Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Rebirth of Calvinism

John Calvin is a pretty misunderstood guy, at least in terms of his ideas, I think. When you hear talk of Martin Luther, you usually get a huge shovelful of romanticized crap about "Here I stand," his liberation of religion from papal tyranny, the joys of marriage, and so forth. With Calvin, you basically hear about uncomfortable pews and people going to hell.

Here's the bit nobody ever wants to talk about. Calvin's ideas make a lot more sense than Luther's. Read The Institutes (thrilling stuff, I know). Then read anything by Luther. Whether it's The Babylonian Captivity or The Jews and Their Lies, it tends to be long, rambling stuff that isn't all that devoted to actually explaining anything. It's more about ripping into anybody that disagreed with him.

Calvin, though he is wrong on just about everything, at least is internally consistent for the most part. Like any good lawyer, he has a logical order to stuff and sets it out in a much better, albeit more boring, fashion.

Needless to say, Calvinism seems to have been in a bit of a decline. Like all Reformed communities, they've been losing support. The visions of uncomfortable pews and hellfire probably hasn't helped. According to this NYT article, a comeback might be underway:

At a time when the once-vaunted unity of the religious right has eroded and the mainstream media is proclaiming an “evangelical crackup,” Driscoll represents a movement to revamp the style and substance of evangelicalism. With his taste for vintage baseball caps and omnipresence on Facebook and iTunes, Driscoll, who is 38, is on the cutting edge of American pop culture. Yet his message seems radically unfashionable, even un-American: you are not captain of your soul or master of your fate but a depraved worm whose hard work and good deeds will get you nowhere, because God marked you for heaven or condemned you to hell before the beginning of time. Yet a significant number of young people in Seattle — and nationwide — say this is exactly what they want to hear. Calvinism has somehow become cool, and just as startling, this generally bookish creed has fused with a macho ethos. At Mars Hill, members say their favorite movie isn’t “Amazing Grace” or “The Chronicles of Narnia” — it’s “Fight Club.”

Going on in greater detail:

Human beings are totally corrupted by original sin and predestined for heaven or hell, no matter their earthly conduct. We all deserve eternal damnation, but God, in his inscrutable mercy, has granted the grace of salvation to an elect few. While John Calvin’s 16th-century doctrines have deep roots in Christian tradition, they strike many modern evangelicals as nonsensical and even un-Christian. If predestination is true, they argue, then there is no point in missions to the unsaved or in leading a godly life. And some babies who die in infancy — if God placed them among the reprobate — go straight to hell with the rest of the damned, to “glorify his name by their own destruction,” as Calvin wrote. Since the early 19th century, most evangelicals have preferred a theology that stresses the believer’s free decision to accept God’s grace. To be born again is a choice God wants you to make; if you so choose, Jesus will be your personal friend.

None of this, of course, is really all that radical if you look at it from a Reformed perspective. Another reason why I don't get Protestants. Apparently, none of the Reformers knew what the hell they were doing, so we're left at the mercy of the next innovative soul to get things right. But I digress:

Most people who attend Mars Hill do not see themselves as theological radicals. Mark Driscoll is just “Pastor Mark,” not the New Calvinist warrior demonized on evangelical and liberal blogs. Yet while some initially come for mundane reasons — their friends attend; they like the music — the Calvinist theology is often the glue that keeps them in their seats. They call the preaching “authentic” and “true to life.” Traditional evangelical theology falls apart in the face of real tragedy, says the 20-year-old Brett Harris, who runs an evangelical teen blog with his twin brother, Alex. Reducing God to a projection of our own wishes trivializes divine sovereignty and fails to explain how both good and evil have a place in the divine plan. “There are plenty of comfortable people who can say, ‘God’s on my side,’ ” Harris says. “But they couldn’t turn around and say, ‘God gave me cancer.’

It's not Catholic, but I find this whole thing very refreshing. I've had a number of Protestants over the last few years tell me in exact or so many words that "Theology is dead." In fact, theology is a bad thing because it "gets in the way" of a person's relationship with God. This would have sounded very strange to the Reformers indeed. However, if you look at most evangelical communities, I can't argue. Or consider the average Joel Osteen presentation. Or, shifting settings again, think of your typical Pentecostal group. One's experience, to different levels, swallows up one's intellect.

Mr. Driscoll seems to be challenging that and asking people to actually consider the logical extensions of their ideas. For that, I applaud him. If he continues down this road, we may very well find him following the trail of, say, Scott Hahn or Marcus Grodi.


flap said...

I’m not very up-to-date on Calvinism, but I think the blog would have been more accurately titled, “The Rebirth of Almost-Calvinism.” One Calvinist “Point” the Mars Hill community seems to eschew is “Unconditional election.” The church seems to be “come one and all.” Removing this Point removes a harsh edge to Calvinism. Combining a come one and all attitude with unintimidating and familiar marketing has likely led to a lot of the success.

You were not explicitly clear in your praise of Driscoll. Do you admire the fact that his congregation is not trying to take the easy way out with “feel good church,” or do you admire his successful pursuit of the Truth. I suspect it is the former.

I’m likely not your target audience and I have not read either Hahn or Grodi. I was not able to follow your logic regarding: “If he continues down this road, we may very well find him following the trail of, say, Scott Hahn or Marcus Grodi.” In fact, I read it as an underhanded complement.

Thanks again for your blog and bringing the article to my attention.

Throwback said...

How far some of these groups embrace the TULIP premises of Calvinism is a difficult thing to pin down. I'm looking into a bit more myself, but this isn't necessarily anything new. You have groups claiming Calvinism as their core principles but really reject TULIP altogether, being Calvinist more in style rather than substance. Mr. Driscoll seems to have moved way beyond that, and I think it's a good thing, as he is pushing for consistency and depth in what he's preaching.

On your second paragraph, I think Mr. Driscoll, like Calvin, is wrong on probably 85% of what he says. The video I posted on NDN is a bad example of this, as I agreed with most of what he said. I admire him a great deal, though, not just because he is going past the "feel good church." There are a lot of different ways of doing that. He could just preach hellfire and brimstone 24/7. Definitely not feel good, but not as productive as the direction he's moving in. He's trying to get people to think about the "how" and "why" of what they are doing. Why do they believe x, y, and z? Does what they do harmonize with the belief of x, y, and z? These questions have been lost in much of modern Protestantism.

Scott Hahn and Marcus Grodi are former Calvinist ministers (Presbyterians) who are now Catholic apologists. I certainly didn't mean for it to be underhanded. Their conversions were basically sparked by the sort of deep digging that Mr. Driscoll is engaged in. For example, why is sola scriptura true? Anyways, following these sorts of threads led them into Catholicism. Naturally, I hope and pray for Mr. Driscoll's conversion just like I would anyone else's. He just seemed to be walking down a road that sounded familiar due to the stories I've heard from other converts.

Does that make a bit more sense? I am trying to work on clarity in my postings here.

Thank you very much for stopping by and following up on this.

flap said...

Thanks for the reply. I follow.

Any confusion from my end comes from unfamiliarity with some of your stances on an issue. Your writing is quite clear and thought provoking.

I also really appreciate your inputs on NDNation.