Friday, May 11, 2012

American Calvinism: Its Staying Power

I haven't done a post on Calvinism for awhile; so this represents that, just a short off the cuff reflection on why I think Calvinism (in its classic or Westminster instantiation---in its various expressions, i.e. Covenantal, Baptistic, etc.) has stayed around for so long within Christendom. I think I'll use something of a theses format (or even bullet point) for this post.

  1. The first reason I think Calvinism has stayed around for so long is not primarily a theological reason (although, of course, it is related); I think Calvinism, at least in America (where I write from), was of such seminal import in the founding (so called) of  America (early on), that this heritage (with all of its structural and cohesive power) has simply made in-roads (at a sub-conscious level, often) within the American psyche. I think this is so---and here is a theological piece---because of American Calvinism's (which is at a popular level best signified by the theology that 5 point Calvinism presupposes) because of Calvinism's conception of God (doesn't everything come back to God?). Philosophically, American Calvinism operates from a conception of God that thinks of God as monad, or as a unitary substance (or in individualist terms); and that this God is primarily defined by singular brute power and assertion of this power which are given expression through contractual-law-like ways. If you think about it; this is how American's view themselves---that is, as rugged individualists who sell their mode of individualism (in the market place) through self-confident assertiveness which is captured by contracting with others in order to make a profit. I see this as an inimical aspect that Calvinism has brought to the American psyche; it is the idea of the indomitable human spirit, which ironically finds its correlation and analogy in the individually denominated indomitable godly spirit of the individual, monadic, God whom 'orthodox Calvinists' worship.
  2. The second reason I think Calvinism has staying power is because of its emphasis on God's grace; so this is a theological reason. This is something that has drawn me to Calvinism, in particular. That is, the intention of thought that understands God's grace and movement in grace towards creation as the ultimate ground upon which God relates to the world. 
  3. The third reason; because it emphasizes that the Bible (sola scriptura) is the ordained place of God wherein He communicates to us. This should be appealing to all Christians, of all stripes. I think Calvinism, in general, has a unique position on this that is admirable and something that has drawn me personally to this tradition.
  4. The fourth reason is its desire to be christocentric (however that might be described). At least in its Covenantal form (which I am closest too, except of course my Covenantalism comes from the kind of Barth and Torrance) it looks to a so called christocentric hermeneutic of the text of Scripture. Again, this admirable and I would think appealing to almost any Christian---at least in principle, maybe not (of course) in actual nuts and bolts practice (and I mean in the way that Calvinists might employ this as they do, hermeneutically).
  5. And the fifth reason I think Calvinism has staying power is because of their ferocious usage of social media; whether that be through the radio, pod-casts, blogs, websites, etc. They have more of a presence this way than any other theological tradition that I have noticed. So, in our information age; at least American Calvinists have taken full advantage of so called social media, and in so doing I think they have ensured their staying power in this way---whether that be for good or ill.
There are many other reasons why Calvinism has staying power. As you might have noticed though, my little points above start with a social point and end with one (an inclusio ;-). It's not that I don't think the theological isn't of prime importance (or that we could have the social reality without the theological); it's just I think, like anything, appeal and exposure to the human situation is going to provide the strongest in-roads into the lives of the masses for a particular constructs staying power. And on this front, from its inception (in America), I think Calvinism has massive appeal; whether that be because it appeals to a certain mode of being human (and I don't think the best mode, i.e. individualism), and or because it is scintillatingly present through various packagings on the web (which I obviously am trying to appeal through ;-)---I think Calvinism is here to stay, at least in America.


  1. Hi Bobby!
    I think you missed one very important bullet point: The very high value Calvin and Calvinism put on the education of lay believers because of the priesthood of believers (beginning with literacy so the flock could study their Bibles). Catholics traditionally only educated in the monasteries, and in more modern times, the other big American protestant movement the "Full Gospel" movement has never put that big of a premium on Theological training, or higher education of any kind.
    The egalitarian effect this literacy had on the colonists and since the birth of the nation may be why we never elected a king. The Calvinist Covenanters did the English Revolution, unfortunately Cromwell took it in a totalitarian direction. The colonists probably learned from the covenanters errors, where the French revolutionaries, being historically more Roman Catholic simply went atheist, and ruled by guillotine. Fast forward to the future: Calvinists education also puts them in the driver's seat of Theological education, at the lead of communications technology, and gives them high value as business and community leaders. Yep, Calvinists aren't going anywhere soon.

    1. Thanks, Duane. I think what you have posited fits with what Kc has below.

  2. Real good post Bobby. I agree, and thats all I have to say on that! ;)

  3. "God as monad" certainly doesn't capture why Calvinism has staying power. The second point is closer to the truth: the emphasis on grace is bound-up with a highly personal-relational view of God, which provides the joy, comfort, and other Augustinian emphases that characterize the rather subjective bent (like Augustine's Confessions) in Calvinist piety. This subjectivity was aptly pinpointed by Barth in his lectures on the Reformed confessions, and this is just as important as the Calvinist focus on God's intrinsic perfections (sovereignty, election, providence, etc.), which form the objective bent in Calvinist piety.

    This is certainly my diagnosis from being in the heartland of 5-point Calvinism: the RTS seminaries in the South.

    1. Kevin,

      You don't think there is a correlation, then, between the objective/subjective? I don't agree with you. I understand what you're saying about piety; indeed, this is something I have been critical, though, within my own Evangelicalism---i.e. that there is a disconnect between one's so called orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

      Also, remember, I set these up as theses; they need to be developed further to be substantiated. I highly appreciated and benefited from Barth's Reformed Confessions; but of course Barth was happy with the actual dogmatic framework behind this piety, and neither am I. I don't really think God as monad is as far off as you suggest; of course I might be getting more into psychology instead of theology at this point.

      You're in one heartland or region of 5 point Calvinism; you don't seem to have the pulse on that, so much, on its West Coast version (as you say I am missing that on its East Coast version). 5 point Calvinism here is quite abrasive and abrupt (just think Westminster California).

    2. I should say "Barth WASN'T happy" ...

  4. I tend to agree with your understanding in regard to the social aspect. In my opinion the popularity of American Calvinism is due to it's ecclesiology and institutional perspective of church. Like the RC, the glue that binds the AC is doctrinal agreement as opposed to the love of God in Christ (denominational dogma rather than milk for all new converts). Both hold to an (socially) evolving works-based ecclesiology (front-loaded in order to get into the RC, back-loaded in order to prove you're in with the AC). Both are highly structured religious organizations that present themselves as the only true form of Christianity and both utilize fear and persecution to proselytize and govern the masses. Sadly, this institutional approach to ecclesiology satisfies the psychological cravings of a great many people.

    Please don't ask me to tell you how really feel! ;-)

    1. Kc,

      I think you may be right; but unfortunately I've seen folk who emphasize God's grace and love (both doctrinal points, which is an inescapable reality ... doctrine that is) be just as divisive, and this in the Free church movement. I'll have to think about your point; at first blush it has some force with me, but as I ponder it even now I can see some holes in it ;-).


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