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Fall 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 2 · pp. 148–165 

The Rise of New Calvinism Among Canadian Mennonite Brethren

Myron A. Penner

The New Calvinism is a trans-denominational theological movement, the central features of which are the “five-point Calvinist” understanding of human depravity, atonement, and grace coupled with complementarian, male-headship theology. 1 It’s been well documented that New Calvinism has been exerting a strong gravitational pull on North American evangelicalism. 2 What’s less well known is the degree to which New Calvinist theology and practice is exerting theological influence among Canadian Mennonite Brethren (MBs) today. MBs have always appropriated from other theological traditions—including Reformed theology—in order to forge their own theological identity. 3 But what’s new in the present moment is the convergence of several factors that have resulted in unprecedented New Calvinist influence in some Canadian MB churches and denominational structures.

New Calvinism is increasing in influence in North American evangelicalism, and its sway has extended to Canadian Mennonite Brethren.

In this essay I set out to do two main things. First, I’ll survey the following key theological emphases of New Calvinism: God’s sovereignty and glory, the gospel, biblical authority, and church planting. The purpose {149} of this survey is to understand these theological emphases primarily in terms of their conceptual content in order to see clearly what is entailed by New Calvinist commitments. Second, I’ll raise some objections to New Calvinist claims concerning God’s sovereignty, election, and biblical authority. I’ll also point out some troubling consequences for MBs if the denomination moves toward outsourcing its theological heavy lifting to New Calvinists. I doubt that any New Calvinist will be moved away from New Calvinism by the brief objections I’ll raise in the second part of this paper. However, I do hope that even New Calvinists will see that there are aspects and consequences of some of their core claims for which there are serious and well-motivated objections. Thus, I further hope that all MBs, regardless of their allegiance, opposition, or indifference to New Calvinism will see that MBs need to have a thoughtful and informed discussion about the New Calvinist influence on Mennonite Brethren life.

For the most part, I’m going to assume, not argue, that New Calvinist theology is a growing force among Canadian MBs. My purpose in this essay is not to establish this claim, but rather—on the assumption that New Calvinism is on the rise in the MB world—to raise some issues of which MBs ought to be mindful as the denomination continues to evolve. 4 However, my assumption of New Calvinist influence isn’t without basis and is founded on three main sources of evidence. First, lead pastors of several large and influential MB churches (all in British Columbia, my home province and the context I know best) are openly New Calvinist in their theology. Second, a significant number of MB churches list affiliate or supportive association with New Calvinist networks like the Gospel Coalition (TGC) 5 and the Acts 29 Network. 6 And third, it seems to be the case that the Canadian MB national church planting agency C2C is involved in planting a significant number of New Calvinist MB churches. But I’ll say more about this below.


The cover story for the September 2006 issue of Christianity Today was Collin Hansen’s piece, “Young, Restless, Reformed,” with the subheading “Calvinism is making a comeback—and shaking up the church.” Hansen’s article formed the basis for his 2008 book, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. 7 Both the article and the book—written from the perspective of a (very) sympathetic observer—provide interesting insights into the New Calvinist world. In easy, accessible prose, Hansen chronicles time spent both with New Calvinist A-listers John Piper, Albert Mohler, Joshua Harris, Mark Driscoll, and C. J. Mahaney, and with people who have been influenced by their ministries. {150} What follows is a sketch of the movement’s key theological emphases and an outline of some points of contact between New Calvinist theology and the Canadian Mennonite Brethren experience.

God’s Sovereignty and Glory

New Calvinist theology embraces the traditional Reformed emphasis on the transcendence and sovereignty of God. New Calvinists see recovering a robust doctrine of God’s sovereignty as a much-needed theological corrective to a widespread evangelical picture of a therapeutic God who exists for our happiness and indulges our moral weakness. New Calvinist pastor Joshua Harris states, “I do wonder if some of the appeal [of Calvinism] and the trend isn’t a reaction to the watered-down vision of God that’s been portrayed in the evangelical seeker-oriented churches.” 8

All Christian traditions affirm the sovereignty of God, but what separates the New Calvinist concept of divine sovereignty from, for example, an Arminian concept of divine sovereignty stems from differing perspectives on what is required for an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good God to be both creator and sustainer of all that is. In order to make this explicit, consider an old and in some ways fairly commonsense metaphysics that divides the world into substances and properties. According to this commonsense ontology there are things (substances/individuals/items capable of bearing properties) and ways things are (properties that can be possessed by individual things). This is a pretty powerful metaphysics insofar as it provides a framework for explaining our seeming perception of multiple individual objects (there are multiple substances that exist) and accounts for how something can change over time without going out of existence (change is explained as a substance having some properties at one time and having different properties at a different time).

