Saturday, 27 June 2009

A "Weather Eye" on the Reformed


I always try to keep a "weather eye" on what is happening in the Reformed world, both at home and abroad. When I returned to the grace of my baptism as an adult and realised that High Church Anglicanism did not have enough meat on its bones to sustain me spiritually, I read a lot of Reformed theology and seriously considered a confessional Presbyterian Church as an option before I discovered Lutheran doctrine via Sasse and Mueller's dogmatics. Ah, those were the days! And I have not looked back since. However, I did learn this from my study of refromed theology and life: say what you will about Calvinism, at least it has doctrine, and in the final analysis, even if on a purely sociological level, those who know what they believe and why they believe it will triumph over those who can only offer up mealy-mouthed platitudinous twaddle as a creed.

Another thing I will acknowledge about Calvinism is that it puts iron in men's souls (and women's too!). Once you believe you are among God's elect, the world is your oyster. As evidence for this, just consider the impact of the English, the Scots and the Dutch on world history in the modern period to understand what I mean - these three relatively minor European nations have re-made the world in their image in the modern period (i.e. since the Reformation). Much of that impact is attributable, I believe, to the spiritual, moral and social impact of Calvinist doctrine on the life of these peoples. For example, is not America's belief (remembering that the ethos of the US has been largely shaped by its Calvinist English, Scottish and "Scotch-Irish" immigrants) in its "Manifest Destiny" but a secularised version of Calvinist Predestination, writ large on the national, continental, and since WWII, world stage?
Soon after reaching its ascendancy Calvinism collapsed in a demoralised heap as the logic of its system unravelled at the hands of the very world it had underpinned and created. Church bodies and universities established by Calvinists became rationalistic and then liberal (of course, this process took centuries - I'm painting with a broad brush here) and finally went to seed. The Calvinist work-ethic which originally propelled much of Western capitalism became divorced from the religious purpose of the glory of God and surrendered to acquisitiveness for its own sake. The children to the 3rd and 4th generation of the men and women with iron in their souls became Methodist.

But now it appears that Calvinism is back, and thriving at that. A couple of months ago an issue of Time magazine featured several modern movements it believed were shaping the 21st century, and yes, there among them were "The New Calvinists", with Reformed Baptist pastor-theologian and prolific author, John Piper leading the charge. When the secular press takes note of something in the religious world, that something is getting too big to be ignored. Even Rupert Murdoch is riding the wave of the Reformed revival, purchasing the originally Dutch Reformed publishing house, Zondervan.

For my part, I must say that the resurgence of Calvinism, albeit in a form that the man himself may not recognise, does not surprise me. Anyone with their ears to the ground over the last ten to fifteen years would have heard the distant rumble of the New Calvinism approaching. I remember, for instance, when the Australian Christian book chain Koorong opened their Brisbane store near where I was then living I received a catalogue flyer in the mail which featured Jonathan Edwards' works. "How many people are that interested in Jonathan Edwards", I thought, "that he should feature in a letterboxed catalogue?" A subsequent trip to the store revealed as much Calvinist as Arminian theology on the shelves. So much for the cliche that evangelicals are all "free-will decision theology" adherents, just as many must have been interested in Calvinism, and continue to be, if the growing number of Reformed dogmatics works published by evangelical publishing houses is anything to go by.

Then, while at seminary in Adelaide, I used often to attend the evening services at Trinity Anglican Church on North Terrace, an outpost of Sydney Anglicanism (which is basically Calvinistic in orientation) in a liberal High Church/Anglo-Catholic archdiocese, where one could witness 200+ young people gathered from Trinity's university ministry listening to 45 minute sermons and taking notes! This never ceased to amaze me at a time when the Lutheran tertiary student ministry in Adelaide, the only Australian city where we have sufficient strength in numbers to really do something in that area, was flirting with liberalism and seemingly in terminal decline. And Trinity North Terrace, which has to have 5 services on a Sunday to cater for all its members when most High Church Anglican parishes are struggling with one service, is but one example of a phenomenon that is being repeated in capital and regional cities across Australia. The future of Anglicanism in Australia, the 2nd largest church body in the land and the largest historically Protestant Church (I'm feeling generous!), is looking decidedly Evangelical and Calvinist (Oh, if only our LCA leadership would realise this and take the challenge of Sydney Anglicanism seriously, instead of cosying up to High Church bishops whose cathedral services see pew-sitters in danger of being outnumbered by all the lavishly vested, incense-riddled clergy mincing about the chancel).

So, what does it mean for the Lutheran Church that, in the English-speaking world at least, Calvinism is waxing while Lutheranism wanes? I'll leave you to ponder that for the time being. I have a few thoughts on the subject which I may post in the near future. In the meantime, check out Exiled Preacher's review of the evangelical book to read at the moment, Young, Restless, Reformed (click on post title for link), for a taste of the New Calvinist phenomenon. You may also wish to read a Calvinist Anglican's apologia for his mentor recently published in The Australian, Australia's premier broadsheet newspaper, here:
http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25685534-7583,00.html.

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