What is Neo-Calvinism?
In the thoroughly divided world in which we live, labels can carry a lot of weight. The theological world is no different. Particularly when controversy arises, it is convenient to place labels on the opposing sides. In theological circles amongst evangelicals, there is perhaps no more potentially divisive label than that of “Calvinist.” In the last several years, however, a different label has arisen that has caused concern in some groups—that of “Neo-Calvinist.” The prefix “neo-“ rarely seems to carry positive connotations, so what are we to make of the Neo-Calvinist movement?
Before going any further, be aware that any essay this size is going to have some oversimplifications—there are always views and individuals who do not neatly fit into categories. This is, hopefully, helpful enough to serve as an introduction, at least, to the issue.
What is Calvinism?
Before we can really understand Neo-Calvinism, we need to be sure we understand what “Old Calvinism” is. Calvinism, as its name implies, originates from the teachings of the French Reformer John Calvin (1509–1564), though its roots go back much earlier to Augustine of Hippo (354–430). In particular, Calvinism is about the understanding of God’s sovereignty and salvation taught by Calvin (as well as Luther and many other of the reformers). A full answer to this question would take a book to explain adequately, but in broad terms, Calvinism can be summarized in five major ideas, often referred to as the “5 Points” of Calvinism. Calvin himself did not organize his teachings into these five points. Rather, his followers systematized (and at times, expanded on) his theology in this way as a response to some contemporary criticisms. Memorably, these five points have been arranged in the acronym TULIP. In very succinct fashion, they are:
T – Total Depravity – man’s rebellion against God is total, affecting all parts of his being, so that all are totally unable to submit to God or repent from sin apart from God’s grace.
U – Unconditional Election – God elects people to be saved without any prior condition being met on their part. Final salvation is conditioned on faith and repentance, but only God’s unconditional election can bring about that faith and repentance.
L – Limited Atonement* – The cross actually achieves the redemption of the individuals for whom Christ died, such that Christ died to provide atonement for the sins of the elect, rather than the whole world.
I – Irresistible Grace – The Holy Spirit overcomes all resistance so as to bring to salvation all those chosen by God, such that all those who are “called” by God will respond in faith.
P – Perseverance of the Saints – The people of God will necessarily persevere to the end and not be lost. Those that “fall away” from the faith were never truly regenerate to begin with.
*Limited atonement is by far the most controversial of these doctrines, such that many Calvinists disagree with this point while holding the others. Such people sometimes refer to themselves as “4 Point Calvinists.”
Space does not permit any further explanations of these doctrines – if you are interested in reading more, you can find a brief explanation of Calvinism as a system, with relevant Scripture references, as well as links to short explanations of each “point” here. For a deeper dive, I highly recommend the detailed explanation of Calvinism at Desiring God. It’s not short (it’s available in print form in a 96-page book!), but it is the best introductory explanation of Calvinist theology I’ve read.
What is Neo-Calvinism?
In large part, that depends on who is describing it. Neo-Calvinism dates back to the 19th-century Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (pronounced KAI-per). Kuyper was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and even served as the Prime Minister of the Netherlands at the beginning of the 20th century. Kuyper was a Calvinist, as was typical of the Dutch Reformed Church, but his theology emphasized the ability of the Gospel to redeem the culture. So, while salvation was an individual experience, it moved beyond the individual into all of creation.
Kuyper and others emphasized the four-fold history of salvation—creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. If you’ve attended Throne of Grace for a while, those four words probably sound familiar—both Jay and I have used these four words to summarize the Bible. Are we Neo-Calvinists!?! I’ll get into that a little later. Keep reading. Kuyper placed more emphasis on that last part—consummation—than others in his time. Rather than just inward piety, he wanted Christians to be involved in cultural renewal. His teachings are captured well in what is perhaps his best known quote, “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” A good modern example of someone who shows similarities to some Neo-Calvinist ideas is Tim Keller, author and former pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Keller emphasizes the capacity for the gospel to transform our understanding of work and vocation, and speaks of the way in which Christians can contribute to the welfare of their cities by engaging in gospel-centered mission and service.
