Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Is Calvinism the New Thing to Drag Us out of the Mirey Clay of Declining Attendance?

Bought a book for the library, by Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists (Crossway, 2008). It's a good and a quick read, introducing both five point or TULIP* Calvinism and the up and coming ministers of US churches who are finding that solid systematic Calvinistic preaching is drawing large numbers of people to many churches. Hansen himself also finds that the new Calvinists are drawing a bit of controversy too - especially where ministers do a bit of 'entryism' - not quite declaring their Calvinism when they are appointed to a position.

Personally I cannot get too excited by the new Calvinism - it has no fresh solution to offer on the matter of its painting God into a dark corner through double predestination (not only are the elect destined for salvation, the non-elect are destined for hell), it seems resolutely complementarian (women may not teach mixed gender congregations, husband is head of submissive wife), and confused on the relationship between evangelism and divine sovereignty (why bother with the former if the latter is tuliptically true?). What I appreciate about Calvinism is the moderate amount the Anglican church absorbed into its 39 Articles - an amount which leaves alive the 'both-and' paradoxes of Paul's teaching on evangelism, election, predestination and salvation.

A general critique of TULIP Calvinism is its flawed understanding of Christ: (i) it exalts the teaching of Paul over the teaching of Christ rather than holding the two in dynamic tension; (ii) by centring its teaching on the TULIP scheme it dangerously verges on diminishing the status of Christ from the Son of God to the servant of God who ensures that the TULIP scheme works; (iii) it champions the ideal Christian as one who understands the TULIP scheme (i.e. is an exponent of systematic theology) rather than as one who follows Jesus Christ.

But the bigger question to me is not the growth of new Calvinism, but the question of whether there is another formulation of Christian teaching which has a wider reach into the world of 2008. It is good that people are crowding into churches to hear the Word of God preached tuliptically, but what about the greater number of people who are not drawn in by Calvinism (nor by its similarly growing-in-popularity Catholic counterpart, the Latin Mass)? We can celebrate that which is good within Calvinism - I suggest - while also wondering whether there is an expression of the gospel which is even better suited to the world today!

Similar questions have arisen in the past when the Hansens of their day wrote up the charismatic renewal in the 1970s, Wimberism in the 1980s and the Toronto Blessing in the 1990s!

*TULIP stands for Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. The most difficult of these doctrines (IMHO) is Limited atonement which teaches that Christ died on the cross only for the elect. The narrowness of the vision of the God Who Is Love implied by this doctrine is in stark contrast with the largeness of the Calvinist vision of the sovereign power of God. Thus a weakness of TULIP Calvinism is its asymmetric logic between the love and the power of God.

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