What are the status and prospects of Calvinism in the United States 400 years after the definitive edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion? They are not good. In fact, they are very bad.
In this brief survey we will mention several factors which cast a gloom over the present and future, and, then, other aspects which give rise to hope. The times today are not so bad as the era before the Reformation. If the darkest hour is just before the dawn, perhaps we are near the sunrise.
The Ecumenical Trend
First, the ecumenical movement, in its present trend, is inimical to Calvinism. We say, “in its present trend,” for we do not think that the ecumenical movement, as such, or in its basic theory, is inimical to Calvinism. As a means by which all Christian churches, Calvinist and non-Calvinist, may give expression to their common unity in Christ and realize the maximum of cooperation without compromise, the ecumenical movement was born from the loins of Calvinism. The Evangelical Alliance of 1846 was probably the forerunner of the ecumenical movement and was essentially a Reformed activity.
Calvinism believes in the catholic church and rejoices in its fellowship. It holds to its own principles without compromise, but does not unchurch other Christians dubious about the value of Calvinism.
The ecumenical movement at present moves toward homogenous doctrinal thinking. Doctrinally speaking, it is based on an affirmation of the deity and saviourhood of Jesus Christ. To that much, Calvinist, along with non-Calvinist, Christians gladly subscribe. On that basis most Calvinist churches of the world have become a vital part of the ecumenical movement. The present ecumenical trend, however, is not satisfied with such a general agreement. There is a driving desire to forge an ecumenical theology. Each participant confessional group is vying with another to make its contribution to this ultimate eclectic product.
It may seem surprising to mention this trend as inimical to Calvinism. What is wrong with having Calvinism make its contribution? Is that not a favorable opportunity? Why can Calvinists not attempt to persuade other brethren, and make progress within the framework of this interchange of discussion? The answer to that question is, because the discussion is not an honest one. I realize the imperative need, in the interests of Christian charity, of explaining this charge. The fact is that most theologians who purport to represent the Reformed theology in the current ecumenical discussion are not, I feel, willing to let Calvinism speak its mind unless that speech contributes to doctrinal unity. It must be the contribution of the Reformed theology to ecumenical theology. These theologians seem unwilling to mention Reformed theology when it is hostile to ecumenical theology. They are not looking for such; they are not finding such. They are straining every intellectual nerve—and they are men of ability in many cases—to find the contributions. Their great eagerness, on the one hand, and their lack of candor, on the other, enable them to latch onto certain terms distinctly associated with the Reformed tradition, and to present the terms in a way which makes Reformed theology appear to be virtually identical with ecumenical theology, and that the ecumenical theology is Calvinism, pure and simple, but expressed in other terms.
Diluting The Contribution
For example, not long ago we heard an outstanding exponent of ecumenism who also has some reputation as a Reformed theologian. He spoke in a Reformed institution on the subject, “The contribution of the Reformed theology to ecumenical thought.” This address was typical. He cited several doctrines. I will mention only two to give a sample. One Reformed doctrine, which was to contribute to ecumenical thought, is the sovereignty of God. Beyond doubt, Reformed theology teaches the sovereignty of God, and is known among the communions of Christendom for so doing. But it teaches this doctrine in a very specific form which includes predestination. This theologian stated the sovereignty doctrine in such a way that its peculiar and distinctive flavor was drained and there remained only the most general sense of sovereignty to which no Arminian would take exception. As a matter of fact, anyone who says “I believe in God the Father Almighty” would have wondered why the speaker thought that this kind of sovereignty was a special contribution of the Reformed churches. The whole church has always believed that God was sovereign in some sense.
Again, he mentioned the radical nature of sin. When his animated discussion was finished, one realized that the speaker believed sin exists and that he is “agin” it. But more than that could not be said. No mention was made of imputation, total depravity, or inability. What must the non-Reformed listeners in the audience have been thinking? They must have wondered if this learned man was unaware that other people, besides Presbyterians, believe in the reality of sin and are “agin” it too. What was the specific contribution of the Reformed churches?
Now this intellectual spirit, which is widespread, is most unfavorable for Calvinism. How can there be any honest study of the subject if the spirit of the age demands that theologians come out of their ivory towers with some more arguments for some particular movement? Calvinism is based on absolute intellectual honesty and integrity, and the ecumenical movement in its present trend can only be advanced by deliberate unwillingness to examine truth with detachment and scientific objectivity. This “loaded” thinking is a serpent which will strangle any renascent Calvinism in its cradle.
The Rise Of Neo-Calvinism
The second factor which augurs ill for the fortunes of Calvinism is neo-Calvinism. If the most conspicuous ecclesiastical movement of our century is the ecumenical, the most conspicuous theological movement is neo-orthodoxy. Inasmuch as this has been reputedly neo-Calvinistic rather than neo-Lutheran or neo-Anglican or neo-Arminian, it might seem to be congenial to the fortunes of Calvinism. In some ways it is, but fundamentally this seems not to be so.
From the inception of this neo-Calvinism it was evident to most that it was formally different from the Reformation theology. It was, by nature, hostile to propositional revelation and creedal codifications of revelation content. That such an approach may have been congenial to modern thinkers but not to Luther and Calvin seemed clear, in spite of strenuous efforts to modernize the Reformers. If the Genevan would have stood still long enough to listen to the labored expositions of Urgeschichte, non-historical history, and timeless time, he would have had no truck with it once he grasped it. In the more recent developments of neo-Calvinism its divergence from the Institutes is becoming ever more explicit. What correspondence can there be between a theology which refuses to identify the Bible with the Word of God, is modalistic rather than truly trinitarian, denies infant baptism and forensic justification, repudiates the covenants of redemption and of works while reinterpreting the covenant of grace, is basically antinomian in theory, teaches universal election, inclines to universal salvation and makes the judgment of God into ameliorative rather than vindictive justice—what has such a theology to do with the theology of John Calvin?
