Shortly after I posted my recent blog entitled “The Coming Evangelical Collapse?” Time Magazine featured as its cover story an article entitled “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” (Number three on Time’s list, was “The New Calvinism.”) On the surface, this appears to be a blatant contradiction to the thesis of The Christian Science Monitor article concerning “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” As strange as it may seem I would suggest is that it is not.

The reasons for this are several-fold. Evangelicalism as it has manifested itself in America, and as a subculture has historically been a tradition that is “heavenly minded.” Its roots are sunk deeply into pietistic spirituality arising from a post-Reformation reaction to cold doctrinal orthodoxy within confessional Lutheranism in Germany, as opposed to what can legitimately be called a Reformed or Puritan spirituality/worldview.

As such, evangelicalism has historically had a tremendous problem in being involved in “the world.” During the 19th century as revivalism was institutionalized in America, spiritual life was privatized and became unrelated to other areas of life. (What mattered was “my personal relationship with God/Jesus.” etc., gone were larger senses of responsibility to community and society.) In a real sense what happened in 19th century American Protestantism mirrored the emerging liberal theology in Germany which saw truth as derived from the feelings (German: Gefeuhl) as opposed to having a rational undergirding.

The divide between the sacred and the secular realm of existence that had characterized Roman Catholic Christianity throughout the Medieval period and, which had been rejected by the Reformers of the 16th century was reintroduced into the larger American evangelical psyche.

In the Reformation and the following Puritan era there had been a very healthy integration of the spiritual with all other areas of life, because God the Reformed/Calvinistic tradition had pronounced creation/ material order very good. (Leland Ryken has demonstrated the vital embrace of the created order by the Puritans in his excellent and very accessible study work Worldly Saints: the Puritans as They Really Were). As the nineteenth century progressed, Protestantism, which at this point was in some sense evangelical, progressively withdrew from cultural engagement in the world and society and abandoned that realm to the rising tide of secular studies and perspectives. American historian Richard Hofstadter notes that 19th century American evangelicals:

“withdrew from intellectual encounters with the secular world, gave up the idea that religion is a part of the whole life of intellectual experience, and often abandoned the field of rational studies on the assumption that they were the natural province of science alone.” (Anti-Intellectualism in America, 87)

What we see happening among evangelicals during this period is a slipping into a dualism characteristic of Plato, and adopted by later Gnostic teaching: “Spirit(ual) is good; Material is evil (or at best bad or something to be put up with and distracting from the really important- the spiritual). Added to this was the rise of Dispensational theology with its imminent apocalyptic expectation that involvement in the world, politics, and even society at large was “like polishing brass on a sinking ship.” Lest you think that this attitude has changed, one of my former colleagues preached a sermon on ecology about a dozen years ago in which he concluded that we don’t need to be involved in these issues because it’s all going to burn anyway! (I must admit that I find these attitudes theologically and exegetically bankrupt as well as crazy-making.)

Evangelicalism is a “big tent” description for early twenty-first century Protestantism. But such has not always been the case. As used in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the U.S., the term referred to the mildly Calvinistic theological descendents of the New School Presbyterians in the mid-nineteenth century; it incorporated the arising dispensational movement in the early days of the twentieth century during the era of the “Fundamentalist-Modernist debates. The key doctrine for Evangelical identity during the decades of the early to mid- twentieth century was that of the inerrancy of Scripture. This was the sole doctrinal plank of the Evangelical Theological Society when it was founded in 1948. A central mark of the Fundamentalist/Evangelical tradition was its devotion to and knowledge of the Bible, not only by pastors and scholars, but also on the lay level. Originally the designation did not include those of the Holiness tradition nor of the emerging Pentecostal tradition nor the Southern Baptists. Each of these traditions maintained their own separate identities.

