John Piper recently gave a lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary about the New Calvinism that is already getting play at several Reformed sites (see here, here, and here). His aim was to argue for an interrelationship between Old Calvinism and New Calvinism and to attempt to ground the ethnic diversity of the movement in classic Reformed doctrines. If anyone has the stature and force of personality to will a connection between Old and New, it’s John Piper. Nevertheless, the probabilities are that Old Calvinists, who are better understood primarily as Old School Presbyterians, will remain unconvinced even if they think an alliance is the most effective way forward.

Old School Presbyterians had a more strident interpretation of Presbyterianism, complete with Sabbath keeping (no sports or other kinds of activities on the Sabbath) and following the old Reformed Directory of Public Worship. Raised a Missouri Presbyterian, Mark Twain once quipped about sabbath keeping that “we were good Presbyterian boys when the weather was doubtful; when it was fair, we did wander a little from the fold” (I imagine there are plenty of good Presbyterians in the northeast and Midwest this winter). On the whole, this reflects mid-nineteenth century Old School ways, not necessarily early twenty-first century. Yet, there remains a concern for proper worship and a distaste for revivalism commensurate with the Old Princeton theologians, Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield. The New School Presbyterians, conversely, were very much in line with revivalism as it unfolded in the nineteenth century and had a looser view about worship as a result.

It is the revivalist style of at least some members of the New Calvinism punctuated by constant references to Jonathan Edwards and the rise of charismatic Calvinism that has many Old School Presbyterians concerned. Piper side-stepped the main issue between the two camps: from an Old-School perspective the New Calvinism smacks of the evangelical revivalism of a D. L. Moody, or, more to the point, the baseball-player-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday (insert Mark Driscoll reference here). Sunday once called the novelist Sinclair Lewis  “Satan’s cohort” in response to Lewis’s 1927 satirical novel Elmer Gantry, whose main character—a hypocritical evangelist—was modeled on Sunday’s flamboyant style. 

That older coalition of Congregationalists, Baptists, and New School Presbyterians combined dispensationalism, celebrity revivalism, and fundamentalism—the very traits that Old School Presbyterians disliked then and now. It is not without some irony that Piper acknowledged the important role of Westminster Seminary while not even mentioning that it was the epicenter of Old School Presbyterianism with its anti-revivalist and cessationist stance (at the end of his lecture Piper got a laugh when he said, “you don’t even want to know my eschatology.” Indeed!).

Because of the Baptist and charismatic impulses within the New Calvinism, at least some Old School Presbyterians will continue to look on it with suspicion as a kind of half-way house for a genuine Reformed Christianity that must be Reformed and Presbyterian. Nevertheless, as Greg Forster has observed, there is an implicit recognition that Old School Presbyterianism does not have the numbers to make a significant impact. There would be no Reformed resurgence without the Baptists and revivalist groups that form the heart of the New Calvinism.

At the same time, Piper’s description of the New Calvinism as strongly complementarian glosses over recent trends within Presbyterianism that parallel what is happening within confessional Lutheranism. Two of the largest conservative Presbyterian bodies are the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). The former is comfortable within an Old School Presbyterian framework while the latter is largely charismatic and allows for the ordination of women. The EPC could be described as the heir of New School Presbyterianism. Ironically, the one form of Presbyterianism whose ethos fits the New Calvinism most is not complementarian.

With its recent addition of 89 new congregations due to the slow break up of the mainline Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA), the EPC is the elephant in the room of the New Calvinism since it reflects the charismatic and revivalist impulses while also being firmly committed to allowing Presbyteries and local churches to ordain women. Ten of the twelve presbyteries in the EPC have already ordained women teaching elders. The EPC has created space for ordaining women as teaching and ruling elders by declaring the issue as a “matter of indifference” and thus a second-order doctrine. Groups like The Gospel Coalition appear to be moving in the opposite direction.

When one adds to the mix the newly formed ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which at 116 congregations is already larger than many other conservative Presbyterian bodies, it appears that egalitarianism will remain a firm part of the conservative Presbyterian landscape. With churches continuing to leave the PCUSA, it would not surprise me if in the next fifteen years egalitarian Presbyterianism emerges as the largest group of conservative Presbyterians.

All of this is to say that the New Calvinism looks a lot like the old New School Presbyterianism with a Baptist and charismatic flair to it. Piper chose not to deal with this issue between the Old and the New just as he neglected the EPC’s stance on women. For now, the coalition is holding together on a Reformed understanding of salvation buttressed by complementarianism and a commitment to inerrancy. Only God, in his sovereign will, knows whether the anchor will hold.

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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