by Timothy Paul Jones
The mention of Calvinism may provoke revulsion or comfort—but it rarely produces apathy.
“Calvinism,” journalist H.L. Mencken opined in 1937, “occupies a place in my cabinet of private horrors but little removed from that of cannibalism.” Mencken included these words in his obituary for J. Gresham Machen, a Presbyterian theologian who whispered on his deathbed, “Isn’t the Reformed faith grand?” The same doctrines that elicited exultations from the lips of one man incited comparisons to sautéing your next-door neighbor in another. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the most recent surge of interest in Reformed theology has ignited joy in some hearts and panic in others.
Over the past several years, an overabundance of possible names for this movement has also sparked no small measure of confusion. “Young, restless, Reformed” was the nomenclature that Collin Hansen selected for an article and book about his journey with “the new Calvinists”—a group that’s also been dubbed “neo-Reformed,” “neo-Calvinist,” and even “neo-Puritan.”
Regardless of where you stand or where you land on the issue of Reformed theology, this multiplicity of labels is probably not helpful. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of these labels and consider, at the very least, which ones might be the least problematic.
The Manifold Meanings of “Calvinist”
I should probably confess from the outset that I’m a Reformed Baptist who has never willingly embraced the epithet “Calvinist.” I served nearly two decades on pastoral staffs in three different churches, and—as far as I can recall—I used the word “Calvinism” a grand total of three times in my teaching: twice when leading church history classes, and once in a sermon to describe how George Whitefield was able to work with the Wesley brothers for the sake of the gospel. A variety of Reformed and non-Reformed perspectives mingled together in all of these congregations, and church members consistently cooperated with charity on this issue. And still, I avoided the word “Calvinism” whenever possible. One reason for this deliberate omission was because I was never quite certain that what I meant by “Calvinism” was what my congregants understood when they heard the word—and this semantic confusion isn’t limited to laypeople! R.A. Muller, a preeminent scholar of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, lists no fewer than three possible functions for the word “Calvinism”:
(1) Calvinism is what John Calvin himself taught—in which case Calvin himself could very well have been the only Calvinist;
(2) Calvinism is what John Calvin’s followers taught—which could be problematic since none of these followers deliberately or intentionally followed Calvin’s teachings;
(3) Calvinism is a synonym for the Reformed tradition—which raises the question of whether the Reformed tradition stands in continuity with Calvin as well as whether both terms are helpful if it’s not possible to draw any clear and meaningful distinction between them.
These ongoing definitional disparities shouldn’t surprise us, given the origins and history of the term “Calvinist.” In Calvin’s own lifetime, the willing acceptance of such a title would have been seen as ridiculous at best, offensive at worst. John Calvin was far from the sole, or even the primary, architect of Reformed theology. The epithet first emerged near the end of John Calvin’s career in Geneva—but not among Calvin’s supporters, and certainly not as a compliment. Lutheran theologians took up the term in the mid-sixteenth century for the purpose of disparaging Calvin’s perspective on the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
It wasn’t until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that “Calvinism” expanded to describe Reformed theology as a whole and eventually to denote five specific points about salvation—points that were first articulated as a settled set in 1619 at the synod of Dort, more than a half-century after Calvin died! Abraham Kuyper labeled this usage of “Calvinist” and “Calvinism” the “confessional use” that described an “outspoken subscriber to the doctrine of foreordination.” In time, “Calvinism” came to be applied not only to Presbyterians and other historically Reformed churches but also to Baptists who embraced the five points from Dort.
I tend to think that, if the term “Calvinism” is used at all, it ought to be reserved for theological perspectives that stand in clear continuity with Calvin’s own teachings. (Why call something “Calvinist,” after all, if it can’t be clearly traced to any claim or confession that derives from Calvin?) I would further suggest that “Calvinism” should center on Calvin’s views of church order and ordinances, since Calvin’s ecclesiology and sacramentology were far more distinct in the eyes of his contemporaries than his soteriology. What this means practically is that, if someone asks me whether I’m a Calvinist, my answer is, “That depends on what topic we’re talking about”—and it also makes me wonder if, perhaps, the term “Calvinism” has come to mean so many things that, ultimately, it ends up meaning nothing at all. At the very least, it means that “new Calvinism” is probably not the most useful descriptor of any current trend toward Reformed soteriology.