While there was some movement in the ensuing decades, “The Jesus Movement” of the late 60s and 70s with its Pentecostal roots was the catalyst that broke down the barriers between the traditions just mentioned. By the mid-1970’s Evangelicalism was in the process of shedding its fundamentalist-separatist roots and begun to think about engaging society on the scholarly level as well as embracing culture on a popular level.. While as I mentioned in the previous blog the scholarly engagement has been fairly successful, on the popular level the engaging of culture as been a disaster. Knowledge of scripture and theology has ceased to be an identifying factor of our tradition. In seeking to embrace culture evangelicalism was squeezed into the contemporary cultural ethos.

Today theological and biblical knowledge is at a nadir (at least I hope it won’t get any worse!). The upshot of this is that contemporary evangelicalism is intellectually vacuous and largely impotent. Hence the predicted collapse.

But what does this have to do with Calvinism? Much in every way—but I will get to this in a moment. First I quote a couple of paragraphs out of The Survivor’s Guide to Theology.

We can illustrate the importance of theology by means of the skeleton and the jellyfish. When we look at a skeleton, we can be reasonably sure it is dead. The life that once held these bones together is gone, and these bones are now held together with pins and wires. This is how many people view theology: lifeless and a collection of ideas that are held together by the artificial means of complex rationalizations and arguments. Then there is the jellyfish. A jellyfish can live for a time on the beach but cannot do anything. It lies on the sand in a pulsating blob, unable to do anything except possibly sting a passerby. The jellyfish, like the skeleton, has a problem. While the skeleton has structure without life, the jellyfish has life without structure. The lack of structure, or a skeletal system, causes it to be ineffective at doing anything on land.

A structure such as a skeleton will allow us to accomplish the task of living life, but this does not mean that just any structure will do, that one structure is as good as another. Years ago I worked with a person who as a child had fallen from a tree and broken his arm. The physician who attended to him was drunk and set the arm improperly so that in the healing process a deformity developed. My colleague could still use his arm, but it was not fully functional because the structure that supported his arm inhibited his movement. (18)

When I gave this illustration in class a number of years ago, one of my students who was a chiropractor became so excited he blurted out excitedly, “That’s right! Function follows form!” Function follows form.

Improper [or inadequate] theological structures may give the illusion of being intellectually and spiritually harmonious and in line with Scripture, but the reality shows otherwise. In the pilot episode of the original Star Trek series, broadcast as “The Menagerie,” Captain Christopher Pike (Captain Kirk’s predecessor) is imprisoned on the planet Talos 4. The inhabitants of the planet exhibit him and a beautiful young woman in their zoo. The plan is for them to mate and ultimately populate the planet. Pike learns that the Talosians are experts at illusion and that this is why his escape attempts keep failing. When he is finally successful and is about to leave the planet, he tries to take the young woman as well, but she refuses to leave. He discovers that she, like everything else he has experienced, is not as she appears. She is human, but she is not young and beautiful. She is the sole survivor of a scientific expedition stranded on the planet years before. Badly injured in the crash of her spaceship, she had been nursed back to health by the Talosians. But they had never seen a human before and consequently did not properly set her broken bones, and she ended up hunched over with twisted limbs. In this ugly condition, she could not face other humans. She could live a functional life, but the underlying structure of her body could not support normal existence. Her twisted structure cut her off from contact with normal humans. (19)

Evangelicalism has become a movement without a true underlying structure or true worldview. Those of the true Reformed theological persuasion have never been an integral part of Evangelicalism. While numerous Reformed scholars and theologians contributed to The Fundamentals which were published in the second decade of the twentieth century in opposition to the rising tide of Liberal Theology which was crashing like a Tsunami over the Protestant theological landscape, they declined to identify themselves with the movement because they viewed it as reductionistic and a compromise not only of Calvinism but of Historic Christian Orthodoxy.

The theological and intellectual poverty and vacuity of evangelicalism was vividly pointed out to me many years ago by Dr. Dan Allender (now President of Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle) in a presentation he was giving. Dan, as an aside in his lecture pointed out that the Evangelical tradition has never been able to produce great works of art or literature. Other Christian traditions, the Orthodox, the Catholic, the Anglican, the Reformed have all produced great masterpieces but you can not name one great Evangelical artist or author of literature—our worldview does not allow us to. (neither Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins nor William P. Young (The Shack) nor even Thomas Kincade qualify here!)

