A recent Time magazine feature, which highlights “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now,” has been making the rounds on the theological ‘nets. Coming in at #3 is “The New Calvinism,” which author David Van Biema describes as “Evangelicalism’s latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination’s logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time’s dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision.”
Justin Taylor’s blog Between Two Worlds is mentioned in the Time piece, and Taylor thinks “David Van Biema did a very nice job at seeking to find out what’s really happening and to identify some of the key beliefs and voices.” Shane Vander Hart similarly calls Van Biema’s piece “a pretty fair summary.” (Taylor also points to another Time article highlighting a “Calvinist comeback,” dating from 1947 and which relies heavily on Clarence Bouma of Calvin Seminary.)
One place where Van Biema is certainly right is to point to hymnody as a relevant source for gauging the spiritual state of the church. Van Biema opens his piece by noting,
If you really want to follow the development of conservative Christianity, track its musical hits. In the early 1900s you might have heard “The Old Rugged Cross,” a celebration of the atonement. By the 1980s you could have shared the Jesus-is-my-buddy intimacy of “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” And today, more and more top songs feature a God who is very big, while we are…well, hark the David Crowder Band: “I am full of earth/ You are heaven’s worth/ I am stained with dirt/ Prone to depravity.”
In a critically important article for the interaction between Reformed theology and the broader evangelical world in Calvin Theological Journal (vol. 43 , pp. 234-256), Calvin Van Reken (professor of moral theology at Calvin Seminary) examines the changes to the Christian Reformed Church’s Psalter hymnal over the years.
In “Christians in this World: Pilgrims or Settlers?” Van Reken compares the “old” vision, captured in a song like “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus,” with the “new” transformationalist vision, which is represented in omissions or alterations of “older” hymns.
He gives Rev. George Croly’s “Spirit of God, Who Dwells within My Heart,” which dates from 1867, as an example. When Croly wrote the song, it began, “Spirit of God, who dwells within my heart, / wean it from earth.” In its current form, the song begins, “Spirit of God, who dwells within my heart, / wean it from sin, through all its pulses move” (emphasis added).
Van Reken concludes that “Rev. Croly was praying in particular for grace that would help him be weaned from attachments to this world. In Reformed churches today, this is rarely sung or spoken. After all, because our world belongs to God, should we not feel at home here?”
As Van Reken also notes in the article, in his book The Jesus I Never Knew Philip Yancey passes along the words of his former minister Bill Leslie, who “told him that as churches grow wealthier and wealthier, their preferences for hymns changes from ‘this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through,’ to ‘This is my Father’s world.’”
It’s worth considering as “The New Calvinism” becomes a force for changing the world the extent to which “Calvinism,” or better “Reformed theology,” is also changed, and not always for the better. Van Reken’s critique and engagement with the “new” view is an important one that ought to be thoughtfully considered by all proponents of “The New Calvinism.”
There are some real positives in the new vision, and some correctives to the old vision that need to be taken seriously. But as Van Reken summarizes, “The new vision can also generate a real problem: It focuses all our attention on this world and the good we can do. In so doing, the hope of heaven can be diminished, with the result that some come to love the world and the things in it. In a word, it helps us become worldly.”