Now consider the classic Christian claim that God is both creator and sustainer. As creator, God is responsible for the existence of everything; there is no thing x such that x exists independently of God’s creative act through which x is brought into being. Moreover, we can see that at the moment of x’s being created, not only is God responsible that x exists, God is responsible for x having the particular array of properties it does at its creation. Who or what else could be responsible given that only God has the power to bring x into being? As creator, God not only causes x to be, but at its creation God causes x to be some particular way at a particular time. 9 But what does it mean to say that God is both creator and sustainer of x? Here’s what I call the “neutral view of divine sovereignty”: God creates x by bringing x into being and endowing x with a nature which is an array of properties in virtue of which x is the kind of thing it is. God sustains x by {151} ensuring moment by moment that x continues to exist; God sustaining x is both necessary and sufficient for x to exist.

So far, this is a view of divine sovereignty on which both Calvinists and Arminians can agree. What separates Calvinism from other perspectives on divine sovereignty concerns different responses to the following question: Is God’s sovereign control consistent with God sustaining x through indeterminate states?

Peter van Inwagen describes indeterminism as “the thesis that the distribution of all the particles of matter in the universe at a given moment, and their causal powers at that moment, do not determine the subsequent behavior of the particles” 10 Consider two scenarios mentioned by van Inwagen involving an object persisting through indeterminate states: physical particles operating according to physics described by quantum indeterminacy and moral agents possessing libertarian free will. With respect to God’s relationship to indeterminate physical systems where elementary particles can “swerve in the void,” 11 van Inwagen states: “If God’s causal relations with the world are confined to continuously holding the elementary particles in existence and continuously supplying them with their causal powers, then He does not decree the outcomes of such ‘swerves in the void,’ since the ‘swerves’ are not determined by the causal powers of the particles.” 12

Van Inwagen goes on to compare deterministic with indeterministic physics by asking us to compare two billiard tables, where the second table is as much a copy of the first table in terms of the initial position and momentum of the balls as the laws of nature will allow:

If the “laws of nature” are those of nineteenth-century physics, the second table will be an absolutely perfect duplicate of the first sans phrase, and the behavior of the balls on the second table will—presumably—duplicate exactly the behavior of the balls on the first table forever. Suppose, however, that a rolling billiard ball exhibits the position-momentum and time-energy uncertainties predicted by Heisenberg. . . . Within a few minutes the arrangements of balls on the two tables will be entirely different. 13

For our purposes, notice that the second billiard table example is consistent with the “neutral view of divine sovereignty” described above, for God is still sustaining the existence of the particles that constitute the billiard balls at every moment. It’s just that for these particles, their “swerves in the void” are not determined by the particular array of causal powers they possess. {152}

The second scenario of an object persisting through an indeterminate state concerns the possibility of creaturely agents possessing libertarian free will. Here is Jerry Walls’s description of libertarian freedom: “If we are free with respect to a given action A, we have the power to choose to do A or to refrain from it, according to libertarians. Various factors may influence our choice, but a truly free choice is one that is not determined by prior conditions or causes and in which it is finally up to us how we choose on the matter.” 14

It is important to note that on a libertarian concept of freedom, God’s activity is included among the prior conditions and causes that cannot determine a free choice. If an agent S possesses libertarian freedom of the sort just described, then when S exercises that freedom in some particular free choice, we have God sustaining S through an indeterminate state through which S has made her choice. The state is indeterminate because no antecedent conditions determined the content of S’s choice—because she chose freely, not even God could causally determine what S’s choice would be.

Calvinists tend to think that in order for God to truly be in sovereign control of all things, for every moment of x’s existence, God not only determines that x exists, but God also renders it certain that x is the way that it is at each moment of x’s existence. Thus, Calvinists tend to reject a libertarian account of freedom and opt for a compatibilist account of freedom where an act’s being free is compatible with its being determined. The idea of indeterminate states doesn’t sit well with the Calvinist conception of God’s complete and total sovereignty, for it seems to make some states of affairs beyond God’s causal reach and that seems to suggest that God isn’t in complete control of every state of affairs. And from a Calvinist’s perspective, if God is not in complete control of every state of affairs, then God would not be the all-powerful sovereign creator and sustainer of all that is.

