New Calvinists give Old Puritans a bad name

I see that a movement called “New Calvinism” is trying to sweep the nation, led most notably by someone named Mark Driscoll in Seattle. They claim to have rehabilitated the teachings of John Calvin, particularly the ideas that all humans are damned and unable to earn salvation, and that God has chosen just a few to be saved, no matter what they do, and most to be damned, no matter what they do.

Calvin did believe that every person’s fate–heaven or hell–was set before time began, in the mind of God, and that nothing you did could change that. His belief that you could not earn salvation by leading a good life was adopted by the English Puritans. “Justification,” or God’s grace/salvation, could not be bought by “sanctification”, or good works.

Still, a Puritan had to live a good life and perform good works, in order to: 1) show God’s goodness to the world; 2) help themselves to be open to and focused on God’s grace if/when they might receive it; and 3) because they loved God and wanted to do good.

The “New Calvinists” article I read begins by saying these present-day Americans believe in election of the few and damnation of the many, but then I didn’t see any proofs of it. They mostly preach the same old thing I heard growing up in the 70s in a Protestant church: women must submit to men, everything is in God’s hands and we can’t understand it and shouldn’t try, and you must fear hell at every moment. They fail to live up to the standards of my old church by stating that living a good life is not necessary.

They’re not truly Calvinists, of course; no one can recapture a historical moment. Calvin and his followers were born because of their socio-political moment; even the English Puritans who adopted Calvinism changed it. Living religion always changes. It’s clear that their leader in Seattle is no Calvinist, since he believes God talks directly to him, telling him who to marry and what career to enter into.

The difference between New and real Calvinists is that the first Calvinists were not trying to recapture something. They were revolutionaries, exacting the same kind of harsh punishments on dissenters within their group that any political revolutionary group does. They were thinking for themselves and coming up with a new religion in response to both the old Catholic church and the new Lutheran one. The Seattle “Calvinists” are making up a casserole of hodge-podge beliefs from all corners in order to shock with a new-yet-old doctrine.

The Puritans weren’t trying to shock anyone with their faith, and they were extremely thoughtful about their religion. It was a very intellectual religion, relying on soul-searching, Bible reading, prayer, and a rationally laid out progress toward reaching a point where Grace, if it was coming to you, could be known to you. They didn’t have “star” preachers who trampled the rights of their congregations; the congregation was a democratic body that asserted its control over its pastor and teachers, and there was a love and respect between the leadership and the congregation that is missing in today’s version.

This isn’t a blog about religion, but you know that when someone brings up the Puritans in today’s news, I have to be there. I fear they are sullied by the connection to “New Calvinism,” which sullies our understanding of an important founding group in America.

8 thoughts on “New Calvinists give Old Puritans a bad name

  1. Lori – your post interests me for two reasons: 1) I enjoy reading the puritans and 2) I enjoy listening to Mark Driscoll teach. I am an apologist for neither group. You’ve done well in pointing out Puritans beliefs in your summary of why they had to live a good life, but I think you may not be totally accurate in your assessment of what Mark Driscoll teaches. “They fail to live up to the standards of my old church by stating that living a good life is not necessary”? I’ve yet to hear that taught at Mars Hill – Mark Driscoll’s church in Seattle. I would prefer you re-inforce these claims with solid facts. While I’ve not heard all of Driscoll’s teachings, I don’t think he is accurately protrayed here. And on the other side of the coin, while I haven’t read all of the Puritans works, I do know they have much to offer us in society today.
    Thanks for your post, I’ve enjoyed it!


  2. Hello Mark!

    I am NOT well-informed about the NCs, and am going only on the 4-page article on them in the Times, which featured many quotes from Driscoll and church members, so I may be wrong, but Driscoll emphasized in the article that “clean living” is pointless (and possibly homosexual).

    People today are taught that in their attempt to lead good lives, the Puritans simply banned everything–sex, drinking, dancing, etc.–which is completely untrue. Their focus was on doing good, focusing on the good, rather than cataloging the bad.

    So again, I’m no New Calvinist expert, and my quarrel here is the way they were compared to the Puritans in the single article I read.

    Thanks for commenting–browse around the blog for plenty more on Puritans!


  3. Greetings! I just wanted to say that I, too, feel that there is a profound difference between the Old Calvinism believed by the Puritans and the New Calvinism expounded by today’s reformed groups. I think one of the major differences, strangely enough, is the New Calvinist’s emphasis on predestination — something that, while it was believed, was not really emphasized so much by the Puritans, save when they were attempting to combat any doctrine that smacked of a covenant of works rather than of faith. Now, I realize that I’m mightily biased in favour of the Old Puritans as opposed to their wannabe present-day descendants, and so I was wondering: do you, too, feel that there is a definite difference between the Puritans and their teaching of predestination in comparison to the New Calvinists/reformed groups?


    1. Hello Colin. Well, I don’t really know enough about the New Calvinists to compare. But for the original Puritans, predestination was indeed tricky. It was at once the basis of their entire religion, yet they couldn’t help believing that maybe one’s efforts to live a righteous life softened God’s judgements. I’ve read that William Bradford and John Winthrop both spent years worrying they were not of the elect, then “realized” one evening that they were, and all their anxiety fell away. I think this must have been the case for many Puritans who worked hard for decades to live a godly life and finally got to the point where they felt that they surely must be saved. But all the while, their theology forbid this point of view. People are people, no matter what they try to believe, and in the end I think most Puritans could not believe that God would not honor their efforts to some merciful extent.


  4. I’m a lengthy time watcher and I just believed I’d drop by and say hi there there for your incredibly first time.


  5. To defend Puritanism, and it’s lasting legacy, can only come with a denial from an ignorance of historical abuse and hypocrisy discrediting the Christian faith. A historical witness of the Puritan’s treatment of those of different beliefs, withing the liberty of Romans 14, the heathen, the converted heathen, their enemies, their self righteous judgments and unwarranted ‘gloating’, ‘cherry picking’ scripture, often from the Old Testament, and scheming to take land for the benefit of the elite at the expense of the owners. . .is tragic. A Christian should be repulsed by the Puritans historical witness and their lasting legacy confirms how miserable and deficient the Puritan faith was, in reality, regarding Christian charity. The failure of their church and state experiment, implementing Calvin’s ideals, confirmed the fruit of the Jesus warning to avoid the ‘leaven of the Pharisee and Herod’. In other words, ‘so much for dominion theology’ in practice!


    1. Hello Robert; it’s worth your while to read actual Puritan church discipline. It will give you a fuller, more accurate understanding of their beliefs and church practices. One could level the accusations you make at any religion, including any branch of Christianity. With knowledge comes nuance.


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