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Calvinism: So Hot Right Now

To the surprise of many, Time magazine recently listed “The New Calvinism” as the third most important idea changing the world “right now.” What?? 500 years after the birth of John Calvin, is his theological namesake really enjoying resurgence in 2009?

I guess I’m not totally surprised. I’ve noticed the trend myself. I read Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed last year. I’ve been to Mars Hill Church in Seattle. I’ve witnessed many young Christian friends getting totally passionate about the Reformation and everything it represents.

But why is it happening now? What is it about Calvinism that is suddenly more appealing than it was just a decade ago? Here are a few of my initial thoughts—as someone who increasingly identifies with Reformed ideas (though not 100%):

Calvinism is about certainty.
In an era in which certainty is hard to come by and ambiguity is frequently championed, more and more young people are longing for something that is rock-solid certain. In Calvinism, there is no second-guessing about whether I’ve done enough or prayed the sinners prayer earnestly enough to be saved, because it has nothing to do with my own powers.

Calvinism emphasizes sin (total depravity) and places it at the starting point, rather than as a footnote. It cuts us humans down to size from the get go, underscoring both our desperate need for redemption and righteousness and our utter inability to achieve it ourselves. I think this really resonates with younger people today, who have grown up in a world that has told them they are good boys and girls who can do whatever they want to in life. They’ve been met with yeses at every turn, but are longing for nos. They recognize that they are far from the angelic harbingers of goodness that their parents, teachers, and advertisers have deemed them. Calvinism tells it like it is.

Calvinism views God in the highest way possible. He is sovereign and fearsome and awesome in ways we can’t begin to understand. While “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” doesn’t sound comforting, many people would still rather be in the hands of an angry God who is sovereign than a buddy God who is only partially sovereign and sometimes surprised (see Open Theism). In times of crisis and tragedy, an all-powerful God who effects everything to his purposes is so much more comforting than a God who isn’t in complete control.

Calvinism has a beautiful picture of grace. It is irresistible and unconditional. When God sets his eyes on us, we can’t escape his pursuit (and who would want a God who couldn’t capture those he sought to save?). As Sufjan Stevens beautifully sings in “Seven Swans”: He will take you / If you run / He will chase you / Because he is the Lord.

It rings true to many young people that nothing they can humanly do could ever achieve salvation—at least more true than the idea that God, the author and perfecter of our faith, saves only on the condition of some action on the part of the saved. On the contrary, the Calvinist view insists that we have no recourse to self-sufficiency or pride. As Paul writes in Galatians, “far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14).

Calvinism fears God. A healthy fear of God is totally lost on contemporary Christianity, which sees him as more of a “buddy/friend/therapist/guru” than the creator and sustainer of the universe. More and more young people are growing dubious of God-lite and prefer thinking of him as a commanding, dominating, dangerous God who deserves our deferential fear.

Calvinism ground itself in the bible rather than sugarcoated feel-goodisms. Consider what J.I. Packer says about this when he contrasts the “new” and “old” gospels in his famous introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ:

“The pitiable Savior and the pathetic God of modern pulpits are unknown to the old gospel. The old gospel tells men that they need God, but not that God needs them (a modern falsehood); it does not exhort them to pity Christ but announces that Christ has pitied them, though pity was the last thing they deserved. It never loses sight of the divine majesty and sovereign power of the Christ whom it proclaims but rejects flatly all representations of him that would obscure his free omnipotence.”

Calvinism is a little bit edgy, dark, and punk rock. It is less about hugs, Sunday School pink lemonade and “God loves you” than it is about discipline, deference and “God hates you in your sin; you are a wretch who needs God’s grace.” It’s not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Kids like this.

Comments

It's a shame that the other camp doesn't have a resurgence. I think that the New Calvinism is happening because Calvinists have a zeal different from free-will advocates. Calvinists feel like they are truly God's chosen people for every thing they do. Although I completely and utterly disagree with their theology and find it supports a heinous God, I'll give them credit for making a name for themselves.

@TK Jaros: Actually I'd really like to learn more about what the 'other camp' really believes. I don't think being Calvinist means I have rock-solid confirmation that everything I do is right, if that's what I think you meant in your comment. To the contrary, we must constantly know we are inherently flawed and our hearts are deceitful and wicked. But as God's people, isn't our confidence to be in God and his Word. If we cannot put confidence in his goodness and his Word, what else can we be sure of?

