walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: October 30, 2013
Cowboys and Calvinists


Most human beings are not logicians. They muddle through life with beliefs and values that often do not hang together logically. I think that, basically, this is good news. Rigorously consistent doctrines, in politics as in religion, have a tendency to become murderous. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz (in his wonderful book The Labyrinth of Solitude) called such doctrines “syllogism-daggers”. I am always intrigued by the way in which seemingly contradictory beliefs and practices are upheld in many religious communities.

For the last three years I have been periodically teaching at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, a Baptist institution which also contains a theological seminary. It has been an instructive experience (and, incidentally, a pleasant one—everyone has been friendly and hospitable, though I never pretended to belong to the Evangelical culture that is dominant in this part of the country). Among other benefits, I have acquired an understanding of this culture, which is grossly misrepresented by the stereotypes still common in academia and the media.

During my excursions into the Bible Belt I have come across two religious movements which are attempts to synthetize highly discordant themes. One, the so-called Cowboy Baptists, I commented upon before on this blog. Cowboys are historically associated with the very opposite of Southern Baptist culture—a raunchy world of gun-slinging, foul-mouthed frequenters of taverns and brothels—counterpoised against the Baptist culture of bourgeois demeanor and morals. [Old joke: Why are Southern Baptists opposed to extramarital sex? It might lead to dancing.]

The other movement is the one that concerns me here: The so-called New Calvinists, who are acquiring an enthusiastic following among Southern Baptist theology students and young pastors. It origins may go farther back, but a landmark event was a conference in 2007 which launched the Gospel Coalition, a feisty call to arms against the alleged heresies of mainline Protestantism (including the more liberal Baptists) and the concomitant depravities of the general American culture. It made a big bang. In an issue in March 2009 Time magazine listed the New Calvinism as one of the “Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now”. This was quite an exaggeration, but the movement certainly changed the discourse among American Evangelicals, Southern Baptists in particular. This is a puzzling development. I have been trying to understand it.

Calvinism was, as it were, the fourth principal stream of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, distinctively different from its Lutheran, Anglican and Anabaptist rivals. Also known as Reformed Protestantism, its theological star was John Calvin, originally from France but eventually spiritual mentor of the Protestant state set up in Geneva. Similar Calvinist states were successfully established in other Swiss cantons and parts of Germany, in the Netherlands and the Dutch colonies in South Africa, and of course in Puritan New England. (Oliver Cromwell’s attempt to replicate such a state in England turned out to be unsuccessful.)

Classical Calvinism is arguably the most austere movement in Christian history. Its morality was famously austere, but that was closely related to its central doctrines of the absolute sovereignty of God and so-called double predestination—the latter doctrine followed with flawless logic from the former (a “syllogism-dagger” indeed). Everything in the world is subject to God’s sovereign will. Human beings can do nothing, good or bad, which can in any way influence God’s plans for the world. Accordingly, God has decided from before the creation which human beings are destined to be saved and which to be damned for eternity—neither good deeds nor fervent faith can have any bearing on the eternal fate of an individual.

One may find this idea of God repulsive. [I may as well admit that I do.] But it also has a sort of grandeur of its own. At a time, no less, when Calvinist Protestants were brutally persecuted in France, it was a practice in some of their churches to have new members swear an oath: They solemnly promised to witness to their faith and to live a godly life—even if they should know that they were among those predestined to go to hell. Inevitably, this sort of self-effacing faith is only possible when believers are in the grip of overwhelming fervor. Over time, as the fervor diminished, Reformed Protestants found this blind submission to the divine decree unbearable: They had to know whether they were among the elect or among the damned.

Historically, there were two avenues to achieve the desired knowledge. One was by means of an overpowering inner experience of salvation; this was, literally, the “method” propagated by Wesley and the long sequence of American revivalists ever since (eloquently expressed in the old hymn “I know that my redeemer liveth”.) The other avenue was to find proof of election by blessings (including the blessing of economic success) in one’s life in this world (that was the psychology of the “Protestant ethic” which Max Weber saw as a factor in the genesis of modern capitalism). Be this as it may, total submission to a divinity bent on merciless destruction is not unique in the history of religion. There was the belief that unbaptized children, obviously through no fault of their own, must languish indefinitely in “limbo”, an unfortunate afterlife neither in hell nor in heaven. As far as I know, the Catholic teaching on this was never unanimous (and by now has in effect disappeared). In the Middle Ages there was disagreement among theologians as to whether these children only suffered by being deprived of heaven, or whether they suffered actual pain; those who took the latter position were called by their critics “torturers of children”.  There are examples outside the history of Christianity, as in the Hindu cult of Kali-Durga, the goddess depicted as dancing on a mountain of skulls. (Mind you: Innumerable people actually worship Kali-Durga.) In our own time there is the cult of Santa Muerte (Holy Death), depicted as a skeleton Madonna, popular among Mexican drug traffickers and other criminals. The psychology of this type of religion is exceedingly interesting; I have called it “metaphysical masochism”.

