Old New Calvinism: The New School Presbyterian Spirit
S. Donald Fortson, III
Professor of Church History and Practical Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte
In 2008, Christianity Today’s Colin Hansen, wrote a fascinating book, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists, which captured a lot of attention. In a commendation of the book, evangelical historian Doug Sweeney, of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, acknowledged the increasing popularity of Calvinism among young Americans, and noted how this “New Calvinism” is “the latest trend in our (endlessly trendy) evangelical movement.” That is perhaps a reluctant acknowledgement by a Lutheran, but of course Presbyterians and other Reformed types have been delighted by this resurgence of interest in Reformed theology. Those involved in higher education, have been watching this trend unfold for a number of years. Young people on college campuses and in seminaries across the country are finding Calvinism to be an intellectually satisfying articulation of the faith, especially attractive in an increasingly anti-Christian American environment.
Hansen’s book, Young, Restless and Reformed, through a series of stories and interviews, chronicles the turn to Calvinism among the young, noting the significant Baptist connection. John Piper is at the headwaters of the movement, along with Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler of Southern Theological Seminary. Hansen describes how Calvinism has become a major point of contention in the nation’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention. The intramural debate among Baptists tends to focus on whether Calvinism encourages or discourages evangelism – each side throwing statistics at the other about who is more committed to reaching the world for Christ. Those familiar with the seventeenth-century history of the English Baptist movement find the Baptist connection quite natural. The New Calvinism has not been without its naysayers in Presbyterianism also. A few Presbyterians appear to view these Baptists as intruders, wondering how these New Calvinists can be “Reformed” if they don’t embrace infant baptism.
Regardless of its critics, the New Calvinism is growing, cutting across denominational lines. Hansen observes that this ecumenical Calvinism has a healthy respect for Christian tradition, but also notes its “openness to the Holy Spirit’s leading.” In one chapter he discusses the emergence of charismatic Calvinism, described as “one sure sign of Reformed resurgence. Such a combination would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.” Hansen opines, “Considering domestic and international trends, it’s likely that Reformed evangelicals will become more charismatic if Calvinism continues to spread.” An historical role model for these Calvinist charismatics is Jonathan Edwards who famously offered his balanced appraisal of the Spirit’s work during the eighteenth-century awakening in America. The Jonathan Edwards connection is a fascinating one, given the priority New Calvinists give to church membership, discipline, holiness and missions, all significant themes in Edwards’ theology and practice.
Those familiar with nineteenth-century American evangelicalism watch the current commotion over this broader expression of Calvinism with some amusement, noting that much of the “New Calvinism” sounds remarkably similar to the old New School Presbyterianism. One obvious point of contact would be the deep respect for Jonathan Edwards. New School Calvinism was often identified with the work of “President Edwards,” who some considered a father of New School Presbyterianism. While historical context would certainly make the two movements distinct in significant ways, there are some intriguing parallels.
American Presbyterianism for generations has included a significant contingent of clergy who have found their primary Christian identity within the evangelical movement, while also considering themselves a part of the Reformed tradition. A ground breaking work linking the New School with the broader evangelical movement was George Marsden’s book, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience (1970). As Marsden indicates, in the nineteenth century, a progressive party within the Presbyterian household, dubbed the “New School” party, was known for its broader evangelical perspectives on a host of issues. The New School won many hearts and minds, eventually composing half of the Presbyterian family in nineteenth-century America. For a few decades they had their own denomination which reinforced commitment to the issues that separated them from the “Old School.”
New School Calvinism
An outside observer of Presbyterianism in the nineteenth century described Presbyterians this way, “Presbyterians are like hickory, good timber, splits easily.” This was an apt description of American Presbyterians, especially in the years up through the end of the Civil War. The Presbyterian General Assemblies in the 1830s were so raucous that one journalist, commenting on an upcoming General Assembly meeting, declared that there was a “jubilee in hell, every time that body meets.” Notwithstanding the Presbyterian propensity to fuss, in the early 1830s there was one major Presbyterian body in America. By 1861, that one denomination had been split into four separate ecclesiastical bodies.
Two decades before the sectional divide hit its peak in the national debate over slavery, Presbyterians had divided in 1837 into the Old School and New School churches. It was not an amicable parting of the ways, as the Old School had unilaterally booted out the New School, claiming that they alone were the “true” Presbyterian Church in the United States. The New School vigorously disagreed with that conclusion, making its own claim to the Presbyterian heritage, which they believed the Old School had abandoned. Out of the great schism of the 1830s, where Presbyterianism was essentially divided in half, a new denomination was born – what became known as the Presbyterian Church (New School). The new church would have a separate and distinct identity for thirty years in the north; a southern New School body (The United Synod of the South) would have its own separate existence for a mere seven years (1857-1864), separating from the northern New Schoolers in 1857 explicitly over the issue of slavery.
