Driscoll’s Confusion on “Old Calvinism”

Or maybe my confusion, but I thought the title was more provocative putting his name in it, and he seems to be quite the provocative guy. Driscoll has a post on “Four Ways ‘New Calvinism’ is So Powerful.” Here is what he writes:

  1. Old Calvinism was fundamental or liberal and separated from or syncretized with culture. New Calvinism is missional and seeks to create and redeem culture.
  2. Old Calvinism fled from the cities. New Calvinism is flooding into cities.
  3. Old Calvinism was cessationistic and fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. New Calvinism is continuationist and joyful in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
  4. Old Calvinism was fearful and suspicious of other Christians and burned bridges. New Calvinism loves all Christians and builds bridges between them.

As much as I appreciate what he is trying to say (in so far as we need to be always reforming), this is just very frustrating and confusing to read. He has set up the “New Calvinism” (of which he is part) as the correction to an Old Calvinism. But what exactly is Old Calvinism? Is he talking about Calvinists before his particular missional movement? Calvinists from the past 50 years?

If that is all, it is short-sighted and confused. I have talked to some of these “Old Calvinists” from the past 50 years, and they went through it for their beliefs. None of us who are younger have any idea what it was like to be a Calvinist before the 1980s or 1990s, and we shouldn’t forget their sacrifices. There were not many of them, but they were a faithful group. Yes, they had some hard edges, but it was almost necessary in order to survive. It is a different world when everyone in the culture and your own denomination think you are crazy. It is a different world when you are fighting for the truth of the gospel in certain denominations, not just the specific theological concept of Calvinism.

If Driscoll is talking about the last 50 years, then there is a great deal of (post)modern arrogance for recent history and sacrifice by those Calvinistic ministers in the 1940s-70s, and the New Calvinism movement should realize that it is heavily dependent upon those men. But if he is including a broader scope of history, he is simply wrong. Let’s think about these points:

  • Old Calvinism was fundamental or liberal and separated from or syncretized with culture. New Calvinism is missional and seeks to create and redeem culture.

Who are we talking about? What is liberal? Are we talking about the mainline church? Princeton? Union? They were not Calvinists. Many of them simply lost the gospel. Fundamental? Who is this? I don’t know why the term “Old Calvinism” is attached to either one of these groups, liberals or fundamentalists. That is just confusing.

I have already commented on what the New Calvinists owe to the sacrifices of ministers and churches from the past 50 years. But what about beyond that? What about neo-Calvinism (this term is attached to the older Dutch tradition of cultural transformation)? Kuyper and Bavinck and a host of other Dutch theologians and Calvinists are not liberal or fundamental, and they were missional and had as part of their theological grid redemptive perspectives on culture. And I am only listing one movement in the past 100 years or so. It is flat out wrong to say that missional was not part of “old Calvinism” (whatever that is).

  • Old Calvinism fled from the cities. New Calvinism is flooding into cities.

Huh? This makes me think he is just talking about the past 50 years. But again, I know several Calvinistic ministers who were in the city, or who struggled to stay at their church because of their Calvinism and commitment to pastoral ministry where they were currently called. And in my mind, that is the key. It is a different world when your beliefs are not popular, and that is something not being considered about the past 50 years (if that is what Driscoll is talking about, but again, I’m not clear).

The reason he cannot be talking beyond 50 years is because Calvinists have been connected to cities. He certainly isn’t including John Calvin in Geneva, the Puritans in London, the Scottish ministers in Edinburgh, or Dutch ministers in Amsterdam.

And there is no reason to put a dichotomy between the cities, the suburbs, and the rural areas. New Calvinists who flood into the city without having an experience in the city are often making a mistake by following a fad, and this movement to the city is so very faddish. I thank God for men who are in the city, but I am also just as thankful for men who are staying put where they are in the suburbs and in the country. It is a sin to leave a town with a population of 200 only for the purpose of going to the city because that is the exciting thing to do now. We need Calvinists in every area, and as I have pointed out before, this movement to the city can leave a large vacuum of ministry in other areas, and that is God’s work just as much as the work in the city.

