New Calvinism in China?

John CalvinThere is a growing recognition by the media and by scholars that Calvinism is growing in China these days.1  The news has gained the attention of a number of Americans, particularly since the 16th century Reformer John Calvin is likewise having a comeback in the US in the so-called ‘New Calvinism‘ movement.2  At least one scholar has called the movement in China ‘Chinese New Calvinism’.3  Unfortunately, I think this view is problematic.

You can read my own interpretation more fully in an academic article I just published on Calvinism in China,4 but I wanted to summarise my basic points here, since I think it is an important distinction:

  1. There is no historical link between American New Calvinists (e.g., John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Albert Mohler, etc.) and Calvinists in China.  Moreover, the many ‘foreign’ voices who have helped bring Calvinism to China (e.g., Jonathan Chao 赵天恩, Stephen Tong 唐崇荣, Samuel Ling 林慈信, etc.) are, without a better term, ‘Old Calvinists’ with close ties with institutions like Westminster Seminary.
  2. In Western contexts, ‘Calvinism’ and ‘New Calvinism’ is almost always a shorthand for TULIP – that is, it revolves around topics like salvation and predestination. This is one of the major criticisms of Westminster Seminar of California professors like R. Scott Clark and Michael Horton of the New Calvinism movement.  However, in China, Calvinism is much more interested in ecclesiology – the theology of the church.
  3. The reason why an ecclesiology is so important to these Chinese Christians is it gives them a way of engaging the state and the society.  That is, a strong understanding of the church gives a strong understanding of an institution that can relate to the government (and argue for religious freedom) and the society (and exercise social concern).  Though it is not a major aspect of New Calvinism, the theology of the church is a very important part of John Calvin’s own thinking, making up the fourth and last book of the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

This third point explains why the Chinese interest in Calvinism, particularly by intellectuals,5 is so fascinating.  A number of Chinese churches have gotten into a lot of trouble because of it,6 but will Calvinism be a strong enough force to change the Chinese government policies and practices?

  1. Andrew Brown, ‘Chinese Calvinism flourishes’, The Guardian (27 May 2009), available online.  See Fredrik Fällman’s response to Andrew Brown’s post at Fredrik Fällman, ‘Chinese Christianity is more than Calvin’, The Guardian (6 June 2009), available online. 
  2.  Time magazine has even declared New Calvinism as being one of the ten ideas changing the world today.  Also, to be clear, ‘New Calvinism’ should not be confused with ‘Neo-Calvinism’ – a movement tied to Dutch Calvinists Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.  David Van Biema, ‘The New Calvinism’, TIME (12 March 2009), available online
  3. Fredrik Fällman, ‘Calvin, Culture andChrist? Developing of Faith Among Chinese Intellectuals’, in Christianity in Contemporary China: Socio-cultural Perspectives, ed. Francis Khek Gee Lim (London; New York: Routledge, 2013), 153-168. 
  4. Alexander Chow, ‘Calvinist Public Theology in Urban China Today’, International Journal of Public Theology 8.2 (May 2014): 158-175, DOI: 10.1163/15697320-12341340. Download 
  5. Because of the intellectuals, I use the term ‘public theologians’ to describe them in my article. 
  6. The most famous of these has been the Shouwang Church 守望堂 which made headlines on CNN, BBC, the New York Times, etc.