New Calvinism & Scholarship: Roses by Other Names

by Trevor Anderson

New Calvinists have thought quite a bit about the concept of ‘scholarship’, and have, I think, arrived at some valuable insights. In this post, I’d like to explain what one might understand ‘New Calvinist scholarship’ to refer to, and to argue that, with the proper framing, such a phrase can be considered legitimate.

What is Scholarship?

New Calvinism understands the pastor as first and foremost a prophetic (=truth-speaking) communicator of the riches of divine revelation to God’s people. Thus, the pastor’s primary vocation is, in a phrase, “expository exultation.” While there are, of course, elders in a given church who do not preach regularly from the pulpit on Sundays, their prerogative is nevertheless the same: ministration to God’s people from the resources of God’s written Word. This is a laudable New Calvinist conviction, one that the movement understands as originating with the preaching of Paul and other New Testament figures, and affirmed by the likes of Calvin, Luther, Whitefield, Edwards, and Spurgeon. (As an aside, I received my Catholic theological education from the Dominican order, which is devoted particularly to preaching and teaching, and to which Albert the Great (my patron saint) and Thomas Aquinas belong. Which is to say, I continue to admire well-wrought, clear, biblical exposition, of which the contemporary evangelical benchmark has been, and remains, bmohn Piper.)

This task of rightly dividing the word of God, and effectively relating it to His church, is not a job to be taken lightly. Thus, the fact that the pastor is not technically an ‘academic’ does not mean that he shirks sustained intellectual study and conversation. Rather, it is precisely because the pastor is not a ‘professional’ that he has an obligation to think deeply – not primarily (or at all) about crafting journal articles, but about plumbing and explaining the profound mysteries of Scripture.

These thoughts on the role of the pastor in relation to the ‘scholar’ (or ‘theologian’) have resulted in a fair amount of literature within the New Calvinist movement addressing variations of the following questions: what is a scholar? what is a theologian? can a pastor also be a scholar? are all pastors theologians? One can read a good summary of some of these conversations at Derek Rishmawy’s blog; notable books on the subject include those by Dr. Carson and Pastor John and Drs. Vanhoozer and Strachan.

For my part, I find that Dr. Naselli’s article published recently in Themelios can be used to derive a clear and correct distillation of what could be called the New Calvinist (he uses ‘evangelical’) ideal of scholarship. I should note that Dr. Naselli, following the lead of Carl Trueman and D.A. Carson, makes a distinction between (a) scholars and (b) academics, and between (c) scholarship and (d) popular writing. His article is largely a defense of the legitimacy of academics (b) writing popular-level works (d). Given this distinction, it will become clear later that I am using the term ‘scholarship’ in not quite the same sense as Dr. Naselli (rightly) does here.

To begin, I would like to focus on two quotations from Dr. Naselli:

  • Pushing back against the view that evangelicals should focus primarily on writing for/impressing the academic powers that be, Dr. Naselli writes: “Evangelical academics who write informed, responsible works for pastors and lay people (in addition to more technical writings) are a gift to Christ’s church” (p. 433). I understand this to be in some sense the raison d’être for publishing houses like Crossway, which has as its goal the publication of informed, responsible works, often by seminary professors or PhD-holding pastors, for (mainly) New Calvinist pastors and lay people – books that would not, and are not intended to, be published by OUP, Brill, etc. (and which, I might add, are quite attractively formatted and well-produced). Representative titles of this ‘popular-scholarship’ genre that come to mind are Pierced for Our Transgressions and Roman Catholic Theology: An Evangelical Assessment.Likewise, Themelios, the journal run by The Gospel Coalition, states that its “primary audience is theological students and pastors, though scholars read it as well.” This is very much in keeping with the fact the New Calvinist movement itself is not intended to be primarily an academic or scholarly (in the technical sense) movement, but a pastoral movement, started by, and directed toward, evangelical church pastors who want to better minister the gospel to God’s people.
  • Having discussed the psychological trainwreck that was George Eldon Ladd’s attempt to gain the approval of his secular peers for his 1964 book Jesus and the Kingdom, Dr. Naselli writes: “Evangelical academics should aim to be academically responsible more than being academically respectable” (p. 439, my emphases). This means that while prestigious publications and favorable reviews may come, accolades and CV padding are not necessarily correlated with the integrity of a work of itself: the primary object of a book, essay, article, etc., is true understanding and effective communication of that understanding.Surely the history of various intellectual endeavors, whether evangelical or otherwise, confirms Dr. Naselli’s point. Philosophical and theological works, musical compositions, poems, and paintings that are now world-famous frequently have spent their beginning years in obscurity, or subject to various degrees of derision and/or hostility by both the general public and, often, the thinker’s or artist’s own peers. Times, tastes, and prejudices change. The goal ought to be work that attempts to transcend, not cater to, the current fads, except insofar as those fads correspond to what the author understands to be an accurate perception of reality.

I find myself in complete agreement with the substance of Dr. Naselli’s understanding of academics engaging in popular writing: it is right and good for academics, particularly those affiliated with a Christian church, to attempt an edification of their peers and laypersons through work that is (a) informed, (b) responsible, and (c) not primarily concerned with professional accolades, but rather with the truth. (Of course, I am not an accomplished academic in any sense – my affirmation here comes from appreciating what I perceive to be the soundness of Dr. Naselli’s reasoning, not from first-hand experience of publishing academic work.)

