Why the Romance of Calvinism?

Fr. Victor Novak’s recent article in VirtueOnline about Calvinism, Catholicism and the Thirty-Nine Articles opens an interesting subject for disparate groups such as Anglicans, Baptists and Pentecostals: why is there so much attraction these days for Calvinism in places where it was either non-existent or not well represented?

Let’s start with Fr. Novak’s article.  He wants us to believe that the 39 Articles are a Catholic statement of faith.  That’s a stretch; the first century and a half of the Church of England was a lurching between a reinstitution of Roman Catholicism and the imposition of Geneva-inspired Calvinistic Puritanism, with the Elizabethan Settlement in the middle.  The truth is that the Anglican edifice, both theological and ecclesiastical, has elements of both, which has made Anglicanism a composite business or a muddle, depending upon how you look at it.

Novak is correct on one key point, and one I made many years ago: the whole concept of Anglicanism as a truly Calvinistic, Reformed church was fatally compromised by Article XVI’s allowance for falling after baptism.  That, in turn, eventually opened the door to Wesleyanism, which in turn gave Reformed theology of all kinds its most potent alternative in Protestant Christianity.

Now, as Novak notes, we have people within Anglicanism advocating consistent (I’ll refrain from calling it strict) Calvinism within Anglican churches.  He’s right that many of the people who have started the new Anglican churches in North America are not “old line Episcopalians”; the church managed to shed many of these in the 1970’s, only to become a revolving door to another generation of orthodox believers.

Anglicans, however, are not the only Christian group who are seeing a growing advocacy of Calvinism in their ranks.  The Southern Baptists, who admittedly have a composite theology of their own about election and perseverance, are seriously discussing this issue.  And we even see some in Pentecostal circles, traditionally Wesleyan, advocating Calvinism in one form or another.  What’s going on?

Let me try to suggest two causes for this:

  1. Calvinism is theologically respectable.  The main reason for that is because its main advocates, the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists, are at the top of the heap of Evangelicalism from a socio-economic standpoint.  They have been able to fund the seminaries and produce the most educated ministers, although they’ve been hit with the same revisionist problems the Episcopalians have had.  So they have achieved respectability from both an academic and socio-economic standpoint, and that’s a potent combination.
  2. Calvinism draws sharp boundaries.  Say what you will about Calvinism and its proponents–and I could say a great deal about the latter–it’s a theology with very discernable boundaries.  It draws a sharp line between the elect and the lost, as opposed to the fuzziness of Roman Catholicism on the one side and liberal Christianity on the other.  It also has a simple way to separate the two: God wills a person to one or the other, and that’s it.  It is strong on the necessity of God’s grace to enter eternal life.

But Calvinism has some grave weaknesses as well:

  1. It eliminates the concept of moral responsibility.  This is a product of its absolute insistence on predestination.  It takes a person’s inability to reach God on his or her own and removes any responsibility from them.
  2. It is intrinsically anti-missional, again because of its fixation with predestination.  The Reformers understood this completely; that’s why it took two centuries to get the modern missions movement under way.  During that time the Roman Catholics were more than making up for their losses in Europe and the Anglicans were praying at Cape Henry and elsewhere to win a new continent for God.  Calvinists complain that others don’t understand their doctrine.  But the real issue is that Calvinistic evangelists like George Whitfield didn’t understand their own!
  3. It is the fastest road to universalism in Christianity.  The reason is simple: if God wants all people to be saved, and God predestinates those who are saved, then God saves everyone.  The current poster child for this process is Rob Bell, but we’ve fought this battle since the days of Charles Finney and earlier.

I’m not sure why Anglicans and Pentecostals, at once on opposite and the same end of Christianity, would want to ditch their own theological heritages in favour of Calvinism.  (The Southern Baptists have a dissonance problem that would be more easily solved if they took inspiration from the first two).  But we do so at our own peril, and peril of those to whom we are called to preach the Gospel.

11 thoughts on “Why the Romance of Calvinism?”

  1. What you list as “grave weaknesses” of Calvinism are common fallacies related to Calvinism. First, you are confusing Calvinism” with hyper-Calvinism. George Whitfield well understand Reformed teaching. We do not know whom God has elected. God through Christ has commanded us to proclaim the gospel to everybody. This entails what is sometimes referred to as “promiscuous preaching.” God uses ministers and other gospel workers, including the ordinary Christian, as instruments by which he calls the elect. Calvinism maintains that the benefits of Christ’s atonement are LIMITED to the elect. It is Arminianism that has proven over and over again to be the fastest road to universalism with its doctrine of universal redemption. Genuine Calvinism makes no such claim. What Calvinism does is recognize that our salvation is ultimately in God’s hands: God is sovereign in all things.

