New Calvinism is a movement among evangelical Christians that is sweeping across the Church in the USA and boldly moving into the UK and other countries around the world. My aim, in a series of articles, is to explain the phenomenon of New Calvinism, a movement that claims to be behind a resurgence of the reformed teachings of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon. Led by some of the biggest names in the evangelical world, New Calvinism gives the appearance of doctrinal soundness. But on closer examination, we see a different picture. We see something that is bringing the world into the Church—a movement that puts no difference between the holy and the profane. Yet it is wrong to think of New Calvinism as founded on a clear doctrinal stand, for, it is a broad tent, with an assortment of different ideas, teachings, practices and doctrines. These articles will demonstrate that the problem of New Calvinism lies in both doctrine and conduct.
New Calvinism is even making news in Australia. In March 2014, the Presbyterian Church of Australia hosted a reception for Dr Timothy Keller in a marquee on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House. Dr Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York, is considered by many to be the intellectual leader of New Calvinism. Gary Ware, pastor to Mount Gambier Presbyterian Church (in South Australia), commented on the meeting with Keller. ‘The function itself represented an investment in nurturing a culture of church-planting and revitalisation in the Presbyterian Church of Australia. It also recognised the quality and scope of Keller’s work as a pastor who brings God’s Word to a diverse and confronting cultural situation.’
Also in March 2014, The Anglican Church League, an association of reformed evangelical Anglicans, posted an article entitled, ‘The New Calvinism: A Triumph of the Old’, written by Rev. Rick Phillips, chair of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, USA. The article asserts that ‘theologically, the New Calvinism is mainly an extension of the broader rim of Old Calvinism that was expressed in Charles Spurgeon and populist Presbyterians like James Boice... Instead of a theological shift, the New Calvinism represents a major sociological and ecclesiastical extension of Calvinism in general...’
So there is no doubt that the ideas of New Calvinism have come to Australia, and are likely to have a large impact on young evangelical Christians. It is vital, therefore, for the Church in Australia to test the spirit of New Calvinism, to see whether it is ‘from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (1 John 4.1).
In the first article we examine the origin of New Calvinism and its association with The Gospel Coalition. In later articles we shall examine the teaching of three of the most influential men in the movement. First, is Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian church in New York, who co-founded The Gospel Coalition with Don Carson. Second, is Pastor John Piper, of Desiring God Ministries, and regarded by many as the chief spokesman for New Calvinism, and third is Pastor Mark Driscoll, of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, who is reputed to be the most downloaded pastor in history.
So how significant is New Calvinism? While many people outside the USA are unfamiliar with the term, New Calvinism is massively influential and having a major impact on the Christian church. Time magazine, the world’s largest circulation weekly news magazine, in an article in 2009, listed 10 ideas changing the World Right Now and placed New Calvinism third on their list. Ted Olsen, a managing editor at Christianity Today, is quoted as saying: ‘everyone knows where the energy and the passion are in the Evangelical world — with the pioneering new-Calvinist John Piper of Minneapolis, Seattle’s pugnacious Mark Driscoll and Albert Mohler, head of the Southern Seminary of the huge Southern Baptist Convention."
The New Calvinist story probably started in 2006, when Collin Hansen, a junior editor of Christianity Today, published an article describing what he believed was a revival of Reformed theology that was taking place among young Christians in the USA. He formed this conclusion after travelling around the USA, visiting leading churches and institutions, and talking with theologians, pastors, and parishioners. Hansen’s book, Young, Restless, Reformed, A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists, published in 2008, tells the story of a Calvinistic resurgence among young people in the USA. Hansen’s book pays homage to the celebrities of New Calvinism. He believes that a genuine religious revival is taking place, and makes the following observations:
John Piper is the chief spokesman for the resurgence of Calvinism among young people.Pastor Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church are evidence of the missional emphasis of the New Calvinism.Albert Mohler and Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY, are leading a resurgence of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention.The New Attitude Conference, led by Joshua Harris and featuring “reformed rap and rock music”, is reaching young people with New Calvinist teaching.New Calvinism has succeeded in combining traditional doctrine with the charismatic teaching and practice of CJ Mahaney and the Sovereign Grace churches.Tim Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York, a leader of The Gospel Coalition, is the leading cultural analyst of the New Calvinist movement.
Dr Peter Masters, long serving pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London (Spurgeon’s Church) was very deeply saddened to read Hansen’s book. Masters says:
...it describes a seriously distorted Calvinism falling far, far short of an authentic life of obedience to a sovereign God. If this kind of Calvinism prospers, then genuine biblical piety will be under attack as never before... We are told of thunderous music, thousands of raised hands, “Christian” hip-hop and rap lyrics (the examples seeming inept and awkward in construction) uniting the doctrines of grace with the immoral drug-induced musical forms of worldly culture.’
