The Economist discovers Calvinists

I recently attended John Piper’s Desiring God gathering in Minneapolis, and yes, the Reformed crowd there was pretty alive and well, and the crowd seemed particularly young for a conference.

The Economist recently highlighted “The new Calvins,” describing a growing trend of Calvinists in the Southern Baptist denomination. Let’s first consider the deck, which acts as a subtitle: “Tensions inside one of America’s most successful churches.” I’m not sure who’s defining “successful” or when the Southern Baptists became a church instead of a denomination or a convention.

It would be interesting to know what provoked this article since the growth isn’t really new. Christianity Today has covered this development for the past few years (especially Collin Hansen, who wrote a book on the topic).

The Calvinist growth doesn’t necessarily seem limited to Southern Baptists; rather, it seems to be a generational development. But the growth within the Southern Baptist denomination is interesting considering the possible theological tensions. The Economist regularly tries hard to explain the history and context, but this paragraph shifts from laudable to laughable.

Calvinism emphasizes that Jesus died only for the elect; Baptists believe Jesus died for everyone. Baptists, by definition, believe that baptism must be an informed choice by the individual, therefore limited to adults; Calvinists believe infants may be baptized. Calvinists think that God selects certain people for damnation; Baptists are more easy-going.

One of the best responses to this paragraph comes from Thabiti Anyabwile, a Baptist pastor in the Grand Cayman Islands.

I don’t know any Baptists (I’m one) who would describe what it means to be a Baptists in these terms. And judging by the statistics from the SBC, where baptism ages are dropping like boulders off cliffs, adult baptism is no longer the norm in most SBC churches. And at least among Reformed Baptists, there would not be support for infant baptism. To associate the “new Calvinists” with declining baptism ages in Baptist churches is just journalistic foolishness. To equate the denomination with “the church” is to misunderstand even that local spirit and autonomy that Baptists love so fiercely.

By the way, when did Southern Baptists become known for being “more easy-going”? More easy going than who? We’re the “don’t dance, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t hang out with those who do” crowd.

The magazine uses some vague descriptions that create sweeping generalizations. “Mark Driscoll, a flamboyant, controversial pastor who leads Seattle’s largest congregation, the non-denominational Mars Hill church.” Journalists regularly use the expression “show, don’t tell,” but there’s nothing in this sentence that helps the readers understand how Driscoll is “flamboyant” or “controversial.”

It also seems odd that The Economist would label Al Mohler “the denomination’s best-known Calvinist” without quoting him on the trend.

One of our readers asked for more explanation for the theological implications.

Possibly the biggest thing missing in the summary is the division on the definition of the sovereignty of God?

My only issue is with the closing remarks, which characterize neo-Calvinism as a “trend.” While it certainly has characteristics like a trend, such as increasing popularity and generation differences, I feel this term is too light. The difference between Reformed and non-Reformed beliefs has a dramatic influence on how believers see God, others and the world.

I appreciate (and subscribe to) The Economist because of its emphasis on historical, cultural, political, and economical context. Perhaps this time around, they could have employed more theological context.

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  • brian

    Here’s hoping “neo-Calvinism” doesn’t stick as the name for this trend, since the Reformational theology movement, starting with Abraham Kuyper, is typically referred to with the same appellation.

  • Jon in the Nati, non-Calvinist

    Well, I give the publication credit for trying. Calvinism, like all systematic theologies, is an incredibly complex thing that is extremely difficult to simplify and still retain the integrity of the subject. Furthermore, it seems to me that any discussion of Calvinism must deal to a great extent with definitions of ideas and terms; failing to understand all the terminology used leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the system itself.

    Really, its one of those things that you go to seminary and take entire courses on; to imagine that we’re going to explain it to the masses in a magazine article is probably just not going to happen.

  • John D

    Nit-picking on language right back.

    The Southern Baptists are a church (as opposed to using the word “denomination”) in the same way that the Roman Catholic Denomination is.

    Sure, the article probably could have explained things better (but there’s always one more thing crying out for explanation in a limited space, right?), but I think we have to give them a pass on the word “church.”

  • J

    I read this article last week when it came out. I was surprised at the lack of factual quality and sources. As a “neo-Calvinist” and graduate of a Souther Baptist university, I can tell you that there are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to getting a succinct definition of what Calvinism is and means. To simplify it to belief that “Jesus died only for the elect” or infant baptism is really journalistic laziness.

    Now, to throw another “Calvinist” word out there, Reformed. The Reformed community is actually pretty well organized and has lots of information available all over the internet. There are blogs, e-books, sermons, and pretty much any source one would need to write a good article on this subject. The Reformed community is made up of people from many different denominations (Southern Baptist, PCA, Sovereign Grace churches, etc). But to the credit of the article it is pointing to the Southern Baptist Convention.

