Calvin Declined

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.

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4 thoughts on “Calvin Declined

  1. Troy Polidori

    I spent a number of my formative academic years in a strongly Reformed Baptist church and college (Piper was a patron saint), and I can safely say that the “doctrines of grace” as they call them (even more ironic, I realize) are not the typical “boundary marks” for what the group uses to separate themselves from “liberals” and “backsliders.” As you mentioned regarding the SBC, there is a strong narrative of decline where the Neo-Calvinists see themselves as the faithful few against the mass of backsliders. Non-Calvinists are seen as those who refuse (always through impure, sinful motives) to interpret the Bible literally, which of course just means “calvinistically.”

    It’s a very paranoid, conspiratorial kind of a cult as outsiders are always looked upon (and prayed for) with the utmost suspicion (Romans 1:18-23 is applied in almost every situation, so much so that I and a few friends made a comic depicting “Romans 1” as a hypostatized figure bent solely on destroying the suppressors of truth).

  2. admin Post author

    Is “strongly Reformed Baptist” code for neo-Calvinist? I am not very familiar with these groups, which made The Economist article so surprising.

    Also, are insiders seen as “the elect”? If so, isn’t this a departure from historically older forms of Calvinism?

    Nice use of “narratives of decline”! Of course this nostalgic trope is highly effective and has been in use for thousands of years not just by Christians but by all reformers within all religious traditions.

  3. Troy Polidori

    The group I was involved with actually saw themselves as more conservative than many of the Neo-Calvinists (who often approved of tattoos and moderate use of alcohol), so Reformed Baptist was indeed the codeword of choice.

    The term “elect” was often used, but I always felt that many were slightly embarrassed by the doctrines of grace, so much so that youth group leaders used to teach us to never mention or explain election or predestination to those who weren’t already proven elect. Something about only God being able to enlighten the mind enough to understand the mystery (i.e. how it’s not an unquestionably evil doctrine).

  4. Warren Jones

    I can attempt to answer some of the 3 part question. Please excuse my brevity.

    “Why is Calvinism enjoying a post-Enlightenment resurgence in popularity? Why would so many young Baptists be flocking to Calvinist conferences and churches?”

    Part of the answer is: The “rock of offence” (Jesus Christ) need not be preached, but only studied in relative sociological safety.

    This way one can live a life without persecution which inevitably comes when one stands up and preaches Christ crucified (publically) while calling all to repentance. Calvin’s invention of “individual election” was a good counter theology against a tyrannical pope who could pass an edict of eternal damnation upon any reformation state.

    Divine election then became a form of “liberation theology” in order to set the protestant mindset free from the Roman pontiffs “ecclesiastical” guilt.

    Jacobus Arminius who was a converted Calvinist, in turn, liberated Calvinistic election by saying that all could freely choose and be part of the election which involved some human agency regarding individual redemption. This had nothing to do with legalism or works based election, but simple faith, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved”(Romans 10:13). Proponents of Calvinism saw this as a form of reprobate antinomianism that was infecting the church.

    Why would anyone who believes they are “divinely elected” against their will feel obligated to preach a message of universal salvation (2 Peter 3:9) based on the human “free will” to repent. This would undermine their whole Calvinist theological thesis, especially since Calvinist` do not believe in exercising “free will” when it comes to matters of redemption and personal salvation.

    Jesus promised persecution for all Christians and so did the Apostle Paul, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12 ESV).
    If a person is pre-destined to a special election then where is the motive to tell anyone how to become elected? This explains why Calvinism has a horrible mark of human atrocities throughout its history (e.g.; Irish/Catholic Wars, American Slavery, South African Apartheid).

    As far as persecution goes, Calvinists see their theological persecution from the Arminian apologetic as a form of persecution which compels them to study for the sake of a their own argument regarding “soteriology.” This supplants there religious polemic with a type of scholastic persecution (in the realm of theology, not humanity). This is why they fail in the area of universal evangelism.

    Nice blog by the way!

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