  • Old Calvinism was cessationistic and fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. New Calvinism is continuationist and joyful in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

What is the deal with this? This is an important theological difference even among New Calvinists, and Driscoll wants to make it the badge of New Calvinism? I think we should be willing to leave this as a matter of debate without the rhetoric attached to this point. Yes, there are Calvinists who are cessationists, but they are certainly NOT fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and almost all that I know affirm that the Spirit still works in extraordinary ways within their cessasionist paradigm. Perhaps they are fearful of Driscoll’s version of the Holy Spirit because they don’t believe he is biblical, but that is a theological discussion that needs to take place. But even those ministers would be open to the Spirit doing unusual works.

Driscoll makes a subtle shift here from a theological argument to an experiential conclusion. Just because someone is a cessationists, doesn’t mean the are not joyful in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Why don’t we try to keep this one as theological debate since there are plenty of New Calvinists who hold to a type of cessationist theology.

  • Old Calvinism was fearful and suspicious of other Christians and burned bridges. New Calvinism loves all Christians and builds bridges between them.

This is just not even worth commenting on. What he is saying about Old Calvinism can be said about New Calvinism, even of Driscoll’s own movement.

The problem with this explanation is that there are only two categories: Old Calvinism and New Calvinism. I would be the first to admit that I have met some obnoxious Calvinists, but that isn’t limited to some category called “Old Calvinism.” I think almost everything he says here is wrong and naive. He has created a category called “Old Calvinism,” and I don’t know what that is, and for the most part do not recognize it.

Here is the point: let’s be appreciative of the work God is doing among the “New Calvinists” without sticking it to Calvinists from previous generations who were faithful in their time. Let’s all have some humility about our present moment because in 50 years, our moment (or movement) will be gone and something else will take its place.

UPDATE: Mike Anderson from Resurgence asked me to post two links where Mark Driscoll decided to elaborate on “New vs. Old Calvinism” because of how simplified the first post was. Mike writes:

Here was his explanation on this “False Dichotomy”: http://theresurgence.com/dead_guys_week

Then he sent me 15 blog posts to talk about all of the great Calvinists through out history-starting with Athanasius:


The problem is that Driscoll still didn’t really clarify anything or admit that he created some of the false dichotomy. According to the upcoming articles, “Old Calvinism” is the scope of the history of the church before our current generation. That makes the original post really odd. That kind of “Old Calvinism” certianly engaged culture and lived in the city. Very confusing.

50 thoughts on “Driscoll’s Confusion on “Old Calvinism””

  1. Thanks for writing this post. I was also a bit frustrated reading Driscoll’s entry of his distinction between so-called “New Calvinism” and “Old Calvinism.” I thought it was immature and arrogant of him to put down other Calvinists and to elevate his own movement above others.

  2. James,

    Good post on the whole. I agree with almost everything you said.

    I actually do think that cessationists tend not to become cessationists because of Bible study at least initially. If you put a reasonably intelligent but new Christian in a closet with his Bible for awhile and I’m quite convinced he wouldn’t come out a cessationist. It seems to me that bad experiences with charismatics is a major reason for cessationism.

    In a certain sense then, I frankly think that Driscoll is right: cessationists fear the work of the Spirit, especially for its utter strangeness. Consider that there are so few cessationists who are not Westerners. Why is this? Probably primarily because non-Westerners are used to the strangeness of divine activity in a wait that we post-Enlightenment Westerners are not. We are put off by and scared of the strangeness of it all. And frankly, it is quite strange for us, so I sort of understand.

    Not completely, of course- they still love much of the Spirit’s ministry. Even healing miracles (which of course cessationists do really believe in, contrary to the false charges of their detractors!) are not so strange as tongues and prophecy.

    My point is that it is not an all or nothing thing, which is how you paint it. Could it be that many or most cessationists are comfortable with and even seek much of the Spirit’s work but not all of it? I think so.

    I should note that I mean no disrespect, by the way. This is simply my honest assessment of the situation.

    All that said, Driscoll’s statement has no qualifications and as such is presented incredibly poorly. When we argue against the positions of our brothers and sisters who we respect as thoughtful, godly people (which they usually are, even when we disagree!), we need to be far more precise than that. Those blanket statements are downright unhelpful.

    Christians in Context

  3. Andrew,

    Thanks for dropping by and leaving the comment. I think we probably agree on quite a bit. I am not a traditional cessasionist, so I wasn’t really getting into my particular views. I was really responding to what you pointed out at the end of your comment concerning Driscoll’s statement, trying to take what he is saying on its own terms without getting into my particular views.

