I am young (at least I still feel young) but I consider myself an Old Calvinist. I am constantly reminiscing about my ole skateboarding days and I still enjoy snowboarding. Admittedly, I may dress a little younger than my age, and currently I am thinking about getting back into skateboarding. In other words, I am grasping onto my youth. So why do I call myself an Old Calvinist? Well, it’s not because I think I am old. Rather, I prefer to call myself an Old Calvinist because I want to differentiate my understanding of Calvinism from the contemporary movement known as the New Calvinism. In the last two decades, the 5 points of Calvinism have amazingly become popular within a large segment of mainstream Christianity. Within my lifetime, Calvinism has gone from unacceptable, to acceptable, to cool. It is not that I am not deeply thankful for this movement and its leaders, for I rejoice to see what God is doing with my generation of Christians. Yet, even though I consider myself to be a young, cool Calvinist, due to some of the concerning features of the New Calvinism, which I will outline below, I prefer to be identified as an Old Calvinist.
Yet, what is the difference between the New and the Old Calvinism? Is it even possible to differentiate between them? If it is possible, it is certainly not easy. For instance, in a recent address on the New Calvinism, John Piper presented the 12 key features of the movement (see here). Yet, these 12 features could have easy been identifying various features of the Old Calvinism. In this address, Piper failed to identify what is “new” about the New Calvinism.
Granted, it is not easy to differentiate between New and Old Calvinism for many reasons. One, there is no clear and single mark of distinction between them. Some have said, “non-confessional vs. confessional,” others have said, “non-Presbyterian vs. Presbyterian,” and still others have said, “charismatic vs. non-charismatic.” Yet, none of these single distinctions (or any other single distinction) is fully adequate in explaining how these two groups differ from each other. Because there a lot of overlap between the two groups, there doesn’t seem (at least to me) to be a single mark but a collection of marks that separate the two groups from each other. Two, it is hard to distinguish the New and Old Calvinists from each other because there doesn’t seem to be even be a concise collection of marks that separate them. For instance, “charismatic,” “young,” and “non-confessional” may be some of the marks of the New Calvinism, but not all New Calvinists are charismatic, young, and non-confessional. Three, not only is it impossible to neatly identify distinguishing marks, there are some who are in transition. Some New Calvinists are moving closer to becoming Old Calvinists. Because of that, these Calvinists do not fit neatly into either of the groups.
With these difficulties in mind, here are what I believe to be some of the more notable distinctions between New and Old Calvinism. Admittedly, as an Old Calvinist, I emphasize the extremes of New Calvinism (as personified. for example, by Mark Driscoll) not only to help make the dissection between the two groups more clear, but also to highlight my concerns about the New Calvinism. I understand that not all self-claiming New Calvinists are as radical as I am representing the movement here.
I am Old Calvinist, but that doesn’t mean I am a dork, at least I hope not. I prefer to dress in style (though I don’t plan on buying any skinny jeans anytime soon). No doubt, there are many unfashionable Old Calvinists. But not all of us Old Calvinists who read the Puritans seek to dress like the Puritans. Even John Owen dressed more flamboyantly than his rather drab Puritan friends. The difference, therefore, is not an issue of style, but the emphasis placed upon style. And this seems to be the heart of the matter. Though fashion is not the issue for us Old Calvinists, it does seem to be one of the characteristics, if not a distinguishing mark, of the New Calvinism. Fashion is one of the many ways, for the New Calvinists, to market and contextualize their message. When on stage, it is cool to preach in a Mickey Mouse printed T-shirt and to lead worship with a new pair of sparkly kicks. In other words, nerds need not apply. All joking aside, seeking to be “hip” does not seem to be accidental but purposeful within the New Calvinism.
