A Different Perspective on How Calvinism Became Cool Again

nature red flowers yellow
Photo by Suneo1999 on Pexels.com

Those of you unfortunate enough to know me in person know that my academic interests center heavily on the Protestant Reformation, specifically the theology born out of that movement, and especially Calvinism. I’ve spent a lot of time reading works from the Reformation and from modern adherents of Calvinism. Be it Calvin, Manton, Owen, Packer, Keller, Carson, or Piper, I’ve spent a good deal of time with them in the form of reading them or, if they’re on YouTube, watching them. I didn’t learn about Calvinism from a personal experience like meeting a Calvinist. Sure, I’d heard of it before, but I’d never actually met a devout Calvinist or knowingly read anything a Calvinist said. Like others, I was exposed gradually and then started digging deeper for myself. That started because back when I was a wee little lad in undergrad, a friend on Facebook shared a “sermon jam” video featuring Matt Chandler. I started listening to his sermons more and more frequently because he was a compelling and effective speaker. Chandler referenced John Piper, who I would begin listening to and reading, and this would naturally lead me to his most well known work, Desiring God.

There has been a whole wave of people being drawn to Calvinism in the last 10–15 years, leading to the surge of what’s called New Calvinism and even a “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement. This apparently surprised many people, leading to a question: “Where did these people come from?” Mark Dever, a Calvinist Baptist pastor and theologian, addressed this question helpfully in a series of blog posts, which can be found compiled here. He’s not the only one to address the question though. Monday, a fellow from my religious neck of the woods wrote briefly about this question. I wanted to offer a different perspective on what he said, not so much because I think it was a bad article (it was actually fairly useful as an introduction for the uninitiated, though I would quibble with the author here and there), but because I don’t think it fully addresses the question of how Calvinism became popular.My main issue with this take on New Calvinism is that it focuses on the power of the cult of personality. “Calvinism is popular again because these people made it appealing,” is a short summary of the aforementioned article. Many names are mentioned, with brief explanations of their significance, but there’s not much substantial discussion. Obviously, that’s a side effect of most blogs making comparatively short posts, but it still leaves something to be desired. Sure, John Piper, Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, and others have drawn people to Calvinism, but how have they done so? That’s what I want to try to answer here. Before I do that, however, I want to make something clear: I’m not a Calvinist and I’m not approaching this question as a Calvinist. Instead, I’m looking at this from the outside and, in part, reflecting on why Calvinism as a movement has kept my attention as it has.

  1. Calvinism is a richly conservative system with a fascinating history of brilliant devotees. Whether one reads Calvin’s Institutes, Murray’s commentary on Romans, Owen’s exposition of Hebrews, or a variety of other works, it is very easy to find intellectually rigorous and faithful interaction with God’s Word. When you pick up a commentary written by a respected Reformed writer, you’ll almost assuredly find thoughtful and meticulous work, even if you disagree with the conclusions that are drawn. What’s more, the personalities of the Reformed movement are often themselves just as interesting and entertaining. People who have become bored and discontented with intellectually weak preaching or liberal tomfoolery find in Calvin and his progeny a welcome combination of piety and scholarship.
  2. Keeping with its intellectual rigor, Calvinism is a system of thought that lends itself to building a whole and consistent worldview. Christians find themselves confused frequently when addressing various social issues and this is largely due to their not having given much thought to their worldview. They have a worldview, because everyone does, but they just haven’t developed it much beyond a few key beliefs. Reformed theology offers a consistent (though not necessarily correct) system by which a person can assess a question and arrive at an answer. Al Mohler, for instance in his “Ask Anything tours,” emphasizes that he doesn’t just want to answer questions, but that he also wants to have a conversation about how to think. Rather than merely saying, “I believe,” Reformed theology sets the groundwork for, “I believe, and my beliefs have consequences.”
  3. Reformed theology strikes a balance between passion and intellect. The great intellectual figures of Reformed theology are/were not just nerds in ivory towers. Instead, their writing and preaching is marked by intensity and deep concern over issues near and dear to their hearts, and this passion plays out in their lives as well. A good contemporary example would be John Piper and his non-theological writing, specifically the poems that he writes for his wife, which have been partially compiled in Velvet Steel. Few men today write letters to their wives, fewer still write poetry, and fewer still than that write poetry for their wives in a language other than their native language. Yet Piper, despite his capacity for rigorous work, as demonstrated elsewhere, also turns his talent to expressing his love for his wife in poetry both in English and German. Even when one reads John Owen, known mostly for his being mercilessly precise in polemic, one can find him being deeply caring and concerned for his readers, and his work as a pastor was marked by his being deeply invested in people. People today want little to do with intellect bereft of love and most recognize the futility of vigor without intelligent direction. Reformed theology rejects the dichotomy of passion and intellect, insisting instead on passionate intellect.
  4. Reformed theologians take great pains to answer questions that people are asking. Yes, many pages are written over intramural debates, but just as much attention, if not more, is given to pressing issues of the day, addressed through the lens of Reformed thought. The Gospel Coalition has been especially visible in this capacity, frequently publishing on current issues. One may like or dislike what they talk about or how they talk about it, but New Calvinists can scarcely be accused of ignoring contemporary issues.

This isn’t exhaustive, as you could ask ten people what makes Calvinism appealing to them and get eleven answers, but hopefully it offers a perspective that’s complimentary to others given in various places. As I wrap this up, I want to take these four points and state them as directives and suggestions for fellow Christians to consider. This is especially crucial because the question that usually follows “Why is Calvinism cool again?” is “How do we respond?” In answering this question, I have five suggestions, four of which are based on what we’ve discussed.

