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.