NeoCalvinist? No, NeoPuritan!

NeoCalvinist? No, NeoPuritan! April 27, 2009

In the past, I’ve used this space to challenge advocates of Reformed theology to stand up to other advocates of Reformed theology. More specifically, my worry is that all of the press is going toward a particular version of “Reformed” that Calvin himself wouldn’t recognize — this group represented by Piper, Driscoll, MacArthur, Carson, and Mohler; they follow the hardline “TULIP” doctrine; and they are fêted by TIME Magazine, Christianity Today, and in books.

But there are other Calvinisms out there — other Calvinisms that are truer to Calvin himself and, honestly, in better accord with the Bible and with modern theology. Further, alternate Calvinisms play well with others — TULIP does not.

To this end, I point you to the ongoing blog series by Bob Robinson. Bob works for the Coalition for Christian Outreach, a campus ministry based on the theological tradition of Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper, a theologian and politician at the turn of the century, Calvinism in a new direction. In fact, he was the first “NeoCalvinist.” (The picture of the left is Abraham, not Bob!)

Thus, Bob argues, what the present-day TULIPers represent is not, in fact, “NeoCalvinism” as dubbed by media and bloggers. Instead, they are NeoPuritans. In his posts, Bob is contrasting personalities, conferences, schools, and projects that represent the two versions of evangelical Calvinism. To some readers, this may seem like theological esoterica, but I encourage you to poke around Bob’s posts and at least get the lay of the land.

Bob’s posts thus far:

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The Writing Life
"I'm not missing out on anything - it's rather condescending for you to assume that ..."

Is It Time for Christians to ..."
"I really don't understand what you want to say.Your"

Would John Piper Excommunicate His Son?

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  • Your Name

    I grew up in/amongst Kuyperian Calvinism (Dutch Reformed tradition, and attended Calvin College). Particularly while a student at Calvin College, I found looking at the world through a Christian lens to be marvelously exciting. I wasn’t very cognizant though of theological matters or distinctions at the time. I simply thought that what I had experienced all those years was Reformed theology, plane and simple. I didn’t realize that “reformed” can mean different things to different camps. So, upon graduating from Calvin and moving away from the area I looked for other “Reformed” communities to become a part of, expecting to find more of the same. For years though I was confused and become disillusioned with the new Reformed communities that I found outside of my Dutch Reformed (Kuyperian) roots. Much of what I found theologically amongst these new Reformed communities though seemed to take a small-minded and vindictive view of God (even while they were proclaiming him to be sovereign and graceful), and fearful of the world. This generally turned me off to church and God (instead of exciting me, as in my former days at Calvin). In the last few years I discovered some of the Emergent-associated writers, and for the first time in years I felt like I was finally dealing again with a Christianity that was closer in nature with the Kuyperian Calvinism of my roots (not that Emergents are necessarily Reformed). That has been a breath of fresh air for me. If I could put its essence into one sentence — its that both the Emergents and the Kuyperians seem to view God as CREATIVELY active and redemptive in THIS world NOW, and in ALL areas and vocations of life (not simply in the formal/traditional pastorate, church, or missionary role).

  • foxnala

    Oops, forgot to post my tag to that first post.

  • I too went to Calvin College (1980-84). (I was a philosophy major, took a couple of courses with Mouw, and worked as his grader/research assistant my senior year.) I think I was getting mostly the alternate, Kuyper-inspired Calvinism.
    But wrt to the nastiest elements of Calvinism, isn’t the difference here just a matter of emphasis (or perhaps de-emphasis)? If what bothers you about Calvinism is the picture of God predestining much of humanity to a very nasty fate (and not doing so on the basis of foreknowledge that they will freely reject Him), then any Calvinism that has a claim to being “true to Calvin himself” has to have that, because it really is in Calvin. See Calvin’s INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION, Book III, Chapter 21 and the next few chapters. The title of Chapter 21 gives much of the game away: “Eternal Election, by Which God Has Predestined Some to Salvation, Others to Destruction.” And the content of these chapters give the rest of the game away. See esp. Chapter 23, sect. 1 (sect. title: “Election—but no reprobation?”), where Calvin makes it clear that the condemnation of many is and always has been part of God’s eternal plan, and a part that God made damn sure (pardon the pun), by his determining eternal decrees, would be made true.
    Now, it can be, and no doubt actually is the case, that some followers of Calvin emphasize this aspect of his views in ways Calvin himself doesn’t, making it too central to their theology. The theology prof. who taught me the INSTITUTES at Calvin College was constantly arguing that Calvin’s is a “warm, relational” theology, and that these aspects, which we don’t really even get until Book Three of the INSTITUTES, should not be made so central, and that it’s a distortion of Calvin to make them too central. (Somehow, it was supposed to help that they were in Book Three.)
    But, you know, that didn’t really help me that much. That little bit about predestining much of humanity to hell by means of eternal decrees that guarantee their reprobation for me just upsets all the “warm, relational” stuff, no matter how late it is in the INSTITUTES before JC gets around to telling us that bad news. (Well, bad from my POV; Calvin doesn’t see it so.)

