Thursday, 7 January 2010

Calvinism sure turns up in some strange places!

Richard Mouw, of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, has gained a reputation of late for some insightful and reflective books on his own lifetime spent within the American evangelical world. His The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals can Learn from their Fundamentalist Heritage (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) is a critical, yet often poignant and personal look at some of the good things that contemporary evangelicals would do well to learn from their Fundamentalist predecessors. But Mouw is also a Calvinist, and has written a similarly personal reflection on what’s good and what’s not so good about Calvinism, particularly in its present day incarnations. His Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004) was sparked by a scene from a film (called Hardcore!!) in which a Calvinist, sitting in the Las Vegas airport, strikes up a conversation with a young woman who is helping him search for his daughter who’s got involved in the pornography industry. The conversation turns to matters religious, and Jake Van Dorn ends up telling the young woman, in fairly blunt and unadorned terms, about TULIP and the Five Points of Calvinism. Mouw is struck by the incongruity of the scene – why did he just tell her about Jesus? - and sets off on his own journey to discover what it is that can make Calvinists so harsh and seemingly culturally detached. The book is not therefore an examination of Calvinist beliefs, as it is about what Calvinists do with those beliefs. The book has an excellent summary of basic Calvinist distinctives, but it also a timely warning shot for many contemporary Calvinists for whom defending Calvinism is everything, but engaging with real people can seem to be much less of a pressing concern. There are some terrific quotations and vignettes in the book. I loved the one about Jonathan Edwards’ complaint in the middle of the eighteenth century that the term Calvinism had become a matter ‘of reproach’. Mouw writes: ‘he didn’t know how good he had it in comparison to what would happen in later centuries’ (p. 126). R. B. Kuiper’s claim that ‘Calvinism is the most nearly perfect interpretation of Christianty. In the final analysis Calvinism and Christianity are practically synonymous’ (p. 118) is, I guess, typical of the kind of exaggerated claims of many Calvinists! I loved his returning again and again, though, to the opening question of the Heidleberg Catechism too:
Q: What is thy only comfort in life and death? A: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and make me sincerely willingly and ready, henceforth to live unto him. Mouw’s concern about the way in which Jake Van Dorn responded to the woman’s spiritual questions with a lecture about TULIP, does raise some important questions about some of the weaknesses of Calvinism though. How many stories have you heard about reformed Christians going out armed to evangelise with their heads crammed full of Calvinist rhetoric, and sounding more like they’ve swallowed a theological textbook, than learned how to become winsome spokespersons for Jesus and his gospel? Its the weakness of so much modern Calvinism, at least in Britain, that its proponents would feel more at home in sixteenth-century Geneva, or seventeenth-century New England, British Calvinism is so rarely properly and thoroughly enculturated. It did strike me, though, that this book is ever so slightly dated, even though it was only written in 2004! Since then there has been a resurgence of Calvinism in some parts of America, associated with individuals like John Piper, Mark Driscoll and C. J. Mahaney. But this is a very different kind of Calvinism from that which Mouw describes in his book, witness some of the reviews of Colin Hansen’s Young, Restless and Reformed (Crossway Books, 2007) that have emanated from some of the old Calvinist establishments to see how threatened some Calvinists are by the ‘success’ of these other newer looking Calvinists. This New Calvinism is self-consciously ‘missional’. People like Mark Driscoll are attempting to present traditional Calvinistic theology in twenty-first century dress, and the palpable hunger for it seems to suggest that he, and others, are enjoying remarkable success. Maybe some of Mouw’s worries about the poor image of Calvinism and Calvinists are being put to rest even as I write!


Rachael Dabbs said...

I really enjoyed reading this blog. I think it sounds like a really fascinating book. I dont come from a Calvinist back ground, and struggle with some of its concepts, so to read this book review is really interesting, and makes me think I should research Calvinist thought more, instead of just avoiding it!

David Ceri Jones said...

Hi Rachael, Glad to see the blog is useful. The Calvinism book I write about is as good a place as any to start exploring Calvinism!