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.

  • John Adams

    While Berger’s analysis of why Calvinism has been so appealing to evangelicals (it presented a strongly intellectual tradition in an increasingly vacuous late 20th-century evangelical milieu) is spot-on, I differed with his last three paragraphs —

    1) I have not noticed an indebtedness among New Calvinists to Kuyper so much as to Calvin and Edwards. I don’t know that Kuyper’s devotion to separation of church and state will continue to be seen as the right model for the time indefinitely, either — American evangelicals might call the rightness of the principle of “separation of church and state” increasingly into question as Christianity becomes politically and culturally marginalized in a pluralistic society. Douglas Wilson, for instance, has written openly of his desire to see Christendom restored.

    2) Berger may be right about the presence of “soul competency” in Baptist history, but there was a Particular Baptist strain as well as a General Baptist strain, so in all truth, I’m not sure that either Calvinists nor Arminians can fully lay claim to the title of the “real Baptists.” Then, as now, Baptists are an independent lot, so “Baptist roots” connect to several different gardens.

    3) Berger’s insistence that in order to make further inroads into evangelicalism, Baptists will have to embrace what many of them have just rejected strikes me as nonsensical. Calvinism has won over Baptist minds on the strength of its intellectual appeal and the cogent, populist presentations of its fundamental propositions by preachers like John Piper et al. If Arminian Baptist pastors are to provide an answer and reclaim ground within their own denomination, they’ll need to provide an intellectually serious alternative to Southern Seminary, while forming something along the lines of the Gospel Coalition to present a unified, persuasive message to the laity.

  • rachel.louisa

    Berger’s explanation of five point Calvinism is a muddle, which is surprising for a scholar of his ability. Unconditional, not unmerited, election is the U; being saved by God’s grace which we don’t deserve is not a Calvinist subpoint but a fundamental assertion of all Christian orthodoxy; limited atonement does not mean that all are not saved (which, again, is orthodox) but that Christ did not die for all (which is a post-Calvin development); and the five points do not add up to double predestination. I know Berger is not a systematic theologian by trade, but then nor am I: this was sloppy :o(

    Interesting nonetheless, though, Ben!

  • Benw333

    Rachel in fact single predestination does de facto entail double predestination, simply by the fact that a whole group of people are deliberately left out of salvation’s blessings by divine fiat. If you want to talk about logic, that’s logical. And again, if it is God, and not the human response that is limiting the benefit of the atonement, which it is if God chooses some and not others, then it does not matter that Jesus’ death is hypothetically sufficient for all, if God has already loaded the deck on who gets the benefit. You are right however about the U in Tulip. BW3

  • Benw333

    P.S. Rachel I would add that the problems with Calvinism are not in any case with its basic logic. It makes a certain theological sense. The problems have to do with the exegetical gymnastics one has to do to fit the Bible into this theological system.

  • Anonymous

    “[...] in fact single predestination does de facto entail double predestination, simply by the fact that a whole group of people are deliberately left out of salvation’s blessings by divine fiat.”

    That is not correct. The notion of single predestination in this context notably goes back to Lutheran tradition and, if interpreted in the light of Luther’s theology, means that we are assured of our salvation by looking to the Deus revelatus, which means by looking at the cross. That doesn’t mean “that a whole group of people are deliberately left out of salvation’s blessings by divine fiat” – it simply means that we can and should not make assumptions about things that are not revelated to us and thus belong to the Deus absconditus.

  • PLTK

    Ah-hah! There is the call to mystery–if we would be appalled by the logical consequences and hence don’t want to acknowledge them, and know that the consequent reasoning isn’t logical according to our human understanding, avoid that and leave it to God’s unknowns.

    In reality, I will acknowledge all theological systems have some problematic areas like this, but from my encounters, Calvinist resort to the mystery argument more than most.

  • Anonymous

    Logic and mystery are no antonyms. And, equally important: There is no such thing as “logic per se”. The kind of logic Ben Witherington was and you are (if I’m understanding you correctly) referring to is its Aristotelian variation. By reading the Bible through the eyes of Aristotelian logic alone, one might miss some crucial points.

    And, again: The notion of single predestination in our context goes back to Luther, not Calvin. :)

  • Benw333

    Sorry Theolobias, but you’re wrong about Luther. Go read his Bondage of the Will.

  • Rachel.Louisa

    Ben, just to be clear: are you agreeing with Berger’s description of what the L means? It sounds like you are, but I struggle to believe that can be what you mean, since “all are not saved” is presumably something you believe too. My point was not that Calvinism is coherent – that’s another topic – but that Berger has not represented it accurately in this post (and I would be surprised if any Calvinists thought he had). He has just made some simple errors on the meaning of both the L and the U, which is what I was pointing out. (I also think it’s very overconfident to say U = double predestination “in fact”, as that is a much contested claim, but since it’s your blog, you can say what you like :0)

  • Anonymous

    Oh, I have – more than once! I stand by what I said until proven wrong! :)

  • Anonymous

    By the way, this is exactly what is stated e.g. in the Leuenberg Agreement, too:

    “3. Predestination

    24. In the Gospel we have the promise of the unconditional acceptance of sinners by God. All who trust this promise can know that they are saved and praise God for their election. For this reason we can speak of election only with respect to the call to salvation in Christ.