The Calvinist tradition in America, most of it, underwent a process of progressive (let us call it) defanging. That process already began in Europe; in the Netherlands the Arminians dissented from double predestination early on. Today little is left of this blood-curdling doctrine in Presbyterian and Reformed churches, which are historically descended from the Calvinist Reformation. It is all the more interesting that the New Calvinists tend to go back to the early unmodified version of the tradition. Their hero is Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who for most of his career was pastor of a Puritan church in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was quite a sophisticated theologian, but, alas, he is best known for what could be called a textbook case of “metaphysical masochism”—his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, with its depiction of the elect in heaven looking down with satisfaction at the torments of the damned in hell, and praising the justice of God. Paradoxically, Edwards was one of the key figures in the First Great Awakening, a string of revival services in which sinners were called to repentance and, implicitly, to saving faith—a futile exercise if one holds to the pristine Calvinist doctrine. (Perhaps Edwards was inconsistent because of a humane impulse—unless this was a case of entrapment, expecting the sinners to reject the preacher’s message and thus to ratify their own damnation!)

The New Calvinists use the nifty acronym TULIP to summarize their allegiance to classical Calvinism. (The tulip is the national flower of the Netherlands; I don’t know whether this association is intended) T/”total depravity”:  The entire human race is totally enmeshed in sin and justly destined to hell, unless plucked from this destiny by God’s sovereign grace. U/”unconditional election”: No conditions are attached to God’s willful exercise of forgiveness. L/”limited atonement”: Christ did not die for all men, only for the elect. I/”irresistible grace”: An individual cannot refuse to be saved, if God has decided to do so. P/”perseverance of the saints”: The elect remain so, no matter what they do; but, it may be assumed that God will not allow them to be truly sinful.

New Calvinism is not a monolithic phenomenon. There are variations, degrees of adherence to the TULIP package. Still, the core allegiance to the classical model is there. There are two significant differences from the latter. The New Calvinists claim to be open to engagement with modern society and culture, in America and elsewhere. Very significantly, they are also open to the “gifts of the Spirit” characteristic of the charismatic Christianity exploding today all over the world (traditional Calvinists frowned on these). There are also some differences between two leading figures in the movement, John Piper and Albert Mohler. Piper has for many years been pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where he also teaches in a Baptist seminary. He uses the somewhat misleading term “hedonistic Christianity”; not to worry, what he means is that the utmost pleasure is to be found with God. He has taught that suffering is evidence of God’s grace and he urges Christians to persevere in faith as they suffer; if they don’t (gotcha!), this is proof that they are not among the elect.  Mohler is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He continuously makes statements opposed to every expression of the new sexual morality. He has called non-Christian religions—specifically Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam—“demonstrations of satanic power” (that goes for the even seemingly innocent practice of yoga).

The attraction of Calvinism to many young Southern Baptists is puzzling, because it so obviously deviates from what Baptists have traditionally believed and practiced. The entire Baptist enterprise is based on the assumption that all are called to salvation, if only they will “accept Jesus as their lord and savior”. Southern Baptists in particular live out this assumption by engaging in numerous missionary activities at home and abroad. If there is a “proof text” for Southern Baptists, it would be in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy (2:3-4), where there is mention of “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”.  The same New Testament text can serve as the motif for the life and work of Billy Graham, the icon of contemporary Southern Baptists, and indeed of the larger Evangelical community as a whole.

Why then the attraction?  I can think of three reasons.  1/Southern Baptists have found their raison d’etre in opposition to mainline Protestantism and to those Baptists who are now in that camp. That camp is characterized by theological and moral liberalism, and therefore perceived by Evangelicals as having betrayed the core of the Gospel. Southern Baptists also see themselves as counter-cultural, given the fact that general American culture today is characterized by philosophical and moral liberalism (in Evangelical perspective, “relativistic”). This makes for an affinity with the full-throated orthodoxy of classical Calvinism.  2/Southern Baptist culture is particularly conservative in matters of personal morality, particularly when it comes to gender roles and sexuality. It is “puritan” as well as Puritan—in lower case and capitalized—a very important affinity with the tradition of Calvinism in America. For example, Southern Baptist colleges must be in a small minority in American academia where students must promise to abstain from extra-marital sex and alcohol, and can be expelled for breaking the promise. And where else in America can one find “virgin clubs” among female students? They pledge to be virgins until marriage, wear rings to symbolize this pledge, go to annual conferences (accompanied by their fathers!) to encourage each other—and, wonder to behold, look for husbands who will be their “spiritual leaders”! And 3/ Southern Baptists have not been famous for theological sophistication. They do not have an impressive theological tradition to fall back upon. Calvinism offers such a tradition.

In June 2013 the Southern Baptist Convention met for its annual meeting. It passed many resolutions. Among them was an “irenic” one , taking note of the controversy over the New Calvinism, but affirming that this controversy should not lead to divisions within the denomination, rather that all Southern Baptists should respect and love each other. One may be skeptical whether this intention can be realized. The differences between the New Calvinists and their critics are sharp, and there is no central authority to enforce unity. The Southern Baptist Convention experienced a schism some years ago, after conservatives took over the denomination and liberals were forced out or marginalized. Something like this could happen again. After all, churches splitting up is in the DNA of American Protestantism.  One of the most eloquent critics of the New Calvinist movement is Roger Olson, who teaches theology at the Baylor seminary. He has explicitly rejected Calvinism in favor of the Arminian version of the Reformed tradition. One of the sharpest statements he has made in this matter is one in which he says that he would not worship a God as described by classical Calvinism.

