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Even at 500, Calvin isn't Slowing Down

  • Daniel Burke Religion News Service
  • Updated Aug 14, 2012
Even at 500, Calvin isn't Slowing Down

Like most 24-year-old men, Stephen Jones is keenly interested in sin. But while many of his peers enjoy their youthful indiscretions, Jones takes a more, shall we say, Puritanical stand.

Last weekend (June 12-15), Jones and 4,000 other young Christians packed into a convention center in Palm Springs, Calif., to hear preachers tell them that they are totally depraved, incapable of doing the right thing without a mighty hand from God, and -- most importantly -- have absolutely no control over their eternal fate.

The mind behind that message is John Calvin, the 16th-century Reformer often better known for condemning sinners and heretics than for igniting evangelical zeal. But as Presbyterian and other Reformed churches prepare for the 500th birthday of their spiritual godfather on July 10, increasingly, it is young American evangelicals who are taking up his theological torch.

"His theology is the hottest, most explosive thing being discussed right now," said Justin Taylor, 32, a self-described Calvinist, and an editorial director at Crossway, a Christian publisher in the evangelical heartland of Wheaton, Ill. "What he taught is extraordinarily influential right now."

Young evangelicals are scooping up books by neo-Calvinist authors, packing churches and conventions led by Calvinist preachers and studying at staunchly Calvinist seminaries. They're blogging their way through Calvin's behemoth "Institutes of the Christian Religion," setting up Facebook fan clubs and opening Twitter feeds.

Many proudly bare their fidelity to Calvinism's "five points" of predestination as if they were stars on a general's chest. Earlier this year, Time magazine served notice that "The New Calvinism" is one of "10 ideas that are changing the world right now."

In other words, Calvinism has moved out of the Puritan meetinghouse and into the megachurch.

Though he is often portrayed as a dour, prickly Puritan, Calvin was a sensitive pastor with a thankless task, said Karin Maag, a professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"He had the complicated and painstaking job of creating a new church," Maag said. "It's easy to get people together on what they don't like, but to make the Reformation take hold in people's lives and people's hearts was rather more difficult."

So, while Martin Luther fired up the masses, Calvin, essentially, gave them new rules. Maag said the people of Geneva were not exactly appreciative: they named their dogs after Calvin and sang rude songs outside his window. As a Protestant leader in a Catholic territory, Calvin lived under the constant threat of siege, Maag said.

American neo-Calvinists say they are similarly besieged by the forces of secularism. And while the ministers and churches of their youth kept them entertained, they didn't offer the kind of intellectual firepower many find in Calvinism.

"Most of them grew up in some kind of church but they were not taught much doctrinal formation; they played youth-group games," said Collin Hansen, author of the 2008 book "Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists." "When they went to college, the games didn't seem worth it."

Calvinism, Hansen and others say, provides a time-tested doctrinal anchor to keep young evangelicals from being swept away by the mainstream. Some of the largest neo-Calvinist churches -- Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, and Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington -- stand in the country's most secular cities.

"Calvin's is a sovereign God who answers all questions," Jones said, "by causing us to lose ourselves and truly deny ourselves."

But Calvin can also be a profoundly divisive figure. The Calvinist belief that Jesus died only for an elect few and that humans can do nothing to earn their eternal reward has split Christians for centuries, said Peter J. Thuesen, a professor and author of a forthcoming book called "Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine."

"That idea has upset so many different religious groups, the backlash against it gave rise to some of the denominational diversity in the United States," as churches split from each other over predestination debates, said Thuesen.

In fact, Baptists are still fighting over Calvin. About 30 percent of young Southern Baptists consider themselves Calvinists, according to a survey by the denomination's research arm.

Pastor Tom Ascol, executive director of the pro-Calvin Founders Ministries, said that's a good thing.

"I think it's undeniable that the rising generation of evangelicals, not just in the Southern Baptist Convention but all over, are awakening to a fresh vision of God's sovereign majesty over every square inch of earth."

But former Southern Baptist Convention President Jerry Vines said Calvinism inhibits evangelism and missionary work, which is the lifeblood of the SBC, the nation's largest Protestant denomination. If Jesus died only for the elect, then what's the point of trying to reach others, said Vines, who co-organized a conference dedicated to debunking Calvinism last year.

"I do believe it is possible to be a five-point Calvinist and be evangelistic and missionary-minded," Vines said. "But their evangelism and missionary work is in spite of their Calvinism, and not because of it. That's going to make some of them mad, but I do believe it."

c. 2009 Religion News Service

Original publication date: June 19, 2009