Calvinsim: more like Schmalvinism!

© kristykay22 under Creative Commons

Calvinism must be one of the most overused and abused terms going around in church circles. Much of what I say below I really mean, but it is rather tongue-in-cheek. Also, the way I box people into categories is very fluid, as I will explain later. Finally, I should also apologise to anyone who goes by the name Schmalvin; any confusion is completely unintended.

There are quite a number of streams of Calvinism. Each of the groups I describe below all locate themselves in the theological heritage of the French Protestant reformer, John Calvin. It is very confusing. I hope this helps.

You have the New Calvinists: John Piper is like the grandfather, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler and co. are the hipsters who tow the line behind him and a few other grandfather figures. They are the world’s biggest fans of the TULIP acronym. You may have heard the phrase “5 Point Calvinism” thrown around. Most of these people say they are Calvinists, and then you usually discover that they are “4 points Calvinists,” or “4-and-a-half-point Calvinists.” John Piper is a 17 point Calvinist, I think. I suppose that the MacArthur-peddling boys at Team Pyro would fit into this category as well. They tend to be Baptists. Their books get endorsed by D. A. Carson, J. I. Packer and Albert Mohler.

Then you have the Neo-Calvinists. The confusing thing about that title is that “neo” means “new” and so you have two types or Neo-Calvinists floating around. It’s like R. C. Sproul, and R. C. Sproul Jr. More on them later. These Neo-Calvinists descend from the Dutch Calvinist stream, whose figurehead is Abraham Kuyper. Modern exponents include Douglas Wilson, philosopher Nick Wolterstorff, R. C. Spoul Jr, and less explicitly, Tim Keller. They like to use snappy catch-phrases like “All of life under Christ” and use crazy terminology like “sphere sovereignty.” They also emphasise having a Christian worldview, Christian education, and the story arc of the Bible being “Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consumation.”

There are also those whom I enjoy labeling Grumpy Calvinists. I include folk like D. G. Hart, Michael Horton and the White Horse Inn guys, and Carl Truman in this lot. These folk enjoy pointing out everyone else’s shortcomings as Calvinists/Reformed Christians. They tend to freak out about the Neo-Calvinists being too interested in politics and cultural engagement, and they get annoyed by the New Calvinists being not really that Calvinist. They quote the Westminster Confession a lot, and talk about Two-Kingdom theology like it is their theological grid for everything. They also like quoting J. Gresham Machen.

Finally, there’s all of those people who follow the thought of Calvin who either don’t realise it, don’t make a big fuss about it, or don’t care. I would call them the Comfortable Calvinists. They don’t tend to feel the need to prove their ‘Reformed-ness” by arguing with everyone else about how un-reformed they might be. I would say that people like Kevin de Young, the lads over at the Calvinist International, R. C. Sproul, John Frame, and J. I. Packer could be included here.

All of that being said, some of these parties overlap, and individuals who sit under one banner might also happily sit under more than one banner. It is also worth noting that even though these camps might have a dig at each other, they often share the podium at conferences and dialogue about various issues very helpfully. They have more in common than it appears. I have learnt a stack from all of the above-named people, and others within each of the Calvinist camps.

That’s it. Enjoy continuing to be confused.

27 thoughts on “Calvinsim: more like Schmalvinism!”

  1. You’ve made me a happy man Simon. I had no idea I was a “Comfortable Calvinist”. I usually get accused of being too intense.
    I shouldn’t get too serious, but one of the problems with Calvinists who are too Calvinist is that John Calvin wasn’t like them! He’s a great Bible teacher and his material is still VERY worth reading. At Moore College where I went, and James currently studies, the two books that are required reading cover to cover are the Bible and Calvin’s Institutes. I am personally very grateful for that policy.

    1. Martin, I think everyone thinks John Calvin wasn’t like those other Calvinists, and more like themselves. Maybe you do too! I remember you once saying that Calvin was really just like John Piper or Don Carson. I almost choked on my drink! Calvin had very different distinctives in a lot of ways to today’s “New Calvinist,” and I think that is worth recognising.