However, this is not always what some people mean when they use the term “Neo-Calvinist.” This is where labels can get confusing. Where I usually see people using the term “Neo-Calvinist,” they are not really thinking about the Dutch tradition or the influence of Kuyper, but rather what Mark Oppenheimer called the “Calvinist Revival” in a 2014 piece in the New York Times. By that he meant the trend in evangelicalism, especially among younger Christians, towards Calvinist theology, and away from the Arminian theology popular in America from the time of the Second Great Awakening in the mid-19th century. Some call these Christians “New Calvinists,” which is where the “Neo-Calvinist” label tends to overlap. But, these “New Calvinists” may or may not be “Neo-Calvinists,” in the sense described above. They may, simply, be more or less regular Calvinists in a new generation. Bob Robinson, a blogger for patheos.com, suggests instead this group be termed “Neo-Puritans.” They affirm general Calvinist theology, but with slightly different emphases than Kuyper and those in his tradition. Oppenheimer’s NYT article mentions Christian leaders such as Mark Dever, John Piper, and organizations like The Gospel Coalition. Others, writing in criticism of this “New/Neo-Calvinist” movement, list leaders like Al Mohler, Paul David Tripp, and institutions like Louisville’s own Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as responsible for the spread of these ideas in today's church. Those familiar with these individuals and organizations know there’s nothing particular “Neo-“ about them, in the sense that they are revolutionaries proposing any kind of radical new ideas. They are, rather, mostly just seeking to be faithful to what they believe the Bible teaches in their own contexts and in a new day.
What are the criticisms against Neo-Calvinism?
The criticisms leveled against Neo-Calvinists fall in several different categories. Some are theological—these are essentially the same criticisms non-Calvinist thinkers and theologians have had with Calvinism for centuries. Calvinism devalues evangelism and missions, it is alleged, by insisting that everything is predestined from eternity past. Calvinism makes prayer pointless, as everything is simply predetermined. Others suggest Calvinism is incompatible with a loving God, since not everyone is given the same chance at salvation. Many other arguments have been set forth against Calvinist theology; I again recommend the explanation at Desiring God I linked above for an in-depth discussion of these issues.
Other criticisms are more behavioral in nature. One of the most influential criticisms of Neo-Calvinism comes from a 2014 article in the Religion News Service by Jonathan Merritt (son of former SBC president James Merritt). Merritt suggests three “troubling trends:” 1) isolationism – a tendency to only read and interact with writers and speakers who are also Calvinist; 2) tribalism – the need to defend those within their ranks while criticizing those outside them; and 3) egotism – an implied arrogance in the tone of Calvinist writers and thinkers that looks down on those that disagree as having less of a grasp on the knowledge of the gospel or of God.
Other criticisms, largely within the Southern Baptist Convention itself, are primarily oriented at charges of divisiveness. Calvinists, they argue, are trying to “take over” the SBC. More on this issue within the SBC below.
Are these criticisms fair?
That is, of course, a matter of opinion, and depend upon which criticism you have in mind. In my opinion, the theological criticisms are not fair. They raise important questions about Calvinist theology, but none of them strike any sort of fatal blow to the Calvinist view of Scripture. When properly articulated and clarified, Calvinism is very pro-missions, pro-prayer, and very much affirms a loving and good God. Again, others have sought to rebut these arguments—I won’t spend any more time doing so here. Theological arguments aside, though, anyone familiar with John Piper at all knows he is the furthest thing from a preacher and author who devalues missions and evangelism!