  • Your Name

    Calvin was a monster, a despot and a murderer, and assuming that we can, in fact, know a tree by its fruit, a study of his life is all that is needed to discredit his way of thinking.

  • I think there is plenty of healthy debate between the reformed camps. It’s much more theologically literate than the usual “if you believe x, then you must also believe eat shellfish” pap that usually passes for theological discussion.
    But the distinction between the theologies represented by Tim Keller and John Piper are subtle. They do not necessarily lend themselves to the sort of public tantrums that propagate on the blogosphere. Standing up to John Piper, in earnest, requires real scholarly work, not a book tour.
    That said, I think the side-by-sides are useful to making his point.

  • cpd

    Tony, why do you care so much what these folks are doing? You obviously disagree; why keep keep focusing on them?

  • Ann

    Tony, I can not thank you enough for posting this! I guess we will go for a hat trick on posts from Calvin grads (1996-2000, Economics). I too fell in love with Reformed theology during my Calvin days (which I believe is actually more Kuyperian and maybe Zwinglian than Calvinist). TULIP was just not emphasized at Calvin, interestingly enough. What was emphasized was this Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation framework (which I took away as the central idea of Reformed theology). It didn’t matter if I was studying math, science, religion, or history, this framework was emphasized. There is something about it that speaks to me deeply… this life embracing worldview. After God created, He did not only claim that humankind was good, He claimed all of creation as good. And the fall didn’t just corrupt humankind, it corrupted all of creation. Therefore, redemption also has to be about redeeming ALL OF CREATION. Redemption can’t be limited in scope to simply saving souls. As Christians we are to be agents of God’s redemptive plan. The idea that you would focus just on saving souls and to hell with the world misses the point. God demands that we be environmentalists…. it is redemptive.
    I left the Reformed tradition when I married a Catholic and we both decided to join an Episcopal church. So when started hearing about this resurgence of Reformed thinking in this “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement, I was initially excited. But the more I learned of this “neo-calvinism”, I realized that it didn’t reflect at all what I knew of the Reformed tradition. Thank you for making this clarification.

  • ted

    Well I am glad the great reformed expert has finally settled the matter for us on what is and is not “true” Calvinism.
    I will just ignore the overwhelming scholarly agreement of Calvin and his theology (including his own writings) in favor of what Tony Jones believe to be the right interpretation of Calvinism.
    Now if only Tony would allow for such clarity of Scripture that he seems to think he has on Calvin and his theology.

  • foxnala

    #4 wrote, “Calvin was a monster, a despot and a murderer, and assuming that we can, in fact, know a tree by its fruit, a study of his life is all that is needed to discredit his way of thinking.”
    Valid point, can’t argue with you on that. Growing up in a Calvinist culture I heard all sorts of excuses for some of JC’s rather “unflattering” qualities and behaviors (such as you mention). Even as kid though, it always disturbed me. Blame it on the times, the situations, his responsibilities, whatever….bottom line though, ”despite” would have been a quality befitting of the guy (and all that goes along with it).

  • Sam

    Great post Tony! Bob, very helpful makes some key distinctions. How we name things is extremely important. During my time at Fuller, and after taking Christ and Culture with Richard Mouw, Kuyperian Calvinism also has some very troubling aspects. The basic intro work we read, “Lectures on Calvinism” show that Kuyper was deeply racist and saw Africans as a lower species of human being. In addition, Kuyper and his doctrine of “sphere sovereignty” created the notion that the church is just another “industry” alongside all the others that make up each sphere within society.
    If I remember correctly, Dr. Mouw’s take was “extend him some historical-contextual grace.” But see, that is the problem, the notion that one can be deeply racist and have it not color the rest of one’s theology, in my view is not possible.
    So while I agree Kuyperian Calvinism is not toxic in the same way Puritanical Calvinism is, there is some serious toxicity to take into account.