    1. 1) “We do not know whom God has elected.” That would include the elect. That undermines the concept of the assurance of salvation, a cornerstone of Reformed theology. It also undermines the old Calvinistic concept of looking for signs of election, which was what Calvinist preachers like Whitfield were looking for.
      2) I never said that genuine Calvinism leads to universalism. What happens, however, is that once people realise that, in a Calvinistic structure the lost are created only to be discarded in eternity, the fastest way out is universalism. Arminianism does not teach that everyone is redeemed, but that all can whether they will or not.

  2. Assurance is not something that we look for in others but what we look for in ourselves. Please support your claims regarding Whitfield and other Calvinist preachers with citations from their writings. I would suggest what you are asserting is actually a distortion of Reformed teaching. Here again I point to the danger of confusing hyper-Calvinism with Calvinism.

    You are also setting yourself up as a judge of what is Calvinistic and what is not. What are your credentials? How well did you really understand what you read and studied? How much is what you are saying represent an accurate understanding of Calvinist teaching and how much is it your interpretation of such teaching?

    Your assertion that Calvinism creates a dilemma that is resolved by universalist thinking is highly debatable. You are treating a hypothetical argument as if it is fact. Just because you make an assertion does not make it true. You need to support it with hard evidence.

    Arminianism itself leads to a number of errors, which I suspect that you well know. They include universalism. It is no panacea for universalist thinking.

    The problem is the human heart, not a particular theology.

    1. If, for the Calvinist, election is “the deal” for eternal life, and Calvinistic preachers were out and about with their “promiscuous preaching” seeking those who were elect, what else would they have been looking for but signs of election?

      When you said “We do not know whom God has elected.” I felt you included the sinner as well, not just everyone else around him or her. That’s where assurance is undermined.

      As mentioned in my piece, some of my material was taken from here:

      https://www.vulcanhammer.org/2008/05/22/getting-saved-in-america/

  3. I recommend that you read J. I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (1961 by Inter-Varsity Fellowship) (reprinted 1991) ISBN 0-8308-1339-X, if you have not read already. For those who subscribe to Reformed theology, the sovereignty of God and the supreme authority of Scripture are key.

    I use the term “Reformed theology” because Reformed theology predates John Calvin and Calvin was what may be described as a second-generation Reformed theologian. Calvin built upon the work of earlier Reformed theologians such as Henry Bullinger and used their concepts.

    We owe the acronym TULIP to the Council of Dort, not Calvin. What many people think is Calvin’s teachings are actually the teachings of his disciple Theodore Beza.

    Interestingly enough a number of scholars classify the teaching of Jacob Arminius and the Remonstrants as Reformed.

    The best way to acquaint oneself with Calvin’s views is to read his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is heavy work, which may explain why seventeenth century Anglicans preferred Henry Bullinger’s Decades. They are much easier reading. Bullinger exercised a much greater influence upon the English Reformation than Calvin at least during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I. .

    The doctrine of “promiscuous preaching” is a Biblical one. See Mark 16:15: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” Nowhere does Christ tell his disciples to proclaim the gospel solely to the elect. But he did tell the Jews, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27).

    Believers may have assurance of their salvation through the internal witness of the Holy Spirit and through the examination of the character of their lives. A life filled with the fruit of the Spirit provides proof that strengthens their certainty in mind of their salvation against doubts. This certainty in mind is not, however, a necessary consequence of salvation, and such assurance may be shaken as well as strengthened. The Westminster Confession points to our attention:

    “…infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith but that a true believer may wait long and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure; that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance…”

      1. As an offshoot of Reformed theology–as a reaction to Calvin’s views on predestination, the scholars to whom I refer–regard the teaching of Jacob Arminius and the Remonstrants as classifiable as “Reformed.” Your argument I would suggest is with them, not me. I am simply reporting what I have read.

        I am using the Westminister Confession to further explain the doctrine of assurance..