The Old School always asserted that the original divide of the 1830s was theological, a strict Old School contingent arguing that the New Schoolers tolerated Pelagian and Arminian errors. The New School vehemently objected to these accusations, which they considered slanderous and ill conceived. And so ensued a prolonged battle in writing between Old School and New School advocates, each claiming, “my version of Presbyterianism is better than yours;” and a concomitant assertion was, “my Calvinism is more consistent with historic American Calvinism.” Much of the ongoing debate centered upon the question of clergy subscription to the Westminster Confession and catechisms. The meaning of the old 1729 Adopting Act was fiercely debated between the Old School and New School leading up to the division of 1837, and throughout the period of their separation.
The first General Assembly of the New School in 1838 issued a “Pastoral Letter” to her churches in which an account of the Presbyterian controversies leading up to the rupture was discussed and a justification for the actions taken was explained. Included in the letter was a statement wherein devotion to the Westminster Standards was made explicit: “We love and honor the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church as containing more well-defined, fundamental truth, with less defect, than appertains to any other human formula of doctrine, and as calculated to hold in intelligent concord a greater number of sanctified minds than any which could now be framed; and we disclaim all design past, present or future to change it.”
The history of the New School Presbyterian Church in the decade of the 1840’s was a time of developing organizational structure and administration. Separation from the other body came to be viewed as an accepted fact with no expectation of a quick reunion. Tensions with the other Presbyterian body were unabated as conservative voices in the Old School relentlessly attacked the New School. In 1852 the New School Presbyterian Church established its own journal, The Presbyterian Quarterly Review. Examining the pages of its ten years of existence, it is abundantly clear that a chief goal of the periodical was to both justify the New School Church’s existence and to defend her distinctives. For the New School men, who viewed themselves as the “true” constitutional Presbyterian Church, it was simply a matter of demonstrating how their branch continued to exhibit the characteristics of “American Presbyterianism” that had emerged in the eighteenth century. They believed the historical records were on their side and went to great lengths in the Review to substantiate these claims.
In the very first issue of the new journal, the editors utilized two articles to review the background of their denomination and rehearse the unjust impugning of her character by the other branch of the church. The Review editors reminded readers that those who had rent the Presbyterian Church believed, “the exscinded portion was radically unsound in theology, and without any fixed attachment to church order.” But now after fifteen years of existence as a denomination, “…in the body with which we are connected, no man has moved to alter a tittle of the Confession of faith, or an essential principle of Presbyterian church government.” The charge of unsoundness was unsubstantiated; in fact, the brief history of the New School as a separate body has demonstrated her commitment to biblical Calvinism. The editors state, “So far as we are informed, there is not a minister of our body who does not love and cherish the Westminster Confession of Faith as the best human delineation of biblical theology; while all are prepared to bow implicitly and finally and fearlessly, before the only infallible standard, the word of God. ‘Our church standards as symbols for union, but the Bible for authority,’ is the motto of our denomination.”
The editors of the Review asserted that Calvinism had been distorted and deemed it their responsibility to defend “old fashioned, Catholic, American Presbyterianism.” The editors went on the offensive and stated specific distortions against which they would take a stand:
This Review is ‘set for the defense of the gospel’ against all assailants, especially those who professing to abjure philosophy, yet philosophize the Almighty into a tyrant, and man into a victim; who represent a holy God as creating sin in a human soul, anterior to all moral acts, and then punishing that soul for being as he made it; who teach that man has no ability to do his duty whatever, but is worthy of eternal punishment for not enacting natural impossibilities; who limit the atonement offered for a race to the elect alone, and then consign to a deeper damnation, souls for rejecting an atonement, which in no sense was ever provided for them. These excrescences on sound Calvinism, these parasites which antinomian metaphysics have engrafted on the glorious doctrines of grace, we shall deem it our duty to lop off….As we love the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms, we shall stand ready to vindicate them from Arminian, Socinian, and infidel assaults on the one side, as well as Antinomian glosses on the other.
