Peter Berger on the New Calvinism

The following is a re-post of a blog post by Peter Berger. My own observation would be that while Wesleyan theology does owe something to Jacob Arminius’ thought, it does so in the same way that Brahms owed something to Beethoven, while producing new creative works of art (or in the case of Wesley, works of theology). Wesleyan theology is certainly not a variation of Calvinism any more than the Anabaptist pacifistic ethic is a variant of Lutheran two realm theology.
Southern Baptists Go Swimming in Lake Geneva
Peter Berger

Some years ago a sizable number of American Evangelicals, perhaps in search of a more colorful version of Christianity, became Eastern Orthodox as a group. For some reason they chose to join the American branch of the Patriarchate of Antioch, one of the most ancient Christian bodies in the world. (Its liturgical language is traditionally Arabic. You can’t get much more colorful than that.) Apparently these refugees from Billy Graham embraced their new faith with a fervor that alarmed some who were born Orthodox. People converting to Orthodoxy have been described as having gone “swimming in the Bosphorus”. It seems that now an increasing number of Evangelicals, this time Southern Baptists, are preparing to swim in the Swiss lake on whose shores John Calvin presided over his somber (hardly colorful) Protestant commonwealth.

The Christian Century, in its issue of November 15, 2011, carried a brief story about a “New Calvinism” movement within the Southern Baptist Convention. The story caught my attention, as this particular denomination seems an unlikely locale for an eruption of Calvinism. I then turned to the Associated Baptist Press, which had fuller coverage of what is indeed an interesting development.

Calvinism, often also referred to as Reformed theology, is gaining influence in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). A 2007 poll reported that 10% of its pastors now call themselves Reformed, and that 29% of recent seminary graduates do so—an intriguing portent for the future. The development was not much noticed for a while, but is now generating a lively controversy. It should be noted that, from its inception in the sixteenth century, Calvinism has come in two versions—one closely following the teachings of the founding generation, the other having significantly softened the original harshness. Both versions came to America from the various Calvinist homelands in Europe—notably Switzerland, Germany, Scotland and (very importantly) the Netherlands. The softer version has been more prevalent. What is particularly interesting is that the harsher version seems to appeal to many Baptists turned neo-Calvinists.

The original, full-bodied version of Calvinism has been symbolized by the acronym TULIP (it is probably not accidental that this is also the national flower of the Netherlands). The first letters of the acronym stand for: Total depravity: human nature has no good features whatever; Unmerited election: we are saved by God’s grace, which we don’t deserve; Limited atonement: not all men are saved, only the elect; Irresistible grace: we cannot resist God’s action in saving us; Perseverance of the saints: once God has placed us among the elect, we can never lose that status. Put together, these propositions add up to the so-called doctrine of double predestination—the assertion that God, from all eternity, has decided who will be saved and who will be damned. Arguably, this is the most repulsive doctrine in the history of the Christian religion. Understandably, most adherents of the Reformed tradition found it unbearable, and sought ways of softening it. Calvin and the other founders believed that no one could know whether he was or was not among the elect. However repulsive in its conception of God, this doctrine has a certain grandeur: one should serve God, not in hope of heaven or in fear of hell, but out of unconditional devotion. At least some of the early Calvinists managed to believe this. Very soon two methods were devised so that an individual could attain certitude about election by an inner experience which conveyed such certitude (the “method” from which Methodism derived its name), by the empirical fact that God has bestowed his blessings upon the individual (this is where Max Weber saw one of the roots of the “Protestant ethic” and its striving for worldly success).

Both the harsh and the soft versions of Calvinism have found defenders among Southern Baptists. Roger Olson (who teaches theology at Baylor University) wrote, “I am against any Calvinism—and any theology—that impugns the goodness of God in favor of absolute sovereignty, leading to the conclusion that evil, sin and every horror of history are planned and rendered certain by God.” Such a God would be “a moral monster”. Olson calls this “radical Calvinism”, expressing admiration for less extreme versions. The full TULIP version was defended by Michael Horton (Westminster Seminary), though he doesn’t like the terminology of the acronym: “It is impossible to read the Bible without recognizing God’s freedom to choose some and not others.” One of the most influential SBC theologians, Albert Mohler (Southern Theological Seminary), has supported Horton’s position, calling the New Calvinism “a healthy return to Southern Baptists’ historic roots”. (By the way, Mohler has elsewhere said that the death penalty is pro-life: “[It] is not about retribution. It is first of all about underlining the importance of every single human life”.)