Two additional observations. First, Dr. Naselli clarifies in his article that accolades are not in themselves a bad thing; again, I agree. And I would further say, and I imagine Dr. Naselli would agree, that insofar as academic communities (Christian or not) are ordered toward a good-faith pursuit of a deeper understanding of reality under the aspect of a particular discipline, the accolades, favorable reviews, etc. that come from those communities should be valued – even, within reason, sought for – in that they are signs that one’s work is recognized as something that respects, upholds, and furthers the practices and goals of the discipline itself.

Second, and more importantly, I want to expand on a point that I think is implicit in Dr. Naselli’s article (and in New Calvinism as a whole), and with which I also think he would agree: namely, ‘scholarship’ is not primarily about footnotes (as if, if one has them, it is ‘scholarship’; if not, it is not), or namedropping, or lengthy quotations in foreign languages, or what have you. Rather, scholarship refers primarily to constructive participation in an intellectually rigorous conversation.

Scholarly communities arise when a communal, sustained, intellectual effort is directed toward a particular topic or aspect of reality. At the start, the conversation is, necessarily, relatively crude and unsophisticated. As time goes on, this communal effort will grow more sophisticated as the various analyses and discoveries by participants begin to demand subtler distinctions and theses; the conversation will accrue commonly accepted tenets, inspire thorough investigations (known as ‘research projects’) into particular parts of the subject matter, and begin to develop jargon-y shorthand to save time for the conversation’s longtime participants. Contributions to these conversations by those who are informed, and whose writing is recognized as moving the conversation forward, constitute the ‘scholarship’ of that discipline. So, one could conceivably write a ‘scholarly’ work with three footnotes, or (and what is probably more common) a non-scholarly work with 3,000 footnotes. What matters is that the people engaged in the footnotes are relevant participants in the particular conversation the author is trying to contribute to, and that the work the author is doing moves the conversation forward in a meaningful way.

Naturally, footnotes, foreign languages, and namedropping will eventually appear, since the conversation will – if all goes well – grow deeper and more complex, necessitating reference to relevant international sources, and involving participants who likely will come to know one another personally. But all of that will grow from the basic commitment to a common intellectual pursuit of some subject. The primary criterion for the quality of a community’s scholarship will always be whether its work is informed, responsible, and furthers the discussion. As Dr. Naselli rightly notes, established scholarly conversations are usually far above the pay grade of the uninitiated. Nevertheless, I think that the heart of both popular and scholarly (in the proper sense) discussions is the same: informed, responsible contributions that further understanding.

New Calvinist Scholarship

This understanding of scholarship can perhaps help to clarify some of the ambiguity surrounding the term as it is used within New Calvinism – a classic example being Francis Chan’s remark to John Piper at the 2010 Desiring God national conference: “It’s still bothering me that you say you’re not a scholar, John…’cause it’s like, if you’re not a scholar, what in the world am I?” (starting at 42:57). I think that several New Calvinist academics, including Dr. Naselli, would agree with Pastor John’s assessment of himself: he is not a scholar in the technical sense.

Nevertheless, variations of the term are often used loosely within the movement to describe New Calvinist leaders and their literature, despite the fact that their writing is not what one would conventionally think of as ‘scholarship’ (published by a prestigious, usually secular, academic press, reviewed in discipline-leading journals, etc.) – indeed, it is probably not even what Pastor John himself would consider ‘scholarship’.

So there is clearly a sort of equivocation, or perhaps analogy, at work here, but one that I do not think is a problem – or at least, does not need to be a problem. I think that Dr. Naselli’s emphasis on informedresponsible writing can provide a way of explaining the desire to use the term ‘scholarship’ to describe New Calvinist literature, because New Calvinism wants to produce pastoral work that is informed, responsible, and furthers various conversations (e.g., regarding moral, political, and theological issues), and that is intellectually rigorous – thus books like Think! as well as those mentioned above, journals like Themelios, and institutions like Bethlehem College & Seminary and the overhauled Southern Baptist Seminary. One could multiply examples.

The New Calvinist movement thus could be called a ‘scholarly’ community insofar as it constitutes a communal, sustained, intellectual effort that is directed toward a particular topic or aspect of reality (e.g. “the gospel”). Thus, characteristics that one associates with a conventional scholarly community can also be found within New Calvinism: long-time participants (whether those on the stage or off) are generally well aware of each other’s work; there are standard source texts (e.g. Desiring God, Puritan texts, etc.); there is a shared vocabulary; there are common tenets (e.g. Calvinistic soteriology, commitment to the 5 solas); there are journals (e.g. Themelios) and conferences (e.g. T4G and TGC) where one can network with peers; there is literature that engages and contributes to a tradition of Reformed evangelical thought definite enough to constitute a specific conversation.

Thus, I think that New Calvinist literature can be called ‘scholarly’ in an analogous sense, though perhaps one might argue that the ubiquitous use of an as-yet underdetermined term would be better curtailed for the time being (I say this given remarks by people like Trueman, Carson [p. 71], and Pastor John above). Regardless, I can understand why the term continues to be used: the movement’s emphasis from the start has been on biblically/theologically informed, intellectually responsible speaking and writing that is intended to further the knowledge of, and devotion to, the Christian God within the Reformed evangelical tradition. Insofar as New Calvinism engages in such conversation – which I think it has done, and will continue to do – it is participating in a form of scholarship. I have personally benefited from this sort of work, continue to appreciate it, and look forward to future engagements with it.

Leave a Reply