How Calvinist Are the “New Calvinists,” Really?

John Calvin

By some estimates, 30 percent of seminary students consider themselves strict Calvinists, a stunning increase over past years.

While today’s young pastors are identified by John Calvin’s name, it appears the 16th century French reformer hasn’t shaped the New Calvinists nearly as much as present day reformed teachers, such as Tim Keller, John Piper, Al Mohler and a handful of others.

John Calvin’s five points, often referred to as TULIP, best define his theology. T (total depravity), U (unconditional election), L (limited atonement), I (irresistible grace), and P (perseverance of the saints). It is the “limited atonement” tenet, which can be translated into a belief that only some are predestined to be saved that distinguishes Calvinists from the rest of the theological world. It is also the issue that most closely connects calvinists with their progenitor.

How predestination works itself out in ministry is a point of debate.  Writing in SBC Life, Malcolm Yarnell, associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, observed that TULIP theology is causing division in churches. Steve Lemke, provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, warns: “I believe that [Calvinism] is potentially the most explosive and divisive issue facing us in the near future. It has already been an issue that has split literally dozens of churches, and it holds the potential to split the entire convention” (“The Future of Southern Baptists as Evangelicals,” April 2005). Lemke says that “the newest generation of Southern Baptist ministers” is “the most Calvinist we have had in several generations.” He warns that Calvinism can result in a lowered commitment to evangelism, saying: “For many people, if they’re convinced that God has already elected those who will be elect … I don’t see how humanly speaking that can’t temper your passion, because you know you’re not that crucial to the process.

John Piper has said that characterization is a misreading of Calvinism and the Bible. And Dr. Frank James, president of Biblical Theological Seminary, and a Calvin scholar, said his research shows Calvin was a massive church planter, planting more than 2000 churches in France over a 7-year period.

There is some consensus, however, in other ways Calvin has influenced today’s young pastors, or more precisely the evolution of Calvinism as espoused by Keller, Piper and others.

John Calvin Emphasized Intellectualism

One is intellectualism.

Brett McCracken wrote in an article for the The Gospel Coalition:

“Typical evangelical church kids in the ’90s—myself included—found themselves hungry, at the turn of the millennium, for a meatier, more substantive and biblical Christianity. We wanted more than just bumper-sticker Christianity. We wanted chapter-and-verse Christianity.

“Evangelicalism seemed more interested in relevance and trendiness than reverence before a transcendent God. The ‘emergent church’ movement gained some traction culturally but ultimately sputtered out, grounded as it was in revisionist rather than reclaimed theology.

“Calvinism provided something deeper, older, more thoughtful, and—for millennials like me—more coherent at a time of increasing cultural confusion.”

Dr. James told ChurchLeaders.com that is also what appealed to him as a young man. “I wanted cogent logical answers and the reformed folks provided them,” he said.

But he is concerned that many New Calvinists aren’t actually reading a lot of Calvin. “What is purported to be Calvinism is really 17th century reformed scholasticism…a focus on theological precision.”

New Calvinists are also distinguished from many evangelicals by their concern for social justice. But it’s less likely those beliefs stem from Calvin than from today’s prominent Calvinists.

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Bob Ditmer
Bob Ditmer has worked in Christian media for more than 20 years including positions with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Focus on the Family.

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