        Just a reminder that a number of the divines who drafted that confession were Anglican and would become “conforming Reformed” at the Restoration. Conforming Reformed would remain a strong influence in the Church of England after the Restoration, holding a number of bishoprics and other important positions. See Stephen Hampton’s Oxford monograph, Anti-Arminians: The Anglican Reformed Tradition from Charles II to George I 2008 by Oxford University Press) ISBN 78-0-1-54446-7

        Oliver Cromwell was an Independent. He and the New Army, which was made up largely of Baptists and Congregationalists, supported the Cambridge Platform which recognized both the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Westminister Confession, leaving to the individual congregation what confession it chose to make its own. The Cambridge Platform does NOT recognize Presbyterianism as the sole church polity mandated by Scripture. .The Scots adopted the Westminister Confession but the English did not.

  4. 1.“It eliminates the concept of moral responsibility.”

    Not accurate. It is true that there is a notion in humanist philosophy that responsibility requires ability. Calvinists throw out that humanist notion and teach moral responsibility on the basis of scripture. From a scriptural standpoint, you are responsible for what you choose regardless of your ability to do otherwise.

    Rom9:15 For his words to Moses are — ‘I will take pity on whom I take pity, and be merciful to whom I am merciful.’ 16 So, then, all depends, not on human wishes or human efforts, but on God’s mercy. 17 In Scripture, again, it is said to Pharaoh — ‘It was for this very purpose that I raised thee to the throne, to show my power by my dealings with thee, and to make my name known throughout the world.’ 18 So, then, where God wills, he takes pity, and where he wills, he hardens the heart. 19 Perhaps you will say to me — ‘How can any one still be blamed? For who withstands his purpose?’ 20 I might rather ask ‘Who are you who are arguing with God?’

    Pharoah and the jewish leadership in the 1st century had that in common. Both were “hardened” and both, in their opposition to God, accomplished His intended purposes (Isa53:10):

    John12:39 The reason why they were unable to believe is given by Isaiah elsewhere, in these words — 40 ‘He has blinded their eyes, and blunted their mind, so that they should not see with their eyes, and perceive with their mind…
    Acts2:23 He, I say, in accordance with God’s definite plan and with his previous knowledge, was betrayed, and you, by the hands of lawless men, nailed him to a cross and put him to death.

    The argument in Rom 9:19 is your argument, based on human teaching alone: if God intends to accomplish his purposes by human sin, how can the wrongdoer still be blamed? They were unable to believe, and yet they were still responsible for their sin and needed to repent. (Acts2:38)

    Same type of thing in Habakkuk or Isaiah10: God is using the wicked as His tool (Isa10:5-6) to punish Israel. But the wicked aren’t acting to please God but themselves, so God will punish them in turn (Isa10:7,10).

    1. “It is clear that everything produced must have an immediate cause which produced it; that cause again a cause, and so on, till the First Cause, viz., the will and decree of God is reached. The prophets therefore omit sometimes the intermediate causes, and ascribe the production of an individual thing directly to God, saying that God has made it.” (Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, II, 48)

      I will commend you for your straightforward presentation of your case. It is refreshing.

  5. “2.It is intrinsically anti-missional…”

    This, again, is misinformed.

    Calvin was himself involved in the sending of missionaries. He taught: “Since we do not know who belongs to the number of the predestined and who does not, it befits us so to feel as to wish that all be saved. So it will come about that, whoever we come across, we shall study to make him a sharer of peace . . . even severe rebuke will be administered like medicine, lest they should perish or cause others to perish. But it will be for God to make it effective in those whom He foreknew and predestined.”

    Commenting on Micah 2:1-4, Calvin states, “The Kingdom of Christ was only begun in the world when God commanded the gospel to be every where proclaimed and . . . at this day its course is not as yet complete.”…Calvin expressed similar views as he commented on 1 Tim. 2:4, saying “there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception.”

    http://www.founders.org/journal/fj33/article2.html

    Calvinists believe that God softens our hearts and gives us grace to act in love and gratitude. Jesus said that if we love Him, we will take His commands to heart and do what He said to do. (John14:15) And the assertion that “neither the missionary nor the preacher is of any account, but only God who causes the growth of His church” goes back to 1Cor3:7.

    So it’s an interesting claim that “predestination” produces “anti-missional” actions. If you are motivated by love and gratitude (or even simple duty to your Lord), then you will be involved with the work of the kingdom. If your pride is such that you would refuse to obey the Lord unless He got down on His knees and begged that He needs your help and can’t do it without you, then I could see your point. The doctrine of predestination would scorn your pride – you would be of no account just as Paul and Apollos. But what kind of “Christian” would admit to having so hard a heart…?

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