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  • gerald

    FYI: Olson helps run a website, that takes on Calvinism in defense of Arminianism.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Why is Calvinism so appealing to countercultural Baptists in Bible-Belt and Oil Patch Texas? This would have been an intriguing question for sociologist Max Weber. As Prof. Berger might say: “Max Weber is alive and well and teaching at Baylor University’s sociology department.”

    What Weber saw as the main adversary to Capitalism was a traditionalistic economic mentality where everything was “fixed,” meaning both static and a rigged game. Economic rationalism (time orientation, accounting mentality, discipline to save, profit motive, specialization, and an enterprising “spirit”) challenged economic traditionalism in Max Weber’s Germany of early 1900’s just as Texas’ economic culture must challenge the post-modern green economy of California, along with its cultural zeitgeist of same sex marriages and immigrant sanctuary cities. As Weber saw traditionalist economy a threat to “Germanness” (das Deutschtum) posed by the influx of Polish immigrant farm laborers, Texans may see a threat to their Capitalist culture and their “wildcat” oil economy.

    Weber drew attention to why Germans abandoned farm labor “for (irrational) reasons that are not material.” It was the Germans’ desire for liberty and their disenchantment with the feudalistic Junker social stratification of masters and servants that drove them to flee rural Germany. Weber also saw this as partly the consequence of irresponsible economic and political policy that favored traditionalist Junkers (the landed nobility).

    The origin of the Capitalistic ethos was the concept of a religious calling or profession. The Protestant Reformation brought about the legitimation of worldly labor to an ethical status. It was Protestant asceticism of Calvinism and Methodism and sects that sprang from the Baptist movement that gave a religious calling or profession its institutionalized meaning. The theology of predestination doesn’t logically hang with the notion of a work ethic. But as Prof. Berger points out the social world isn’t always consistently logical.

    Predestination theology asserted a person’s fate was already decided and there wasn’t much that could be done to change it. But alienated Calvinists sought a sign that might reveal their state of grace beyond the “fixedness” of the theology and the Junker socially stratified world. A work ethic and saving gave social status beyond social class and powerlessness of the alienated religious Calvinists. This was Weber’s main contribution to the sociology of social class: status was as important or more important than material factors.

    Lutheranism failed to provide a rationale for living in a state of fallen grace – lost social status – other than through confession and penitential forgiveness. Status conflict led to self-discipline that led Calvinists and other Baptist sects to an inner-worldly asceticism and status as an individual before God. Alienation was turned inside out to give meaning unlike the Marxist notion of alienation as materially caused.

    The depiction of Calvin at the top of Prof. Berger’s article as a stern, obstinate, gloomy, and self-sacrificing person reflects the thesis of contemporary sociologist Julius Rubin’s book “Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America.” Rubin claims that religious melancholy has been historically lost but shaped the character of early American Protestants. Modern-day Calvinist Baptists have reportedly blended a Charismatic element into their theology.

    No matter what one may think of Calvin and the Calvinist movement, it spawned Capitalism, the consequence of which has been an indisputable leap in the standard of living for everyone, which even Karl Marx acknowledged.

    • Mark Rogers

      One has to ask why Prof. Berger is so put off, dare I say squeamish about young ladies throwing out liberal-Hollywood immorality and seeking instead pure marriage to their leader in spiritual things. That is one tenet built from Genesis through Revelation, no doubt which educators in secular relativism find unattractive.
      Just as Christ is given as the head of the

      church, so the man is the sacrificial lead in God’s family.

      The antimony of predestination versus free will is very poorly presented by Prof. Berger.
      There are numerous fundamentals he simply leaves out of the discussion, which would fall apart if he undertook a genuine debate.

      • Gary Novak

        When Berger says that it is a “wonder to behold” young ladies seeking husbands who will be their spiritual leaders, I do not think he is being sarcastic. It is a wonder to behold, because it is rare, but it is a curiosity that merits reflection, not ridicule. In his second paragraph, Berger criticizes academia and the media for grossly misrepresenting Evangelical culture, which he can respect– without pretending to embrace it. Your attempt to explain Berger’s “squeamishness” assumes facts not in evidence.

  • ljgude

    “Perhaps Edwards was inconsistent because of a humane impulse… ” If you read Edwards accounts of his joyous experiences in the cow pastures you find a very human man – I would say a mystic who clearly experienced spiritual rapture and wrote about in his diaries. I grew up about 60 miles north of Northampton and Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God was required reading in high school I was delighted to discover Edwards’ more mystical side later at Columbia in the comparative religion department. I think these young Turks of the Calvinist tradition could do worse than take a closer look at Edwards. He is a first generation Puritan preacher who I suspect represents a new beginning based on the New World experiences of his generation.

  • Anthony

    “Most human beings are not logicians. They muddle through life with beliefs and values that often do not hang together logically.” Peter Berger, in reading essay a thought comes to mind: benevolent hypocrisy. That is, New Calvinism affirmation of faith adjusted to respect modern norms (compartmentalization). Religious passion being such that without ability to compartmentalize, dissonance may become too disconcerting i.e. Arminians; also, irenic example in essay may underscore idea indirectly.