The great late nineteenth and early twentieth century Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper demonstrates the sweeping vision of the Reformed faith in his Lectures on Calvinism, delivered at Princeton Seminary in 1898. He delivered six lectures that demonstrated the intellectual, theological and spiritual vigor of world and life view of the Reformed faith:

Lecture 1: Calvinism as a Life System
Lecture 2: Calvinism and Religion
Lecture 3: Calvinism and Politics
Lecture 4: Calvinism and Science
Lecture 5: Calvinism and Art
Lecture 6: Calvinism and the Future

Those unfamiliar with Kuper will need an introduction to him to appreciate the power of his position. He was not just an academic theologian who built castles in the clouds. Throughout his career he edited a daily newspaper. He was the founder of Amsterdam Free University. He was a member of the Dutch Parliament, and served for four years Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Last, but not least he was one of the two the leading Dutch theologians of his generation. (The other was Herman Bavinck.) Kupyer stridently advocated the Reformed concept of bringing all things under the Lordship of Christ and backed up that insistence in his own life story.

To most within our circles when someone mentions Calvinism, the image that comes to mine is the TULIP, or the doctrine of divine sovereignty, or of predestination. Such thoughts betray our profound ignorance of the vitality of its theocentric worldview and all encompassing vision of reality.

In the midst of an age of anthropocentric theology and postmodern abdication of truth, it makes perfect sense to me to see the reemergence of historic Reformed Theology/Calvinism (not simply the popular bumper sticker caricature Calvinism as the TULIP).

If Evangelicalism collapses as the sociologists and pollsters are predicting, will a new incarnation of Reformed theology arise out of the ashes?

(Visit Jim Sawyer’s site)

    18 replies to "The Coming Evangelical Collapse and the New Calvinism"

    • Michael

      I think you make some good points here. I think one serious weakness of the Evangelical movement as it has evolved is that it has abandoned the one thing that that we agreed on and made us distinct, that being the Bible as the ultimate authority. It seems very few people actually teach the Bible anymore. Many Evangelicals I know (I am one myself) will defend the Bible vehemently, but have no idea or very shallow knowledge of what the Bible actually says. They may know the big verses (John 3:16, 14.6, etc.), but when it actually comes to what things mean and the theology of it all they don’t have a clue. Furthermore I think a huge thing that is lacking in Evangelicalism is any connection to history whatsoever. I’d be willing to bet that 75% of self-described evangelicals have no idea who Augustine was, much less any of the Early Church writers. Many barely have a cursory knowledge of who the major figures of the Reformation were and what they believed.

      The one thing I disagree with you on is that Calvinism is the answer (full disclosure – I am not a Calvinist). It may be one of the movements if you will, that arises out of a Evangelical collapse, but it is doubtful that it will be the only intellectually viable system that arises. Your article to some extent reads like a polemic against all non-Reformed thinkers. I think one must remember that Arminian’s have been around nearly as long as Calvinist’s and to imply that they are all intellectually vacuous is mildly insulting.

    • ScottL

      Yes, it might have been better to think of the bigger concept of reformed theology, rather than Calvinism. Reformed theology, where much of its teaching is based on Calvin, does not find its root solely in Calvin. And, those who find their roots in the reformation, which can include Arminians, they can find equal footing to see the Lordship of Jesus proclaimed over all things in life.

      Good stuff.

    • ScottL

      Here is an article by a friend of mine, Dr. Michael Peters, that I thought would be relevant to the discussion: Christ, Culture & the Church

    • mbaker

      I am definitely seeing a whole other denomination being made now out of ‘evangelical’ Christianity. But what does does that term really mean any more? When folks ask me I don’t even know, because there are differing opinions on what and who it includes nowadays.

      Some folks define it as the entire protestant movement, others the practical Pauline style of Christianity, which finds its church practice from the epistles. Others identify it with the Jerry Falwell conservative political movement, still others with Billy Graham and evangelism itself. Not to mention the ongoing debate between Calvinism and Arminianism.

