NeoCalvinism and Big Churches

Calvin ZZNebraska Christian College recently had Paul Williams on our campus for the Dunning Lectures. Paul is a columnist for the Christian Standard magazine (check our his column), and his writing is very refreshing and stimulating, but his career was made as the head of the Orchard Group, a church planting organization.

In a lunchtime discussion, Paul was asked what the future of the Christian Churches looks like (the “Restoration Movement”). He did not give a precise picture, but he noted that the leadership in the movement has shifted from the outstanding teachers in the colleges and seminaries to the pastors of the largest churches. And, he added, “They’re all pragmatists.” In other words, don’t look to them for doctrine or theology. They are more interested in what works effectively to grow and build churches.

This was not news to me. I have been saying in one form or another since the 1990s, “It’s not about theology any more.” The great theological battlegrounds in the Restoration Movement of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the inerrancy of Scripture, the support of missionaries, even the role of women; no one cares very much about these things any longer. We rarely hear preaching or teaching about the nature of God, the nature of sin, the nature of Scripture, or the nature of Salvation. Many of our students in a school like Nebraska Christian College are unmotivated to learn about the Bible deeply. Their cry is, “Give me something I can use. I will never use what you are teaching me about interpreting Scripture.”

There does seem to be a counter-stream to this non-doctrinal approach, however. In many large churches, the old Protestant doctrines of Calvinism are flourishing. This has been called Neo Calvinism, New Calvinsim, and other things. I like the label NeoCalvinsim. The leading advocates for this are John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and others. Many in the Restoration Movement have been heavily influenced by these guys, and accept whatever they say and write somewhat uncritically.

Calvinism is biblically based, to be sure. I had the great privilege of taking a doctoral course in Calvin from Kenneth Kantzer, the former editor of Christianity Today and surely one of the greatest Calvin scholars of the last generation. In doing this, I read the entirety of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, making me one of a small handful of people in the Restoration Movement to have done so. I think I understand the Calvinistic/Augustinian system of theology quite well, and I agree with it in many points. John Calvin did have a beard that would have qualified him for Duck Dynasty or ZZ Top, but I don’t think he got everything right.

There are two, related doctrinal items in Calvinism I believe are not reconcilable with the majority of Scripture’s teaching. First, the doctrine of complete, utter, total human depravity. If this is a starting point, one must believe that men and women can do nothing toward their own salvation. Salvation must necessarily be an act of God for each individual. When we push this to its logical conclusion, salvation or lack of salvation are determined by God with no human decisions or actions influencing God’s decisions. This is why baptism is of little importance for a thoroughgoing Calvinist. It is either superfluous, a non sequitur, or must be given a role not found in Scripture (such as the typological fulfillment of circumcision).

The logical corollary to the doctrine of total depravity is the doctrine of predestination. If salvation is wholly of God, it is predetermined and set before our birth. God chooses who will be saved (election), not us. A Calvinist who accepts total depravity yet rejects predestination is not being logically consistent. These persons are sometimes called Four-Point Calvinists (or, by my Five-Point friends, Calvinists who flunked logic).

It is difficult for me to reconcile this with the repeated Scriptural teaching that God is not willing that any should perish (see 2 Peter 3:9). If God is unwilling that any should perish or not be saved, then the doctrine of predestination is nonsense. Sophisticated nonsense with some scriptural support, to be sure, but still nonsensical. As I understand his somewhat impenetrable writings, this is why the twentieth century Calvinist (some would say hyper-Calvinist) Karl Barth finally concluded that all would be saved. His understanding of predestination and the teaching of God’s unwillingness for any not to  be saved led him to universalism, a position recently occupied by Rob Bell for some of the same reasons.

The bottom line, though, is that there is not much difference between the large church of a NeoCalvinist like Mark Driscoll and the large church of a pastor who does not really know what Calvinism is. Since preaching and teaching is largely devoid of doctrine, it doesn’t come up very much. I just wonder where this will lead in the next ten years. It will be interesting to see.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College


4 thoughts on “NeoCalvinism and Big Churches

  1. Thanks for the post, Dr. Krause. Your comments resonate deeply with me. Because of my experiences this past year with two institutions I love, Willow Creek (a pragmatic and highly effective church) and TEDS (an academically rigorous seminary), I’ve had an internal struggle concerning what is and what should be the relationship between the church and the biblical/theological academy. It’s almost too obvious to say that the megachurch (those who know how) and the seminary (those who know what) need one another for optimal efficiency in discipling believers and training future leaders. Sometimes I wonder, however, how well the sides communicate. This is one reason why I love some of the new initiatives at NC like the development of the Institute in which ministry experts come to share insights with students. I wonder what kind of potential there is for the roles to be reversed, however, so that we might see more biblical and theological scholars going out to lead seminars for church staffs or even joining the staffs of local churches?

  2. I agree about calvanism, but was often perplexed when reading scriptures that address election. Then I began reading Luther, and the Lutheran stream of theologians. The seem to have a much greater tolerance and grasp on the paradoxes in scripture than calvanists or than our own movement. They have an interesting name for Calvin’s predestination, double-predestination. Their biblical framework of Law&Gospel has been a huge help to me as well.

    • It is true that Luther took quite a different position on these things than Calvin did, although both have their roots in Augustine. Not all Calvinists believe in double predestination. I don’t think that Calvin himself did. Double predestination is the believe that God chooses some for salvation and some for damnation. As I read Calvin, he may have thought this was a logical conclusion, but he did not think the Bible taught that God elected some for damnation, so he did not teach this. It was his later followers who pushed this to the logical outcome.

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