New Calvinism, New Books, and the Old Guard

The abundance of good, funny, profound, and creative images on the Internet for New Calvinism is itself quite amazing.

Over the past year or so, I read three books that have some common denominators regarding Calvinism.  All three are evidences of the new found interest, growth, and acceptability of Calvinism or Reformed Theology.

Now for the titles (given in the order in which I read the books, with the publisher and year of publication given):

Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition by James K. A. Smith  (Brazos Press, 2010).

Young, Reformed, and Restless: A Journalist’s Journey With the New Calvinists by Collin Hansen  (Crossway, 2008).

Killing Calvinism: How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside by Greg Dutcher  (Cruciform Press, 2012).

This isn’t Loraine and Arthur’s Calvinism anymore.*  Surely “Dutcher” is a name with Dutch roots, but it doesn’t sound like Berkof, Bavinck, Warfield, Machen, and Hodge.  Mr. Dutcher pastors a church called Evangelical Free Church in Maryland. He even admits that his congregation is not totally or self-consciously Calvinistic.  Mr. Hansen is a journalist with Christianity Today.  His book is based on travels across the United States visiting Calvinistic churches and conferences and meeting the popular preachers and authors.

Well, at least Professor Smith has some of the traditional credentials:  Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College; visiting professor at Calvin Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. While Dr. Smith has authored some weighty tomes, this book is a series of letters written to an imaginary friend where the older, wiser Calvinist cautions the young Jesse on some of the missteps that many of us know well from experience.

The covers to the books themselves are fun, attractive, and light.  The feature a wilted tulip, a “Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy” shirt, and a postage stamp with Calvin on it.  What a contrast to those days of old when Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company had basically one cover design, if the book were published in paperback.


Killing Calvinism: Eight chapters and 111 pages. Light reading, but very convicting and convincing.


Young, Reformed, Restless has 7 chapters and 158 pages. It is a travelogue of experiences and conversations among today’s most popular Calvinist speakers and writers.

Letters to a Young Calvinist consists of 23 letters. It is informal and quite instructive. I learned quite a bit and was reminded of myself while reading it.

The Calvinistic community that I landed in back in the mid-1970s has changed.  I won’t chronicle my pilgrimage here for the 80th time, except to make a point or two.  Back then, “you young whippersnappers…” (does my voice sound like I am 80 years old?) becoming a Calvinist meant taking the road less traveled.  It meant counting the cost, changing churches, losing friends, but buying lots of books…from a few sources.  Becoming a Calvinist was a tear-filled, often lonely, struggle.  But the theological riches continually justified the price. (The movie National Treasure often seemed to be a metaphor of the Calvinist’s experience.)

I was really convinced then that Calvinism was a more sound, more hearty, more theologically rigorous, more Biblically consistent view than its alternatives.  It was heart and soul defining and life changing.  I still believe that.  Calvinism has changed my church’ affliliation from my youth and it changed my career path.

What I did not always realize was the power of God’s Word.  In one sense, I was convinced that God sends revival.  Laboring among the few, worshipping in small groups, often caused me to lose the vision of how Calvinism could burst the bonds of even its devotees.

Besides the Calvinist scholars who were living or dead in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, there were authors whose books were reaching wider and wider audiences.  Even in some of the dippiest, sappiest, fluffiest bookstores, there were books appearing by Jerry Bridges, R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and others.  Francis Schaeffer appeared on the cover of Time magazine.  Add to that, the reprints.  Add to that the great hymns, like “Amazing Grace” and “Rock of Ages.”

With the continued outflow of books, from Banner of Truth titles to Baker, Zondervan, and Eerdmans to the small, new publishers, Calvinistic and Reformed works moved from a few niches on the bookracks to whole shelves.  Al Gore’s invention of the internet will likely be ranked alongside of Gutenberg’s printing press as a major means of mass producing materials.  Along with an endless number of useless links to increasing irrelevance (meaning, many blogs, lots of websites, and most of what appears on Facebook), a whole library of Reformed writings, a veritable Geneva, exists at the click of a mouse.

God used the Roman Empire’s infrastructure to spread the Gospel in the first century.  He used Gutenberg in the 1500s;  the British Empire in the 1800s; America from its beginnings to now (God have mercy on us now); and modern printing and technology today.

I suspect you can get an app on your I-phone that will put more solidly Reformed theology at your fingertips than J. Gresham Machen could have found in the library at Princeton Theological Seminary in his day.

So, Jonathan Edwards is a popular theologian again and a hero to many young people.  Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or The One-Hoss Shay” (1858) lampooned Edwardian theology and celebrated its collapse.  “And who in the world is Oliver Wendell Holmes?” people now ask.