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church and have been in an evangelical inter-denominational parachurch organisation for a long time. This 'new' Calvinism as I've experienced it, has merely articulated more clearly the tone and message that I've always believed the Bible was communicating, but often struggled to express. When I was first introduced Mark Driscoll's preaching in 2007 I immediately resonated with his theology (almost all of it). The article mentions that there's an 'arrogance' in Calvinists when they make the claim that when you carefully read the Bible you can't help but reach the same conclusions, so I'm being very conscious as I say this: what _are_ the 'alternative' ways to understand the Bible?

Also because of that background, so I may know any better, I honestly would like to know why you believe Calvinism supports a heinous God? Thanks.

Victortoh,

Check this link which I just followed today from Richard Dalstrom's blog concerning Neo-Calvinism. http://www.heavensfamily.org/ss/calvinism/calvin_intro . I like you was raised in a Baptist Church and always figured myself a Calvinist. A couple of years ago a teacher at my home church really got over-the-top with John Piper and Calvinism leading me to search for some peace about what it truly meant to count myself in that camp of believers. Surprise, surprise, I no longer find myself a Calvinist. I believe that David Servant at the above link has says it best of all I have read in refuting the Calvinist position. Like him I have asked many to defend their beliefs in face of the same scriptures and logic he uses without any response. When held up to the light of the Word, the harshness and inconsistencies become clear. I understand why it is making a comeback like Brett's blog outlined, but that doesn't speak to its truth.

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Hi Brett...

I just posted a reply to your excellent article. Thanks for clearly articulating both the strength and appeal of the movement. Over at my post, I'm trying to point out some of the limitations as well. After all, TULIPS are a seasonal flower.

My husband and I saw the Time article and were surprised that we were not alone in our newfound interest in Calvinism (probably because we are out of touch with all the latest "movements"). He had picked up a copy of A.W. Pink's "The Sovereignty of God" at the Biola bookstore at my graduation, and raved about it and insisted that I read it. It's kind of funny because this doctrine, which others find so upsetting, was for both of us a most calming, reassuring thing in these uncertain times. Pink's work is so well supported by scripture, it's hard to argue with.

The other side of the coin is what we were taught in our younger days - that it was our responsibility to witness to everyone we met and "get" them to receive Jesus, because if we missed an opportunity a person could die and go to hell, and it would be our fault. The guilt and overwhelming responsibility connected with this thinking left us feeling like constant failures. ("How many people have YOU led to the Lord this year?" is a typical refrain.)

"Calvinism is a little bit edgy, dark, and punk rock." I love that. It's true. The God of Calvinism is no simpering hippie; He's tough, He's dangerous, and He's got all the power. He's a God to be feared, and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

I have many issues with Calvinism, but one of my biggest is with the idea of irresistible grace. If a gift cannot be refused, then it is not a gift. To me, the beautiful thing about grace is that it is entirely unconditional- it is always there, whether or not you choose to receive it.

As far as sovereignty is concerned, I think that it is possible to have a false notion of what it means to be in control. My son surprises me often, and many times in wonderful ways. When I am drawing a picture, or creating a song, sometimes I am surprised at how good it has turned out. But in neither case am I any less in control or influential because of being surprised. Why wouldn't God create a world in which he could be surprised- a world in which his creations could manifest themselves in a way that is novel and exciting to him? And if God truly is all powerful, isn't he all powerful enough to be able to willingly limit what he knows or doesn't know? We have an excellent example in Christ who has claimed not to know when he will return. He is God; he certainly could have access to that knowledge if he chose. Wouldn't God the Father be capable of the same self-selecting knowledge?

I think that free will juxtaposes itself beautifully against the sovereignty of God. God is better than any king or ruler the world has ever known. He is completely in charge, yet his people are free (not without consequence, of course, but still free) to do as they wish and know that they are still loved unconditionally. This doesn't make God weak, or a "buddy"- as I mentioned, there are consequences to rejecting God's truth. But I'd much rather serve a God who is powerful, accessible, and flexible than one who is simply all-powerful and is always teetering on the edge of vengeance. Yikes.

Calvinism is extremely difficult to fully comprehend, which is why so many of the historical figures in the tradition are absolutely brilliant. Reform theology forces the believer to use their brain, to search scripture, to study and defend it. If more people are embracing Reform Theology, then I would think that is a sign that we are moving away from the dumbed down theology that has poisoned the Church.

Can you expand on that a little more? Not sure I agree.