The Gospel Coalition
The Gospel Coalition (TGC), established in 2007 in the USA, is the brainchild of Dr Tim Keller, who produced their Theological Vision for Ministry. Dr Don Carson, Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, wrote the Confessional Statement. Pastor Mark Driscoll was involved in the founding of the Coalition. The Gospel Coalition Council boasts familiar names like John Piper, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, Albert Mohler, David Powlison, Kevin DeYoung and Joshua Harris.
The vision of TGC is to create a movement that by long- term effort can renew and reform evangelical thought and practice, both in the USA and worldwide. TGC seeks to motivate pastors and theologians to subscribe to a policy of social activism. The theological vision for ministry urges Christians to become a counterculture for the common good. The ‘doing of justice and mercy’ is an important aspect of the Coalition’s claimed “gospel centred ministry”. ‘The resurrection of Jesus shows that he is going to redeem both the spiritual and the material. Therefore God is concerned not only for the salvation of souls but also for the relief of poverty, hunger, and injustice.’ In reality, this is little more than the old social gospel, dressed up in the language of New Calvinism.
The Theological Vision for Ministry of TGC claims to be ‘rooted in the Scriptures and centred on the gospel’. We need to test this claim by examining two of its doctrinal propositions.
1) New Calvinism and Truth
The Vision for Ministry propagates a version of truth that it calls ‘a “chastened” correspondence-theory of truth that is less triumphalistic than that of some in the older evangelicalism.’ The correspondence-theory of truth is a philosophical construct that argues that ‘truth’ is whatever corresponds to reality. In other words, ‘truth’ corresponds to the facts. This model goes back to some of the classical Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. It was also followed by many philosophers in the 18 th and 19 th centuries.
In its worldly wisdom, TGC has attached the word ‘chastened’ to its theory of truth. The clear inference is that the Church should not proclaim absolute truth, as revealed in Scripture, but only a ‘chastened’ apologetic version of what may be truth. For the Church to declare absolute truth is labelled pejoratively as ‘triumphalistic’, something to be avoided at all costs. Rather, [what TGC is saying is that] Christians should be humble in their proclamation of the truth for they may be wrong. But this is not the biblical understanding of truth. TGC, it seems, is apologising for the absolute truth revealed in God’s Word. Our Lord prayed: ‘Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth’ (John 17:17). The Christian church is the custodian of God’s truth. According to Scripture, the Church of the living God is ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’ (1 Timothy 3.15), not of a ‘chastened theory’ of truth.
It must surely be obvious to every believer that Keller’s version of truth is far removed from orthodox Christian thinking. Theologian Stephen M. Cope of the Trinity Foundation in the USA explains how far Keller’s thinking has deviated from sound Reformed doctrine. His article, entitled, ‘The Gospel Coalition: The “New Calvinism’s” Attack on the Bible and Its Epistemology’, shows that TGC has rejected God’s Word as absolute Truth and is following a subjective version of truth that comes from flawed human thinking.
In his article Cope asks:
What is the natural consequence of such a view of truth? TGC’s Theological Vision of Ministry affirms the following in Paragraph 4 of Section I – Epistemology: “But we also reject a view of truth that sees truth as nothing more than the internally coherent language of a particular faith-community.” Truth, according to TGC then, is not a logical system of thought rooted in rational propositions of Scripture believed by the church. By this statement, leaders of TGC, and those who become members of TGC by affirming it, have not only affirmed that truth is non-propositional, they have denied that the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) must have a logical and rational set of defined terms. No matter what they may say in other statements of belief, by affirming this statement, they have denied verbal, plenary inspiration, the infallibility of Scripture, a rational and logical hermeneutic, and a coherent systematic theology.Therefore, according to them, the Christian faith is not rooted in God’s words recorded in Holy Scripture, but in an experience, a sensory experience at that, and one derived from our own subjective understanding of reality.
What then are the implication of TGC’s view on the subjective nature of truth on Christian theology and thought? The most significant impact of TGC’s view is the deconstruction of any objective meaning communicated through the words of Scripture. And if one thing becomes immediately clear regarding the foundation documents of TGC, it is this: these men do not subscribe to the historical, orthodox, and Biblical declaration regarding the Bible as the inspired infallible, and inerrant Word of God. [my italics]
TGC’s flawed understanding of Truth leads to a flawed understanding of Scripture and a flawed understanding of the Gospel. This is a vitally important issue for TGC is a network that gives cohesion to the New Calvinism movement, a movement that is taking over evangelical Christianity in the USA and elsewhere.
2) New Calvinism and Contextualization
TGC is concerned about the Church as it relates to culture, which it refers to as the contextualization issue.
