Jeremy Walker’s “The New Calvinism Considered” Considered

A book review of The New Calvinism Considered by Jeremy Walker

I don’t think Jeremy’s caveat that “New Calvinism” is a nebulous phrase exempts him from the need to shed some definitional light on the matter. The alliterated headings of Calvinism, Characters, Conglomeration, and Consolidation do not seem to sufficiently define boundaries for the movement.  And, so, while Piper and Driscoll are almost constant topics of interest in this book, individuals, organizations, and ministries are picked up and dropped in a somewhat haphazard way as they become useful for the particular topic Jeremy is currently covering. Since the group he is critiquing is so nebulous and hard to define, maybe it would have been better for him to try to narrow his target a bit more?

 

This is an attempt by Jeremy Walker to analyze what is often called “New Calvinism”, a movement highlighted in Times Magazine‘s as being among “10 Ideas Changing The World Right Now”.

I have a lot of reasons to want to like this book.  I’m a “Reformed Baptist” and so, doctrinally speaking, I’m probably more closely aligned to Jeremy than many of those who are characterized as “New Calvinists”. I do not tend to consider myself a “New Calvinist” (although I must admit I do not have a clear notion of what that term means).  I am generally concerned about some of the exaltation of celebrities that is going on and I also have some serious fundamental concerns with the ministries of Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald.  And finally, I was graciously sent a free copy of the book to review.

I did, however, find the book somewhat disappointing. Let me begin with some positive things.

Jeremy expresses a desire to be fair and irenic, and he generally makes good on it. He wants his readers to avoid the extremes of either jumping on the bandwagon or being stubbornly dismissive of profitable things found in “New Calvinism”. He clearly wants his readers to “recognize the grace of God and be glad when [they] see it”. I can say “amen” to a lot of things mentioned. I find most of Jeremy’s overarching concerns to be validly applicable to one or another corner of what is commonly called “New Calvinism”, especially the ministries of Mark Driscoll or James McDonald. How broadly applicable these things are is a matter that needs to be further fleshed out.

Now let me share a basic overview of why I am disappointed with this book. I’m spending most of my time on outlining the flaws mainly because, (a) I’m instinctively biased towards this book and hence the flaws become more weighty, and (b) I want to justify the “three star” rating I gave it.

1. It seems to fail at coming up with a satisfactory definition of “New Calvinism”, and this problem seeps into Jeremy’s commendations and critiques. Though there is room for definitional fluidity, the task at hand requires somewhat of a concrete definition with some boundary markers. I don’t think Jeremy’s caveat that “New Calvinism” is a nebulous phrase exempts him from the need to shed some definitional light on the matter. The alliterated headings of Calvinism, Characters, Conglomeration, and Consolidation do not seem to sufficiently define boundaries for the movement.  And, so, while Piper and Driscoll are almost constant topics of interest in this book, individuals, organizations, and ministries are picked up and dropped in a somewhat haphazard way as they become useful for the particular topic Jeremy is currently covering. Since the group he is critiquing is so nebulous and hard to define, maybe it would have been better for him to try to narrow his target a bit more? It seems even unclear whether even the esteemed author of this very book might not lurk somewhere in the outskirts of “New Calvinism” (after all, at least in America, the modern Reformed Baptist movement IS relatively young, rediscovery of an old confession notwithstanding!)

2. Jeremy’s “commendations” section is so heavily qualified that it loses its power and largely becomes a preface to his “concerns” section.  You don’t get very far into the commendations section until you start seeing a large dose of “However”, “Nevertheless”, “I want to qualify this”,  etc.  Would it not have been more productive to keep the “commendations” section on track with unequivocal commendations,  and move these reservations to the “concerns” section? It certainly would have lent a more irenic effect.

