Christian Faith: Calvinism Is Back

Article excerpt

In America's Christian faith, a surprising comeback of rock- ribbed Calvinism is challenging the Jesus-is-your-buddy gospel of modern evangelism.

Snow falls resolutely on a Saturday morning in Washington, but the festively lit basement of a church near the US Capitol is packed. Some 200 female members have invited an equal number of women for tea, cookies, conversation - and 16th-century evangelism.

What newcomers at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) hear is hardly "Christianity for Dummies." Nor is it "Extreme Makeover: Born- Again Edition." Instead, a young woman named Kasey Gurley describes her disobedience and suffering in Old Testament terms.

"I worship my own comfort, my own opinion of myself," she confesses. "Like the idolatrous people of Judah, we deserve the full wrath of God." She warns the women that "we'll never be safe in good intentions," but assures them that "Christ died for us so we wouldn't have to." Her closing prayer is both frank and transcendent: "Our comfort in suffering is this: that through Christ you provide eternal life."

It is so quiet you can hear an oatmeal cookie crumble.

IN PICTURES: Calvinism at Capitol Hill Baptist Church

Welcome to the austere - and increasingly embraced - message of Calvinism. Five centuries ago, John Calvin's teachings reconceived Christianity; midwifed Western ideas about capitalism, democracy, and religious liberty; and nursed the Puritan values that later cast the character of America.

Today, his theology is making a surprising comeback, challenging the me-centered prosperity gospel of much of modern evangelicalism with a God-first immersion in Scripture. In an age of materialism and made-to-order religion, Calvinism's unmalleable doctrines and view of God as an all-powerful potentate who decides everything is winning over many Christians - especially the young.

Twenty-something followers in the Presbyterian, Anglican, and independent evangelical churches are rallying around Calvinist, or Reformed, teaching. In the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant body, at least 10 percent of its pastors identify as Calvinist, while more than one-third of recent seminary graduates do.

New Calvinism draws legions to the sermons of preachers like John Piper of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Here at CHBC, the pews and even rooms in the basement are filled each Sunday, mostly with young professionals. Since senior pastor Mark Dever brought Calvinist preaching here 16 years ago, the church has grown sevenfold. Today it is bursting at the stained-glass windows.

Yet the movement's biggest impact may not be in the pews. It's in publishing circles and on Christian blogs, in divinity schools and at conferences like "Together for the Gospel," where the rock stars of Reformed theology explore such topics as "The Sinner Neither Able Nor Willing: The Doctrine of Absolute Inability."

"There is a very clear resurgence of Calvinism," says Steven Lemke, provost and a professor at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

The renewed interest arrives at a crucial inflection point for American religion. After reviewing a landmark opinion survey last year that showed a precipitous decline in the number of people who identify themselves as Christian, Newsweek declared ominously that we may be witnessing "the end of Christian America."

In some ways, Newsweek may have understated the shift. Five hundred years after Martin Luther posted his 95 theses challenging the Roman Catholic Church, some religion watchers see not just a post-Christian America but an unraveling of the Protestant Reformation itself. Their alarm is rooted in surveys that show a watering down of Christian beliefs.

Now come the New Calvinists with their return to inviolable doctrines and talk of damnation - in essence, the Puritans, minus the breeches and powdered wigs. …