New Calvinism may not be as “new” as some suggest, but rather the latest installment of an older version of Calvinism which has had its unique expression among every generation of American Calvinists since the era of the colonial revivalists.
In 2008, Christianity Today’s Colin Hansen, wrote a fascinating book, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists, which captured a lot of attention. In a commendation of the book, evangelical historian Doug Sweeney, of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, acknowledged the increasing popularity of Calvinism among young Americans, and noted how this “New Calvinism” is “the latest trend in our (endlessly trendy) evangelical movement.” That is perhaps a reluctant acknowledgement by a Lutheran, but of course Presbyterians and other Reformed types have been delighted by this resurgence of interest in Reformed theology. Those involved in higher education, have been watching this trend unfold for a number of years. Young people on college campuses and in seminaries across the country are finding Calvinism to be an intellectually satisfying articulation of the faith, especially attractive in an increasingly anti-Christian American environment.
Hansen’s book, Young, Restless and Reformed, through a series of stories and interviews, chronicles the turn to Calvinism among the young, noting the significant Baptist connection. John Piper is at the headwaters of the movement, along with Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler of Southern Theological Seminary. Hansen describes how Calvinism has become a major point of contention in the nation’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention. The intramural debate among Baptists tends to focus on whether Calvinism encourages or discourages evangelism – each side throwing statistics at the other about who is more committed to reaching the world for Christ. Those familiar with the seventeenth-century history of the English Baptist movement find the Baptist connection quite natural. The New Calvinism has not been without its naysayers in Presbyterianism also. A few Presbyterians appear to view these Baptists as intruders, wondering how these New Calvinists can be “Reformed” if they don’t embrace infant baptism.
Regardless of its critics, the New Calvinism is growing, cutting across denominational lines. Hansen observes that this ecumenical Calvinism has a healthy respect for Christian tradition, but also notes its “openness to the Holy Spirit’s leading.” In one chapter he discusses the emergence of charismatic Calvinism, described as “one sure sign of Reformed resurgence. Such a combination would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.” Hansen opines, “Considering domestic and international trends, it’s likely that Reformed evangelicals will become more charismatic if Calvinism continues to spread.” An historical role model for these Calvinist charismatics is Jonathan Edwards who famously offered his balanced appraisal of the Spirit’s work during the eighteenth-century awakening in America. The Jonathan Edwards connection is a fascinating one, given the priority New Calvinists give to church membership, discipline, holiness and missions, all significant themes in Edwards’ theology and practice.
Those familiar with nineteenth-century American evangelicalism watch the current commotion over this broader expression of Calvinism with some amusement, noting that much of the “New Calvinism” sounds remarkably similar to the old New School Presbyterianism. One obvious point of contact would be the deep respect for Jonathan Edwards. New School Calvinism was often identified with the work of “President Edwards,” who some considered a father of New School Presbyterianism. While historical context would certainly make the two movements distinct in significant ways, there are some intriguing parallels.
American Presbyterianism for generations has included a significant contingent of clergy who have found their primary Christian identity within the evangelical movement, while also considering themselves a part of the Reformed tradition. A ground breaking work linking the New School with the broader evangelical movement was George Marsden’s book, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience(1970). As Marsden indicates, in the nineteenth century, a progressive party within the Presbyterian household, dubbed the “New School” party, was known for its broader evangelical perspectives on a host of issues. The New School won many hearts and minds, eventually composing half of the Presbyterian family in nineteenth-century America. For a few decades they had their own denomination which reinforced commitment to the issues that separated them from the “Old School.”
New School Calvinism
An outside observer of Presbyterianism in the nineteenth century described Presbyterians this way, “Presbyterians are like hickory, good timber, splits easily.” This was an apt description of American Presbyterians, especially in the years up through the end of the Civil War. The Presbyterian General Assemblies in the 1830s were so raucous that one journalist, commenting on an upcoming General Assembly meeting, declared that there was a “jubilee in hell, every time that body meets.” Notwithstanding the Presbyterian propensity to fuss, in the early 1830s there was one major Presbyterian body in America. By 1861, that one denomination had been split into four separate ecclesiastical bodies.
Two decades before the sectional divide hit its peak in the national debate over slavery, Presbyterians had divided in 1837 into the Old School and New School churches. It was not an amicable parting of the ways, as the Old School had unilaterally booted out the New School, claiming that they alone were the “true” Presbyterian Church in the United States. The New School vigorously disagreed with that conclusion, making its own claim to the Presbyterian heritage, which they believed the Old School had abandoned. Out of the great schism of the 1830s, where Presbyterianism was essentially divided in half, a new denomination was born – what became known as the Presbyterian Church (New School). The new church would have a separate and distinct identity for thirty years in the north; a southern New School body (The United Synod of the South) would have its own separate existence for a mere seven years (1857-1864), separating from the northern New Schoolers in 1857 explicitly over the issue of slavery.
The Old School always asserted that the original divide of the 1830s was theological, a strict Old School contingent arguing that the New Schoolers tolerated Pelagian and Arminian errors. The New School vehemently objected to these accusations, which they considered slanderous and ill conceived. And so ensued a prolonged battle in writing between Old School and New School advocates, each claiming, “my version of Presbyterianism is better than yours;” and a concomitant assertion was, “my Calvinism is more consistent with historic American Calvinism.” Much of the ongoing debate centered upon the question of clergy subscription to the Westminster Confession and catechisms. The meaning of the old 1729 Adopting Act was fiercely debated between the Old School and New School leading up to the division of 1837, and throughout the period of their separation.