We believe that every expression of Christianity is necessarily and rightly contextualized, to some degree, to particular human culture; there is no such thing as a universal a-historical expression of Christianity... The gospel itself holds the key to appropriate contextualization.
TGC warns that the gospel may be ‘over-contextualized’ or ‘under-contextualized’, and so the aim of the Church is to get the right cultural ‘balance’ in presenting the gospel.
Here we should note that the word contextualization was first introduced in 1972 in a report of the Theological Education Fund, an agency of the World Council of Churches; it was the product of a mindset that was dissatisfied with the traditional approach to evangelism. Inherent within the concept of contextualization, a concept which is difficult to define, is the idea that the presentation of the Gospel should be adapted to make it culturally relevant and worldview sensitive in order to reach unbelievers. The Gospel message is amended to make it appear less offensive to the unbelieving world. Those who oppose contextualization are portrayed as insensitive and uncaring.
Proponents of contextualization often quote the Apostle Paul: ‘I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some’ (1 Corinthians 9.22). John MacArthur, senior Pastor of Grace Community Church, California, has confronted and corrected that false way of thinking about Paul’s statement with a careful explanation of the text.
Far from mandating pragmatism in ministry, the apostle Paul was calling for personal sacrifice on the part of the evangelist. He was describing not his willingness to sacrifice the message, but his willingness to sacrifice himself to preach the message. He would give up everything to promote the spread of the gospel—his rights, privileges, and ultimately his own life.
The idea behind contextualization is pure pragmatism, for it claims that the gospel can be made more effective by adapting it to take account of the cultural context. But the Gospel of Truth stands above culture, for God’s Word speaks into all cultures. We must understand that contextualization is not a theological word, but a subtle attack that seeks to subvert the Gospel by introducing the ideas of postmodernism into the Christian Faith.
John MacArthur again:
By contrast, the “contextualization” of the gospel today has infected the church with the spirit of the age. It has opened the church’s doors wide for worldliness, shallowness, and in some cases a crass, party atmosphere. The world now sets the agenda for the church... The church has been so over-contextualized that it has become corrupted by the world.
We must conclude that the concept of contextualization, so eagerly promoted by TGC, is politicising the Gospel of Truth and subverting the mission of the Church.
New Calvinism and Holy Hip-Hop
The Gospel Coalition is completely given over to rap music and so called “holy hip-hop”. An article by Collin Hansen, entitled ‘The Hip-hop Opportunity’, published on TGC website, describes a hip-hop concert held in the Moody Bible Institute:
The auditorium pulsated with youthful energy for nearly three hours. A diverse crowd of nearly 2,000 had formed large lines long before the doors opened to general admission seating. During the sold-out concert, they shouted out familiar lines and danced with abandon among friends and new acquaintances who shared common affinity for the music. But the message took priority over the music and even the musicians on this evening. And that’s just the way everyone wanted it... The concert— featuring rappers Lecrae, Trip Lee, Sho Baraka, Tedashi, Pro, and DJ Official—made Jesus Christ the star of the show.
An article posted in Christianity Today in 2010 under the headline, ‘Spotlight: Reformed Rap and Hip-hop’, publicised the holy hip-hop movement. According to the article, the holy hip-hop movement and Christian rap music have become closely associated with New Calvinism. The growing edge of the Christian rap movement ‘is explicitly taking its cues from Calvinist leaders. Several tracks have included direct references to (and even sermon clips from) John MacArthur, John Piper, CJ Mahaney, and other pastors, and Curtis “Voice” Allen’s recent rap on the Westminster Catechism (with theologian D. A. Carson) went viral in March—as did his Heidelberg Catechism rap last October.’
New Calvinism is a broad movement. Although most New Calvinists claim to be faithful to Scripture (which generally may be true), a feature of New Calvinism, as we have seen in this article, is an indifference to truth and a low view of Scripture. While many New Calvinists follow some tenets of Calvin’s theology, many are marked by a love for the ways and things of the world, which manifests itself in unbecoming conduct that is far removed from the ways and beliefs of traditional Christians in general and Calvinists in particular. In forthcoming articles we deal with the doctrine and conduct of the three most influential men in the New Calvinism movement—Dr Tim Keller, Dr John Piper and Pastor Mark Driscoll.
About the Author:
Dr E.S. Williams was the Director of Public Health for Croydon Health Authority for many years. He has published many articles in medical journals and the author of a number of books, including The New Calvinist (2014), Ecumenism: Another Gospel (2013), The Dark Side of Christian Counselling (2009), and Christ or Therapy (2010). He is a Reformed Baptist by conviction and a member of the Metropolitan Tabernacle (Spurgeon’s church) in London, UK
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