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Barna and the New Calvinists

2010 November 23
by Julie Clawson

As posted at the Christian Century blog

In a new study on the influence of the NeoReformed or “New Calvinist” movement on the church, the Barna Group concludes that “there is no discernible evidence from this research that there is a Reformed shift among U.S. congregation leaders over the last decade.” A number of evangelical Christian leaders (such as Skye Jethani and Ed Stetzer) maintain that the study seems to contradict their on-the-ground experience. With the growing popularity of New Calvinist books and conferences, and with leaders like Mark Driscoll and John Piper becoming the secular media’s go-to Christian voices, the NeoReformed movement appears to truly be the next new evangelical thing. Yet according to Barna, there are no more pastors who identity as Reformed today than there were ten years ago.

I’ve frequently questioned Barna’s methods and conclusions. Here I wonder if the researchers are forgetting the ways in which perception is often reality. A culture or subculture’s zeitgeist is not easy to measure. The influence of the NeoReformed crowd–often evidenced through hyper-Calvinist theology, strict gender roles and belief in penal substitutionary atonement as the litmus test for one’s faith–goes beyond pastors or even church members self-identifying as Reformed.

I’ve been shocked recently to discover the stealth influence the movement has had on evangelical friends and family. When I was attending a conservative evangelical Bible church some 12-15 years ago, the church believed in a free-will theology and mocked people who followed a human like Calvin instead of following only the Bible. These days, the same friends still think following Calvin is wrong, yet their theology is pure Calvinism. They truly believe that their theology comes from a plain reading of scripture, and they become really confused when I point out how their “biblical” theology has shifted. They never call themselves Reformed, but for all practical purposes, that is what they are.

I see a comparable influence at work in the church I currently attend. The church is very much an emerging church–we are postmodern, the leaders read all the emerging authors–yet we do not call ourselves emerging. In fact, most of the people at the church have no idea what the emerging church is. But we are influenced by the movement.

So I would not dismiss the influence of the NeoReformed crowd simply because it cannot be easily measured. Minds are being changed (whether they realize it or not) through books, radio shows, magazines and conferences. Ideas have power. And for those of us who worry about what the influence of the NeoReformed message means for the church–especially for women in the church–I don’t think we should let this study convince us to stop being watchful.


11 Responses leave one →
  1. November 23, 2010

    Interesting – I think the popularity of certain Quiverfull types probably reflects this shift as well. I’m wondering if our present times might possibly reflect this – reaction against changing power structures? Worth pondering – thanks for the reminder!

  2. November 24, 2010

    Frank Schaeffer has quite a bit to say about this as a child of a member of the religious right leadership of the last generation. His Crazy for God tells his own story of the Calvinist wing of that movement.
    Ironically, anyone who has actually read Calvin knows he was a social radical who claimed the poor had the legal right to take day-old bread if the baker did not give it to them and who, in the heyday of the divine right of kings, called representative democracy a great gift from God. Those who tie Calvin to regressive policies pick and choose like the rest of us do.
    I am a Calvinist in that I believe God is sovereign and that all creation is being redeemed. Funny how twisted that can come out in the hands of those who try to hold back God’s redemptive tide.

  3. November 24, 2010

    I’m very nervous about anything that comes with the prefix neo. Neo implies a return to the thing represented by the word it precedes. Humanity is not meant to return to anything, except the Garden state… and I’m not talking about New Jersey. Paradoxically, we return to that one thing we are meant to return to, not by by going back, but by moving forward.

    All that to say I share your concern.

    • November 30, 2010

      Mike, I so agree with you. In fact, I take exception to your exception. Do you really believe we were called to return to the garden, he incubation unit? As I read the story of God, we begin in the garden of delight but we move forward to the city of God. It will be garden-like, to be sure, but it will include all those delightful, cultural things which humans add to the story; city things, delightful things. Sound good? Tov meod!

  4. November 25, 2010

    Since most of Barna’s research is done by asking people to self-describe I don’t put much faith in his “studies” anymore. They aren’t very objective or empirical. Therefore, they aren’t actually studies … just a bunch of information about what people think of themselves. And as you’ve shown about your current church, what you think and how you behave may be very different.

    I think this reform movement is due to a bunch of things … but the end result is that a large chunk of the church is further isolating itself from the rest of our culture. Sad.

  5. Jez Bayes permalink
    November 28, 2010

    While being a huge anti-fan of tribal and divisive labels
    such as Evangelical, Calvinist, Denominations and Church Groupings …… and even Emerging,
    and preferring to think of myself as a simple Disciple of Jesus

    … I think we need to be careful with both definitions and name calling.

