Neocalvinism: What is it? Is it different from the Calvinism of Albert Mohler?

Yes it is.

Mohler represents neopuritanism (see my last post for some of the distinctions): Neopuritanism has plenty to offer, and (as Ray Pennings says) we need to keep the dialogue open with them. While neopuritanism and neocalvinism are “two streams flowing from a single source,” they flow “in very different directions.”

Here are four particular insights of neocalvinism (courtesy, again of Ray Pennings in his article in COMMENT, but found in excellent books like Creation Regained by Albert Wolters):

1. Creation Order
Because the Creation was created “very good,” there is an inherent potential in the created order that is good as well. The “Cultural Mandate” of Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 tells us that humanity has the task of harnessing this potentiality to develop culture as God intended. Technology, popular culture, progress, and yes, even politics, are to be understood as part of God’s original created order.

2. Antithesis
Sin not only runs through the hearts of every individual human being, but also through the entire cosmos. Romans 8 tells us that all creation is “groaning”—it suffers as well. Pennings writes, “Sin is personal, but it also manifests itself in the various organizations of society.”

3. Common Grace
But God’s creation is still good, though tarnished by sin. If God’s creation is stewarded according to his good will, it still provides good benefits for human beings. By his grace, God not only allows believers to contribute to the common good, but also unbelievers. Pennings writes, “Because all men are made in the image of God, unbelievers can have true insights and perform beneficial works.” This has vast ramifications on our understanding of cultural activity, by both believers and unbelievers, and how we interact together for the common good in societal renewal, technology, politics, etc.

4. Sphere Sovereignty
Neocalvinism states that God has designed a differentiation within society between different spheres of authority. Sphere Sovereignty offers a different matrix for understanding society from the American two-sided paradigm. Pennings writes that our American political discourse is extremely limited by its "two-sided coin" approach to culture. “On the one side, we have individual rights and free markets, on the other side , we have the power of the state as a social engineer.” Contrary to this limited view, Sphere Sovereignty offers intermediary social structures such as families, churches, businesses, and schools that need to be seen as contributing to the social fabric as much as individuals and state.

For more on neocalvinism, check out my online resource: Friend of Kuyper.

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Matt Mitchell said...


Which of these insights do you think Al Mohler denies?

Can you point to places in his writings that do that?

I've learned about Kuyper from Piper and Mohler. I think they see their ministries as having a Kuyperian theme to them, too.

I don't deny that they are examples of a kind of neo-puritanism, but I don't resonate with your definition of it--especially, "...seeking all in the society to live by these pious standards" and "...not for the purpose of protecting us Christians from the "heathens" in society. And not for the purpose of coercing everybody in the society to bow to the rules of our puritanical God."

Can you point to examples in their writings that call for churchly dominance?

I agree that they do focus on God's sovereignty in salvation, but where do they deny His sovereignty in creation? That seems the opposite of Piper, to me.

Looking forward to the rest of this series.


Bob Robinson said...

Certainly, neopuritans and neocalvinists have a lot in common, and are in dialogue with one another often. Though Mohler is certainly familiar with some of the ideas of Kuyperian theology, he is not yet a neocalvinist. Perhaps he is on that journey, maybe like my own personal journey – I became a neopuritan in Seminary in the mid 1990s but then I’ve been moving into neocalvinism the last five years. Sometimes, I even have one foot in each camp!

So, it's not so much that Mohler denies the tenants of neocalvinism, but that he is still more slanted toward neopuritanism than neocalvinism.

For an example of someone more slanted toward neocalvinism but is fluent in neopuritanism as well, look toward Tim Keller.

Let me compare two “Als”: Al Mohler (neopuritan) and Al Wolters (neocalvinist) on the four distinctives of neocalvinism.

(1) Mohler does not start his gospel with the Creation that is good, but with humanity which is fallen. For Mohler, progress is held in suspicion, and conservation is held in high esteem. For Wolters, it all starts with the good creation, and he advocates that we embrace the inherent potential found there for progress.

