For almost a decade Jonathan and I have been active participants in the broadly reformed Christian community, or movement, or culture that has been identified as “young, restless and reformed,” despite not being so young and restless as we were in the early days. Reading The New Calvinism Considered was difficult, and writing this review even more so, first, because the book is about my people, and secondly, because much of the things said were things Jonathan and I have said ourselves. In fact, Chapter 3 – “Commendations,” contained all of the things we not only appreciate about this community, but the very reasons we were drawn here to begin with. On the flip side, I found myself reading in Chapter 4, which is really the heart of Walker’s criticism, words of caution and even complaint that have been said more than once in my own kitchen.
I do disagree with the author on several points. First, Walker gives John Piper a far more prominent role in the current resurgence of Calvinism than he is due. There is no doubt that Piper has been influential to a great many men and women in my generation. Like so many, Piper’s book Desiring God was one of the first books that put my husband on the path to exploring this theology of God’s sovereignty in all things. But to define the “New” Calvinism as not really Calvinism, but more”. . . Jonathan Edwards mediated through John Piper.” (p. 17) is a stretch. Piper is a “big dog” in this little pond, but he is in no way the sole arbiter of popular Calvinistic theology.
Secondly, in Chapter 2, “Characteristics of New Calvinism”, Walker includes “. . . a movement of characters (or figureheads . . .)” (p 17) and “. . . a tendency to pragmatism and commercialism.” (p. 38) There is no doubt that those things are absolutely true of the men and churches and organizations about which this book speaks. It is, however, also absolutely true about almost every other type of church in America. That the movement is a product of its culture cannot be denied, and that these particular cultural qualities are undesirable is without question, but they are not, in themselves, specific and unique to this community.
Several of Walker’s concerns are, however, very insightful. On page 44, in chapter 4, he raises concern with the habit of re-defining terms. His example is a redefinition of regulative worship, but I would suggest that confessional has been blurred around the edges, and with these softer definitions comes the blurring of the lines of denominational distinctions. Walker goes on to make that same point (p 51 ff.), saying that it is all fine and good to say we won’t divide over secondary issues, but who gets to draw that line? Who gets to define which issues are primary and which are secondary. The inevitable conclusion is that everything falls into one category or the other. There has been the perception that in the past reformed camps tended to err on the side of putting everything in the primary issue category, forming ever smaller denominational fractures. The “new” Calvinists have swung the pendulum to the other side and relegated everything as secondary.
I think Walker’s real home run is his evaluation of antinomian legalism (p 47 – 51). I cannot do it justice, but I wish that section had been its own chapter, or even its own book. In this case I believe he identifies not a symptom, but a root error in the camp – this false notion that grace is negated by obedience. He also illustrates beautifully how the shift is not from law to grace, but often from law to a different law.
Finally, while laying the title “New” on this movement, Walker makes no effort to compare it to whatever he would call “Old” Calvinism. What makes this new group of young-ish, restless-ish and reformed-ish not just Calvinist? Where do they step away from the old guard and mark themselves as a new version of an older idea? The real problem for Walker is that there is no clear cut answer to that. The very fact that men like John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon and, in fact, Jeremy Walker, could disagree with John Calvin on church government, the sacraments, worship, and other major portions of his Institutes yet still feel free to identify themselves as Calvinists illustrates that there have been “New” Calvinists for as long as there have been Calvinists. I wonder if the title “Contemporary Calvinism Considered” would have been a more appropriate title.
I received no compensation for this post. I was provided an electronic edition for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one. I keep a disclosure statement here.