      The problem I see here is that we can’t predict the collapse of something we can’t even fully define ourselves.

    • M. James Sawyer

      A few comments on the comments,

      Though it may surprise you, I don’t identify wholesale with Calvinism/Theology. I do identify with Calvin and his theological method, but not with scholastic Calvinism. Of contemporary Calvinists, I would align myself with the approach of Alister McGrath.

      Arminians–they are far more numerous than Calvinists and have had a far better record with evangelism than Calvinists. But truth be told, Arminianism as founded was a reactionary movement against Scholastic Calvinism. In England it became progressively more rationalistic and became identified with English deism.

      Paticularly in the US Arminianism became linked to Wesleyanism which had “Holiness/Sanctification” as its intellectual/theological center. As long as Methodism kept its eyes on its core doctrine, it stayed true. But Methodism strayed in the mid-part of the nineteenth century and in the late nineteenth century the Holiness movement was born with a view to reviving Wesley’s doctrine of Sanctification and bringing it to prominence again. (But the Methodist church did not re-embrace Wesley’s Sanctification doctrine.) This was successful in that it birthed new denominations. Ultimately Wesley’s doctrine became a central theological understanding that gave birth to Pentecostalism which is the most rapidly growing form of Christianity in the world today.

      The issue is not the prominence of these movements or their success in evangelism. The issue is world and life view, as I said, within Protestantism only the Reformed tradition (and the Anglican tradition which in the beginning was a theological amalgamation Reformed and Catholic tradition) has had a had a whole worldview undergirding it.

      Other forms of Protestantism which are dominant in the US have demonstrably privatized the faith, and have proven inadequate to provide a viable vision of extending the Kingdom and fulfilling the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 2. (I am convinced that a Kingdom Mandate is implicit in the gospel, this Kingdom Mandate is corporate and ultimately involves transformation of society–lest I be misunderstood here, I utterly reject the imposition of the kingdom by force. I also utterly reject the common Evangelical assumption that says that we should not be involved in all aspects of life, sciences, politics, education, the arts, etc. This amounts to a denial of God’s pronouncement of creation as very good. While today creation is terribly marred by sin and falling far short of God’s ideal, the redemption accomplished by Christ is cosmic and structural–not simply directed at personal salvation.

      H.Richard Neibuhr’s masterful work Christ and Culture discusses at length the issuess here from a broader analytical perspective of how historically the Church and Society have related.

      To come full circle–while Calvinism may not become dominant in the predicted Evangelical collapse, right now it is the one movement on the horizon that has at its core a vision and consistency to fulfill that place. It is surely not outside the realm of possibility that help will “arise from another place” (to reference Mordacai’s challenge to Esther).


      To respond to your last comment, I would remind you of what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart said that “hard-core pornography” was hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it.” Likewise Evangelicalism may be hard to define but it is certainly recognizable when seen.

    • Chris Skiles

      “If Evangelicalism collapses as the sociologists and pollsters are predicting, will a new incarnation of Reformed theology arise out of the ashes?”

      Michael, I think it’s already happening——in some sense.
      The next question is : are those rising out of the ashes taking up Calvinism as a soteriological system or Reformed thinking in regards to our place in the culture? It appears that the former is definitely a trend . We can only hope that the later will be true as well.

      Although I do not consider myself a 5 pt calvinist, I definitely see a real need in the church for us all to have higher view of God than we currently have and also God centered rather than a man centered view of salvation.

    • Jay Ott

      Michael Spencer, aka the “Internet Monk” was interviewed by the “God Whisperers” (March 30, 2009) about his article in the Christian Science Monitor about the inevitable collapse of evangelicalism within 10-25 years.

    • Kara Kittle

      Interesting article but forgetting what the impetus was for such popularity of the “feeling over truth” movement, especially the Pentecostal “emerging” group. Historically what was happening that caused it to sweep the country?

