What The Economist Gets Wrong About Calvinist Baptists

Image source: Christian Post

Today is the 504th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (July 10, 1509) — and the 497th anniversary of misunderstanding Calvinists.

To commemorate the event, let’s look at a recent notable example provided by The Economist. The article is out-datedly titled, “Dippers divided” and the subhead is “Where evangelicals disagree.” Where evangelicals disagree, apparently, is on whether to maintain,

the “theocon” alliance in American politics between Catholics and evangelicals, who have set aside their doctrinal differences (over the Virgin Mary, for example) to take a joint stand against abortion and in favour of the traditional family.

What could be causing the rift between Catholics and evangelicals. According to The Economist, the alleged culprit is Calvinists in the Southern Baptist denomination.

. . . the effectiveness of the Catholic-evangelical axis may be compromised by a deepening ideological fissure within the evangelical camp; or more specifically within America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which has about 16m members.

Broadly speaking, the difference is over whether Jesus Christ died to save mankind as a whole, or sacrificed himself only for a particular group of human beings, the elect, whom God had chosen in advance. The latter view is associated with John Calvin, the French reformer of the 16th century; critics find it too fatalistic, and inconsistent with the idea of a loving God. Taken to its logical extreme, some say, Calvinism can lead to an introverted, exclusive mindset: if most of humanity is irrevocably damned, what’s the point of engaging with the world?

Who is this “some” who “say?” Probably the same “some” who claim that premillennial dispensationalists (who are rarely, if ever, Calvinists) also believe that if most of humanity is irrevocably damned (see: the Left Behind novels), there is no point of engaging with the world. Of course, these same groups — Calvinists and dispensationalists — are frequently portrayed as also wanting to create a theocracy in America, so who knows what to believe. The “some” have a tendency to “say” contradictory things.

The Economist adds,

The perceived leader of the Calvinist camp is Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He has helped to ensure that many of the young Baptist ministers now starting their careers have a Calvinist way of thinking. In many cases they are out of their step with their flock, and that can lead to stormy pastoral situations.

Change the opening “The” to an “A” and that paragraph is mostly right — predicated on the “Calvinist way of thinking” being actual way Calvinists think and not the caricature presented earlier. A few more paragraphs detail some of the controversy over Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention. The reporting on the controversy is rather uncontroversial, until they slip in the F-word:

Neither party will have the slightest truck with liberal ideas. But even among fundamentalists, there can be hard arguments over what the fundamentals are.

So now the opposite of theologicaly liberal is “fundamentalist” rather than, say, theologically conservative? Ugh. You already know what we at GetReligion think of that term so I’ll let that slide without further comment. Now back to the Calvinism:

Will the outcome of this argument make a difference to anybody outside the world of Baptist theology? Yes, because as well as being hard-line over salvation, the Calvinists oppose any blurring of the boundaries between Christian denominations. So there are limits to their willingness to co-operate with higher-church Christians. “The Calvinists have a very anti-Catholic theological stand,” I was told by David Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Mr Mohler, for example, responded to the general excitement over the election of Pope Francis by recalling that evangelicals utterly rejected the Catholic idea that the pope was Christ’s vicar on earth. In another statement, he said that Catholics and evangelicals might still agree on sexual and reproductive issues, but he also stressed that evangelicals could not accept the validity of the pope’s office.

Let’s examine some of the many confusions in those two short paragraphs. First, Calvinists do not oppose “any blurring of the boundaries between Christian denominations” because Calvinism is not a denomination. Calvinism is a theological system that crosses numerous denominational boundaries; you can be a Calvinist and be a member of a “low-church” denomination (e.g., Southern Baptist) or you can be a Calvinist and a “higher-church Christian” (e.g., Anglicans). Second, the limits to Calvinists willingness to co-operate with Catholics is almost purely on a theological level. But this is a trait shared by all Protestants. That’s why we’re called Protestants.

The Economist assumes that disagreements about theological matters (e.g., the validity of the pope’s office) will cause conservative Calvinist evangelicals to refuse to work with conservative Catholics on social and political issues. Obviously, they are unaware that this is the exact opposite of what most Calvinist evangelicals believe.

Within evangelicalism, the use of the term ‘co-belligerence’ was popularized by the Calvinist intellectual Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer, whose influence on evangelical politics is incalculable, emphasized the importance of activism that leads neither to compromise nor separatism because of theological differences. As Schaeffer once wrote, “A co-belligerent is a person with whom I do not agree on all sorts of vital issues, but who, for whatever reasons of their own, is on the same side in a fight for some specific issue of public justice.”

Indeed, this view is not only shared by many evangelicals, it is the exact same position taken by Dr. Mohler. Here is Mohler’s own words:

. . . with the cultural challenges now before us, Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox should stand without embarrassment as co-belligerents in the culture war. The last persons on earth to have an honest disagreement may also be the last on earth to recognize transcendent truth and moral principles—even the sanctity of human life itself.

