“Calvinism” Is Hip Again (Again)

Credit: Drew Angerer for the New York Times

Credit: Drew Angerer for the New York Times

Just when one might have thought that the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement(s) might be waning—they aren’t getting any younger—comes a piece in last Friday’s New York Times by Mark Oppenheimer on the Calvinist revival among evangelicals. Of course it begins with TULIP and moves on to the largely political, sociological, and theological controversies over the place of “Calvinism” in the Southern Baptist Convention. Happily, Oppenheimer talked with Mark Dever, pastor of Capital Hill Baptist Church. Given that it is apparently impossible for the media to find Reformed confessionalists who share Calvin’s ecclesiology, view of the sacraments, hermeneutics, and understanding of the history of redemption (Brian Lee, pastor of Christ Reformed Church is also in DC but his is not a large congregation embroiled in a heated controversy within a 16-million-member denomination) it is well that Oppenheimer chose to talk to Mark. He’s an excellent scholar of the Reformed tradition and, with Kevin DeYoung, one of the better representatives of the YRR movement.

The meat of the story is the apparent growth of the influence of “Calvinism” within the SBC. Oppenheimer notes the state of Dever’s congregation when he got there and its present flourishing. He also interviews Roger Olson, prince of the narrative of perpetual victimhood, who, instead of celebrating diversity within the SBC and the contribution that “Calvinism” makes to the SBC, suggests that the Calvinists in the SBC have gained their foothold through deception. That’s ironic since there is solid evidence that Arminius, ostensibly the first victim of the evil Calvinists, survived as long as he did by dissembling.

It is encouraging that Oppenheimer interviewed a parishioner from Mark’s congregation, who reports that Mark is faithful expositor of the Word and that is the chief reason for the transformation of the congregation.

The most bizarre part of the story must be the interview with Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, to whom Oppenheimer talked to gauge the reaction by the liberal mainline churches to the rise of the YRR movement. She asserts that the mainliners, who reject Calvin’s view of Scripture, God, Christ,  salvation, the church (especially discipline), sacraments, and eschatology but who otherwise are right with him, claims that, for Calvin, “civic engagement” is the “main form” of obedience to God. Assuming that Oppenheimer got the quote right then we might think that Jones is unaware of Calvin’s doctrine of the “twofold government.” The really bizarre part, however, is her claim that Calvin not only misquoted Scripture, which may well have happened, but that “he often makes up Scripture passages that don’t exist.” Again, we’re dependent upon Oppenheimer’s reporting and we should remember that Jones is a published Calvin scholar but this one is a puzzler. It is true that sixteenth-century authors did paraphrase Scripture rather freely sometimes but so do we. I’m happy to be instructed but I’ve not seen Calvin fabricating Scripture.

Throughout this post I’ve been putting “Calvinism” in quotation marks. By that I mean to signal that the idea that we can accurately summarize Calvinism with the acronym TULIP is highly problematic. As Richard Muller has noted for years, e.g., in this 2009 essay, the meaning of “Calvinism” is varied and even fluid. Calvinism might mean,

  • What Calvin himself taught in his own lifetime
  • What his proximate followers taught
  • What his seventeenth-century successors taught
  • Anyone who affirms predestination (as it is often used today)

That is the short list. We didn’t consider the possibilities presented by the various social theories that claim Calvin’s mantle. When someone says, “I’m a Calvinist” it is not unreasonable to ask, “What do you mean by that?”

Recovering the Reformed Confession-FeaturedThe relationship between the theology of Calvin and that of his successors has been a matter of considerable debate for a long time. I agree with those who generally find continuity between Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy (see Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment) but, as Muller notes, there are real problems here. We frequently ask Calvin to answer questions he never asked. This is what scholars call anachronism, or reading the present back into the past. E.g., students often want to write about Calvin’s view of missions with the intent of rescuing him from the criticism that he was not sufficiently mission-minded and, by implication, “Calvinists” don’t care about missions or the lost. The truth is, such questions are more about contemporary theological and ecclesiastical debates (e.g., the SBC) than they are about history. Calvin was actively involved in church planting but relatively inactive regarding the just-emerging “new world.” Others were more active on that front. Calvin lived long before the modern “missions” movement. Just as it was virtually impossible for him not to be a Constantinian so not surprising that he wasn’t an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century missiologist. Most all of the Reformed believed in geocentrism. It’s not particularly helpful to try to save Calvin from that either, though some have tried. On these questions see Recovering the Reformed Confession.