    • Micha_Elyi

      It has been said that just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no double predestinationists in Calvinist pews

  • Gary Novak

    In the DVD documentary (“Elusive Muse”) on her life as a dancer, Suzanne Farrell gives new meaning to Berger’s old joke about the reason for Southern Baptist opposition to extramarital sex (it might lead to dancing). When asked about her sexual relations with George Balanchine, she replied (in effect) “Why would I want a sexual relation with Mr. B when I could DANCE with
    him?” Her smile as she said that was brimming with sublimated eroticism. Her description of dancing Mozartiana with Balanchine: “This must be what heaven is like.”

    OK, back to business– Why would young Southern Baptists want to associate
    themselves with (repulsive) double predestination? Berger’s answer is both
    plausible and sociological. These New Calvinists seek a theologically sophisticated and puritanically countercultural rallying point. The inconsistency between the desire to save all and to enjoy the sufferings of the damned may be worked out later, when the grip of reformation fervor has been
    somewhat relaxed and logic is allowed to make a few modest claims, but in the meantime we are well-advised to attend primarily to the social meaning of theological doctrines. (One could argue that it is not the desire for theological sophistication that attracts these Southern Baptists to Calvin but their lack of theological sophistication which enables them to adopt an
    incompatible doctrine.) And, as reader
    “ljgude” suggests, it might be the case that the New Calvinism comes factory-defanged, so to speak– that is, the New Calvinists are celebrating the spiritual raptures of the mystical Calvin.

    In an essay on Augustine’s concept of Original Sin, Paul Ricoeur (“The Symbolism of Evil”) makes the point that that concept can’t really be
    understood except as a reaction to Gnosticism. If, as Wittgenstein said, the meaning of a word is its use, the meaning of double predestination for the New Calvinists will be determined not by its pedigree but its use, and I am not close enough to the phenomenon to weigh in on that.

  • Tom

    Being a Southern Baptist and one of the New Calvinists (sort of), there’s not really a disconnect between the Baptist emphasis on missions and predestination.
    Part of the idea of God’s sovereignty is that he often uses humans to accomplish his goals instead of doing things solely by himself. Ergo, missions are, for lack of a better term, a means of regeneration.
    Also, part of what my be attracting younger Southern Baptists to Calvinism is the relative rationalism it espouses as opposed to the more emotionalistic religion previously espoused by the convention.

  • Mark Mcculley

    they solemnly promised to witness to their faith and to live a godly life—even if they should know that .

    Berger can’t document that. It’s a myth. A Kantian self-less-ness is not commanded by the gospel of unconditional election and definite effective atonement. Nor is the puritan “practical syllogism” inherent in the gospel taught by John Calvin. Calvin equated faith with assurance of salvation.

  • Frank Hunt

    If a person is really interested in what Calvinist believe, then he or she should read about it from the primary sources for themselves. Those who hate and despise Calvinism are bound to be a poor witness to what the system holds. Their straw men are almost always overweight and overstated. They fail to grasp the system and so are unable to restate it in a fair and balanced way. So, for example, when Berger says, in reference to the predestination of the elect and the foreordination of the damned, that, “neither good deeds nor fervent faith can have any bearing on the eternal fate of an individual”, that is simply a statement to which I, as a Calvinist, cannot agree with!!! That is NOT our belief. As for Olson’s “god”, I think I recognize enough of the One true God in Him to gladly worship Him. How sad that we are now reduced to questioning whether each of our “gods” is God!! Our God is not a manageable deity; we do not get to pick and choose His attributes. What a dangerous illusion to think that we can.

  • Inga Leonova

    This is brilliant, dear Peter. And very poignant from my perspective in light of the rising Orthodox fundamentalism.

  • Frank Gallagher

    Why the recent Evangelical (not just Baptist) fascination with Calvinism? I would say it’s even simpler than Berger suggests. 1)There’s a “race to the bottom” to find (and believe! the irony!) the most absolute conception of God, the one that attributes the most authority to Him and focuses most on His power (rather than, e.g. love, peace, faith, gentleness, etc). The following from Mark Driscoll, extoller extraordinaire of the power-Jesus:
    “Basically, God is a Father who alone picks which kids are adopted into His family. What matters most, no matter what the label, is that our theology be God-centered and not man-centered. We are not the center of the universe, God is. What we want is not most important, what God wants is.” Secondarily, Calvinism (unlike Berger’s characterization of it) can actually reconcile the faith/works (or Romans/James) dichotomy that regular readers of the Bible must eventually stumble upon. I.e. Faith and good works are predestined for the heaven-bound. And vice-versa. For thinking Christians, this would relieve a lot of cognitive dissonance.

  • Brent

    This blog post demonstrates a very poor understanding of Calvinism. Having faith and doing good works has much to do with your salvation. However, it isn’t the ultimate deciding factor of your salvation. The reason a person has faith and does good works is because God ULTIMATELY elected them to salvation. Calvinism goes to ULTIMATE causality .[i.e. why is the world the way that it is ultimately?]. It does not deny the proximate causality of “faith” and “good works” as being the means by which we are saved or given evidence of our salvation temporally. If a person asks me what they must do to be saved, I have no problem answering them: “Believe in Christ and be baptized.” I will then tell them to work out their faith. If they do, I know they were able to do so because God decreed it ultimately and gave them the grace to carry it out.

    I would encourage those who want to understand Calvinism to go to its proponents and avoid the useless strawman characterizations offered by those who don’t really understand it.

