One would be hard pressed to find a more pessimistic or straitjacketed view of life (and afterlife) than that espoused by John Calvin (1509-1564), the theologian-pastor of Geneva who played a leading role in the Protestant Reformation. His doctrine of predestination held that God elected to save certain people who would enjoy a heavenly afterlife, and everyone else was damned to eternal torment in hell. As if this fateful limitation were not burden enough, there was the added existential terror of not being able to know who had been elected. Calvinism, of course, plays a major role in Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
Given these facts, one might think that Calvinism is interesting primarily as a historical phenomena. One would apparently be wrong, at least in the United States. As The Economist reports, approximately ten percent of all pastors belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant group in America with 16 million members — are Calvinists and their numbers are rising. This is causing a rift in the already conservative convention, which expelled all pastors and churches it deemed too “liberal” during the 1980s:
Young Baptists are flocking to conferences that feature Calvinist teachers such as John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist church in Minneapolis, or Mark Driscoll, a flamboyant, controversial pastor who leads Seattle’s largest congregation, the non-denominational Mars Hill church. Up-and- coming pastors, Mr Burleson says, are tired of a constant emphasis on numbers and church size. What converts are drawn to, he says, is theological training and rigorous Bible study.
Some worried Baptist leaders claim that the neo-Calvinists are rewriting the history of the 165-year-old Southern Baptist Convention. “People try to argue that Southern Baptists have always been Calvinist and we’ve departed from the way in the past 80 years,” says Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “That is demonstrably false.”
This development raises several interesting questions (and research opportunities): Why is Calvinism enjoying a post-Enlightenment resurgence in popularity? Is this resurgence limited to the United States, which has always been an outlier when it comes to religion? Why would so many young Baptists be flocking to Calvinist conferences and churches?
One hypothesis might be that the post-modern culture characteristic of late consumer capitalism is so bereft of deeper meaning that the harshness (and ironic uncertainty) of predestination is preferable. These are all good questions for which I have no answers.
These issues aside, this development demonstrates there is no such essential thing that we can conveniently box and label as “Southern Baptist.” This is a perceptual category that is continuously being constructed, contested, and reconstructed.