Calvin Goes to China? A Look at How New Calvinism Is Spreading in China


Time magazine provoked evangelical paroxysms back in 2009 when the publication unveiled its list of “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” According to Time, New Calvinism was the number three idea at work reshaping America. (Don’t know what New Calvinism is? See here) Calvinism China New Calvinism

Five years on, New Calvinism is still going strong, so strong, in fact, that the New York Times has now taken notice of its growth. This New York Times article points to the rise of New Calvinism at evangelical conferences and in several denominations across the U.S., including Presbyterians and Baptists. The article points out that nearly one-third of Southern Baptist churches self-identify as “Calvinistic.”

The article points out also that the New Calvinist movement has more than a few detractors. Rather than engaging that debate, I have a different question to ponder. Is New Calvinism spreading beyond America and Europe? Specifically, are there Calvinists in the eastern world? Have Communists in China discovered predestination? Is Calvinism now spreading through the world’s most populated nation?

A review of recent literature demands an affirmative response: “Yes, there are Calvinists in China, and they seem to be spreading.”  Fredrick Fallman of Stockholm University has done a good bit of research on this question. He has a chapter titled “Calvin, Culture, and Christ,” in the book, Christianity in Contemporary China: Socio-cultural Perspectives. In his chapter on Calvinism, Fallman makes a strong case for the New Calvinism in China to be the product of universities and networks of highly educated elites. Here is how Fallman says it:

There is a tendency among some of the urban, unregistered churches to adhere to reformed theology, inspired by what in North America is sometimes known as “New Calvinism.” The focus is more on Puritan teachings than on John Calvin himself. Such communities draw much interest from young urbanites, and they seem to attract these young people because of their solid stance on moral issues and their non-relative beliefs, contrasting with society at large. Reformed Christianity may also appeal to the subconscious Confucian thought patterns and beliefs that linger among Chinese elite intellectuals in general. As both Christian elders and public intellectuals, the young urban church leaders also assume the traditional role of the intellectual, feeling his responsibility to act and assist when the nation is in danger, this time from moral decline.

No doubt, many in the cities and in the university are well-educated and, most likely, exposed to Calvinism through books and conversations in academic settings.  Likewise, I have no doubt that the certitude provided by reformed theology offers much-needed antidotes to the less desirable aspects of the brand of Communism which has run its course through China in the last 5-plus decades. Nevertheless, from mere instincts and from personal experience, I have the feeling that something more is happening.

I, for one, will not be at all surprised to discover a much broader base of support for New Calvinism in China. While Calvinism is gaining traction among the educated and the elite, it may be appealing to more than the upper crust of Chinese citizens. My guess is that there are plenty of “Calvinists” in the lower classes and in the rural areas of China as well. Here are three reasons I make this assertion.

First, Christianity in China blossomed and bore the majority of its present fruit through intense persecution. Stories of faithful saints like Samuel Lamb, Allen Yuan, and Li Ying reverberate with strong chords of God’s sovereignty. I’m not arguing that those who suffered intense persecution were by definition part of the New Calvinist movement. Instead, I am simply saying (in accord with the book of Revelation, for instance) that intense persecution demands a sovereign Christ. Thus, when the biblical and doctrinal support for such high thoughts of Christ arrives in Calvinistic form, it resonates with many grassroots-level saints.

The Sovereign Lord of Revelation has eyes of flaming fire and will return mounted for war to bring justice to His suffering saints.  Chinese Christians have suffered long bouts of persecution. They are not interested in anemic, pseudo-Freudian portraits of Jesus. The “New Calvinists” offer a Jesus of worthwhile authority making claims of eternal dominion.

Second, the New Calvinism movement in America has had a strong missionary impulse from the beginning. Many would consider John Piper one of PiperMissions New Calvinism Chinathe “fathers” of the movement. His missionary zeal is legendary. His website mentions about 4 dozen languages around the world where his books have been translated. In addition, conferences and conventions within the movement have included pastors, laymen, missionaries, and teachers from around the world. Congregations in remote parts of Africa were livestreaming the recent Together for the Gospel (T4G) event in Louisville, KY. I know also that people living in the remote northwest portion of China were in attendance at the first T4G event eight years ago.

