Book Review – The New Calvinism Considered

Posted On December 13, 2013

I am a Calvinist, and have been for the greater part of my Christian life. In all honestly, I feel like I am a somewhat unique breed of a Calvinist (at least in the Southeastern United States) since I don’t mind being labeled as one even though I don’t agree with John Calvin about everything (i.e. infant baptism). I have met numerous people over the past few years who almost perform theological gymnastics so as not to be labeled a “Calvinist”, because they would rather be labeled as someone who believes in the doctrines of grace (Calvinism is too divisive in their minds). Again, the label of Calvinist is not that big of a deal to me as it is a way that allows me to quickly convey to others how and what I believe the Bible teaches about sin, salvation, and the sovereignty of God. Furthermore, within the Calvinistic resurgence of the past 20 years, we have also seen some interesting subgroups develop. One of the most recent ones is the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement, or “New Calvinism” as it is often referred to today. The New Calvinism Considered: A Personal and Pastoral Assessment is Jeremy Walker’s attempt to take a deeper look at both the pros and cons of this movement, and how we as Christians/Calvinists should interact with those who hold to New Calvinism. The questions at the forefront of my mind as I began reading Jeremy’s book were: (1) would I be classified as a believer in New Calvinism based on the doctrines that define the movement?; (2) Is new Calvinism even relevant to me?; (3) If it is relevant to me, then how should I both respond and interact with those people who, by their beliefs, would be classified as new Calvinists?

Let’s be honest, New Calvinism is an incredibly large and diverse movement (very similar in scope and complexity to the Emerging Church movement). Walker’s book is only 126 pages in length, so there really is no way that he can touch on every belief that a person in New Calvinism holds to, and he also can’t provide enough details to satisfy all of the questions concerning the beliefs of New Calvinism that he does indeed talk about in this this book. Now, some would see these “issues” as a benefit since they are just looking for a succinct overview of the beliefs of New Calvinism and don’t care to get lost in the details, but I personally think it is one of the faults of the book that I will touch on in detail a little later.

The book is broken down into the following chapters, and I will deal with each chapter briefly in the paragraphs that follow in this review. I want to touch on the positives of the book, my concerns with it, and also justify my three star rating.

– Chapter 1 Comprehending the new Calvinism
– Chapter 2 Characteristics of the new Calvinism
– Chapter 3 Commendations
– Chapter 4 Cautions and concerns
– Chapter 5 Conclusions and counsels
– Individuals of Note

Chapter 1 Comprehending the new Calvinism
According to Jeremy, the individuals or groups who would clearly label themselves as new Calvinist’s is fairly small, so it is sometimes hard to provide “documentary evidence” to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone should be classified as a new Calvinist. About the only way you can gauge whether an individual or a group should be labeled as such is to consider “common emphases, matters of tone and tenor.” Therefore:

“Any survey and assessment of this order is admittedly like a snapshot of a recently discovered animal: just when you think you have captured the essence of the creature it moves again and you discover something new. As such, a final or conclusive assessment is not immediately possible.”

Jeremy goes on to discuss how new Calvinism is very similar to a “broad river with many currents”, which again makes it hard to nail down exactly what beliefs define new Calvinism. Now, I totally understand where Jeremy is coming from and agree with him that it can be a little difficult nail down what beliefs exactly define new Calvinism, but I still think he needs to provide readers with a well-reasoned definition and boundaries that they can use to help clarify what he views as new Calvinism. The subheadings of The nature of the assessment, The spirit of the assessment, and The object of the assessment are all fine and dandy, but readers are still left somewhat scratching their proverbial heads as to what exactly defines new Calvinistic belief. I found myself at times wishing that Jeremy had taken a more narrow view with his book and focused on certain serious concerns within new Calvinism (i.e. fallible prophecy) versus trying to cover such a broad topic while constantly reminding his readers just how broad the topic of new Calvinism really is.

Chapter 2 Characteristics of the new Calvinism
In order to truly discuss new Calvinism, you have to begin with a biblical definition of what Calvinism is/means. B.B. Warfield is immensely helpful in providing clarity on what Calvinism actually is:

“that the essence of the thing lies ‘in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such and particularly by the sinful creature…when the sinful soul rests in humble, self-emptying trust purely on the God of grace.'”