A Trinity of “Neo’s”: Neo-Calvinist, Neo-Puritan, Neo-Reformed
The relatively recent introduction of “neo-Calvinist” to describe the latest resurgence of interest in Reformation theology has muddied the semantic waters even more—but not because “neo-Calvinist” or “new Calvinist” carries too many different meanings (not yet, anyway). It’s because, at least since the early twentieth century, “neo-Calvinist” has described the views of Dutch Reformed theologians who emphasized the lordship of Christ over all creation and the capacity of grace to restore nature. It was neo-Calvinist Abraham Kuyper who famously declared, “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not declare, ‘Mine!’”
To identify the current Reformation-oriented crowd as “neo-Calvinist” is to confuse a venerable movement that focuses on God’s sovereignty over creation with a current movement that focuses on God’s sovereignty in salvation. The result is a blurred definition that does disservice to persons in each group, especially since some of us do theology in ways that derive in different ways from both movements.
“Neo-Puritan,” perhaps the most misguided of all the recent monikers, would multiply the muddiness even more. Reformed theology was never the primary factor in setting the limits of Puritanism. “Puritan” has historically included not only Christians who profess Reformed soteriology but also at least a few Arminians and—depending on who you ask—perhaps even Quakers. No perspicuity is produced by affixing “neo-” to such a variegated phenomenon and then attempting to apply the new term to a recent movement that doesn’t clearly derive from the original phenomenon. “Neo-Puritan,” as Ian Clary has demonstrated, fails as a useful terminology both semantically and historically.
In the end, some variation of “Reformed” seems likely to remain the least caconymous descriptor. A good case could be made for delimiting the term “Reformed” to Presbyterian and Reformed denominations that derive directly from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed churches. At the same time, the word “Reformed” began to be affixed to movements beyond these churches throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, if not earlier. Scot McKnight has referred to the recent resurgence in Reformed soteriology as “neo-Reformed.” Personally, I would prefer simply to have “Reformed” affixed to a larger tradition—Baptist, in my case—and I respectfully disagree with McKnight’s caricature of the movement he labels “neo-Reformed.” (I don’t know a single leader among the so-called “neo-Reformed” who is, in McKnight’s words, working to “kick the non-Reformed off the village green” merely because they’re non-Reformed. There may be a few Arminians and Anabaptists lying with boot-bruised backsides along the perimeter of a proverbial evangelical green and some of these attempted ejections may have been unjust—but it wasn’t their non-Reformed theology that landed them there.) At the same time, it does seem that, if some term more specific than “Reformed” must be applied, McKnight might be on a workable track. A handful of twentieth-century theologians did employ “neo-Reformed” to denote Karl Barth’s theological method, but that nomenclature was short-lived and probably ill-directed in the first place.
The Unintended Disembedding at the Synod of Dort
All this semantic wrestling does, however, bring up another question—one that I think we might profitably explore further: How did Reformed soteriology reach beyond the historic Reformed churches in the first place? To put it another way, how did perspectives on salvation that were once inextricably embedded in paedobaptist contexts—in churches that mark infants as participants in the covenant by means of baptism—end up expanding to other sects, including Baptists and even charismatics?
I suggest that this expansion of Reformed soteriology was an unintended result of the five points that were formulated at the synod of Dort. The separation of Reformed soteriology from the more comprehensive confessions and catechisms of the Reformed churches at Dort allowed this soteriology to become, in some sense, transportable into other contexts. If my assessment is correct, one might say that—since the canons of Dort were responses to five previous declarations from the Arminian Remonstrants—the Arminians were the ones who shaped the circumstances that made the spread of Reformed soteriology possible!
