Time magazine has called ‘The New Calvinism’ (whatever that is exactly) the third most influential idea changing the world right now. In response, Mark Driscoll has produced his list of four ways in which the New Calvinism is different to the Old one. For the sake of the discussion, let me repeat them below:
Four Ways ‘New Calvinism’ is So Powerful
- Old Calvinism was fundamental or liberal and separated from or syncretized with culture. New Calvinism is missional and seeks to create and redeem culture.
- Old Calvinism fled from the cities. New Calvinism is flooding into cities.
- Old Calvinism was cessationistic and fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. New Calvinism is continuationist and joyful in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
- Old Calvinism was fearful and suspicious of other Christians and burned bridges. New Calvinism loves all Christians and builds bridges between them.
So that you have the full picture, Driscoll has also posted entries about what loving all Christians means and doesn’t mean, and about the importance of keeping the gospel central. All of this has been followed up by some short bios on some fairly old Calvinists who, I assume, were actually new in their day too (e.g. Athanasius and Augustine).
At one level, it’s a pretty shrewd political manoeuvre. The general public’s understanding of Calvinism (where they have any understanding) is not fantastic. The Time article captures the vibe:
It will be interesting to see whether Calvin’s latest legacy will be classic Protestant backbiting or whether, during these hard times, more Christians searching for security will submit their wills to the austerely demanding God of their country’s infancy. [emphasis mine]).
So Driscoll’s attempt to distance what he is teaching from public misperceptions is, in one sense, timely and wise. However, I for one am lead to ask whether the instrument he has used is too blunt—in the way that a chainsaw is too blunt to peel tomatoes with.
My main question is what exactly does he mean by the ‘Old’ Calvinism? As far as I can see at the moment, it is anything that ever called itself Calvinist that doesn’t fit Driscoll’s four points. But I am having trouble understanding why Driscoll has chosen the four points that he has.
Let’s take his first point. It seems to me that he has characterized the Old Calvinism in terms of Fundamentalism versus Liberalism because his desire is to get to cultural engagement. That is the pay dirt for Driscoll. But this ignores all sorts of issues. Firstly, the fundamentalists became fundamentalist, at least in part, because of their reaction to Liberalism. And their cultural situation was nothing like ours. In the US at the turn of the century, America was effectively mono-cultural, in as much as most people thought of themselves as Christian, with Christianity being part of the public discourse. So what would you do when you are part of a world where people are calling themselves Christian, but are disobeying the gospel and rejecting the atoning work and Lordship of Christ? At least one good biblical response is to separate from them (e.g. 1 Cor 5:9-13, Rom 16:17, Titus 3:10). It is, at least, possible that separatism, in their context, was precisely the right action. They needed to declare that what others called ‘Christian’ was not Christian at all. I am not claiming that those tendencies haven’t left us 100 years later with a real problem that now needs to be addressed; some people have failed to appreciate the fact that the world has now changed and that the culture does not describe itself, even in the US, as Christian anymore. But Driscoll’s comment suggests that both groups have failed equally. This is an assessment I find very hard to accept. Cultural engagement is not all that the gospel has to say (and we’ll come back to this in a later post).
However, his first point is not where my greatest disappointment lies. My greatest disappointment lies in his third and fourth statements. What exactly does Driscoll mean when he says that cessationists are fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit? I suspect that what he means is that they don’t share his understanding of the way the Spirit works in God’s world today. And I am almost positive that that understanding involves the Spirit’s work in giving words of knowledge and such things. Why do I say this? Well, because every thoughtful cessationist (yes, there are thoughtless cessationists, just like there are thoughtless non-cessasionists) I have ever met or read does believe in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. They believe in the miracle of God-given new birth that comes about through the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit as he changes people by his word. And they believe in the power of God’s Spirit in putting to death the old man and enabling the Chrisitan to live God’s new life in righteousness and holiness. So if this isn’t the presence and power of the Holy Spirit that Driscoll is talking about, what is he talking about? I can only conclude it involves such issues as words of knowledge, or spiritual intuition that he has spoken about in a number of other places. But if that is so, then on what biblical basis does this become the defining thing about the presence and the power of the Spirit?
It’s worth saying here that I am not a cessationist. But I am highly skeptical of much that passes as miraculous in the wider Christian world, and therefore some have accused me of being practically cessationist. I would prefer to call it biblically skeptical. Jesus was profoundly skeptical about belief based on miracles (e.g. John 2:23-25, Matt 12:38-39, Matt 24:24). Furthermore, the book of 1 Corinthians (the darling book of most people I know who promote miracles and signs) is, in fact, profoundly uninterested in the externally miraculous. The whole book is about the fact that the Corinthians’ apparent miraculous spirituality is almost entirely devoid of gospel spirituality. If Paul is looking for a sign that the Spirit is at work, it is that the Christians love each other and act with godliness. I believe that God can (and sometimes does) do all sorts of things that are contrary to our normal experience of nature. But I am equally convinced that the overwhelming evidence of the New Testament points to the signs of the work of God’s Spirit in the apparently ordinary, but spiritually extra-ordinary, work of bringing people to Christ and transforming their lives in holiness. I think that there are many cessationists who share something very close to my position.
All of this makes me ask the question about point 4. Driscoll says in a later post that your opinion on spiritual gifts is not a primary Christian issue. In fact, according to his analogy, it is not about national boundaries, but state boundaries (i.e. it is a disputable matter on which Christians may disagree). If that is so and, according to point 4, the New Calvinism is about bringing Christians together, then why on earth is being not cessationist one of the defining characteristics of the New Calvinism, as he states so clearly in point 3? I can’t help thinking that Driscoll has hopped onto the Time bandwagon without thinking seriously enough about what he is saying. His comments may be politically savvy, but they are not theologically or historically helpful. If the New Calvinism is defined by Driscoll’s four points, I’m not sure I’m a New Calvinist, no matter how much I agree with his desire to seek God’s glory by making Christ known. Maybe I’m just an ordinary Calvinist?