This view of divine sovereignty is brought into sharp focus by New Calvinist icon, John Piper. Here’s an excerpt from Piper’s Desiring God website from a post entitled, “Why I Do Not Say ‘God Did Not Cause the Calamity But He Can Use it for Good’,” posted shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center in September, 2001:

From the smallest thing to the greatest thing, good and evil, happy and sad, pagan and Christian, pain and pleasure—God governs them all for his wise and just and good purposes (Isaiah 46:10). Lest we miss the point, the Bible speaks most clearly to this in the most painful situations. Amos asks, in time of disaster, “If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?” (Amos 3:6). 15 {153}

Similarly, days after tornadoes ripped through the American south and mid-west resulting in dozens of deaths, Piper posted the following within a lengthy post entitled “Fierce Tornadoes and the Finger of God”: “We do not ascribe such independent power to Mother Nature or to the devil. God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows. If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command.” 16

For New Calvinists like Piper, God’s being sovereign means that every event, “from the smallest to the greatest thing” is ultimately caused by God—anything less would mean that God is in less than perfect control.

I’ll raise some criticisms of New Calvinist theology below. For now, it’s worth pointing out that a key point underlying the New Calvinist picture of divine sovereignty seems to be belief that God couldn’t tolerate indeterminacy. But that is certainly not obviously true, particularly if God in his sovereignty decreed that certain kinds and qualities of indeterminacy are permissible. In which case, one can ask: what would it look like for God to remain completely sovereign as creator and sustainer of all that is in a world in which some states are indeterminate—that is, where some states are such that “they can have more than one outcome”? 17

First, it would have to be the case that God cedes some causal power and responsibility to created things, indeed that God sovereignly ordains that this is so, and therefore that God is comfortable doing so. For example, God choosing to endow and distribute elementary particles in a particular array and choosing to have those particles operate within an indeterministic quantum system would mean that God is comfortable in giving even elementary particles a certain measure of “autonomy.” And God choosing to endow free and rational moral agents with a will capable of exercising libertarian freedom—that is, capable of choosing either to perform some act or to refrain from performing that act—would mean that God is comfortable in giving free moral agents a certain measure of autonomy.

Second, it would have to be the case that God’s sovereign granting of some causal power and responsibility to created things would in no way conflict with God’s ultimate plan or impede God’s ability to achieve God’s ultimate purposes. For many, a Molinist account of God’s foreknowledge according to which God knows the outcome of indeterminate states, either with respect to the free choices of creaturely agents, 18 or the operations of elementary particles at the quantum level, 19 is able to reconcile God’s ability to govern creation according to God’s own purposes even while endowing creatures with a measure of autonomy. 20 On this view, God’s knowing in advance the outcomes of events caused by others preserves God’s sovereignty and God’s ability to providentially guide creation according to God’s plan. {154}

The Gospel

New Calvinists emphasize the centrality of the gospel in Christian mission. It’s important to note that for New Calvinists, the good news of Jesus Christ is understood exclusively in terms of the Calvinist TULIP—especially the “ULI” portion (unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace). This is significant in two respects. First, when New Calvinists use the word “gospel” it generally functions as a code word for the specific interpretation of the saving work of Christ articulated in the Canons of Dort (1619) and preserved through that strand of Reformed theology into the present day. And second, for New Calvinists any account of the saving work of Christ, of divine election and predestination, and of human response to the free gift of salvation found in Christ that deviates from TULIP is not the gospel. For New Calvinists, gospel ministry is compromised if the gospel is articulated in any terms other than TULIP. Thus, it’s worth unpacking the heart of TULIP more fully.

Unconditional election, quite literally, means that there is no condition that influences God’s decision to incorporate one into the community of the elect. According to New Calvinists, salvation is all the work of God from beginning to end—and for New Calvinists, “all” means all. There is literally nothing for those elected from sinful humanity to contribute to the process of their election. Even the response of one of the elect to the gift of salvation is the work of God. And while New Calvinists assert that Christ died for all, on their account the scope of the atonement is limited. Atonement is not available to all, but only to those whom God determined would be numbered among the elect.

Here’s a different way of describing the New Calvinist picture of salvation. Let H be the set whose members are all and only human agents who have existed, do exist, or will exist. 21 H encompasses all of humanity and only humanity. Within H there is a subset E whose members e1. . .en are all and only the elect. The elect are the redeemed, covenantal people of God who are destined—in fact, predestined—for eternal life. While Christ died for all, the scope of the atonement is limited only to the elect, and thus only the elect have their sins atoned for, enabling only the elect to stand in right and saving relationship with God. Also within H is the subset D whose members d1. . .dn are all and only the damned. On the TULIP understanding of the gospel, the sins of the damned are not atoned for, and thus the damned cannot stand in right, saving relationship with God. As a result, the damned are destined for the punishment of eternal separation from God. Membership in E and D is mutually exclusive and the union of E and D constitutes H: every member of H is either also a member of E or of D.