    I personally think the issue is so much more complicated than Driscoll’s statement can convey in terms of exactly how the Spirit is at work in our life, in our worship, on the mission field, and in all sorts of other areas of life. That being said, I am not sure I follow this statement:

    “My point is that it is not an all or nothing thing, which is how you paint it. Could it be that many or most cessationists are comfortable with and even seek much of the Spirit’s work but not all of it? I think so.”

    I agree with what you just said, to a certain extent. So I am not sure I conveyed the idea that I believe it is an all or nothing situation. In fact, that is part of the problem with Driscoll’s statement. I think the issue is much more complex than that. That was what I was trying to say.

    For example, I mentioned Calvinists who are cessationists who affirm the extraordinary working of the Spirit on several levels. I was attempting to qualify the issue somewhat.

    Again, I think you and I are probably closer to agreement. I would not really disagree with anything you said. I certainly didn’t mean to paint it as an all or nothing category because I think it is much more dynamic than that.

    If I did paint it as black/white, all or nothing, I didn’t intend to. That is precisely what I was pushing back against.

    Let me know if there is anything that I am missing.


  4. James,

    You were clear; I was not.

    When I say that you paint it as “all or nothing” (definitely an accusation by me), I am referring to this statement: “Yes, there are Calvinists who are cessationists, but they are certainly NOT fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and almost all that I know affirm that the Spirit still works in extraordinary ways within their cessasionist paradigm.”

    Your point in this statement and its context, if I understand it correctly, is that many cessationists are not fearful of the power and presence of the Spirit and that it is basically a reasonable theological disagreement wherein two camps read the Bible in two contradictory ways. It is an intellectual problem. Those cessationists in your view are not scared of the power and presence of the Spirit- they just disagree.

    My point was that those cessationists usually are not scared of the power and presence of the Spirit in many ways, but when you get to the weirder parts of the Spirit’s work (i.e. the charismatic parts!), the fear sets in. That is, they are not scared only to an extent.

    Even “fearful” is a poor word choice by Driscoll. I’d go for “uncomfortable with” or “unsettled by.”

    And for the record, I’m uncomfortable with it and unsettled by it too. That’s part of what I like about it so much!

    One more thing: I have no idea what your view on this is and did not mean at all to comment on what I thought it to be, just so we’re clear!

    Thanks for the quick response, brother.

    Christians in Context

  5. Ahh…thanks for the clarification. Indeed, my statement wasn’t clear that I was talking about a certain type of cessationist because you are right: there are certainly Calvinists who are afraid of the Holy Spirit, at least some aspects of His work. 🙂

    Although I think on one level you are right in regard to saying this is not simply an intellectual problem, I also think it can be particularly theological on the part of some.

    In other words, I think there are cessationist because they are committed to it theologically and not because they are afraid of the Spirit. In fact, I have known some who would love to see the Spirit do some “unusual” things, and have seen it on the mission field, but not in the context of their life or in their worship service.

    So although I think it is a rather complex situation, I will have to give some thought to what you have said.

    Thanks for the help.


  6. Not sure which big cities your familar with, but most of what is left is 1)Roman Catholic or 2)pentacostal. Everyone else (for the most part) has bailed decades ago.

    Simply because you may be familar with several exceptions to that does not disprove the larger truth – we, like much of society, has abandoned the inner city for the burbs

  7. In my mind there are 3 features that distinguish the old from the neo.

    1. The neo put more stock in books than historic confessions. Grudem is way more popular than the Westminster Confession of Faith (even though Grudem uses it).
    2. The old reformed carried on a tradition of worship with some variety but there were still common boundaries. The Neo tends to underline the importance of emotions (or affections as they call them though I believe Edwards would not approve of their usage of them) in worship and use anymeans to get that spiritual feeling.
    3.Schollarship and piety. This is what I love about the NeoReformed and why I tend to put myself in this camp even though my Church is confessionally Reformed. All schollarship is done for the edification of the saints rather than for the sake of debate and schollarship’s sake. There is no cold orthodoxy as my former Pastor Curt Daniel likes to say.

  8. First, Driscoll didn’t say big city. You did. Second, I know many cities with more churches tha Roman Catholic and Pentecostal. I know several with old Reformed churches that gave been in the city since the 1700 & 1800s.

    So I would really be interested in the city you are familiar with, and you definition of a city in general.

