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Book Review: The New Calvinism Considered

Jeremy Walker. The New Calvinism Considered: A Personal and Pastoral AssessmentDarlington: EP Books, 2013. 128 pp. $10.99.

Introduction
NCCTULIP. DG. GTY. CHBC. SBTS. TGC. T4G. SGM. CBMW. If you know what all these acronyms mean and in different degrees cherish and appreciate what they stand for, you might be a “new Calvinist.” For the rest, the “new Calvinism” is the name given to an encouraging trend that emerged in recent years across the American evangelical landscape – young people in pockets across the country were discovering the doctrines of grace (more commonly referred to as the five points of Calvinism) and being awakened to a majestic view of God, His glory, and His sovereignty. They were reading meaty theology by contemporary theologians as well as Puritan divines. They were eschewing the moralistic therapeutic deism that shrouds much of contemporary American evangelicalism and becoming increasingly captivated by the biblical gospel. And people started to notice. In 2006 Collin Hansen published an article in Christianity Today documenting observations about this phenomenon entitled “Young Restless, Reformed,” and two years later it was published into a book bearing the same name.  Then, in 2009, Time Magazine placed “The New Calvinism” third in its list of “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.”

Overview
Yet, the new Calvinism is a difficult movement to assess because it is not monolithic; it’s not a single or uniform entity. Jeremy Walker himself acknowledges this in The New Calvinism Considered (17) and defends the necessity of painting with a broad brush, making generalizations for which exceptions exist. He makes clear in Chapter 1 that this book is a personal and pastoral assessment, acknowledging that he does not have the monopoly on insights into individual figures and the movement as a whole, and that he is not claiming to speak a final and infallible word on the matter. Walker is aware that he might be mistaken and is open to correction. He also expresses that he is seeking to provide a balanced and irenic appreciation.

In Chapter 2, Walker lays out four characteristics of the new Calvinism. The first is Calvinism itself. Here, he mentions that not all new Calvinists are Calvinists – some are Amyraldians. But according to this assessment, some “old Calvinists” were not Calvinists either; while I personally cannot understand how one can affirm the other four points and deny particular redemption, historically some Calvinists were Amyraldian. Moving on, Walker presents an assessment that, in my opinion, is accurate – that the father figure of New Calvinism is Jonathan Edwards as mediated through John Piper – a selectively portrayed Edwards who is patron saint of Christian Hedonism. Second, this is a movement of characters. Here, Walker presents three dangers of the celebrity-drivenness of new Calvinism that is insightful and helpful. The third characteristic is that it’s a movement marked by conglomeration – “[i]t is a movement of coalitions, of conferences, of networks, and of networks of networks, numbers of men and churches operating together” (33). Fourth, it is a movement of consolidation. Here, Walker talks about how the “river” is broadening and slowing down. I’m not sure how that is a consolidation.

In chapter 3, Walker offers his commendations of the movement: he commends new Calvinism for being Christ-oriented and God-honoring, grace-soaked, missional, complementarian, immersed and inventive, and focused on expository preaching. The cautions and concerns highlighted in chapter 4 are pragmatism and commercialism, an unbalanced view of culture, a confused understanding of holiness, ecumenism, continuationist view of spiritual gifts, and arrogance and triumphalism.

And finally, in chapter 5, the repeated refrain in the conclusions and counsel is to “be Calvinists.” Walker’s point is to not be concerned with being a new Calvinist or any other type of Calvinist, but to just be Calvinist. Here, he gives helpful counsel to those who might be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater: “We should avoid knee-jerk reactions, thoughtlessly dismissing or embracing something or someone, or everything and everyone, without proper consideration. In addition, we should avoid blanket judgments: the spectrum is too broad and the distinctions along it too fine to tar with the same brush every man or woman who takes or is given the label ‘new Calvinist’” (105). In this chapter Walker’s pastoral heart comes out, as he exhorts believers to give ourselves to following the Great Shepherd instead of spending all our time worrying about other shepherds; to set our own house in order; to “[e]nter into the sweet realities of the God that we know in his Son, Jesus Christ, and in communion with the Holy Spirit, and graciously defend the truths you have come to love and the practices that flow from the principles” (109). And finally, Walker exhorts us to be anchored in the truth of Scripture (here he makes a quick case for adherence to an historic, full-orbed confession of faith) and the church of Christ so that when the fad is over and people ask, “What more?”we will be able to humbly offer the blessings we have received.