In this picture, every member of H deserves to belong in D. If H and D were identical, God would still remain perfectly just, loving, and good, for {155} total depravity is total in two senses. First, our depravity is total in that every aspect of human being, including the will, is corrupted by sin to some degree. Second, our depravity is total in that every member of humanity is so corrupted. However, God, in grace and in an unmerited expression of his loving kindness, has chosen a subset of sinful humanity to have their sins atoned for and to be elected for eternal life—that is, to be members of E and not D. The crucial point for New Calvinists is that one’s membership in E does not depend on any property or action of the member. When God predestines that some person, e127 say, will be numbered among the elect, it is solely because God determines that e127 will be elected to salvation. For the New Calvinist, this is the only way to ensure that God remains completely sovereign and alone worthy of glory for e127’s salvation.

This is a different perspective on election from the classical Arminian picture where human freedom (understood in the libertarian sense) enables humans either to resist or to accept God’s free gift of grace. On the Arminian view, membership in E isn’t a function of God determining who is numbered among the elect. What’s needed on the Arminian picture is the added action of a human agent exercising God-given libertarian freedom to repent of sin and freely accept God’s gift. For the Arminian, God’s action is sufficient to provide the means by which one can be saved, but is not sufficient for determining whether any particular person is a member of E.

To New Calvinists, the Arminian view is mistaken in several respects. First, it would require that humans have the causal capacity to determine their own future in the way that having libertarian freedom would require. Humans having this causal power runs counter to the New Calvinist understanding of God’s sovereignty because it would introduce indeterminacy into the created order, and for New Calvinists, God’s sovereignty is incompatible with any indeterminacy. Second, New Calvinists reject the Arminian view because it is seen as making one’s salvation a product of one’s effort: i.e., a product of one’s ability to respond affirmatively to the gospel, when on the Arminian view they also had the power to reject God’s gift of grace. New Calvinists assert that on the Arminian picture, human effort is necessary for salvation, which means that redeemed humanity would merit some of the glory for the effort they contributed to their own salvation. All of this, they assert, is contrary to the true gospel which is God’s work alone.

Biblical Authority

New Calvinists view the Bible as authoritative, inerrant, and clear. With respect to the Bible’s authority, consider the classic Protestant view of sources of authority for the Christian life: the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. 22 New Calvinists, like many reformers in both the magisterial and radical streams of the Reformation, {156} attempt to privilege Scripture over reason, tradition, and experience. New Calvinist biblicism is anchored in the view that Scripture is a clearer and more complete picture of God’s revelation to humanity, and thus more authoritative than other points in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. New Calvinists fully adopt and proclaim Luther’s rallying cry, Sola scriptura!

New Calvinists’ commitment to the authority of Scripture undergirds the strength with which they cling to hard doctrines in the face of cultural pressure and criticism from other Christian traditions. This is most clearly seen in the New Calvinist defenses of TULIP, their deterministic concept of divine sovereignty, and in the staunch New Calvinist defense of complementarian, male-headship theology. New Calvinists are convinced that Scripture clearly teaches TULIP even while some recognize that TULIP seems to—emphasis on seems to—have some implications that are hard to reconcile with a perfectly loving God. For example, the conjunction of unconditional election and irresistible grace seems to make election and damnation an arbitrary choice of the mind of God. If some are indeed predestined to eternal damnation, the fact that some of humanity remain in their sin is due to the fact that God chooses to lavish irresistible saving grace on some and not all. Recall that on the New Calvinist view, the elect contribute nothing to their election. It is solely and completely determined by God. To many, this seems analogous to a doctor who, having ample quantities of a life-saving antidote to a terrible disease, chooses to administer the antidote only to a select few simply because he chooses to administer the antidote only to a select few. 23 Moreover, to many, the New Calvinist picture of divine sovereignty entails that God is ultimately causally responsible for every state of affairs, including the total depravity of humanity and human corruption due to original sin. And this means that any putative agent other than God bears no ultimate causal responsibility—and hence no moral responsibility—for any action. God would truly be the “author of sin.” New Calvinists agree that seen one way, divine sovereignty can seem like a “hard doctrine.” However, because they see it as a clear teaching of Scripture, they insist that it must be affirmed nevertheless.

A similar type of reasoning is present in New Calvinist support for male-headship theology. TULIP itself doesn’t stipulate that gender roles are divinely mandated. However, the same reverence for the authority of Scripture that drives the “young, restless, and Reformed” to endorse TULIP authorizes their support for male headship. New Calvinists are convinced that male-headship is a clear, biblical teaching and as such, must be endorsed even if it cuts against the grain of culture. According to Mark Driscoll, “Egalitarianism is a myth invented. It’s not a doctrine found. I get shot on that, and that’s cool, man. I love those who disagree with me. But yep, I see the complementarian issue as a watershed issue.” 24 Anyone who {157} supports an egalitarian position from Scripture is seen as an untrustworthy Bible interpreter. Thus, New Calvinists hold that if one is reading the Bible correctly, one will see that it teaches the “doctrines of grace” (TULIP), and that in the contexts of marriage and church leadership God has ordained that men and women play complementary roles, men exercising headship and women submitting to them. New Calvinists often assert that evangelicals and other Christians who oppose TULIP and male-headship are guilty of bowing to the norms of secular culture rather than submitting to the authority and clear witness of Scripture.