      1. Hi Simon. Is that tongue in cheek too? Having read a lot of Calvin and a fair bit of Carson, I think their theology is very similar. What do you mean by your comment, which suggests they are very different?

        1. Martin, sort of tongue-in-cheek, because all of the Calvinist parties will agree on things pertaining to salvation, justification and so on. However, surely it’s not controversial to say that there are some significant differences on other theological issues between a 21st century American baptist and a 17th century French reformer. Seems a no-brainer to me. Sit Calvin down with Piper to talk baptism and watch them go at it . . .

  2. So here’s my question. Can one be ‘reformed’ without being a Calvinist? I don’t think so.

    I try to avoid labels as much as possible – they tend to squeeze you into a category dependant upon how others define it. But, like Martin, I warm to the term Comfortable Calvinist. ;)

    1. Don, good question. It depends (as usual) how you define ‘reformed.’ Lutherans, classical Arminians, and Anabaptists sit within the broad, historical ‘reformed’ stream. Today, it is usually people linked to Calvin who label themselves ‘reformed.’ I would happily include a Lutheran under the heading, despite there being some significant differences. As shown in the above post, labels are indeed problematic. As long as we are happy to be relatively flexible in where we draw the lines, as I hope I was, I think they can be helpful.

  3. For a second there I thought you were going to denounce Calvinism as being heretical or something. But you let me down… :(

    That would have been an amusing entry to have read on a church blog.

  4. I’m a soft and gentle Calvinist who likes your description of the Grumpy Calvinists except for the lumping of Trueman into their lot.

    Trueman’s cool! The Grumpy Calvinists of the Radical Two-Kingdom variety are not.

    1. Hey Truth Unites,

      Freakishly quick reply from me here. I was logged in when you commented. I agree with you on Truman. He’s great! And I agree with you on Radical 2 Kingdom variety – not great at all. Truman is actually in Melbourne and Geelong this week. I couldn’t work out where to place him, and he fits most closely with the Grumpies in my assessment. I was pretty torn, I have to admit. He’s definitely one who could be under either of two banners.

  5. This is a lot of fun precisely because it’s there’s a large measure of truth in it. Where do fans of Barth and Torrence fit in? Maybe there are not yet enough to talk about! Anyway, thanks, from a comfortable Calvinist, and fan of the above!

    1. Hi Mark, (of Christianity Today?). Thanks for your comment. Fans of Barth and Torrence? Good question, one I’m not fluent enough to have an answer to. They would surely have their own category, but the ‘neo’ tag is taken!

  6. Well, I’m just a happy follower of Jesus who listens to and reads Calvin, Piper, Carson, Sproul, and Driscoll, McArthur, Keller, and others. However, I am neither a confused or comfortable Calvinist. Since I believe in the ultimate sovereignty of God in all things tulip, rose, or hibiscus, I think I’ll call myself a Confident Calvinist.

    1. Hi Gail, that is good to hear! Neither confused nor comfortable, but confident. Sounds like a good place to be.

  7. Hi Simon,

    The fans of Calvin, T.F. Torrance, and Barth would fit into Evangelical Calvinism. Myk Habets and I have a recently released book out with the title of Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church; you should check out it, Mark Galli has a copy ;-). Here’s the link at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Evangelical-Calvinism-Resourcing-Continuing-Reformation/dp/1608998576/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344810376&sr=1-1&keywords=Bobby+Grow

    1. Hey Bobby, thanks for your comment and link. As I said below, I’m not fluent in neo-orthodoxy but your Calvinism strikes as too Barthian to be Calvinist! Maybe Mark Galli has a more informed opinion, if he has your book?

    1. dghart, I couldn’t say, not having read it. That was a leading question . . .

  8. Hi Simon, I’m kind of with Gail but without the label, never really understood why people (baptist in particular) need to label themselves.

    1. Hey Wally, fair enough regarding the labeling. Good to hear you’re on the same page as Gail – she seems to be a in a good spot to me. Confident, but not fussed.

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