1. It behooves us to speak fairly and accurately, especially when describing those with whom we disagree or discussing with them. Anecdotally, I’ve heard many descriptions of Calvinism that are just wrong and worse still, could be corrected with even a cursory bit of research. When we unfairly malign people, we make them more sympathetic, even if they’re wrong. Worse still, our failure to speak fairly and accurately will, perhaps permanently, hamper our efforts to be heard.

2. We must strive to be robust both in our faith and our intellect. Christians are to love God with their minds and part of this is the pursuit of excellence in the academy without sacrificing the historic Christian faith.

3. Flowing out of the pursuit of intellectual excellence, Christians must dedicate themselves not merely to having the right answers, but also having a consistent framework in which we examine questions. It is not enough to know the answers that matter: we must also know how to arrive at the answers that matter and lead others to the same.

4. We must embrace Godly passion. I’ve touched on this elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on it, but the mind and the heart are not enemies and we ought not insist on their acting as such. Christian history is marked by people who both thought deeply and felt deeply, and we out to emulate their doing so.

5. Perhaps most importantly, we ought to give greater attention to questions people are actually asking. I remember, about 3 years ago, sitting in the crowd at an “open forum” wherein people were free to ask questions to a panel. Good questions were asked and led to good discussion, as is usually the case at these things, but one question stands out to me today as being oh so very inane: the question of formal attire in worship. Now, I’ll argue about this all day, because I’ve had my faithfulness to essential doctrine questioned because I wore shorts to a Wednesday night service in the middle of a Mississippi summer. However, I was dumbfounded not so much at a person asking the question; it was, as I recall, a younger person asking and as such, I imagine it only recently came into their awareness, so that’s fair. What dumbfounded me was that so many people got so very incensed by it. Upwards of 25 minutes were spent in very heated debate over whether you could enter a church building at designated times without a tie! Little time was left for other questions, several of which were more technical and all of which were of greater interest both to many present and to the world at large. So it is with many of our own intramural debates.

With all of that said, I’m going to be very blunt here: the overwhelming majority of people could not care less about most of our intramural debates. John Doe off the street not only doesn’t know that people argue about instruments in worship, he also can’t even begin to care. Don’t hear what I’m not saying though: these debates matter, because they are questions of truth and truth matters by its very nature. My contention is not that we abandon intramural debates. Instead, we should, especially when evangelizing to people and in our weekly teaching and preaching, focus on a balance of rich theological teaching and addressing the questions that people are asking. Not having a worship band or expecting men to tuck their shirt in is not ultimately what keeps people away from the churches of Christ (good research has actually been done on this point: doctrine is what keeps people in church, not music styles or other factors). Rather, assuming that the research holds true with some consistency, what keeps people from the churches of Christ is that their questions about doctrine and how that doctrine plays out in the real world aren’t being satisfactorily answered or, in the worst cases, even addressed. People want answers about their faith, how that faith plays into current issues, and how to navigate personal life in a consistently Christian way and if all we’re going to offer them is a review of our pet doctrines every week, then they will seek answers elsewhere.

Many preachers that I know already strive to do this and model all 5 of these points well (and encourage their fellow Christians to do the same) and I’m thrilled to be able to say that the majority of these preachers have found that their congregations are healthier for it. Calvinism may be “cool” again, but it’s not because a random man who is now in his 70’s and has worn tweed jackets for the last 50 years suddenly caught the eye of millennials who thought, “Huh, so that’s Calvinism. Alright, I’m sold.” Instead, that man in a tweed jacket brought something to the table that people were craving, as did many of his contemporaries and friends. Calvinism is cool again because Calvinists rolled up their sleeves and did the hard work of engaging the world around them. The churches of Christ should look at the New Calvinist movement and take two lessons from it and those lessons are what I’ll close on:

1. We have no more excuses. Growing up, I heard many people bemoan how people weren’t coming to church because they just didn’t want to hear hard teaching. “Our beliefs aren’t very popular,” some would say with resignation. The New Calvinists take this kind of attitude and laugh in its face. Let’s be honest; Calvinism might be “cool,” but it’s not popular, not by honest or objective means. Strictly conservative and Reformed churches are a minority, and in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest religious body in the United States, Calvinism is hotly contested, with intense debate and vitriol coming out disagreements between Calvinists and “Traditionalists.” Calvinists could very easily say, “Our beliefs aren’t very popular,” and consign themselves to small gatherings and a minority role in American religious life, as some members of the churches of Christ have done. Instead, they’ve stood up, straightened up their shirts, and gotten back out there to spread their message. As Christians, we have no excuse not to do the same.

2. We can have our very own resurgence, if we want it. The field is ripe for harvest and people today want religious truth, not stuffy religiosity. Fortunately for us, the Restoration Movement’s whole historical emphasis was stripping away meaningless religious fluff to get at truth. Even better, our movement has also historically emphasized living out that truth, something that people long for today. I’m thoroughly convinced that anything that New Calvinism can do, we can do better, and I say that as someone with a great respect and admiration for New Calvinism. There is an entire world out there that wants meaningful religious truth that impacts their lives in both profound and mundane ways and I think we’ve got that in spades. So, what’re we waiting for? Let’s put ourselves out there and see what people think. I believe that if we’ll roll up our sleeves and do the work of really engaging the world around us, we’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Soli Deo Gloria!