Between the years 1852 and 1855, the New School’s Presbyterian Quarterly Review carried a series of five articles entitled, “The Spirit of American Presbyterianism.” These articles expounded in detail the great themes of the New School mind. An essential framework throughout the articles was the idea that there had always been two great elements in the Presbyterian Church of America from its beginning. One group exhibited a “rigid” spirit which primarily was made up of the Scottish whose plan was to transplant the Presbyterian Church of Scotland in America. The other party, “liberal” in spirit, was comprised of more diverse Reformed elements from England, Ireland, Wales, France, Germany and Holland. This party had its affinity with the Puritans of New England and was more distinctly “American” in “a new and unparalleled age and country.” The great question was: which of these branches contains the “genuine Spirit of American Presbyterianism.”
New Calvinism and New School
Looking at the character of nineteenth-century New School Calvinism, there appears to be much in common with the spirit of the New Calvinism. John Piper has highlighted twelve features of the New Calvinism; for the purposes of comparison, four of Piper’s distinguishing marks will function as a framework for evaluating continuities in the two “New” versions of Calvinism. Piper notes these four features (among others) of the New Calvinism:
1. The New Calvinism is inter-denominational with a strong (some would say oxymoronic) Baptistic element.
2. The New Calvinism is aggressively mission-driven, including missional impact on social evils, evangelistic impact on personal networks, and missionary impact on unreached peoples of the world.
3. The New Calvinism, in its allegiance to the inerrancy of the Bible, embraces the biblical truths behind the five points (TULIP), while having an aversion to using the acronym or any other systematic packaging, along with a sometimes qualified embrace of limited atonement. The focus is on Calvinistic soteriology but not to the exclusion or the appreciation of the broader scope of Calvin’s vision.
4. The New Calvinism puts a priority on pietism or piety in the Puritan vein, with an emphasis on the essential role of affections in Christian living, while esteeming the life of the mind and being very productive in it, and embracing the value of serious scholarship. Jonathan Edwards would be invoked as a model of this combination of the affections and the life of the mind more often than John Calvin, whether that’s fair to Calvin or not.
These four features (inter-denominational, aggressively mission driven, qualified embrace of limited atonement and priority on piety) especially seem to mirror very similar perspectives that are found in nineteenth-century New Schoolism. While the historical context has certainly changed dramatically, the substantive theological principles and ministry practices are remarkably alike.
Inter-denominational cooperation, especially for the sake of gospel witness, was an extremely important value for New School Presbyterians. Presbyterians and Congregationalists in New England had a long history of cordial relations that went back into the colonial era when the first Presbyterian churches had been organized. By 1801 the two groups decided it was time to formalize an agreement to benefit both churches in their evangelistic efforts on the American frontier. The 1801 Plan of Union set up an ecclesiastical arrangement for Presbyterians and the General Association of Connecticut (Congregationalists) to share ministers and accommodate one another’s polity. A Congregational Church could call a Presbyterian minister, likewise a Presbyterian Church could have a Congregational pastor and in each situation local church polity would remain in force, whether Presbyterian or Congregational. A genuine ecumenical spirit prevailed at the time and the 1801 Presbyterian General Assembly unanimously adopted the Plan of Union.
Presbyterians also united with other denominations in joint mission agencies to both reach the ever-expanding American frontier, and sending missionaries to foreign fields. These nineteenth-century multi-denominational mission agencies were called “voluntary societies.” In 1826 the American Home Mission Society (AHMS) was organized in New York by Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed and Congregational churches; the United Foreign Mission Society (UFMS) established in 1816 was a cooperative effort between Dutch Reformed, Associate Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. Presbyterians had also supported the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), organized by Congregationalists in 1810.
These cooperative arrangements served the churches well for a season, but they would become dividing lines between the New School and Old School eventually. The Old School was concerned about the absence of full commitment to Westminster Calvinism among the Congregationalists, and they preferred distinctively Presbyterian-sponsored missions through their own Board of Missions. The New School, on the other hand, tended to prefer the inter-denominational approach in principle which subjected them to suspicions and censures by the Old School. The attitude of cooperation, the New School believed, decreased the attitude of rivalry, enhanced missions, exhibited to the world a “catholic spirit” and rather than “spreading the Shibboleths of sect” was intent on “saving the souls of men.”