Not necessarily. I'm an Arminian, and I have many Calvinist and Arminian friends who talk about the resurgence of Calvinism; some of my Arminian friends are very attracted to neo-Calvinism (to varying degrees), and some have "gone over" to the Calvinist camp. However, most of my Calvinist, Arminian, and now-converted Arminian-to-Calvinist friends don't really think about their Christianity. My Calvinist friends are Calvinists because that's what they were taught; my Arminian friends are Arminians because that's what they were taught; my Arminian friends who became Calvinists did so because they wanted more discipline and rules in their lives (i.e., they wanted "no's" because they received a bunch of "yes's" all their lives), but they don't really think about what they believe or don't believe. Those brilliant minds who composed Reformed theology through the centuries after Calvin are just that--brilliant. But they were also and have always been a minority; the same is true among Arminian theologians. Just because lots of younger people are attracted to Calvinism doesn't mean they're also attracted to using their brains to think about theology and scripture.

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really good post, brett. thanks for taking the time to articulate this.

My biggest problem with Calvinism is limited atonement (the L in T.U.L.I.P the acronym breaking down what they believe). Calvinism does not believe Christ died for everyone, but everyone who God has chosen. Any scripture reference to "any", "all" to whom salvation is available for is not what they understand it to mean. It is a selected "all". God has already "chosen" those who will go to heaven and those who will go to hell. Regardless of anything we do or do not do. Why share the gospel with someone God has been "chosen" to go to hell?? What kind of false hope is that? Calvinism is not a theology for the unsaved, but for the christian. On the surface, it seems warm and welcoming and sincerely focused on God. However, there is a dark side to this theology that one can find easily if only they only dig a little deeper.

Sigh, if I could I would time travel back and move both Calvin and Arminius back to visit Moses or something. The time has come to allow dead theologians some peace though I know the passage about "he being dead yet speaketh." Both sides missed the mark becuase they used their time/culture to define their theology rather than allowing their theology define their time/culture. I just had this qurestion posed to me recently and I share it here, with some additions, for what it is worth to someone.

Question by Oliver: Quite simple really. Calvinism, why or why not?

Answer: Oliver, I say no to Calvinism and Arminianism because both Calvin and Arminius overshot the mark. They used their culture to define their theology rather than use their theology to define their culture. Much similar error exists today as we bow to the culture to determine our strategies rather than using biblical strategies to defeat cultural errors and bring people to Christ instead of fads and even fantasies.

The Bible clearly teaches free will and also eternal security/perseverance of the saints. Thus both men are wrong in major premises of their theology. Yes, people are elect, but it is still whosever will because they are elected by the FOREKNOWLEDGE of God. In less than a split second, God saw the whole history of man down to those who would believe and be in Christ at the end and said I choose them.

Think about it. Why all the hoopla about trust if a person cannot trust or is forced to trust? Trust is an individual issue. If I can't or must than it is not trust. It is automation and I can't see anywhere that says God's love is for automatons. Yet, free will choices can result in eternal conditions. One sin and Lucifer is out with no recourse. One sin, Adam and Eve are out with no recourse. Once the Ark is shut both those inside and out made decisions that cannot be changed. Once saved, always saved and once the Rapture happens no second chance for those who rejected. Once you take the mark, that's it. One act of faith or faithlessness, if you please, can seal you forever. Thus free will and election do not contradict each other but are in a sense complementary of each other. Call it cause and effect if you like.

Total depravity; in that we can do nothing to save ourselves in that all our works are filthy rags and we cannot satisfy God’s demands so He had to satisfy His demands. All we can do is trust. You see a sovereign God can devise a means of salvation that is all of Him and yet allow free will. The TULIP lads actually deprive Him of sovereignty at the same time they proclaim it.

The other side of the coin forgets that we are filthy and incapable of good works without Him and so they make our salvation dependent upon works that could not save in the first place so they cannot maintain salvation especially since it is a gift not a wage. Death is a wage. Salvation is a gift and gifts are given by the choice of the giver not the works of the recipient.

I have not hit all points of both but there is enough here to kick them both to the curb and stidy the Bible with the Spirit as teacher and not Calvin or Armininus. Do you understand why neither are right and that the biblical view has components of both for those theologies are derived from aspects or facets of the truth but not truly representing the whole diamond? That is why you should study Scripture and not theologies

Hey, nice article there. Didn't knew much about calvinism. Thanks for sharing.

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About
Brett currently works full-time for Biola University as managing editor for Biola magazine. He also writes movie reviews for Christianity Today and contributes frequently to Relevant magazine.


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