The acronym TULIP is a modern invention. It isn’t the way the Synod of Dort represented their canons (ruling, or decisions) against the Remonstrants. Those canons were five very important points formed in response to the five points posed by the Remonstrants (the Arminians). They were never intended as a comprehensive summary of our theology. They are an augment to what we confessed in the Belgic Confession, the French Confession, the Genevan Catechisms, and the Heidelberg Catechism. They were meant to clarify our understanding of Scripture on certain essential points. Further, the teaching isn’t presented in the order of TULIP. Finally, the TULIP doesn’t account for the Rejection of Errors under the heads of doctrine. Take a look at Muller’s essay (linked above) for more on this.

These stories are almost bound to come out this way. In the modern and late-modern period those for whom Calvin is a near-forgotten and frightening figure from the distant past are shocked to find that there are still adherents to his theology. That was certainly the case in university in the early 1980s. After his lecture on Calvin and Calvinism (based largely on Max Weber and J. T. McNeill—here’s an interview with Darryl Hart about his recent survey of the history of the Reformed churches) I approached my Western History prof to mention that we weren’t all dead. He was genuinely surprised that anyone who used electricity and drove an automobile could still believe the things Calvin taught. So, it’s a good thing to see discussion of Calvinism in the general media, even if it does come in the context of the struggle within the SBC between “Calvinists” and “anti-Calvinists” and it’s a happy thing to see Mark Dever representing the “Calvinists.” Remember, the Reformed churches in America are in the New World, after the Second Great Awakening, which transformed American Christianity into something resembling Thomas Muntzer’s faith than Calvin’s. For more on this, see the essay “Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America.” Thus, the fact that “Calvinism” registers as more than a blip on the news radar is remarkable.

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  1. Even with the current state of the media, the New York Times is **THE** arbiter of what is considered important enough to be on the agenda of much of the American elite. For anyone in Dutch Reformed circles who doubts that, they should think about what happened when the relatively minor and parochial RCA story I had been covering for some time about Rev. Richard Rhem in the 1990s got picked up by the New York Times, which had gotten it from Christianity Today and other evangelical publications which were relying to a variety of degrees on my local reporting.

    The New York Times’ front page profile of Rhem, who presented himself as a victim of a heresy hunt by the Midwest wing of the RCA, led to the story going ballistic from that point on.

    Many of the RCA’s leftists dropped Rhem when the charges changed from support for homosexuality and denial of the need for salvation through Christ alone and turned into sexual misconduct allegations, but the New York Times profile piece turned a sleepy Midwestern story that was important pretty much only in Dutch Reformed circles into a major news event.

    For better or for worse, this New York Times story will have a significant effect in elevating the profile of the “Calvinism controversy” in the SBC and probably elsewhere.

    Speaking as someone who had the same sort of experiences in the 1980s that had with professors who were shocked any Calvinists still existed in the modern world, I don’t see raising the profile of Calvinism as a bad thing.

  2. Two words = fascinating, encouraging

    Just as a heads up, there’s a typo in the sentence about Serene Jones of Union Theological Seminary. I have a hunch that word present is to be president.

  3. I too was greatly puzzled at Jones’ contention that Calvin’s “made up Scripture.” Not only have I never heard that asserted in academic circles, but from a historical perspective it lacks plausibility. Scholarship in the 16th century with its various permutations and syntheses of humanism and scholasticism tended to compile, collocate, and comment on authoritative sources not produce them.

    Odd all the way around. Though, as you note, it is possible that the reporter messed up the quote. Religious reporters rarely have the technical chops to get the nuances of a religious story right. I can think of instances in my own denomination where the official church magazine has mangled the main point of seminary convocation addresses, etc.

  4. Well, if a few SB’s follow the doctrines of grace, good for them. Unfortunately, though, for most [mis]educated Americans, “Calvinism” is Predestinarianism first, last, and always.

  5. I’m reading Recovering the Reformed Confession at the moment, and I can clearly see why Dr. Clark dislikes the general idea that the five points define “Calvinism.” To get a grasp of the system of theology that is connected to the Reformed churches, you must deal with things like covenant theology, what constitutes a true church, Sola Scriptura (not the reading of Scripture apart from the church and it’s history), the RPW, the sacraments (not just baptism), and more.

    As for the SBC, I am no fan. Besides odd fights and the attempted suing of fellow brothers, people can reject original sin and still be good Southern Baptists. See how Dr. Lemke of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in “Calvinism Conference: Q and A” on YouTube at about 36 minutes responds to a question for about 4 minutes; he goes on to specifically claim Baptist’s Anabaptist roots and his rejection of original sin. How a church can be composed of people that openly accept and reject original sin sounds odd to me. If the name Frank Page rings a bell, he was one person on the panel. The video seems to have been posted by the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

    Dr. Clark might like Dr. Dockery’s answer to a question at about 5:50 in the same video. He specifically mentions that he would prefer speaking of Particular Baptist and not Reformed Baptist because Particular is part of their history and doesn’t require reinventing; it is consistent with Baptist history. He also mentions that what Baptists have in general accepted is the soteriology of Calvinism (at least among the “Calvinists”), but have rejected everything else that is a part of Calvinism.