The editors of the New School journal argued that this cooperative spirit was consistent with the Presbyterian heritage in America. In an 1852 article, “The Mission of the Presbyterian Church,” describing New School distinctives, the editors wrote,
The spirit of co-operative Christianity characterized the early period of Presbyterianism in America, and eminently conduced by God’s blessing, to make it what it was in its palmist days, when ‘giants’ were in the Church. It seems to grow naturally in the atmosphere of revivals of religion, and be one of ‘the fruits of the Spirit’ in its more general effusion. It expressed itself, as all impartial historians must acknowledge, in the original composition of the Presbyterian Church in America, and manifested itself in the plan of union of 1801, … It gave birth also, to the noble cluster of modern charities, called Voluntary Associations, the ideal once of some who have ‘left their first love.’ These are Associations, not of unbelievers, worldlings or pagan, but of Christians, united in the vitals of truth, and supremely devoted to the propagation of a common Christianity, and the common salvation, over our land and world. The flower of the Presbyterian church was found among the originators and advocates of these institutions. American Presbyterianism must deny her parentage and past history, if she became sectarian, denominational, and exclusive, instead of liberal, catholic and co-operative.
2. Aggressively Mission-Driven
For nineteenth-century New Schoolers being “missional” would have translated into being supportive of revivals, viewed by many of their generation as the chief means of winning lost souls to Christ. One could certainly describe them as aggressively mission-driven in their support for revivals, and this support received harsh criticism by some of the Old School men. A primary culprit of the Calvinist commotion over revivalism was the preeminent evangelist of the Second Great Awakening, Charles G. Finney, who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1824. Finney experimented with “new measures” in his revival meetings which included an “anxious seat” (a front pew for seekers), “particular prayer” (public praying for the lost by name), the “prayer of faith” (unified prayer guaranteeing results) and women praying and exhorting in public meetings. At a later stage Finney preached “perfectionism” or “entire sanctification” during his years as President of Oberlin College after he had abandoned the Presbyterian ministry.
Presbyterians responded to Finney in a variety of ways. New School minister Lyman Beecher was skeptical of revivalistic techniques at first but later became a moderate supporter of Finney. Beecher wrote in 1829,
There is such an amount of truth and power in the preaching of Mr. Finney, and so great an amount of good hopefully done, that if he can be so far restrained as that he shall do more good than evil, then it would be dangerous to oppose him, lest at length we might be found to fight against God; for though some revivals may be so badly managed as to be worse than none, there may, to a certain extent, be great imperfections in them and yet they be, on the whole, blessings to the Church.
The association of Finney-like revivals with extreme Arminian theology was a given in many Old School minds. The New School, however, tended to take the moderate approach of Beecher, objecting to obvious errors but looking for the good in revivals which were producing a harvest of souls. New School men viewed their support of revivals, and Old School resistance, as a continuation of the same debates from the eighteenth-century revival and earlier schism of Presbyterians (1741-1758). The New School claimed to embrace the “revival spirit of our fathers” and viewed the eighteenth-century Presbyterian revivalists as their ecclesiastical forefathers. In the mid 1850’s New School men lamented that there had been a “suspension of the influences of the Spirit” in their time, and longed for the former days:
Our earnest desire is to witness such scenes as those which clustered around Edwards and Whitefield, Blair and the Tennents, Davies and Dickinson. Our souls break for the longing which we have after the Holy Spirit, and we would plead as starving men for bread, that His mightiest influences might be poured out upon us. This is our characteristic faith and hope as a denomination.
Acknowledging that there were excesses during the eighteenth-century revivals, nevertheless a vital work of God had occurred. The mission of the Presbyterian Church (New School) may be described as “Calvinism in a revival” (italics theirs). The New School journal editors declared, “Our fathers loved and sought revivals of religion, and so do we. The evils are dust in the balance, the good is illimitable and everlasting!”
Debate over revivalism continued for decades. When the Old School and New School churches in the South began negotiations for reunion in 1863, one issue still on the table was revivals. Under the leadership of New School minister and evangelist Dr. Joseph C. Stiles of Georgia and Old School Professor Robert L. Dabney of Union Seminary (Virginia), the joint committee produced a six point doctrinal statement which attempted to bridge New School and Old School concerns. On the question of promoting revivals, there was a carefully crafted statement which granted that there had been revivalist excesses, and then added,
But, on the other hand, we value, cherish, and pray for true revivals of religion, and wherever they bring forth the permanent fruits of holiness in men’s hearts, rejoice in them as God’s work, notwithstanding the mixture of human imperfection. And we consider it the solemn duty of ministers to exercise a scriptural warmth, affection, and directness in appealing to the understanding, hearts, and consciences of men.
