February 3, 2014

Are We All New Calvinists?

More booklet than book, this is a short, snappy, punchy, and irenic (I looked it up—it means peaceable) look at what Jeremy (Walker sounds so formal and JW has other connotations) has termed ‘New Calvinists’. To be fair to him, it’s not his term, but he does adopt it and apply it to various high profile Christians (generally in America). Then, in case we’re in any doubt as to who the main protagonists are, he kindly lists them at the back of his little tome. 

He breaks his work down into 5 distinct parts:

1. Comprehending the New Calvinism
2. Characteristics of the New Calvinism
3. Commendations of the New Calvinism
4. Cautions and concerns
5. Conclusion and counsels

His final part is entitled “Individuals of note” which left me a little flat because it would have been far better, surely, to have called it “Calvinist Cats” in keeping with his alliterative obsession with the letter c. This guy is definitely a Reformed Baptist in this regard!

So, thoughts. I’m not sure if it was intended, but it definitely felt like I was reading five blog posts patched together to make a whole. It was for precisely that reason that I polished this off in little under an hour. It hurtled along at a fair pace. So, what to make of this piece of work? That’s a hard one. This is a book that left me feeling more than a little conflicted (So much so, that I went away and did a bit of further investigation on this topic). I now return to this book review somewhat better informed.

There are some great positives about this book. I seriously like Jeremy’s writing style. He is razor sharp and often extremely witty. He’s no mug is our Jeremy (bad grammar but a northern England turn of phrase). I also appreciated his graciousness in dealing with the broad spectrum of people he was seeking to understand.

1. He challenges the almost pope like devotion that many people hold on to when following their particular evangelical leader. He’s right. Mark Driscoll does not have all the answers. He is not the infallible source of all information in Christianity. It may well be that a small town, never heard of pastor has far more knowledge than he does in particular areas (I suspect Jeremy could take him apart on many matters of Reformed theology). I, for one, certainly get frustrated when I am sneered at for daring to critique Tim Keller’s view of social justice even though I have worked, lived, and researched in this field most of my life now (it doesn’t make me an expert either but just that his view shouldn’t carry more weight because he has a bigger platform). How dare I? He’s Tim Keller and I’ve never had a number 1 best seller. I liked this challenge. Even to myself. As I go on the road raising funds and the profile of the work of 20schemes, I must never set myself up as a specialist or a poor guru. Well played, Jeremy my son. Well played.

2. He has respect for certain aspects of NC. He loves their Christ-honouring, grace-soaked fervour. He loves their missional, never say die approach to outreach and evangelism. He appreciates (in part) their complementarianism. However, Jeremy says: “It must be pointed out that the errant machismo evident in some circles has sometimes slipped into a puerile approach to, and even an unhealthy focus on, sex and sexuality.”(p.48) Stand up and take a bow Jeremy lad, because I could not agree more. Again, he cites Mark Driscoll’s marriage book (which I refused to buy) and also a well-known Australian FIEC bloke as a couple of evidence’s. (BTW, if you want a good marriage book the you can’t go wrong with Tim Keller’s. Gold). He further likes their invention and commitment to expository preaching (although I think the UK view and the US practices are very different—in my limited experience).

3. He challenges the NC’s love affair with Kuyperian, cultural transformationalism (I want to caveat that by nuancing it later). Go on then. Take another bow. In fact, in my opinion, his words of caution and counsel are the strongest part of the book. Mark Driscoll is, once again, (I see a cage fight match up in the future here) in the crosshairs and, rightly, challenged about the flip-flop nature of his stance on just about everything these days. Personally, I stopped reading and listening to him years ago (sex stuff among other things) and lost just about all respect after the “Strange Fire”stunt with that equally juvenile Macdonald bloke. This stuff should be read by their fanboys with an open mind (but it won’t).

I am glad he calls out Keller on his involvement with Biologos and also with his sometimes fluffy responses to direct questions on the atonement (as an example). If you want to drive yourself nuts, Jeremy mate, don’t watch some of his stuff on how he handles the homosexual questions!

He goes on to challenge the prevailing mood of (apparent) antinomianism and the potential ecumenism of NCer’s, but most of this is old news (now) and has been rehashed thousands of times around the blogosphere. However, that’s not to say he isn’t right. He is. In the main.

Herein lies my problems with Jeremy. He, largely, calls it right. But, sometimes, he left me a little bewildered and somewhat concerned about some of his assertions.

1. He calls many New Calvinists ‘Amyraldians’ (‘Old’ Calvinists love labelling stuff and it’s all the better if it’s using old names) out of a concern for their views on the atonement. I’m not sure how I would feel being thrown in that mixer if I were Dever, Challies, and Carson, for example.

2. He certainly has a bee in his bonnet about TGC in regard to what it is and what it stands for. I would have liked more discussion on that because I found his insights fascinating and, well, just plain insightful. I don’t know enough about this grouping (read anything) to know how near (or far from) the mark he really is in his critique.

I’m not sure that the current tension over the spiritual gifts can be plopped at the feet of the New Calvinists alone. This debate has been around for a long time (FYI, I am a Missiological cessationist—a charismatic less with a seatbelt on and more tied up in the boot/trunk of the car). I’m not sure how or what this contributed to his book.

4. He didn’t clarify the gaping chasm between some of the men he names as NC protagonists on the issue of Kuyperian transformationalism (great word). It is there and it is a deep fissure. I know this first hand. This was glossed over and left seriously undercooked. Not all these men are even on the same book let alone the same page when it comes to this debate.

Finally, his conclusion left me very frustrated. Be Calvinists. That’s it. Thanks for that. I think that’s what everybody is trying to be, isn’t it? Now I’m not so sure. What if, in trying to be a Calvinist, somebody thinks you’re a new one? Because despite his irenic (just wanted to use the word in a sentence—hope I did it right) approach it feels like being a New Calvinist is, at heart, a bad thing. That leaves us with working out who decides who is a new one and who is a proper one (that is if the opposite of new is a proper Calvinist). Am I a NC? I don’t own the complete works of The Resurgence. I love the 9Marks stuff. I have read Calvin’s Institutes. I’m a 5 pointer. I believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. I am a literal 6-day creationist. I am Amillenial. I am non-egalitarian in my theology when it comes to pastoral leadership/headship. I love the Puritans, particularly Thomas Watson. I love Thomas Chalmers as well. But he’s Presbyterian, so I don’t know what Reformed Baptists would think of that. I’ve read and love much of Spurgeon’s work. I could go on. So I’m left wondering what the heck I am. On top of that, I’m extremely uncomfortable with men I admire and trust (Dever and Challies in particular) being bandied about with Driscoll and Macdonald. The bottom line is that this book would have been far better served telling us (well, me really) what Calvinism is and not what it is not. Then I could get back on with serving Jesus without feeling dodgy or on some clever theological path to destruction. He missed a trick to educate us here. Get a book out on Calvinism, explained and defined Jeremy. That would be great in our present climate.

Would I recommend this book? Oh yes. Definitely. Isn’t it great when you get a book that gets the old juices flowing? Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. It offers a piercing challenge and asks some pertinent questions about the culture of transatlantic Christianity. As a person on the fringes of this (and speaking at T4G this year) I need to be continually reminded to watch my doctrine and my life closely. The problem is, I am going a little more paranoid now. I don’t want to be the guy who is looking under the bed for heretics every five minutes. Still less, do I want to led astray into false teaching. Thanks Jeremy. Loved it.

Get out and buy this bad boy!

Buy on Amazon.co.uk

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