The Resurgence of Calvinism

Calvinism is increasingly becoming identified with contemporary evangelicalism. Let’s look at some of the evidences:

  • Britain, after 200 years of Methodism, has emerged with an almost exclusively Calvinist evangelical community.
  • The Southern Baptist church, the largest American evangelical denomination,was for more than one hundred years essentially Armianian but is having a resurgence of Calvinism.
  • The Presbyterian Church of America, strongly Reformed in doctrine,  has become the de facto church of young intelligent evangelicals.
  • Ultra-Calvinistic groups such as the Orthodox Presbyterian and Reformed Presbyterian churches are gaining influence.
  • Reformed Theological Seminary is a very popular place for young ministers to be educated.
  • John Piper, an ardent Calvinist, has become a near-celebrity through his many writings, especially Desiring God, which ties Calvinism to properly  loving God.
  • While Pentecostalism was strongly rooted in Wesleyan Arminianism, and is the heritage of the modern charismatic movement, branches of charismatics have adopted traditional Calvinistic hermeneutics and idioms.  Talk about the “Word and the Spirit,” for example, has been very prevalent–intellectual leaders like the late Ern Baxter, and more recently R.T. Kendall, have essentially equated the “Word” with Calvinist theology.
  • The prophetic movement, with its emphasis on God’s timing, has tended towards Calvinistic understandings of God.
  • The apostolic movement has also been influenced by Calvinism. Both Every Nation and Grace churches, considered leaders in the movement, are clearly influenced by Calvinism.
  • It is next to impossible to buy a book on theology, or nearly any Christian academic subject from an Arminian perspective.
  • In addition to all of this, Arminianism has become increasingly weak.  The only ardent Arminians seem to be those who either have strongly Fundamentalist roots, or who embrace openness.  There are very few voices strongly articulating the Arminianism of Wesley and Arminius himself.

In the face of all of this evidence, it would seem we would have to conclude that we were in the midst of a move of God which was causing a resurgence in true doctrine. We would not want to be like those in Acts whom Gamaliel counseled to be careful lest they find themselves “only opposing God.” in response to the burgeoning church movement. With so many disparate voices advancing Calvinism one has to wonder if it is God Himself who is orchestrating the resurgence.

I, for one, have my doubts. Rolling back the clock nearly 300 years, we find ourselves also in a time when Calvinism dominates the church, but the church is also dying. At just this time, God raises up a young man named John Wesley, who has the guts to oppose nearly two centuries of reformation tradition, revitalize the formulation of an obscure Dutchman, and boldly confront the system. This strained his relationship with the great reformer George Whitefield, but ultimately, as his ideas took root, it reshaped and revitalized the entire face of Christianity. It is no overstatement to credit the Christianization of America, and the salvation of Britian from revolution to the ideas and boldness of this one man.  Because of the magnitude of his achivement in God, even most Calvinists have to tip their hat to Wesley–although he is the only Arminian for whom they do so. In fact, it is because Calvinists are the ones writing the history and theology that we get the impression that everyone buy Wesley was a Calvinist. If Arminians dominated the field, Wesley would take his rightful place next to Luther as one of the greatest reformers of all time.

This I believe may be the real root of the Calvinist resurgence. Arminian doctrine leads one to the natural conclusion of taking action about the Gospel. If human contingency is a significant or even primary factor in Gospel advance, then it is upon us to bring salvation to those who are lost, and if we do not, they will perish. It is also upon us to take any other world changing action. Therefore, the Arminian worldview leads to those who are compelled into the active roles of Christian service–especially evangelists.   The list of Calvinistic evangelists is about as short as the list of Arminians theologians.  Great evangelists have a deep burden for souls, and this burden is connected to knowing its your responsibility and ability to do something about it.

Calvinistic doctrine, on the other hand, leads to identifying Calvinism as the Gospel. If Calvinism is the Gospel, then who are you most concerned about?  Well of course those “Christians” who have erroneously embraced some other understanding.  There is a great need to confront their error and protect the church from dangerous doctrinal error. Moreover the Calvinist often places security in his or her election, which is the heart of the doctrine, and therefore defense of Calvinism is in some way also a defense of one’s salvation. Finally, since the lost are either elected or non-elect, there is no tremendous urgency in making effort to reach them. This is not to say that all Calvinists do not care about evangelism, but that the system itself does not encourage this–evangelism is a command, more than a passion. .

I believe further, that Calvinism has it’s greatest appeal to the mind, while Arminianism has its greatest appeal to the heart. Little dispute can be made that the greatest thinkers in Christian history, with the exception of C.S Lewis, were Calvinists. On the other hand, the greatest “doers” of Christianity often were essentially Arminian. Rarely, however, do these Armianians identify themselves as such.  However, as any thorough going Calvinist will tell you–if you do not know you are a Calvinist, you are almost certainly not. The “middle” path taken by those who do not understand or wish to enter the debate is almost always either intellectually incoherent, or a form of Arminianism.    This is where I take my greatest comfort. Even today, it is rare to find a true Calvinist. Most when asked about those elected to be damned will give a non answer.  If pressed about the extent of Christ’s atonement they may hedge, and in their practical attitudes and living, they will often function like Arminians. This kind of Calvinism does not bother me at all.

Therefore, one of the reasons that Arminianism seems so rare is that its proponents do not label themselves with the term, even if they do possses the education to understand its full meaning.  Why create conflicts with Calvinists by saying you are an Arminian (read as borderline heretic), when this will only stir up controversy, and draw attention to un-Biblical labels.  Instead, focus on winning souls, and let the Calvinists argue amongst themselves.    I think its time that some Armianians who understand the gravity and importance of the question start to stand up and articulate it.   Perhaps it will lead to another great Reformation in the Church.

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