Saturday, January 10, 2009

Umm ... WTF, NYT?

Molly Worthern has a fascinating Times article on Mark Driscoll, the somewhat raunchy pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill mega-church.  She spends some time building him up in our eyes:

Conservatives call Driscoll “the cussing pastor” and wish that he’d trade in his fashionably distressed jeans and taste for indie rock for a suit and tie and placid choral arrangements. Liberals wince at his hellfire theology and insistence that women submit to their husbands.

So far, so good.  He drinks, he swears, he (gasp!) likes rock music. The man is clearly unfit for the ordained ministry.  (And as for those other things, a bit more submission from Mother A. would be welcome indeed.)  We sort of liked him, as we read along.  Then Worthern dropped the bomb:

But what is new about Driscoll is that he has resurrected a particular strain of fire and brimstone, one that most Americans assume died out with the Puritans: Calvinism, a theology that makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy.

For us at the Egg, this was a major "wtf" moment.  Calvinism is dead?  And nobody told us?  Shit!  Think of all the time Lutherans could have spent gloating.

After all, we spent centuries hammering those Swiss SOB's about single predestination and the Real Presence, not to mention trying to convince them that some stained glass and a few statues don't automatically spell Papism or idolatry, much less Papist idolatry.  If we'd known they were just going to celebrate the first Thanksgiving and then die out, we could have skipped over them, and spent our spare time arguing against the Moravians.

As it happens, we at the Egg went to a proudly Calvinist seminary.  One of our classmates taped to his door a large poster displaying the five points of the Synod of Dort (you remember them by their suitably Dutch acronym, TULIP).  Another committed to memory the entire Westminster Shorter Catechism.   It was also, by seminary standards, very large, with something like 700 students, from all over this country and many others.  A Lutheran student, while certainly welcome, could expect to be routinely teased for wearing white robes, insisting upon weekly Communion, and raising snarky questions about the usus tertius legis.

So, honestly, we were pretty sure Calvinism was alive and well, until the Times told us otherwise.

As for "making Pat Robertson look warm and fuzzy," we suppose it's a matter of perspective. Calvinism is often called "grim" or (in one of the most abused of all cliches) "dour."  As Worthern describes it:

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. 

Fair enough description.  But is it really so grim?  After all, despite this utter depravity, some people are going to be saved.  How freaking cool is that?  

Worthern goes on to say that "Calvin’s 16th-century doctrines have deep roots in Christian tradition," but her main point is that "they strike many modern evangelicals as nonsensical and even un-Christian."  Um, maybe, if by "evangelicals" you exclude the groups who actually began using that word to describe themselves, back in the Reformation.  Here's the logic of the soi-disant evangelicals:

If predestination is true ... then there is no point in missions to the unsaved or in leading a godly life. ... 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.

This is all very confused, and Worthern really can't be blamed for the confusion.  The culprit in this case is a fellow named Jacobus Harmenzoon, or Arminius, who injected an element of what Lutherans had already come to call synergism -- human cooperation with divine grace -- into pure Calvinism.  They kicked him out of the club, for what looked to the Reformed tradition like Pelagianism.  Nonetheless, his ideas had some currency, especially in England, where they probably contributed to what later became Methodism.  And that -- to make a complex story too simple -- is where the divide between Calvinism in its pure state and the free-will-driven revivalist movements parted company.  (Consider the intense dislike of Augustus Toplady, author of "Rock of Ages," for John Wesley, whom he called a "hater of the Gospel-system.")

Two caveats, however.  First, the divide was never all that clear.  Calvinists, especially in the US, were happy to adopt some of the revivalist "new measures" that reporters today call "evangelicalism."  When somebody like John Wiiamson Nevin pointed out the internal contradictions in their practice, they mocked him -- there was and remains a strong strain of this so-called "evangelicalism" in evangelical circles.  And second, the lines have grown blurrier in recent years, as many theologians in America's largest Arminian movement, the Southern Baptist Convention, have begun to embrace positions that are Calvinist in all but sacramental theory.

Readers can probably see what we're yammering on about, right?  When Worthern (like a great many other journalists) glibly says that "most Americans" assume Calvinism is dead, she tells us less about the beliefs of most Americans than about her own curious worldview, in which "most Americans" are revivalist Arminians.  In fact, despite the undeniable weight of those ideas in this country, we venture to suggest that most Americans don't share them.  The overtly Calvinist churches -- Presbyterian and Reformed -- are alive and reasonably well, with a cultural influence disproportionate to their modest size.  Many Episcopalians are Calvinist, more or less, and the Arminian ones have little use for revivalism. While Roman Catholics and Lutherans aren't Calvinists, we share a common Augustinian frame of theological reference, and are generally more comfortable in conversation with each other than with the (and typing this kills us, every time) "evangelicals."

Oh, and for what it's worth, the Roman, Lutheran and Reformed traditions have all done pretty well with missions over the years, despite our conviction (variously expressed) that God is the one in charge of human salvation.   


Gillian said...

Did you see that our mutual alma mater is sponsoring "A Year w/ Calvin's Institutes"? A daily selection for reading, along w/ commentaries. Available via RSS and podcast. Yeah, I think Princeton missed the death notice for Calvinism ....

Anonymous said...

You are so damn smart it's unnerving. Eggcellent review! web