John Piper and Tim Keller

Deciphering the Nuanced Differences Between Neopuritanism and Neocalvinism

It is my contention that Time, Newsweek, and even many in evangelical Christianity are not well informed on two parallel resurgences of Calvinism going on in North America. Collin Hansen’s new book, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists, is symptomatic of this ignorance. In it, he writes chapters on people, places, and events that show that a new movement of Calvinism is sweeping the nation. However, he seems oblivious to the fact that the real "neocalvinism" is also gaining momentum. Instead, he offers simply the evidence for "neopuritanism." In the next few posts I will look at the topics in Hansen's chapters about the neopuritan resurgence, and then offer my analogue to the neocalvinist resurgence that is also occurring. NEOPURITAN RESURGENCE: Bethlehem Baptist Church and John Piper Piper is the epitome of the resurgence in neopuritanism, offering a huge and wonderful vision of the sovereignty of God. His writings and sermons are laced with references to Jonathan Edwards, who is the subject of my next post. Piper wants to create a generation of “Christian Hedonists,” which means that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” The Gospel, according to Piper, “is the news that Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over all his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy.” Piper is a staunch and unapologetic advocate for the five points of Calvinism. He states that the five points are essential, for they assure that God alone gets the glory“We want for others the experience of knowing and trusting the sovereign grace of God in such a way that He and He alone gets the glory.” So, for a neopuritan like John Piper, the slant is toward highlighting the sovereignty of God in salvation – echoed in the five Calvinist “solas” - salvation is by God’s grace alone, by faith alone, through Christ alone, by Scripture alone and for God’s glory alone. NEOCALVINIST RESURGENCE: Redeemer Presbyterian Church and Tim Keller Tim Keller is the leading advocate for a neocalvinist understanding of the gospel. When he speaks of “the Gospel,” he refuses to speak of it in only individualistic terms but rather with the emphasis on the restoration of Creation. In a May 2008 article for Christianity Today entitled “The Gospel in All its Forms,” Keller talked about how there are very many ways to preach the gospel. To put the gospel in a nutshell, he wrote, Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever. One of these elements was at the heart of the older gospel messages, namely, salvation is by grace not works. It was the last element that was usually missing, namely that grace restores nature, as the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck put it. When the third, "eschatological" element is left out, Christians get the impression that nothing much about this world matters.” This is the heart of the neocalvinist slant – that what’s really important in the gospel is God’s intention to restore the Creation, both in the here and now, and ultimately in the final day. While neopuritans speak of the gospel in terms of sin and salvation, neocalvinists speak of the gospel in terms of the overarching story of the Bible. Keller writes, “Instead of going into, say, one of the epistles and speaking of the gospel in terms of God, sin, Christ, and faith, I point out the story-arc of the Bible and speak of the gospel in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. So, for a neocalvinist like Tim Keller, the slant is toward highlighting the sovereignty of God over Creation – echoed in the Reformational Worldview found in the story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration which emphasizes that the main intention of the gospel is for God to actively restore his good creation, with humanity being the center of the restoration. The ultimate goal is not so much salvation for humans to go to heaven, but redemption for humans and for all of creation for the new earth.

Posts in this series on Neo-Puritanism and Neo-Calvinism



Blendah Tom said...

Do you think there are some hybrids to these models out there.. and are their rifts in these two camps?

Bob Robinson said...

Blendah Tom,

I think that there are more "hybrids" than "rifts." For instance, Keller has spoken at Piper's Desiring God Conference.

The rub does occur, however, when neopuritans so focus on salvation at the expense of a fuller understanding of the gospel to restore all of creation. Neocalvinists bristle at this, saying that the neopuritan gospel is too truncated. Neopuritans then retort that the neocalvinists are not keeping the main thing the main thing: that is, the salvation of people.

Blendah Tom said...

Good stuff.. I like the blend that is occuring ic that Mark Driscoll has Tim Keller speak at conferences etc.. are there any other big names in the "Neocalvinist" realm .

claytonius said...

Great distinctions. This is why I prefer Keller over Piper any day. Of course, I would definitely not over-emphasize the rifts. Piper and Keller do a lot of work together. I think your emphasis on "slant" is key. Do you think that a better term for Keller's position might be "neokuyperian," considering both Keller and Piper represent forms of Calvinism? I know "neocalvinism" is technically correct, but I find it confusing, considering Piper and Keller (or Edwards and Kuyper) both represent forms of Calvinism.

Bob Robinson said...

"Neocalvinism" has always been the synonymous term for "Kuyperianism." Until the recent confusion spurned on by calling the resurgence of neopuritanism by this misnomer, neocalvinism has already been the term for the kind of Calvinism that flows from the Dutch Reformer.

See Neo-Calvinism at Wikipedia.

Chris Zodrow said...

Tim Keller might not be such a great example of Neo-Calvinism, as he does not hold to a seven day-historical understanding of creation. I have written on this

Keller supports the notion of "culture", but he does so without a real foundation.


Chris Zodrow said...

Keller is, more or less, neo-Thomistic. Perhaps even more like Siger of Brabant, as he is willing to obfuscate on the biblical creation account, while giving the "truth" to non-biblical ground motives.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks for reading and commenting here at Vanguard Church!
It is not necessary to be a seven-day creationist in order to be a neocalvinist. Many neocalvinists as well as neopuritans read Genesis in a way that allows for longer than 24 hour periods.