      Pentecostalism was not new, not emerging, and not privatized in any manner, that is propaganda by the more seemingly “established” doctrines. Pentecostalism has faces coming from all churches, and those churches making an issue of it to the point of ostracizing and persecuting members who followed it. Therefore it can’t be considered a denomination per se. It is a movement found through all churches. But much of the reason there is a Pentecostal denomination has arisen from such persecutions, even in the United States.

      In the late 1800s, namely the shift after the Civil War during Reconstruction many people were left disillusioned because their churches had taught them to go this way or that way, their pastors telling them which side was better to fight on, and millions of people died, leaving widows and children who needed spiritual guidance, the south was left decimated and created a vacuum. So what happened? The KKK was formed and had it’s following in the church. This is a historical truth, something caused these men to want to follow this new idealism of white separatism. And it was preached, and still is is many churches mostly those of Reform Theology.

      We should understand that not all people who ascribe to Reform Theology is part of the KKK, but let’s take a hard look at this. The “Pentecostalism” was responsible for much of the covert preaching in slave rows. It filled the vacuum later for those who lost everything. The “big tent” revivals were popular among those who were considered less educated and appeals to those people. Why? Because it includes any one and every one, it is not an exclusive club like many churches have become. It is a great insult to people to think their religious conviction has little to do with intellectualism, because intellectualism only can work when one remains exclusive.

      You don’t have to be genius to be a Christian, and you don’t have to be Christian to be a genius. Pentecostalism works because of it’s transcendent nature. Jesus said, “the poor have the gospel preached to them” that was the poor people, those on the fringe of society, those outside the mainstream. Reform theology only enforces doctrine. It doesn’t have much room for what does not make sense. And the Bible says “He has used the simple to confound the wise”. Of course feelings are a big part of it, but so is that in relationship in the natural. Husbands and wives have emotion and feelings toward one another, parents have emotions and feelings toward their children. And aren’t we supposed to approach God in a relationship outside our reasoning? Cold theology vs. warm relationship. Don’t think God is more pleased in search for doctrine than He is in the individual seeking His face.

      The only reason it would be collapsing is because of the exclusive nature. It has become victim of social gospel but can’t stand much on it’s own because it denied relationship of the individual first and that individual is part of the body. And people perhaps get tired of being persecuted by evangelicalism being used as a battering ram.

      I seem to recall the very country that Reform Theology came from is now faced with moral collapse with legalized drug use and prostitution. Perhaps it could be cold theology is not enough? Reform Theology in Europe denied the Jews in Europe. Perhaps when that little Lutheran preacher was preaching against Hitler, the rest of the church should have listened. Where is the church now as Christians are being killed in Arab countries? In African countries? In Asia? Where is American Christianity? It’s hiding it’s head in “reason theology”.

    • Michael

      Ms. Kittle,
      From what I have seen with your posts on this site you sure have a way with rhetoric. I am not a Calvinist for numerous reasons, but the reasons for my not being a Calvinist do not hinge on how a some (not all) Calvinists have behaved at various points in history. If I did this I would also be forced to give up Christianity all together given the way many Christians have acted throughout history. I generally think it best to not judge a religious movement by the worst people claiming to be part of that movement. There are some nut job Pentecostal’s out there just like there are some nut job Calvinists.

    • […] A brief history of Evangelicalism and its current situation: collapse and Calvinism. […]

    • Kara Kittle

      I think there are nut job Christians in general.

    • Dan Powers

      Nice article. I my studies I have found many of the historical references that you mentioned. I would like to comment on the modern Christian Evangelical or what may be my experience with them. There is a lack of application with what they preach. You can do some validation with the Barna group. Statistically there is no difference between Christians and others, which is sad. I was a deacon in a Southern Baptist church for awhile. What I found was that many of the deacon’s hearts were cold towards people. Coming back from visitation, they had no compassion for the people they visited and looked down upon them as if they were some how less then themselves. As I saw into the hearts of more of them I noticed that it was about the rules and not about people and impacting lives. Many of the rules imposed had more to do with old cultural thinking than anything relating to God. I think that the Jewish leadership done the same thing to God’s people, burden them rules that caused them to miss God and His peace.