(2) For Mohler, sin is defined first as personal sin and only then as the accumulation of individual's sins that cause societal problems. For Wolters, sin is both personal and structural, and therefore he would deny the idea that all we need to do to change society is to “change people's hearts, one-at-a-time.”

(3) Mohler's understanding of common grace is extremely limited, especially in his politics. He is highly suspicious of unbelievers and their ability to offer good to society. Wolters insists that all people made in God's image can offer good to culture, a teaching that certainly sticks in the craw of neopuritans!

(4) Mohler slant is most often toward a government / individual duality, which means that he does not operate under a "sphere sovereignty" paradigm. When he does venture toward this, it is more of an adaptation of the Roman Catholic theory of Subsidiarity.

As for “churchly dominance,” I don’t think Mohler and Piper are seeking this as much as a revitalization of Church as the light of the world (which we both would agree is a good thing). The issue with Mohler is that he is overconfident that, as a Christian, he has all the right answers to the political issues of our time. He implicitly dismisses the Common Grace of God in his suspicion that unbelievers can have anything to offer to the debates at hand. He also implicitly advocates that only Christians can be good leaders.

As for Piper “denying God’s sovereignty in creation,” he certainly does not. If I implied that there is a “denial” of this in Piper or Mohler’s theology, I’m sorry. It is more about the “slant” of their theology. Piper and Mohler’s slant is more on “God’s sovereignty in salvation” – and thus the debates are often about predestination and the like. Wolters and neocalvinists’ slant is more on “God’s sovereignty over Creation,” and so the debates are often about the role of Christians in the redemption of the created order (the practicality of how we do that, how we discern good and evil in the culture, what we can do to turn societal institutions and cultural artifacts from evil to good, how we can bring about justice in the world as we cooperate with God in his restoration of his good creation).

link to this post said...

From Ray Pennings' blog - "Beneath the Surface""NeoCalvinism - NeoPuritan Reverbs...."
Bob Robinson on his Vanguard Church blog, is doing a few entries prompted by, among other things, Time's inclusion of New Calvinism an idea currently changing the world (which I commented on extensively during March 16-20 on this blog.)

In his piece he references my Comment article "Can we hope for a neocalvinsit - neopuritan dialogue?" Bob uses the article to make helpful distinctions, ending with an enthusiastic plug for neocalvinism as the kind of idea that can change the world right now.

The point I wanted to make in my Comment piece is that although there are clear emphasis in these two camps which prompt necessary distinctions, there is reason for each camp to learn from each other. Most neocalvinists I know are not piety or church averse, just as most neopuritans do recognize that there is a comprehensiveness to the work of God that extends beyond the salvation of individuals. So we are talking about degrees and nuance here, but that does not mean there are not aspects of each of these frameworks which tend to reinforce certain patterns which require rethinking. Hence, my argument for a dialogue as being useful for both sides.

What would such a discussion end up focusing on? A few quick thoughts....

1. The role of the institutional church, in particular as it relates to her special offices. Sometimes the neocalvinist emphasis on vocation, the priesthood of all believers, and a resistance to dualism can result in a de-emphasis on the way that Christ as prophet, priest, and king through the special offices in the church, ministers to his people.

2. The place of theology as "the queen of the sciences" and how it relates to other disciplines.

3. The connection between common grace and special grace. Some of the discussions here will bring us into how we understand social change rather than theology proper and it is especially here, with the emphasis on social institutions, that the neocalvinists have some insights which will benefit the neopuritans. The idea that all we have to do is change hearts, and social change sort of naturally will proceed after the majority of people believe, has been well proven by history to be a flawed theory. Changed societies require more than changed hearts, and changed societies do matter to God. The "one thing needful" is hardly the only thing needful.