2. Branding Vs. Falsely Labeled
One of the reasons fashion seems to be such an integrated part of the New Calvinism is because of the high emphasis the New Calvinists place upon marketing and branding themselves. For the sake of getting the gospel out to as many people as possible and attracting people to their places of worship, image is everything (at least an important thing). Churches now have marketing teams consisting of graphic designers and computer programmers, all to help create a recognizable brand. At least one Calvinistic mega church has copyrighted their name and logo, threatening legal actions against those who infringe upon their branding (see here). Branding and marketing works. For instance, Starbucks sells a lot of coffee not only because they have good tasting coffee, but also because they have done a good job of creating a recognizable and popular brand. I feel cool (maybe even rich) when I order a latte from Starbucks. Even better is when I can plop myself down in one of their comfy, leather chairs, open my Apple laptop and gaze around at all the cool people in my black, square framed glasses. Only if I had a pair of skinny jeans my experience would be complete. Who feels proud of wearing generic shoes or carrying around a 7-Eleven cup of coffee? I know I don’t. In the same way I was willing to pay a little extra for the North Face Jacket logo because of its popularity. Similarly, the New Calvinism has done a good job of marketing itself and their leaders. Popularity has a natural pull to it. We consciously or unconsciously like to follow the crowd. Which sounds more exciting, attending a mega church with a celebrity pastor or visiting a country church with a bunch of old people? Who is to say that the worship is more sincere and the preaching is better at the big box mega church? The logo on the coffee cup, so it seems, goes a long way in pulling in the masses. Old Calvinism, on the other hand, has placed less attention to such strategies (maybe because they had less money to allocate to such an expense). In fact, it was quite the opposite for many of the Old Calvinists. The generation of Calvinists that preceded us knows what it feels like to ostracized by friends and family, blackballed by their denominations, and run out of their churches. Although it is now fashionable to wear Jonathan Edwards T-shirts, back in the day it was less than favorable to hold to the theology of Jonathan Edwards. The New Calvinists are considered cool, Old Calvinists were often falsely labeled.
3. Beer, Tattoos, and Sex Vs. Ice T, Suits, and Mum’s the Word
If branding the church as being hip and fashionable is important to the New Calvinists, then what is more hip than brashly talking about sex, getting a little ink, and cracking open a bud? Don’t miss understand me, it is not that the Old Calvinists are against sex, tattoos, and drinking beer per se, but like fashion in general, they don’t see the need or value in placing their emphasis upon these things, especially the things that are considered social taboos. If anything, rather than putting a spotlight upon their liberties, for the sake of the weaker brother they are careful not to flaunt their liberties. While the New Calvinists may think that the Old Calvinists are legalists who do not know how to properly contextualize their message, Old Calvinists are concerned that the New Calvinists are more worried about how the secular culture views them than they are in keeping themselves above reproach. If criminals naturally clean up their image by hiding their tattoos and getting a clean shave before they go before the judge, it makes sense that the Old Calvinists are concerned when they see this new generation of Calvinists have little to no regard to the negative impression they may or may not be making. Thus, it is not about tattoos and suits as much as it is about positive and negative impressions of one’s moral character.
Old and New Calvinists come in all ages, but it appears that the New Calvinism glories in youth rather than placing the lion’s share of the honor upon the elders of the church. In many cases, the elderly are often marginalized and their preferences pushed to the side. Everything is aimed at reaching the youth. The New Calvinism seems to boast in their youth and restlessness. Of course, youth has a certain appeal and attraction to it. I know I would rather watch young kids grind their skateboards than watch senior citizens rock in their rocking chairs. The only time we see older people in ads is in the sale of medicine, cans, and Depends. This is because youth, good looks, and vitality sells. We are living in a youth-crazed culture, and the New Calvinists seem to have marketed themselves by utilizing what sells.
