Understanding The New Calvinists: Neither New Nor Calvinists

The New Calvinist movement is probably about 20 years old or so. Collin Hanson’s Young, Restless, and Reformed appeared in 2008, just before Recovering the Reformed Confession. Whether it is Reformed is a matter to be debated. In recent years, however, the movement has certainly shown itself to be restless. One prominent figure in the movement has publicly abandoned the Christian faith. Three prominent figures, James MacDonald, C. J. Mahaney, and Mark Driscoll, have been either been removed from their churches or resigned amidst scandals. One might think of them as elephants in the YRR/New Calvinist room. See the resources below for more details.

Nathan Finn has published a review of a new volume by Brad Vermurlen, Reformed Resurgence: The New Calvinist Movement and the Battle Over American Evangelicalism. Since I have not yet read it, I do not intend to interact with Vermulen’s book. I did find some of Finn’s comments illuminating, however. They deserve some consideration. He notes that Vermurlen’s attention is not upon those who are ecclesiastically and confessionally Reformed, e.g., NAPARC. Rather, he spent four years embedded with the YRR/New Calvinist movement, i.e., “anyone who affirms soteriological Calvinism,” i.e., “an informal network of conservative evangelicals who frequent this website, attend conferences like Together for the Gospel, podcast Matt Chandler and Al Mohler, read books written by John Piper and Tim Keller, and appreciate Edwards and the Puritans. They’re not all ‘Truly Reformed,’ but they all consider themselves to be ‘Reformed-ish.'” That is a fair characterization. Of those (living) listed, only one, Tim Keller, is actually a minister in a confessionally Reformed denomination. Chandler leads a controversial network of churches (see below). Mohler is a Southern Baptist. John Piper is a Baptist.1 He is quite right about Edwards and probably optimistic about “the Puritans.” Edwards is probably the most important American theologian. The YRR/New Calvinist leadership is deeply influenced by him but what they seem not to appreciate is how marginal he was relative to the Reformed tradition before him. Paul Helm and Richard Muller have argued this case persuasively.

Five Points On The YRR/New Calvinist Movement

Few of “the Puritans” ostensibly admired by the YRR/New Calvinist leadership would recognize them as heirs of their theology, piety, and practice. Why? Finn explains:

In terms of beliefs, the New Calvinists affirm the “doctrines of grace” but identify with multiple denominational (and non-denominational) traditions. They affirm biblical inerrancy, and almost all are gender complementarians. They think of themselves as missional, though they don’t all define that word the same way. They also care about cultural engagement and value contextualization, though there is also some disagreement about these priorities. In 2016, a lot of them expressed reservations about Donald Trump’s candidacy, and many identified as “Never Trumpers.” They care about racial reconciliation, yet race has become a polarizing issue in recent years. Regrettably, some black Calvinists have distanced themselves from the New Calvinism. Most New Calvinists aren’t classic cessationists, though relatively few actually embrace the miraculous spiritual gifts in their personal lives or ministries. Vermurlen’s summaries of New Calvinist beliefs seem spot on in my experience.

As we sort through this catalogue let us reorder Finn’s list. Let us start where the Westminster Confession begins, with Scripture. Finn is right that most YRR/New Calvinists are not actually Calvinists when it comes to sola scriptura and continuing revelation. Many of them are “charismatic,” which is a somewhat more buttoned down cousin to the Pentecostal movement from the turn of the 20th century. What most do not know is that the original Protestant Reformers faced an even earlier version of “continuationist” (charismatic) and Pentecostal theology, piety, and practice. It was fairly widespread among the early Anabaptists (see below). They rejected the claims by Thomas Müntzer and others that they received continuing revelations from the Spirit. It is telling that Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology is the de facto handbook for the movement, since he has been arguing an idiosyncratic continuationist position since the late 1980s, a position that is irreconcilable with the Reformed confession of the finality and sufficiency of Scripture (sola scriptura) for Christian faith and life.2 Anyone claiming to receive continuing revelation, whether they claimed them to be canonical or not (as in Grudem’s case), would have been placed under church discipline in Reformed churches during the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. In this regard I quite agree with Craig Carter’s opinion that “some Baptists are pretty much Anabaptists…”. Before you write to complain, Carter is himself a Baptist and he is telling the truth. The line between Baptist and Anabaptist is dotted, as I think I showed in “A House of Cards? A Response to Bingham, Cribben, and Caughey” (see the resources below). The Anabaptists were not Reformed. They were opposed to the Reformation at key points. They rejected justification sola gratiasola fide. They rejected the Reformed and Lutheran theology, piety, and practice. They rejected the ecumenical doctrine of Christ’s humanity in favor of a docetic, heretical doctrine of “celestial flesh.” As noted above, many of them rejected sola scriptura. That is not to say that Baptists are Anabaptists. Carter says that some Baptists are Anabaptists and the YRR doctrine of continuing revelation is one point of contact between the two movements. A certain mushiness on soteriology might be another point of contact. More on this under point 3. Classically, the Particular Baptists resented being called Anabaptists by the Reformed and the 1st and 2nd London Confession folks were not Anabaptist on Christology or soteriology or Scripture, as I have explained repeatedly in this space. On this see the resources below.

