For some time now, I’ve detected a new and sometimes dissonant voice in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), particularly at the annual synodical meetings, many of which I have attended lately as a reporter for The Banner. It is a voice that was prominent at Synod 2022. It speaks a theological language more Westminster than Heidelberg (on this, I’ll have more to say in another post), harder-edged than what I and perhaps other old CRCers are used to, more interested in discipline than grace, more intent on purity than community, more concerned about holiness than wholeness. This voice has a name: it’s the voice of the “New Calvinism.” It has come to take a prominent position the CRC, especially among young male clergy. If we want to come to terms with the actions of Synod 2022, it’s important to understand this movement.
In CRC circles, it’s important to distinguish “New Calvinism” from “neo-Calvinism.” The term “neo-Calvinism” is usually reserved for an older stream of theological and philosophical thought associated with Abraham Kuyper and his successors. In a brief summary of neo-Calvinism, the sociologist Brad Vermurlen cites as prominent neo-Calvinists many of the leading lights of the Christian Reformed Church over the past couple of generations, including Alvin and Cornelius Plantinga, Nick Wolterstorff, George Marsden, Rich Mouw, Albert Wolters, James Skillen, Calvin Seerveld, and James K. A. Smith (Reformed Resurgence, 53; note that Vermurlen names only men). I’m not sure that all those named would identify as neo-Calvinists or even as Kuyperians, but Vermulen’s list suggests something of the scope of this movement. It has been and continues to be at the heart of the CRC.
Vermurlen also supplies a ready-to-hand list of the principal features of neo-Calvinist thought. Neo-Calvinists, Vermurlen writes, emphasize “the sovereignty of God over all of creation, the need for Christians to create and engage with culture in all spheres of human life (the ‘cultural mandate’), the differentiated authority and responsibilities of different sectors of human life (‘sphere sovereignty’), a distinctly ‘Christian worldview,’ a rationalistic reductio ad absurdum strategy for defending the truth of the Christian faith (called ‘presuppositional apologetics’), as well as a cosmic all-encompassing understanding of redemptive history (not merely individuals’ sin, salvation, and piety)” (Vermurlen, Reformed Resurgence, 53). While this summary of neo-Calvinist thought can be challenged at various points and not every one of these ideas can be identified with any given leader listed above, these are familiar ideas in the CRC and have for more than a century been part of the denominational conversation. They are not new.
In contrast, the New Calvinism is new. Well, new and old, as it happens. It is new not only to the CRC (which has been a bit late to this party) but new as a movement, as new as 2006. It was in 2006 that Collin Hansen, then a Christianity Today staffer, published a cover piece for the magazine entitled, “Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism Is Making a Comeback—and Shaking Up the Church (Christianity Today, September 22, 2006). He followed up his article with a book in 2008 (Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists). Both the article and book did more than describe a burgeoning new movement. They gave the movement an identity and a name. Or two names: “New Calvinism” and, as a sort of tagline: “Young, Restless, and Reformed,” the latter reflecting that it has been a mostly movement of young men.
The roots of the movement are older. Hansen locates the immediate roots of New Calvinism in the Passion conferences hosted by Louie Giglio and featuring John Piper, then the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church of Minneapolis (I’ll have more to say about Piper below and in another post). Also identified by Hansen as early leaders of the New Calvinism are Al Mohler, who shook up Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville by turning it Calvinist, and, notably at the time of Hansen’s book, Mark Driscoll, then the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. (Driscoll’s rise to prominence and eventual fall has been chronicled in a podcast series sponsored by Christianity Today: “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Church.”)
Hansen barely mentions Tim Keller in Young, Restless, Reformed, but any account of the New Calvinism should give a prominent place to Keller. Not only did he for many years lead the influential Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, but through his books and sermons he articulated many of the ideas associated with New Calvinism, And he, along with D.A. Carson, founded The Gospel Coalition website, which has been from the beginning been a central forum for the movement.
New Calvinism also claims an much older, Puritan tradition. In fact, it has been suggested that a better title for the movement might be the “New Puritanism.” Among the New Calvinists, pride of place is given to the American theologian and belated Puritan, Jonathan Edwards. In his survey of the roots of New Calvinism, Hansen includes the Yale University project to publish the works of Edwards (although, truth be told, he spends far more time in the chapter on a couple of New Calvinist ministries in New Haven than he does on the Yale Jonathan Edwards Center).
So what does New Calvinism stand for? Near the end of Hansen’s 2008 book, he asks Mark Driscoll that question. At the time Driscoll was at the height of his influence. In answer to Hansen’s question, the first item that Driscoll’s mentions is complementarianism, the idea that males and females are essentially different. Emphasis on the “essentially:” built different, wired different. Men and women are equal—so goes the complementarian mantra—but because they are different, God has assigned them different roles in the church. (Complementarians typically don’t have as much to say about women’s roles in the rest of society.) Men, and only men, may serve as pastors and elders; women may serve in other roles more “suited to their nature.”
