from Parchment and Pen by M. James Sawyer
Shortly after I posted my recent blog entitled “The Coming Evangelical Collapse?” Time Magazine featured as its cover story an article entitled “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” (Number three on Time’s list, was “The New Calvinism.”) On the surface, this appears to be a blatant contradiction to the thesis of The Christian Science Monitor article concerning “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” As strange as it may seem I would suggest is that it is not.
The reasons for this are several-fold. Evangelicalism as it has manifested itself in America, and as a subculture has historically been a tradition that is “heavenly minded.” Its roots are sunk deeply into pietistic spirituality arising from a post-Reformation reaction to cold doctrinal orthodoxy within confessional Lutheranism in Germany, as opposed to what can legitimately be called a Reformed or Puritan spirituality/worldview.
As such, evangelicalism has historically had a tremendous problem in being involved in “the world.” During the 19th century as revivalism was institutionalized in America, spiritual life was privatized and became unrelated to other areas of life. (What mattered was “my personal relationship with God/Jesus.” etc., gone were larger senses of responsibility to community and society.) In a real sense what happened in 19th century American Protestantism mirrored the emerging liberal theology in Germany which saw truth as derived from the feelings (German: Gefeuhl) as opposed to having a rational under-girding.
The divide between the sacred and the secular realm of existence that had characterized Roman Catholic Christianity throughout the Medieval period and, which had been rejected by the Reformers of the 16th century, was reintroduced into the larger American evangelical psyche.
In the Reformation and the following Puritan era there had been a very healthy integration of the spiritual with all other areas of life, because in the Reformed/Calvinistic tradition God had pronounced creation/ material order “very good.” (Leland Ryken has demonstrated the vital embrace of the created order by the Puritans in his excellent and very accessible study work Worldly Saints: the Puritans as They Really Were). As the nineteenth century progressed, Protestantism, which at this point was in some sense evangelical, progressively withdrew from cultural engagement in the world and society and abandoned that realm to the rising tide of secular studies and perspectives. American historian Richard Hofstadter notes that 19th century American evangelicals:
“withdrew from intellectual encounters with the secular world, gave up the idea that religion is a part of the whole life of intellectual experience, and often abandoned the field of rational studies on the assumption that they were the natural province of science alone.” (Anti-Intellectualism in America, 87)
What we see happening among evangelicals during this period is a slipping into a dualism characteristic of Plato, and adopted by later Gnostic teaching: “Spirit(ual) is good; Material is evil (or at best bad or something to be put up with and distracting from the really important- the spiritual). Added to this was the rise of Dispensational theology with its imminent apocalyptic expectation that involvement in the world, politics, and even society at large was “like polishing brass on a sinking ship.” Lest you think that this attitude has changed, one of my former colleagues preached a sermon on ecology about a dozen years ago in which he concluded that we don’t need to be involved in these issues because it’s all going to burn anyway! (I must admit that I find these attitudes theologically and exegetically bankrupt as well as crazy-making.)
Evangelicalism is a “big tent” description for early twenty-first century Protestantism. But such has not always been the case. As used in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the U.S., the term referred to the mildly Calvinistic theological descendents of the New School Presbyterians in the mid-nineteenth century; it incorporated the arising dispensational movement in the early days of the twentieth century during the era of the “Fundamentalist-Modernist debates. The key doctrine for Evangelical identity during the decades of the early to mid- twentieth century was that of the inerrancy of Scripture. This was the sole doctrinal plank of the Evangelical Theological Society when it was founded in 1948. A central mark of the Fundamentalist/Evangelical tradition was its devotion to and knowledge of the Bible, not only by pastors and scholars, but also on the lay level. Originally the designation did not include those of the Holiness tradition nor of the emerging Pentecostal tradition nor the Southern Baptists. Each of these traditions maintained their own separate identities.
While there was some movement in the ensuing decades, “The Jesus Movement” of the late 60s and 70s with its Pentecostal roots was the catalyst that broke down the barriers between the traditions just mentioned. By the mid-1970’s Evangelicalism was in the process of shedding its fundamentalist-separatist roots and begun to think about engaging society on the scholarly level as well as embracing culture on a popular level. While as I mentioned in the previous blog the scholarly engagement has been fairly successful, on the popular level the engaging of culture has been a disaster. Knowledge of scripture and theology has ceased to be an identifying factor of our tradition. In seeking to embrace culture evangelicalism was squeezed into the contemporary cultural ethos.
Today theological and biblical knowledge is at a nadir (at least I hope it won’t get any worse!). The upshot of this is that contemporary evangelicalism is intellectually vacuous and largely impotent. Hence the predicted collapse.
But what does this have to do with Calvinism? Much in every way—but I will get to this in a moment. First I quote a couple of paragraphs out of The Survivor’s Guide to Theology.
