Posted by: stpowen | November 5, 2014

More on the New Calvinism

A few months ago, I wrote {1} a few brief comments on E. S. Williams’ book, The New Calvinists (Wakeman Books, 2014). A more substantial review by Professor Donald Macleod has appeared in the pages of Evangelicals Now {2}.

An interesting question which comes from Prof. Macleod’s comments is, What is a ‘Calvinist’? Is the term synonymous with ‘Reformed’? For many people, including, presumably, most of the ‘New Calvinists,’ the term means simply subscribing to the so-called ‘Five Points.’ But Calvin, as Macleod points out, was a whole lot more than that. To some he was a Presbyterian; therefore no one who is Episcopalian or an Independent is truly Calvinistic. To others, he was a paedobaptist; therefore Baptists cannot be Calvinists. Others focus on the great man’s eschatology, arguing that Dispensationalists (pace John MacArthur) cannot be Calvinists. To Prof. Macleod, Calvin believed above all in the Regulated Principle of Worship: ‘That every department of the life of the church had to be legitimated by Scripture: not only her theology, but her worship and organisation as well.’

It is very unfortunate that no clear meaning has been agreed to such terms as Evangelical, Calvinistic or Reformed. The problem is that everyone adopts the position of Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland: ‘When I say a word, it means exactly what I want it to mean, neither more nor less.’ So Prof. Macleod excludes all adherents to modern praise music from his Calvin Club, while allowing in ‘theistic evolutionists,’ presumably because he is one. It is interesting to observe that Dr. Lloyd-Jones denied that such people even qualified as evangelicals {2}!

One area where Dr. Williams and Prof. Macleod seem to be in agreement is that of Para-church organizations. These have come on thick and fast in the past twenty years or so, and Acts 29, The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God Ministries, Reformission, the Proclamation Trust and the Porterbrook Network are all attacked directly by Dr. Williams and a little more circumspectly by Prof. Macleod. ‘What cannot be denied is that these bodies are now doing the work which, in the view of historic Calvinism, was the work of the church.’

The only para-church organization with which I am directly involved is Gideons International. I am a Gideon because I do not see that the work we do would be done by individual churches. If one is wholly and utterly committed to the Regulative Principle, then I suppose the answer would be, let it not be done then, but a steady flow of testimonies from people saved by reading a Gideon Bible or Testament in a hotel or prison cell, or received at school tells me that God would have the work done. Mark 9:38 is the text that I would offer.

The Proclamation Trust is the only other para-church organization with which I have any real familiarity. Dr. Williams attacks it principally because Tim Keller is sometimes involved with it. Prof. Macleod says that churches have the responsibility to train preachers and pastors; so they do, but what happens if the training is not being done, or being done badly? What happens if the Pastor has been trained in a seminary where the word of God is not taught? In my very limited experience, the ‘Proc. Trust’ does a wonderful work teaching Pastors and lay-preachers how to do expository preaching.

Prof. Macleod writes, ‘There is indeed a New Calvinism and there is a serious risk that it will re-reform the Reformed churches in a very un-Reformed way and set us off in a fatally wrong direction.’ So he, like Dr. Williams, regards the New Calvinism as a Bad Thing. Well, maybe there are some folk who are leaving Reformed churches to attend New Calvinist ones. Insofar as this is happening, it is certainly not good, but what both men are failing to understand is that a whole new generation of young Christians are being exposed to the Doctrines of Grace for the first time by men like John Piper and Tim Keller. Even the teaching of Mark Driscoll, whom I really would not recommend to anyone, has, to my certain knowledge, had a beneficial effect on some young people inasmuch as it has exposed them to serious theology for the first time. This can only be a Good Thing.

The New Calvinists have reached people who would never go near a Reformed church. They have made the doctrines of grace come alive to a generation that has known nothing but the pap of a Joel Osteen, the unbiblical excesses of the Charismatic movement or the heretical nonsense of a Steve Chalke. Is the New Calvinism an Unadulterated Good then? No, it is not. Its leaders have built upon the foundation of Christ partly with gold, silver and precious stones, but partly with wood, hay and straw (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11ff). What the ‘Truly Reformed’ need to be doing is to encourage and support what is good, and to show, gently and reasonably, where some of it falls short; to look at themselves and see where they have been less than welcoming to young people and have made Calvinism appear dry and dusty, thus driving them into the arms of the New Calvinists; and to make the best of Reformed literature available as widely as possible to show the more excellent way.

I believe that there are God-given opportunities that have not existed since Spurgeon’s time for Reformed Theology to have a real effect upon the Christian youth of today. But in order to bring this about, Reformed leaders will have to end their isolation, get involved with the University Christian Unions which are flourishing in many cities, get really good books on sale at conferences like New Word Alive, and support those evangelical churches in the mixed denominations who are looking for support as they prepare to leave.

{3} What is an Evangelical? By D. M. Lloyd-Jones (Banner of Truth, 1992: ISBN 0 85151 626 2



  1. Jeremy Walker’s book on this subject is, I have found, far more balanced and helpful. And as for para-church organisations, I am surprised that EW has left some un-attacked, even though they are blameless!

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