Review of The Truth About New Calvinism by Paul M. Dohse.

The Truth about New Calvinism: Its History, Doctrine, and Character. 2nd edition. By Paul M. Dohse, Sr. Xenia, Ohio: TANC Publishing, 2011. 146 pp. ASIN B005U5K9W4 $14.95 (spiral).

Beginning with the dawn of the new millennium, a theological movement commonly referred to as new Calvinism began to grow and gather momentum; eventually its popularity would be noted by Christianity Today in 2006,[1] and Time magazine would call it one of the “Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now” in 2009.[2] It is this resurgent Calvinism that is scrutinized in The Truth About New Calvinism, by Paul M. Dohse, Sr. In the estimation of Mr. Dohse, the new Calvinism has had a “tsunami-like impact” and could “totally rewrite orthodox Christianity” (7). In The Truth about New Calvinism, the author sets out to examine the new movement in three stages (which correspond to the three sections of the book): historically, doctrinally, and, finally, an assessment of its character.

Dohse begins the work by assessing the relationship between new Calvinism and the ever-present danger of antinomianism. Contrary to popular opinion, by Mr. Dohse’s assessment legalism isn’t the central threat of our (or any) era, writing that “the overwhelming issue in both Old and New testaments was disobedience to God’s law, not legalistic heresy. In contrast to the popular myth of our day, the Lord’s contention with the Pharisees was not legalism, but rather replacing God’s law with their own traditions” (12). Dohse then provides a definition of antinomianism (13–14), and argues that antinomianism is still a threat in our era (15-16).

The second chapter assesses the place of the Pharisees in the thought and theology of new Calvinism; while many may be under the impression that the Pharisees were legalists, according to Mr. Dohse they might be better understood as antinomians: “The Pharisees were not proficient at keeping God’s law outwardly. In fact they didn’t do so at all, but rather propagated teaching that were ‘rules taught by men.’ Therefore, the Pharisees were guilty of neglecting the true law and teaching others to do the same” (19-20). Based on the Greek text of Matt. 23:8, Dohse argues that Christ refers to the Pharisees as antinomians, and thus the new Calvinist obsession with the Pharisees is misguided (21).

Beginning in chapter 3, the author begins to examine the historical roots of the new Calvinism, beginning with the work of Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949), professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. The author sees Vos’ work as inherently reductionist (23), which he sees as the reason for Vos’ “complex” hermeneutic. Dohse sees in Vos’ biblical theology a serious flaw: “historicism versus ‘dogma” (24) that is it is more interested in examining intra-biblical historical developments than it is in comprehending the doctrine taught by Scripture. In chapter 4, the figure who looms the largest in Dohse’s assessment of the new Calvinism makes his first appearance: Robert Brinsmead. Brinsmead was a highly controversial theologian who originated in the Seventh-Day Adventist movement before being moved towards Anglicanism by another important figure in Dohse’s assessment, Geoffrey Paxton; together, Brinsmead and Paxton would form the Australian Forum which advocated perhaps the controlling theological formulation of new Calvinism: the centrality of the objective gospel (27-36). This position holds to a continuous monergistic justification, which focuses entirely on the gospel as outside of us. In the estimation of Brinsmead and Paxton, confusion on this point leads to a confused soteriology (38).  In chapter five, Dohse traces this Brinsmead–Paxton influence into the work of John Zens, a prominent advocate of New Covenant Theology (49). While Zens isn’t currently at the center of New Covenant Theology, in most estimations, he is the author of the movement. Dohse helpfully reveals the connections between the Australian Forum, Brinsmead, and Zens (52–54), showing how Brinsmead’s unique formulations appear in Zens’ writings. He also examines controversy between Zens and Walter Chantry and Al Martin, two influential Reformed Baptist ministers who opposed New Covenant Theology on the basis of its perceived antinomianism (54–58).