    • Dagnabbit_42

      But, Brent,

      The difficulty is that those who actually parse TULIP out to its logical conclusions, or who actually read Calvin, do not get the kinder, gentler, more free-willed view you describe.

      Or, perhaps they do…but it comes largely from their own preconceptions of what justice would really be, and not from Calvin’s words or the logical consequences of TULIP.

      Blending Calvin’s words into their own preconceptions of divine justice, they wind up with two contradictory impressions: The one you offer, and the one which says that we are biological automatons, wound up and set to do whatever God has foreordained, only observers rather than co-operators in both our physical works (good deeds) and internal works (e.g. faith). In this view we do nothing even to respond to God’s grace, but merely find out whether we won the salvation lottery.

      And there are ways to construe Calvin’s words such that one narrowly avoids this wind-up-toy view of human beings…but such construals end up shifting the meaning of TULIP into the Thomist category, which is one of the permissible views within the spectrum of Catholic thought. (See Jimmy Akin’s “The Salvation Controversy” for further elucidation.)

      Yet, Calvin assures us that Catholics are heretics, that the whole of Catholic soteriology is vicious lies, et cetera. One supposes that puts the Thomist view off-limits! But what does that leave?

      I think it leaves the unadulterated view, which seems so nasty that I suspect my Calvinist friends whom I love and respect only persevere (!) in holding it by becoming uncomfortable with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance.

      I think it is like the mental version of an uncomfortable yoga pose: One sets one’s emotions in the happy state that they’d be in if one simply believed in “once saved always saved”; one sets one’s habits in the industrious state that they’d be in if one believed one had a choice in whether to “work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling”; one sets one’s description of God as “good, loving, kind”; and, one sets one’s exegesis according to Calvin’s institutes.

      And one is very careful never to let any of the categories intrude on the other. “Ommmmmmmm.”

      • Brent


        Be careful. My view does not have anything to do with “free will”. I think you need to work hard to understand the distinctions we Calvinists make and to think clearly about “free will”. The concept of “free will” is almost always left “ill defined”. What exactly is the will “free” from? My will may be free from many things IN THIS WORLD… but is it free from God… who stands over and above this world… who transcends it? I think not.

        Further, our will is always in bondage to our own nature. What is that nature? We are fallen sons of Adam… unless we are not. Unless God has elected us to something else. Accordingly, Calvinism merely understands what the Bible teaches about man, that we are fallen creatures who do fallen things UNLESS God gives us grace to rise above that estate.

        TULIP is a fine acrostic as far as it goes. But to ensure that we are on the same page, let me make sure that our definitions agree.

        Total Depravity – Man is fallen. His thoughts are sinful continuously. In his natural state he does not seek to follow God but instead inserts in God’s place a host of idols and false gods to worship. Accordingly, everything he does is tainted with corruption.

        Unconditional Election – God does not look to our performance as a condition to save. God’s desires to save a people and he does so unconditionally. Unconditional Election is necessary if Total Depravity is true. If election was based on our performance then nobody would be elect because nobody performs.

        Limited Atonement – Christ’s work is effective only for the elect. This is not a statement of the “value” of Christ’s atonement. It is only a limit in purpose. Christ’s work carries out God’s plan perfectly to save the elect.

        Irresistible Grace – When God elects a person he also provides them with sufficient grace so that they “willingly” believe [i.e. have faith] and “willingly” do good works. In other words, it is God’s grace to the person that brings about faith and good works. Without that grace then a person will persist in their natural state of Total Depravity. With God’s grace then the person is willing and able to raise above that depravity. God’s grace turns the sinners heart from a heart of “stone” to a living heart that loves God. God changes the disposition of the person’s heart so that they love God and trust God and follow him willingly. Accordingly, those that love and trust God and follow him in good works have evidence of God’s irresistible grace in their lives.

        Perseverance – God preserves his elect with irresistible grace throughout their lives. He never lets them sink back into their Total Depravity. He keeps them in grace throughout their whole lives.

        I hope that helps. In true Calvinism people are not “automatons” or “mere observers”. We are not automatons because we have a will. Nevertheless, our will is subject to God just as all things are subject to God. If God had not created the world then we would not exist and our will would not exist. God created the world, us, and our wills and he knew what he was doing when he did it. He intended for the world, us, and our wills to operate as they do. He could have made them otherwise. But the world, us, and our wills all act in accordance with God’s ultimate purpose for his creation. This conclusion is unavoidable unless you deny absolutely fundamental aspects of God.

        We are not mere observers either. We are participants and our actions work in concert with God’s decree. Our wills are part of the causality that brings about God’s plan. We participate in God’s plan. However, we do not determine God’s plan ultimately.

        Perhaps the best analogy is this: God is the author of reality. We are the subjects of his work. He writes the story as he sees fit. The subjects in the story participate in that story. The subjects are judged based on the context of the story. Are they good, are they evil, are they honest, are they liars, etc….? The author is judged by a different criteria. He is judged by whether the story is good ULTIMATELY. As Christians, we know that God’s story is ultimately good as in the end every injustice will be reversed, every evil will be undone, every defect will be made right, and creation will be redeemed. All things that happen now will ultimately go serve this good end. That is the payoff of affirming God’s sovereignty. We get to affirm that God knows what he is doing and that all things, even our suffering, have meaning.

