In 2009, Time magazine called “New Calvinism” one of the “10 ideas changing the world right now.” This resurgence was famously documented in Collin Hansen’s book from 2008, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. The movement has certainly changed the face of evangelicalism. Take, for example, the largest Protestant denomination in this country, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Pictured: Jonathan Edwards
In 1993, when Al Mohler became president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, he cleaned house of all faculty who did not share a strict interpretation of biblical inerrancy and all who resisted his five-point Calvinism. In subsequent years, Southern Seminary has attracted a faculty sympathetic to Calvinism. And now that Southern Seminary is the largest seminary in the SBC, you can imagine how its graduates have now changed the character of the denomination and of evangelicalism more broadly.
Baptists, at least, can claim some Calvinist roots. But the resurgence of New Calvinism has been infiltrating groups that have never been traditionally Reformed. This impact has been felt among those whose articles of faith don’t specifically exclude Calvinist interpretations.
Take, for instance, the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God. Although they are a spin-off of Wesleyan Methodism, and therefore traditionally Arminian in their doctrine of salvation, their “Statement of Fundamental Truths” does not exclude Calvinism. So as those churches and their leaders are influenced by Calvinism and then entertain it as a theological possibility, they see that it is not inconsistent with their statement of faith, and before you know it, its presence grows. Calvinist influence is also possible in those churches that have no confession or statement of faith, including Churches of Christ!
Why Is Calvinism Attractive?
I am often asked why Calvinism would be attractive to people who have heretofore been in non-Reformed churches. What do people, especially those who are already Christians, see in Calvinism? As Collin Hansen puts it (in the epilogue to his book), people see in New Calvinism a zeal for holiness and a passion for missions. But those things are not unique to Calvinism.
Particularly, why is it attractive to folks in Churches of Christ or to generic evangelicals? Why do people go for Calvinism? The ones who ask me this question are usually, like me, people who have never been personally attracted to the distinctive doctrines of Reformed theology. Although I have never felt that personal attraction, I do feel qualified to venture some answers. After all, I have talked to many Calvinist converts about this over the years, I did spend four years on my PhD in residence at Calvin Theological Seminary (and am a proud alumnus), and I have many Calvinist friends. (“Some of my best friends are Calvinists….”)
1) Intellectual depth.
Popular evangelicalism can be characterized as a mile wide and an inch deep. How many young people in such churches have been discouraged and dismissed when they asked the hard theological and philosophical questions? Calvinism, by contrast, does encourage a certain level of theological depth, in part perhaps because the paradoxes can be difficult to maintain simplistically. To its credit, Calvinism doesn’t avoid the tough, perennial questions of theology.
Reformed thought has a meaningful history that, compared with other American churches, seems ancient. Creeds and confessions of faith give shape to this tradition, as do the impressive array of talented and deep thinkers, from John Calvin to Cornelis Elleboogius to Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Kuyper to Karl Barth, to name a select few. This way of thinking and way of life is larger than I and the moment.
As a corollary to 1) and 2), Calvinism inadvertently takes advantage of people’s ignorance about alternatives, historically and theologically. Because many evangelicals have not been encouraged to think deeply in their own church contexts, or perhaps they have been discouraged from doing so, they then latch on to the first Christian option that encourages theological reflection. And because they have no knowledge of church history, then a 500-year tradition, or even 1500-year tradition, sounds really old and reliable compared to a 200-year tradition or no tradition at all. They latch on to the first thing that gives them that beneficial sense of tradition.
These first two reasons also parallel the reasons for the exodus of many to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. But for people who still care about the Reformation, Reformed theology is a popular destination.
Reformed theologians and preachers have a high respect for Scripture. Their appeal to Scripture for all doctrinal matters is attractive to anyone who has a similarly high respect for Scripture. They also have a few passages that, read through a Reformed lens, seem to support Reformed theology. Indeed, if Calvinists had no texts that seemed to support their views, there would probably be no Calvinists. That doesn’t mean that their views are right, as 2 Pet. 3:16 reminds us.
Calvinists insist that their theology is truly theocentric, and not man-centered or anthropocentric. James I. Packer contrasts Calvinism and Arminianism like this:
“One [Calvinism] proclaims a God who saves; the other [Arminianism] speaks of a God who enables man to save himself…. The two theologies thus conceive the plan of salvation in quite different terms. One makes salvation depend on the work of God, the other a work of man; one regards faith as part of God’s gift of salvation, the other as man’s own contribution to salvation; one gives all the glory of saving believers to God, the other divides the praise between God, who, so to speak, built the machinery of salvation, and man, who by believing operated it.”