  9. Great article! I too was a little confused by Driscoll’s article.

    By the way, not all of us cessationists are cowering in the closet afraid of someone that may hold to a different position. (I fellowship often with Sovereign Grace brothers) When Driscoll wrote that comment it seemed he was just grinding some axe. (Who knows, maybe it was directed towards guys like Phil Johnson that spoke at the Shepherd’s Conference?)

    (For anyone that would like a good exegetical insight into the cessationist camp, get a hold of the Master’s Seminary Journal that was devoted to the cessationist argument. It was well done)

  10. James,

    After Pastor Mark sent me this blog post to put on the Resurgence, he decided that he needed to elaborate on “New vs. Old Calvinism” because of simplified the first post was.

    Here was his explaination on this “False Dichotomy”:

    Then he sent me 15 blog posts to talk about all of the great Calvinists through out history -starting with Athanasius:


    I would appreciate if you link to the response from this post to give people a more rounded understanding of what Mark Driscoll is trying to communicate.

    Thanks James

  11. Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis are the ones I know –

    Who else would Driscoll be talking about but the original urban core cities? To assume he meant all cities seems un-intuitive.

  12. James,

    Great post. I especially found Driscoll’s comments about the work of the Holy Spirit interesting. As a former Pentacostal/Charismatic, I would not define the old/new as he does. If so, I’m an Old Calvinist. As a 44-year old, maybe that’s true! But what is confusing about this is how we define the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. It should not be defined by things which makes us feel excited, or having something spontaneous in worship. If anything, I would say this could be dangerous. A lot more could be said, but I’ll end here.

    randy, a cessationist who delights in the power and presence of the Spirit

  13. Greetings.
    I have not been to this blog before, but I was directed here from Between Two Worlds.
    I really appreciated this post.
    As grateful as I am for the revival of Calvinism in the evangelical church I can’t help but find the “new” Calvinists creeping very close to hubris.
    I think your post says it well.

  14. Just to expand on the point about Old Calvinist flight from the cities. The City Mission movement was born in womb of 19th century Old Calvinism, with heroic figures like Thomas Chalmers planting Reformed parishes right in the squalor of Industrial Age Scottish slums. They felt called to the cities, and headed in, ministering to soul and body. Many followed his footsteps in England and America.

  15. Thanks for this.
    I still don’t know who Driscoll was thinking of.
    I made the point on my blog that whoever Old Calvinists Driscoll had in mind, none of the accusations could fairly be stuck on Calvin himself.
    In fact we’d learn a lot from Calvin on urban church planting, being missional, transforming culture, and the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

  16. It seems to me, (perhaps I’m oversimplifying and giving too much benefit of the doubt), that Driscoll is pointing out in a general sense, persons down through the years of church history, even to present day, who have given Calvinism a bad name/rap in some circles… (which from my perspective would include many – not all – cessationists – although I agree this is a theological debate and I can still very much fellowship and appreciate my cessationist brothers/sisters. and that’s only one of the points…)

    In some ways, Calvinism has gotten a bad rap for bad reasons and some for good reasons. How Calvinism is “worn” is an important issue that might be related to this conversation.

    Both Abraham Piper at DG and Ray Ortlund Jr. have made posts critiquing sinful distortions/tendencies of Calvinism… (ie Old Calvinism?).

    And Driscoll does give honor to “Old New Calvinists” which clearly indicates to me he’s not just talking about chronology of Calvinism in church history, but the essence and affect of various general groups who have flown under the Calvinist “flag”…

    Just thought I’d chime in to say I thought your post sounded a little strangely offended and defensive… for all those who you think Driscoll “might” have been referring to who persevered through more trial than some experience today because of the new swing toward Calvinism…I just read his post in more general terms and it rings true to my experience – which I’m perfectly willing to submit to the scrutiny of historical fact and more importantly Scriptural authority.


  17. James, I am writing this at the threat of sounding angry. I am not. I want to clear the air at the beginning. I am thankful for what God is doing in the various Calvinistic churches in America. I respect the differences that exist, but I have to agree that what you said was right on. Here are some further thoughts.