        • Dagnabbit_42


          I thank you for taking the time for a detailed reply: Very gracious of you!

          All the same, it seems to me that your reply does not deal with the particular aspects which non-Calvinists typically find objectionable.

          Total Depravity:

          I don’t think any Christian disagrees with Total Depravity, although they might find the label misleading, inasmuch as it sounds as if Calvinists are saying that humans are as bad as they could possibly be, which is not what Calvinists are saying. I’ve heard “Total Inability” proposed as a clearer label: No thought or deed is able to please God except by God’s grace; man on his own is totally unable to rise above depravity.

          Unconditional Election:
          We do not — because we cannot, even in principle — earn election. No problem there; we cannot buy God off to obtain salvation, as if He lacked anything we could provide, that He could not have better and easier on His own initiative. The wages of sin is death — the spiritual death of Adam was fairly earned by his sin, as if he’d worked for it — but life through Jesus can only be a free gift of God. Thus far all Christians will, I think, agree.

          Limited Atonement:
          I’m happy to see you specify that the Atonement, while of superabundant value, is limited only in those for whom it is effective. That accounts for 1 Tim 4:10.

          But unanimity breaks down with…

          Irresistible Grace:
          That God can be Irresistible if He chooses is plain; but that His graces are often resisted is also plain, as in Acts 7:51: “You always resist the Holy Spirit!”

          And this resistance is blameworthy; which it would not be were there no alternative for the persons blamed. This implies that God granted those being blamed sufficient grace to enable them to accept His salvific graces, but they, enabled by God to accept salvation, preferred something else over God and rejected salvation. It is thus their fault they are not saved.

          I think it is here where Calvinists and non-Calvinists part ways, because Double Predestination seems to require that all supernatural graces are efficacious, not merely sufficient. So far as I know, all Calvinists would deny that God grants sufficient grace to all. For the Calvinist, a person either gets efficacious grace (and is in like Flynn) or none, ensuring damnation…but this damnation is assigned to a blameless man, who, for the lack of even sufficient grace, could not possibly have done otherwise.

          Perseverance of the Saints:
          I think there is an issue here, also, but it is complicated by issues of time: Whether status and causality are being seen from an eternal and timeless perspective, or a sequential perspective in time.

          Suppose for a moment that there is a woman who is saved at time X (such that, if she died at time X+1, she would go to Heaven), who then (at time X+2) apostasizes and enthusiastically embraces atheism because this enables her abandoning her husband and kids and marrying a billionaire, and who later, at time X+3, by God’s grace, repents and returns to Christ, falling in love with Jesus and retaining that love until her last breath.

          No Christian has any difficulty, I suppose, believing she is saved from time X+3 until death. No Christian, therefore, has any difficulty calling her “elect” or “among the saints” at that time (from a human perspective) or saying that “she was elect all along” (from God’s perspective, who saw all times as Now and thus knew how the story played out).

          The difficulty is with the time period between X+2 and X+3. Is she saved if she dies during that stretch, or not? It seems, in view of Perseverance of the Saints, that the Calvinist must hold that if the woman was not-saved between X+2 and X+3, then the original salvation was unreal; or else, that if it was real, then even if the woman dies in the period between X+2 and X+3, prior to repenting, she’s heaven-bound anyway.

          The straightforward solution (she was saved, then she chucked it away, becoming un-saved, but eventually repented and received salvation again) is rejected by Calvinists. Yet I do not see that Calvinists provide any satisfactory alternatives.

          Finally, “free will” or “free agency”: Our ability to either choose God, or to reject Him, is itself a gift from God, and an unmerited, unearnable one. It is a form of grace, not granted once, but continuously. Without God’s ongoing giving of this ability, it goes away, for we cannot sustain it of ourselves. We rise above — or rather, are pulled up above — the status of “automaton” only because God continually enables us to be more than that, by His grace.

          It is thus nonsensical in one sense to talk about “free” will in the sense of being “free from intervention of any kind by God.” Without intervention by God, there is no freedom. But it is not nonsensical to insist that a person, to make choices by “free will,” must be free from “overwhelming and deterministic forcing by God which makes one ‘choice’ impossible and the other ‘choice’ certain.”

          And it is certainly no denial of the requirement of grace — no semi-Pelagianism — to say that a person can “freely choose to embrace God” if one, in saying so, is also asserting that the freedom to choose is, itself, granted by grace alone; that without grace free will is impossible. The initiative, then, is all on God’s side.

          • Brent


            Thank you for your clear response. I think it provides an opportunity for us to share our views and think about the issues.

            Irresistible Grace – God’s grace is often resistible by man as Acts 7:51 indicates. In fact, the clearest expression of this is in Romans 1 where Paul stated emphatically that God has graciously revealed himself in creation but that man rejects this revelation and worships the creation rather than the Creator. Calvinists emphatically agree that God’s grace to man is almost exhaustively rejected by man and that man is ungrateful for the daily … moment to moment… grace God pours out on him daily. Man’s rejection of God’s grace in creation at a most basic level goes to show that man is “foolish” and “dark hearted”. Grace OUGHT to ALWAYS be received with gratitude. Accordingly, Man’s rejection of God’s grace in creation demonstrates that man is “bad” and worthy of the “blame” because he refuses to accept with gratitude what God has so obviously and graciously given to him in creation and instead seeks to supplant God. Man is blameworthy for rejecting even the most basic grace. [See Romans 1]

            When Calvinists speak of irresistible grace, we are speaking of exactly that grace which overcomes even the most foolish and dark heart. Yes, irresistible grace is always efficient grace. The person who comes to faith in Christ has been given sufficient faith to overcome even his strongest inclination, desire, or preference. Accordingly, because the grace is sufficient to overcome any obstacle it is efficient to do so. God gives this efficient grace to his elect and it is irresistible exactly because it is efficient. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus was powerful enough to overcome any hatred he had for Christ and His Church. God had chosen him as his vessel and God would get His man. The same is true of all of God’s elect.