    I didn’t put the link to the video because I thought a video would pop up in place of the link itself, and I didn’t think the head man at the Heidelblog would like this. But if someone at the Heidelblog is Ok with this, I’ll link to it.

  6. Just to reinforce your sentence about Calvin being active in church planting, Robert Kingdon wrote a monograph about Calvin’s support of missions over Europe, especially a huge church planting movement in France which was succeeding until the St. Bart’s massacre. Europe WAS the mission field of the day for Protestants, not to mention that Spain and Portugal had control of the seas which made overseas missions near impossible.

    There was one early Calvinist venture into Brazil which ended in disaster when the French admiral supporting the mission betrayed the Protestants. So it is not true to say that Calvin did not support missions, but as you state, his situation was entirely different than when British and Dutch colonization was in full swing.

    • Chris,

      “Adventure” is the right word for the trip to Brazil. To the best of my knowledge that was really a business trip that happened to include a Reformed chaplain. It wasn’t a “missions” trip in the post-18th century sense of the word. That’s why I didn’t mention it, though Reformed folk have often appealed to it to fend of the criticism that we don’t care about the lost. In so doing, however, some accounts anyway, have probably made that trip into something more than it was.

  7. Certainly, if one joins Dr. Lemke in finding Baptist roots among the anabaptists, the discomfort with thinking of any of their heirs as “reformed” is justified. However, if one recognizes that English speaking Baptists originated as an outgrowth of English separatism and notes the enormous and intentional similarities between the Baptist’s Second London Confession and the Westminster Confession (excepting articles addressing baptism and church governance), then it is hardly accurate to say that those Baptists are merely predestinarian.

  8. While I tend to cringe at the term “Reformed Baptist”, I do agree with Harry, the London Baptist Confession has an understanding of the doctrines of grace that goes beyond predestination, or just the five points. While it may be less than we would like to see as reformed, some of the confessional Baptist groups do have their own version of covenant theology.

  9. It should be headlines in my opinion that original sin can be denied and Modalists are invited to participate in events in the SBC. Just noticed Todd Pruitt’s post at Ref21 on Modalists being invited to sing at an event that is posted on the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention website.

    • I forgot to say there seems to be a kind of willingness to play or reject catholic doctrine in the SBC; sounds quite Anabaptist to me. People like Dr. Lemke rightly claim Anabaptist roots, and I’m not sure how to categorize that using conservative and liberal categories. Confessional “fill in the blank” does seem to do a better job.

      And yes, I do know that not all Baptists are of the SBC.

    • Even within the SBC there is a wide divergence; confessionalists (LBC), thru various quasi reformed churches, to radical Arminian-dispensational congregations. The unresolvable tensions between various groups tend to come to the fore at their conventions, despite efforts on the part of some to keep the peace. Since you mention Mr Pruitt (who started out SBC), he’s commented before on the illogic of the SBC being bound together by their views on baptism when there are arguably more central doctrines on which they are so divided.

  10. “He also interviews Roger Olson, prince of the narrative of perpetual victimhood…”


    Don’t know a whole lot about Olson, but found the description amusing.

  11. “Given that it is apparently impossible for the media to find Reformed confessionalists who share Calvin’s ecclesiology, view of the sacraments, hermeneutics, and understanding of the history of redemption (Brian Lee, pastor of Christ Reformed Church is also in DC but his is not a large congregation embroiled in a heated controversy within a 16-million-member denomination) it is well that Oppenheimer chose to talk to Mark. He’s an excellent scholar of the Reformed tradition and, with Kevin DeYoung, one of the better representatives of the YRR movement.”

    The above quote examplifies what Reformed Baptists find annoying about some old school confessional Presbyterians like Mr. Clark. It is patronising and condescending and a bit sour. Are Dever and de Young merely two of the better representatives of the YRR movement? But of course they don’t come anywhere near the lofty standards of kosher Calvinists like Clark. While he and others argue over the finer points of Calvinism in their rather small denominations is it such a bad thing that Calvinists – yes credo-baptists are Calvinists – are trying to reform a large broadly evangelical denomination? Clark’s great spiritual forebears – the Hodges, Warfield, Vos, Macartney, Machen (until his was forced out) and many others – tried to do the same, albeit unsucessfully, in the old northern Presbyterian Church. Shouldn’t we also be glad that with all its variety and imperfections that the YRR movement is spreading Reformed Christianity far beyond that little enclaves in which for years it was found? Of coure there is much that is not up to scratch, but neither was the Christian movement we read of in the New Testament. I wonder what Clark others would blog concerning the church in Corinth? I also wonder, on his terms, how Calvinist Clark himself is? I suspect that his views on the relationship of the church to the magistrate is not in line with Calvin’s. The truth is that the Calvinist movement is quite diverse and always has been and that needs to be acknowledged. Finally, has denominational confessional Calvinism really been all that successful in guarding the Reformed faith? It lost the battle in the bigger denoninations as we are tragically seeing in this country with the Church of Scotland. Arguably the approach of Reformed Baptists in the SBC is far more successful, but then Clark doesn’t see thethem as real Calvinists.