Chapters 6-8 chart Brinsmead’s influence at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (first) and California (after 1982). Significant is Dohse’s argument for a significant influence by Brinsmead on a young Michael Horton (63). He goes on from thence to show how Brinsmead’s “centrality of the objective gospel” influenced Dr. John Miller, the author of the controversial Sonship movement, who was a professor at Westminster (67–72), and traces a connection as well to the Christian counseling and Education Foundation (the CCEF), which has close connections to Westminster Seminary (73–76). In both cases, Dohse sees a connection between the underpinning theology of both movements (i.e, Sonship and biblical counseling) and Brinsmead’s centrality of the objective gospel. Chapter 9 attempts to better understand the reductionist focus of the Brinsmead–Paxton theology by contrast, focusing on Jay Adams, whose theology Dohse sees as being in significant conflict with that of the Australian Forum. This difference is demonstrated by the split between the CCEF and Adams’ National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (78–83). Having given this historical overview of the roots of New Calvinism, Dohse seeks in chapter 10 to show the current state of affairs with in the movement, charting the rise of The Gospel Coalition (TGC) and Together for the Gospel (T4G).

Beginning in chapter 11, Dohse turns to an examination of three central areas of doctrine that he sees in New Calvinist thought and theology: an unrelenting hostility towards the doctrine of the new birth (95–106), the emphasis on the indicative/imperative hermeneutic (107–114), and the question of obedience to the moral Law (115–124). The New Calvinist hostility to the new birth is explained on the basis of the New Calvinist’s distaste for its subjectivity (96), and how it is susceptible to being confused with the gospel itself. In New Calvinist thought, a wrong-headed focus on the new birth ultimately confuses the gospel with the fruit of the gospel (99); because justification is solely the fruit of the new birth, the Bible is reduced to “a tool for contemplation only; specifically gospel contemplation. The imperative nature of the Bible is rejected all together” (100). Thus, the New Calvinism reduces Scripture to history, collapses justification into sanctification (or synthesizes the two), and marries its view of sanctification to antinomianism (101–105, 111–114).

On the question of obedience, the New Calvinists argue that “Christ obeys [the law] for us,” and thus our sanctification is via “contemplating [the] redemptive acts of Christ” (115). Thus, according to their theology, our “salvation must be sustained by continual perfection” which is supplied by the continual presentation of Christ’s perfect righteousness to the Father on our behalf. This means that in New Calvinist theology, our justification is, in some sense, progressive justification. This allows the indicative to swallow up the imperative and reduce them to irrelevance (120). In his final chapter, Dohse examines the character of New Calvinism, concluding that it inescapably “[disregards]…the plain sense of Scripture” (138) because it is fundamentally antinomian (136–137). In summary, discerning Christians ought to understand New Calvinism as “a huge, last days antinomian blitzkrieg that the apostles predicted would come” (140).

The Truth about New Calvinism (hereafter, TANC) is the first and, to my knowledge, only book-length analysis of the movement commonly dubbed “new Calvinism.” The Christian public ought to be grateful that a book on this movement is available, and yet deeply disappointed that the only book available on the subject is this one. TANC is an astonishing blend of historical error, shoddy research, wild logical leaps and fallacies, out of context citations, references that, upon further examination, have the opposite meaning of the one given to them by Mr. Dohse, and vast amounts of information that are totally immaterial to the chapters in which it appears; all of which is to say nothing of the regular appearance of speculation, prejudicial conjecture, and internal inconsistency that mar the work at significant points. Taken together, this amounts to an avalanche that buries the occasionally insightful comment or analysis from Mr. Dohse.

Yet, without substantiation, the criticisms above amount to nothing more than assertion on my part. Mr. Dohse writes,

How we approach the Bible is known as Bibliology, the doctrine of the Bible. New Calvinists make much of complicated theologies that create dichotomies in Scripture concerning God’s law. New Calvinism has adopted most of its bibliology from Geerhardus Vos who was a Reformed theologian. Vos devised a comprehensive theology for interpreting the bible known as Biblical Theology. The foundation of this bibliology originated with Johann Philipp Gabler…. Vos is known as the father of Biblical Theology, which is also known as redemptive-historical hermeneutics (23).

The amount of historical error in this citation is staggering, and calls into question Mr. Dohse’s assertion about the intensity of the research he engaged in to produce TANC (3). To claim that the Johann Philipp Gabler was the “foundation of [Vos’] bibliology” demonstrates no acquaintance whatsoever with the practice of biblical theology in the Reformed tradition. The discipline now called “biblical theology” is part and parcel of covenant theology, and it was being practiced well before Gabler’s birth. You can find biblical theology, or redemptive-historical hermeneutics, in works by Herman Witsius,[3] John Owen,[4] and Jonathan Edwards.[5] Even after Gabler began his work, other theologians engaged in redemptive-historical hermeneutics that owed nothing to his Gabler’s theories.[6] Perhaps the fact that all of this was overlooked by Mr. Dohse could be understandable, but Mr. Dohse mentions Dr. Richard Bacellos in TANC (92)—a theologian who wrote his dissertation on The Family Tree of Reformed Biblical Theology, which makes this sort of oversight inexcusable.[7] Herein we have examples of both historical error and shoddy research on Mr. Dohse’s part, all in one fell swoop.