There is much more to be said, and quick blog postings are hardly the appropriate forum in which this debate with all of its nuance can be properly had. Still, I thank Mr. Robinson for highlighting the issue and look forward to the opportunity when we may have the opportunity to discuss these matters further in person I hope.

Matt Mitchell said...


Thanks, that's very helpful.

It seems like the new neo-titles aren't very helpful, as both streams of slant are from arising from Calvinist thought, so both could be called "neo-calvinist." And the title "neo-puritan" could lend itself to a vision of the church itself coercing the rest of society, which Baptists like Mohler and Piper wouldn't go for at all.

I'm interested in the ideas you're describing (whether or not I understand them or agree with them) and look forward to rest of this series.

Anonymous said...

Your goal of this whole series seems to be to force an unnecessary and unwarranted division between neopuritanism and neocalvinism. These two worldviews, in my experience and study, have so much more in common than they have differences. Kuyperian themes are often, very often, found in Piper's writings and teachings, a fact which you seem blissfully unaware of. And you make it seem like all the neocalvinists disbelieve in TULIP, and can trace that disbelief to Calvin himself, both of which are untrue (cf. almost anything by Richard Muller). It is true that some of the neopuritans may overfocus on TULIP or on personal salvation, but this is mainly true of the rank and file, not the leaders. What do these two streams have in common? What can the neocalvinists learn from the neopuritans (your answer seems to be "nothing")?

Bob Robinson said...

I usually don't reply to anonymous comment, but I will here.

My goal is NOT to "force an unnecessary and unwarranted division between neopuritanism and neocalvinism." The blog series in intentionally called "Nuanced Differences." Please read the entire post before commenting in such a negative way.

I never once said that Kuperian themes cannot be found in Piper's writings. I own about 85% of Piper's books, and have enjoyed them thoroughly. The point that you are missing is that Piper works primarily from a Puritan framework, 10 times more influenced by Jonathan Edwards and other Puritans than Dutch Calvinists like Kuyper, Bavinck, and Dooyeweerd.

If I made it seem that neocalvinists disbelieve TULIP, I apologize. However, it must be clearly stated that while American and British Calvinists have majored on TULIP, Dutch Calvinists have not, in favor of a "Worldview" framework for theology and practice.

And, you say, "What do these two streams have in common? What can the neocalvinists learn from the neopuritans (your answer seems to be "nothing")?" Nothing could be further from the truth. Read the post just above yours from Ray Pennings, who is the one who initially made the distinction - he says, "The point I wanted to make in my Comment piece is that although there are clear emphasis in these two camps which prompt necessary distinctions, there is reason for each camp to learn from each other." AMEN!

Anonymous said...

(Not really anonymous, and not the same anonymous as above, so please respond)

Bob, here's what I don't understand. How does differing emphases on TULIP affect the "Worldviewiness" (to coin a term) of one's Calvinism? Why does the accusation that Piper draws more heavily on Edwards carry any weight, when it could be reversed? i.e. Neo-Calvinists draw too much on Kuyper et al, and not enough on Edwards, Owen, Charnock et al? And, though in your comment directly above this one you claim to be writing from a standpoint of mutual co-operation, why does your actual language appear to be so antagonistic? You make it seem as if SBTS is not interested in making disciples of Christ as Calvin College is, which is simply untrue, and you make it seem as if there work is a hindrance to the advance of the gospel. I know your not actually saying that, but that's how your black and white comparison's come across. You say that this is an analysis of nuance's specifically related to the emphasis or lack thereof on TULIP, but so far not much material in this series has been directly related to that. Why does emphasizing TULIP necessarily lead to an unbalanced, un-worldveiwish calvinism (honestly, I read your post and decided I was both neo-puritan and neo-calvinist, I love TULIP, and I embrace the nuances of Kuyperian teachings as well, I wasn't aware there was a conflict.)

