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New Calvinism and the News

Submitted by on February 17, 2014 – 9:31 am4 Comments

Viva Luther“New Calvinism,” the common label for the revival of Calvinism in American Protestantism, has been going on for more than twenty years. In the past several years, it has become big news. In 2009, TIME Magazine identified New Calvinism as one of the “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now,” [1] while the New York Times Magazine featured it in an article entitled, “Who Would Jesus Smack Down?” [2] Now in 2014, Mark Oppenheimer of The New York Times [3] calls it a “Calvinist revival” in evangelicalism and reports that their numbers include such important evangelical pastors and writers as John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and Tim Keller.

The theology of New Calvinists is nothing new. Like their predecessors, they uphold the sovereignty of God, total depravity of sinners, predestination, and salvation through the work of Christ. And Calvinism has been highly influential in American history and culture since colonial times.

But many evangelicals are finding Calvinism new and compelling when compared to the preaching and teaching that has dominated contemporary evangelicalism. This message has played down sinfulness, portrayed Jesus as wimpy, and urged self-help. By being thoroughly God-centered rather than focused on people and their problems, New Calvinists are up front about how much is at stake. Their message often comes across as more serious, more realistic, and more powerful.

In the recent Times article [3], Oppenheimer points out, “Calvinism is a theological orientation, not a denomination or organization.” Accordingly, this Calvinist revival is a theological revival, and it is not confined to particular denominations or traditions.

Sometimes this revival has not gone down well with others in their church body. Oppenheimer cited a 2012 LifeWay Research survey [4] of more than 1,000 pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). This survey found that 30% agreed that their church were “theologically Reformed or Calvinist,” 30% agreed that their churches were  “theologically Arminian or Wesleyan,” and over 60% were “concerned about the impact of Calvinism in our convention.” Concerns in some cases are quite serious, as charges of heresy [5] and worries about misrepresentation [3] have surfaced. In response, the SBC convened the Calvinism Advisory Committee. It issued a statement in 2013. [6]

What comes of all this is, of course, unclear. Perhaps New Calvinism is just a fad. Oppenheimer’s article ended on this question, while Travis Scholl’s piece on STLtoday.com [7] suggested that it is represents yet another swing of the pendulum in American religion. Both make sense, because New Calvinism is a reaction.

But it’s here for now, and it raises various thoughts and questions. Here are a few:

  • According to reports like these, New Calvinism comes across as a protest against the majority of American Protestant churches, liberal and especially conservative.  To what extent is New Calvinism flourishing because of this? Is there a lesson to be learned, and if so, what is it?
  • As Mark Oppenheimer put it, the Calvinism of the New Calvinists is “a theological orientation, not a denomination or organization.” And that has been the source of some tensions. So we might well ask: What is the ecclesiology of New Calvinism—in what ways does “being Calvinist” mean “being Church”?
  • Lutherans, at any rate, have an ecclesiology. Their account of the Church is inseparably connected to faith in and confession of Jesus Christ, to the ministry of the Word, and to theological orientation (and not just theological content). Lutherans confess that there is one holy Church, and that she is composed of believers in Christ Jesus, the Son of God and the Lord. This faith comes by hearing, and so the pure preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the sacraments are necessary. One can readily explain how the “theological orientation” of Lutheranism arises from and is consistent with this ecclesiology (see the opening paragraphs to the Preface to the Book of Concord, and in their light see also the first seventeen articles of the Augsburg Confession and the Large Catechism on the Creed). Now, here are some questions: With this in mind, could there ever be something like “New Lutheranism”? Why or why not? If there were, would it really be “Lutheran”?

Endnotes

[1] “The New Calvinism,” by David Van Biema, TIME, 12 Mar 2009. content.time.com/time

http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1884779_1884782_1884760,00.html

[2] Molly Worthen, “Who Would Jesus Smack Down?” The New York Times Magazine, 11 Jan 2009. www.nytimes.com

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/11/magazine/11punk-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[3] “Evangelicals Find Themselves in the Midst of a Calvinist Revival” by Mark Oppenheimer, The New York Times, 3 Jan 2014. www.nytimes.com

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/04/us/a-calvinist-revival-for-evangelicals.html?_r=0

[4] “SBC Pastors Polled on Calvinism and Its Effects” by Russ Rankin, 12 June 2012. www.lifeway.com

http://www.lifeway.com/Article/research-sbc-pastors-polled-on-calvinism-affect-on-convention

[5] “As Baptists Prepare to Meet, Calvinism Debate Shifts to Heresy Accusation,” by Weston Gentry, 18 June 2012. www.christianitytoday.com

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/juneweb-only/baptists-calvinism-heresy.html

[6] “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension,” by the Calvinism Advisory Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, June 2013. www.sbclife.org

http://www.sbclife.org/Articles/2013/06/sla5.asp

[7] “What’s up among the evangelicals?” by Travis Scholl, 29 Jan 2014. www.stltoday.com

http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/civil-religion/travis-scholl/what-s-up-among-the-evangelicals/article_6c18b6aa-8906-11e3-9804-001a4bcf6878.

4 Comments »

  • Matthew Priem says:

    I haven’t heard of this, but I may have seen some evidence of it. Is this movement actually a renewed interest in Calvin himself, and his theology, or are we merely seeing a trend among “important” preachers reacting to culture in a way similar to how Calvin did and coming independently to similar conclusions?

    • Joel Okamoto says:

      Thanks for your question.

      There is a real interest in Calvin and Calvinist theology here, and not merely pastors “coming independently to similar conclusions.”

      To be sure, New Calvinism is a reaction, but a reaction especially to a lot of evangelical preaching and teaching.

      I should also mention, however, that the Oppenheimer article did suggest that preachers don’t necessarily name or quote Calvin. However, his influence and his theology are impacting preaching and teaching.

  • David Rosenkoetter says:

    Dr. Okamoto, how does the Calvinist discussion of “definite” atonement fit in here? Could it be a recasting of the “limited” atonement which most traditional Calvinists have taught for centuries? If so, it seems to me that we Lutherans need not recast any of our terms or arguments but rather apply Chemnitz’s writing, particularly in the Formula of Concord, THE TWO NATURES OF CHRIST and THE LORD’S SUPPER when engaging in discussions with Calvinists of various stripes.

    • Joel Okamoto says:

      Thanks for your question.

      “Definite atonement” is another term for “limited atonement” in what I have seen.

      It isn’t a “recasting” of the doctrine as much as a different term, one that accents that Christ’s death “definitely atones” the elect, rather than referring to the scope or reach, which is “limited.”

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