No, not THAT Calvin — although maybe he has a birthday coming up, too.
The rock star of the moment is John Calvin, the stereotypically dour theological chaperone of Geneva (his 500th birthday is July 10). A balanced, nicely-done story by Religion News Service writer Daniel Burke maps the lawyer’s influence on American evangelicals, particularly Southern Baptists. But why is Calvin becoming so, er, trendy? Well, it isn’t because of his clothes, his beard, or even the way he wanted to govern Geneva. It is, as Burke astutely notes in his lede, Calvin’s doctrine that is undergoing, excuse the expression, a renaissance among conservative Christians:
Like most 24-year-old men, Stephen Jones is keenly interested in sin. But while many of his peers enjoy their youthful indiscretions, Jones takes a more, shall we say, Puritanical stand.
Last weekend (June 12-15), Jones and 4,000 other young Christians packed into a convention center in Palm Springs, Calif., to hear preachers tell them that they are totally depraved, incapable of doing the right thing without a mighty hand from God, and — most importantly — have absolutely no control over their eternal fate…
“His theology is the hottest, most explosive thing being discussed right now,” said Justin Taylor, 32, a self-described Calvinist, and an editorial director at Crossway, a Christian publisher in the evangelical heartland of Wheaton, Ill. “What he taught is extraordinarily influential right now.”
Absolute depravity? Double predestination? Full-scale refutation of the doctrine of free will? Who knew these would make such a comeback? Not only do Neo-Calvinist churches like Mars Hill, Seattle and Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City have large populations of young worshippers, but they are pastored by clergy, like Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller, who have become authors and media figures in their own rights.
Burke notes that this surge in influence has been expressed in some innovative ways, like Facebook fan clubs and Twitter feeds. But, as he also does a good job of clearly articulating why and how this shower of Calvin-related worship, books, and church plants has brought controversy with it — even among conservative Christians.
…former Southern Baptist Convention President Jerry Vines said Calvinism inhibits evangelism and missionary work, which is the lifeblood of the SBC, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. If Jesus died only for the elect, then what’s the point of trying to reach others, said Vines, who co-organized a conference dedicated to debunking Calvinism last year.
“I do believe it is possible to be a five-point Calvinist and be evangelistic and missionary-minded,” Vines said. “But their evangelism and missionary work is in spite of their Calvinism, and not because of it. That’s going to make some of them mad, but I do believe it.”
Vine’s question is a very good one, and there are plenty of other ones that journalists could be asking the Neo-Calvinists. What the connection between the neo’s and the so-called “emerging churches?” What about Calvin’s strong anti-Catholic bias? Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Orthodox Church in America Metropolitan Jonah today as saying that Calvinism among some Anglican evangelicals was a “condemned heresy” posing a problem that needed to be resolved before full communion between the new Anglican Church in North America and OCA was possible.
Yes, indeed, he’s very hot at the moment.
As the media begins to dig deeper (hopefully), the controversy over what Calvin really believed and how these new Calvinists are expressing it needs to get more attention. Burke’s article is a great beginning. If you want a more secular perspective, with some interesting history thrown in, read the Associated Press story by Hanns Neurbourg here. In a story about one of the towering figures of the Reformation, there’s remarkably little analysis of Calvin’s theology. But there is a lot of data on his influence on the arts, democracy, and economics — much of it in revolt against the sage of Geneva, an apparently humble man who would probably not have guessed that 500 years after his birth, he would be making square so hip.
The picture of President Coolidge is from Wikimedia Commons