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?”
The 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.