Almost Persuaded

Wes Granberg-Michaelson has presented a compelling, even winsome, case for Reformed (Calvinist) Christianity, a tradition that once shaped my theological perspective. He speaks of the emphasis on community (for infant baptism especially), the importance of confessions, the sovereignty of God, ecumenism, and the Reformed tradition’s reckoning with sin. Mr. Granberg-Michaelson, a distinguished Reformed leader himself, also acknowledges that “defining faith by correct propositions can imprison belief in rationalism and mistake ‘correct’ thoughts for faithful practice,” and he cites his own experience walking the Camino de Santiago, memorably recounted in his lovely book Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage. That experience, he writes, altered his approach a bit. He now understands that “while what we think and confess carries importance, in the end we walk our way into faith.”

Having expressed my appreciation, I’d like to take this response in a slightly different direction. As a historian, I’ve been fascinated to watch various groups of evangelicals move away from their own theological heritages to embrace Calvinism in recent decades. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, provides one example. Mohler is a classic “wind-sock” theologian—a friend calls him a soundbite in search of a theology—who once avidly supported the ordination of women, for instance, but finger to the wind, decided to oppose it early in his career just as conservatives were about to take over the SBC. Theologically, he now identifies as a Calvinist, a curiosity (to say the least) in a denomination not historically connected to the Reformed tradition.

Another example, closer to home. I grew up in the Evangelical Free Church, where my father was a highly successful pastor for more than four decades. The Free Church is rooted in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition (decidedly not Calvinist), and yet over the past half century the entire denomination has shifted into the Reformed camp. Earlier in the twentieth century, for instance, the Free Church ordained women to the ministry (my father had an elderly ordained Free Church woman in his district as superintendent toward the end of his career); now, however, the Free Church is death on women’s ordination. What happened? I’d love to study this in more depth—and if I still had doctoral students, I would support this as a dissertation topic—but in the case of the Free Church the shift (as nearly as I can determine) began with the appointment of Kenneth Kantzer as dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the early 1960s. Kantzer in turn hired other Calvinist theologians to the faculty, and as seminary graduates fanned out into the churches, they utterly recast the theological orientation of the entire denomination over the course of several decades.

It’s a fascinating historical development, but my question is: Why? What is the attraction of Reformed theology for evangelicals, especially those who come out of the Arminian branch of evangelicalism?

Some of it may be theological confusion, a desire to identify with Calvin himself because he’s seen as intellectually formidable. And I’ll cite one anecdote. When I was producing Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham in the early 1990s, I asked Graham to characterize his theology. When he responded that he considered himself a Calvinist, my jaw dropped. Here is someone who had spent his entire career enjoining audiences to “make a decision for Christ,” decidedly not a Calvinistic appeal! (If Billy Graham is a Calvinist, I’m a Christadelphian.) Please understand, I don’t accuse Graham of dissembling; not at all. I think he simply believed for some reason that he, a self-confessed non-theologian, should identify himself and his ministry with Reformed theology.

So my question once again: What’s the appeal of Calvinism for evangelicals?

If I had to guess, I think it reflects a desire for order and rational consistency and intellectual respectability—as well as an attempt to distance themselves from those “goofy” Pentecostals. When’s the last time you met a Charismatic Calvinist? (I recognize that as soon as I write this someone is going to come up with a colony of Charismatic Calvinists in the distant exurbs of Grand Rapids or a compound in the hills somewhere north of Orange City.)

My guess is that the lure of Calvinism for evangelicals lies in the nature of Calvinism itself. The beauty of Reformed theology is that once you accept Calvinistic presuppositions—common grace, total depravity, and the like—you enter a theological vortex that allows you to explain everything—everything from human compassion to street crime to denominational schisms. It’s an airtight, self-contained universe, but it’s accessible only if you accept Calvinist presuppositions (which is why, of course, Cornelius Van Til’s apologetics were called presuppositionalism).

Evangelical logic choppers love Calvinism for that reason: its explanatory powers. And besides, John Calvin is more intellectually respectable than, say, A. A. Allen or William Marrion Branham or Sarah Lankford or even Charles Grandison Finney.

The unfortunate trade-off for this evangelical embrace of Reformed theology, as Mr. Granberg-Michaelson himself suggests, is a diminution of piety. The danger in Reformed theology, he writes, is that “spiritual experience is suspect, subjugated to right thinking.”

And I would add that one of the symptoms of this is that Calvinist theology itself too often comes off as arid and sterile. Not always, I’m sure, but frequently enough to raise the issue.

I’m not sure if it was indoctrination or absorption (to use Mr. Granberg-Michaelson’s nice distinction), but I too found Calvinism attractive when I was attending the aforementioned Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. And I did so, I suspect, for many of the same reasons I noted above. In addition, Reformed theology at the seminary was braided inextricably with a fixation on biblical inerrancy, which may represent the pinnacle of ratiocinated theology. (Full disclosure: I wrote my M.A. thesis on the Princetonians and inerrancy.) The effect was to render the Bible as a kind of relic, arid and sterile. Karl Barth’s notion that the Bible becomes the word of God was a, well, revelation to me, and my subsequent realization that Jesus is the word of God (John 1) was even more transformative.

So where am I today with Reformed theology? One of the altar call hymns from my childhood, part of a cycle with “Just as I Am” and “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling,” was “Almost Persuaded.”

Color me “Almost Persuaded” by Reformed theology.