5. A Few Celebrities Vs. a Lot of Unsung Heroes
The New Calvinism is known for a few mega churches with their well-known celebrity pastors while the Old Calvinism is known by a multitude of smaller churches pastored by unknown pastors. This may be a bit of an overstatement, but it, nevertheless, emphasizes a true concern. Fame and popularity is not sinful, but it definitely has its dangers. It is especially dangerous for those who pursue it. It is easier for those entering into the ministry to glamorize their future and have false expectations. A successful ministry, even among Calvinists, is now marked by large book contracts, conference speaking, and leading a mega church. Yet, it is not the amount of Twitter followers but faithfulness that impresses God. It is a strange time indeed when pastors, especially Calvinistic pastors, are now considered as celebrities. Their books, personalities, and preaching are marketed to the masses. For instance, which celebrity pastor does not have his own para-church organization (or internet site) devoted to promote and propagate his “ministry”? I guess it is not self-promotion when you have a staff that does it for you? It is sad when you hear of a celebrity pastor reminding his staff, “I am the brand.” Of course, the church benefits from their pastor’s popularity. We are naturally drawn to famous people. Why else do mega churches open up satellite campuses? Apparently, a virtual celebrity has more appeal than an unknown in-house minister does. Yet, how does this help prevent the “I am of Paul,” “I am of Apollos” spirit that is in us all? Do these celebrity pastors really think that they can minster better from a distance than other ministers can in person? Is it biblical to have a Bishop ruling over multiple congregations? Are these pastors seeking to build a kingdom around their own personality and ministry? Are churches willing to prop up a man for the sake of numerical growth? I, for one, find this concerning. It is not that “small” is necessarily better, but it is not safe or wise to create idols among our spiritual leaders. I know that we all desire to be famous, but this is something that we must all resist. It is not easy to decrease. The Old Calvinists know by experience, however, that ministry is more like digging a ditch than walking down the red carpet under the spotlight. Faithfully serving in obscure locations and small congregations is the norm, but somehow the New Calvinism has created a false imagery of the ministry by placing the spotlight upon a few elite preachers, who when they come together are able fill to large stadiums. Sadly, it is not always the most gifted who rise to top, but the ones who have received the most publicity.
6. Pragmatic Vs. Consistently Calvinistic
With such emphasis being placed upon branding, which is often masked as contextualization, the New Calvinism seems to place a lot of its energy upon pragmatic church growth strategies. If churches are going to continue to grow and steal members from other congregations, then they need to be more innovative and hip than the new church plant down the road. A church cannot stay stagnant, for it needs to recast itself every few years. Pragmatism and church growth has been a priority for Arminian churches for years, but now it has became more and more of a priority in Calvinistic churches, which I think is somewhat of an oxymoron. Thankfully, not all of the leaders of the New Calvinism are equally given to pragmatic strategies, but the commercialism that seems to identify the New Calvinism, nevertheless, seems somewhat superficial. It is not as if the Old Calvinists do not desire numerical growth, but they seem more content to be patient, realizing that “unless God builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1). Biblical success is not found in the number of Twitter follows and the size of the congregation but in faithfulness as a steward of God’s Word.
7. Vision Casters Vs. Stewards
Yet, with numerical growth being such an emphasis within New Calvinism, pastors are now called to be “vision casters,” although I am not 100% sure of what that means. I suppose that “casting a vision” is communicating an arbitrary objective, likely involving numerical growth, and then motivating the people to get behind this goal until the objective is reached, and then starting the process again by casting a new vision. I am not sure where this is outlined in Scripture, but surely they wouldn’t take Proverbs 11:27 out of context? Rick Warren, a self-claiming Calvinist, abandons Scripture altogether when he talks about the importance of “vision casting” (see here). Warren states that if pastors are not successful in growing a church it’s because either their “dreams” or their faith are too small. According to Warren, the pastor first needs to dream big, really big. Second, the pastor needs to have faith in God for the fulfillment of his dream. Yet, is this not the same thing as “name-it-and-claim-it” theology? Where does Scripture promise us a “big” church or the fulfillment of our ministry “dreams”? Do our dreams create reality? Warren encourages us to dream big and then tells us that our dreams are revelations from God—yeah right! This is presumptuous at best. This is secular and worldly philosophy integrated into the church, and I think it stinks. I guess I would make a poor Pastor of Vision because, although our church is going through a period of growth, I remind the saints at Grace Bible that we may or may not continue to grow. It might be that we decrease in size. I remind them that God is the One in charge of these matters, for it is He who gives the increase. Our responsibility is to remain faithful regardless if we grow or shrink in size. The Lord is not going to judge us by the standards of the world (how large or small our congregation may or may not be), but He will judge us on our faithfulness. Long ago, I had to die to my expectations and “dreams.” Why then are pastors encouraged to dream big and then pump up the people week after week to help them reach their dreams. This sounds a bit narcissistic if you ask me. The goal of the pastor should not be rallying the troops to get behind their dream, but rather should be remaining a faithful steward to the responsibilities that are outlined in Scripture.