It seems to me that this is a wild nuance chase. Granted, the puritans did tend to a more individualistic teaching than Calvin did, but was this necessarily a result of TULIP? Individual soteriology is necessary, even with the cosmic eschatological worldview dimension that you rightly claim we need. They go hand in hand, "The whole creation waits with eager longing for the REVEALING OF THE SONS OF GOD, and will be set free to obtain the FREEDOM OF THE CHILDREN OF GOD." (Sorry if the CAPS seem harsh, please think of them as the italics that I don't know how to make).

I guess my ultimate question is this: How are the nuances of neocalvinism antithetical to the nuances of neopuritanism? And what does TULIP have to do with it?

Dorian G.
Portland, OR, age 24

p.s. In my comment on another thread, I claimed you were ignorant of some of Piper's teaching. Based on your above comment, I was clearly wrong, BUT, I think my reaction was warranted by your wording, per my objection earlier in this post.

Bob Robinson said...

Maybe you are misunderstanding the intention of this series of posts. It is meant to make clear some distinctions, especially as it relates to the emphases of the “two streams flowing from a single source,” that flow “in different directions" (as Ray Pennings wrote).

Since they both flow from Calvinism, they certainly have a lot in common. It's not my intention to say that they don't have a lot in common. But it is my intention to point out that the distinctions are there, and that to call neopuritanism "neocalvinism" is a misnomer because they stress different things in the Calvinist tradition.

You need to do some research on neocalvinism and become acquainted with the incredible advances that have been made in "Worldview" (Weltanschauung) within this tradition. If you were familiar with this, you wouldn't be so uptight about my advancing the proposition that neocalvinism has stressed this far more than neopuritanism. Neopuritanism has done a great job of stressing salvation, advancing evangelism and missions wonderfully. The two streams need to be in dialogue, as Pennings is asking us to do in his article - so that Neopuritans can better articulate the Cosmic Redemption of the Gospel and so that Neocalvinists can better articulate the need for conversion to personal faith.

Bob Robinson said...

You write, "Why does the accusation that Piper draws more heavily on Edwards carry any weight, when it could be reversed? i.e. Neo-Calvinists draw too much on Kuyper et al, and not enough on Edwards, Owen, Charnock et al?'It was not meant to be an "accusation," just a fact. Piper loves the Puritans. He has written many books spotlighting them. He has yet to do so for any Dutch Calvinist. This is okay, I don't mind. It's just the fact that Piper's heart beats more with Puritans than with neocalvinists.

Bob Robinson said...

You write,
You make it seem as if SBTS is not interested in making disciples of Christ as Calvin College is, which is simply untrue, and you make it seem as if there work is a hindrance to the advance of the gospel. I know your not actually saying that, but that's how your black and white comparison's come across.I'm making an observation that the neopuritan impulse is to train pastors and to do church in order to "make disciples." To "make disciples" for neopuritans, is primarily defined as the work of evangelism, and then as training Christians to live their lives for the glory of God - which most often means doing more evangelism. This is why the stress is so much on TULIP - it is all about the what God does in salvation of individuals.

The neocalvinist impulse is to train Christians to infiltrate every aspect of the culture in order to redeem it; their colleges and churches define this as "making disciples." Neocalvinists sometimes fall short on the commission to do evangelism, and so they constantly need to be reminded of the call to proclaim the gospel in word as well as deed in order to allow people to join in the redemptive plan of God.

It's just two different ways of going about it. I think that the neopuritan way leads to a truncated gospel - that it's all about sin and salvation, it's all about TULIP. The neocalvinist way leads to a four-chapter gospel, starting with (1) the good creation, understanding (2) the evil of the Fall, proclaiming (3) the redemption of the creation in Christ's death and resurrection, and (4) looking forward to the consummation of his kingdom. This is the "CFRC Worldview" (Creation- Fall- Redemption- Consummation) that neocalvinism offers the rest of evangelical Christianity.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just the fact that it was Tony Jones that pointed me to this series. His introduction to your series was one of the most irritating things I have read in my life. I should get that out of my head before I interact further...