Mr. Dohse further presents commits the logical fallacy of equivocation in his exposition of Matt. 5:17ff, when he writes, “in the first part of verse 27, Christ refers to the Scriptures as ‘Moses and all of the prophets.’ In the second part of the same verse, He calls Moses and all of the prophets ‘the Scriptures.’ It’s all the same. It’s all the ‘law’” (25). First, I should note that Mr. Dohse has crossed his contexts at this point, by moving from Christ’s discussion in Matt. 5, to Christ’s conversation on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, which has exegetical implications. Furthermore, it seems that Mr. Dohse doesn’t recognize the wide semantic range of the term νόμος; otherwise, how can he explain the distinction Christ makes between the law and the prophets in v. 17?

Dohse includes a paragraph (60) that details the role of Cornelius Van Til in the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary, and yet never explains why this is important to the topic at hand, other than to note his friendship with Vos. Why does this matter? And what does Mr. Dohse think it proves? We’re left to speculate apart from Mr. Dohse explaining why Van Til is significant, yet he never does. On the very next page, he manages to misrepresent Westminster Seminary by writing that “both [WTS and the Australian Forum] were of the think tank mentality. The Forum was in the process of devising theological formulas to reform the Reformed, and Westminster had been working hard at the same since 1929.” Yet again, Mr. Dohse simply asserts that such is the case without ever demonstrating it; what’s worse, it misreads the history of the founding of Westminster as a response to the reorganization of Princeton Seminary in 1929. In just two sentences we have more historical error, more proof by assertion, and a case of prejudicial conjecture.

One example of Mr. Dohse’s inconsistency is his repudiation of redemptive-historical hermeneutics while using a redemptive-historical hermeneutic himself. He refers to redemptive-historical hermeneutics as “indicative of what reductionist theologies produce. Because reductionism is difficult to reconcile with the plain sense of Scripture, complex theological systems are often needed to make the theory plausible” (23). Yet he also writes that “the bible begins with a deception that led to disobedience (Eve in the garden, Genesis 3:1–19) and ends accordingly (Revelation 20:7–10). The Scriptures are also saturated with accounts of the same heretical endeavor between Genesis and Revelation” (12). By tracing an account of this “heretical endeavor” from Genesis to Revelation, Mr. Dohse has engaged in a redemptive-historical reading of Scripture! Moreover, this cannot help but raise the questions as to whether or not Mr. Dohse even rightly understands the very method (redemptive-historical hermeneutics) he’s been critiquing!

Given the demonstrable errors and problems present in TANC, I simply cannot recommend that anyone bother reading this book. While Mr. Dohse’s zeal for truth and opposition to antinomianism is commendable, he betrays his own antinomianism by his violation of the 9th commandment in that he has misled his readers at multiple points. To put this is somewhat stronger terms: The Truth about New Calvinism is arguably one of the most atrocious books I have ever had the misfortune of reading, and it will shortly take its place in the garbage. Don’t do what I did and waste money on this garbage.

[1] Colin Hansen, “Young, Restless, Reformed,” Christianity Today, September 2006.

[2] David Van Biema, “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now,” Time, accessed March 1, 2016, http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1884779_1884782_1884760,00.html.

[3] Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity (1822; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 4.1–17.

[4] John Owen, Biblical Theology: Or, the Nature, Origin, Development, and Study of Theological Truth, in Six Books (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994).

[5] Jonathan Edwards, “A History of the Work of Redemption,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols. (1834; reprint, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1974), 1:533–619.

[6] For example, see Stuart Robinson, Discourses of Redemption (1866; reprint, Stoke-on-Trent: Tentmaker Publications, 2012).

[7] Richard C. Barcellos, The Family Tree of Reformed Biblical Theology: Geerhardus Vos and John Owen, Their Methods of and Contributions to the Articulation of Redemptive History, Reformed Baptist Dissertation Series no. 2 (Owensboro, Ky: RBAP, 2010).

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