Thursday, January 21, 2010

Calvinism: a New Force in American Religion?

I just came across TIME's recognition of Calvinism as a "new idea" changing America in tandem with "recycling the suburbs" and "reinstating the Interstate". Of course, Calvinism is even less "new" than suburbs and the Interstate and its been far longer out of fashion even among conservative Protestants.

While it was foundational to Puritan New England, why did Calvinism (often synonymous with Reformed Theology) lose its grip on American culture? Part of the answer is simply that all theological systems have lost cultural currency. Calvinism, however, had some distinctly troubling doctrines for a nation which envisioned itself "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Central to Calvinist doctrine are two doctrines that Americans love to hate.
1. Limited atonement, i.e., Christ did not die for the sins of the world but for the elect alone. This sounds so elitist and undemocratic.
2. Unconditional election, i.e., people are predetermined to heaven or hell unconditioned by their choices or behavior. This sounds so unfair and against free will.

These doctrines became repugnant to many Americans after the waning of the Congregationalist theologian Jonathan Edwards' (1703-58) influence. Edwards is often called "the last Puritan" and is often contrasted with "the first moralist" Ben Franklin. But even Edwards had begun restating and revising the theology of his Puritan ancestors all of whom isolated key Augustine doctrines untempered by other Catholic influences or even from his other Catholic convictions.

In spite of Edwards' creativity and brilliance, even his friends, Joseph Bellamy (1719-90) and Samuel Hopkins(1721-1803) felt compelled to tweak his interpretation of Calvinism after his premature death.

So classical Calvinism had been on the defense in America since at least Benjamin Franklin's (1706-90) generation. Its emphasis on predestination and an elect spiritual elite was thought to be incompatible with the American sense of freedom, liberty and equality of opportunity. By the last third of the 19th century, even its residual intellectual appeal was petering out. While Calvinism continued to produce some great theologians at Princeton, by the first quarter of the twentieth century it was out of the cultural mainstream, just another form of Protestant "fundamentalism".

In spite of TIME's approval, it still is.

Let me explain. Conservative Protestantism entered a period of reawakening and refashioning after WWII. The "new evangelicals" were led by figures like theologian/journalist Carl F.H. Henry, evangelist Billy Graham and represented in the magazine Christianity Today They distanced themselves from combative fundamentalists and widely suspected traveling preachers. They also stood against the Protestant liberalism of the World Council of Churches.

In the attempt to portray a united front against both liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism they strategically decided to avoid taking sides in the historic doctrinal divides betweens Calvinists, Lutherans, Arminians and, later, Pentecostals. It was a juggling act to be admired and not without truly respectful nods towards Christian unity which probably reached its climax in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together documents.

Graham had served as a generous and visible sign of unity for American evangelicals. For the sake of widening the audience for preaching "basic" or "mere" or "gospel" Christianity, doctrinal disputants censored themselves and avoided very public theological disagreement. Why create obstacles to salvation by confronting non-Christians with our theological disunity? Why scandalize the uninitiated before they had accepted Christ as their savior, before they had chosen the one indispensable thing?

But with the waning of Graham's influence and the rise of theologically minimal 'seeker' megachurches and the often doctrinally indifferent 'emerging' church movement, the long stifled demand for doctrine reasserted itself among a certain portion of the evangelical world. It was no secret among religion-watchers but TIME spied out this new generation rediscovering the intellectual vitality and consistency of Calvinism just in time for the Swiss reformer's 500th birthday in July 2009.

Yes, the new Calvinism is a force to be reckoned with among conservative American Protestants but it hardly registers on the American cultural Richter scale. This is not the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards or even 19th century Princeton revived. Nor has John Piper, Albert Mohler, R.C. Sproul or Mark Driscoll had any appeal among educated Catholics.

TIME asks: "It will be interesting to see whether Calvin's latest legacy will be classic Protestant backbiting or whether, during these hard times, more Christians searching for security will submit their wills to the austerely demanding God of their country's infancy."

As a Catholic, I pray for the latter. What an improvement over today's militant secularism. What a shame to waste this rediscovery of God's majesty as exemplified in Augustine's doctrines of grace in a new exercise of Christian factionalism.

Yes, I know how anti-Catholic were the Puritans and their descendants through the 19th and into the 20th century. But the new Calvinists didn't take this in with their mother's milk. For them, the rediscovery of the doctrines of grace found in Augustine have been a revelation and they can't think quite so badly of the Catholics who have canonized him. They are still quite capable of calling Catholics non-Christians (as one recently did to a family member) but they are saying the same of many within their conservative Protestant subculture.

Sadly, the new Calvinism continues to dismiss the tools Christ instituted and Augustine employed to maintain sacramental unity among His people: apostolic succession, the Petrine ministry and extravagant acceptance of the lapsed. So I expect their cultural and spiritual influence to dwindle as their sons and daughters will in a few short years re-enact the doctrinal conflicts of the past. I expect the movement will fragment once again over the identity of the elect, the wideness of God's mercy, and the breadth of His covenant. The joy so prevalent in Jonathan Edwards and John Piper will fade in the attempt to transmit the faith apart from the fullness of the apostolic tradition.

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