Christian faith: Calvinism is back

Calvinism has always struck me as, well, psychologically austere given Calvin’s definition of predestination where man, in the end, has no real freedom. Nevertheless, for Protestants raised on the consumer Christianity that has afflicted the Protestant world the last few decades, it’s probably a bracing antidote to the search for good feelings reaches almost pathological dimensions. No Starbucks in a Calvinist church lobby I’ll bet.


In America’s Christian faith, a surprising comeback of rock-ribbed Calvinism is challenging the Jesus-is-your-buddy gospel of modern evangelism.

Capital Hill Baptist Church

Snow falls resolutely on a Saturday morning in Washington, but the festively lit basement of a church near the US Capitol is packed. Some 200 female members have invited an equal number of women for tea, cookies, conversation – and 16th-century evangelism.

What newcomers at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) hear is hardly “Christianity for Dummies.” Nor is it “Extreme Makeover: Born-Again Edition.” Instead, a young woman named Kasey Gurley describes her disobedience and suffering in Old Testament terms.

“I worship my own comfort, my own opinion of myself,” she confesses. “Like the idolatrous people of Judah, we deserve the full wrath of God.” She warns the women that “we’ll never be safe in good intentions,” but assures them that “Christ died for us so we wouldn’t have to.” Her closing prayer is both frank and transcendent: “Our comfort in suffering is this: that through Christ you provide eternal life.”

It is so quiet you can hear an oatmeal cookie crumble.

Read the entire article on the Christian Science Monitor.


  1. Roger Bennett :

    You would lose your bet about Starbucks, I’d venture.

    The Christian Reformed Church, in which I was serving as an Elder when I discovered Orthodoxy, has very much experienced “The Worship Wars.” In the Holy City of Grand Rapids, you could find everything from almost-Episcopalian Liturgy with weekly communion to “Community Church” style, hide-the-theological-ball Praise Band bacchanalia.

    My local Church split planted a new Church to be more “celebrative” and “seeker-friendly” before I left the more traditional remnant for Orthodoxy. Before that, we tried an early “contemporary” service and a later “traditional” service. A slightly-older Elder warned presciently that “the eventuality of two services is two congregations.” I added “eventuality” to my vocabulary and watched his prophecy come true.

    The number of competent Organists for “traditional” worship is dwindling, too.

    So much for the dissing. Calvinism, in my experience, had a much greater sobriety and historicity than more generic Evangelicalism, which could fairly be described as what drew me in the first place (the specific was prophetic sobriety; the Evangelicalism I knew was into all the chiliastic stuff). As heresies go, it was a pretty good one. It even plausibly claimed Augustine.

    But when I really got serious about Calvinism, I lost the ability to say without equivocation “God loves you.” Because, the dogma has it, God only loves the elect.

    Mark that down. If you encounter a serious Calvinist, ask him if he can unequivocally say that. It’s a real vulnerability, I think.

    As for freedom, I got an early taste of apophatic theology without knowing it on that topic. I’d have said that man was responsible for his actions, that God did not compel anyone to do evil, that his invitation “I will in no wise cast out was sincere,” and that how it all fit was – well, a mystery.

  2. Roger, you nailed it on so many levels.

    I couldn’t resist laughing at your description of “hide-the-theological-ball Praise Band bacchanalia.” It perfectly describes an awful lot of modern Evangelical (Pentecostal, Charismatic, etc., etc.) worship.

    As for Calvinism, you are again exactly right. When you try to organize your understanding around “the sovereignty of God,” you undermine any meaningful claim to the love of God and ultimately the meaning of the incarnation. Yes, I’ve read lots of polemical and apologetic works (J. I. Packer’s being among the more accessible), but for all the intellectual gymnastics what you end up with is a Christian version of Allah, in which Power predominates.

    Once you have the apophatic revelation that you describe, well, your whole perspective changes. You realize that God – or others – or even one’s own self – are all far more than our best concepts of them. You begin to recognize our utter dependence on the incarnation, and the need for Tradition, and our deep need for humility in the face of it all, and finally that the only response to Love that loved us so is love.

    In short, you nailed it.

  3. Sounds like Calvinism and Islam have a lot in common. Then again, looking at Calvin’s Geneva, I guess they do!

    • Roger Bennett :


      I don’t know why your April 2 comment didn’t show up in my e-mail box until this morning.

      That’s waaay oversimplified if you’re serious about Calvin’s Geneva being analogous to modern oppressive Islamic regimes.