            Perseverance – I think your objection here is even more important. Your illustration demonstrates a point that I think is crucial. Calvinist soteriology is ALWAYS soteriology from God’s perspective. Accordingly, because it is from God’s perspective, it is always about salvation in the “ultimate” sense. Why is a person saved? Because God ULTIMATELY elected them unto salvation. Why does a person place saving faith in Christ? Because God ULTIMATELY overcame their objections through irresistible grace? Is an apostate saved? If God ULTIMATELY returns them to faith. Accordingly, to the person who you describe who at various times appears to be compelled by God’s grace and at other times to be resistant, their ULTIMATE destiny is determined by God. If they are elect then God will ultimately overcome, through grace, any temporal apostasy.

            It is very helpful to understand soteriology from God’s perspective because it helps us to understand that TO GOD BE THE GLORY in all things. It is by grace and grace alone that we are saved. However, there is a danger. As humans we are not God. We do not see how things ultimately work out. To us, persons respond to the Gospel, fall away, and then perhaps come back. To us, salvation appears in flux even though in eternity it is fixed. Accordingly, we are called to preach the gospel to everyone and never assume the election or reprobation of anyone. I always used to tell my friends that for all we know, Osama Bin Laden is the next Paul of Tarsus… one time persecutor to apostle to the Muslims. Of course, most of them hated it even though they understood what I was saying in principal. We ought to preach in that way; believing that God can turn any person to him. I can believe that God can save anyone because he has saved me.

            Free Will – I understand what you are saying. However, I think this is one of the areas where Calvinists and non-Calvinists miss each other. Again, I think we need to go very deeply into what we mean by “free will”. I believe that a person can either choose or reject the Gospel. We have the ability of choice. However, I also believe that each choice is determined. When I make a choice, I have reasons; sometimes rational, sometimes emotional, sometimes instinctual or subconscious. However, each choice is determined by those reasons. Fallen man will always reject God because he has an over-arching priority. He seeks his own interests and benefits. He does what is right in his own eyes. He seeks to supplant God. Accordingly, fallen man is falling by his own weight. It is by God’s grace that our fallen nature is overcome and our priorities shifted. Accordingly, to those whom God has elected, they will seek after God and choose God. However, in either direction there is a determination of the will at some level. In both cases, the will is ULTIMATELY determined by the highest priority of the soul. It is by God’s grace that he becomes our highest priority instead of the plethora of idols we would set in our hearts.

            If by “free will” you mean an “indeterminate will” then there are a host of philosophical problems associated with that concept.

            I think defining your concept of “free will” and stating how it works and perhaps defending it from scripture are important things to do.

  • Riley

    You definitely need to read Calvin, Edwards, and some other Reformed theologians on the free offer of the gospel if you think that offering Christ indiscriminately to those who hear for salvation contradicts Calvinism. This kind of comment shows you don’t understand it. Also, the Baptists are going back to their Calvinistic roots in the movements you describe. They did, after all, descend from the Puritans, in this country and in Britain.

  • vepxistqaosani


    Are you familiar with James Hogg’s “Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner” (1824)? Though a novel, it provides an effective refutation of Calvinism. The protagonist takes ‘TULIP’ as a logician would and lives his life accordingly.

  • Jeremy

    When I read these types of debates, it reminds me of Paul’s warning about sectarianism. BTW, what theology did the thief on the cross subscribe to? I will state one appreciation I have for calvinist theology…that is understanding the call of God to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as savior. GOD initiates it through the preached Word and conviction by the Holy Spirit, so we can know our sinful selves and know we need salvation. Why would anyone hold onto Christ alone if all they need to do is recite a prayer and then follow all the rules, all the while not understanding how sinful they really are.

    • Micha_Elyi

      …what theology did the thief on the cross subscribe to?

      I take it you’re referring to St. Dismus, the penitent thief, not the other thief on the other cross next to Jesus’s.

      Clearly St. Dismus was neither a blank slate nor ignorant. He was an inhabitant of Judea and was almost certainly familiar with the Jewish faith as commonly practiced in that day. He may also have been familiar with some of Jesus’s teachings and habit of consorting with sinners (the Pharisees certainly made sure that was well publicized as part of their effort to discredit Him). He may also have heard of Jesus’s demonstration that He has the power to forgive sins.

      We can safely infer that St. Dismus’s theology may well have been as Christian as, oh, St. Peter’s was during the crucifixion of Christ.