    So, could you please define for me what you mean by HYPER-Calvinist, as I don’t think that today’s suspects (e.g. Piper etc) really fit that mould.

    • November 28, 2010

      Traditionally, “hyper-Calvinism” usually refers to the belief in double predestination – i.e. that God doesn’t just elect some to salvation but also actively elects some to damnation. From what I’ve heard from Piper (who refers to himself, and not just facetiously, as a “seven-point Calvinist”), whom I’ve read and heard speak on many occasions, I’d be surprised if he’d have any trouble owning that description of his theology.

      • Jez Bayes permalink
        November 28, 2010

        Hmmm, I’m not so sure.

        Check this out – you may not agree with his ‘Calvinism’ but note the critique of evangelistically inactive hyper calvinist fatalism:

        ‘Just when the Particular Baptists of England were being frozen in the unbiblical ice of hyper-Calvinism, Jesus spoke to William Carey: “I have other sheep that are not of this English fold—in India.” ‘

        For a useful analysis, try this very unattractive website:

        or for an excellent historical perspective, check out this book:

        in which you find these 2 quotes from Spurgeon, fighting off the hyper-Calvinists of his day:

        ‘Men who are morbidly anxious to possess a self-consistent creed, a creed which will put together and form a square like a Chinese puzzle, are very apt to narrow their souls. Those who will only believe what they can reconcile will necessarily disbelieve much of divine revelation. Those who receive by faith anything which they find in the Bible will receive two things, twenty things, ay, or twenty thousand things, though they cannot construct a theory which harmonizes them all.’ (“Faith,” Sword and Trowel, 1872)

        and: “That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other.

        If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other.

        These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.” (New Park Street Pulpit, 4:337)

        Please comment again.

        • November 28, 2010

          I don’t think Piper is using “hyper-Calvinism” in its historical sense in that post. He is arguing against using election for elitism and to opt out of missions.

          In other places on his site he is aligned with the traditional idea of hyper-calvinism as double predestination –

          • Jez Bayes permalink
            November 29, 2010

            Firstly, background references:



            Excellent discussion here:

            Index of resources critiquing Hyper-Calvinism in a very Calvinist website:

            Secondly, a few of my own observations:
            1: In part, this discussion comes down to definitions, and the problem that vocabulary can mean different things to different people, which can cause apparent disagreements where none need exist.

            2: I would respectfully ask whether there is a danger that your use of the label ‘Hyper-Calvinism’, which implies the unattractive arrogance of infallibility and omniscience about God, is itself used with an air of assertive and critical self confidence that mirrors the unattractiveness you seek to highlight in the other?

            3: Historic Hyper-Calvinism, as referenced back to the times of Carey and Spurgeon rather than contemporary academic and reformed theology, is the error in which the belief in the Sovereignty of God becomes so out of balance with other Biblical doctrines of the nature and character of God, that appealing to human responsibility is itself seen as errant.

            Convinced Calvinists (5 or 7 point) CAN still believe in God’s love, mankind’s responsibility, and the need to obediently offer God’s love to others. You may not agree with their theology, but that doesn’t tip them over to H-Cism.

            4: Whether you like or agree with them or not, people like Piper, Driscoll, Carson etc would hold enough of a sense of the mystery of God, that while believing in His Sovereignty they would still preach to human reason and make every effort to ‘persuade men’ on a human rational level.

            As such, even if they believe in reverse or double predestination (WHICH I DON’T – as it relies on the use of deducing a theologically systematic logical conclusion from what is NOT said in scripture) it still doesn’t make them hyper. They still evangelize. They still love. They still allow in their actions for human choice and response to a message of God’s love for us through the cross.

            5: You may disagree with parts of their theology, but that doesn’t give you the right to put them in a box marked ‘Hyper-Calvinist’ and slam the lid down, any more than it gives some of them the right to slam down the lid of the Heresy box on anyone who read The Shack. An exclusive claim to all truth is unattractive, wherever it surfaces.

            It seems to me that you just don’t like what can be seen as their apparently clinical and heartless theology, and have fallen for a bout of inaccurate name calling.

            What does that achieve?

  6. December 10, 2015

    That is right, A.M. Dan, in his usual admirably getlne manner, is very kind to White in his post, White surely doesnt deserve it. I dont even take White seriously, his manner is too arrogant and prideful. And I never even heard/read him on Calvinist subjects, I am talking about Apologetics and his discussions with atheists , topics I do agree with him on :)He is unbearable even in those debates.

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