It is significant, I think, that in Driscoll’s list of crucial issues, complementarianism—a pushback against modern feminism—comes first. I’ll come back to this. Along with complementarianism, Driscoll names several other teachings. He says, “Inerrancy is a watershed issue. Penal substitutionary atonement is a watershed issue. Heaven and hell are watershed issues, and homosexuality is a watershed issue. These are the issues for this generation” (Young, Restless, Reformed, 139).
This an intriguing list: gender roles (complementarianism), homosexuality, inerrancy, penal substitutionary atonement, and heaven and hell. What comes to mind is how these things hang together? What, for example, does penal substitutionary atonement have to do with homosexuality? Or heaven and hell with complementarianism? This seems a very uneven set of basic principles.
But note something else about this list. These are precisely the issues that were front and center at Synod 2022 (with, perhaps, the exception of heaven and hell). Walk through them with me with Synod 2022 in mind.
Complementarianism arose early at the synod when the delegates from Classis Minnkota once again issued their declaration that they were serving at synod under protest because women were allowed to be delegates. In their communication to synod, they explicitly affirmed the principles of complementarianism. Several women, privately, took issue with this declaration. Later, the same synod marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1995 decision to permit churches and classes to include women in all the church offices, preferring to call it a “commemoration” rather than a “celebration.”
Homosexuality was by all accounts the central focus of the synod. The synod received and approved a lengthy study committee report that made a creation-order argument to the effect that God intended sex to be had only between a married woman and man (married to each other, that is). Not only did the synod approve this study report, but it declared that the blanket condemnation of homosexual sex is confessional—binding those who hold church office to teach no other position.
Less prominent but important was the decision of Synod 2022 to affirm penal substitutionary atonement as the Reformed view of the atonement. PSA, as it has come to be known, was not only affirmed but the synod declared that: “Any officebearer who explicitly denies penal substitutionary atonement is worthy of special discipline. . ..” Confessional, it would seem, by another means.
Inerrancy of the Bible was not raised as such but assumed in much of the discussion on human sexuality and on penal substitutionary atonement. Understand that “inerrancy” is not simply the idea that the Bible does not contain errors but a way of reading the Bible developed in opposition to other ways of reading the Bible. It is not, as its advocates often claim, the way the Bible has always been read but a wholly modern notion about the Bible that derives not from the Bible itself but from a conservative reaction to modern biblical studies.
As I mentioned, I don’t recall heaven and hell being much talked about on the floor of synod, but if I’m not wrong at least a delegate or two suggested that by holding fast to the view that sex was permitted only between a man and woman within the bounds of marriage they were helping to protect people from the fires of hell. The controversial study committee report on human sexuality says that the church “must discipline those who refuse to repent of such sins [they name pornography, polyamory, premarital and extramarital sex, and homosexuality among “such sins”) for the sake of their souls” (my underlining). In other forums I have attended, I have heard some of the same folks that were speaking to the issues at Synod 2022 make the argument that a fiery hell is central to the gospel.
So what holds together this clutch of seemingly disparate ideas? We can look for answers, I think, in two directions: one, a theology; the other, a cultural stance. Begin with the theology. The theology I have in mind is a way of understanding the sovereignty of God.
In any account of Calvinist thought, the sovereignty of God is important. Indeed, much of the character of Calvinism, going back to the founder John Calvin himself, is based on a high view of God’s sovereignty. Of course, it’s not only Calvinists who believe that God is sovereign it’s taught by the Bible and most of the church—amply so. But in the development of Calvinism, between, say, the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism and the writing of the Westminster catechisms, the sovereignty of God became less a teaching derived from scripture, with all the biblical complexities, and more a straightforward theological premise, standing on its own. It became a foundational statement for a certain kind of theology—a theology often claimed to be, in short, Calvinism.
It’s as a result of this theology that the idea that God selects and calls out a people (election)—a deeply biblical idea—becomes disconnected the divine mission to save the world. On this premise, before all else and apart from all else, God chooses whom he would save and whom he would condemn to everlasting punishment and then puts in place the apparatus to work out what has been already decided. When one puts the choosing before God’s loving relation with the world he created, God will seem arbitrary. No, God will be arbitrary. A gap will have opened between God’s choosing and God’s loving.
But in this kind of Calvinism, this arbitrariness of God is not something to apologized for; it is a key point of doctrine. In his famous evangelistic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards places a title at the beginning of the expository section of the sermon. The title reads: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” And he adds by way of explanation: “By ‘the mere pleasure of God,’ I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty. . .” (my underlining).