The first General Assembly of the New School in 1838 issued a “Pastoral Letter” to her churches in which an account of the Presbyterian controversies leading up to the rupture was discussed and a justification for the actions taken was explained. Included in the letter was a statement wherein devotion to the Westminster Standards was made explicit: “We love and honor the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church as containing more well-defined, fundamental truth, with less defect, than appertains to any other human formula of doctrine, and as calculated to hold in intelligent concord a greater number of sanctified minds than any which could now be framed; and we disclaim all design past, present or future to change it.”
The history of the New School Presbyterian Church in the decade of the 1840’s was a time of developing organizational structure and administration. Separation from the other body came to be viewed as an accepted fact with no expectation of a quick reunion. Tensions with the other Presbyterian body were unabated as conservative voices in the Old School relentlessly attacked the New School. In 1852 the New School Presbyterian Church established its own journal, The Presbyterian Quarterly Review. Examining the pages of its ten years of existence, it is abundantly clear that a chief goal of the periodical was to both justify the New School Church’s existence and to defend her distinctives. For the New School men, who viewed themselves as the “true” constitutional Presbyterian Church, it was simply a matter of demonstrating how their branch continued to exhibit the characteristics of “American Presbyterianism” that had emerged in the eighteenth century. They believed the historical records were on their side and went to great lengths in the Review to substantiate these claims.
In the very first issue of the new journal, the editors utilized two articles to review the background of their denomination and rehearse the unjust impugning of her character by the other branch of the church. The Review editors reminded readers that those who had rent the Presbyterian Church believed, “the exscinded portion was radically unsound in theology, and without any fixed attachment to church order.” But now after fifteen years of existence as a denomination, “…in the body with which we are connected, no man has moved to alter a tittle of the Confession of faith, or an essential principle of Presbyterian church government.” The charge of unsoundness was unsubstantiated; in fact, the brief history of the New School as a separate body has demonstrated her commitment to biblical Calvinism. The editors state, “So far as we are informed, there is not a minister of our body who does not love and cherish the Westminster Confession of Faith as the best human delineation of biblical theology; while all are prepared to bow implicitly and finally and fearlessly, before the only infallible standard, the word of God. ‘Our church standards as symbols for union, but the Bible for authority,’ is the motto of our denomination.”
The editors of the Review asserted that Calvinism had been distorted and deemed it their responsibility to defend “old fashioned, Catholic, American Presbyterianism.” The editors went on the offensive and stated specific distortions against which they would take a stand:
This Review is ‘set for the defense of the gospel’ against all assailants, especially those who professing to abjure philosophy, yet philosophize the Almighty into a tyrant, and man into a victim; who represent a holy God as creating sin in a human soul, anterior to all moral acts, and then punishing that soul for being as he made it; who teach that man has no ability to do his duty whatever, but is worthy of eternal punishment for not enacting natural impossibilities; who limit the atonement offered for a race to the elect alone, and then consign to a deeper damnation, souls for rejecting an atonement, which in no sense was ever provided for them. These excrescences on sound Calvinism, these parasites which antinomian metaphysics have engrafted on the glorious doctrines of grace, we shall deem it our duty to lop off….As we love the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms, we shall stand ready to vindicate them from Arminian, Socinian, and infidel assaults on the one side, as well as Antinomian glosses on the other.
Between the years 1852 and 1855, the New School’s Presbyterian Quarterly Review carried a series of five articles entitled, “The Spirit of American Presbyterianism.” These articles expounded in detail the great themes of the New School mind. An essential framework throughout the articles was the idea that there had always been two great elements in the Presbyterian Church of America from its beginning. One group exhibited a “rigid” spirit which primarily was made up of the Scottish whose plan was to transplant the Presbyterian Church of Scotland in America. The other party, “liberal” in spirit, was comprised of more diverse Reformed elements from England, Ireland, Wales, France, Germany and Holland. This party had its affinity with the Puritans of New England and was more distinctly “American” in “a new and unparalleled age and country.” The great question was: which of these branches contains the “genuine Spirit of American Presbyterianism.”
New Calvinism and New School
Looking at the character of nineteenth-century New School Calvinism, there appears to be much in common with the spirit of the New Calvinism. John Piper has highlighted twelve features of the New Calvinism; for the purposes of comparison, four of Piper’s distinguishing marks will function as a framework for evaluating continuities in the two “New” versions of Calvinism. Piper notes these four features (among others) of the New Calvinism:
1. The New Calvinism is inter-denominational with a strong (some would say oxymoronic) Baptistic element.
2. The New Calvinism is aggressively mission-driven, including missional impact on social evils, evangelistic impact on personal networks, and missionary impact on unreached peoples of the world.
3. The New Calvinism, in its allegiance to the inerrancy of the Bible, embraces the biblical truths behind the five points (TULIP), while having an aversion to using the acronym or any other systematic packaging, along with a sometimes qualified embrace of limited atonement. The focus is on Calvinistic soteriology but not to the exclusion or the appreciation of the broader scope of Calvin’s vision.
4. The New Calvinism puts a priority on pietism or piety in the Puritan vein, with an emphasis on the essential role of affections in Christian living, while esteeming the life of the mind and being very productive in it, and embracing the value of serious scholarship. Jonathan Edwards would be invoked as a model of this combination of the affections and the life of the mind more often than John Calvin, whether that’s fair to Calvin or not.
These four features (inter-denominational, aggressively mission driven, qualified embrace of limited atonement and priority on piety) especially seem to mirror very similar perspectives that are found in nineteenth-century New Schoolism. While the historical context has certainly changed dramatically, the substantive theological principles and ministry practices are remarkably alike.