  • Ted Seeber

    But what if the Reformation itself was a fall from grace based on a fall from grace?
    And therefore, all based on the Reformation is just getting further and further away from the teachings of Christ and the Apostles- running off on a tangent against Tradition?

  • Todd

    Weren’t you raised Congregationalist? The “neo-puritan” label made me think of your own confessional background.

  • Jim

    Interesting. Just today John Piper posted “There is no clear dividing line between biblical repentance and Christ-exalting civic engagement.” He emphasized that a genuine personal repentance must lead to action in the public, civic sphere.
    There seems to be a lot of line-straddling between these two emphases. I wonder how useful they are as categories to box people in.

  • Joey

    I was wondering the same thing today. I know many of these neopuritans and I would say that, as a rule, they emphasize personal salvation. They also seek to be engaged in the world in a way that betters the place but this is always secondary to personal salvation.
    So either, they view salvation as primary and restoration as secondary (which unfortunately means that often times it is never done or emphasized). Or, salvation is the building block upon which restoration can happen, i.e. restoration does not happen without salvation.
    John M. Perkins does a good job of transcending this debate. He preaches a gospel of reconciliation, God to people and then people to people. On the occasions I have heard him speak and in his books he treats these two ideas as equal. If you aren’t engaged in reconciliation and restoration then it might be safe to say that you have never been reconciled to God because they go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.

  • Jim

    It sounds like Perkins would agree with Piper’s latest post. Piper says, “the universal call to repentance is a universal call to Christ-exalting civic engagement.” One call brings about both. I don’t find any of the “either/or” situation that Tony sets up in his post and links.
    The reason this frustrates me, I suppose, is I can’t for the life of me figure out why Tony is so interested in stirring up dissension between Christians. Tony says TULIP Calvinists “don’t play well with others.” Some of them, undoubtedly, don’t. But Piper invites Tim Keller to speak at his conferences, Driscoll lists Keller as a pastor he wishes to emulate. They seem to be playing quite well together. In fact, there seems to be peace, brotherly love, and unity.
    Even if Tony disagrees with their theology, why does he wish to drive wedges between them, manufacturing labels and demanding that they “stand up” to each other? In my younger, more naive days, I had thought that emergent was about forming friendships, and it breaks my heart to see it doing the opposite.

  • Kevin s.

    “Even if Tony disagrees with their theology, why does he wish to drive wedges between them, manufacturing labels and demanding that they “stand up” to each other?”
    I think it stems from the nature of the emergent church, which began as a movement designed to “stand up” to a church that had failed to accomplish whatever it is the emergents think the church should be accomplishing. Serious theological inquiry was thusly eschewed in favor of an “everything must change”, take no prisoners mentality.

  • Joey

    “I think it stems from the nature of the emergent church, which began as a movement designed to “stand up” to a church that had failed to accomplish whatever it is the emergents think the church should be accomplishing. Serious theological inquiry was thusly eschewed in favor of an “everything must change”, take no prisoners mentality.”
    Nice caricature. Really helps dialog and honest discussion.

  • Larry

    Serious theological inquiry was thusly eschewed …
    It has only been within the emergent “conversation” that I have found very many people who take theology at all seriously (as opposed to merely regurgitating whatever they have been taught in the past). How many organizations have any things like the yearly theological conversations that Emergent Village sponsors, and which have featured such theologians as Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf, and John Caputo, with Jurgen Moltmann on tap for this year? When I attended a more “mainstream” congregation few of my fellow congregates would even recognize the names, let alone be able to converse coherently about their thought. I’m not saying that everybody in emerging churches can either, but they are far more common.

  • Dorian

    Wow. Bob Robinson’s comparison of Piper to Keller is shockingly bad. He is as ignorant of John Piper as he claims the neo-puritans are of his kind of Calvinism.
    Tony, is it just a coincidence that all the “calvinisms” which are “truer to Calvin himself” are also the ones you happen to like better? Have you ever read anything by Richard Muller?

  • Kevin s.

    “Nice caricature. Really helps dialog and honest discussion.”
    It isn’t a caricature. The movement is defined by books with titles like “Everything Must Change” and “A New Kind of Christian”.
    “How many organizations have any things like the yearly theological conversations”
    Are you kidding? Do you think Stanley Hauerwas did not participate in theological conversations prior to the existence of the Emergent movement?
    The conversations are meaningless if they don’t shape attitudes and understanding. But yes, the EC often invites theologians with whom they closely identify to speak at conferences. If that constitutes serious theological inquiry, then we are defining down the concept.