The endurance of Christianity is at least partially the result of those receiving truth sharing it unsparingly. Obviously, none of this proves anything. It is, to be sure, anecdotal. One could easily assert that those who attend such events or read such books would also be from the affluent, educated classes of China’s citizens. I’m simply guessing that some of them are not.

And even if those who have attended the conferences and have read the New Calvinism literature have all been from the affluent, elite strata of China society, they have undoubtedly not been silent. They have been leveraging their influence for the sake of good theology. Thus, I’m guessing their teaching is spreading.

Finally, Piper is not the only one publishing “New Calvinist” literature in China. Other publishers are legally publishing reformed literature in China. Again, this literature may first go to the educated in easy-to-reach urban centers. But it will not end there. Perhaps it already has spread beyond the urban areas and further into the heart of China. It may well be the case—as with Calvinism in America; and as with the house church movement in China—that the strong roots of fervent Christianity are already quite strong in Communist China. The New York Times caught up with New Calvinism 5 years behind Time. So, what  do you think will be the report on Calvinism coming out of China in 2019?  What do you hope is the report?

Grace and Controversy


Presently, a small group of Southern Baptists have stirred a mini-controversy over the issue of Calvinism (just in time for the convention).  This group (mostly affiliated with the seminaries in New Orleans and Fort Worth) have undertaken an effort to exclude or diminish the impact of Calvinism from “traditional Baptist soteriology.” I have strong opinions about the foolishness of their efforts, and I wrote a piece expressing my opinions. However, under the advice of godly people close to me, I chose to keep my opinions to myself rather than publish them for others to see. Basically, my decision was made by following the age-old adage: “If you can’t say anything nice. Don’t say anything at all.”

Fortunately, two godly men have published very helpful pieces in response to this controversy. If you are unfamiliar with the controversy, or if you are sorting your way through the details of it, you would do well to read these two pieces.  Dr. Mohler’s article is remarkably gracious and generous (read it here).  And Dr. Tim McKnight’s piece offers historical perspective which might ameliorate much of the animosity if heeded.  Of course, many folks have responded to the Statement made by SBC Today (authored by Erick Hankins). The pro-Calvinist responses I have read have been filled with both truth and grace.  I am severely unimpressed with the position statement authored by Hankins.

Again, I could not be as generous as Dr. Mohler nor as patient and cool-tempered as Dr. McKnight; so I have chosen to say nothing about the current controversy.  Both of these pieces are excellent.  Take confidence through the controversy that the Lord Himself will judge in grace and truth.  May truth indeed prevail and may the flock of God be shepherded and protected by Spirit-filled preachers.

What Is Calvinism vs. Arminianism?


Calvinism is a name derided much more often than understood. Typically, debates are framed by the so-called “5 Points of Calvinism.”  This 5-point framework is both helpful and misleading.  If one were to ask John Calvin about 5-point Calvinism, he wouldn’t know what to say.  He never devised such a theological pentagon.  For Calvin, there was 1 point of concern: the gospel.

So, in the face of what he saw as grave errors of theology (both practical and doctrinal), Calvin researched the Scriptures to clarify what the Bible teaches about salvation.  The result of his research was the publication of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in which he fleshed out in detail what the Bible teaches about God and man.  For Calvin, this was an exploration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He wrote at a time when men were being executed for teaching error; so, he tried to get the gospel right.

After Calvin died, one of his students attempted to correct what he thought were errors in Calvin’s theology.  The student was Arminius, and he disagreed with some of what his teacher had taught him.  Arminius never worked out all the details of his disagreements with Calvin, but his followers did.  They issued a report to the Synod of Dort in which they presented 5 areas of theological disagreement with Calvin’s theology.  These 5 areas are those we know by the acrostic, TULIP.  The acrostic, like the 5 points, can be both helpful and misleading.  The 5-point acrostic is helpful as a memory device, but it is misleading as a theological statement.

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