3. While he has accomplished his wish to avoid doing “a hatchet job”, there are some valid questions about the balance of his coverage. Is Jeremy dealing with the best arguments and representatives that “New Calvinism” puts forward? Or is he merely scrapping the bottom and finding the worst excesses and the biggest debacles?   That question is hard to answer. Personally, I believe it’s clear he’s generally trying his best to be fair and avoid straw-men. That said, there could be some questions raised about Jeremy’s focus. Driscoll gets more time than Duncan, Dever, Carson, DeYoung, and Mahaney together. It is unquestionable that Driscoll is a huge figure in New Calvinism, but is he really that significant and representative? Or, is Jeremy gravitating towards Driscoll, perhaps because he is controversial and perhaps one of the more charismatic and problematic figures?  This is a legitimate question. Be that as it may, I don’t think one could accuse Jeremy of egregiously broad sweeps, but it seems like his selection of quotes and sources may have coloured his assessment to some degree.

4. A number of areas lack detail and/or polish, often raising more questions than are answered. Jeremy seems to be dismissive of Kuyperianism (or at least Neo-Kuyperianism), but doesn’t really explain this sufficiently, nor does he give solid details on how it is explicitly related to New Calvinism. Also,  his implication that New Calvinists got the idea that “everything is neutral” from Kuyper seems questionable, especially knowing that Kuyperianism, at least in one sense, regards nothing as neutral. He then jumps  along to talk about rap music, the regulative principle, and Tim Keller as though these “connections” are obvious. And he seems to ignore that a thoroughgoing Kuyperianism pervades the broader Calvinist movement in general, not just what might be called “New Calvinism”. At times  Jeremy introduces a lot of names and concepts without proper explanation, leaving a fair amount of unhelpful loose ends. Tullian Tchividjian, who I do believe is propagating a problematic and unbalanced theology, is brought into the discussion with no explanation of who he is or even a listing under “Individuals of Note” at the end of the book.  And the mention of the Federal Vision, also, is unhelpfully terse. I’m left sort of puzzled by what Jeremy means when he refers to Douglas Wilson’s “guise”?

5. The book doesn’t seriously enough grapple with the way the listed concerns are not the exclusive domain of New Calvinism. Those who would vehemently deny that they are “New Calvinists” can be vulnerable to these very same (or other) pitfalls, so clearly there are broader issues at play here that are. It appears to me that things like excessive focus on charismatic personalities and antionomianism has also become entrenched in many circles that would not be associated with “New Calvinism”. In fact, much of the confusion which Jeremy points to in relation to the DeYoung vs. Tchividjian debate  actually originates clearly outside of what might be called “New Calvinist” circles. Could it be that some of the “New Calvinists”, since they are high profile, have just become more visible manifestation of the general trends that are exhibited elsewhere in the Reformed and Evangelical world?

6. The book lacks the presentation of a clear, concrete alternative. No doubt, there are some prescriptive suggestions and his concluding paragraph contains some sound advice, but it is hard to see how it specifically relates to the topic of the book or presents something that would be antithetical to the “New Calvinism” movement. He makes the statement: “Be Calvinists. Don’t be new Calvinists or any particular brand or stripe of Calvinist.” On the surface, this seems unobjectionable, perhaps even catchy. You might even say it would take a “New Calvinist” to come up with something witty like that. “Be Calvinists” is repeated no less than 4 times in the conclusion. However, the more I ponder that catchy statement, the more puzzled I become. What exactly does it mean? And how does his exhortation to not be “any particular brand or stripe of Calvinist” fit in with his later exhortation to exhibit particular stripe of Calvinism that is “robustly confessional” and has “well-grounded churchmanship” (an exhortation which I agree with, for the record).

The above listed flaws not withstanding, this book raises some important questions. And with the above caveats, I would say that some folks in Reformed-ish circles could profit from it. Despite the flaws, it is a rather sincere and heartfelt effort about a genuine pastoral problem. I do hope that the “New Calvinism” movement, whatever exactly that might be, whether through Jeremy’s book or some other means, does get to some serious self-examination. I hope that they examine some of the basic issues raised in Jeremy’s critiques, and that there is a serious move towards a more sound, stable, rooted, confessional, and sensible direction. And I also hope that their critics will be fair and generous.  I hope that an irenic and charitable environment remains and that this book might be the early beginning of some helpful conversations, noted flaws notwithstanding.

Mark Nenadov is a software developer that lives in Essex, Ontario with his wife and daughter. This article was first published on his blog, All Things Expounded and is used with permission.