    In their mention of the Calvinist “celebrities” they failed to mention Pastor Matt Chandler, who is an SBC pastor with one of the fastest growing churches in the USA. He also had an article written about him and his battle with brain cancer (he’s 35 years old).

    The mention of CJ Mahaney infers that he is a Southern Baptist…he’s not. He is one of the leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries. Anyhow, the more I look at this article the worse it gets.

  • Matt

    Calvinism emphasizes that Jesus died only for the elect; Baptists believe Jesus died for everyone.

    No, all Calvinists and all Baptists would agree that Christ’s death was sufficient for all but efficient only for those who are saved (i.e., the elect). The differences are much more subtle than this sentence implies.

    Baptists, by definition, believe that baptism must be an informed choice by the individual, therefore limited to adults; Calvinists believe infants may be baptized.

    The first part of this is fine, but infant baptism is not an essential component of Calvinism. Reformed Baptists have been around since the 17th century. This is a division within Calvinism; the second part of the sentence should have been more specific, e.g. “Presbyterians and Continental Reformed believe infants may be baptized”. As it is, a supposed antithesis between Calvinists and Baptists is incorrectly promoted.

  • Matt

    I should have mentioned that “Baptists believe Jesus died for everyone” is true only of one strain among Baptists, and that this division among Baptists also dates to the 17th century.

  • tmatt

    JOHN D:

    Southern Baptists fiercely disagree with you.

    Some would even deny being a denomination.

    The SBC is best understood as a CONVENTION of “free church” congregations (who also choose to form state conventions and regional associations, as well).

    But the local autonomous church is the DNA. The convention, with boards that handle common work, is the ultimate structure. Thus, for example, the annual SBC gathering does NOT, not, NOT, have “delegates.” Churches send “messengers.”

  • MichaelV

    Using personality traits to describe religious groups is kind of… engaging in stereotypes, isn’t it? (Conservatives = grumpy?) And in some sense maybe even implicitly making truth claims about their doctrine.

  • John D


    Okay, and I’m just saying that the word “church” is quite commonly used to mean “denomination.” My dictionary gives as the second definition, “a particular Christian organization, typically one with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.” Are the Southern Baptists not a Christian organization? I thought they were.

    Or do they lack “distinctive doctrines”? If so, Anyabwile’s comments make no sense. A preference for adult baptism strikes me as distinctive.

    I’m not going to insist that Southern Baptists use the word in a specific way, but we can’t fault the reporter for using the word in a fairly common usage, even if that does not comport with how Southern Baptists, you, or Sarah Pulliam Bailey feels the word should be used.

    Whoever wrote the Economist piece used a word in a recognized sense. I think we can give him or her a pass on this one.

    After all, the Southern Baptists get to set Southern Baptist doctrine. They don’t get lordship over the English language. They may fiercely disagree with me (though I would prefer polite disagreement, as there are already too many issues over which they would fiercely disagree with me). Nevertheless, I do have my scripture to point to:

    It’s here in the dictionary, under the headword “church.”

  • joye

    @John D: Linguists know that a dictionary is not the be-all and end-all of the use of language. Within localized contexts, the usage of words does not always cohere to their use in the whole of society.

    For example, I am fluent in Mandarin Chinese. (Not just hypothetical, I really am.) When I am discussing Mandarin Chinese with someone, if I say “You really need to work on tone,” and they answer “What do you mean? I am speaking exactly in the style that I want,” and I answered “Uh… when discussing Mandarin Chinese, we use ‘tone’ specifically to talk about pitch contours” and their response to that is “You can’t tell me not to use tone to mean style! You don’t control the language! It’s in the dictionary!”, then my response to that is going to be “Okay, you’re an idiot, not gonna waste time with.”

    Roman Catholics don’t use the term denomination in self-description; Southern Baptists don’t use the term church in self-description. In general, following the terms people use on themselves is not only common courtesy, but if I am not mistaken, it is a journalistic practice of long standing and perhaps even formalized in the rules? The GetReligionistas are always hammering on the use of fundamentalist for the same reason.

    One further, intentionally inflammatory example: if you meet someone who describes himself only as African-American and specifically declines to be described as black, would you think it hunky-dory if a news article referred to him as black regardless, under the grounds that the dictionary gives “pertaining or belonging to any dark skinned population” as a definition? If he expressed anger or distress at having his known attitudes on the subject overturned, would you say “you don’t get lordship over the English language”?

    Maybe you would, but I call that not just bad journalism, but bad manners.

  • Julia

    When did the use of “denomination” begin?

    Literally, it means “name”, but what does it signify?

    I don’t think “denomination” is used much outside the US.
    That might explain why the Economist doesn’t use it.

  • Frank Lockwood

    Yes, Baptists don’t have delegates, they have messengers. And Episcopalians don’t have delegates or delegations. They have deputies and deputations.