3. Qualified embrace of limited atonement
New Schoolers used the phrase “Moderate Calvinism” to portray themselves as holding the middle ground between conservatives and radicals in the Presbyterian household. Robert W. Patterson, Moderator of the New School General Assembly, described this as a “distinctive feature of our body” in his sermon to the Assembly in 1860. Due to the request from a large number of commissioners, the sermon was published. Patterson characterized “Moderate Calvinism” as a “toleration of a generous and liberal construction of the Westminster Confession of Faith.” Indeed a broader Calvinism had been a distinguishing mark of the New School party from its earliest days. In the years leading up the 1830’s schism, even the Old School Princeton professors acknowledged that much of the New School version of Calvinism had been acceptable in the Presbyterian Church for quite some time.
The New School perceived themselves to be more truly representative of the foundations of the American Presbyterian Church. They believed that the 1729 Adopting Act, the “Corner Stone and Magna Carta” of American Presbyterianism, was most faithfully upheld according to its original intent by their branch of the church. The New School maintained that the Adopting Act emphasized the principle of subscribing to the Westminster Confession in all its essential and necessary articles, allowing for the declaration of acceptable scruples, provided that these extra-essential points of doctrine did not compromise the integrity of the system of doctrine contained in the Confession. Their view asserted that the Adopting Act “. . . formally adopts the Westminster Confession and Form of government, as a system, for the substance of them; or in other words, establishes as the basis of the Church, the necessary and essential articles only, of Calvinism and Presbyterianism.” And one of the emphases associated with New School Calvinism was a qualified embrace of limited atonement.
In the years leading up to the Old School/New School schism of 1837, Old School conservatives relentlessly attacked New School “errors” in a series of protest documents annually sent up to the General Assembly. One these protest documents, known as the “Western Memorial,” came before the 1834 Assembly. The conservatives listed numerous New School doctrinal innovations including views on the atonement. Several New School ministers were implicated by name as primary sources of these errors. The memorial called upon the Presbyterian Church to censor these doctrinal aberrations and faithfully deal with the cases that were referred to the General Assembly. The 1834 Assembly did not concur with the judgment of the Western Memorial, and reprimanded its advocates for publicly defaming ministers without trial. Professor Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary rebuffed these Old School critics because their list of errors were about peripheral issues and not fundamental theological error. As an example of acceptable doctrinal difference, Hodge rhetorically asked, “Is it to be expected that, at this time of the day, the Assembly would condemn all who do not hold to the doctrine of a limited atonement?”
It was well known that New Schoolers rejected certain expositions of limited atonement held by a few Old School brethren. When the United Synod of the South (New School) entered into reunion negotiations with their Old School southern counterparts, the discussions included the doctrine of limited atonement. Again, Old School professor Dabney, helped craft a compromise declaration on the atonement. The 1863 doctrinal statement declared,
The atonement we believe, though by temporary sufferings, was, by reason of the infinite glory of Christ’s person, full and sufficient for the guilt of the whole world, and is to be freely and sincerely offered to every creature, inasmuch as it leaveth no other obstacle to the pardon of all men under the gospel, save the enmity and unbelief of those who voluntarily reject it. Wherefore, on the one hand, we reject the opinion of those who teach that the atonement was so limited and equal to the guilt of the elect only, that if God had designed to redeem more, Christ must have suffered more or differently. And, on the other hand, we hold that God the Father doth efficaciously apply this redemption, through Christ’s purchase, to all those to whom it was his eternal purpose to apply it, and to no others.
The Old School men on the reunion committee took heat from a handful of vocal critics, one writer even suggested the statement was Pelagian. Dabney responded by justifying the distinctions made in the statement, and admitted that “The United Synod had just cause of complaint against a few Old School men” whose “ultra” views had distorted Calvinist teaching. Dabney noted, “And all intelligent Calvinists are accustomed to teach that the limitation which attaches to the atonement, is not in its nature, but only in its design; while their enemies, Arminian and Pelagian, industriously change upon them what they as industriously repudiate, that they teach it is limited by its nature.” Dabney asserted that it was proper to use “general terms” when referring to the nature of the atonement, “so does the Bible.”
4. Priority on Piety
One of the primary principles embraced by New School Presbyterians was the priority of piety. This was considered one of the “characteristic peculiarities” of their denomination. When the New School editors of the Presbyterian Quarterly Review summarized what they perceived to be the “special mission” of their church in 1853, one of the principles was commitment to what they called “living Calvinism.” In explaining the meaning of this principle the editors explored the relationship of theology and piety. This “living Calvinism,” was expressed in the Adopting Act and the 1758 Basis of Reunion between the Old Side and the pro-revival New Side. The New Side and the Log College are the “true line of succession” of the living Calvinism as described in The Log College by Dr. Archibald Alexander of Princeton. The New Side Calvinists believed,
That while they held the great vitals of the system intact and sacred, they were to be allowed to give it power and influence and life, in practical personal application, especially amidst the outpourings of God’s Spirit, without incurring suspicion of heresy, or being condemned by the cold-hearted and formal, for disloyalty to truth, or disorderly measures for doing good and saving souls.