There is then a caution against Amyraldianism (four-point, or four-and-a-half-point semi-Calvinism) and its belief in ‘unlimited limited atonement’ which is “the idea that the death of Jesus was intended for all men but that it is effectively applied only to the elect”. I would agree with Jeremy that if you hold to such a belief, then you should be considered “mainly Calvinistic” since you hold to a historically Calvinistic understanding of the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners. However, you fail to hold to the classical Calvinistic position that says “the death of Jesus was intended only for the elect and therefore did not fail or fall short in any point or degree.” Where I kind of scratched my head a little in this chapter is when Jeremy says that one could argue that “the true father figure of the new Calvinism is probably more Jonathan Edwards than John Calvin, and even then it is Jonathan Edwards mediated through John Piper.” That is a pretty bold statement to make, and one that you would expect to be backed up with enough evidence to support that claim, right? Well, in this instance you would be wrong as there are only a few sentences provided to support that statement, and none of the supporting sentences actually do any supporting whatsoever.

Jeremy then moves on to discuss how new Calvinism is a movement of “Characters (or figureheads, personalities, celebrities or gurus, depending on how pejorative a label you wish to apply, or what kind of a follower you are dealing with”. In this instance, I don’t think he will find too many people (except maybe the celebrities themselves) who would disagree with him that there are way too many celebrity pastors/teachers/bloggers in new Calvinism today. However, I would submit that is not just an issue with new Calvinism, but an issue with Christianity as a whole and has a lot to do with two things: (1) Man’s fleshly desire to be made much of; (2) Huge technological advances that make sermons/books instantaneously available to the masses which fuels our infatuation with people instead of God. Just because there are celebrity pastors/teachers/bloggers in the new Calvinism movement, however, doesn’t mean it is inherently bad. It should serve more as a healthy reminder that we are all constantly in need of forgiveness and power from the Spirit/Word to fight against pride.

Chapter 3 Commendations
After spending the first two chapters trying to outline what new Calvinism is, what its proponents believe, and who are some major characters in the movement (though he is not entirely successful in doing any of those), Jeremy moves on to a chapter focused on praising the movement for what it gets right before critiquing it for what it gets wrong. There is a discussion about how new Calvinists tend to be Christ-oriented and God-honouring, Grace-soaked, Missional, Complementarian, Immersed and inventive, and committed to expository Preaching. Those are all great things, and I am in total agreement with Jeremy that those are things that the movement gets right. However, what I had issues with in this chapter is that even when Jeremy is trying to praise the movement, he qualifies his praise with the continual use of the words “Nevertheless”, “However”, etc. For a chapter that is supposed to commend the movement for what it gets right, there are a ton of qualifying statements that make you wonder if these commendations that are being qualified should be in the following chapter dealing with “Cautions and concerns”.

Chapter 4 Cautions and concerns
There are some very valid cautions and concerns listed by Jeremy in this chapter. He mentions things like Pragmatism and commercialism, an unbalanced view of culture, a troubling approach to holiness in which there is a caution against both antinomianism and legalism, a potentially dangerous ecumenism where the pursuit of unity is stressed at the expense of truth, charismatic influences, and finally a degree of arrogance and triumphalism. These are definitely valid concerns where they rear their heads in the new Calvinism movement, but these concerns are not confined to this Christian movement alone. In fact, most of these are concerns in any movement and/or church out there. As I mentioned at the outset of this review, I had issues with the fact that this was a small book trying to handle such a broad topic and that I thought the book suffered from being too small and I think that showed itself in this chapter. I found myself almost begging Jeremy to provide some more detailed examples of how these concerns were manifesting themselves in the new Calvinism movement, and at times things were only mentioned in passing and not given the due diligence they deserved.

Chapter 5 Conclusions and counsels
“With regard to the new Calvinism, we should avoid knee-jerk reactions, thoughtlessly dismissing or embracing something or someone, or everything and everyone, without proper consideration.” I think that this is solid advice from Jeremy and something that we should adopt for sure. However, where I think this chapter fails is in the fact that Jeremy stresses the following phrase 4 times: “be Calvinists”. That is a pithy statement for sure, but it really doesn’t provide the reader with a biblically solid alternative to new Calvinism. Again, there are definitely guys that get caught up in movements and follow along because their favorite pastor/speaker/teacher is a new Calvinist. However, for the greater majority of us, we are just trying to understand what classifies someone as a new Calvinist and is it biblical. Just telling me to “be Calvinists” doesn’t really help me in this fight.

Jeremy’s book is a pretty good introduction into what new Calvinism is, but it left me more questions than it did answers.

I received this book, free of charge, from EP Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

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