In fairness, this is not by any means the whole of Edwards’s message. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was a special occasion sermon, perhaps not characteristic of his overall work. But it’s there, the core idea that God answers to no one, not even to God’s own principles of justice and love. Or, rather, it’s the idea that “justice” and “love” mean whatever God wants them to mean. In Edward’s case, this idea is put into the service of convincing people that they should repent or risk falling into the fires of the wrath of a God who cares nothing for them: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours” (again, the underlining is mine).
If this sounds nothing like the Bible, it’s because it is nothing like the Bible. If one bothers to follow out the texts that Edwards cites in “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God,” one discovers that they are mostly taken out of context—including, notably, Deuteronomy 32:35, the text on which the sermon is based. The Deuteronomy passage has nothing to do with eternal punishment—with “hell,” which in any case doesn’t exist in the Old Testament—but with Yhwh’s anger and love towards his unfaithful people—the people he has chosen. It’s Yhwh’s love that eventually wins out in the poem (32:39-43), but the poem goes through several changes before it gets to that conclusion. In his sermon, Edwards gives us something quite different: a god filled with contempt towards his creatures, a god who would just as soon drop sinners into the fire as save them. Although Edwards intends his sermon to serve the purposes of the gospel and, therefore, perhaps, overstates his case, it ends up doing the opposite. It serves not to honor but to diminish God.
The same theology of God’s sovereignty that one finds in Edwards is at the heart of New Calvinism. For that, we owe, at least in part, the influential teaching of John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church and the founder of the popular website, Desiring God (and an admirer of Jonathan Edwards). A part of me hesitates to call out Piper in this regard; there is so much to like about him. Among star preachers, he stands out for his humility and integrity. But, as I will work out in more detail in a future post, Piper’s theology unfortunately is often a click off. It is in this case.
In the first chapter of his manifesto, Desiring God, Piper lays out his idea of God’s sovereignty. His text—the one he repeats several times in the chapter—is Psalm 115:3: “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.” Piper adds by way of clarification, “The implication of this text is that God has the right and power to do whatever makes him happy” (Desiring God, 34). Do you hear the echo of Edwards?
(Allow me a note here. This translation of Psalm 115:3 appears to be Piper’s own and, true to form, it’s a click off. The problem is the “whatever.” “Whatever” suggests arbitrariness: God does “whatever he pleases.” This is misleading. The best translation of this line may still be the King James Version: “Our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.” The point of the line is that Yhwh has not been forced to allow Israel to fall and Jerusalem to be destroyed (along with the temple) because Yhwh’s power is inferior to the power of the gods of those who conquered Israel; rather, Yhwh has chosen to allow Jerusalem and even his own temple to be destroyed. The question preceding verse 3 is in the voice of the worshipers of those other gods. They ask: “Where is their [Israel’s] God [who now has no temple]?”. The answer is, “Our God is in heaven [Thereby, not requiring a physical temple].” And then, with the Hebrew perfect, which the King James Version catches but most modern translations do not: “He has done all that he has pleased to do.” “Done.” “Looking back.”)
(For those of you who have the read the note, back to Piper and the quotation above.) “Right and power.” Piper is building a case here. The case is that God cares primarily about one thing: God’s own glory. Piper again, “My conclusion. . . is that God’s own glory is uppermost in his own affections. In everything he does, his purpose is to preserve and display that glory.” This is Piper’s great theme. God is all about God. He talks about God as “the happiest of all beings.” He talks often as does Edwards of “God’s pleasure.” He claims that God above all else must do whatever makes God happy.
Given that the great theme of the Christian Bible is that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son (John 3:16 and passim), Piper’s inwardly focused, almost narcissistic God, would seem to ring strange—as I said before, a click off. But this idea of God arises out of the same idea that we found in Edwards: God does whatever God pleases.
What makes this unbiblical is that in the Bible God’s sovereignty is always characterized by justice and love. As one example among many in the two testaments, take Psalm 33:4-5: “The word [“word” here carrying the meaning, as it often does in Hebrew, of an action] of Yhwh is straight; all that he does, he does with integrity. Yhwh loves righteousness and justice. The loyal love [ḥesed] of Yhwh fills the earth.” The point of this is to reassure those who read the psalm that God’s will is never arbitrary. God acts in accordance with justice and love.” And this justice and love are not concepts foreign to us; they are justice and love as we understand them.
This means that whenever we humans try to understand God we have to take into account justice and love. Justice and love act as a hermeneutic for our understanding of God. If, by reason of some theology of ours or some reading of scripture, God does not appear just or loving, then we are compelled to look again at the sources of that theology. This criterion for theology, by the way, is not something some modern theologian made up; it’s found among the theologians of the early church, including Augustine, a favorite of the New Calvinists. Augustine says in his pamphlet, On Christian Doctrine, that if a given scripture does not comport with God as loving and just, then we must be misreading it.
