Archive for January 10th, 2009

New Calvinists give Old Puritans a bad name

Posted on January 10, 2009. Filed under: American history, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

I see that a movement called “New Calvinism” is trying to sweep the nation, led most notably by someone named Mark Driscoll in Seattle. They claim to have rehabilitated the teachings of John Calvin, particularly the ideas that all humans are damned and unable to earn salvation, and that God has chosen just a few to be saved, no matter what they do, and most to be damned, no matter what they do.

Calvin did believe that every person’s fate–heaven or hell–was set before time began, in the mind of God, and that nothing you did could change that. His belief that you could not earn salvation by leading a good life was adopted by the English Puritans. “Justification,” or God’s grace/salvation, could not be bought by “sanctification”, or good works.

Still, a Puritan had to live a good life and perform good works, in order to: 1) show God’s goodness to the world; 2) help themselves to be open to and focused on God’s grace if/when they might receive it; and 3) because they loved God and wanted to do good.

The “New Calvinists” article I read begins by saying these present-day Americans believe in election of the few and damnation of the many, but then I didn’t see any proofs of it. They mostly preach the same old thing I heard growing up in the 70s in a Protestant church: women must submit to men, everything is in God’s hands and we can’t understand it and shouldn’t try, and you must fear hell at every moment. They fail to live up to the standards of my old church by stating that living a good life is not necessary.

They’re not truly Calvinists, of course; no one can recapture a historical moment. Calvin and his followers were born because of their socio-political moment; even the English Puritans who adopted Calvinism changed it. Living religion always changes. It’s clear that their leader in Seattle is no Calvinist, since he believes God talks directly to him, telling him who to marry and what career to enter into.

The difference between New and real Calvinists is that the first Calvinists were not trying to recapture something. They were revolutionaries, exacting the same kind of harsh punishments on dissenters within their group that any political revolutionary group does. They were thinking for themselves and coming up with a new religion in response to both the old Catholic church and the new Lutheran one. The Seattle “Calvinists” are making up a casserole of hodge-podge beliefs from all corners in order to shock with a new-yet-old doctrine.

The Puritans weren’t trying to shock anyone with their faith, and they were extremely thoughtful about their religion. It was a very intellectual religion, relying on soul-searching, Bible reading, prayer, and a rationally laid out progress toward reaching a point where Grace, if it was coming to you, could be known to you. They didn’t have “star” preachers who trampled the rights of their congregations; the congregation was a democratic body that asserted its control over its pastor and teachers, and there was a love and respect between the leadership and the congregation that is missing in today’s version.

This isn’t a blog about religion, but you know that when someone brings up the Puritans in today’s news, I have to be there. I fear they are sullied by the connection to “New Calvinism,” which sullies our understanding of an important founding group in America.

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