Regarding the behavioral criticisms posed by authors like Merritt, the fairness is harder to determine. We are talking about a large group of individuals, and it’s difficult to lump any of them into such uniform categories such that all these criticisms ring true. For example, in political discourse, one may argue that Democrats are financially irresponsible, or that Republicans aren’t empathetic with those dependent on government assistance. Are those criticisms fair? For some Democrats or Republicans, probably. But surely it’s far too broad to just say that because someone is a Democrat they don’t care about fiscal responsibility, or that just because an individual votes Republican, that they don’t care about the plight of the poor. In the same way, is it true that some Calvinists are isolationists, tribalists, having a problem with arrogance? Probably! It’s also probably true of some Arminians, and just about any other group you can think of! To that end, I think Merritt’s criticisms should be taken as warnings, as anyone is susceptible to these sins, but they are simply too broad to say that these shortcomings are true of an entire movement, in my opinion.
What about the charge of divisiveness? The next section will deal with this concern.
Is Neo-Calvinism an issue in the SBC?
Most definitely. As mentioned already, many voices within the SBC see Calvinists as threatening to disrupt the unity the convention has enjoyed since the days of the "Conservative Resurgence," when leadership was installed in the convention to return to the conservative, evangelical roots of the Baptist denomination. Again, at the risk of oversimplifying things, in the last several years there has been two large groups: the “old guard,” traditionalist Baptists, very conservative and predominantly Arminian; and the next generation, younger, more apolitical (at least in the church), Calvinist movement. Tensions between the two groups have flared at times. Recently, the SBC appointed a special task force to study the issue of Calvinism within the SBC and to suggest paths forward for unity. The group, called the Calvinism Advisory Committee, published their report, “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension,” in June of 2013.
The statement of faith of the SBC, the Baptist Faith and Message, is intentionally silent on the issue of Calvinism, preferring to treat is as a secondary issue that does not affect our mutual goal of cooperation—namely, missions and evangelism. That does not mean that unity has been the predominant theme, however. In November of 2016, at the conclusion of a chapel service at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, then seminary president Paige Patterson essentially said that all Calvinist Baptists should leave the denomination. “I know there are a fair number of you who think you are a Calvinist, but understand there is a denomination which represents that view,” Patterson said. “It’s called Presbyterian.” Others have written, accusing young Calvinists of attempting a “power grab” within the denomination, smuggling their Calvinist theology into churches as a kind of “Trojan Horse.” Some see Mohler, as a Calvinist leader of Louisville’s own SBTS, as an “architect of the Neo-Cal takeover.” Whether some young seminary graduates have attempted to force their Calvinist theology on unsuspecting and unwilling congregations, I have no idea. I suspect some have, foolishly, tried to do just that. As far as any kind of nefarious “takeover” or hostile “infiltration” on a large scale, such a suggestion strikes me as paranoid and completely unwarranted. Of course Calvinist Baptists will want to see their own views represented within the denomination; but that is altogether different than some kind of divisive, subversive plot to “reform” the SBC.
Non-Calvinist, traditionalist Baptists remain the majority in SBC life, and Barna polls within the last few years confirm that there are more non-Calvinist SBC churches than Calvinist ones, but that trend is perhaps beginning to shift a bit. As an example, men elected to serve as president of the SBC have nearly always belonged to the traditionalist camp of SBC pastors. Two years ago, at the 2016 SBC Annual Meeting in St. Louis, Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, TN, and a typical traditionalist candidate (I mean no disrespect with that characterization), ran against J.D. Greear, a younger, Calvinist pastor of Summit Church in North Carolina. The first two votes failed to achieve a majority for either candidate (an extremely rare outcome), and just as votes were getting ready to be cast for a third time, Greear withdrew from the race, stating he was concerned a slim victory for either candidate would prove too divisive for the convention. Though Gaines won the presidency and served the typical two-year term, the fact that the race was so close was, perhaps, a sign of a “changing of the guard.” This year, just a few weeks ago in June 2018, Greear ran for president again, against another traditionalist opponent, but won decisively, capturing over 68% of the vote. Greear is a very well-respected and faithful pastor, so his victory should not simply be chalked up as a moratorium on Calvinism in the SBC, but his election does cause one to wonder whether the overall culture within the SBC is beginning to shift.