Reflections
I do think that Jeremy Walker achieved his aim of giving an irenic, pastoral assessment. In his critiques, he often reminds the reader that the new Calvinism is a broad spectrum and that there will undoubtedly be exceptions to both his commendations and criticisms. However, I did not get as much of a sense of an “appropriately irenic appreciation” (15, emphasis mine). The chapter on commendations did not seem like much of a commendation, but rather a preface to his later detailed critique. Every commendation in chapter 3 is either accompanied by a critique or a hint at a later criticism. This isn’t necessarily bad, especially when the author’s primary aim is to offer warning and criticism. But it just makes the commendation chapter seem like not much of a commendation at all.

I think that as broad strokes, the cautions and concerns in chapter 4 are valid. However, I did have a few points of disagreement (this is inevitable, given the nebulous nature of the subject matter). For example, I think his concern regarding an unbalanced view of culture misrepresents neo-Kuyperianism (asserting that it paints everything as neutral and has caused new Calvinists to be worldly) and fails to acknowledge that within the new Calvinism there are not just neo-Kuyperians, but neo-Puritans as well. I also don’t think Walker’s assessment of an incipient antinomianism characterizing the new Calvinism is accurate. While there are many both within and without the new Calvinism who love and ascribe to Tchvidjian’s understanding of sanctification, there is a whole host of new Calvinists on the side of DeYoung (I’m sure in part due to DeYoung’s figurehead status in the movement and his book “The Hole In Our Holiness”). Just as antinomianism was historically a debate within the Reformed tradition, it is today a debate within (but not necessarily exclusive to) the new Calvinism. Regarding the concern of ecumenism, I don’t think Walker got to the heart of the matter; if the new Calvinism seems ecumenical, it is precisely because of the heterogeneous nature of the movement. To paint in the broad strokes characteristic of this book, the new Calvinism is in general a non-confessional movement united around TULIP and John Piper that internally differs on many other issues, such as baptism and spiritual gifts.

There is also way too much attention devoted to the foibles of Mark Driscoll. Though he is undeniably influential in the movement, I think this book paints him as disproportionately so. There are many new Calvinists who disagree just as much with Mark Driscoll as “old” Calvinists. Also, sometimes the critiques seem like an airing out of all the dirtiest laundry; anything can appear horribly concerning if we take the worst cases and use them as representative examples.

Finally, in the concluding chapter, there is a repeated refrain to just “be Calvinist.” I think this actually points to the root of the problems with new Calvinism. It is precisely because many within the movement are not actually Calvinist. Many in the movement ascribe merely to TULIP and John Piper; but TULIP does not a Calvinist make. I think this chapter would be more effective if Walker fleshed out what it means to “be Calvinist” (although he did briefly make a case for a confessional ecclesiology), especially since that is his repeated exhortation and because I think the problems he sees are rooted in many “new Calvinists” not actually being Calvinist.

I hope my points above did not come across as ungracious or overly critical; I think that Walker has put forth a noble effort to assess a movement that is inherently difficult to assess, and that he has raised important concerns that “new Calvinists” would do well to listen to. I do recommend all who might consider themselves in the “young, restless, Reformed” movement to read this book and to take into consideration the concerns and heed the warnings. Especially mind the exhortation to “be Calvinist”, starting by studying the fullness of Reformed theology and not just the doctrines of grace. To those outside of the movement, I’m honestly not sure how helpful this book is. I think the broad strokes are sometimes inaccurate or portray emphases that might not be as representative as it may seem. I don’t necessarily think someone unsympathetic to or hostile to the movement would become more appreciative of the commendable aspects of the new Calvinism from reading this book. I could be wrong, since I can probably legitimately be smacked with the label of new Calvinist (in case that hasn’t become obvious). I am interested to hear/read about assessments of this book from those outside the movement.

Purchase: Amazon

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a free copy of this book from EP books in exchange for an unbiased review.

*A few days after I wrote this review, Kevin DeYoung wrote a beautiful blog post that I encourage you to read: What Do You Think of When You Think of the New Calvinism?

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3 Comments

  1. Johnd710

     /  June 20, 2014

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