Presbyterian minister Gilbert Tennent, who would become a close associate of George Whitefield, emphasized the issue of genuine piety as a fundamental qualification for ministers of the Gospel. In a 1734 overture to the Synod of Philadelphia, Tennent asked the synod to “particularly enquire into the Conversations, Conduct & Behaviour of such as offer themselves to the Ministry, and that they diligently examine all Candidates for the Ministry in their experiences of a work of sanctifying Grace in their Hearts, and yt they admit none to the sacred Trust yt are not in the Eye of Charity serious Christians.” The New School men shared Tennent’s sentiments about piety being equally important with orthodoxy, looking to the eighteenth-century revivalists as role models.
The New School editors asserted that without the element of piety, Calvinism is a “sepulchre of departed glory.” Calvinism likewise is necessary for piety as that great system of truth that provides the “moral vertebrae” of piety. The editors explained,
But this strongly vertebrated system, probably more than any other, needs for its perfection to be clothed all over, made living, true, beautiful and influential, by the infusion of inward life, the harmonious and free working of genial piety…. Since the settlement of the Augustinian controversy, and the re-establishment of the same fundamental truths, by the Herculean labours of Calvin, this has been the desideratum – to have a living Calvinism. Without piety, it tends to formalism and a freezing orthodoxy or Antinomianism, as Arminianism degenerates into more nervous sentimentalism, or ungovernable enthusiasm, for lack of substance.
According to the New School editors, there must be a protest when “mere accuracy of system, and swearing in the ipsissima verba of formularies, is the sole recommendation of excellence.” The struggle is not for “latitudinarian forms of expression, capricious opposition to hallowed phraseology, or license for fanatical measures, though there is always liability to these extremes, but for the life and soul of a chosen system of faith and order.” It is the old controversy of dogma and life and in such a case the higher law of doing good and saving souls must govern “if the choice is forced on us by circumstances or the exercise of power.” Orthodoxy and piety are necessary and should be blended into harmony. Orthodoxy protects the church from licentiousness and disorder, piety preserves the church from formalism and inaction.
In the final analysis, despite their multiple differences with the Old School, the New School men ultimately desired reunion with the other party. Each party brought something necessary to the Presbyterian household. The New School editors believed that the 1758 reunion (Old Side/New Side) was a model of Presbyterianism at its best. They wrote, “… whenever one or the other has been too prominent, there has been a one-sided tendency…. wherever both elements have been in full activity and cordial compromise, we have had the greatest and noblest Church on earth, just because both elements are needed, …” And, “… we have always considered the union of both the elements of our Church the true ideal of American Presbyterianism, both being defective when alone.” This charitable spirit would prevail – the New School bodies reunited with the Old School churches in 1864 (South) and 1869 (North).
In this brief overview of nineteenth-century New School Calvinism, it appears that there is an affinity between New School Presbyterianism and the current phenomena called “New Calvinism.” New Calvinism may not be as “new” as some suggest, but rather the latest installment of an older version of Calvinism which has had its unique expression among every generation of American Calvinists since the era of the colonial revivalists. As indicated in this study, common features of this type of Calvinism include its inter-denominational spirit, focus on being missional, commitment to personal piety and its moderate expression of Calvinist doctrine. The essential tenets of Calvinist soteriology are intact, and alongside this theological commitment is an openness to expressing the old faith in new ways.
One issue within New Calvinism, that Piper doesn’t include in his list, is the growing acceptance of a variety of baptismal practices. This topic of course has been debated among Calvinists for centuries, but there does seem to be more détente on this question among some New Calvinists than in generations past. Piper himself has had some transition in his own thinking on this issue, and is likely having influence. Increasing numbers of young Calvinists are not bothered by the fact that fellow believers hold diverse views on who should be baptized and how much water one should use. On the Baptist side, some New Calvinist pastors and their congregations no longer require persons baptized as infants, to be immersed as believers before they may become church members and partake of the Lord’s Supper. On the Presbyterian side, pressure is not placed upon parents to have their children baptized; if parents choose to wait and let their offspring receive Christian baptism later as believers, this is acceptable and not frowned upon. In both instances, there is a catholic, charitable spirit at work, comfortable leaving this decision up to a believer’s Scripture-informed conscience. This reciprocal accommodation points to New Calvinist respect for tradition and catholicity. If the catholicity of the church is an essential doctrine, as the ancient creeds indicate, then mutual recognition of baptism seems to be a logical conclusion.