Of course, the Reformed pastors at the synod of Dort never intended their summary of Reformed soteriology to stand alone. The five points in the canons of Dort were designed to serve as a soteriological clarification, standing as one of the Three Forms of Unity alongside the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism. That’s why one scholar has declared, “It would be a major error–both historically and doctrinally–if the five points of Calvinism were understood as the sole or even the absolutely primary basis for identifying someone as holding Calvinistic or Reformed faith.” Seen solely from the perspective of the original expression and intent of these five points, this declaration is undoubtedly correct. What I am contending, however, is that—in the decades that followed the synod of Dort—the five points from Dort took on a life of their own, independent of their original confessional context and intent. The canons of Dort provided a summation of one aspect of Reformed theology—the soteriological aspect—that was no longer inextricably entwined with the more comprehensive Reformed confessions and catechisms. Extricated from its original context, Reformed soteriology was transported into other contexts—credobaptist churches, for example—where neither the Belgic Confession nor the Heidelberg Catechism could have been embraced in their entirety. The disembedding of Reformed soteriology in the synod of Dort’s response to the Arminian Remonstrants contributed to the long-term resilience and expansion of the Reformed doctrines of grace by making these doctrines transferable beyond their original context.
The process that I’ve traced here also explains why there are so many Reformed Baptists but few, if any, Lutheran Baptists. The canons of Dort opened the door for a separation of Reformed soteriology from Reformed churches. Lutheran soteriology, however, remained embedded in the confessions, catechisms, and ecclesiological structures of Lutheran churches.
How then should we refer to the recent resurgence of interest in Reformed soteriology?
Before providing a tentative answer to this question, it may be worth pointing out that no one within this growing movement appears to be clamoring for a newer or narrower name. What I’ve witnessed among the so-called “young, restless, Reformed” is widespread contentment with historical designations and denominations. The discontent with existing epithets seems to spring from those that are critical of the Reformed resurgence, not from those within the movement.
That said, it seems to me that the most accurate descriptor would be “Dortianism” or, if some prefix must be affixed to denote the distinct contours of the current movement, “neo-Dortianism” (see chart below for this taxonomy). Unfortunately, I don’t expect “Dortianism” to blossom into anyone’s preferred terminology anytime soon.* The events at Dort are too obscure and the term itself sounds too distasteful to end up emblazoned on anyone’s book cover. (Do you really think that Young, Restless, Dortian would have attracted anywhere near the number of readers that Young, Restless, Reformed did?) And so, of the options that are intelligible beyond a handful of theologians and church historians, “neo-Reformed”—though not without its difficulties—probably remains the least problematic nomenclature in an ever-multiplying pool of possibilities. And perhaps part of what the less-than-ideal “neo-” prefix could connote is the spread of Reformed soteriology not only within but also beyond the historic Presbyterian and Reformed churches.
This movement is best seen, though, as one minuscule current in a much broader stream that may be traced back into church history through an early seventeenth-century gathering of pastors in the Dutch city of Dort. Seeing the Reformed resurgence in this way turns our attention away from the latest parachurch conferences and star preachers and toward a far more vast and variegated history filled with events none of us could have planned and progenitors we would never have chosen. Recalling this crazy history in which the Remonstrants shaped the Reformed and “Calvinism” somehow leaped from caconym to compliment keeps us from slipping into smug self-satisfaction with passing illusions of success. It calls us to remember that we are nothing more than a few grains of sand in a majestic divine plan that’s far greater than any of us but that somehow by grace includes us. It calls us to bow in worship as we remember anew that we serve a God who is inscribing on everyone who rests in him—not only the Reformed but also the partly Reformed, the non-Reformed, the anti-Reformed, and a multi-hued multitude that’s never heard of the Reformation—the only name that ultimately matters: his own name and the name of his crucified Son (Revelation 22:4). “For what do you have that you didn’t receive as a gift? And if everything you have was given to you, why brag as if it wasn’t a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
Timothy Paul Jones is the coauthor of PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace. He blogs at http://www.timothypauljones.com. Suggestions and corrections from Gregg Allison, Nathan Finn, Steve Weaver, Ian Clary, and Derek Rishmawy were helpful in the development of this article.
* “Neo-Dorts” would, however, be a great name for an emo group, and—if I ever play guitar in another metal band—I am definitely thinking about calling my band “Dortrecht.” I also think there might be a market for a t-shirt that reads, “I am such a Dort.”
Order your copy of PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace by clicking here.