This quote is from an essay Mohler published in the the ecumenical(!) journal Touchstone titled “Standing Together, Standing Apart: Cultural Co-belligerence Without Theological Compromise.” The date: July 2003.

Francis Schaeffer, the godfather of the Religious Right, wrote about co-belligerence 33 years. Albert Mohler, the “perceived leader of the Calvinist camp”, wrote about co-belligerence 10 years ago. For Calvinists, the concept of working together with Catholics goes back more than 400 years (Calvin himself worked with the French Catholic Inquisition on the Michael Servetus heresy trial). In other words, Calvinism is likely to have the exact opposite effect that The Economist seems to think it will have.

This is an embarrassing unforced error by one of the world’s most esteemed newspapers.* But other journalists can learn from their mistake and can avoid such shame-inducing gaffes by using a technique that has worked for four centuries: When you want to know what Calvinists think, ask them.

*For historical reasons The Economist refers to itself as a newspaper. Since Carter’s Rule of Religious Labels states that “Use a religious label a person would use to describe themselves and avoid using ones they would not,” I figure a similar principles should apply to publications.

  • Jan Hartma

    Calvinism: Before the foundation of the world God arbitrarily chose some people for eternal life and all others for damnation without any consideration of these peoples’ future life choices. (Please correct me if my understanding of Calvinism is flawed.) This seems to me to be impossible if our God is truly just and merciful and loving.

    • Andrew Orlovsky

      My understanding of Monergism (a term I like better than Calvinism since St. Augustine held that view long before Calvin) is that God gave everyone free will and yet everyone rejected him, but because of God’s great love and mercy, he chose to save some of us anyway through the sacrifice of his son. Maybe some Calvinists would disagree with that statement but that’s what most Calvinist I know believe.

      • Jan Hartma

        I am not qualified to comment on St. Augustine’s views on this subject, but it is my understanding that Adam used his free will to
        reject God (he knowingly disobeyed God’s command in order to gain Eve’s favor for his own selfish reasons) and by choosing to sin, he lost the hope of the possibility of entering into eternal life for both himself and for Eve, and also for all their descendants. Adam estranged himself from God by his sin. He severed his relationship with God and had no means to repair the damage he had caused.

        Other consequences of his and Eve’s sin included a lifelong propensity to sin due to their loss of innocence (an innocence which could not possibly be regained); their expulsion from the Garden of Eden; illness and death of the physical body; and many hardships in providing for life sustenance for himself and for his family and their descendants. All of his descendants inherited his original sin (estrangement from God) and its consequences.

        Adam cannot pass on to his descendants as an inheritance the close relationship with God that he no longer possesses. Because he forfeited his relationship with God by his sin, all his descendants are likewise born estranged from God with no hope of the possibility of entering into eternal life.

        Neither Adam nor even one of his descendants had the means to mend this estrangement from God. And that is why the Word of God was made Incarnate as Jesus Christ. Mankind needed a Mediator to mend the relationship with God that Adam had severed. Jesus is called the only Mediator between God and Man because only He is both God and Man and so only He could atone (make amends) for Adam’s sin and thereby restore mankind’s relationship with God and thereby make it possible once again for people to have hope to enter into eternal life.

        Jesus died as a ransom for all men and women as a free gift (grace) and He desires all mankind to be saved, but each man and each woman must individually make the choice to partake of this free gift by faith and to also continue in this faith by obeying His commandments until death if he/she desires to be deemed worthy to enter into eternal life after his/her physical death.

        Before the foundation of the world, God knew which ones of
        the billions of persons that He would later create would freely choose to remain faithful to His commandments until they died. He predestined to eternal life only those persons whom He knew would choose to remain faithful to Him and His commandments until they died. All the others condemned themselves to hell by their own free will choice to disobey His commandments. God predestined according to His foreknowledge of future events and He condemned according to His foreknowledge of future events. “Predestined” should be used in a positive manner only as in “predestined to eternal life.” A person is not predestined to hell; he is “condemned to hell.”

        Likewise, God placed into His hands only those persons He
        predestined and He predestined only those persons whom He foreknew would remain faithful to Him and His commandments until the end of their life. None of us can positively know right now whether or not we will remain faithful to God’s commandments until death and thereby be deemed worthy to inherit eternal life.

        That is why Paul states that we all must “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” until the second we die. After we die, we will find out for sure and forever whether or not we are among the elect (sheep) or among the rejected (goats).

