The New Calvinists

By Donald Macleod | Published: October 6, 2014


Most of our readers now sleep soundly, secure in the knowledge that Calvinists are extinct. After all, you never see one on telly, and it’s a good seven years since the last stamping on fiddles or smashing of bagpipes.

But being, as it were, possessed of inside knowledge, I knew there were still some Calvinists around. I had even seen one or two, though much harder to spot than of yore, since they no longer wore black hats.

Now the really bad news. Not only are there still a few Calvinists around, but another closely related species has suddenly appeared: New Calvinists, the same but different.

I had long suspected it, more or less for the same reason as led scientists to suspect the existence of the planet Pluto. Even though no telescope could see it, there were odd deviations in the skies, and these deviations strongly suggested the existence of a hitherto unknown planet. Precisely the same thing was happening in the theological skies: strange deviations from Calvinism pointing to some hitherto unknown phenomenon.

Then, a couple of months ago a book arrived by post, written by a Dr. E. S. Williams asking to be reviewed, and offering the lowdown on a group labelled ‘The New Calvinists’: a species allegedly represented in America by such organisations as Acts 29, the Gospel Coalition, and Desiring God Ministries; and in this country by the Porterbrook Network.

I found the book’s broad-brush denunciations of fellow Christians hard to take. Too many good men and first-rate scholars were being held up to disdain. Yet the book instantly solved my version of the Pluto-problem: the curious movements in the theological skies now had a label; and the label immediately put me on the alert, sensing danger.

The New Calvinists are all Calvinists, but only in the limited sense that they believe in the so-called Five Points, summarised in the mnemonic TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Invincible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints). I love all tulips, except this one, to which I am profoundly allergic. John Calvin’s unique contribution to human thought cannot be reduced to this simplistic teaching-aid, thought up only in the 20th century. Nor can Calvinism be reduced to ‘points’. It is a whole world-view, embracing not only religion, but art, science, education, economics, politics and much more.

But if they hold to the Five Points, why should I worry? I should worry because just as the grey squirrel threatens our native reds with extinction, so this brash New Calvinism threatens our historic Scottish Calvinism. It will eat us up, just as American signal-crayfish eat up our native species.

The biggest threat is to our native from of worship, the key-note of which has been a sense of awe in the presence of the infinite and the holy; and linked to this, in turn, an insistence on order. This was something that the Reformers inherited from the early church fathers and from the mediaeval Catholic Church and, Reformation or no Reformation, they refused to let it go. This is why many of us today would feel far more at home in a High Church service than in a modern Evangelical one; and this is why every Reformed church, including the Church of Scotland, had its Book of Common Order, reflecting the conviction that public worship was far too important to be left to the whim of the individual minister. They could preach and pray as the Spirit moved them, but they would have to sing from an authorised psalm-book, follow a common order for Baptism and Communion, and incorporate the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed into their weekly services.

Beside this lay another fundamental principle: it was God’s prerogative to tell us how he wished to be worshipped. Hence the much-derided ‘simplicity’ of Calvinist worship: no vestments, no incense, no altar, no images of the saints, no pictures of the Virgin, no kneeling at Communion, all excluded because we had no reason to believe that God ‘enjoyed’ them. That was the only relevant consideration.

With the New Calvinism, the dynamics change and Calvin becomes but a dim shadow. Instead, there is a curious mixture of the Five Points, 16th century Anabaptism, 18th century revivalism, 20th century Pentecostalism, sophisticated marketing, the latest technology, and high-decibel music.

The details will vary, of course, depending on the whims of the Leader. At its worst, he will be a brilliant stand-up comedian, dressed down to a T-shirt, his tattooed arms and biceps proclaiming his masculinity, the music hip-hop (rap). At its best, the Leader will be a Harvard postgraduate, the band will be a professional orchestra and the sermon will be an argument to prove the existence of God (something Calvin never thought was his job, seeing as how God had already sown the seed of religion in every heart).

With all this comes ‘messy’ church: not as a disaster, but as something devoutly to be wished, since traditional churches are all ‘stuffy’ and need to be ‘shook-up’, giving us what the late Cardinal Winning called ‘the liturgy of scruff’, sermons which impart much information about the preacher’s wife and family, imperious leaders, and a contempt for rigorous full-time theological education.

And music, the modern opiate. Can we really accept that in church music anything goes? Luther took his hymn-tunes from the pubs and General Booth claimed to have stolen his from the Devil. Calvin, by contrast, had his specially composed for his Psalms, insisting that the music serve the words. If that is the case, then hip-hop (the music to which Afro-American protest sings its narrative) can never find a place in Christian worship. Nor can the oratorio. Church music is community music, and the high notes of the soprano and the low notes of the bass are equally beyond us. We could listen to an oratorio, of course, but worship doesn’t consist in being sung to, but in singing.

But finally, isn’t this New Calvinism ‘missional’. Possibly, but while it may have invented the word it certainly didn’t invent the thing. The Old Calvinism succeeded not only in providing Scotland with blanket gospel-coverage, but also in sending overseas some of the greatest missionaries the world has ever seen.

Let us take our cue from them, and move on to develop an expansionist Old Calvinism, based on Calvin’s encyclopaedic theology, reverent worship and comprehensive church organisation.

And please assure me that I’m not the last of a threatened species.


First published in the West Highland Free Press, Friday 26 September, 2014.