      • Jeremy

        Thanks for your reply :) Sounds like you may have gone through “catechism”? I may be using that term wrong, but what I mean is, your use of names sounds like possibly a catholic background. I have never been through a formal catechism, my background is with the protestant baptists….but in any case, Christian. I look at the thief on the cross the same as many other people in the Bible that Jesus encountered – the crying women in the Pharisee’s house, the women at the well, the blind men, the crippled, the adulteress women to be stoned, the bleeding women, etc. These are the people that the Bible records Jesus said were forgiven. I think the common thread is all these people recognized their absolute need for Him. And some called him Son of David, Christ…in other words, Messiah. The Pharisees, much like many today, don’t NEED Jesus….because they feel they’re doing just find without him.

  • Monte Harmon

    This essay reminds me of a class I took where the professor repeatedly made statements about Roman Catholicism and Calvinism that seemed inconsistent with what I had read over the years.

    When I questioned him about these statements he claimed they were backed by books he owned. He loaned them to me, but after reading them thoroughly and finding no support for his claims, I went back to him seeking clarification. He shrugged it off, indicated they must have been in other books, and suggested I accept his statements since he was the professor.

    Why these rumored ideas about the different religions/denomination/churches live so long despite clear evidence to the contrary is beyond me. Whatever value there might be in the surrounding ideas, blindly repeating obvious misunderstandings, exaggerations and deceptions only undermines the primary thesis.

    In this case the views of Calvinist piety are not well informed, the comments about early Baptist history are equally ignorant, and the theological straw men are no more reflective of Calvinist doctrine than that of the average pew educated worshiper of Charles Finney.

  • Kepha Hor

    Dr. Berger, respect you as I may, I would like to know a citation for this statement:

    “At a time, no less, when Calvinist Protestants were brutally persecuted
    in France, it was a practice in some of their churches to have new
    members swear an oath: They solemnly promised to witness to their faith and to live a godly life—even if they should know that they were among those predestined to go to hell. ”

    Where and when was this said or written?

    On the other hand, I know from the unexpurgated “Wee” Free Kirk of Scotland version of the Westminster Confession, that those conscientiously using the means of grace (apparently understood chiefly attending to the ministry of the Word) may be assured of salvation (a “quick peek” into God’s Book of Life?). The “Wee Frees”, BTW, regard most American Presbyterians as heretics over the revisions adopted in 1906.

    I also know from the unexpurgated version of the Canons of Dort (Eek! Horrors! Oooo-oooo-oooh! As the “let’s die decent death, as our cultured despisers desire” liberal Protestantn/Jew in me was taught to say when young), it says:

    “Since we are to judge the will of God from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace in which they, together with their parents, are comprehended, godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children, whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy” (Canons of Dort, 1619, I:17)

    As a “Blackstocking” Gerevormeerde Christian bereft of a daughter shortly after her birth, I found this infinitely more comforting than the “yew gotta walk the aisle in a personal decision” of Arminian revivalism.

    In my few and evil days, I have actually read several 16th and 17th century Reformed confessions and catechisms, read through Calvin’s _Institutes_ a few times, gotten to know the works of a few Puritan divines. I’ve also spent most of my Christian walk in conservative Reformed circles. The conclusion that I drew was that far from being an “EEEK! Horrors!” sort of thing, predestination is something done by the selfsame God who became man to work redemption for us–and whose elect constitute a vast multitude whom no man can number from every people, tongue, and nation.

    Yes, it’s a theology of glory (Min Mor, Gud hville henne, var en Norske Jente–so I’ve got “Lutheran in me”, too). But if you deal with God, you have to deal with glory somewhere, don’t you?

    Hence, I strongly suspect your cite may be either from either enemies of the Reformed faith in its early days or some 19th century “what I don’t know I make up” historian.

    BTW, I’m not someone who despsises your work. I’ve read a number of things you’ve written from your secularization theory works of the ’60’s through your late/end Cold War secularization in retreat work and beyond–when time and money allow. Generally, I think you have something highly insightful to say. But, I’m wondering if the cite you give on 16th/17th century French Calvinism is an actual cite.

    For you, my real name is Peter J. Herz

    • Kepha Hor

      I will also urge you not to fall for what Ahlstrom (I believe it was he) called the “village polemics” of a much more devout American past, in which “Calvinism” came to be predestination first, last, and always. Luther himself, in his _Lectures on Romans_, was every bit as “Calvinist” in that regard as Calvin or the Dutch divines of Dort. For me, Calvinism is also covenantal theololgy rather than the law-gospel dichotomy of Lutheranism (or the antinomianism of the older Dispensationalism, baptism of the children of professing believers, and an understanding of the sacraments as signs and seals through which the Spirit of God is at work to make Christ real for us.

  • qet

    Fascinating. I am from that place. My father grew up in a small Baptist town and my grandmother remained a devout Baptist until her death, and I have cousins who are devout Baptists (I do not believe of the New Calvinist strain but frankly I’m not so sure). I myself am not a man of faith. This answers a great many questions I have had over the years. To what extent might the New Calvinism within the American Baptist faith be a resurgence of the ascetic impulse that seems to arise periodically in Christianity? Or is that a naive question? I don’t know. And I must say that I am equally fascinated by the doctrinal subtleties discussed by commenter Kepha Hor. Is modern Christianity really still riven by such fine distinctions?

  • Monte Harmon

    Pretty funny (sad?) description of calvinism. If this article describes it correctly, I wouldn’t want to be one either.

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