A second great difference between the YRR/New Calvinists and genuine Reformed theology, piety, and practice is the doctrine of the church and sacraments. Most of the YRR/New Calvinist leadership and constituency is actually Baptist. Only one of the three churches, Redeemer Presbyterian, studied by Vermurlen is even formally Reformed. One, Driscoll’s, which arguably most closely reflected the character and genius of the YRR/New Calvinist movement, no longer exists. The other is John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist Church. The Reformed Churches in the 16th and 17th centuries confessed and the orthodox Reformed still confess infant baptism. Further, the Reformed confess a high doctrine of the visible church. It is essential to our theology, piety, and practice. E.g., we confess that it is through the preaching of the holy gospel (Heidelberg Catechism 65) that the Holy Spirit brings his elect to new life (regeneration) and true faith. We confess that it is through the use of the holy sacraments that Christ confirms his promises and strengthens our faith. The YRR/New Calvinist movement is intentionally indifferent on the sacraments. It is a movement driven by personalities, websites, and para-church organizations not by the visible church, the official preaching of the gospel, and the sacraments. Further, the para-church organizations to which Finn refers are essential to the YRR/New Calvinist movement but they have no standing in the Reformed Churches—that is not to say that they have no influence. More on that momentarily.

Third, Finn cites “the doctrines of grace” as, I suppose shorthand for the points of the (theologically, ecclesiastically, and sacramentally Reformed) Synod of Dort (1619) in response to the 1610 Remonstrance by the Arminians. Yet, even this is complicated by the YRR/New Calvinists. They have not and do not all adhere to the “doctrines of grace” as confessed by the Reformed. Notably, Mark Driscoll, when he was in favor among the YRR/New Calvinists never accepted the Third/Fourth heads of doctrine on the atonement. John Piper teaches a two-stage doctrine of justification that is quite at odds with the Reformed confessions and the classic Reformed theologians. For more on this see the resources below. The only soteriological (doctrine of salvation) commitment that unites the YRR/New Calvinist movement is a belief in divine sovereignty, which is essential but hardly unique to Calvinists. The earliest Christian fathers (e.g. in the first half of the second century) refers quite casually to “the elect
and to the doctrine of election. Augustine is the great pioneer of the robust doctrines of depravity and election that were adopted by all the magisterial Protestants in the Reformation. In short, the YRR/New Calvinists rediscovered Augustine’s response to Pelagius, which makes them broadly Augustinian but hardly Calvinist.

Fourth, it is interesting how many of the key beliefs cited by Finn are not theological at all. They are cultural and political questions on which Reformed folk have always allowed liberty. These questions, as important as they are, are matters on which orthodox Reformed folk disagree. There is no Reformed position on this political candidate or another or on racial reconciliation or associated issues. That such issues are so central to Finn’s characterization of the YRR/New Calvinist movement signals to us how important the “culture wars” are to the self-identity, purpose, and function of the YRR/New Calvinist movement.

Fifth, according to Finn, “Vermurlen argues there has been a resurgence of Calvinism, but the increase in overall numbers isn’t as significant as many assume. Simply put, there is no massive swell of Calvinism like with early Pentecostalism.” Instead, the YRR/New Calvinist movement is a resurgence of “influence, debate, and boundary-marking…”. He continues, “[s]imply put, leaders of the New Calvinism have intentionally positioned themselves as institutional power-brokers and the gatekeepers of orthodoxy among evangelicals. It’s a resurgence of influence within the evangelical movement.” I do not know how to judge Vermurlen’s claims regarding the numerical size of the New Calvinist/YRR movement. Southern Baptist Seminary (Louisville), arguably the headquarters of the movement, has a significant enrollment (they reported 3,709 students in 2017 ) and the Founders Movement among Baptists seems fairly sizable.3 Remember, the confessional Reformed world is actually quite small. All the members of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) are probably not more than 500,000. Still, his point regarding the intentional positioning as “power-brokers” and “gate-keepers” resonates with what Carl Trueman has been observing for years regarding what he calls “Big Eva.” By contrast, the confessionally Reformed may be noisy but we are actually fairly marginal. Most of us neither have nor want access to the corridors of Big Eva influence and power.

Finn’s assessment of the YRR/New Calvinist movement is illuminating and accurate. The Young, Restless, and Reformed movement might have been young, it has certainly been restless, but it was never Reformed or Calvinist, not if Calvin, his orthodox successors, or the confessions of the Reformed Churches have anything to say about it.

©R. Scott Clark



1. In the first version of this article I wrote that Piper is an independent Baptist. That was incorrect. He is a part of the what used to be the Baptist General Conference (now Converge). Thanks to Justin Taylor for alerting me to this error.

2. I am thinking of his book, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today  (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1988). He argued the case in a dissertation before the volume was published.

3. This is just a guess regarding the size of the Founders movement. At least one reader has emailed to dispute the notion that it is a large organization. I am told that 1,000 people are registered for an upcoming Founders Ministries conference and that the organization is growing. The 2018 990 Form filed with the IRS lists just over $300,000 of assets. The reader will make his own assessment.

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  1. Thanks for engaging. One big argument of the book, which Finn doesn’t mention, is that the American Evangelical landscape is dissolving into disorder and incoherence on several moral and theological points. I say this is because of (among other things) a democratized reading of the Bible and a lack of any clear lines of authority for what is and what is not permissible. Leaning on a confessional tradition is obviously a solution to that problem. I think you’d like the book.

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