Church Planting

New Calvinism is a trans-denominational movement that exerts influence on existing denominational entities, gives rise to trans-denominational and quasi-denominational networks, and spawns non-denominational congregations. A key factor in the expansion of New Calvinism through these various spheres of influence is the New Calvinist emphasis on church planting. Recall that for New Calvinists, “gospel” is defined through the theological matrix of TULIP. The most effective means of proclaiming the “gospel” is through planting churches. 25 Three of the most influential church planting networks in the New Calvinist world are Sovereign Grace Ministries, founded in 1982 out of Covenant Life Church (a church plant led for many years by C. J. Mahaney); the Acts 29 Network, co-founded by Mark Driscoll; and Redeemer City to City, founded in the late 1990s out of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. 26 Both Sovereign Grace Ministries and Acts 29 Network are explicitly New Calvinist in their theological requirements for church planters. 27 Sovereign Grace is a global network of eighty-two churches, most of which are in the United States, but includes congregations in Mexico, Canada, Europe, Burma, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. The Acts 29 Network describes itself as having “emerged from a small band of brothers to nearly 500 churches around the world.” 28 Redeemer City to City is certainly Reformed in its theological outlook; however, in addition to planting its own network of “over 170 churches in 35 global cities,” 29 the network looks to resource church planting in other denominational contexts. While not a church planting network, the Gospel Coalition is worth mentioning in this context because of its influence in resourcing both established and new churches. D. A. Carson and Timothy Keller explain that at the time of the founding of TGC in 2006 the “most deeply felt need was the call to focus a new generation of Christian pastors and leaders on the primacy of the one true gospel and help them understand our times with penetrating faithfulness.” 30 Churches can join the Coalition network of affiliated churches by endorsing its theological confession and vision for ministry. It is a distinctly New Calvinist confession and vision, {158} supporting a TULIP understanding of the gospel and affirming a complementarian male-headship theology.


New Calvinism is a movement championed by influential and charismatic men with large followings and, by most measures, remarkably successful ministries. However, as New Calvinists themselves would agree, external markers of success are not reliable indicators of sound theology. How should Mennonite Brethren go about determining whether New Calvinism (or any other theological movement) should be an intentional part of the denomination’s theological ethos and identity?

Here, too, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience provides a helpful matrix for assessing the theological fit between New Calvinism and the Mennonite Brethren. 31 With respect to Scripture, it makes sense to ask the following questions: Is there good biblical support for New Calvinism? Is a New Calvinist hermeneutic consistent with MB approaches to interpreting Scripture? 32 Are New Calvinist assumptions about the nature and proper interpretation of the Bible consistent with MB theology? With respect to tradition, one can ask: Are there aspects of New Calvinism at odds with MB theology and confessions? Mennonites have tended toward an Arminian understanding of election. What are the broader consequences for MB theology if Arminianism is rejected for New Calvinism? With respect to reason: Are there good logical or empirical grounds for endorsing or rejecting New Calvinism? Does our best data and learning across the academic disciplines confirm or contradict New Calvinist theology? And with respect to experience, it’s important to ask: How does New Calvinist theology shape the experience of Christian community? Are there factors in a New Calvinist outlook that enhance or hinder a life of Christian discipleship?

It is important for Mennonite Brethren voices to reflect on and think through responses to questions of the sort posed above in each of the four areas of theological assessment. 33 In my view, New Calvinist theology has such serious flaws that MBs ought to seriously consider whether their churches should be allowed to endorse New Calvinist confessions of faith. 34

Divine Sovereignty

The most serious problem with New Calvinist theology is that given its doctrine of a sovereign God who is the ultimate cause of every state of affairs, there is simply no way God can evade responsibility for evil. I agree fully with Roger Olson’s claim that {159}

the Calvinist account of God’s sovereignty . . . inevitably makes God the author of sin, evil, and innocent suffering (such as the children of the Holocaust) and thereby impugns the integrity of God’s character as good and loving. The God of this Calvinism (as opposed to, say, revisionist Reformed theology) is at best morally ambiguous and at worst a moral monster hardly distinguishable from the devil. 35

Similarly, if God is causally responsible for every state of affairs, then the damned are not causally responsible for their own rebellion against God. And if the damned are not causally responsible for their rejection of God, then their sentencing by God to eternal punishment is the unjust action of a capricious and malevolent deity. But that contradicts the idea of a God who is both perfectly loving and perfectly just.

