18 March 2009

The new Calvinism

A number of my blogging friends have picked up on this surprising TIME Magazine story. Under the general heading of "10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now," number 3 is titled, The New Calvinism. Cardus's Ray Pennings has twice commented on this story: Time Magazine thinks Calvinism is Changing the World?, and Time's Ten Ideas Through the Lens of Number Three. Pennings believes that within a Calvinist framework christian faith can never be merely private but has public significance:

When Calvinism takes hold, it is not just something that impacts Calvinists. It has comprehensive implications for a society when it is consistently lived out. Last week, I was trying to explain to someone why what I believed mattered to my neighbours, and was not simply a private matter that they could live with out of respect for my religious freedom and because "I'm happy it works for you -- I'll find truth in my own corner." I used an ecological metaphor. When we live together, we share the air and water -- they don't respect the boundaries of private and public we set between us. So it is that personal religious beliefs, when taken seriously, end up not being all that personal. That is not just true for Calvinism -- it is as true for secularist belief, Islamic adherence, or new age philosophy. Our beliefs impact the social ecosystem in which we live and ultimately, the purity and health (or lack thereof) of the prevailing belief systems that shape our politics, economics, culture and every other aspect of society are impacted.

Not all professed Calvinists are necessarily keen on what they see as this "worldly" vision of transformation. The Acton Institute's Jordan J. Ballor cites a recent article by Calvin Van Reken analyzing the changes in hymns sung in the Christian Reformed Church over the decades: ‘Calvinism’ Transforming and Transformed.

[Van Reken] gives Rev. George Croly’s “Spirit of God, Who Dwells within My Heart,” which dates from 1867, as an example. When Croly wrote the song, it began, “Spirit of God, who dwells within my heart, / wean it from earth.” In its current form, the song begins, “Spirit of God, who dwells within my heart, / wean it from sin, through all its pulses move” (emphasis added).

Van Reken concludes that “Rev. Croly was praying in particular for grace that would help him be weaned from attachments to this world. In Reformed churches today, this is rarely sung or spoken. After all, because our world belongs to God, should we not feel at home here?”

As Van Reken also notes in the article, in his book The Jesus I Never Knew Philip Yancey passes along the words of his former minister Bill Leslie, who “told him that as churches grow wealthier and wealthier, their preferences for hymns changes from ‘this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through,’ to ‘This is my Father’s world.’”

It’s worth considering as “The New Calvinism” becomes a force for changing the world the extent to which “Calvinism,” or better “Reformed theology,” is also changed, and not always for the better. Van Reken’s critique and engagement with the “new” view is an important one that ought to be thoughtfully considered by all proponents of “The New Calvinism.”

There are some real positives in the new vision, and some correctives to the old vision that need to be taken seriously. But as Van Reken summarizes, “The new vision can also generate a real problem: It focuses all our attention on this world and the good we can do. In so doing, the hope of heaven can be diminished, with the result that some come to love the world and the things in it. In a word, it helps us become worldly.”

There is, of course, a genuine danger that, as Christians undertake to transform the world for the cause of Christ, they will themselves be transformed by the world. We are always in danger of loving the creation more than the Creator. Yet the way to combat this is not to reject God's good creation but to love it ordinately as the gift of God's grace, and to do the hard work of grappling with the very spirits that would deform our affections and obstruct the culmination of God's kingdom and the redemption of that creation. With due respect to Croly, it is precisely from sin that we seek freedom in Christ, not from our created corporeality and its attendant responsibilities, which will be transformed and redeemed in the promised resurrection of the righteous.

I will take up this issue again in a review article forthcoming in Comment on Donald A. Carson's Christ and Culture Revisited. Stay tuned.

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