    It seems like so much of what Driscoll said is directly focused on “methods” rather than DIVINELY ordained means and methods. I understand that God uses men and women to accomplish His purposes but when we start to say, “we did this, and this, and this correctly and therefore there is power in our Calvinism” instead of “Look how God is blessing His word and sacraments, and sending the sovereign Spirit to accompany them,” then it seems we are in danger of taking credit for our own work. Paul said, “One plants, another waters, but God gives the increase. So then, neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.” Paul certainly could have boasted in his own accomplishments, in so far as he recognized that God was giving him the grace to do what He had called him to do, but he always gave glory to God’s sovereign grace and the efficacy of His word.

    In the case of the cessationist controversy. I don’t see anywhere in Scripture that says God would not give the supernatural gifts of the Spirit to His people unless they believed in their reality. Or, on the flip side, He never says that He will give them if they acknowledge them to exist. In fact, the opposite is true. The Corinthian church wasn’t trying to figure out whether the gifts existed or not, they were abusing them. The absence of the gifts of the Spirit in Calvinistic history is not on account of man’s denial of the gifts, it is on account of their ceasing at the close of the canon. The people who continued to believe in them, or at least to teach them, was the Roman Catholic Church. Shouldn’t this tell us something?

    Furthermore, to say old Calvinists were afraid of the Spirit is to make a sweeping generalization that is far from the truth. Ever read the Puritans? Do these guys sound afraid of the Spirit? That sort of criticism is a straw man argument at best and a complete denial of Reformed and Puritan history at worst. Are some Christian’s afraid of the Spirit? I’m not sure what that means, but the counter charge could be leveled that non-cessationists are afraid of Sola Scripture. Would that be a true charge? Probably not, but it is doing the same thing that non-cessationists are doing.

    At the end of the day, we need to be praying for the Spirit to accompany the pure preaching of the word and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so that God’s kingdom advances for His own glory. Whether this takes place in some country town or in New York, on an Island in the Pacific Ocean or in Siberia, Jesus is redeeming a people for Himself from every tongue, tribe, nation and language. He is using His word and Spirit and the method He has ordained is preaching. This is what Calvinists have always believed.

  18. Excellent thoughts here, I appreciate you pointing out that Calvin was in Geneva, he even sent the pastors he taught to other cities.

    While Driscoll’s sentiments refer to the uber confessional kin of the reformed family, it is far from a true assessment of Calvinism. A true understanding of God’s sovereign grace obliterates your self righteousness. Augustine understood this, along with Calvin.

  19. James, good post, but as a non-revivalistic/pietistic confessional Presbyterian all I can say is the Old Side/New Side, Old School/New School controversy lives on. Gilbert Tennent would be proud of Driscoll(at least Tennent prior to his repentance and retraction).

  20. Very well said. Driscoll should read some C.S. Lewis. CSL wasn’t an old Calvinist or a new Calvinist, but he had some wise things to say about people who engage in this kind of chronological snobbery…assuming that everything that came before was unenlightened, etc. I appreciate Driscoll’s ministry, but I’ll let my Calvinism be defined by the guys that have been dead for a few centuries.

  21. I am surprised to see the strong emphasis on a continuationist front. Having to deal with lunatic charismatic fringe groups or doctrinally unstable Pentecostals is more than enough to keep me ‘afraid of the “spirit”. I pray for the church to be reformed by the Word of God through the ministry of the Spirit, not Corinthian-ized.

    At the end of the day, I would prefer to remain an ‘Old Calvinist’, comfortable in the company of Bunyan, Owen and Whitefield, not pining after the culture or modeling a ministry after a man known as the ‘cussing pastor’. It seems that there should be a counter-resurgence to the resurgence, perhaps it is inevitable. The more momentum this strain of ‘relevant’ Calvinism gets the more inclined I am to head in the opposite direction. It might be best remaining on the inside, internally purifying whatever is established…

    I guess were not that far from the Puritans after all.

  22. James:

    I appreciate your mentioning that it wasn’t easy to be a Calvinist back when.

    I became a Calvinist in 1986 and everyone thought I had gone off the deep end. I went to Bible college and was often ostracized for my belief. I have also come close to being barred from teaching and even serving in churches because of my Calvinism. I was obviously “managed out” of the church I grew up in because of it.

    It was made harder when the people castigating me were compromising the Gospel at every turn in favor of numbers and people walking the aisle.

    There weren’t blogs and websites and even very few books to encourage the young Calvinist.

    All that to say, I appreciate your recognizing and mentioning that it wasn’t easy being a Calvinist before Calvinism became cool.

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