The Christian blogosphere has been buzzing since Time magazine listed the New Calvinism as one of the ten ideas that are changing the world right now. 3. The New Calvinism – 10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now – TIME:
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 new Calvinism is not without its critics, and one of them writes Axxess.org: In Defense of Driscoll:
My opinion is that the failure of modern philosophical/theological assumptions caused this return to “calvinism” as people grasp to the comfort of the convoluted evangelical concept of “sovereignty” that exists in that circle. neo-calvinism is such a waste – classic calvinism was built on a covenant hermeneutic and, at least, held a “cultural mandate”; neo-calvinism is built on a dispensational hermeneutic and has no mandate at all. neo-calvinism is cheap, easy and good-for-nothing and it is not at all “true to scripture” as is often claimed.
Reading these articles throws me into a time-warp, and I’m transported back twenty years and more to the 1970s and 1980s.
Back in the 1970s someone regularly sent me a copy of a neo-Calvinist magazine called Present Truth. Not having moved in Calvinist circles much, it took me some time to figure out that that was what it was. In those Cold War days it took a hard ideological line based on what struck me as hair-splitting theological distinctions. Imputed righteousness was in, imparted righteouness was out (but out!).
Some people from the Scripture Union came to help run a “Holiday Club” for the youth group of the church I was then in. They carried well-thumbed copies of Present Truth, which they used to counter what they saw as the ideological deviations of these wayward teenagers. One of them denounced the bumper stickers that were popular at the time, showing a smiley face with the slogan “Smile: God loves you”. That’s wrong, they said. God doesn’t love you. God is very angry with you because you are a sinner. The wayward youth responded by making a large banner saying “Smile: God loves you”, which they stuck up at the back of the hall, where all the neo-Calvinist speakers could see it. The church, and especially the youth, were involved in the charismatic movement, and the Present Truth group seemed to disapprove of that as well.
Then came the annus mirabilis, 1989. The Cold War ended, and freedom bloomed like flowers in the former Second World countries, and even in South Africa, where P.W. Botha was deposed and his securocrats who had spent a decade entrenching themselves in power were running around like headless chickens.
There was a reaction against rigid ideologies, and there was even a trickle of some former Calvinists and Evangelicals into the Orthodox Church. In part it was a reaction against the narrow interpretation of the atonement in juridical terms, the “penal substitution” theory of the atonement, which, in the case of the more extreme neo-Calvinists, had led to the obsessive focus on such things as imputed righteousness.
In part it was, as Peter Gillquist points out in his book Becoming Orthodox a reaction against generic American Evangelical Protestant ecclesiology. Members of the evangelistic organisation Campus Crusade for Christ conducted evangelistic campaigns among students, but once the evangelists left the students were unchurched, and soon dropped out again. They felt that the students who wanted to follow Christ should be part of the Church. But which church? The obvious answer to them was “the New Testament Church”, but which of the hundreds of competing denominations was the New Testament Church. So they decided to study history to discover where the New Testament Church went to, and their study led them to Orthodoxy. Whether it was a search for authentic soteriology or authentic ecclesiology, it led them to the same place, to the Orthodox Church.
For others, similar dissatisfaction with the current white American Evangelical Protestant soteriology and ecclesiology and missiology led them into the “emerging” or “emergent” church movement, either directly, or via neopentecosalism, with its megachurches and prosperity gospel.
Now, however. according to Time magazine, we have come full circle, and Calvinism is back. Perhaps this is a reaction against the excesses of neopentecostalism, and the theological vagueness of many in the emerging church movement, who have opted for “spirituality” rather than doctrine.
But is it really changing the world? Perhaps it is in certain enclaves in white middle-class America, but in much of Africa neopentecostalism seems to be growing exponentially and shows no signs of waning yet.