While Joe Carter is yet again telling me what I should do, this time how to think about October 31st, Protestants (and others) in Hillsdale will be observing Reformation Day with a book talk by (all about) me on Calvinism. What follows is an excerpt:
Why Calvinism (Why not Lutheranism?)
One of the stranger features of religion in the United States is the level of comfort that Americans seem to have with Calvinism even though it is a version of Christianity that many, along with H. L. Mencken, place in their “cabinet of horrors” – the Baltimore journalist put it on the shelf right next to cannibalism. One way to illustrate this peculiarity is to compare Americans’ familiarity with Calvinism to their general indifference to and ignorance of Lutheranism. If you do as I do and have Google alerts set up for both Calvinism and Lutheranism, you will daily receive an email with at least three or four references to Calvinism. You will also usually go three or four days between emailings with a reference or two (at best) to Lutheranism.
This is odd at least for a couple of reasons. First, Lutherans are the ur-Protetstants, the original Christians who broke with the papacy, and yet few Protestants in the United States seem to have any awareness of the debt they owe to Martin Luther – or the reasons for convening this lecture in competition with costumes and candy on a day known as Reformation Day, the alleged date when in 1517 Luther nailed a piece of paper to a cathedral door and destroyed the sacred canopy of Christendom in Europe. Second, Lutherans far outnumber Calvinists in the United States. The mainline denomination, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is almost 6 times larger than the mainline Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. – roughly 6 million compared to 1 million. And outside the mainline denominations, Missouri Synod Lutherans are almost 30 times larger than the Orthodox Presbyterian Church – roughly 3 million compared – ahem – to 30,000. Even the Wisconsin Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, to be precise, a communion that even with “evangelical” in its name is unknown to most American Protestants – even the Wisconsin Synod is larger than the Presbyterian Church in America, a denomination that thanks to Tim Keller’s popularity in the Big Apple seems to be poised to transform America into a nation of urban chic Protestants. The Wisconsin Synod has roughly 400,000 members and the PCA has only 300,000.
But does that kind of history and those raw numbers make American pundits, scholars, and laity take notice of Lutherans? Hardly. If you want to glom on to an influential form of Protestantism, one with world-shaping significance, in the English-speaking world you go not to Lutheranism but to Calvinism.
To illustrate Calvinism’s appeal – again which is hard to believe because of its associations with teaching total depravity and predestination, thus qualifying for Mencken’s cabinet of horrors – think back to this past summer when Baptists of all people, Southern Baptists specifically, received a report about the propriety of Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention. For several years, fellows like Al Mohler and Russell Moore, both at the oldest Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville, had carved out a place for Calvinist teaching in the denomination. But Baptists have long been hostile to Calvinism, even if some Baptists have gone by the name of particular or Calvinistic. To make this point we need only think of Hillsdale College’s origins. It began as a Baptist college and only severed its church ties in 1913 – one hundred years ago. It was associated with a particular brand of Baptist churches – the Free Will Baptists. And these Baptists were not at all comfortable with Calvinism’s teaching about the bondage of the will (thanks to the fall) or to Calvinism’s notion that Christ’s death was effective only for those God elected or predestined to save. One Kentucky preacher spoke for many Free Will Baptists and other democratic Protestants when he sniffed, “We are not personally acquainted with the writings of John Calvin, nor are we certain how nearly we agree with his views of divine truth; neither do we care.” And those words would likely have likely received support from Hillsdale College’s original board of trustees.
So why would Baptists like Mohler and Moore today find Calvinism to be a brand of Protestantism worthy of emulation? Why do we hear about Protestants like John Piper, the famous pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, being called a Calvinist or Reformed Baptist? Why not a Lutheran Baptist? Why is the former unexceptional but the latter – Lutheran Baptist – why does THAT sound oxymoronic? Isn’t Calvinist Baptist just as much of an oxymoron? After all, Calvinism has as many foreign Christian elements as Lutheranism. If Lutherans have funny views about baptism and the Lord’s Supper, so does Calvin. If Lutherans don’t sing revival hymns, Calvinists don’t even sing hymns – or at least they didn’t used to; they only sang psalms. And if Lutheranism has odd notions about church membership, Calvinism has its own set of difficulties for Protestants who prize congregational autonomy and rule by church members. It was Calvin, after all, who wrote an order for church government, conveniently excerpted in Hillsdale’s Western Heritage Reader, which lays down a precise Presbyterian polity that would drive Baptists, who thrive on congregational autonomy, batty.
Last summer a writer for the conservative journal, First Things, tried to account for Baptist preferences for Calvinism over Lutheranism. He observed that when Lutherans came to North America, they actually had a far more flexible form of church government than Calvinism. Yet the irony is that Lutheranism is associated much more than Calvinism with a fixed understanding of church organization, whereas Calvinism is associated almost exclusively with ideas not about the church but about salvation – as in the Five Points of Calvinism, or T-U-L-I-P. Gene Veith, academic dean at Patrick Henry College, and a Missouri Synod Lutheran himself, weighed in on the spectacle of Calvinstic Southern Baptists and argued that Lutheran theology cannot be detached from its understandings about the nature of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The same would have been said of Calvinism at least in the sixteenth century.
But by the time English Protestants had appropriated Calvinism, they had concocted an idea that could not only be severed from Calvin’s own views on the sacraments but also potentially from much having to do with Christianity. Indeed, a common occurrence among pundits in the United States and the United Kingdom is to associate Calvinism with aspects of modern life well beyond the church – politics, economics, education, science, art. In other words, quite apart from the merits or defects of Calvinism’s ideas – human sinfulness to the point of total depravity, the scope of the benefits of Christ’s death, and divine sovereignty in relation to human freedom – Calvinism has become for English-speakers a familiar term, even a brand, that makes it as easy to talk about the effects and influence of Calvin and Geneva as it does to talk about Thomas Jefferson and Jeffersonianism. Calvinism, no matter what it actually means, is a word with which most English-speakers are comfortable. In contrast, Lutheranism feels like a foreign word, sort of like Hegelianism. If you are going to drop that into a sentence or two to explain developments in the West, you better be sure you know what you are talking about. But with Calvinism, English-speakers know enough (they think) to use it to account for a host of world-wide developments, which again is strange since Lutheranism, the original Protestantism, did as much to disrupt Europe’s received patterns, and was as much on the ground floor of world-changing significance as Calvinism – perhaps even more so. After all, Calvin didn’t start to make things happen in Geneva – the 1540s – until the very last years of Martin Luther’s life.