Why is this important in taking the measure of New Calvinism? Because much of what the New Calvinism teaches appears to do precisely what Augustine condemns: it makes God seem arbitrary and even cruel. Start with penal substitutionary atonement. Understand that I’m not questioning here the biblical teaching that the death of Jesus is substitutionary. What I’m questioning is the way that the doctrine of atonement is presented in much of popular Christian thought, including among New Calvinists. It is presented in terms that make God tyrannical, a father who would sacrifice his own Son to save his honor—a God who would take his pleasure in visiting eternal punishment on people whose sins are those of ordinary humans. There is a medieval cast to it. Read Edwards “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon.” Edwards seems to delight in his descriptions of the punishments of hell. The crueler the better.
For New Calvinist theology, of course, the objections I raised in the previous paragraph make no difference. God can do whatever God pleases. Who are we to judge? But this is precisely the problem. It’s not God we are talking about here; it’s our theologies of God. It’s what we believe to be true of God. It’s not the God who comes to us in Jesus that we need to defend; it’s what we teach about our God, and these, our theologies of God, are not divine. They are our entirely human and flawed descriptions of who God is and what God does.
So in taking the measure of New Calvinism, what’s first is a premise: an idea of the sovereignty of God that is divorced from other biblical portrayals of who God is, that God is, for example, love. But there is something else going on here in New Calvinism. Because the New Calvinist God is the way the New Calvinist God is, this God authorizes, funds, for the followers of this religion the right to push back on contemporary culture—on such things as feminism and gay rights and “Love Wins” and more. If this God commands things and acts in way that fly in the face of what our culture considers to be just and loving, then so be it. God is God, and God can do whatever God pleases. Which, it just happens, is also what pleases the followers of New Calvinism. This is religion as an (anti-)cultural stance. Much of its power and appeal, especially to young men, is in its pushing back against those things that the cutting edge of contemporary culture holds dear. All things considered not masculine. Namby-pamby. The New Calvinist God stands tall against feminism, same-sex marriage, questions about gender, questions about male privilege, questions about white privilege, and more—a whole grab-bag of grievances.
It’s this that Mark Driscoll in particular preached: a God who favors and protects heterosexual (young) men. Stand up and take back your heritage, guys, was, perhaps still is, Driscoll’s essential message. But not just Driscoll; Piper, too. It’s this stance against contemporary culture that connects together those things that Driscoll named as core New Calvinist beliefs: complementarianism, (the wrongness of) homosexuality, penal substitutionary atonement, heaven and (especially) hell, and biblical inerrancy.
Piper bases this cultural stance deep in his theology. Take this revealing statement from Desiring God: “God’s overwhelming passion is to exalt the value of his glory. To that end, he seeks to display it, to oppose those who belittle it, and to vindicate it from all contempt” (43). Note the air of embattlement in this: God, belittled and held in contempt, will be vindicated. Which is odd if God doesn’t care much about anything except God’s own self. But that’s not what I hear. It’s not God’s belittlement that I hear. It’s not God’s anger in the face of what seems like contempt. What I hear is not God at all but Piper and Driscoll and others, their sense that they and their followers have been belittled and held in contempt. This is the same constituency that Jordan Peterson has so successfully cultivated. The glory that they are defending belongs not to God but to a now lost moment in a largely imaginary past in Western culture.
So who in the CRC follows this theology? I don’t know. At Synod 2022 I heard the strains of New Calvinism spoken. But I’m not sure how much of this is truly New Calvinism. For some, it may be. The New Calvinism for them is true religion. They are deeply committed to the Piper way of seeing the world. For them complementarianism, opposition to same-sex marriage, and penal substitutionary atonement are all wrapped up together.
For many others, though, I think the attraction is that it sounds like the old religion. I suspect that many delegates at Synod 2022 voted for what they thought was the way it’s always been. But it’s not. New Calvinism is not the Calvinism we grew up with. It’s been formed not in the promise of the Reformation but in the culture wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. Its God is not the God of the Bible but a god shaped by American evangelicalism and lately by American politics.
I write this as a caution. My counsel to the CRC and to other, related denominational groups, is to tread cautiously in these waters. What looks like the old-time religion may not be that at all. What looks like a push-back against the culture may in fact be deeply immersed in the culture of the present age. What looks like gospel may not in fact be good news.
What we require in this time is what Reformed theology has always required: to return to the Bible. In the Bible there is a rich and deep conversation about the sovereignty of God. That conversation cannot be reduced to a single theological principle. It’s time we immerse our denomination conversation in that longer and deeper and more instructive conversation. I hope in some way to contribute to that end.