John Piper’s recent Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary was vintage Piper: passionate, learned, articulate, and just right. The connection between Calvinism, sovereign grace, justification by faith alone and the rejection of racism was a joy to see developed by a man who is as much a great preacher as he is a scholar.
However, I do not find myself as sanguine about the new Calvinism. Piper was humble and levelheaded about the new Calvinism, acknowledging its short comings and how in some ways it falls short of the older Calvinism. But there was something in his comparison of the new and old that he missed: ecclesiology. And so, in light of that I would like to offer five reasons why I am not a new Calvinist:
- Continuing Revelation. David Wells in God in the Wasteland notes a remarkable statistic (albeit one that is now outdated): “Those who were most inclined toward the inerrancy position were in the Baptist tradition; those least likely to endorse it were in the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition.” (p. 193). All sorts of qualifiers can and should be made here (including the one made by Wells himself that the difference was not drastic). However, I think this points up at least one basic principle: with new continuing revelation who needs that old dusty book? I do love my continuationist brethren, but I do not think that it is something to be celebrated that the new Calvinism is wide enough to embrace both sides of the debate. I do, however, rejoice that continuationists are coming to embrace Calvinistic soteriology. But to embrace unconditional election and have new revelations in worship is hardly a reformation in today’s church. Even Aquinas embraced unconditional election and sovereign Predestination. The Reformation, however, championed more than a move away from semi-Pelagianism.
- Confessions. With some exception the new Calvinism tends toward being a Bible-onlyism movement. It is noteworthy that in #1 above my concern is too low a doctrine of Scripture, and here it may seem I am saying that the same movement is too focused on Scripture. But Bible-onlyism does not flow from a high doctrine of Scripture. The new Calvinism seems to come at the Bible abstracted from the creeds, confessions, and history of the church. But being confessional was part and parcel of the Reformation. The Reformers did not want to leave the tradition behind. They reaffirmed the great creeds of the faith. They learned from them and built upon them. They taught from the creeds, preached from them, and used them in their liturgy. Using and holding up creeds, far from denigrating the Bible, exalts the Scriptures as the source from which the creeds and confessions flow. On this point, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Carl Trueman’s important book, The Creedal Imperative. Get it, read it, and love it!
- Polity. The new Calvinism is built by Calvinistic soteriological bricks with no housing frame or foundation underneath. This was present even in to so-called old Calvinism as well. A classic example of this is the celebration of generic old-style Calvinism in the Banner of Truth. I love Banner books (what bibliophile doesn’t?!), but heroes of Banner like Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones were great expositors of Calvinistic soteriology (praise God!), but their churches lacked the kind of robust Reformational bones of the past. The Reformation was self-consciously a renewal of the church and her polity, bringing the structure of the church into greater conformity with the Scriptures. A non-accountable, non-denominational disconnectionalism fits at odds with a Calvinistic theology. There were differences immediately among the Reformed in terms of polity, but there was also a general agreement on some basic polity issues which are all but ignored in the current climate.
- Sacraments. The question continues to arise as to whether one can be Reformed and still practice believers-only baptism. I think the expression “Reformed Baptist” is somewhat anachronistic. The Calvinistic baptists of an earlier generation did not use that term, and rightly so. “Reformed,” as a moniker, carried with it more weight than that of a basic soteriological framework. Reformed was a church, not five points of doctrine. But what is more is how the sacraments are regarded among the new Calvinists. Rather than being means of grace, they are merely signs and seals. In other words, the nominalism eschewed by the early Reformers when the rejected the anabaptist/radical reformation has not been surrendered fully by the modern day new Calvinists.
- Eschatology. Eschatology is not an insignificant aspect of church identity which was can simply be brushed off with a pious “well, I’m a panmillennialist because I believe it will all pan out in the end.” Eschatology is the church’s identity. That is not to say that there is not room for disagreement among confessional Calvinists. There is room within the confessional standards. But there is also no room for some forms of eschatology. For instance, Paul condemns hyper-preterism (2 Timothy 2:18). Dispensational premillennialism does not fit at all within any of the Reformed confessions, far as I can tell. But if the church is an end-times people, then her identity is found as pilgrims, strangers, and sojourners on the earth. In which case, I fail to see how the transformationalism and triumphalism that we see so prevalent in much of the new Calvinism squares with a Calvinistic doctrine of the church.
To sum, I am not persuaded that we can have Calvinistic soteriology (or even a Calvinistic “big God”) without a Calvinistic church. To abstract theology from ecclesiology is a foreign concept in the minds of the Reformers. Therefore, as Geerhardus Vos said in another context, “To our taste the old wine is better.” (The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, 65.) Or, what may surprise some, I agree completely with Karl Barth’s sentiments at this point: “For us, therefore, Church dogmatics is necessarily Reformed Dogmatics. By this we mean the dogmatics of the particular Church which was purified and reconstituted by the work of Calvin and the confession which sealed his testimony” (CD I/2, 831). Whether or not Barth succeeded in producing a Reformed dogmatics along these lines is another question, but I agree at least with the form of his statement. I can fully sign on to Barth’s idea as summarized tersely by von Balthasar: “Theology is church theology or it is nothing at all” (The Theology of Karl Barth, p. 7).