The next two years under Greear’s leadership will be interesting to watch, and where the denomination goes from here is difficult to say. Much prayer is needed for true unity and direction within the SBC.
Is Neo-Calvinism something I should be concerned about?
Probably not. If you are very staunchly set in a theological mindset like Arminianism, you are probably not going to be a fan of Neo-Calvinism. But that will have more to do with the “Calvinism” part of that compound, rather than the “Neo-.” In other words, if you have a problem with Calvinist theology, you’ll probably have a problem with Neo-Calvinist theology. The two are, essentially, the same.
If you are more “on the fence” about Calvinism, or in favor of Calvinist theology, then there’s really nothing so “Neo-” about Neo-Calvinism that should concern you. Yes, the tendencies that Merritt points out should be noted and avoided, but there is nothing unorthodox or dangerous about Neo-Calvinism. Merritt himself ends his article with these words, “Though these problems are serious, I am for any movement that lifts up Jesus and proclaims the Christian good news. I have many friends within the neo-Calvinist movement that challenge me with their commitment to scriptural fidelity and the supremacy of Christ. If America’s “Calvinist revival” turns out to be a resurgence, I hope they abound in grace–both inside and out.”
Where does Throne of Grace stand in relation to Neo-Calvinism?
We are not big on labels of just about any kind. We have even chosen to label ourselves as “Throne of Grace Community Church,” rather than “Baptist Church,” so as to avoid any unfair characterizations some might have about what they may perceive as a “typical Baptist church.” We prefer to be judged on our own merits, rather than some preconceived reputation. Similarly, we don’t think of ourselves as a “Calvinist church,” either. If you read our statement of our convictions, you may notice that several of these statements reflect a Calvinist understanding of God and salvation (see “Sovereignty of God,” Man’s Role in Salvation,” and “New Birth”). Still, we do not think of ourselves as Calvinists, first and foremost. We want to follow the Bible, not Calvin. And, to be sure, there are certainly doctrines and interpretations of Calvin we would not follow. But our reading of the Scriptures does follow a lot of what Calvin said, and so we are, by most definitions, essentially Calvinist in our doctrine of salvation.
What about Neo-Calvinism? As I have suggested, there is not really a great deal of difference between regular Calvinism and what is now called “Neo-Calvinism.” To the extent that leaders such as Tim Keller, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, John Piper, and Paul David Tripp are branded as Neo-Calvinists, then I suppose we are as well. I pray we do not fall victim to the valid criticisms leveled against some Neo-Calvinists, but as imperfect pastors and thinkers, we ought not to think ourselves immune to such pitfalls.
One last note: we, like the Baptist Faith and Message, do not consider Calvinism an essential doctrine of church membership. We do not ask all prospective members to affirm Calvinism in order to join the church—indeed, there are likely several within the congregation that do not. Our goal is to preach the Bible, not Calvin. Though, of course, insofar as we agree with some of what Calvin said about sin and salvation, there will be some overlap. All we ask of our members is charity in whatever disagreements we may have, and a spirit of unity as we cooperate together to grow in holiness and spread the gospel in our community.
You may, in conversations, or in articles you read, hear the label of “Neo-Calvinism” used as a derogatory term. Some may even think of Neo-Calvinism as some extreme, heretical doctrine. We would urge you to ignore such characterizations. I question whether the label “Neo-Calvinist” is even helpful. The prefix “Neo-” strikes me as needlessly caustic, as though something totally new and dangerous is being taught. That may not be the intent of all who use the term, but I fear it is the effect for those that hear it. For the most part, “Neo-Calvinists” are regular old Calvinists trying to be faithful to the Scriptures as they understand them. The way forward, regardless of one’s position, is to truly listen to the perspective of others who might disagree with us, and evaluate their ideas solely on the basis of Scripture, rather than manmade labels. Where we as evangelicals and as a church are all unified is in our commitment to the Bible, as well as the gospel. That should be more than enough for true unity in our congregation, as well as our denomination.