Barth and the ‘New Calvinism’

[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.

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14 comments

  1. I’ve enjoyed these last few posts on the ‘new Calvinism’. Both perceptive and charitable.

    Thank you.

  2. My thanks as well. I haven’t previously moved in these circles, and I really have had no perspective on how this “new Calvinism” fits into a broader context. In recent years I have been a part of the Pietist camp, i.e. Evangelical Covenant Church. Not the same issues as you are talking about.

    In thinking about my comments on the previous post, I suppose I sounded a bit harsh. But I must say various people I have met and blogs I have visited have certainly spoken and acted harshly.

    Do keep up your good work.

    • It does make a massive difference that I move in these circles. I know about the harsh and prideful attitudes that you’ve encountered, but I hardly see any of that in my church or in the couple of other churches in my area which conform to the New Calvinism. These people exist somewhere — at least in the comboxes of blogs — but I have fortunately been spared their acquaintance where I live. Though, even in the blogosphere, we have some notable models of civility, namely Justin Taylor and Tim Challies: the two biggest bloggers, by far, among the New Calvinists.

      The senior pastor of my church (and all the supporting pastors) are firmly within the New Calvinism movement, but you will scarcely meet a more humble and sincere man than our pastor. If you or anyone else cares, you can peruse my church’s website: Stonebridge Church. You have to click on “show details” to see a list of each sermon in each series.

  3. Thanks for posting this Kevin but I still don’t think it quiet’s my concerns. I grew up PCUSA (which they would doubt is a “Christian” church) and learned most of what you have pointed too in the last two posts. The growth of neo-calvinism amongst Baptists seems to come more from a desire to be “right/win” (in particular controlling and often arrogant way but also stemming from some bible-idolatry) rather than a listening to the call of Jesus and where he would have us go and be. I don’t think Christian theology can be done well out of the desire to be “right/win” and I agree with Amy Laura Hall (and Rowan Williams) that this might actually be a form of self-hatred.
    I don’t expect them to be reading Barth on the ground level but I do think people like Thomas Long, Thomas Currie, Stanley Hauerwas, Vanhoozer, Bill Hybels, Tim Keller, Eugene Peterson, Lauren Winner, Rob Bell, Will Willimon, Francis Chan, Michael Horton, and others offer all of what you are pointing to in a generous and constructive way while remaining accessible.
    That said I watched some of the conference videos and was struck by their ability to communicate clearly and with passion a very clear gospel (even if I find it lacking fulness). That said, I don’t think it justifies their extremely uncharitable nature at times (DA Carson), their excessive degrading of others thoughts as leading to hersey or denying the gospel (thinking of Wright/Piper), their crude and un-biblical assertions about women (many of them fall in this camp but their inability to really deal with Mark Driscoll is a bigger problem), the inability to picture a wider gospel/mission for the church (Thinking of Deyoung’s work), abusing their large influence (Piper’s comments after the tornado/bridge falling and pretty much anything Molher/Driscoll say (I know Mark wasn’t there but his influence was), and the way they haven’t handled nationalism in the church. Factor in you can get this without many of the problems from so many other influences I don’t see the necessary hole they should fill for people.
    I know your commitment to them may come from on a personal level that can see past some of these things but I guess I see more chaff than wheat. And I say all of this as someone sympathetic, half-committed too, and caring for reformed theology!

    • Sorry if all of this is unnecessarily negative but I do seriously wonder what I might be missing here because these people are so respected, quoted, revered, successful, and loved. You seem like most level headed thinking person to be able to explain this to me.

    • I hear what you’re saying, Matt. I really do. Perhaps I just cope with the negative side better. 🙂

      Seriously, I suppose that I just expect certain vices to accompany any virtues. The virtue of Gospel clarity and fervency often comes at the cost of an irenic attitude and a patient intellect. As you are aware, the mainline churches are full of ministers who excel in the latter virtues at the cost of the former.

      When considering the New Calvinism, critics often fail to account for the virtues when picking-on the vices. Piper is a good example of someone who has done an immense amount of good through decades of faithful preaching and exhortation, yet he manages to do something incredibly stupid like the tornado comment. I could make fun of Piper for his folly here, but that is hardly fair to his ministry. It is not characteristic of his ministry or, at the least, it is not fair to the rather consistent honor and reverence he has given to God in his work and life. As for the Wright controversy, I wouldn’t express my arguments exactly as Piper did when critiquing Wright, but I think Piper was correct. I guess that shows you how much of a traditionalist I am in soteriology.

