The New Calvinism in the New York Times

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Two little points about this interesting little New York Times article (which doesn’t end up saying much):

1. I wouldn’t exactly agree with Oppenheimer’s off-handed summary of Calvinistic belief:

The Puritans were Calvinist. Presbyterians descend from Scottish Calvinists. Many early Baptists were Calvinist. But in the 19th century, Protestantism moved toward the non-Calvinist belief that humans must consent to their own salvation — an optimistic, quintessentially American belief. In the United States today, one large denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is unapologetically Calvinist.

Calvinists most certainly believe that humans must consent to their own salvation. Conversion is nothing less than a heart change (Jer. 31:31ff.; Ezek 36:26ff.), and the heart is the organ of consent. If someone doesn’t consent he isn’t saved.

But I think what he means is that non-Calvinists believe Christians have to consent before they consent. That is, they have to make a decision of their own free will before their will is freed. It’s hard to summarize Calvinism when you don’t share its theological anthropology. Oppenheimer’s paragraph assumes a definition of “free will” that is rarely defended among Christians, just assumed. And Oppenheimer accurately, I think, calls this definition of free will “quintessentially American.” Perhaps that ought to give non-Calvinists pause.

(I still didn’t say what I believe about Calvinism, okay? I just want both sides to define their opponent’s positions accurately before they do battle royal.)

2. What in the world is Serene Jones talking about?

Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, said that Calvin’s influence was not limited to conservatives. ¶ Liberal Christians, including some Congregationalists and liberal Presbyterians, may just take up other aspects of Calvin’s teachings, Dr. Jones said. She mentioned Calvin’s belief that “civic engagement is the main form of obedience to God.” She added that, unlike many of today’s conservatives, “Calvin did not read Scripture literally.” Often Calvin “is misquoting it, and he makes up Scripture passages that don’t exist.”

Generally when Calvin’s critics find fault with him, I can see the truth they’re twisting. That is, Calvin really did have an interaction with a man named Michael Servetus, he really did believe in something called “predestination.” The accounts his enemies give of that interaction and that belief don’t always fit the facts, in my estimation (see here), but at least those enemies tried to start with facts.

But I’m at a loss with Jones’ comment. I thought I’d heard all the Calvin calumnies there were. What in the world is she talking about? Calvin didn’t interpret Scripture literally? Has she ever read Calvin’s commentaries?

And he made up Scripture passages that don’t exist? Did she make that up?!

Can someone enlighten me?

Serene Jones wrote a book on Calvin, and though in deference to the rich tradition of blogging I must publish this post before I crack that book open, I did find a review Donald McKim (hmm) did of it (note that Martin Klauber gave the book a much more evangelical-friendly review in JETS). McKim writes,

J[ones] provides a nontraditional way of reading Calvin. She indicates that Calvin’s purposes are to “take the reader through an educative process of reflection” rather than “to present a set of propositional truth claims about where one should begin the theological enterprise.” His texts aim at “dispositional reorientation” rather than to convey hard and fast doctrine. Misguided notions of textual meaning have located Calvin’s “meaning” in texts, “somewhere beneath or beyond the images and the rhetorical play that move across the surface of the text.” This has led to the assumption (mistaken, according to J[ones]) that “the text’s rhetorical play can be interpretively bypassed in the theologian’s search for the true meaning of the Institutes” (112).

Sigh. I guess I sort of see why mainline Protestants and other liberals can’t leave the Bible alone. It’s a cultural heritage, or something. But why can’t they leave good theologians alone? Shouldn’t they just go watch TV? Why bother exegeting Calvin if you hate everything he stands for?

I just don’t get theological liberalism. If I didn’t believe the Bible, I wouldn’t read it beyond the obligatory once, for well-roundedness purposes. And I’d skip most of Leviticus and Job. (That’s why we have Wikipedia.) I most certainly would not commit sacrilege against the NFL and miss the pre-game show—for church, of all things. I would read interesting stuff, not Reformation-era theology. The existence of atheistic theologians, of liberals who sometimes study the Bible with great care (and, admittedly, sometimes to evangelicals’ benefit) is truly strange, so strange that it has often made me think that there is a devil and Ephesians 2:2 was right about him.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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