What happens in the Southern Baptist Convention is not a marginal event. It is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States (over 16 million in number) and the second-largest Christian body after the Roman Catholic Church. It was founded in 1845 over the issue of slavery (Baptists in the South defended it, Baptists in the North opposed it). The SBC has long left behind its racist views, and it is no longer restricted to the South (there have been several moves to change its region-specific name). What characterizes it today is a robustly conservative theology—the SBC is firm in its rejection of liberal interpretations of Christianity. That much makes for an affinity with Calvinism. But Southern Baptists, along with all other Evangelicals, emphasize the free decision of individuals to be converted, to “accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior”—an idea very much opposed to double predestination. This may be called the great Evangelical “whoever”, reverberating through the long history of American revivals, reiterated with every call for people to come to the altar and confess their faith—summarized in the most quoted sentence from the Gospels: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Luke 3:16).

How then is one to understand the New Calvinism in this improbable setting? I will venture a sociological interpretation.

In 1994 the historian Mark Noll (now on the faculty of Notre Dame) published an influential book titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In it he bemoaned an anti-intellectualism that had become established in the Evangelical community. He understood this as a defensive reaction against an elite culture which was increasingly secular and which looked down on Evangelicals as backward provincials. A big change has been occurring more recently. There is a new cohort of Evangelical intellectuals, well-educated and increasingly self-confident. Some are ensconced in a nation-wide network of Evangelical institutions, but others have moved into mainstream institutions. (Noll’s own move, from Wheaton College to Notre Dame, is prototypical.) There is a certain instructive parallel here with the new class of Jewish intellectuals, who flooded into mainstream academia and media in the 1950s (though the Evangelical development has not yet reached that level). The underlying fact, however, is the same and very simple: upward social mobility and higher education, with a concomitant decline of prejudice against the rising group. Evangelicals, including the Southern Baptists among them, have developed a more sophisticated approach to the faith, and they have looked for intellectual resources to do this. Despite the aforementioned difference, Calvinism had to be appealing in this quest. It has a great intellectual tradition, with roots in European cultures. It shares with American Evangelicals a conservative theology, a high regard for the authority of the Bible (frequently moving over into the notion of Biblical inerrancy), and a gut dislike of all liberal directions in contemporary Protestantism.

The New Calvinists have shown a particular interest in a Dutch theologian whose work seems particularly relevant to the American situation. Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) also used the term New Calvinism to define his position. He combined orthodox Calvinist theology with a strong commitment to the separation of church and state (he split with the official Dutch Reformed Church over this issue). As far as I can make out, he accepted the doctrine of predestination, but without emphasizing its negative portion (the bit about predestination to hell). He taught the sovereignty of Christ over all realms of reality, but he believed that, if grounded in a strong Christian culture, Christians could participate in a pluralist society and a democratic state. He visited America and lectured at Princeton. Kuyper founded a political party, and he was prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905. One can understand how Kuyper would appeal to Baptists, who always held a strong belief in the separation of church and state.

The soft version of Calvinism has been associated with the name of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). The Arminians had a number of differences with Calvinist orthodoxy, prominently including a rejection of the doctrine of double predestination. They split from the orthodox Dutch Reformed Church over a number of issues, spelled out in the so-called Remonstrance of 1610. A major issue was their assertion that election was conditioned by a free choice of the will—thus rejecting the doctrine of double predestination. In 1609 (the year of Arminius’ death) an English-speaking Baptist church was established in Amsterdam. Ever since Baptists have taught the idea of “soul competency”—that is, the freedom of individuals to embrace salvation. Arminianism has exerted an enormous influence on American Protestantism—not only among groups explicitly derived from the Reformed tradition (such as Presbyterians), but on Methodists and Baptists, and indeed on all Evangelicals. Thus Mohler was not altogether wrong when he said that Baptists turning to Calvinism are returning to their “historic roots”—it just isn’t his sort of Calvinism that dwells in these roots.

These considerations suggest a prediction: If Calvinism is to make further inroads among Southern Baptists or among any other segments of American Evangelicals, it will be in its Arminian form.

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