Anonymous said...

(I don't mean to post anonymously, I'm having some trouble with my computer)

That said. your comparison of Piper to Keller is shockingly bad. You are as ignorant of John Piper's teaching as you claim the neopuritans are of true Calvinism. I mean shockingly bad. Its almost as if there's hordes of relevant Piper material that you've completely ignored, but of course we know that can't be true........

For instance his message from the Gospel Coalition 2007 Conference, "the Triumph of the Gospel in the New Heavens and the New Earth".


Anonymous said...

Which Keller also spoke at...

Baus said...

Someone like Keller cannot legitimately be called a neocalvinist. Keller is not interested in sphere sovereignty, in fact Keller's entire social-action ecclesiology is diametrically opposed to neocalvinism.

In a neocalvinist understanding, culture is not developed in a Christian manner by attaching it to the church and/or evangelism. To do this is a confusion of spheres and violation of creation norms!

Keller is actually championing a re-packaged “missiological” approach coming from the 1970’s sociology/anthropology-driven Contextualism of Charles Kraft and Paul Hiebert.

Bob Robinson said...


I think that you may be right if we insist on defining neo-calvinisim as strict Dooyeweerdism. But the point of this particular post comparing Piper and Keller is to show that there can be a pastoral approach to neo-calvinism, one that flows out of the local church's ministry and call to evangelism.

Keller's work to equip Christians to be transformative in their particular spheres is hardly antithetical to neo-calvinism; it is a church promoting a neo-calvinist approach to cultural engagement.

Paul Heibert is not far removed from neo-calvinism himself. Notice that his new book is entitled Transforming Worldviews, a title that very closely reflects the premise of Abraham Kuyper's original Lectures on Calvinism. In Heibert's chapter on "What is a Worldview," his concept is based on the definition by Al Wolters, the most influential contemporary neo-calvinist writer.

David Fairchild said...

Good summary of the differences. As a Neo-Cal myself, I have a love and respect for Piper, Edwards and of course the Puritans. I think my "slant" or leaning with appreciation for other strands is not uncommon. I have several friends in the Neo-Puritan stream who also very much love and respect Kuyper, Bavinck, Volenhoven, etc. The problem is when we become small minded and prideful of our "slant" that our "slant" becomes a new law by which to condemn those who don't adhere.

By the way, I would argue that the Neo-Cal emphasis on the larger Gospel being inclusive of the smaller (personal) Gospel is super healthy since it doesn't rob us of the incredible joy and personal renewal and piety that justification by faith leads us to.

mattparker said...

I love both camps but I probably lean more towards Keller's if we have to seperate them. The gospel goes beyond fire insurance but is nothing less than it. We have to see that God does not need humans in anyway to accomplish what He will, but He is gracious to use us as a means to glorify Himself. I love Piper and Keller and beleive that they are instruments God is using to start a reformation in the 21st century oh that God would get all the Glory!!!

John said...

I like your distinctions and believe they are indeed valid to make but I also believe that there is more nuance and shades of distinct color in these developments that these two categories will allow. Neocalvinist has been around a long time and Keller both is, and is not, such a person in both theory and practice; e.g. Calvin Seminary, the CRC, the RCA, etc. And Piper is despised by many Neopuritans for compromise with the wrong folks; e.g. the Rick Warren invitation to speak debate now heating up. You have good ideas but the labels can only go so far in actually helping us. In the end we are best served by not focusing on two "big names" so intently. When I think Neocalvinism I think of Kuyper and my Dutch denomination as much as anything, which is not at all Tim Keller. And when I think of Piper I do not think of the Banner of Truth, which was/is the leading Neopuritan voice in the last 50 years or so, even though John has spoken for them in the U.K. Having lived in these "worlds" I find them far more divergent than similar yet they share some very important common indicators. Good post!

In the end the debate may come down to arguments among modernist thinkers who cannot recognize Scripture can and does have more than one meaning in the text, which brings us back to St. Augustine and the Fathers in a whole new way these movements are yet to embrace.

Cadgie said...

its interesting how Jesus fades away into the background and all these great "men" have the kind of influence that they have! Plus all the labels of what you are or are not its down right confusing! I am going to stick with simply a Christian.

Unknown said...

To say that Hansen is "oblivious" to the way you choose to super-define labels makes it sound as if your definitions and labelling matter.
It gives the impression that for some reason they must be at all important.

In fact, your use of the word "slant" demonstrates the fragility of your definitions. And since there's constant cross-pollination between Keller and Piper, it only bids well for any theology that will come from them in the future. In fact their dialogue is so extensive and mutually-affirming, that it makes an article like this seem stale (and now fairly dated).

The trouble with super-fine labelling is that it often comes across as someone seeing something interesting and then reading all kinds of things into it.
It struggles to see different perspectives as different angles on the same thing.

Above all, as some of your other articles has indicated, it sounds alarmist, giving the impression that so many brilliant, devoted and holy men blindly missed the things my own brilliance spotted.

They point is that they all see themselves as Calvinists, pure and simple. And there's no good reason to dispute that (e.g. the person who said that if Keller has an alternative view on creation he is somehow not a Calvinist - does he actually think that "Calvinism" means "agreeing with every single thing that Calvin believed"?).