New Calvinists respond that we are left with a mystery in which God is both sovereign in the theologically deterministic Calvinist sense and perfect in love and justice. We don’t know how to reconcile these two claims when it comes to God’s ways, we simply must accept that both are true because that’s what Scripture teaches. However, on this score Arminian theology provides a much more satisfying alternative: God sovereignly decrees that agents are truly able to determine their own future in some key respects, most notably with respect to choosing whether to accept or reject God’s gift of grace.

Biblical Authority

A second problem with New Calvinist theology concerns the way in which New Calvinists privilege Scripture over other sources of authority in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Evangelicals and other Christian traditions recognize various sources from which one may form true or plausibly true beliefs about God. To count experience as an authoritative source is to count the subjective experience one has in religiously significant moments like corporate worship, encountering nature’s beauty, seeing God’s image borne in another, or reading Scripture, etc., as contributing some degree of epistemic justification to beliefs formed in those contexts. To count tradition as a source of epistemic authority is to give voices from our theological past an opportunity to inform our theological present.

The authority of reason is perhaps the most controversial of the Quadrilateral four. Evangelicals embroiled in culture wars are sensitive to the ways in which “reason” has been placed in opposition to “faith.” If forced to choose between the two, evangelicals will tend to side with faith. One way to count reason as a source of epistemic justification for our beliefs about God is merely to acknowledge that deductive and inductive methods can be pathways to truths about God, God’s purposes, and God’s creation. {160}

If this is how we understand the potential epistemic contributions of experience, tradition, and reason, what does it mean to count Scripture as the pre-eminent source of authority alongside these others? More specifically, is there a meaningful way to adopt the Reformation rallying cry of sola scriptura as New Calvinists and other evangelicals would have us do? My own view is that New Calvinist biblicism is a naïve view of sola scriptura, which fails to take into account the roles of reason, tradition, and experience in shaping our understanding of the Bible as an authoritative text. There is no meaningful sense in which the Bible as authority can be isolated from experience, tradition, and reason. Therefore, sola scriptura can’t mean that the Bible is an isolated epistemic norm that “stands over” or adjudicates other sources of authority as New Calvinists and some other evangelicals seem to think.

Every act of biblical interpretation is a subjective experience mediated by tradition and reason (where “reason” is understood to include the capacity to form inferences). There is no such thing as “the Bible alone”—if by “alone” one means separate from experience, tradition, and reason. This is not to say that biblical interpretation is completely subjective or that we should be skeptics about the Bible’s capacity to reveal truth. The postmodernist mistake, and by extension the mistake of much academic theology of the last several decades, is thinking that the subjective dimension of interpretation entails the impossibility of access to objective truth. Acknowledging the incoherence of common applications of sola scriptura in no way justifies theological skepticism.

What it should do, however, is qualify the way in which appeals to scriptural authority are often used in New Calvinist polemics against Arminian theology and in support of male-headship theology. For New Calvinists, the stakes in theological disputes get ratcheted up very quickly, for disputes about theology are quickly interpreted as disputes about the authority of the Bible. If the Bible, New Calvinists assert, clearly teaches both TULIP and male-headship, then any who deny either TULIP or male-headship must be privileging other sources of authority (perhaps reason, tradition, experience, or cultural pressure) over the Bible, and that contradicts the principle of sola scriptura. But as I hope should be clear by now, this reasoning is mistaken in two respects. First, the New Calvinist conclusion that the Bible teaches TULIP and male-headship is itself arrived at through reason, tradition, and experience in the act of interpreting the Bible. Second, the New Calvinists’ view that rejecting TULIP and male-headship means rejecting the authority of the Bible fails to consider the roles that reason, tradition, and experience play in all biblical interpretation, including their own. {161}

Deep theological issues are at stake here with respect to how one understands who God is and the scope of the atoning work of Christ. There also are signs that a deep fissure is forming in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren landscape between the New Calvinists on one side and everyone else on the other. 36 Given the increasing influence of New Calvinist theology among Canadian MBs, there needs to be significant energy expended on thoughtful, consultative, open, and inclusive theological discussion that addresses these issues and works toward resolving them.

