Recently I came across an episode of the Ask Pastor John podcast series from Desiring God on the topic of New Calvinism. As a fan of John Piper and student of Calvinism and soteriology, I tuned into see what Piper had to say. As I listened I was disappointed and somewhat confused. I want to share some of my reactions here but before I do I want to clarify a few things: First, I have a ton of respect for John Piper. He wrote at least two of the books outside the Bible that have impacted me most in positive spiritual ways. Secondly, I love Calvinists in general. I used to be a militant advocate of Calvinism. I have many wonderful friends and family members who are Reformed. I owe my concern for biblical doctrine, value of preaching, and more to my reformed roots in my relationship with Christ. So as I share my reactions to Piper’s comments on New Calvinism (which I have found to be common amongst advocates New Calvinism) I do so as a friend. With that said, here are my reactions to Piper’s podcast:
First, and this is admittedly a bit petty, I was a little surprised that he was devoting an episode to defining New Calvinism at all. Not because he was talking about Calvinism in itself (Piper beats the Calvinist drum regularly) but because he was clarifying “New Calvinism” again. Why? Honestly, I thought the term New Calvinism was old news at this point. Maybe that’s subjective and silly but it was my first impression none-the-less. The term New Calvinism has been used to death since at least 2007 with the release of Collin Hansen’s book Young Restless, Reformed: a Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. Why are we still talking about New Calvinism as if it is this morning’s breaking theological news? Sometimes it feels a little bit like Piper and those continuing to wave the New Calvinist flag are milking a moderately hip term in hopes of making reformed theology palatable and attractive to younger believers.
Soteriology...or Everything Else?
Second I was confused because of how he defined New Calvinism. What he described as New Calvinism didn’t have anything to do with soteriology or the fine-print doctrines connected to what the Bible teaches on salvation. While I understand that Calvinists old and new are concerned with theological topics much broader than soteriology, Calvinism is at the core about salvation. The Five Points of Calvinism are singularly about articulating the details reformed people believe to be true regarding salvation. What historically has been the deciding factor on whether or not one is a Calvinist is their personal view on soteriology and nothing else.
So here’s the thing, when I tuned into Piper’s podcast I expected to hear him talk about how New Calvinists had new takes on soteriology and the Five Points in contrast to old Calvinism. Instead I heard the opposite. He went out of his way to point out that New Calvinism and Old Calvinism hold to the exact same soteriological beliefs. The differences he pointed out between new and old Calvinists had to do with entirely different theological categories. In contrast to Old Calvinism, Piper said New Calvinism is characterized by:
1. A strong Complimentarian flavor in which men embrace robust, humble, Christ-like leadership.
Complimentarianism has to do with gender roles and gender differentiation. It falls into the theological category of Biblical Anthropology.
2. Embraces contemporary worship in music.
Expression in worship is more connected to our doxology, ecclesiology, and missiology as believers than soteriology.
3. Strong Baptistic element
4. Includes significant numbers of charismatics
Charismatics are Christians who hold that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Scripture are available to the church today. Pneumatology is the area of theology in which we study the gifts of the Spirit.
5. Looks to Jonathan Edwards over John Calvin for theological influence
6. Vibrantly engaged in the world of the internet in blogging, etc.
7. High value on multi-ethnicity and diversity in the church
Get to the Point
What’s my point? None of the points Piper made have to do with the doctrine of salvation, which is what Calvinism is singularly about from a historical perspective. These are broader theological categories that many modern proponents of Calvinism agree on. Good for them. But none of those characteristics have anything to do with Calvinism as a system. Therefore, if Piper is right we should be talking about New Calvinists and not New Calvinism.
Why Split Hairs?
Why split hairs about this stuff? Two reasons: First, I could be characterized by virtually every point Piper made about what he considers characteristic of New Calvinism, and I am absolutely NOT a Calvinist. In fact, many believers fall under the characteristics he mentioned who are not Calvinists soteriologically. He is taking characteristics that are true of believers in general and presenting them as if they’re unique to Calvinists (or New Calvinists if you like). Piper made this same mistake in his poem the Calvinist. That’s inaccurate at best and dishonest at worst.
Second, it muddies the waters to say that those characteristics define New Calvinism for those who are trying to figure out if they agree with Calvinism. I have met a lot of younger Christians and pastors who don’t have an accurate understanding of what the Five Points teach who none-the-less self-identify as Calvinists. Why? Because they hear men like Piper (who they and I respect) defining Calvinism by pointing to wider theological categories of agreement amongst Calvinists. A young guy hears Piper say he’s a New Calvinist because he can be defined by these characteristics and they think, “I hold to the authority of Scripture, complimentatianism, and I’m a Continuationist…I must be a New Calvinist too!” Defining New Calvinism by commonality about non-soteriological doctrines paves the way for people to accidentally think they’re Calvinists when they really don’t understand the Five Points at all. I’m not making it up when I say I’ve met more than a few younger guys who have done that.
For the Card-carrying New Calvinist
Here’s what I would say to the card-carrying New Calvinist:
1. Before you claim the title Calvinist in any form, make sure you really understand and ascribe to the soteriological position articulated in the Five Points of Calvinism. Do you believe that Jesus only died in a saving way for the elect? Do you believe that Christians become born-again before they exercise or express faith in the gospel? If so, you may be a Calvinist. If you don’t believe those things (or aren’t sure) do some homework and make sure you really understand what you’re saying when you self-identify as a New Calvinist.
2. Don’t self-identify carte blanche with any man’s doctrinal positions simply because you think he is cool. I love Piper, Mark Driscoll, CJ Mahaney, and many other reformed pastors. But they’re all just men who can err. On the issue of soteriology, I believe they do err. The same goes in the Calvary Chapel Movement of which I’m a part. I love Chuck Smith, Brian Brodersen, and many of our other dads in the faith. But we have to get our theology from Jesus and His Bible. And where any man’s doctrine seems to contradict the Bible, we must go with the Bible.
3. Keep carrying the gospel torch. At the end of the day, the fine-print about our soteriology isn’t what matters most. All Christians agree on the 5 Solas of the reformation: We are saved by grace alone (Sola Gratia), through faith alone (Sola Fide), in Christ alone (Solus Christus), in accordance with Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura), to the glory of God alone (Soli Deo Gloria). Let’s not kill each other over the details; Let’s die together to share the basics with a lost and dying world that needs to hear and believe the simple gospel.