Well, one of those systems sounds pretty good, and the other sounds pretty horrible. For now, I’ll refrain from correcting the gross inaccuracies and prejudice in this portrayal. Let it suffice here as an example of what many Reformed writers claim. This God-centeredness is evident in the more sober way one of my friends put it: Why does one person accept the gospel and another does not? Is there anything better in the one than in the other? If so, then that person is saved by his own goodness. If not, then the decision is God’s. (By the way, this was also one of Calvin’s motivating questions.)
5) Comfort that God is in control.
When the world and our own lives seem chaotic and spinning out of control, it is comforting to believe that nothing at all can resist God’s will and plan. Each and every detail is all part of the grand plan.
What Can We Learn from Reformed Theology (and What Should We Watch Out For)?
In September 2016, I spoke at the Harding University Lectureship on the topic of Calvinism. Specifically, I was asked to speak on “A Critique of the New Calvinism.” Although I appreciate the sentiment and goal behind the request, I was uncomfortable with the overtly negative stance reflected in the title. Of course, there is a time for critique; some of my critique is implicit in this post, and will become clearer in later posts. But Churches of Christ and other typically non-Reformed fellowships can learn many positive things from the Reformed tradition. Moreover, I am interested ultimately in building bridges with other believers, not in erecting barriers.
Pictured below: John Calvin
There is much to admire in Calvinism, and even more to admire in many of the Calvinists whom I know. I did not (and still do not) want that point to be lost. So I counter-offered with “An Examination of New Calvinism.” Somehow it turned into “A Review of New Calvinism,” which was fine.
By the way, since the early Restoration Movement leaders came out of Presbyterianism, we in Churches of Christ have been influenced in many ways, for better or worse, by the Reformed tradition already. Here and now, I am specifically asking what we can learn from some of these Reformed distinctives that have not usually been on our radar. In answering this question, I come back to many of those points that make Calvinism attractive to some of our folks. If Calvinism is an over-correction, then let’s think along the lines of correction. (I will ask you to think along the lines of polarities and relative extremes. Also, correction is only necessary if there is something to correct. If the critique does not apply to the Church of Christ of your youth or your adulthood, great. But to the degree that it does, let’s think along the lines of correction or improvement.)
1) Larger vision of God and his glory vs. daddy or big man upstairs.
What we can learn is that God is not a big giant who sits at the beginning of the timeline, or our buddy in the sky who answers our prayers for health and wealth, but a God who is absolutely transcendent, holy, and wholly other, who is beauty and truth. Reformed theology offers to typical American evangelicalism a vision of the majesty of God. But beware of over-correction: unlike the God of Reformed theology, this is also a God who loves us and created all of us for eternal fellowship with him.
2) Divine sovereignty vs. practical deism.
What we can learn is that God is not a passive observer, a watchmaker who winds up creation and lets it go, and we’re pretty much on our own. Rather, God knows the end from the beginning and works out all things for the good of those who love him; he is the one in whom we continue to live and move and have our very being. But beware of over-correction: unlike the God of Reformed theology, sovereignty should not mean determination of our salvation without our willingness, and it certainly should not mean, as some New Calvinists imply, that God is the direct, efficient cause of evil.
3) Divine grace and human dependence vs. human ability and individual autonomy.
What we can learn is that salvation is not about God leaving us on our own and now putting the ball in our court. The tendency in Churches of Christ has been to emphasize the “five-finger exercise” or “five steps of salvation” (in one popular version, “hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized”). Who works in this? Who is the subject of those five verbs? The human sinner. The only passive verb is the final one, and we normally think of another human as the primary agent. Of course, these five steps were intended only as a helpful mnemonic device and a summary of the conversions exemplified in the book of Acts.
Part of me has a hard time believing that some Churches of Christ in the last century (or even today) never talked about or offered grace. But I don’t have a hard time believing that, to the degree that the steps came to represent the extent of the conversion process, they omitted God from the process itself. But God is the one who initiates and completes salvation and who must receive all the glory for salvation. It is God who precedes and infuses each one of those steps. On the other hand, beware of over-correction: unlike in Reformed theology, we do have a say in the conversion process. Grace does not override human freedom.
4) Theological depth vs. overly simplistic shallowness.
What we can learn is that easy answers to thoughtful questions are not helpful, and ignorance per se is not a Christian virtue. Rather, we are commanded to love God with our whole mind and to add to our faith knowledge. But beware: theology must be based on the whole of Scripture. God's will for creation is not a mystery.
5) Appreciation for church history and the Christian tradition vs. ahistorical biblicism.
We can learn that it’s not just my Bible and me. God placed us in a Spirit-led community, and that community includes not just those who happen to still be walking around. But beware: church history, that cloud of witnesses, includes more than Augustine, Luther, and Calvin.
Look for later posts, in which I plan to offer more specific critique of Calvinism. But for now, in what ways have you noticed a resurgence of Calvinism?
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