      As for the issue of nation idolatry, I actually see the New Calvinism as (mostly) a force against this. Horton is one obvious example, but also the transition from Kennedy to Tchividjian at Coral Ridge is the perfect exhibition of the newer generation’s shift to preaching and worship that exalts God, not the nation or some ideal in the past. The Patriot’s Bible is consistently mocked by the New Calvinists, who are happy with their Reformation Study Bibles or ESV Study Bibles. Of course, we’re not talking about a Hauerwas-level critique of Americanism, but the New Calvinism is a step in the right direction. Carl Trueman’s recent book, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (P & R Publishing), is another example of this trend.

      As for the gender issue, this is an especially difficult area for me. I’m a complementarian, but I think “masculinity” is far too caught-up in structures of power, whereas the Bible teaches a masculinity that exalts weakness. The bridegroom who lays down his life is not an image of heroism (as we commonly understand it) but, rather, of weakness and subjection to evil powers. Many conservatives — especially Driscoll — have completely missed this and have massively distorted Scripture. You don’t have to read Foucault to know that Driscoll is way off the mark here; you just have to read the New Testament. So, yes, I completely agree with you about Driscoll…at least on this point. I have often been tempted toward the mainline denominations because of this issue, even though I think complementarity follows pretty easily from the biblical text.

      I want to look more into DeYoung’s work before I offer a comment. I can only judge from his talk given at the conference, which I thought was balanced and insightful…but perhaps, once again, we have an instance of a virtue entailing a vice — a narrowing of focus that creates blinders.

      Well, I know that still doesn’t touch every concern you’ve mentioned, but hopefully that does offer you some insight into my own thinking. As for myself, these posts and these comments have been fun and helpful.

      • “The bridegroom who lays down his life is not an image of heroism (as we commonly understand it) but, rather, of weakness and subjection to evil powers.”

        I was wondering if you could elaborate on this statement. I do believe that Driscoll should be more cautious because he sort of redefines masculinity to = chuck norris. But I always understood gender issues (mostly marriage, a little bit of ecclesiology) in regards to Ephesians 5 where paul pretty much lays it out.

        Oh yeah I do agree that Barth gets the shaft very sadly.. I’m suprised that no one has knocked mcarthur yet.. Yeah I feel kinda bad “judging” these men of god who have done so much for the faith. (my opinion)

      • I’ll readily admit that I’m getting this “weakness” stuff from Hauerwas and, more especially, from Simone Weil. I disagree with Hauerwas on quite a bit of stuff, but he is awfully compelling when it comes to the theme of weakness in the Christian life. Simone Weil is nuts but the most purely brilliant mind in the last century. Her intuitive grasp of metaphysics is unparalleled. If she had been given more time on this earth, she could have been as significant as Plato, Kant, or Hegel.

  4. Some people are joining the Eastern Orthodox churches for the same reasons, ie Franky Schaeffer, Michael Harper. Doctrinal depth, authority, historical continuity, anti-modernism. These all have their appeal, and satisfy quickly and readily: it’s why i came to Calvinism initially from the charismatic movement. but it’s also a form of disengagement, putting the blinders on, and ultimately falling into an apocalyptic dualism that seems to be too often involved with the culture wars in the US. (I write as a Brit). I still grieve for the way Mark Seifrid was treated.

    • Thanks for the comment. You are right about the attraction of E. Orthodoxy, which is also why there have been a number of converts to the Catholic Church. It would require a whole other post in order to really deal with this issue, which has a different set of concerns but some overlap as well. I have dealt with some of this in the past: go to the categories list at the bottom of the blog and click on “Catholic” — also check-out some of the older posts within the “Aesthetics” category.

  5. I am similar to what you have described. I have sat under many Calvinist teachers (they may qualify as New Calvinist I’m not sure many appeal to Augustine as the actual source of their position) I have only had a passing interest in Barth. Could you recommend a good introduction, you have peaked my interest.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Travis. The best introduction to Barth is his book, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. This volume contains his lectures given during his visit to America soon after his retirement. Among the secondary literature, the best introductory surveys are Joseph Mangina’s Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness and John Webster’s Karl Barth.

      There really is no substitute for the Church Dogmatics, which should be acquired soon after you wet your appetite by reading his Evangelical Theology. The Epistle to the Romans, his breakthrough work, is also highly stimulating and necessary reading for understanding Barth’s break with the liberal school.

      By the way, I would also — as I always do — highly recommend Emil Brunner’s three-volume Dogmatics, which can probably be found used for a good price. Brunner’s style is more Anglo-American than Continental, so you will probably find it more accessible.

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