    What are messengers and deputies? As far as I can tell, (having attended both SBC and ECUSA national conclaves), they’re delegates — specifically “uncommitted delegates” in the sense that they are not bound to vote any particular way…

  • jaiotu

    When I read the original article, I was appalled by the gross mischaracterizations of Calvinism in the SBC. That said, I think I can explain part of the source of the confusion.

    The basic issue is inclusivity and exclusivity. For instance; are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints properly called “Mormons?” The answer depends on how wide or narrow of a circle you choose to draw with the term. Likewise, are Mormons Christians? Many 21st Century Mormons choose to draw a wide circle of inclusivity with the term “Christian” that they would refrain from with the term “Mormon.” Meanwhile, many mainstream and fundamentalist denominations would not draw such a wide circle of “Christianity” that would include Mormons.

    So… what does it mean to be a Calvinist? If you draw your meaning to include mearly the “5-points of Calvinism” regarding the doctrines of salvation, then what you mean by Calvinism is certainly something that can be expressed in a Baptist tradition without compromizing on the doctrine of adult-only baptism that is part and parcel of Baptist identity.

    However, if by “Calvinism,” you mean a much wider inclusion of various theoligical positions held by John Calvin and Theodore Beza, then there would be a contradiction between being both “Calvinist” and “Baptist.” In fact, I’ve listened to more then one argument expressed by presbyterians that Baptists cannot rightly be called either “Calvinist” or “Reformed” because of the rejection of infant baptism, regardless of their possitions on the so-called “5 points of Calvinism.”

    When a Baptist says that he or she is a Calvinist, they are typically referring to a smaller subset of Calvinistic concepts that are expressed in the 1689 London Baptist Confession or the 1883 New Hampshire Baptist Confession. If someone who equates Calvinism to the broader set of doctrines expressed by non-Baptist Calvinists, it is easy to see where the confusion could arise.

    The author of the Economist article in question should have taken the time to have his article reviewed by someone more knoweldgeable about the subject before going to publication… in my opinion.

  • jaiotu

    @John D;
    I think that the use of the term “Church” in reference to the entirety of the SBC is perfectly understood by the average reader. It does, however, also engender a certain degree of confusion. The Convention does not set doctrine for the local Baptist Church, does not own the local Baptist Church and cannot enforce rules on the local Baptist Church. It’s kind of like the original 13 colonies when they banded together under the Articles of Confederation. Each state maintained it’s own sovereignty and independence. It was the Constitution, which came later, that forged the 13 idependent States into one nation.

    Yes, we can give the author a pass on that one. We can also gently correct the misperception for the sake of clarity.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Hi friends,
    I’ve been away from the computer since I posted this, so thanks for engaging with this topic. I didn’t mean to stir up a hornets nest over whether the SBC is a church. It was a comment about the deck that a copy editor probably wrote near the end of the editing process. On another note, does anyone have a suggestion for how–realistically with word count limitations–the piece might describe the tensions with theological context? It’s a real challenge and I’m curious if you have any ideas.

  • mattk

    What?! There are baptist who think of themselves as Calvinists? I am shocked!

  • economist-subscription

    The Economist’s article on Clavinists was not perfect but hey, pls, as someone alluded, give it credit for trying.

  • MattK

    Yes, economist-subscription is right. I’ve never seen any other non-Christian magazine do an article like this. The Economist deserves much credit.

  • Peggy

    I don’t know much about how the SBC wishes to label itself, but I understand the word “denomination” to specify that there are different strains of the larger group of Protestants. [ie, money comes in "denominations"-->$1s, $5s, $10s, 25 cents, etc.]

    Roman Catholicism in this light does not see itself as a “denomination.” [In fact, she insists that she is THE Church.]

    Recall, also, that British use of words differs from American use often. They often don’t get American sentiments very well. I don’t see this as a fatal flaw of the article.

    I used to like the Economist for its cosmopolitan perspective and information, but I got tired of its myopic perspective on American culture and politics–and I got tired of the US being the focus of the cover. The rest of the world’s obsession with the US is annoying to me.

  • AStev

    Having gone in the last few years from being a General Baptist to considering myself Reformed Baptist, I think one of the largest issues is simply misunderstanding about what Calvinists believe. I know that was certainly my problem – to be honest, I thought they were cold cloistered fatalists. When I began to investigate reformed theology more thoroughly, I discovered not only that my caricature was misinformed, but also that I was carrying a lot of preconceived notions of my own that could not be supported biblically.

    When I began to read books or listen to sermons by such winsome ambassadors for Christ as John Piper, Alistair Begg, Mark Dever, Thabiti Anyabwile (or even much older works from Charles Spurgeon and John Bunyan), it started the snowball rolling for me. These were not men shuttered up in libraries somewhere – they were active and joy-filled, warm and passionate. It was life-changing, and I think the last several years of my life has been by far the most spiritually profitable.