Denominational Health and Identity

The New Calvinist influence on Canadian Mennonite Brethren is also a concern on account of the temptation to “outsource” MB theology to New Calvinist theologians and writers. MB churches led by New Calvinist pastors tend to promote New Calvinist theologians like Wayne Grudem, D. A. Carson, John Piper, Al Mohler, Tim Keller, and Kevin DeYoung. Support for this New Calvinist canon is often coupled with severe mistrust of anyone outside that authoritative list. This has dire consequences for the internal development of MB theology. Why should we support our own seminary and theological voices when there are networks like TGC that will provide (approved New Calvinist) theology ready-made? 37

Another dynamic in the denominational landscape is the influence and direction of the Canadian MB national church planting network, C2C. C2C is a juggernaut in the Canadian MB world, so much so that it is likely the single most influential ministry shaping how decisions are made and how money is spent at the Canadian conference level. It is also fair to say that C2C is a sizable pipeline through which New Calvinist theology and practice is being distributed to Canadian MBs. Fair to say because a significant number of churches planted or supported by C2C turn out to be New Calvinist in their theology. Their affiliation with New Calvinist associations like Acts 29 and TGC and their adoption of the confessional statements of these associations indicate as much. 38 Indeed, in one relevant respect Acts 29 and TGC function like denominations: membership in these networks requires strict adherence to a doctrinal code that includes endorsing TULIP and male headship. The result is a significant and increasing number of Canadian MB churches that are members of several de facto “denominations” at once. Unless this dynamic is recognized and deliberate efforts are made to foster greater theological and spiritual unity among Canadian MBs, the fissure I referred to earlier will deepen and divide us further. 39


New Calvinism is increasing in influence in North American evangelicalism, and its sway has extended to Canadian Mennonite Brethren. This {162} raises two important questions for them. First, to what degree are Canadian MBs comfortable with endorsing New Calvinist theology? And second, to what degree are Canadian MBs comfortable in allowing New Calvinist theology to shape their denominational identity? How the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference processes these questions over the next five years will influence the shape of the denomination for decades to come.


