Ecclesiology of the New Calvinism
I recently finished reading a book entitled Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church. Authored by Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger, this book could be considered a popular introduction to ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). The authors are associated with New Calvinism (a.k.a. Young, Restless, and Reformed) and even might want to describe themselves as being ‘Reformed.’
There are many good things to say about this book. Chief among them would be the way in which the authors argue that biblical churches need to be focussed on the Saviour in every aspect of their existence. The authors have a high view of Scripture and that leads them to see rightly many aspects of the doctrine of the church. For example, they argue for the centrality of preaching and the necessity of biblical church discipline. As I was reading Creature of the Word, there were several times where I had to stop and share with my Facebook friends some of its excellent insights.
And yet this book also highlighted for me some significant differences between confessionally Reformed churches and the New Calvinism. While there are many things we can appreciate about this movement, there are also points of departure. They call themselves Calvinists, and in terms of the doctrine of salvation they are. However, I’m quite confident that Calvin would not want his name associated with this book. Let me highlight the main problems under three headings.
The Beginning of the Church
In the first chapter of the book, the authors make a distinction between Israel and the church. They write, “In Acts 2, the Word of God formed a people yet again” (14). Shortly thereafter, they write, “God spoke to Abraham and created Israel; and in the same way, God created the Church through the proclaimed gospel of the revealed Word, Jesus Christ” (15). In case there should be any doubt, consider this question they ask, “What makes the Church able to succeed where the Israelites so often failed?” (16). It is quite evident that the authors take an approach where Israel and the church are considered as separate entities. With this view, the Church only comes into existence in the New Testament era. This is a common view, influenced by dispensationalism, but it is not the Reformed view of the church.
The Reformed view can be found in this line from article 27 of the Belgic Confession: “This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end, for Christ is an eternal king who cannot be without subjects.” This is a fine piece of logical argument and it likely came into the Belgic Confession via the influence of John Calvin. He mentions the same argument in one of his sermons on the ascension of Christ. The argument is simple and biblical:
Premise one: Christ is an eternal king
Premise two: By definition, a king needs to have subjects
Conclusion: Christ the king has always had subjects. Those subjects are those whom he has gathered into his church.
This view is not only found in Calvin and the Belgic Confession. It’s also in the Heidelberg Catechism. In answer 54, Reformed believers confess that “the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends and preserves for himself, by his Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life.” The church begins in Genesis, not in Acts. This has always been the position of Reformed churches. The position of Chandler et al. actually has more in common with Anabaptism than historic Calvinism.
The Membership of the Church
The vast majority of the New Calvinists are Baptists. Even though they don’t use the word ‘Baptist’ in the name of their church, these New Calvinists adopt a Baptist perspective when it comes to the membership of the church. Creature of the Word reflects that same perspective. The membership of the church is made up of baptized believers only. The children of believers are not included. Now interestingly, Creature of the Word does have a chapter on ministry to children and there are many good things written there. The authors emphasize how “moral training” should not be the goal or modus operandi of church ministry to children. Instead, the focus needs to be on the gospel. That’s an excellent emphasis. However, it could be sharpened dramatically if the children are regarded as covenant children, members of the church. Then the children can be addressed on the basis of their already existing covenant relationship to God and urged to the way of life within that relationship.
Certainly, it has always been the position of confessionally Reformed churches that all the children of believers are real members of the church. In answer 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism we confess, “Infants as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and congregation.” Calvin wrote in the Institutes (4.16.5), “But if the covenant still remains firm and steadfast, it applies no less today to the children of Christians than under the Old Testament it pertained to the infants of the Jews.” Though the New Calvinists might want to take the name of Calvin, Calvin himself would strongly disavow any effort to exclude children from the membership of the church.
The Worship of the Church
Creature of the Word has an entire chapter about worship. Again, many good and true things are said in this chapter. Things like this:
A church worshipping as a Creature of the Word doesn’t show up to perform or be entertained; she comes desperate and needy, thirsty for grace, receiving from the Lord and the body of Christ, and then gratefully receiving what she needs as she offers her praise – the only proper response to the God who saves us. (42)
However, there is also something deeply ironic here. While the book is entitled Creature of the Word, there is nothing in this chapter about how or whether the Word directs our worship. Early in chapter two, the authors discuss the first commandment and the fact that we are commanded to worship God, but they entirely miss the second commandment, the one about how we are to worship God. This is more typical of broader American evangelicalism than it is of Calvinism, of the confessionally Reformed faith.
Listen to what the Heidelberg Catechism says about how we are to worship in answer 96: “We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.” The Creature of the Word must abide by the Word alone in her worship! We call this the regulative principle of worship and it is a mainstay of Reformed liturgical teaching. It is sometimes mistakenly rooted in the teachings of John Knox and the Puritans. The reality is that Knox (from whom it passed to the Puritans) learned it in Geneva from Calvin. In article 17 of his Confession in Name of the Reformed Churches of France, Calvin wrote: “…if we would render a well regulated and acceptable sacrifice, we hold that it is not for us to invent what to us seems good, or to follow what may have been devised in the brains of other men, but to confine ourselves simply to the purity of Scripture.” This is foundational for a Reformed approach to worship.
I liked many things about this book. It’s a fresh, helpful, and often biblical approach to the doctrine of the church. There are many things that a confessionally Reformed reader can appreciate and I wish I could recommend it wholesale. However, no one should think that this is fully representative of the biblical Reformed faith as handed down by the Reformation. There are some commonalities, but there are also significant differences and departures. While we can learn from some of the good emphases in Creature of the Word, we can also urge the authors to more carefully study the heritage of the Reformation and search the Scriptures with a Berean attitude to see whether Calvin and the Reformed confessions have perhaps been too easily dismissed on some of the important points mentioned above.