Book Review: The New Calvinism: New Reformation or Theological Fad?
In my lifetime, there have only been a few books that I’ve sat down to read and end up not stopping until the very last word. One of those books was Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, and Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. As someone who would likely be considered a New Calvinist, I was enamored with Hansen’s journalistic work and his conversations with men I adored, like John Piper and Al Mohler. So, when I saw that Josh Buice had edited a new release – The New Calvinism: New Reformation or Theological Fad? – I had to get my hands on it, hoping for much of the same. The book features chapters from Buice, Paul Washer, Steven Lawson, Conrad Mbewe, and Tim Challies. I respect all of these men and think they are more than qualified to write a book on this subject.
The purpose of this book is to answer the question of whether or not New Calvinism (NC), as a movement, will stand the test of time. Their question is simple: “Will the New Calvinism last” (14-15)? They define NC as “a broad network that spans across geographic, racial, and denominational boundaries with a high view of God, a profound love for God’s Word, a distaste for shallow pragmatism, a commitment to complementarianism, and a true passion for the nations to know Christ” (10-11). They also see it as “a way of describing the youthful movement of people who embrace the rich doctrines of the old Calvinism” (10). In other words, new Calvinism is just old Calvinism with younger people. Seeking to answer their main question, strengths and weaknesses of NC are mentioned throughout the book. The authors think there is reason for both celebration and concern.
Though strengths of NC are noted throughout the book – such as a high view of Scripture, a high view of God, and a healthy investment in global missions (12) – the majority of the book is devoted to pointing out the weaknesses of NC. Buice writes on the need for a greater adherence to sola Scriptura, specifically in how it relates to church practice. Among other things, he has a fear that pragmatism has invaded NC. Washer writes about ecclesiological problems in NC, and like Buice, he fears that pragmatism has entered the movement. He’s worried that too many are neglecting the local church for other good but less important things. Lawson wants better clarity on “the doctrine of sanctification… the pursuit of personal holiness” (73). His main fear is that many are moving toward antinomianism out of fear of legalism. He thinks the waters of justification and sanctification have become muddied and joined together. Focusing on spiritual gifts, Mbewe writes on the move toward continuationism, in place of the historical, Reformed position of cessationism. While most gifts are assumed here, his main focus is on speaking in tongues. In the last chapter, Challies gives seven strengths and six weaknesses of NC and ultimately concludes that “it is too early to confidently predict how history will regard New Calvinism” (111). However, he does believe that “if New Calvinism is simply a trend,” then we must let it die (126).
Overall, The New Calvinism is a useful book. While I don’t agree with all of the authors’ conclusions, I do agree that there are many weaknesses that need to be pointed out in NC. They do well to point them out. The main strength of the book is each author’s adherence to and love for the doctrine of sola Scriptura. Many New Calvinists love the doctrines of grace, but if they (myself included) truly want to be Reformed, then they must let Scripture inform every, single aspect of their lives. I came away from this book believing that even more. The book has a warm, pastoral overtone. While each author is certainly grateful for NC, they show genuine concern that some things need to change. As well, I think the main question of the book is a worthy one and needs answering. We should wonder if NC will actually stand the test of time, and if we find that some majority viewpoint in the movement is not based in Scripture, we should look to rid ourselves of it for further reformation.
But, the question remains: did this book impact me the same way that Hansen’s book did? Sadly, no. Though it is useful, it felt incomplete. First, it’s obvious that this is an edited work. There is no overarching flow to the book, except by God’s providence. Certain points in one chapter are often contradicted by points in another. For example, NC is noted as having “a distaste for shallow pragmatism,” (10-11) and is mentioned as starting “as a response to the church growth movement” (111). I wholeheartedly agree with this. My embracing NC was in part due to the pragmatism prevalent among many evangelical churches. However, pragmatic practices turn out to be one of the weaknesses of NC mentioned throughout the book (21, 23, 24, 26, 60).
This brings up another weakness. When pragmatism – and other weaknesses – are mentioned, no outright evidence is ever given as to their prevalence within NC. That is, no names are explicitly mentioned. The authors had no problem mentioning men like Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Benny Hinn, and Creflo Dollar, but this is more representative of “evangelicalism” at large – not the NC movement (103, 111). At one point, Mbewe tries to validate his own argument by mentioning “one leading [NC] continuationist…[who he has] a lot of respect for and whose shoes [he is] unworthy to untie” (106). This unnamed man “was still asking God to give him the gift of tongues based on… 1 Corinthians 12:31” (106). Unfortunately, we have to assume who this person might be. My own guess is John Piper, but your typical reader cannot know this for sure, especially without prior knowledge; and if the actual reference isn’t known, the reader cannot appropriately interact with the material. Moreover, most of the critique seemed more like concern for Christianity in general, rather than a concern for NC in specific. I found myself constantly asking: is this actually a problem within NC? I’m not saying that some of their accusations weren’t true, but I am saying that they weren’t fully proven.
Last, the authors don’t answer their own main question. The subtitle of the book even asks it: is NC a “new reformation or a theological fad?” I agree with the authors’ assertion that this question cannot be rightly answered right now; time will have to tell whether NC is just a trend or a real and needed movement. They even say multiple times that they cannot answer their main question. So, why make this the main question if it cannot be answered? What’s more, no author states whether or not they think NC will turn out to be one or the other. From the evidence provided, no one states what they think it is proving to be right now. And while they do mention weaknesses to be aware of, the mere fact that weaknesses exist does not prove that something is a fad – that it is not a type of true “reformation.” The Protestant Reformation – as great as it was – was also riddled with weaknesses, yet it is not discounted as some kind of phony reformation. So, though it is a useful book and is on a topic that many will find enjoyable, it’ll likely leave you wanting a bit more.
C.J. Moore is a pastoral resident at Liberty Baptist Church in Liberty, MO, and a PhD student in Missiology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy from Mississippi State. Prior to living in Kansas City, he served in student ministry for over five years in Mississippi. He has been married to his wife, Cassandra, since April 2014.