A third adverse factor is modern indeterminism which tends to prejudice superficial thinkers against Calvinism. Actually there is nothing in the theories of Heisenberg and Planck and others which is either “here or there” as far as Calvinism is concerned. They simply imply that some things are not predictable because their laws of behavior are not determinable. This notion, however, leads some thinkers to suppose that some events are actually undetermined. The theories are not prepared to cover that much territory. But they would have to cover that much territory to prove that the Calvinistic theory of fore-ordination is false. Modern indeterminacy reaches only so far as the experiments of men reach; not so far, necessarily, as the laws of God reach. Nevertheless, the very word “indeterminancy” makes some persons wrongly suppose that things in themselves are undetermined and not merely that they are unpredictable so far as we know them. Such presumed ultimate indeterminacy is inimical to the interests of Calvinism and favors the “contingency” theory so essential to Arminianism.
Still, all of these adverse trends of our time have aspects which promote the cause of Calvinism. First, the ecumenical movement is favorable to the interests of Calvinism in some ways. Inasmuch as it expresses the unity of the Church which survives the diverse organization of the churches, it has common cause with Calvinism. Again, the ecumenical interchange promotes a discussion of theology and in this atmosphere Calvinism thrives. Whether such discussion works for the accelerating or retarding of the ecumenical movement, discussion is a consequence of that movement and the movement cannot escape it. Especially is it true that the continental confessional groups are challenging Americans to rethink their theology. All of this involves a reconsideration of Calvinism and its claims. And it necessarily involves the question: is it true that much of the discussion concerning the Reformed contribution to the ecumenical movement is not candid? Honesty has a way of breaking through in such discussions. Their purpose may be to show what contributions Calvinism may have to make, and to repress what deterrents it offers; but the very search for contributions leads to a study of Calvinism which may find more things there than were bargained for. Calvinistic theology may be distorted, suppressed and misrepresented, but where theology is even discussed there is the possibility that it may yet be taken seriously.
Likewise, neo-orthodoxy, or neo-Calvinism, makes an oblique contribution to the fortunes of Calvinism. When a certain Calvinistic professor was inaugurated, he said that a famous neo-orthodox theologian had occasioned a revival of interest in John Calvin at his Reformed seminary. Now, it should not have been necessary for a Calvinistic institution to have its interest in Calvin awakened by a non-Calvinist! But that is what happened, and in more places than one. Perhaps we can say that the greatest modern stimulus to the study of Calvin does not come from traditional Calvinists, but from neo-Calvinists. While these men have led some traditional Calvinists astray, they have led far more non-Calvinists under Calvinistic influence. This augurs well for the future of Calvinism. One may study Calvin without understanding him, to be sure; but no one can understand him without studying him.
Likewise the cultural interest in determinism, in its various forms, holds some promise for Calvinism. The form of determinism may not be that of John Calvin, to be sure, but it makes its adherents willing to listen to him. This same determinism among the historians has led many a modern to think that Calvin was not so much a fool as some historians had formerly thought. This congeniality toward causations greater than man himself, at least, leads a person to rethink the Reformed position. Studying Calvinism under the aegis of a modern scientific, psychological, or historical determinism by no means guarantees that the study will be unbiased or successful, but on the other hand, no possible influence from Calvin can register on modern cultural life unless he is seriously considered. This call for a revisit to John Calvin is the chief by-product value in contemporary deterministic thinking.
Calvinists are incurable optimists. They are not Calvinists because they are optimists, but optimists because they are Calvinists. Calvinism teaches that every picayune event which occurs in the least important circumstance of the most trifling occasion to the most insignificant creature is the perfect outworking of the infinitely wise and good will of an eternal sovereign God. A person who believes that is, by definition, an optimist. So we say that a Calvinist is optimistic even about the pessimistic outlook for Calvinism at the present moment. The shape of things to come is not congenial to the fortunes of Calvinism in the main, but, precisely because these forebodings are part of the eternal wisdom of God, the Calvinist rejoices in them, while he repents of any guilt which he may share in the blame for them. Meanwhile, he goes on confidently assured that this is the best possible universe and all things work together for good to them that love God and are called according to his purpose (as the greatest Calvinist of all once wrote).
John H. Gerstner is Professor of Church History and Government in Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary. He holds the Ph. D. from Harvard University. He is editor of Jonathan Edwards’ Works, Sermons on Romans (with introduction and notes) to be published this year by Yale University Press.
My Father’s Benediction
Now he is gone, but he has left these words
Of benediction, inkwritten upon the flyleaf
Of the Book, which was his gift. I read
The Word he loved, gracious as dew of Hermon
Or the oil that covered Aaron: “The Lord
Bless thee and keep thee … make his face
To shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee:
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee
And give thee peace.” Almost unseeing I trace
The signature; then wordlessly his life
Shines as from an illuminated page:
Strangely he speaks who has no need of utterance,
Who, having blessed, is bathed eternally
In fuller light than shines upon the land.
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