Just a few years ago,  a CNN/Time poll in April 2009 showed that the number 3 potent idea was “New Calvinism.”  John Calvin has been referred to as “the Comeback Kid” and pastors like John Piper, Tim Keller, and Mark Driscoll are shaking the Christian world.

What is the New Calvinism?  What is happening in this resurgence of an older theological tradition?  And what does this theology look like?

I have written on this before and cannot answer all of the questions.  Nor will I deal with the objections.  Every movement has its extremities and distortions.  New Calvinists, like old Calvinists and any other Christian, can miss the mark at many points.  So, the fact that this New Calvinist has a blind spot or that New Calvinist is deviating from the truth is not a sign that the old guard were perfect.  Any theology that is not bowing before Jesus and the Word of God is in trouble.  (And I know a lot of stories on the old Calvinists, including myself, that doesn’t add sparkle to our halos.)

So, to make two points (and probably five are needed in any discussion of Calvinism):

First, the New Calvinism seems not to be as “terminologically restricted” as the older Calvinism.  In my experiences, it took quite a while to get down all the terms, such as Calvinism, Augustinianism, Reformed theology, the five parts of TULIP, Arminianism, and, of course, the indispensable term, the Synod of Dordt.  “Back in my day,” we learned the language and then spent a great deal of time explaining ourselves to others who did not know what we were talking about.

This doesn’t mean that Biblical theology doesn’t require some terminology.  But it does seem like the New Calvinists are more oriented toward simpler, less abrasive, more Christological ways of speaking.  There are even Calvinist rappers.  With t-shirts, web-sites featuring Reformed humor and cartoons, and easy-breezy books, a New Calvinist can talk to and communicate with anyone–an Arminian, a Charismatic, a lost person (highly encouraged now), an atheist, and perhaps even a theologian.

Second, the New Calvinists don’t seem to be as isolated.  In the pastk, I thought that a Calvinistic church meant small congregations with hard-to-sing songs and theologically challenging sermons.  People in the past would compare the churches I attended to seminary.  Inside the church, among the faithful, there was an urgency to learn, a compelling drive to catch up on what we had missed in the milky preaching of the past.  Expository preaching, quotes from theologians, thelogically accurate terms, and historical vignettes of the good, the bad, and the ugly in church history were all part of the Copernican Revolution of Calvinism.  Many people, for reasons good and bad, shied away from such churches. It wasn’t easy.  The life stories of Spurgeon and J. Gresham Machen were testimonies of the cost of theological fidelity.

The New Calvinism reaches larger groups, embraces a wider range of worship styles, and is much more inclusive. Hansen speaks of conferences attended by vast throngs of college age students.  The music is not just great hymns of the past.  The churches where Calvinistic theology is preached include traditional looking Presbyterian churches, but also Southern Baptist churches, charismatic churches, and all kinds of groups that do not specifically tie themselves to a denomination or tradition.  And in the best cases, they don’t poke Arminian brethren in the eye, but rather say, “Welcome.  Let me share something of what Jesus is doing in my life with you.”

In some ways this pnenomena reminds me of the two vital symbols in The Iliad and The Odyssey.  In The Iliad, the key symbol was the Shield of Achilles, fashioned by Hephaestus.  Its artistry featured the entire Achaian world, ranging from farm life to city life, from peace to conflict, from individuals to the group.  This hard, metallic instrument for war symbolized Achilles’ fight and ultimate sacrifice for that world.

The world that Achilles is fighting for: The hard, metallic instrument for war–The Shield of Achilles.

 In contrast, the key symbol of The Odyssey is the shroud that Penelope is weaving for her father-in-law, Laertes.  This shroud is a piece of fabric, and Penelope weaves it by day and takes it apart by night.  She is actually working with the fabric as a means of dealing with her world where Odysseus the King will be returning. (Quick–look for sermon illustrations here.) Fabric is soft, flexible, able to be molded and fitted to different needs.

Weaving and working with thread, Penelope fashions a garment to fit the needs of the occasion.

There are times and places where we need the hard shield of the old time Calvinism.  We need the doggedness of a Machen, the steadfastness of a Warfield, the resolve of a Spurgeon, the antithesis of a Kuyper.  At other times and in other places, we need a fabric, something that can be shaped and molded and made to fit.  The earthiness of a Luther, the teaching-style of a Calvin, the eye for the wonder of God’s glory of an Edwards, and the imagery of a Spurgeon.

Just I recommend both Homeric epics, I recommend both aspects of Calvinism. Much more could be said about how Calvinism, New Calvinism, Reformed theology, or, as I believe, true Biblical theology is both that metallic inflexible weapon of defense, Achilles’ Shield, and Penelope’s soft, flexible, adaptable fabric.


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