog discussion about what it means to be Reformed or is it reformed or reforming? He came off as “more-Reformed-than-thou.” You get my drift. Arrogance. It was a lot of quibbling about words. It was as if he wanted Reformed Baptists to drop the Reformed part of their name because the truly Reformed had a copyright on the word. If they did, then how would they be distinguished from other Baptists? No doubt some of these other Baptists might want them to drop the Baptist part. Clarity is good, claiming ownership of a word is “ivory tower” nonsense.

  9. chris says:

    Drew K,
    You are a true post-modernist. Hey, if it’s a fishing rod, you can call it a donut.

    Any time you start down the historicist path, you need to honor the historic meaning of a word. Dr. Clark is simply asserting classic reformed meaning. This is a historicist perspective, and with any historicism, the Scriptures themselves take backseat. This is just the nature of the task in which you are now engaging. You need to be honest, and accept the magisterial reformers’ definitions, even if you do not agree with them. Calvin and all other reformers were paedobaptists, and they had anabaptists such as yourself thrown out of their respective cities. This is simply the historical truth. Dr. Clark is not arrogant, just a very well trained historian. Why do the ignorant always call the learned arrogant, when the bottom line is your own ignorance?

    Mr. Chen,
    Check out Steve Bishops site for some great stuff about classic Neo-Calvinism; and Andrew Basden’s site where he argues for a new term for Neo-Calvinism or Dooyeweerdian stuff — “Extreme Philosophy”.

    I do personal work in Dooyeweerdian philosophy in the area of aural and visual aesthetics. So I have an investment in clarifying the use of the terms “Neo-Calvinism”. I prefer Basden’s ideas.

  10. Arthur Sido says:

    Chris,

    Not merely “thrown out of their cities” but drowned and burned no differently than the Papists did to the Reformers. You need to be honest as well.

    Drew is exactly right. Clark is pompous and arrogant. Those labels seem appropriate for you as well based on your comment. Dr. Clark’s vision of what constitutes being Reformed is dying out. That is a good thing. If you want to hide out on a mountaintop with the other “Pure Reformed” go ahead. The rest of us will carry on the work of proclaiming the Gospel instead of fondly recollecting the 16th century martyring of our brothers in Christ.

  11. chris says:

    Arthur,
    You’ll get no defense of that stuff from me. I was simply pointing out the historic reality of identifying oneself with the Reformed. It is a tight-rope endeavor. Historicism is one of the major dangers that those who claim to be reformed face.

    But, defending oneself as “reformed” while denying the better part of the reformed principles is just not honest or intelligent.

    Both approaches are mistaken in my opinion. Both Clark and the Baptists are mistaken in their dogmatism, because both are taking on historically determined identities that no longer exist or never did. Once one gets involved in such fights, one must deal with the real meaning of terms as defined by the men who framed them — not how they would like to have them framed today. Clark is seeking to be faithful to the original formulations. Is this right? As an historian, yes. As a basis for the faith, no. This is where many reformed go wrong. But redefining history is not the answer either.

    So, please, take it easy on slinging the “pompous and arrogant” labels around. You, frankly, misunderstood me.

  12. MJ Nienhuis says:

    Has there ever been repentance by the Catholic church for the martyrdom of the many protestants. If so please point me to where i would not be ignorant of this repentance. And am i missing other persecutions and martyrdom amongst the various factions of the church that are comparable to those of the Catholic church?

    Merry Christmas >

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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