Is new Calvinism new news for the New York Times?

Mark Antony:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones,
So let it be with Caesar …

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Act 3, Scene 2.

Should we bury the New York Times today, or praise it for reporting on the resurgence of Calvinism?

Mind you, the Times does not have the story wrong, but it’s timing is bit off. This story has been making the rounds of the religious and secular press for close to a decade, while claims of a Calvinist revival have appeared every few generations in America.

Has the New York Times made the same error as the Washington Post, which last month reported as new news the interest in liturgy by non-liturgical Christians? Or, has the Times gathered the disparate elements of this story and repackaged it for a secular, theologically illiterate audience?

In the circles in which I travel, this story was greeted with ridicule. The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s  Barton Gingerich (with pith and vim) encapsulated the views of  the critics.

Johnny-Come-freaking-Lately. The Restless and Reformed Movement has been running at full steam for at least half a decade now. Remember when religion reporters for newspapers had to, you know, keep on the cutting edge of things?

Ridicule or praise? Perhaps snark? Which shall it be?

The article entitled “Evangelicals Find Themselves in the Midst of a Calvinist Revival” published in the January 4, 2014 edition reports:

Evangelicalism is in the midst of a Calvinist revival. Increasing numbers of preachers and professors teach the views of the 16th-century French reformer. Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Tim Keller — megachurch preachers and important evangelical authors — are all Calvinist. Attendance at Calvin-influenced worship conferences and churches is up, particularly among worshipers in their 20s and 30s.

The article defines its terms stating:

Calvinism is a theological orientation, not a denomination or organization. The Puritans were Calvinist. Presbyterians descend from Scottish Calvinists. Many early Baptists were Calvinist. But in the 19th century, Protestantism moved toward the non-Calvinist belief that humans must consent to their own salvation — an optimistic, quintessentially American belief. In the United States today, one large denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is unapologetically Calvinist.

Also, it briefly mentions the battle over Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention, noting that “in the last 30 years or so, Calvinists have gained prominence in other branches of Protestantism.”

Support for the Times‘ thesis comes through an interview with Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a “man in the street”, Collin Hansen, the author of “Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey With the New Calvinists” and academics who in turn condemn the phenomena and opine that it might catch on even in liberal denominations. (Oh, and as an aside, why has the Times dropped the use of the honorific “the Rev.”? It does not appear in this story but several ordained ministers are quoted or cited. Get an Associated Press Stylebook, people.)

The article closes out with a quote from a doctoral student working on the topic of the new Calvinists.

“Ten years ago, everyone was talking about the ‘emergent church,’ ” Mr. Vermurlen said. “And five years ago, people were talking about the ‘missional church.’ And now ‘new Calvinism.’ I don’t want to say the new Calvinism is a fad, but I’m wondering if this is one of those things American evangelicals want to talk about for five years, and then they’ll go on living their lives and planting their churches. Or is this something we’ll see 10 or 20 years from now?”

All well and good — but Collin Hansen’s book was published in 2008 and in 2006 he was writing about this topic in articles published in Christianity Today.

In 2009 Time magazine listed Calvinism as one of the 10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” The article stated:

Calvinism is back, and not just musically. John Calvin’s 16th century reply to medieval Catholicism’s buy-your-way-out-of-purgatory excesses is Evangelicalism’s latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination’s logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time’s dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision.

Time‘s 2009 story makes the same general points as its 1947 article “Religion: Calvinist Comeback?”, which posited a new interest among younger clergy in traditional Reformed doctrines. And on a personal note — when I was a student in the 80′s and 90s the Calvinist comeback was a lively topic of debate. I distinctly recall (then Fr. but later Cardinal) Avery Dulles waxing lyrical on the errors of the new Calvinism from across the tables at Mory’s. New and neo-Calvinism was then engaged in a battle with Narrative Theology or the Yale School for the minds of conservative theological students — a battle that still is being waged today between the Calvinists and the followers of Stanley Hauerwas or Alasdair MacIntyre.

How then is this new news? Did the Times err in ending its story with the fad quote? While the top of the story mentions that this has been an issue for thirty years, the close leaves the impression that this is a new issue. The criticisms that this a “late to the story” story would not be as compelling were it not for this closing paragraph.

The story as it stands, however, falls short. While there are ample quotes about this phenomena along with a brief discussion of its merits, the New York Times erred in not placing this story in a wider historical context, nor addressing what to knowledgeable readers is the obvious problem of this being an old story.

Verdict: I have come to bury Caesar the Times, not to praise him it.

About geoconger
  • Darrell Turner

    The Times doubtless is now working on a feature on how homosexuality and scriptural interpretation are shaking up the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as a whole.

  • wyclif

    The problem here does indeed seem to be that they got it wrong. They couldn’t even get the basic taxonomy of Calvinism down correctly: Neo-Calvinists are Kuyperians and Dooyeweerdians. Definitely interested in politics. “New Calvinists” are guys like John Piper (Desiring God) & Mark Dever and represent the conservative evangelical wing. They also asked the wrong people. When one wants to know about Calvinism, it seems to me that one would turn to actual experts (say, Richard Muller or Donald McKim—rather than Serene Jones or Roger Olson).

    I wasn’t wowed. My overall impression is that, to paraphrase Terry Mattingly, the New York Times does not get religion.

  • BartGingerich

    Have you heard the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches merged?! Calling themselves the ELCA, so I hear.

  • fredx2

    Ah, but you forget. Nothing is news until it is reported in the pages of the New York Times. Therefore, said revival did not exist until the Times reported it.

  • wmrharris

    With articles like this, perhaps it is better to try to decipher the motives, rather than go with the easy snark. Why this article? Why now? Who or what is driving this? While perhaps not as carefully explained as one would like the focus seems to be that of the emergence of Calvinists within Baptist communions, and particularly among the Southern Baptists, hence the interview with Roger Olson.

    With the emergence of the Calvinist wing in the SBC (admittedly a year old story), the New Calvinists are moving out of their customary settings of historic Presbyterianism (PCA and Tim Keller), immigrant churches (John Piper, Swedish Baptist), and the Bible churches (so, Mark Driscoll). Since that is happening away from NYC and other blue-state bastions, I would give it the benefit of a doubt.

    The short story seems to be: this “New Calvinism” is more than Tim Keller.

    Where the story is unsatisfactory from an NYT perspective is how this Calvinism gets translated into the actual practice of congregations in the region.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Having discussed theology with many people as a Mormon missionary, I can tell you that at least in the pews of Protestantism predestination was alive and well in the time frame of 2000-2002.


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