A debate is mounting over the increasing interest in theology among young Evangelicals—and how it has motivated many to embrace the doctrines historically known as Calvinism.
This sharpening exchange is drawing harsh words and battle lines within churches and even denominations. But while genuine disagreements in some areas are a given, a closer examination reveals that the “New Calvinism,” more than anything else, is drawing attention back to an old truth of the Christian worldview—and counteracting the growth of an equally ancient heresy.
The treatment that resurgent Calvinism is receiving from its opponents leaves no question about their views. Recently, the Kentucky Baptist Association denied membership to Pleasant Valley Community Church in Owensboro on the grounds that it was too “Calvinistic in nature.” This incident might be called a scale-model of the current conflict within American Evangelicalism over the “New Calvinism.”
The 104-9 vote to exclude this small church came in the wake of comments by Frank Page, CEO of the Southern Baptist Church’s Executive Committee, calling the return of Calvinism in America’s largest Evangelical denomination a “top challenge.”
“It is deeply divisive in many situations and is disconcerting in others,” writes Page, who terms Calvinism a “man-made” doctrine in his booklet Trouble with the TULIP. “At some point we are going to see the challenges which are ensuing from this divide become even more problematic for us.”
Roger Olson, another prominent Baptist and author of Against Calvinism, concurred with Page’s comments in even more ominous tones, suggesting that Baptists who embrace Calvinism because of its historical roots in their denomination might as well re-embrace racism and slavery.
“[Calvinism],” he says, “makes assertions about God that necessarily, logically imply that God is less than perfectly good in the highest sense of goodness. . . . In spite of [Calvinists’] best efforts to avoid it, the ‘good and necessary consequence’ of their soteriology . . . is that God is morally ambiguous if not a moral monster.”
Popular author and campus evangelist Mark Cahill goes even further, attacking Calvinism’s view of man’s fallen nature and salvation as “another gospel.”
“When [a Calvinist] talks about the ‘total depravity of man,’” writes Cahill in his widely circulated manifesto against Reformed Theology, “typically what that person means is that man is so dead in his sins that there is no way that he can believe what Jesus Christ has done for him without God first enabling him to do so.”
Cahill, a self-confessed layman, argues that “man is separated from God by his sins, but that in no way means that he cannot repent and believe. People can choose. Calvinism teaches that one must be regenerated first before he or she can believe. The only problem is that you will never find that in the Bible.”
The Death Grip
Disagreeing with the tenets of Calvinism is one thing. But a broad swath of today’s Evangelical leaders apparently count the Doctrines of Grace among the worst errors of history, with men like Cahill comparing them to Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witness movement, and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell identifying them as heresy.
Aside from the fact that this places many of the figures most admired by anti-Calvinist Evangelicals (John Bunyan, the Pilgrims, Charles Spurgeon, Francis Schaffer, and more) into the “heretic” camp, it poses an even deeper problem for those who specifically object to Calvinism’s doctrine of human sinfulness. Whatever figures like Cahill mean when they insist that man is not “so dead” as to be incapable of choosing to love Christ, they would do well to realize that their views stand against not only those of John Calvin, but of virtually every leader and creed in Western Christianity.
In fact, while their views may be unorthodox, they’re not new. Around 1,600 years ago, a British monk named Pelagius argued that humans have no natural tendency toward evil, but are born with the ability to love God and obey His commandments perfectly. Even after a person chooses to sin, said Pelagius, he retains the power to repent and believe in Christ without God’s help. This teaching sparked a massive conflict that the Church ultimately resolved in two subsequent councils, where it drew upon Scripture and the teachings of St. Augustine to condemn Pelagianism as heresy.
But if Cahill’s views accurately represent those of the majority of modern Evangelicals, does it mean we’ve embraced a heretic’s doctrine? That, according to R. C. Sproul, is exactly what’s happened.
“Modern Evangelicalism,” Sproul writes in Modern Reformation, “almost uniformly and universally teaches that in order for a person to be born again, he must first exercise faith. In a George Barna poll, more than seventy percent of ‘professing evangelical Christians’ in America expressed the belief that man is basically good. And more than eighty percent articulated the view that God helps those who help themselves.”
Noting that neither of these views aligns with Arminianism, Catholicism or any other Orthodox Christian tradition, he concludes that “Pelagianism has a death grip on the modern church.”
Bondage of the Will
To understand how alien today’s theology is to history, one need only examine some of the cardinal statements and creeds of various denominations since the time of Pelagius.
The 1689 London Baptist Confession, which served as the theological underpinning for almost all Baptist congregations in colonial America(and closely mirrors the Westminster Confession), says of free will, “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man . . . is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”
Likewise, the Church of England, in its 1563 XXXIX Articles, declares in Chapter Ten, “Of Free Will,” that “the condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith; and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.”
Hundreds of years prior, the Roman Catholic Church responded to Pelagius at the Council of Orange, insisting, “If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, ‘What have you that you did not receive?’ (1 Cor. 4:7), and ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am’ (1 Cor. 15:10).”
For Martin Luther, the Reformer who opposed the teachings of Catholicism in his day, the doctrines of Orange were still sacrosanct. Refuting the work of “free will” advocate Desiderius Erasmus, Luther wrote in his Bondage of the Will, “Let all the ‘free-will’ in the world do all it can with all its strength; it will never give rise to a single instance of ability to avoid being hardened if God does not give the Spirit, or of meriting mercy if it is left to its own strength.”
Even Jacob Arminius, the foremost opponent of Calvinism in history and founder of Arminian theology, condemned the view that a person can freely choose Christ without God first enabling him. “Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without grace,” he wrote, as recorded in Volume Two of The Works of Arminius. “That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word ‘grace,’ I mean by it that which is the grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration. . . . This grace commences salvation, promotes it, and perfects and consummates it. I confess that the mind of a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins.”
Repeat these statements unattributed to the average Evangelical today, and you will likely become known as a Calvinist, regardless of your actual beliefs. For whatever reason, the conviction that human sinfulness affects our ability to choose Christ—though a historical doctrine of nearly every church—has lost its association with all but the Reformed tradition. We have fallen captive to an unduly high view of ourselves—one that likely would have resonated with the heretic Pelagius.
That’s why Dr. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, sees the resurgence of Calvinism as a godsend.
“You’ve got a generation of Christians who’ve grown up in an overwhelmingly secular culture, and they’re not part of a churched culture,” he said in a discussion hosted by The Gospel Coalition. “They’re realizing that something has to explain how they came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. They have an absolute determination . . . that their first principle is the sovereignty of God, not the sovereignty of the self.”
One wonders whether this renewed conviction that faith itself comes from God is the effect or the cause of resurgent Calvinism. Whatever the case, a return to a more realistic view of human nature as taught by Scripture, as defended by Augustine, and as affirmed by the great creeds and theologians (Calvinist and otherwise), has the potential to correct a grave error in our thinking. And a worldview that recognizes our basic depravity and dependence upon God for salvation should inspire deep humility and gratitude—not controversy.
G. Shane Morris is Web manager for BreakPoint and the Colson Center.