A final observation on the Presbyterian side is that much of what the New Calvinism affirms shares a kindred spirit with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). The EPC, founded in 1981, is clearly evangelical and New School Presbyterian in its orientation, and its younger generation of clergy would be in the New Calvinist camp. A distinguishing characteristic of the EPC is its openness on both charismatic gifts and women’s ordination, both issues placed in the “non-essential” category. On the issues of limited atonement and baptism there is a breadth of view and practice. A number of the New Calvinists have been attracted to the broader evangelical Calvinism of the EPC.
It is a great joy to teach many of these young Calvinists at Reformed Theological Seminary, and I am delighted that an increasing number of them are to be found among the Baptist brethren. The New Calvinism’s contagious enthusiasm for theology, holiness and mission should be an encouragement to the whole body of Christ.
- This essay is based upon a paper given at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting, November 20, 2014. ↑
- Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008). ↑
- This “respect for tradition” may be a partial explanation for Baptist Calvinist publishing on Early Christianity, for example, Michael Haykin’s Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011). ↑
- Hansen, 99. ↑
- See “A Faithful Narrative,” “The Distinguishing Marks,” and “Some Thoughts Concerning Revival” in Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 4: “The Great Awakening,” ed. C.C. Goen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972) and “Religious Affections” in Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2. ↑
- Old School Samuel Baird claimed that Jonathan Edwards’ theological innovations were the genesis of New School “heresies.” The trajectory of Edwardsean doctrines were known as “New England theology;” see Samuel J. Baird, A History of the New School (Philadelphia; Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, 1868), 167-183. Jonathan Edwards had close relationships with the pro-revival Presbyterians (Synod of New York) and would attend their synod meetings when he was visiting New York. They chose Edwards to be the president of the College of New Jersey in 1758. The nineteenth-century New School men, like their colonial predecessors, had great respect for Edwards, adopting many of his theological emphases as their own. When the New School defended its distinctive doctrines versus an Old School list of “errors” in the summer of 1837, it concluded, “the Convention declare that the authors whose exposition and defense of the articles of our faith are most approved and used in these synods – are President Edwards, Witherspoon, and Dwight….” See “The Auburn Declaration” in The Presbyterian Enterprise, ed. Maurice Armstrong, Lefferts Loetscher and Charles Anderson (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956), 166-171. Baird’s history of the New School was an intensely critical Old School perspective; for a more sympathetic telling of the New School story from within that tradition see Edward D. Morris, The Presbyterian Church New School, 1837-1869: An Historical Review (Columbus, OH: The Chaplain Press, 1905). ↑
- Historically, there have always been a variety of views and practices within Calvinism, often minimized by partisans both inside and outside the Reformed Tradition. An excellent study highlighting this diversity is Kenneth J. Stewart’s Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011). ↑
- George M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970). While Marsden highlighted the New School Presbyterian experience within evangelicalism, and its similarities to twentieth-century fundamentalism, he also noted its “undeniable affinities to the tolerant doctrinal position of theological liberalism.” p. 246. ↑
- For a survey of the Presbyterian subscription debates and their role in the reunions of the Old School and New School see S. Donald Fortson, III, The Presbyterian Creed: A Confessional Tradition in America, 1729-1870 (Paternoster, 2008, reprint Wipf & Stock). ↑
- Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (New School) (New York: Published by Stated Clerks, 1838-1858. reprint. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1894), 34. ↑
- The editor of the The Presbyterian Quarterly Review was Ben J. Wallace; the associate editors were Albert Barnes, Thomas Brainerd, John Jenkins and Joel Parker. Also, assisting with editing the new journal were the professors at Union (New York), Auburn and Lane Theological Seminaries. ↑
- “Our Church and Our Review,” Presbyterian Quarterly Review, June 1852: 3-5. ↑
