Calvinism: The Once and Future Queen
The roots of American culture may be traced in large measure to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The current tree that has grown from those roots may not resemble the seedling as the light of the Reformation has grown dim in our time. The Reformation motto, post lux tenebras lux might now be reversed to read post lux tenebras (after light, darkness), for the axe of secularism has been laid to the root of the tree. The truths recaptured in the Reformation may now appear as a root out of dry and parched ground. The tree has been pruned and infected by a blight not unlike the Dutch Elm disease. the tree is withered and its fruit sparse and spotty, but the tree is by no means dead.
The third edition of the Westminster Confession of Faith contains a historical sketch entitled "The original and formation of the Westminster Confession of Faith" penned in 1906. It provides a brief overview of the historical development of reformed thought in the English speaking world.
The reform of the sixteenth century spread through Europe largely through the impetus of the influence of Luther and Calvin. According to the essay mentioned above, by 1540 two distinct types of reform can be noted - one molded by Luther and the other by Calvin. According to the essayist, Luther retained more of medieval doctrine, government, and liturgy than did Calvin. Luther's reform is called "moderate," while Calvin is called "thoroughgoing." The moderate reform prevailed in northern Europe while the thoroughgoing reform prevailed in France, Holland, Switzerland, Scotland and southern Germany.
The struggle between moderate and thoroughgoing reform was played out in England where the audience was largely determined by the crown. though he revolted from Papal rule, Henry VIII was at best ambivalent about reformation. His son, Edward, was a moderate. When Edward was succeeded by "Bloody Mary" the Reformation was bitterly opposed with nearly three hundred Protestants burned at the stake and several hundred others sent into exile. When her half sister Elizabeth ("Good Queen Bess") succeeded her she sought a moderate type of reform.
During the persecution of Mary a party tending to thoroughgoing reform arose in England in opposition to the crown. This party was spurred by Ridley and Latimer, among others. Ridley and Latimer were burned in Oxford. Exiles in this period sought refuge in Calvin's Geneva. Some of these refugees undertook the task of producing the original Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible became the dominant Bible used by English speaking Christians for 10 years.
The Pilgrims carried the Geneva Bible with them to the shores of America in 1620. The early settlers, bound together by the Mayflower Compact, brought the thoroughgoing form of reformation to the New World. Puritans, who fled persecution in England, were a dominant force in the early settlement in New England and Virginia. They brought the religion and world view of Calvinism to America. The founding of educational, political, and ecclesiastical institutions in the seventeenth century was stimulated by this dominant influence. Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists were all part of the movement
By the middle of the eighteenth century the thoroughgoing reform was in decline. New England was facing the influence of Arminianism, Deism, and the roots of Unitarianism. At this time Jonathan Edwards lamented the shift of American culture away from its roots. The Great Awakening soon followed, flaming the dying embers of reform into a new fire, that swept through the colonies and the frontier. The Awakening was led chiefly by three preachers: Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield. Of these three Edwards and Whitefield were thoroughgoing Calvinists. Wesley was not. The Wesleyan revival made great inroads on the frontier. Calvinism became entrenched in Pittsburgh, which served as the gateway to the West. The Scottish Presbyterians made Pittsburgh the "Heartland of Presbyterianism" while the Dutch Calvinists settled New York and Michigan. The eighteenth century saw an amalgamation of a plurality of religious influences as America became more of a melting pot of immigrants. Unitarianism and Arminianism captured much of New England. The influence of thoroughgoing reformation was on serious decline. The nineteenth century witnessed the massive influence of liberal theology on the one hand and fundamentalism on the other hand. Though these two parties were bitter rivals and neither one was Reformed in its orientation. Reformation theology was forced to take a back seat to both.
The "revivals" of the nineteenth century saw Charles Finney rise to prominence. Finney was outspoken in his rejection of Reformation thought including his rejection of the substitutionary atonement and the cardinal doctrine of the Reformation, justification by faith alone. In Finney the ancient heresy of Pelagianism saw its most prominent and articulate advocate. Finney's influence on twentieth century methods of mass evangelism is now a matter of record.
When in the nineteenth and early twentieth century theology was deposed as the "Queen of the Sciences," Calvinism fell with her. When Princeton, once under the leadership of stalwarts such as Edwards, the Hodges, and B.B. Warfield, fell, the task of preserving Reformation thought landed largely on the newly organized Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Much of current Reformed thought can trace its immediate roots to that institution. In today's evangelical landscape Reformed is a decided minority, being largely overshadowed by Arminianism, Dispensationalism, and Neo-Pentecostalism. Though several Reformed denominations and educational institutions dot the American landscape their influence remains small compared with these other movements.
Contemporary Reformed thought manifests a similar oscillation between moderate and thoroughgoing reform to what was witnessed earlier, particularly in England. We have spawned a generation of Reformed leaders who, perhaps caused by the forces of political correctness, are satisfied to affirm the positive elements of their Reformed faith, but are loathe to deny the antitheses of it. They embrace the moderate position for "strategic reasons," eschewing the conflict inherent in the thoroughgoing standpoint.
When asked about the current struggle between the moderate and thoroughgoing wings, Dr. Robert Godfrey pointed to the danger of cowardice by which minority groups are threatened. Reformed theology has been the subject of so much hostility that one is easily intimidated and persuaded to seek cover.
Yet there is a cause for optimism. the growth of Ligonier reveals a growing interest in Reformed theology. The reprinting of Puritan works by Soli Deo Gloria Publishing, Banner of Truth and Still Waters Revival shows a deep and widespread hunger for Reformed doctrine. The growth of Reformed seminaries and denominations is encouraging. The Cambridge Declaration of 1996 by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is another bright light on the horizon.
Also the distribution of the New Geneva Study Bible in America is a sign of renewed interest in the faith recovered by the Reformers. The roots of reformed theology are springing new branches - branches that go beyond the boundaries of traditional Presbyterian and Reformed bodies. Thousand of Baptist Christians are recovering their roots in the Reformation and untold numbers of "broad Evangelicals" are looking for more substance and finding it in the historic writings of the thoroughgoing Reformed tradition.
Whether rising or falling, however, Calvinism is a theology at peace, for God is always sovereign.
Reprinted from Tabletalk magazine May 1997 and used by permission of Ligonier Ministries, 1-800-435-4343.
Dr. R. C. Sproul, theologian, minister, teacher, is the chairman of the board of Ligonier Ministries. A graduate of Westminster College, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and the Free University of Amsterdam, Dr. Sproul is currently professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and the director emeritus of Prison Fellowship, Inc. His many books include Pleasing God, The Holiness of God, Chosen by God, The Mystery of the Holy Spirit, The Soul's Quest for God, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, The Glory of Christ, and If There's a God, Why Are There Atheists?.
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