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In a recent Time Magazine article David Van Biema cites Calvinism as being the third of ten ideas that is shaping the world right now.  Van Biema writes,

Calvinism is back, and not just musically. John Calvin’s 16th century reply to medieval Catholicism’s buy-your-way-out-of-purgatory excesses is Evangelicalism’s latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination’s logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time’s dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision.

The article names usual suspects, John Piper, Mark Driscoll and Al Mohler, as patron saints of the recent Calvinist revival and cites Justin Taylor’s Between Two Worlds as a Christian cyber-hot-spot.  We could easily add Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney and John MacArthur to the list.

Now, I should say up front that I am pretty thoroughly Calvinistic.  My conceptions of the nature of the will, of God’s role in regeneration and of the purpose of the Universe pretty much come straight out of Jonathan Edwards’s playbook.  But there is something about the neo-Reformed (or nouveau-Reformed, as I like to say) resurgence that troubles me.

Van Biema only hits upon the tip of the iceberg when he writes,

[Al] Mohler says, “The moment someone begins to define God’s [being or actions] biblically, that person is drawn to conclusions that are traditionally classified as Calvinist.” Of course, that presumption of inevitability has drawn accusations of arrogance and divisiveness since Calvin’s time. Indeed, some of today’s enthusiasts imply that non-Calvinists may actually not be Christians. Skirmishes among the Southern Baptists (who have a competing non-Calvinist camp) and online “flame wars” bode badly…. 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.

Putting aside the massive historical misrepresention involved in implying that Calvin’s vision of God was that of early America (was Puritan Massachusetts the only colony?), there can be little doubt that however-so-many people turn to the nouveau-Reformed vision of God, the movement will be extremely and unnecessarily divisive.  The fact is that the nouveau-Reformed movement has a deeply ingrained schismatic streak.

One can see the schismatic impulse in the movement, ironically enough, in the so-called Together for the Gospel movement.  The movement is united around, not the gospel, but rather a melange of conservative shibboleths.  Judging by the  affirmations and denials published by the conference, the movement might be better named Together for Complimentarian, non-Egalitarian views of the roles of Women, the Inerrancy of Scripture (understood just thus-and-so), a Law-Grace Dichotomy, Church Discipline, the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness, Etc.

Needless to say, equating the gospel with this laundry-list of conservative evangelical soap-boxes is bound to be divisive.  Such wagon-circling movements have a tendency to eat their own tails and thus it comes as no surprise that participants in the movement even lack sufficient solidarity to be able to commune together at the Lord’s Table. 

But why?  Why is it thus?  In my estimation it is because the nouveau-Reformed have a penchant for practically identifying their pet-projects with the gospel itself.  Indeed, the movement is not, in fact, united around Calvinism per se, much less around the gospel.  Rather, the movement is Fundamentalism redivivus, complete with an updated and expanded set of fundamentals. 

Like the Fundmentalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the movement’s theological agenda is to a large extent driven by anxiety.  The nouveau-Reformed offer the uncertain generations (Boomers, X-ers and Y-ers alike) living in these uncertain times “a rock-steady deity who orchestrates absolutely everything, including illness (or home foreclosure!), by a logic we may not understand but don’t have to second-guess.”  But Calvinism purchased simply as theological Prozac comes at a high price, for its nerve-steadying effect is only as potent as its key tenets are unshakeable.  Calvinism taken as an anodyne does not really cure the believer’s anxiety about circumstances and salvation but rather sublimates and transforms it into a nervous, insecure dogmatism that ceaselessly worries about slippery-slopes.  The result is a reactionary, trigger-happy neo-Fundamentalism that practically excommunicates confessing Christians who are Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant or simply less theologically cautious evangelicals.  In short, the nouveau-Reformed movement offers a BIG God but also a small Church and a narrow orthodoxy. 

The movement has much to commend it.  It’s fiery passion for international missions is unmatched.  It’s awareness of social justice issues markedly improves upon evangelicalism’s historical aloofness to such matters.  It has given evangelicalism a relatively greater theological depth than the happy-clappy baby-pools of the Health & Wealth Gospel and so-called “Seeker Friendly” movement.  It has reawakened a desire to be rooted in historic theological traditions such that even such a traditionally tradition-wary tradition as the Southern Baptist Church is looking back to their Founders for theological guidance (on matters of soteriology moreso than on matters of slavery, thankfully). 

While we should rejoice in these blessings that the movement brings, that does not negate the need to help our nouveau-Reformed siblings overcome the movement’s proclivity for sectarianism.  And if I have correctly diagnosed the cause of this factionalism, then they already have the makings of the cure ready-to-hand. 

A deeper confidence in a BIG God, a sovereign and mysterious God; a wild and unconstrained, yet paradoxically and and surprisingly faithful God can work wonders for folks worrying about the ambiguities inherent in the post-modern condition, the cognitive dissonance that can accompany rigorous scholarship and phobias of theological and moral slippery-slopes.  A stronger conviction that we are flawed and fallible and that God’s judgments are unsearchable and his ways inscrutible may deter us from dissentious and deleterious dogmatism.  A sincerer belief in God’s absolute and unpredictable freedom in election coupled with a heart-felt conviction that we are justified by our faith in Christ rather than by our comprehension of and adherence to the (contested) sola fide  doctrine might considerably broaden the number of people a Calvinist would call brothers and sisters.  In short, the cure for nouveau-Reformed factionalism just might be more Calvinism, not less.


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