Calvin the Fundamentalist and other General Synod myths

Monday’s vote by the General Synod to allow women bishops has put the Church of England onto the front pages of the world’s press. News reports and commentary from around the globe have weighed on this development giving voice to a variety of opinions. Some of this reporting has been quite good, most of it average, while a few pieces have fallen short.

The Huffington Post‘s piece contained two errors of note. At the end of the piece the article confused the numbers for the Church of England for the wider Anglican Communion. A correction subsequently noted:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that the Church of England has 80 million members in more than 160 countries. Those are the figures for the worldwide Anglican Communion.

A minor slip, but the second raised questions as to whether the Huffington Post followed the debate, or recycled information it had gleaned from second hand sources. The article stated:

Like the vote that year, more traditional Anglicans, including evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, argued in front of the synod that having women as bishops would go against the teachings of Jesus. If Jesus intended women to be among the top church leaders, he would have had a woman among the Twelve Apostles, some of the traditionalists said.

By my reckoning, of the almost 100 speakers in the day, only one (lay delegate Jane Bisson from the Diocese of Winchester) raised the issue: “If Jesus intended women to be among the top church leaders, he would have had a woman among the Twelve Apostles.” The overwhelming majority of voices opposed to the change in church teaching couched their arguments around the Apostle Paul’s teachings on “headship” and the role of women in church assemblies — with arguments from tradition running second. Check for yourself.

Summarizing the arguments against women bishops along the “Jesus intended” line does a disservice to the debate in Synod and across the church. Painting the opponents of women bishops as Biblical-literalists is lazy reporting.

An otherwise excellent news analysis piece in The Guardian also makes this error — but this time John Calvin is the “fundamentalist” in question.

Calvin was not a fundamentalist. The Guardian Style Guide does not contain an entry for “fundamentalist.” However, as noted many times here at GetReligion, the Associated Press Stylebook makes this observation:

 “fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

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The Godbeat: Cry for a renewed emphasis on the liberal arts

Let’s flash back for a moment to the press coverage of the dramatic fall of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. I want to start with a topic that is pretty far from the obvious religion-news angles (covered here by our own Jim Davis and at The Federalist by GetReligion alum M.Z. Hemingway) and then work my way back in that direction. So hang in there with me.

We will start with political theory, by looking at a passionate Forbes essay posted by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, which ran under the headline, “It’s Urgent To Put The Liberal Arts Back At The Center Of Education.” He noted that David Brat, the man who shocked the world by defeating Cantor, is a self-avowed, practicing academic and scholar — which means that he has left a paper trail about his beliefs and worldview. Thus, Gobry notes:

In one piece of writing, Brat refers to the government as having “a monopoly on the use of force.” As National Review‘s Charles C.W. Cooke noted, several journalists — all of them covering politics, all of them working for reputed institutions like the New York Daily News, Politico and the Wall Street Journal, all of them presumably college-educated — pounced on his use of the phrase as a portent of dangerous extremism.

Stop me if you see what’s wrong with this picture — please.

What’s wrong with this picture, America, is that the concept of the state having “a monopoly on the [legitimate] use of force” is a quotation from the highly reputed and important German sociologist Max Weber, and is a concept that is absolutely basic to our modern understanding of the State. Anyone who has taken polisci 101 or sociology 101 or political philosophy 101 or history of ideas 101 ought to have encountered the phrase. It is about as offensive as saying that donuts have holes. (Cooke, maybe because he went to college in the UK, knows this.)

So how did this laugh-to-keep-from-crying error of omission take place? This brings us to that often twisted term “liberal arts.”

Gobry — God bless him — is actually talking about the liberal arts, as defined in traditional higher education.

Today, when we think “liberal education”, we think “Would you like fries with that?” But as the common root with the word liberty suggests, liberal education is an education that helps make us free. Only by first understanding not only the empirical scaffolding of our Universe — a.k.a. science — but also its conceptual scaffolding, a.k.a. the ideas, concepts and history which shape the world we live in, can we ever hope to be free, that is to say to be able to make informed, conscious decisions.

And in this case:

Without an awareness of these things, a bunch of very smart people who built our world and know the instruction manual have been warning us, we consign ourselves to doom.

Which brings me back full circle, which is that when a bunch of people, whose job is to write about politics, who presumably have nice-sounding educations, who have editors, don’t know one of the very basics of the political thought that gave us the world we live in, the hour is very late indeed.

And what does that have to do with mainstream religion-news coverage?

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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,

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Calvinism debate shakes up Southern Baptist Convention

Just how much do you know about Calvinism?

Former GetReligionista and current Religion News Service national correspondent Sarah Pulliam Bailey developed a short quiz to gauge readers’ knowledge:

See if your score is predestined, or if you have free will to determine your score.

Go ahead. Take the quiz.

I scored — gulp — 58 percent.

In other words, I probably should start this post by referring to Matthew 15:13-14, where Jesus talks about “the blind leading the blind.” My apologies, GetReligion readers, if I lead you into a ditch with this post.

In yesterday’s critique of an Associated Press story on the political influence of the Southern Baptist Convention, I promised a follow-up post on a mystery subject covered by AP and RNS. That subject: the theological debate over Calvinism simmering in Southern Baptist circles.

In about 900 words, AP covered the debate in a story advancing the SBC’s annual meeting, which starts today in Houston:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Is God’s saving grace free to anyone who accepts Jesus, or did God predestine certain people for heaven and hell before the beginning of the world? That’s a 500-year-old question, but it is creating real divisions in 2013 in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Calvinism is named for the 16th Century theologian John Calvin. Among other things, it teaches that Jesus died only for those who have been elected by God for salvation. That idea does not sit well with many non-Calvinist Baptists, who believe Jesus died for the whole world.

Some of the theological differences between Calvinists and non-Calvinists can get pretty far into the weeds, but what may seem an arcane controversy has become very heated, especially over the past few months.

RNS took AP’s 900 words and countered that it could “Name That Tune” in only 700 words.

The top of RNS’ story:

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