The New Calvinism Considered: A Personal and Pastoral Assessment

December 4, 2013 — 1 Comment

The new Calvinism

Jeremy Walker is a pastor at Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, England. He has written a couple of other books, and is a contributor at Reformation21 and The Wanderer.

In this particular book, The New Calvinism Considered: A Personal and Pastoral Assessment, he is tackling a tricky subject to define, much less assess. Admitting that a final and conclusive assessment is not possible (13), Walker nonetheless attempts his own personal assessment conducted from a pastoral perspective. In that regard, it is neither comprehensive in scope or academic in tone (though something like that might be forthcoming from other observers).

Instead, in quick succession he offers an orientation chapter, a rundown of salient characteristics of the movement, a chapter on commendations, followed by critiques and some concluding counsel. The organization of the book is wonderfully alliterative, and the whole is easily readable in a long morning (I came home to it after Thanksgiving break and had finished it by 10 Monday morning).

Though I am generally sympathetic to Walker’s project (and generally take notice of books that Carl Trueman recommends), there are several difficulties in his work. The first of which, and something Walker somewhat concedes, is that the “new Calvinism” is tricky to concretely define. It is certainly a movement of the young, restless, and more or less Reformed led by older (for the most part), rested, and also more or less Reformed. I say “more or less” because many of the figures Walker highlights are Baptists or non-denominational. At the end of the book there is a glossary of “individuals of note” that gives you a snippet of the background of some of the figures Walker mentions. A few Presbyterians show up, but for the most part, we are talking about people who do not necessarily subscribe to the Reformed confessions (and so would not be considered completely Reformed by the people who do, though that is different topic I don’t have space for here).

Because of that, the “new Calvinism” is almost by default an abstract notion to describe a loose coalition of people who like John Piper and TULIP, but might also describe themselves as charismatic and go to a non-denominational church. Their bookshelf would be full of Carson, Keller, Piper as well as the entire Re:Lit series. They might strongly associate with The Gospel Coalition and Together For The Gospel, and probably read Justin Taylor’s blog. In short, we’re talking about the semi-Calvinistic resurgence movement within the evangelical world in America primarily.

Even without a general definition, I had a good intuitive sense of what Walker was talking about. As he offered his defining characteristics, I would agree with his list:

  • Calvinistic (20-23)
  • Character-driven (23-33)
  • Coalition and Conference laden (33-37)
  • Consolidated (i.e. solidified and somewhat slowing, 38-39)

Similarly, I’m glad he spent the following chapter commending what he could about the movement. Unfortunately, he overqualified most of his praise, or retained rhetoric that tainted it. As an example, consider this comment on Al Mohler:

There is eloquent testimony to this [a return to more biblical tracks in seminaries] in such developments as the so-called Calvinist resurgence among Southern Baptists, largely reflecting the committed stand and sterling work of Al Mohler and others of his ilk in environments like Southern Seminary in Louisville, supported by such movements as Mark Dever’s 9Marks (42-43)

The word “ilk” itself doesn’t have negative overtones, but it seems often used in that way. This may be a breakdown between an English author and an American reader (the word originates in Scotland), but using “ilk” to describe a group of people in the midst of commending them feels like a mixed message. Maybe not Walker’s intention, but is definitely a way it could be construed.

That’s essentially a minor point in the midst of Walker’s genuine commendations, which are the following:

  • It is Christ-oriented and God-honoring
  • It is grace-soaked
  • It is missional
  • It is complimentarian
  • It is immersed and inventive
  • It highlights preaching

The presence of this chapter signifies Walker’s attempt to commend what he can in the midst of a critique and the book is stronger for it (even if the commendations tend to be over-qualified, as I mentioned earlier).

Moving to the critiques, here is the list that Walker offers:

  • It is pragmatic and tends toward commercialism
  • It has an unbalanced view of culture
  • It has a troubling approach to holiness
  • It has a potentially dangerous ecumenism
  • It has a genuine tension with regard to the spiritual gifts
  • It exhibits a degree of arrogance and triumphalism

As far as this list goes, I would, in my own qualified way, tend to agree with most of it. The one I have the most issue with the unbalanced view of culture.I think Walker fails to represent well a Kuyperian approach in both principle and practice. There is certainly a tendency of certain types of people associated with the “new Calvinsim” to be “worldly.” However, the people within the movement who are thinking about culture in an informed way are not so much, and are certainly not treating culture as “neutral” which is what Walker suggests.

In the main though, most of the other critiques are timely, though they disproportionately center on Mark Driscoll (who I would say is the main offender behind the commercialism, ecumenism, and tension with spiritual gifts). The Elephant Room nonsense gets discussed, and was genuinely troubling to me at the time. I have posted my own thoughts on that here and here. The issues with pragmatism and particularly ecumenism are significant, though I don’t think as big of an issue when it comes to more well respected thinkers associated with the movement (Carson, Keller, Piper), but does come out when dealing with fringe characters (Steven Furtick and Perry Noble).

What I thought was the most significant issue though is the troubling approach to holiness and the latent antinomianism that is present in Tullian Tchividjian’s writings and influential in certain circles within the “new Calvinism.” Tchividjian isn’t the only one, but is probably the most well-known and/or influential. This isn’t to say everything he says is wrong, but it is to say his approach to sanctification is wrong. To the extent that people associated with the “new Calvinism” buy into it, their spiritual life will veer off track in a more serious way than if they are wrongly influenced by some of the factors that Walker brings up.

Those other factors, while legitimate in the figures that Walker uses as examples are not as widespread across all quarters as I think he thinks they are. Because it is a short personal assessment, Walker only has time to highlight in detail negative examples. And because it is a pastoral example, he picks up the issues that he sees as most pressing in a pastoral context.

On the whole then, I would say this book is worth a read if you would consider yourself a “new Calvinist.” If you’re a fan of Carson/Keller/Piper and would love to go the Resurgence or Gospel Coalition conference, this book is something you need to read. It can offer a good corrective, or at least an outside perspective of someone who is all for Calvinism (that is basically Walker’s concluding counsel – press deeper into true Calvinism), but is not for some of the baggage and issues that are cropping up within semi-Calvinistic American evangelicalism.


Jeremy Walker, The New Calvinism Considered: A Personal and Pastoral AssessmentFaverdale North, Darlingon, UK: EP Books, October 2013.  128 pp. Paperback, $10.99

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Thanks to EP Books for the review copy!

Nate

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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

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