  1. The five points of “five point Calvinism” are the captured in the well-known acrostic “TULIP” and summarizes the main points of the Canons of Dort (1619). The letters in the acrostic stand for Total depravity (no member or aspect of humanity has escaped the corrupting effects of sin), Unconditional election (God’s predestining some of sinful humanity to salvation is not conditioned on any contribution by the elect), Limited atonement (only the elect have their sins atoned for), Irresistible grace (the Holy Spirit’s regenerative work in the sinner elected to salvation cannot be thwarted), and Perseverance of the saints (once numbered among the elect, one’s salvation cannot be lost). For a slightly different phrasing of these five points, see Michael S. Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 15.
  2. A number of magazine articles in the past decade have chronicled the increasing profile and influence of New Calvinism. See Collin Hansen, “Young, Restless, Reformed,” Christianity Today, September 22, 2006,; David Van Biema, “The New Calvinism,” Time, March 12, 2009,,28804,1884779_1884782_1884760,00.html; J. Todd Billings, “Calvin’s Comeback?” Christian Century 126, no. 24 (December 1, 2009): 22–25.
  3. I recall as a Columbia Bible College student some twenty years ago a lower-level class in which the instructor presented the five points of Calvinism’s “TULIP” simply as the biblical view of divine sovereignty, the human condition, and salvation.
  4. There are many interesting historical, sociological, and cultural questions lurking nearby. What conditions contributed to the New Calvinist surge in North America? Who and what were the primary agents and institutions that facilitated the movement? What were the primary connecting points between the wider movement and the Mennonite Brethren world? New Calvinism has exerted significant influence on Canadian MBs. Is the same true for American MBs or MBs in other parts of the world? As interesting as these questions are, I’ll leave it to others to address them.
  5. Information on the Gospel Coalition (TGC) can be found at
  6. Information on the Acts 29 Network can be found at
  7. Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008). {163}
  8. Ibid., 21.
  9. For an in depth treatment of some of the philosophical issues relevant here, see Hugh J. McCann and Jonathan Kvanvig, “The Occasionalist Proselytizer: A Modified Catechism,” Philosophical Perspectives 5 (1991): 587–615.
  10. Peter van Inwagen, “The Place of Chance in a World Sustained by God,” in God, Knowledge, and Mystery: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 54.
  11. The phrase “swerves in the void” comes from the ancient Greek atomist philosophers and refers to the undetermined actions of elementary particles. This, according to van Inwagen, 54.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 55.
  14. Jerry Walls, “Eternal Damnation and the Christian Concept of God,” in Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, ed. Michael L. Peterson and Raymond J. van Arragon (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 271.
  15. John Piper, “Why I Do Not Say, ‘God Did Not Cause the Calamity but He Can Use it for Good’,” Desiring God, September 17, 2001,
  16. John Piper, “Fierce Tornadoes and the Finger of God,” Desiring God website, March 5, 2012,
  17. Van Inwagen, 55.
  18. For the definitive contemporary account of Molinism, see Thomas P. Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).
  19. This application is made by William Lane Craig. See his blog entry, “Divine Sovereignty and Quantum Indeterminism,” Reasonable Faith (blog), accessed August 16, 2013,
  20. Thus, it’s important to keep in mind that “indeterminate” does not necessarily mean “unknowable.” Opponents to a Molinist perspective on divine foreknowledge think otherwise. See, e.g., William Hasker, “A Refutation of Middle Knowledge,” Nous 20 (1986): 545–57.
  21. Only those who possess only a human nature. Jesus, who is both fully God and fully human, is not a member of H so defined.
  22. For an excellent description of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as well as insightful reflection on how it can be appropriated, see John G. Stackhouse, Jr.’s Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 165–80.
  23. This is similar to an analogy drawn by Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell in their book, Why I Am Not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 54–56.
  24. Quoted in Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed, 139.
  25. Preferably, complementarian, New Calvinist churches.
  26. “History,” Redeemer City to City website, accessed September 2, 2013, {164}
  27. Requirements include agreeing with the Sovereign Grace statement of faith and supporting a complementarian understanding of marriage and church leadership. See “Qualifications for Participating in a Church Planting Team,” Sovereign Grace Ministries website, accessed September 2, 2013,
  28. “About Acts 29,” Acts 29 website, accessed September 2, 2013,
  29. “History,” Redeemer City to City.
  30. “History of the Gospel Coalition,” TGC website, accessed September 7, 2013,
  31. By noting the four distinct points on the Quadrilateral, one shouldn’t infer that each point is completely distinct from the influences of the other points. For example, as I’ll discuss below, interpreting the Bible is an act mediated by reason, tradition, and subjective experience. Moreover, one’s use of reason is informed by a tradition, and the Christian tradition with which one identifies itself is shaped by its interpretation of Scripture, and so on.
  32. Notice that one simultaneously belongs to many “traditions” both owing to factors related to historical connectedness and to voluntary self-identification. “Mennonite Brethren” will serve as the reference frame for this paragraph but there’s a sense in which that lens is too narrow—even for MBs doing MB theology. This is because MBs (at least, typically) also identify with, and see historic and ideological connection to, streams of Christian experience that include German Pietism, evangelicalism, other Mennonites, and the “believers church” tradition to name just a few. The point is that asking how a particular theology “fits” with one’s theological tradition requires thinking through how one’s emerging theological self-identify both stems from and embraces a variety of traditions.
  33. Using the categories from the preceding theological matrix, the critical points I’ll raise below engage New Calvinist theology under the entry points of reason and experience, broadly construed.
  34. Calvinists have responses to the issues I’ll raise, but due to space constraints I won’t be going into long explanations as to why I find them lacking. For a solid presentation and defense of Calvinist theology, see Horton, For Calvinism.
  35. Roger E. Olson, Against Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 84.
  36. The experience of the Southern Baptists may serve as a cautionary tale here. See Greg Horton, “Why John Calvin is shaking things up for Southern Baptists,” Religion News Service website,
  37. One might wonder whether my criticisms of New Calvinism reflect a similar kind of “outsourcing” given that my critical comments do not appeal to distinctly MB authorities, confessions, or history for authorization and instead employ the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a guide to critical reflection. (My thanks to Bruce Guenther for raising this point.) However, the authoritative sources identified in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral are not uniquely Wesleyan. {165} The Quadrilateral is a useful heuristic in that it identifies widely recognized sources of authority (though not in a universal or unqualified sense). So, I think there are good philosophical reasons for rejecting New Calvinist theology, mainly because it is logically inconsistent with a very plausible way of interpreting standard theistic attributes of God. With respect to our corporate experience, I think that an uncritical appropriation of New Calvinist theology will undermine the overall health of the MB community. Historians, historical theologians, and biblical theologians may have other critical comments concerning the integration of New Calvinism with MB theology. My focus on philosophical criticisms isn’t intended to minimize the importance of consulting tradition, but merely reflects the fact that I am a professional philosopher.
  38. Of the fifty-two churches and ministries listed by C2C as part of the C2C network (see “C2C Network Directory,” Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches website, accessed September 9, 2013,, twelve are oriented toward New Calvinism (23 percent). When considering only those church plants affiliated with the Canadian or provincial MB conferences, the number rises to ten out of thirty-seven, or 27 percent. The percentage continues to climb when looking at the most recent versus earlier initiatives. The September British Columbia MB leaders’ newsletter advertised that four new C2C network churches were about to launch: three MB churches and one from another denomination. The three MB churches all list affiliations with New Calvinist networks. BCMB News, September 2013,
  39. A significant worry is whether conforming to New Calvinist theology will be used as a litmus test for participating in certain conference boards and initiatives. I am aware of at least one instance where this seems to have been the case.
Myron A. Penner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC. He is also a John Templeton Foundation Visiting Research Fellow at Ryerson University for the 2013/2014 academic year.

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