      Don’t judge Geneva by modern standards. There weren’t many (any?) places that enjoyed modern freedom in Calvin’s times. There is some excellent, freedom- and justice-promoting political thought in modern Calvinist circles, such as the Center for Public Justice.

      On the other hand, I’m not convinced there’s much difference between Calvinist “predestination” and Islamic “kismet.” But neither of those doctrines has obvious political implications.

  4. I suspect that even these people, who rightly desire no more of the self-centeredness of much of today’s Protestantism, will – as many early Baptists did before them – part company with Calvin when they come to his ecclesiology. Concerning Book IV of The Institutes, the title of Chapter 1 alone should be enough to give pause to a good Baptist:


    Once the realization hits them that they have replaced picking and choosing at the Bible with picking and choosing at Calvin their search will continue for the church established 2,000 years ago; the one still in existence today. So, perhaps, ultimately this will be a good thing.

  5. cynthia curran :

    Well, the problem with a lot of modern protestants is lack of knowledge of the early church. That’s why people such as Bart Ehrman who came from an evangelical background became agnostic. Many modern protestants don’t know how to deal with questions such as early christian churches sometimes usally letters such as Clement of Rome as scripture. A lot of this can be answered by reading for example Eusebius’s Church history. Granted, I’m aware that Eusebius had some shortcommings when it came to theology but his work is great to understand the historical development of the early church.

    • As an Orthodox priest working in an overwhelmingly Baptist locale, I concur with Cynthia that agnosticism is the outcome of burnout from the harshness Calvinist doctrine. Here in this ‘burnt-over’ region dominated by Baptist congregations, an assumed majority of ‘elect’ attend these places of worship while the ‘preterite’ drink Bud Lite in their pickup trucks, ‘going to hell in a handbasket’ and not caring all that much about any of that rigamarole.

      As a pastor, my major challenge is trying to mitigate the damage done to souls warped by the black/and/white merely-moralist teaching of the sects. The fact that so very few of the discontents of Calvinism are actively seeking the Church – they have not the desire to look further than what they are running from – proves the withering effect of the judgmental teaching that goes on there. Trying to blow upon the sparks leaves me out of breath.

      It’s sad to see so many people living in palpable terror of an unloving, Old Testamental God. The burden of this relationship closes down the windows of the soul, and is borne out in a lack of vitality, an inability to express joy in response to the love of which we sing in Orthodoxy. Instead, I see people hang up on ‘rules’, which is how they interpret our tools of Orthodox worship.

      Calvinism, paints a world where Pascha has never bloomed, a fearful place of judgment – despite the rmenants of orthodox teaching couched therein. I read recently ( in Road to Emmaus journal) of an Orthodox priest workng in Wales under the shadow of collapsed Calvinism. He was very frank about the difficulty of attracting anyone to Christianity in such a milieu.

    • Father, what you have described is consistent with what I have seen. Even in the more “revivalist” quarters of Evangelicalism – to which no good Reformed Christian would claim kinship – the same general assumptions are very much at work. One consistent and very unhealthy characteristic that I noticed in such circles was a tendency toward highly charged periods of repentance and commitment to the faith, followed at some later point by back-sliding that was characterized by an equally dramatic level of indulgence. The prevalence of such a neurotic (almost bi-polar) approach to faith seems arise from the underlying notion of God which you describe; while the love of God is often proclaimed, it is neither the foundational nor dominant characteristic of His character as expressed in their operant theology; rather, justice and power predominate. These distortions produce an equally distorted notion of communion with God that in turn gives rise to the aforementioned neurotic approach to life. As you indicate, the long-term result is a variety of spiritual issues (with profound social consequences) that need to be addressed and healed. (It is not for nothing that Orthodox theology is vital to an Orthodox spiritual life, and vice versa.) Along those lines, I recently came across a wonderful letter by a nun to a former Calvinist. I thought it was both helpful and insightful in addressing some of these very issues.

  6. cynthia curran :

    Actually, there are also good points in the old testement such as loving your neighbor and not favoring people because they are wealthier than you or poorer you, this is in Lev, I think 19 or 20. Also, some of the conquest period of the old testment might be exaggerated by recent archaelogial finds that disappove some of the conquest period. Christians need to read both the old and new and not be like Marcion which got rid of the old testement because that was the evil god of the old testment. And most Church Fathers thought Maricon wrong to get rid of it. On the other hand, one can developed too much theology on old testement and ignore the new. Protestants do tend to go to extremes in their behavior but cradle Roman Catholics and Orthodox think that they are born christian and sometimes don’t take it seriously

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