- Ibid., 9,10. This statement is a caricature of Old School views; very few Old School advocates would have articulated their views in such extreme ways. Old School conservatives often did the same thing when describing New School “errors.” These exaggerations spread false impressions of the other party, but made it an easy target to assault. This was a steady problem between the two churches. When they finally sat down and discussed their theological differences during reunion negotiations in the 1860s, both sides discovered that the theological gulf was not nearly as deep as anticipated. ↑
- “The Spirit of American Presbyterianism,” The Presbyterian Quarterly Review, December 1852: 475-477. ↑
- Desiring God, “The New Calvinism and the New Community” accessed October 24, 2014, http://www.desiringgod.org/conference-messages/the-new-calvinism-and-the-new-community. This presentation was the “Gaffin Lecture on Theology, Culture and Mission” given at Westminster Theological Seminary March 12, 2014. ↑
- This study will argue for positive common features in the two movements. There is no intent to imply there are no weaknesses in the “new” forms of Calvinism. Every historical Christian movement typically possesses both strengths and weaknesses. ↑
- “Pastoral letter” in Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (New School) New York: Published by Stated Clerks, 1838-1858. Reprint. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School, 1894), 70-76. ↑
- “The Mission of the Presbyterian Church,” Presbyterian Quarterly Review, June 1852: 25. ↑
- Letter of Lyman to Beecher to Asahel Nettleton, quoted in George Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience, 77,78. ↑
- “Spirit of American Presbyterianism,” Presbyterian Quarterly Review, June 1854: 125. ↑
- “The Presbyterian Church Intelligently Preferred,” Presbyterian Quarterly Review, March 1856: 656. ↑
- “Spirit of American Presbyterianism,” Presbyterian Quarterly Review, June 1854: 130. ↑
- Presbyterian Almanac and Annual Remembrancer of the Church for 1865, vol. 7 (Philadelphia: Joseph M. Wilson, 1865), 317. For an overview of reunion negotiations between the New School and Old School in the South see S. Donald Fortson, III, “Old School/New School Reunion in the South: The Theological Compromise of 1864,” Westminster Theological Journal, 66, 2004, 203-226. ↑
- See “The Position and Mission of Our Church,” Presbyterian Quarterly Review, July 1860: 119,120. ↑
- Princeton professors Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller and Charles Hodge, in the early 1830s, were outspokenly opposed to a division of the Presbyterian Church. ↑
- “The Spirit of American Presbyterianism,” Presbyterian Quarterly Review, September 1853: 245. ↑
- Charles Hodge, “Act and Testimony,” Biblical Repertory and Theological Review (October, 1834): 517. Commenting on the protest document, “Act and Testimony,” Hodge makes reference to the Western Memorial, stating he was not surprised that the General Assembly rejected its list of New School errors. ↑
- Presbyterian Almanac for 1865, 317. ↑
- “Dr. Dabney on the Plan of Union,” Southern Presbyterian, December 3, 1863. Dabney’s essay was published serially in four issues of the Southern Presbyterian. At the conclusion of Dabney’s articles were remarks by the editor, A.A. Porter, attempting to refute Dabney. There appears to have been a growing Presbyterian consensus on this point. American Presbyterians added a new chapter to the Westminster Confession, “Of the Love of God and Missions” (1903, PCUSA) and “Of the Gospel” (1942, PCUS), both chapters emphasizing the love of God for all humanity. The 1942 chapter stated: “God in infinite and perfect love, having provided in the covenant of grace, through the mediation and sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, a way of life and salvation, sufficient for and adapted to the whole lost race of man, freely offers this salvation to all men in the gospel.” ↑
- “The Mission of the Presbyterian Church,” Presbyterian Quarterly Review, June 1852: 21, 22. ↑
- Minutes of the Synod, 24 September 1734 in Guy S. Klett, ed. Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America 1706-1788 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1976), 122, 123. Spelling, capitalization and abbreviations from the original manuscripts are preserved. Gilbert Tennent was author of the infamous sermon, “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” wherein he charged that some anti-revival ministers may be unsaved. He later rectified his harsh judgment of his brethren, and served as the first moderator of the reunited Synod of Philadelphia and New York in 1758. ↑
- “The Mission of the Presbyterian Church,” Presbyterian Quarterly Review, June 1852:19-21. ↑
- Ibid., 22, 23. ↑
- “The Spirit of American Presbyterianism,” Presbyterian Quarterly Review, December, 1854: 477, 478. ↑
- “The Spirit of American Presbyterianism,” Presbyterian Quarterly Review, September, 1853: 231. ↑
- The EPC’s modern language version of the Westminster Confession includes the chapter “The Gospel of the Love of God and Missions” (1942 text); see note 29 above. Historically, the EPC has had a few ministers who practice both infant baptism and baby dedication in an attempt to accommodate parents with Baptist views. ↑