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New Horizons

Calvin, American Calvinism, and the OPC

John R. Muether

What is the difference between John Calvin and Homer Simpson? At least this much: only one of them is featured on a United States postage stamp this year. The cartoon character is the honoree, and Calvin's five hundredth birthday is not acknowledged by the Postmaster General (unlike Martin Luther, who was judged to be a sufficiently significant cultural icon to have his five hundredth birthday acknowledged in 1983).

As disappointed as Reformed philatelists may be, it is just as well, because not only would Calvin not recognize Homer Simpson, but were he to witness the state of contemporary Calvinism, he would scarcely recognize himself among many who claim to be his contemporary descendants.

A century ago, when Princeton Seminary's Benjamin B. Warfield reflected on the four hundredth anniversary of Calvin's birth, he noted that there were more Calvinists in the world in his day than ever before. At the same time, he lamented that "the fortunes of Calvinism were not at their flood," because he could identify few "Calvinists without reserve." On American soil, the teaching of the Genevan Reformer had been subject to perpetual modification. Warfield was aware, for example, that covenant theology had morphed into so-called "Consistent Calvinism" in New England. After Warfield's day, American disciples of Karl Barth claimed the term "neo-Calvinism" for their modernization of Calvin before it became commonly associated with Abraham Kuyper's followers. Most recently, Collin Hansen chronicled the "young, restless, and Reformed" in a book by that title (see the review by Mark Jenkins in the February 2009 issue of New Horizons, p. 22).

Hansen's observations caught the attention of Time magazine (in the March 21, 2009, issue), which pronounced Calvinism as suddenly hip, an unexpected success story in contemporary American evangelicalism. Time assured readers that this new strain is far less dour than its predecessors. Energized by high-profile leaders such as John Piper and Al Mohler, the demographics are younger and more passionate than the "button-down bookworms" (Hansen's phrase) of an older Calvinism.

The most audacious of today's Reformed celebrities, Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, aggressively promotes the New Calvinism over older allegiances to Calvin's thought. New Calvinism, he observes, is missional (that is, out to redeem culture) and non-cessationistic (for Driscoll, this entails overcoming traditional Reformed fears about the presence of the Holy Spirit!).

So popular has New Calvinism become, especially among young adults, that its appeal threatens to dwarf the more publicized "emerging church" movement. As preferred as that outcome might be, zeal and enthusiasm do not a full-orbed Calvinist make. Hansen himself admits that his evidence is somewhat unconventional. "It's a new day in Calvinism," he writes, "when Baptists and charismatics have become chief spokesmen." The momentum has shifted away from former headquarters, such as Grand Rapids or Philadelphia, to Seattle, Minneapolis, and Louisville, where evangelicals affirm Calvinistic soteriology (Driscoll himself is a four-point Calvinist), but not necessarily the deeper Reformed tradition of covenant theology, especially infant baptism.

And so it seems that something less that a genuine rediscovery of the Reformed faith is happening in this quincentenary year. Further restraint about a Calvinistic resurgence is warranted when one considers that these claims are not entirely new. Over sixty years ago, Time magazine ran a similar story in a brief article on February 24, 1947, entitled "Calvinist Comeback?" It reported that the "stern" faith of Calvinism was returning to popularity as the "emotional confusions" of World War II and the ensuing Cold War challenged the smug confidence of Protestant liberalism. (For the benefit of its readers, Time provided a helpful summary of Calvinism. It stood for human depravity, predestination, and blue laws.)

Two weeks later in 1947, an article in Time's sister publication, Life, documented a worldwide rebirth of religion. Among the evidence was the intellectual renaissance among the allegedly Calvinistic followers of Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. In an open letter to Time-Life editor-in-chief Henry Luce, Westminster Seminary's Cornelius Van Til countered that genuine Calvinism was something that Barth and Niebuhr denied—a coherent system of doctrine—and he challenged the notion that a revival of Calvinism could emerge from its despisers. Van Til entitled his letter (which Time did not publish), "We are not ashamed to be Calvinists!"

This analogy is not to suggest that Driscoll and his band are enemies of Calvinism. But all of these distorted depictions of the Reformed faith are reminders of the importance for the Reformed to distinguish genuine Calvinism from its American counterfeits. That was the agenda of John Murray, Van Til's longtime colleague at Westminster Seminary, months before the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936. In a series of articles in The Presbyterian Guardian that were entitled "The Reformed Faith and Modern Substitutes," he described, as many other conservatives had done during that time, the corrosive effect of liberalism in the Presbyterian Church. Liberalism was another gospel against which the Reformed faith had to contend. But Murray was not content to stop there. "We should," he wrote, "be afflicted with intellectual and moral blindness if we thought that the only menace to doctrinal and ethical purity is what we have called anti-Christian modernism."

The Reformed system of doctrine, Murray went on to write, must "be carefully distinguished from, as well as set over against, not only non-Christian systems of thought, but also systems of belief that in general terms may be called Christian or even Evangelical.... There are certain brands of thought and belief widely prevalent within the Protestant churches which we have much reason to fear have made serious inroads upon the orthodoxy of many Presbyterian churches." Two pervasive influences that Murray was particularly zealous to expose were Arminianism and modern dispensationalism.

If they were writing today, it is likely that Murray and Van Til would take aim at this latest installment of modified Calvinism. That is not too far-fetched to imagine when one considers how insistent Murray and Van Til were that Calvinism was, first and foremost, a system of doctrine. Full-orbed Calvinism is what they strove for, not some incoherent hybrid.

Modifications of Calvinism are often promoted in the interest of semper reformanda (always reforming). To be sure, Calvin taught that the church must always be reformed according to the Word of God. But semper reformanda is no license for change for its own sake, much less a slogan for incessant innovation. Calvin himself on his deathbed warned his successor, Theodore Beza: "Beware of making changes and innovations, which were always dangerous and sometimes harmful."

We would do especially well to challenge popular claims, made in the supposed interest of semper reformanda, that submission to our primary standard (the Scriptures) must make us suspicious of our secondary standards (the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms). "Reformed" is defined by the historic Reformed confessions and cannot be redefined by every generation. We must respect the historic exegesis of the church, adopting a robust and fruitful "hermeneutics of submission," not the trendy "hermeneutics of suspicion."

Of course, neither Murray nor Van Til claimed that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was the only Calvinist church in America, and they readily conceded that the OPC itself struggled to embody a faithful expression of the Reformed faith. But at its best, the OPC has demonstrated that it is a church not ashamed of Calvinism; nor did it search for Calvinism in the wrong places. The restlessly Reformed today want certain elements of Calvinism without other key ingredients (such as the sacramental theology, worship, and polity) that undergird and enrich the Reformed faith. It is no surprise, therefore, that fads in American Calvinism have rarely enjoyed a long shelf life.

On the other hand, Murray and Van Til may offer little to attract the zeal of the New Calvinists. The OPC cannot compete with the fame of Mark Driscoll, any more than Calvin is a match for Homer Simpson. But the church is not engaged in a popularity contest. In the early days of the denomination, Van Til urged the church to pay less attention to what other and larger churches were doing, and to focus instead on making Calvinism live anew by probing the genius of Reformed faith and the Scriptures that teach it.

That is also wise advice for a church in observing the five hundredth anniversary of Calvin's birth. Calvin bequeathed to the church a gracious legacy that equips us to live faithfully in our own age. Orthodox Presbyterians who love the Reformed faith should accept no substitutes.

The author is the historian of the OPC and teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla., where he is the librarian. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2009.

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