        • Jeff Boland

          Allow me to explain St. Augustine’s views on this subject. Augustine believed that happiness consists in partaking of the immutability of God, who created the universe out of love, in order to associate His creatures with Himself. But Augustine’s anguished struggle to find the truth was continually thwarted by his own nature, his will enslaved to sin, leading him to define freedom as it would be understood throughout the whole subsequent history of Christianity—not the ability to do whatever he willed but the ability to obey the divine law. In order to achieve peace and happiness, it was necessary to subordinate the human will to the divine, to choose between spiritual and material goods, since the divine order is being continually deflected downward by a human nature oriented to its own selfish ends.

          Left to themselves, all men are drawn to evil, hence all deserve damnation. Grace is literally a “gift”, freely bestowed by God, without which men are powerless to do good. Augustine thought God predestined only a finite number of souls to Heaven, accommodating His grace to each individual in accordance with His foreknowledge of how each will respond to the gift and allowing wicked people to do evil in order to manifest the power of God’s wrath.

          The ideas in that last sentence are the ones that were condemned by the church at the Council of Orange (529).

          • Jan Hartma

            Jeff:
            Thank you for the explanation. :)

    • Shawnskey

      The real question is: why would an all knowing, all holy God save ANY rebellious sinner? He draws the ones he chooses to Himself. Research the word “election” in the Bible.

      • Jeff Boland

        Q: why would an all knowing, all holy God save ANY rebellious sinner? A: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6)

        In biblical terms the divine election is God’s choice of certain people for a given mission he wanted them to fulfill. Thus Paul was a “chosen instrument” (Acts 9:15), and all Christians “have been chosen” (I Thessalonians 1:4).

      • Jan Hartma

        God loves all His creation Wisdom 11:24 so God makes it possible (freely supplies the necessary grace) for a rebellious sinner to repent of his sins and thereby be made righteous by God’s unmerited gift of grace. However, this repentant person must then remain in this righteous state until he dies if he also desires to inherit the crown of eternal life. Revelation 2:10
        .
        God’s “elect” are those who will inherit eternal life after they die. There are other types of “election” mentioned in the Bible which do not necessarily guarantee that a person is one of God’s elect.

        2 Peter 1:1-11, James 1:22

  • blestou

    I am a ‘calvinistic’ SBC pastor trained at Mohler’s The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I can’t recognize myself in any of these descriptions.

    • Jan Hartma

      My friend attends the Christian Reformed Church and this is what she told me she believes. Perhaps she is mistaken in what her church teaches.

      • blestou

        I’m sorry. I meant the Economist descriptions. I was commenting on the article.

        • Jan Hartma

          I’m sorry that I mistakenly thought that you were commenting on my definition of Calvinism. :)

  • Steph2012

    It’s hilarious that the very anti-Catholic stance is supposed to be demonstrated by a statement that Baptists don’t accept the validity of the Pope’s office. Unlike, say, the Anglicans?

    My problem with the liberal-fundamentalist contrast is that it’s unclear from the quoted bit (the link doesn’t work and it seems to be an issue at the Economist site) whether they are talking about political liberalism (which is what it sounds like, with the discussion of abortion, etc.) or theological liberalism, however that is defined. Catholics and Southern Baptists can’t both be theologically conservative in any coherent way, given the theological differences (I tend to think the Catholics are the true conservatives, but then I’m Catholic, so I would).

    • Stephen Johnson

      I’m intrigued by the idea that Catholics and Baptists can’t both be theologically conservative in a coherent way. I guess it would depend upon which theological criteria one uses. Is God a true and living God in both groups’ belief systems? Is Jesus both God and man, and a historical person who lived in ancient Palestine for both? Is the Bible the Word of God, faithful in reflecting the message of God to humanity in both systems? If you focus on foundational beliefs, rather the the outworking of Church polity, for example, I think the case could be made. But I will think on this further.

      • Jan Hartma

        I am Catholic and I think that Catholics and Baptists are both theologically conservative at the present time; however, If the Baptist Church starts ordaining known homosexuals as a matter of policy, I will change my thinking on this. Also, I believe that there will be a future split in the Catholic Church with bishops and priests ipso facto excommunicating themselves when they embrace the prevailing ungodly worldly view while still claiming to be Catholic.

        When truths about faith and morals have been declared by the pope and the Church’s magisterium, these Catholic teachings cannot ever change.

        The Bible is some of the words of God, but not the whole Word of God. The Word is a Divine Person and therefore a book (Bible) cannot possibly contain the “totality” of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His Catholic Church was given the authority by Jesus Christ to speak and act for Him. Jesus never commanded that His apostles or disciples write a book about Him and then have this book replace His authorized Church leaders and their legitimate successors. 2 Thessalonians 2:15, John 21:25, Luke 10:16

  • Jeff Boland

    Yes, it’s true that St. Augustine believed in the doctrine of predestination. However, despite Augustine’s enormous prestige, the church, at the Council of Orange (529) condemned it.

  • John Hutchinson

    As I feared when I read it in Schaeffer, co-belligerence becomes a backdoor to unequally yoked.


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