We can illustrate the importance of theology by means of the skeleton and the jellyfish. When we look at a skeleton, we can be reasonably sure it is dead. The life that once held these bones together is gone, and these bones are now held together with pins and wires. This is how many people view theology: lifeless and a collection of ideas that are held together by the artificial means of complex rationalizations and arguments. Then there is the jellyfish. A jellyfish can live for a time on the beach but cannot do anything. It lies on the sand in a pulsating blob, unable to do anything except possibly sting a passerby. The jellyfish, like the skeleton, has a problem. While the skeleton has structure without life, the jellyfish has life without structure. The lack of structure, or a skeletal system, causes it to be ineffective at doing anything on land.
A structure such as a skeleton will allow us to accomplish the task of living life, but this does not mean that just any structure will do, that one structure is as good as another. Years ago I worked with a person who as a child had fallen from a tree and broken his arm. The physician who attended to him was drunk and set the arm improperly so that in the healing process a deformity developed. My colleague could still use his arm, but it was not fully functional because the structure that supported his arm inhibited his movement. (18)
When I gave this illustration in class a number of years ago, one of my students who was a chiropractor became so excited he blurted out excitedly, “That’s right! Function follows form!” Function follows form.
Improper [or inadequate] theological structures may give the illusion of being intellectually and spiritually harmonious and in line with Scripture, but the reality shows otherwise. In the pilot episode of the original Star Trek series, broadcast as “The Menagerie,” Captain Christopher Pike (Captain Kirk’s predecessor) is imprisoned on the planet Talos 4. The inhabitants of the planet exhibit him and a beautiful young woman in their zoo. The plan is for them to mate and ultimately populate the planet. Pike learns that the Talosians are experts at illusion and that this is why his escape attempts keep failing. When he is finally successful and is about to leave the planet, he tries to take the young woman as well, but she refuses to leave. He discovers that she, like everything else he has experienced, is not as she appears. She is human, but she is not young and beautiful. She is the sole survivor of a scientific expedition stranded on the planet years before. Badly injured in the crash of her spaceship, she had been nursed back to health by the Talosians. But they had never seen a human before and consequently did not properly set her broken bones, and she ended up hunched over with twisted limbs. In this ugly condition, she could not face other humans. She could live a functional life, but the underlying structure of her body could not support normal existence. Her twisted structure cut her off from contact with normal humans. (19)
Evangelicalism has become a movement without a true underlying structure or true worldview. Those of the true Reformed theological persuasion have never been an integral part of Evangelicalism. While numerous Reformed scholars and theologians contributed to The Fundamentals which were published in the second decade of the twentieth century in opposition to the rising tide of Liberal Theology which was crashing like a Tsunami over the Protestant theological landscape, they declined to identify themselves with the movement because they viewed it as reductionistic and a compromise not only of Calvinism but of Historic Christian Orthodoxy.
The theological and intellectual poverty and vacuity of evangelicalism was vividly pointed out to me many years ago by Dr. Dan Allender (now President of Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle) in a presentation he was giving. Dan, as an aside in his lecture pointed out that the Evangelical tradition has never been able to produce great works of art or literature. Other Christian traditions, the Orthodox, the Catholic, the Anglican, the Reformed have all produced great masterpieces but you cannot name one great Evangelical artist or author of literature—our worldview does not allow us to. (neither Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins nor William P. Young (The Shack) nor even Thomas Kincade qualify here!)
The great late nineteenth and early twentieth century Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper demonstrates the sweeping vision of the Reformed faith in his Lectures on Calvinism, delivered at Princeton Seminary in 1898. He delivered six lectures that demonstrated the intellectual, theological and spiritual vigor of world and life view of the Reformed faith:
Lecture 1: Calvinism as a Life System
Lecture 2: Calvinism and Religion
Lecture 3: Calvinism and Politics
Lecture 4: Calvinism and Science
Lecture 5: Calvinism and Art
Lecture 6: Calvinism and the Future
Those unfamiliar with Kuyper will need an introduction to him to appreciate the power of his position. He was not just an academic theologian who built castles in the clouds. Throughout his career he edited a daily newspaper. He was the founder of Amsterdam Free University. He was a member of the Dutch Parliament, and served for four years as Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Last, but not least, he was one of the two leading Dutch theologians of his generation. (The other was Herman Bavinck.) Kuyper stridently advocated the Reformed concept of bringing all things under the Lordship of Christ and backed up that insistence in his own life story.
To most within our circles when someone mentions Calvinism, the image that comes to mine is the TULIP, or the doctrine of divine sovereignty, or of predestination. Such thoughts betray our profound ignorance of the vitality of its theocentric worldview and all encompassing vision of reality.
In the midst of an age of anthropocentric theology and postmodern abdication of truth, it makes perfect sense to me to see the reemergence of historic Reformed Theology/Calvinism (not simply the popular bumper sticker caricature Calvinism as the TULIP).
If Evangelicalism collapses as the sociologists and pollsters are predicting, will a new incarnation of Reformed theology arise out of the ashes?