A Reformation worth Perpetuating? Reflections on Tim Challies & the “New Calvinism”

Recently Tim Challies produced a chart detailing the resurgence in reformed theology, or “New Calvinism,” within Evangelicalism. Challies’ chart is a taxonomy, detailing the tributaries—individuals, resources, and entities—influencing the New Calvinism.

Yet, Challies’ chart reminded me once again of two of the most often asked questions associated with New Calvinism: is it more than a mere movement that will soon pass, and how large and influential is it?

More Than a Movement

There is a difference between a movement and a reformation, and New Calvinism evidences the latter. A movement is often a response to a concern or opportunity, and benefits from cultural and promotional dynamics, not to mention hype. In time, the church’s attention span invariably moves on, the movement loses steam, and the movement’s effects are short-lived.

A reformation, be it the 16th century version or subsequent iterations, yearns for a healthier, purer church, and goes back to the source of truth itself, the Word of God. The fruits of reformation are much longer lasting, proving to impact the church for decades, if not centuries. Since it is a return to Holy Scripture, reformation often parallels revival.

While New Calvinism has benefited from movement-like dynamics, its emphasis on Scripture and Scripture’s implications leads one to classify it as a reformation in intent, temperament, and scope.

More than Soteriology

New Calvinism’s apparent growth, as quantified by conference attendees, publications, and para-church ministries, is applauded by some and alarming to others, but both groups may overestimate its size. This is especially true if one attempts to correlate the movement as a whole with those who embrace, without qualification, the five points of Calvinism.

This is why, as a movement, New Calvinism is at once simpler and yet more complicated than usually acknowledged, and its breadth of appeal far more nuanced. There are many, myself included, who don’t quite fit into a tidy, five-point classification, nor does debating the Doctrines of Grace animate them. In fact, this is implicit within Challies’ chart, which includes, for example, Amyraldians.

Yet, many appreciate aspects of the broader movement because of shared concerns about the state of the church and contemporary Christianity as a whole, and sympathize with the ministerial emphases that typify New Calvinism. These convictions and passions may be indigenous within New Calvinism, but they also resonate far beyond those who are self-consciously reformed.

For example, New Calvinism’s emphasis on doctrine and confessional integrity appeals to a generation who came of age in churches often marked by shallowness and in a culture altogether suspicious of truth claims. A recovered pulpit and the reassertion of biblical exposition naturally flows from a recovery of Holy Scripture and theological fidelity.  The sense of gravity that biblical exposition brings invites rich hymnody to accompany it, whether Watts and Wesley or contemporary musicians like the Gettys.

Within the local church, the renewed emphasis on a robust ecclesiology is especially needed. Regenerate church membership, church discipline, I Timothy 3 qualifications for pastors and elders, and recovering the church as a covenantal, communal body are all needed correctives to meaningless church membership.

Furthermore, undertaking the Christian life with a sense of gravity, as encouraged by John Piper, is an antidote to a generation marked by entertainment and self fulfillment, and pursuing discipleship as a comprehensive life vision, worth dying for and ordering one’s life by, is more compelling than more minimalistic versions of Christianity.

For many, these aforementioned artifacts—and many others—far outstrip reformed soteriology in interest or appeal, and have proven to be congealing and compelling features of the movement, perhaps making a commitment to the five points of Calvinism appear larger than it truly is.

In other words, my wife shops at Hy-vee because she believes it to be the most appealing place to purchase groceries, not because the name on the building. So it is with New Calvinism. Many look to authors, events, and resources affiliated with New Calvinism because of the content they are producing and the fact that the artifacts resonate with their ministry concerns, not so much because of a deep commitment to the Doctrines of Grace.

The SBC, for Example

This dynamic proves true in my own denominational context, the Southern Baptist Convention. While the movement’s artifacts—confessional integrity, biblical exposition, regenerate church membership, etc.—resonate broadly in the post-Conservative Resurgence SBC, a healthy sense of Baptist identity, a more qualified assessment of the Doctrines of Grace, and concern that certain strains of Calvinism might hinder evangelism prompts many to “chew on the meat and spit out the bones.”

Yet, this is not a wholesale rejection of the movement, and certainly not of the artifacts it emphasizes. After all, Stephen Olford, Adrian Rogers, and Jerry Vines were calling us to biblical exposition and Paige Patterson was calling us to regenerate, covenantal church membership long before New Calvinism’s day dawned. And many of their sons in ministry identify with John MacArthur’s insistence on biblical exposition and Mark Dever’s emphasis on the local church not in spite of their SBC heroes, but because of them.


If New Calvinism is a just a movement, it will go the way of the Seeker-Sensitive movement, the Emergent Church movement, the Promise Keepers movement, and countless other church fads. It will be one more shooting star in the church’s history, having shined brightly but briefly. But if it is a reformation, and I suspect it is, its effects aren’t going to dim anytime soon.

How pervasive is New Calvinism? It depends on how you ask the question, a question that is not that relevant anyway. In as much as we experience a biblical reformation, consisting of confessional integrity, biblical exposition, purity of life, a robust, Baptist ecclesiology, and Great Commission fervor—we should pray for its furtherance regardless of the label one throws at it—or us. And as we advocate these artifacts, we might just be surprised by how many brethren—Calvinist and non-Calvinist—are eager to see its continuance.


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