Fr. Victor Novak’s recent article in VirtueOnline about Calvinism, Catholicism and the Thirty-Nine Articles opens an interesting subject for disparate groups such as Anglicans, Baptists and Pentecostals: why is there so much attraction these days for Calvinism in places where it was either non-existent or not well represented?
Let’s start with Fr. Novak’s article. He wants us to believe that the 39 Articles are a Catholic statement of faith. That’s a stretch; the first century and a half of the Church of England was a lurching between a reinstitution of Roman Catholicism and the imposition of Geneva-inspired Calvinistic Puritanism, with the Elizabethan Settlement in the middle. The truth is that the Anglican edifice, both theological and ecclesiastical, has elements of both, which has made Anglicanism a composite business or a muddle, depending upon how you look at it.
Novak is correct on one key point, and one I made many years ago: the whole concept of Anglicanism as a truly Calvinistic, Reformed church was fatally compromised by Article XVI’s allowance for falling after baptism. That, in turn, eventually opened the door to Wesleyanism, which in turn gave Reformed theology of all kinds its most potent alternative in Protestant Christianity.
Now, as Novak notes, we have people within Anglicanism advocating consistent (I’ll refrain from calling it strict) Calvinism within Anglican churches. He’s right that many of the people who have started the new Anglican churches in North America are not “old line Episcopalians”; the church managed to shed many of these in the 1970’s, only to become a revolving door to another generation of orthodox believers.
Anglicans, however, are not the only Christian group who are seeing a growing advocacy of Calvinism in their ranks. The Southern Baptists, who admittedly have a composite theology of their own about election and perseverance, are seriously discussing this issue. And we even see some in Pentecostal circles, traditionally Wesleyan, advocating Calvinism in one form or another. What’s going on?
Let me try to suggest two causes for this:
- Calvinism is theologically respectable. The main reason for that is because its main advocates, the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists, are at the top of the heap of Evangelicalism from a socio-economic standpoint. They have been able to fund the seminaries and produce the most educated ministers, although they’ve been hit with the same revisionist problems the Episcopalians have had. So they have achieved respectability from both an academic and socio-economic standpoint, and that’s a potent combination.
- Calvinism draws sharp boundaries. Say what you will about Calvinism and its proponents–and I could say a great deal about the latter–it’s a theology with very discernable boundaries. It draws a sharp line between the elect and the lost, as opposed to the fuzziness of Roman Catholicism on the one side and liberal Christianity on the other. It also has a simple way to separate the two: God wills a person to one or the other, and that’s it. It is strong on the necessity of God’s grace to enter eternal life.
But Calvinism has some grave weaknesses as well:
- It eliminates the concept of moral responsibility. This is a product of its absolute insistence on predestination. It takes a person’s inability to reach God on his or her own and removes any responsibility from them.
- It is intrinsically anti-missional, again because of its fixation with predestination. The Reformers understood this completely; that’s why it took two centuries to get the modern missions movement under way. During that time the Roman Catholics were more than making up for their losses in Europe and the Anglicans were praying at Cape Henry and elsewhere to win a new continent for God. Calvinists complain that others don’t understand their doctrine. But the real issue is that Calvinistic evangelists like George Whitfield didn’t understand their own!
- It is the fastest road to universalism in Christianity. The reason is simple: if God wants all people to be saved, and God predestinates those who are saved, then God saves everyone. The current poster child for this process is Rob Bell, but we’ve fought this battle since the days of Charles Finney and earlier.
I’m not sure why Anglicans and Pentecostals, at once on opposite and the same end of Christianity, would want to ditch their own theological heritages in favour of Calvinism. (The Southern Baptists have a dissonance problem that would be more easily solved if they took inspiration from the first two). But we do so at our own peril, and peril of those to whom we are called to preach the Gospel.