Two Cheers for the Resurgence of Calvinism in Evangelicalism: A Wesleyan-Arminian Perspective

The following is a guest post by Thomas McCall, assistant professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. (I interviewed Dr. McCall on Calvinisim vs. Arminianism here.) The following is a significantly abridged version of remarks he delivered at the invitation of the Aldersgate Society at TEDS.

The rise of what is popularly termed “Calvinism” or “Reformed theology” among younger evangelicals is well known. Here are a few observations from a sympathetic (albeit quite unconvinced) observer.

I. Two Cheers
The first cheer: These “New Calvinists” care about theology. They really care. A lot. They understand that doctrine matters for the life of the soul – and for the life of the church. They read voraciously, they discuss passionately, and they write prolifically. They understand that there are important existential and pastoral implications, and they want to see a “pattern of sound doctrine” become deeply ingrained in their personal, familial, and ecclesial lives.

They have a strong commitment to the authority of Scripture, and they want to know God as he reveals himself – and not as we might like him to be. They take seriously, and defend energetically, such doctrines as substitutionary atonement and the classic Protestant account of justification. Moreover, (to understate things drastically) they care about the doctrine of divine sovereignty. Ours is a context in which these doctrines are considered unimportant – ours is also a context in which these doctrines sometimes are charged with being sub-biblical and even non-Christian. What’s not to like about seeing so many people care so much about theology? And what’s not to appreciate about seeing so many people completely committed to worshiping God as he graciously reveals himself to us?

These New Calvinists care about theology. A lot. More importantly, though, they care about God. They exhibit passion for God – they want to know his greatness and revel in his grace. Theology for them is anything but a parlor game; nor is it only a means to some supposedly greater end (as in: “well, people in our churches are dissatisfied with their level of understanding, so let’s market more depth”). Theology is important because it is all about God: knowing, worshiping, glorifying, and enjoying him.

This brings me to my second cheer: these New Calvinists care about holiness. To know God is to know that God is holy. The New Calvinists get that, and they want their lives to be in step with him. They are anything but content with a soteriology that reduces redemption to a cosmic I-pass or “get out of hell free” card. No, they know that God is holy, and they know that to walk with the Holy One is to be transformed. Thus they know that the doctrine of sanctification matters, and they pursue holiness vigorously. Some of them offer testimonies in which they describe their “discovery of divine sovereignty” in language similar to the way some Christians in the Wesleyan tradition refer to a “second definite work of grace” or “second crisis experience.” And all of this for good reason: they read the Puritans and (especially) Edwards. They know that holiness matters. They get it. And I, for one, appreciate it.

II. Only Two Cheers? Some Cautionary Notes and Advice for which No One Really Asked

I thank God for what is so good about this New Calvinism, but I also have some concerns. Trying really hard to leave the substantive theological disagreements aside for now, I mention a few observations about some rather worrisome features of this movement.

One is this: they would do well to know their own tradition better. Consider as a case study the doctrine of divine sovereignty. I take it to be universally accepted (or at least nearly so) among the New Calvinists that divine sovereignty entails determinism. But Richard Muller (a top-tier Reformation scholar and the leading historian of 17th century Reformed theology) insists that within post-Reformation scholasticism there is “not even a tendency toward metaphysical determinism” (PRRD, I, p. 128). Muller says this as he is applying the finishing touches to the coffin for the old “central dogma” myth. But it seems quite obvious to me that there indeed is a central dogma to the New Calvinism: belief that God determines everything, and that he does so for his own glory, is taken to be necessary and sufficient. If you are a Christian who believes this, then you can safely claim to be “Reformed.” But by more traditional accounts, it is less than obvious that this is either necessary or sufficient.

Furthermore, it would be good if they would set themselves to the task of coming to a better understanding of the broader Christian tradition. I know that we all need this advice (well, at least I do), but it seems to me that the New Calvinists are far more interested in reading Edwards or Owen (worthy reads to be sure) than they are in mining the riches of patristic theology or grappling with the subtleties of medieval scholasticism. This is, I fear, to the detriment of the movement, and more development in this area might go some distance toward loosening the unhealthy reliance of some of these New Calvinists on what might be called the “Neo-Reformed Magisterium” (the small group of theologians and conference speakers who are sometimes quoted as the final word on any theological topic at issue… if you doubt what I say, consult Collin Hansen’s sobering observations about “Piper fiends” and those who “worship” John Piper, Young, Restless, Reformed, pp. 14, 46).

No theological tradition has cornered the market on arrogance. I have been accused of it (sometimes, I fear, with very good reason). Yet there seems to be – though I’m sure that what I say here is highly fallible – an amazing quantity of it among the New Calvinists. I’ve been told that my resistance to “the doctrines of grace” (no hubris in that label?) is a sign of my probable reprobation. I’ve had the senior pastor of a fine evangelical church tell me that although we were welcome to attend, I could not expect to be involved in any way because I was not “Reformed” – even though this particular church was not confessionally Reformed at all (their official statement of faith was generically evangelical). A friend (who teaches theology in a seminary in the Methodist tradition) told me of helping an incoming student (at a seminary in the Reformed tradition) move into a neighboring house. When the incoming student – who, if memory serves, was about to begin an MDiv – discovered that my friend was a Wesleyan, he quickly said “you guys don’t think much about things, do you?” Another friend expressed doubts about aspects of Calvinism and then was rejected by a missions agency for perceived confusion about the gospel. Alas, such stories are not rare. They are legion. Again, I am well aware that New Calvinism does not have a monopoly on theological arrogance, and I’m also very happy to say that many Calvinists do not exhibit this at all. And perhaps it is simply easier to spot it in someone else. Still, though, I mention it as an abiding concern.

I thank God for these New Calvinists, and sometimes I’m convicted to pray for the blessing of their ministries. I appreciate so much their evident concern for biblical and theological fidelity, their passion for God and his glory, and their heartbeat that Christ be exalted and sinners redeemed. And I pray that we will know that we belong to one another in the communion of the Triune God, that we will understand that we are called to live and love together, and that we will see more clearly the greatness of the sheer, unalterable goodness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.