    • Hi Kenneth,

      See these posts on the question of defining the adjective “Reformed.” See also the book, Recovering the Reformed Confession

      Yes, the standards are lofty but they aren’t mine. I didn’t invent them. They are the standards of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, those ecclesiastical summaries of God’s Word, the interpretation of God’s Word on essential questions in the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dort (1619), and the Westminster Standards (1648). In the same way you would not let us call ourselves Baptist because we baptize hitherto unbaptized adults, so too, we resist the move to redefine “Reformed” or “Calvinist” to refer to anyone who believes in predestination. Lots of folk have believed in predestination before the Reformation and lots since but that agreement hardly makes them “Calvinists” anymore than having wheels makes a VW into a semi. Holding predestination is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition. That’s why “Reformed Baptist” is a modern oxymoron, just as “Baptist Presbyterian” would be an oxymoron. One is either Reformed/Presbyterian or Baptist.

  12. Dr. Clark,

    I take your point that people believed the biblical doctrine of predestination before the Reformation, but Reformed soteriology is much more than predestination. Calvinists who are not Presbyterians can hold Calvin’s doctrine of salvation without holding to his doctrine of baptism, or the relationship of the church to the magistrate, or the Sabbath (a point on which conservative Anglo-Saxon/Scottish Presbyterians seem a little embarrassed). If I recall correctly the impeccably Presbyterian William Cunningham disagreed with Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Was he a true Calvinist? And was John Owen who was a congregationalist and not a presbyterian in church polity? The point is that Calvinism is a movement that like any other movement has developed over time. Of course there will be some who are closer to the principles of the founders, but everyone has to adapt to new circumstances and that may or may not be in line with the thinking of the founders. I admit the Reformed Baptists have made a significant modication to the Calvinism of Calvin that makes it less true to him and the Reformation confessions than your Calvinism. But that has come from their understanding of Scripture and their very Reformed conviction that the church must always be reforming itself according to Scripture. Reformed Baptists like me may be wrong, but it is more important to submit to Scripture than to a tradition however worthy.

    • Kenneth,

      This has been discussed at great length here. Check out the posts that I linked and/or the book. The differences between even confessional Baptists and confessional Reformed theology are significant. We have a significantly different reading of the history of redemption. We have a different hermeneutic (way of reading Scripture). These differences lead to very different understandings of the nature of the new covenant

      E.g., here are some resources on the Reformed understanding of the new covenant.

      1. On The New Covenant
      2. Heidelcast ep 44: What’s New About the New Covenant? (1)
      3. Heidelcast ep 45: What’s New About the New Covenant? (2)

      Our differences over the nature of the church and sacraments are also rooted in or associated with a different eschatology. You’ll see that in the materials linked above on the new covenant.

      On baptism specifically, as I’ve noted here many times, every one of the more than 60 Reformed confessions, i.e., public ecclesiastical constitutional documents, in which the churches have gathered to confess their understanding of Scripture on essential points, confesses infant baptism and many of them pointedly denounce the rejection of infant baptism and those who rejected it. E.g., see the Belgic Confession. Art. 34.

      As I argued in RRC, there is a hierarchy of doctrines but the doctrine of the church is essential to Reformed theology whereas the older view of the magistrate was not. We (most of us anyway) changed it without changing our doctrines of God, man, Christ, salvation, etc. The same cannot be said about the doctrines of church and sacraments. Remember, the doctrine of the church is an article of the holy catholic faith. The magistrate is not.

      The Reformed faith hasn’t changed essentially. We still confess the faith that we have always confessed. The word “Reformed” still means “the theology. piety, and practice confessed by the Reformed churches.”

  13. Whatever changes that have occurred outside of Europe, churches like the OPC have significant relationships with many Reformed denominations in the UK and around the world. So it seems the Reformed in Europe still view American Presbyterians like the OPC as Reformed.

    I found the following under their inter-church relations link.

    But I’m wondering as to the Lord’s Supper, was John Owen Zwinglian or something else? Is there a specific source that can demonstrate his position. Also, how much difference is there within NAPARC churches when it comes to the Lord’s Supper? I would personally like to see a poll for regular church members and another on ministers to know their views.

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