Barth and the ‘New Calvinism’
October 10, 2010
[This post is prompted by Mike Cheek’s comment, in this thread, that the New Calvinism is not Barth-friendly, from what he could tell. This also addresses some of Matt Shedden’s concerns.]
What has Barth to do with the “New Calvinism,” or what does the New Calvinism have to do with Barth? Well, nothing…or close to nothing. I’m defining the New Calvinism as the resurgence, especially among young people, of Reformed doctrine within a broad array of evangelical churches, not just Presbyterian but especially Baptist and other free churches. Piper, Mohler, Carson — all Baptists. And in the music scene, Louie Giglio (founder of Passion) and most of the artists associated with Passion (David Crowder, Chris Tomlin, Steve Fee) are Baptists, to some extent. Crowder continues to do the music ministry at University Baptist Church in Waco. So, the New Calvinism is a cross-denominational movement within evangelicalism, but the Baptist contingency is especially important — why?
The New Calvinism is not primarily an academic movement with academic concerns. Rather, the New Calvinism has gained traction because of deficiencies within broader evangelicalism at the ground level, i.e., at the local church. My previous post on “Calvinism and Suffering” gives an account of this deficiency and the attraction of Reformed doctrine. Because this movement is largely taking place at the ground level, the Baptist influence makes a lot of sense. The Baptists have done far more to shape contemporary American evangelical piety and pathos than any other denominational tradition. Thus, in order for a broadly influential movement (like the New Calvinism) to gain traction within evangelicalism, the Baptists have to be at the forefront. The Presbyterians can do a lot of the academic heavy-lifting, which does trickle-down, but nothing like Passion or Desiring God or T4G could occur without the Baptists.
So, as an intra-evangelical movement in the American scene, the influence of Barth is pretty much nil, and the vast majority of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” have never heard of him except maybe in passing. They know Edwards and Owen, not Barth. The situation is different if we look at the evangelical academy, where Barth is read and discussed, but the New Calvinism is primarily a populist movement. It is a reaction against the practical consequences of fundamentalism, revivalism, and prosperity preaching. Barth does indeed have some profound answers to these problems, but Barth is not really a figure of interest for the New Calvinism. In the academy, however, Barth is seriously engaged, but reaction to Barth is hardly monolithic. Colleges and seminaries like Wheaton, Trinity, Gordon-Conwell, and even Biola have an influential Reformed contingency, among teachers and students, where Barth is mostly treated with respect and even positively appropriated in theological thinking. At other places, like Westminster Philly, Barth is treated with far more suspicion and often as a danger to theological thinking (e.g., listen to this broadcast of the Reformed Forum or read Gregory Beale’s The Erosion of Inerrancy — Beale left Wheaton for WTS this year). Al Mohler at Southern would be another example of someone who considers Barth to be more of a source of ills than of vitality.
So, why am I writing this? Because I’m trying to offer some vindications of the New Calvinism, especially as seen on the ground level. When compared to the dominant ailments within evangelicalism — fundamentalism, revivalism, and prosperity preaching — then the New Calvinism looks pretty good. The benefits for the church, in preaching and catechesis, are undeniable, at least if you have any commitments (like myself) to Reformational distinctives. This is not to say that the New Calvinism is a comprehensive solution to all the ailments of the church. We can rightly complain about a narrowness here which is far too akin to that of the older fundamentalism. I’ve complained on this blog about an overly restricted form of inerrancy, to use one example, or superficial defenses of Creationism, to use another example, and both examples are prominent within the New Calvinism. Al Mohler is as representative of this movement as it gets, but this does not reflect the internal motives in the local church for the adoption of Reformed doctrine. That’s the distinction that I’m trying to make. If we look at the local church, the New Calvinism has been a great blessing.