    25. It is the experience of faith that the message of salvation is not accepted by all; yet faith respects the mystery of the action of God. It bears witness at one and the same time to the seriousness of human decision and to the reality of God’s universal purpose of salvation. The witness of the scriptures to Christ forbids us from supposing that God has uttered an eternal decree, condemning for all time specific individuals or a whole people.”

  • Dgibbs18

    I still cant understand how the Evangelicals with a rich tradition of revival meeting, crusades and altar calls can accept calvinism with its docrine of double predestintion and limited atonement. Infact Calvinism strikes me as being anthetical to American cultural norms such as the notion of the American Dream and all men being created equal and bign endowed by their creator…”. I can see how calvismm would have ben bred in a European society with its history of class, but it wold b a hard fit for America.

  • Anonymous

    To be more specific concerning Luther:

    Yes, he has a certain kind of view of double predestination (as e.g. in De servo arbitrio) – BUT:

    This belongs to the action of the Deus revelatus and thus mustn’t be of any interest to us. Things that aren’t revealed to us can only lead to despair, which is why we are to look at the cross, where God has revealed his actual will.

    In other words: For Luther, teaching double predestination, though it seems to be the only (and here I would disagree) logical explanation, is improper.

  • Ben Irwin

    In general, I agree that the new Calvinists are more indebted to Jonathan Edwards than Kuyper. (Not least b/c Edwards is John Piper’s hero, and Piper is a leading voice of the Reformed resurgence.)

    But I don’t think Kuyper’s influence should be overlooked, especially on the political manifestation of new Calvinism.

    Also, given that Kuyper came from of a European context (with established churches and all the rest), the phrase “separation of church and state” probably meant something very different for him than it does for the average American.

  • Ben Irwin

    Berger’s got some interesting observations, but I wish he had done his homework more carefully.

    I have a hard time buying his prediction that only Calvinism “in its Arminian form” (?!) will be able to make further inroads in the SBC. All of the inroads thus far seem to have been made by hard Calvinists like Mohler. Increasingly, they’re in control of the big SBC seminaries, which explains why you see a higher-than-otherwise-expected % of students identifying themselves as Calvinists. And I’m fairly certain it’s not “Arminian Calvinism” that Mohler and company are teaching.

  • Benw333

    Ben I agree with you and disagree with Berger on the sort of Calvinists most making in-roads. BW3

  • Mag1102009

    I believe the question should be; is reformed theology consistent with first century Jewish thinking and does it find any parallel in the Hebrew Scriptures? Or is it the product of much later gentile thinkers like Augustine and Calvin and then reshaped through the ages? I believe it to be the latter.

    In most cases Christians tend to read the Bible as one long book without acknowledging the profound social and political changes that are a substantial part of the Biblical narrative. Here’s how it’s done. You take one passage from Genesis another from Proverbs, one from Colossians; push some pins into a map like police detectives looking to find the pattern in a series of crimes—and wah-lah; you have theology! This may have been acceptable in the 4th century A.D. or the 16th century, but, today we have tools available to us which make it far easier to understand these difficulties than anything available in previous generations. To not use them and rest primarily upon tradition seems silly—and a lot like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time.

  • BK Smith

    Hi Ben, long time reader, first time commentator…

    In regards to the subject of “Double Predestination”, doesn’t one have to assume that there must be a “neutral” place one is going to? Certainly man is not Hell bound because God directs him there is he? I know that Mohler, Piper and like minded men and women of the movement (which Berger is surprisingly late in noticing) all hold that man is headed to hell because of their own sin and nothing of God. Or, are you just stating as you see it the logical conclusion of the argument rather than what proponents of the position hold?

    I think that Berger WAY overstates the “T” of Total Depravity. Isn’t it about being totally dead in matters of salvation? Not just “human nature has no good features whatever”?

  • Anonymous

    I’m sorry, the first sentence should have been “This belongs to the action of the Deus absconditus and thus mustn’t be of any interest to us”, of course.

    Sorry, for errors in grammar and/or spelling – I’m not a native English speaker …

  • Michael Snow

    Re: “Total depravity: human nature has no good features whatever”
    This, I think, puts the emphasis wrongly. It is rather that there is ‘no feature’ of man that has not be been depraved, i.e. affected by the fall. All of man is affected, which is quite different then a common misconception that it means that man is totally bad/depraved, as bad as he can be.

  • Michael Snow

    I forgot to ask, when will the New Calvinists start baptizing infants?

  • Kenny Johnson

    That most famous of Bible passages… Luke 3:16