The Christian Century and the New Calvinism
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.