The New Calvinism

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I wonder how many readers were surprised by Time magazine’s recent cover story “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now” (March 22, 2009).

It wasn’t surprising that a national magazine came up with an insightful article like that. What must have caught many off guard, however, was the inclusion of “The New Calvinism” among the 10. But what may have been most disconcerting to many of us in the Reformed Church in America and in the Christian Reformed Church in North America was the article’s failure to mention either of these traditions.

As we remember John Calvin’s 500th birthday this year, we acknowledge that Calvinism has not had positive press in recent years. Its critics have characterized it as a dour, rigid view of God that leads its followers to a less-than-appealing way of life. Thankfully, in recent years a number of insightful scholars have bemoaned the bad rap Calvinism has received.

Writers like Marilynne Robinson (Gilead) look ahead to the time when Calvinism will again be recognized for its potential contribution to world affairs.

The Time article indicates that Calvinism is on the rise. It refers to a growing number of scholars in traditions other than the RCA and CRC who are cashing in on insights they’ve learned from John Calvin. I wonder why the RCA and CRC traditions weren’t mentioned. Whatever the reason, now might be the time for us to take another look at who we are and how we might be included among other Calvinists who make a noted difference in today’s world.

Unsung Contributions

That we’re on the way to being recognized is already evident in our contributions in many arenas—for example, work being done by the economics department of Calvin College in the area of community development. Each year the department holds a seminar that attracts hundreds of students and scholars from a number of traditions to reflect on meeting this challenge from a Christian (Calvinistic) perspective.

There’s also the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s annual Worship Symposium, which draws interested people from all over the world. And Trinity College, located in the Chicago area, recently invited Paul Young, author of the bestselling book The Shack, to speak about how his novel addresses the role of God in the midst of the unspeakable tragedies we regularly encounter.

We’re also making significant contributions in the area of faith and science. The debate between the two was placed on the front burner by Francis S. Collins, noted director of the Human Genome Project, in his book The Language of God. It is largely through his research that we learn how beneficial it is to know about the DNA structure of our bodies. Collins was an atheist in his early career but is now a dedicated Christian. He maintains that faith in God and faith in science not only can be, but must be, combined into one worldview.

While Collins does not speak directly out of the Reformed tradition, Deborah B. Haarsma and Loren D. Haarsma, who teach in the department of physics and astronomy at Calvin College, agree with Collins that faith and science must respect one another. They recently wrote Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, & Evolution, in which they urge us to live out of the faith we express in Article 2 of the Belgic Confession. In that article we declare that God makes himself known by two means: first by the creation and then by God’s holy and divine Word. The Haarsmas strongly advocate that we take both God’s Word and God’s world seriously.

Our Problem with Election

An area that we in the CRC tradition must address if we are to be part of the “new Calvinism” is the perception that there is an albatross that hangs around our neck. I am referring to the perception that we believe God predestines some people to everlasting hell, while others are granted eternal life in glory.

We have been reluctant to deal with this because we have not fared well when it’s been up for discussion by our major assemblies. While most seem to have moved away from the concept of double predestination (God is glorified by those assigned to hell as well as by those accepted into heaven), the biblically based concept of election remains a major factor in our theological structure. Yet election remains a topic that’s rarely addressed from the pulpits of our churches.

There may be a number of reasons why pastors shy away from this. Among them is probably the understanding that election is associated primarily with going to heaven after death. While that idea may be comforting to those who believe they are among the elect, it is not a topic that plays well from the pulpit. It is an arrogant position that may consign good acquaintances to hell while granting heaven to only a select few.

It’s time we make a concerted effort to shift the focus of election away from eternal bliss to the biblical concept of God calling the elect to be a blessing in the world.

When God called (elected) Abraham, God mentioned nothing about Abraham’s being translated to heaven after death. Instead, the promise was wrapped up with what Abraham and his descendants were to do in their daily lives. While the New Testament assures believers of eternal bliss, it places its primary emphasis on how believers are to conduct their lives. When we make that biblically supported shift in our theological perspective, preaching about election will be enhanced and we may be recognized among other Calvinists who make a significant contribution to the ideas shaping the world.

Ongoing Challenges

We face an even greater challenge in the way we conduct our worship services today. Worship in Reformed churches is currently in turmoil. Many Christians have become self-centered in their concept of what worship is about. As a result, successful, effective worship is often measured by the size of the congregation and the ability of those leading worship to satisfy those gathered for worship. Highly skilled preachers who can tell both young and old how to feel better about themselves draw huge crowds.

Calvin’s concept of human depravity has never been popular. However, it appears that the current economic crisis brought about in large measure by human greed reaffirms the biblical truth expounded so forcefully by him. It is Calvin’s contention that the biblical concept of grace can only be appreciated against the background of human sin. Calvin sees the worshiping congregation as a gathering of believers who, out of their brokenness, come into the presence of God not only to confess their sins but to hear the Good News about the grace of God.

Calvinists have never been proponents of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as a “comfortable pew.” Calvinistic theology is a strong proponent of social justice in the world—a justice that God calls his people to promote by what they say and do.

The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship sets forth a biblical concept of worship that calls worship leaders to be faithful to God. The leaders of the institute recognize that churches of many traditions struggle with declining membership. This is a major concern. But they also know that the answer to this is not to be found in teaching worship leaders how to compete effectively with professional entertainers. The answer lies, instead, in worship leaders being creatively obedient to what God requires of believers in God’s Word.

The road ahead may at times be discouraging, but God’s blessing rests on that which is grafted into the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son. Persistence in this direction may not be accepted by everyone, but Calvinists believe it is the road God expects us to take.

The challenge before us, of course, is not that we be recognized by major magazines as movers and shakers in the world. Rather, our task is to be perceptive about how effective we are at being obedient to Christ in our proclamation of Good News to a hurting world. That’s bound to get noticed.


About the Author

Rev. Alvin Hoksbergen is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church.

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