I guess we should not be surprised that the church is looking more and more like a place of entertainment, a theater, when the focus has been turned away from a God-centered approach to a man-centered approach. But I am surprised that Calvinistic churches are following suit. Let us pull down the steeples, take out the old wooden pews, and remove that big, ugly pulpit. Those archaic furnishings do not set the right ambiance. We need a stage, lots of stage lighting, and theater seating. Don’t you know that a pulpit gets in the way of the band? Again, as an Old Calvinist, I personally could care less whether a church building has a steeple or not. I would prefer to sit in a comfortable chair than in an old wooden pew. Even so, I am concerned that the strategic removal of the pulpit and turning the sanctuary into a theater communicates a major shift in the wrong direction.
9. Commercialized Vs. Free
With marketing, branding, and celebrity comes big money. Conferences are not cheap. They cost money…especially when food is involved. Thus, it is not as if Old Calvinists do not publish books and are against charging a registration fee for a conference, but things seem to have gotten out of hand. All the Bible conferences I grew up attending, which were a huge blessing, were free. Lodging, food, and preaching were all offered free of charge. Free will offerings (yes I said, “free will”) more than compensated for the expense of the event. God’s people are generous. Well, you may say, “those conferences didn’t have the big names on the schedule.” Yes, but many of the scheduled preachers preached just as powerfully and without requiring a five to ten thousand dollar honorarium. I believe preachers should be highly compensated, but many of the big names will not commit to speak until a certain amount of compensation is agreed upon beforehand. But it’s worth it, the big names draw in more people, and more people means more registration fees, and more registration fees means more money. The celebrity should not be exploited, right? Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that money is the motive behind these conferences. I really don’t think it is. I am also deeply thankful for John Piper’s personal practice (see here). I am just concerned that Christianity is becoming too commercialized. In the seventies, skateboarding was merely a hobby, but in the eighties the sport become so popular that the top skaters became rock-star celebrities that demanded big money for the use of their “image.” Skateboarding became commercialized with big money and big industry taking over the direction of the sport. No longer were skaters merely skating for the fun of it but because they were professionals. Popularity is great, but it comes with a price. You may disagree with me, but I hope you will at least agree that we need to be careful here.
I would suppose that some would argue that the difference between the New and the Old Calvinism is the different emphasis placed upon contextualization, being “missional,” and engaging the culture. This certainly has some truth to it, but in seeking to become more contextualized and culturally engaging, it appears that the New Calvinism has become more popular, commercialized, and pragmatic along the way. As I stated in my introduction, it is not easy to clearly differentiate between the New and the Old Calvinism. Not everyone who claims to be a New Calvinist would nicely fit into the picture I have painted, and I know I also highlighted the more concerning elements while passing by many of the positive elements of the New Calvinism. I would remind you before I close, that I truly am thankful for the New Calvinism. Yet, as long as these concerns exist, I remain happy to call myself an Old Calvinist. Why don’t you join me?