      In more broader sense. If Christians done something as simple as “show moderation in all things” their lives would be simple and much more peaceful. The concept of virtue, the center between the extremes, would be counter culture and have a major impact of their lives and society. Instead, they go to Dave Ramsey classes to learn this basic fundamental. Then combine virtue with actually caring about people more than the rules, we would fulfill the second most important command – love.

      Don’t miss understand, “rules” or doctrine are important, but if you have to announce that your not changing doctrine in a deacon’s meeting, then I would question if they could really tell if it was changed.

      Then there are the other strange things that Christian leaders are doing; for example, tying salvation to how you vote or the doctrine of being Republican equals being Christian. There are many more examples of what seem to be disconnects with reality of what is happening in the world. The average Christian seems only capable of parroting the pulpit and not engage in the debates.

    • […] Fundamentalists and the Evangelicals are falling apart and blaming it on Calvinism.  JC really knows how to celebrate his quincetenary […]

    • Donald Johnson

      Evangelicalism as it has manifested itself in America, and as a subculture has historically been a tradition that is “heavenly minded.” Its roots are sunk deeply into pietistic spirituality arising from a post-Reformation reaction to cold doctrinal orthodoxy within confessional Lutheranism in Germany, as opposed to what can legitimately be called a Reformed or Puritan spirituality/worldview.

      As such, evangelicalism has historically had a tremendous problem in being involved in “the world.” During the 19th century as revivalism was institutionalized in America, spiritual life was privatized and became unrelated to other areas of life. (What mattered was “my personal relationship with God/Jesus.” etc., gone were larger senses of responsibility to community and society.)

      I don’t follow this point. It seems that you are saying first that Evangelicalism in America has deep roots in Pietism that caused it to distance itself from the world, then you say that as Revivalism is institutionalized, Evangelicalism distanced itself from the world.

      Which is it? Or am I totally missing what you are saying?

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

    • M. James Sawyer

      Don, this is not an either/or situation. Both statements are different aspects of the same phenomenon. Pietism is the theological/spiritual root of the Evangelical mentality that arose in the nineteenth century. Revivalism became a key vehicle for its propagation. Although I didn’t mention it in the post the perfectionism of the holiness movement also played a factor.

    • M M

      Several years ago it was presumed that Christianity was being replaced by secularism in America. Only 39% of the population was “churched” or admitted to Christianity. After 9/11, the Times Magazine poll showed that 93% of Americans were Christians.
      The question was obvious. Where are these people and what do they believe?
      The answer may be..they are Calvinist.

    • bob free

      personally ive studied this issue for a long time an i will never subscribe to a total calvanistic causes so much confusion in the body of christ.the bible clearly states god is not the author of confusion an he is not a respecter of seems C violates these principles along with others.however i do believe that there are definite C tones in the bible,election,predestination an the conclusion is that we are NOT god,an we dont know all the things of god.(my ways are not your ways an my THOUGHTS are not your thoughts),so what do we do,we try to make things fit as finite beings in an infinite arena ,this we can never fully grasp or comprehend what gods intentions are! all i know is jesus said,do you very best to try an convert others.i believe we co-operate with god.he made us an he uses us to spread the gospel,(made in his image) so again,i doubt very much if god picks an chooses it would violate that respect of persons.there are things that the bible says god cannot do,lie,or contradict for if he chose an hand picked that would violate his words.respecter of,its stand to reason C would be better off if it modified some of its declarations.calvanists are not the only ones going to heaven.

    • William Wilson

      Dear Micheal thankyou for letting me subscribe to your blog.There is so much happing with this New Calvinism and Evangelical and yet Preachers that you trusted for years and heard preach have gone down this road with people like warren and other Chrismatics in the USA.WE NEED TO STAND STRONG AGAINST THIS FASLE TEACHING. I know here in the UK we feel that it could happen here in are Reformed and evanglical circles which we do not want as we are here Calvinsts who follow the great Reformer John Calvin.So let us pray for our brothers and sisters over their who are standing strong for the Reformed Biblical Evangelical Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

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