The Waning of Calvinism

When I wrote the brief post about my journey out of Calvinism, "The Beginning of the End of Calvinism," some imagined I was declaring an end to the recent resurgence of Calvinism. Actually, I do see a waning of Calvinism; and, as my Calvinist Church History professor Dr. Nathan Finn informed our class in college, Calvinism has historically always experienced an ebb and flow, a waxing and waning, times of rising popularity and an always inevitable decline. Arminianism, on the other hand, is not burdened with popularity and decline. Arminian theology, the theology of the early Church fathers, carries a perpetual flow, constantly, invariably present within the Church. I do think Calvinism has plateaued and is beginning to wane in popularity. Let me offer some evidence for this belief.

First and foremost is a study conducted on the rise of Calvinism in popular Christian culture. When Calvinist Mark Dever asked "Where Did All These Calvinists Come From?" the question may have been a bit presumptuous and an overstatement in actual estimation. At Calvinism's peak, Barna's study in 2010 concluded that "there is no discernible evidence from this research that there is a Reformed shift among U.S. congregation leaders." In other words, the so-called Calvinist resurgence was a bit more hype and wishful thinking than an actual explosive growth in both converts and overall influence. From all the available evidence, Calvinists merely became more visible to the public eye.

The conclusion states further: "Whatever momentum surrounds Reformed churches and the related leaders, events and associations, has not gone much outside traditional boundaries or affected the allegiances of most of today's church leaders." In essence, the Calvinist resurgence was a tempest in a teapot, only effectual to some converts and those already involved in the theological system. What Calvinists gained, if any real gain can be measured, is getting noticed by their use of the Internet. Calvinists, relatively small when compared to the broader non-Calvinist Church community worldwide, gained an audience via the Internet -- and they used that tool very well.

Many became exposed to tenets of Calvinism for the very first time. No doubt, like myself, many were overwhelmed with the Calvinist system at their first encounter. Some converted to Calvinism. Some converted and then abandoned Calvinism. Others merely refused to embrace Calvinism after learning more about the system. In 2009, Andrew Brown, writing for The Guardian, stated, "Although Calvinism is shrinking in western Europe and North America, it is experiencing an extraordinary success in China." (link) (emphases added) Ironically, the Chinese Calvinists "hope [for Calvinism] to become the religion of the elite." (link) (emphasis added) The tragic irony of that statement is captured in the post: "The Psychology of Calvinism." Arminians worldwide long for Arminian theology to be the religion of everyone, not just "the elite," since the gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone.

From scouring the Internet, one can easily witness a Calvinist presence, yet the foaming-at-the-mouth cage stage seems to have ceased to a large degree, not completely, but to a large degree. While some Calvinists will exist in their cage stage until they die, others mature and outgrow their cage, and merely write about their theology without naming their theological opponents damnable heretics, emissaries of Satan, and advocates of Luciferian doctrines. I am, of course, referring to English Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) in the latter remarks. Still, some (Augustus Toplady, C. Matthew McMahon of A Puritan's Mind) woefully and tragically agree with Owen, and they have no qualm about publicly stating so.

The only popular or influential Calvinist websites, mostly blogs with Calvinist followers, that are consistently defending Calvinism and challenging Arminianism include Matt Slick of The Calvinist Corner, Steve Hays of Triablogue, Tim Challies at Challies.com, various authors at The Founders Blog, Frank Turk at The Calvinist Gadfly, various bloggers at The Cripplegate, various bloggers at Reformation 21, and John Piper at Desiring God. Bloggers at The Gospel Coalition rarely blog these days on the Calvinist-Arminian debate, and even Piper himself only addresses the subject sparingly. Certainly there are other Calvinist bloggers on-line. I have seen them: some deserve more attention; others less so. But the most popular ones that are still promoting Calvinism and challenging Arminianism have decreased significantly over the last three years. In wondering about any contributing factors to a waning of Calvinism I considered the following.

JOHN CALVIN (1509-1564)

What was completely unexpected among those in the Calvinist, new-Calvinist, neo-Calvinist, neo-Puritan, "Young, Restless, and Reformed" resurgence was

  • the Mark Driscoll fiasco, the dissolution of his Mars Hill churches, which, according to former Calvinist Board member Paul David Tripp, was "without a doubt, the most abusive, coercive ministry culture I've ever been involved with" (link), as well as John Piper's self-confessed regret in the part he played (link/link);
  • the recent deplorable events regarding Doug Wilson;
  • several sex abuse scandals involving Sovereign Grace and its founder C.J. Mahaney, his alleged cover-ups, and involvement of some of his leaders (link/link/link);
  • Mahaney donating thousands of dollars to Al Mohler's The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with Sovereign Grace funds (link); 
  • Mohler involving himself in allowing Mahaney's students to receive SBC tuition breaks, even though they were not at the time members of the SBC (link);
  • Tullian Tchividjian, one of the founders of The Gospel Coalition, confessed his adultery and was defrocked (link);
  • numerous control and bullying issues among the new Calvinists, like Mark Dever (link/link/link/link/link), his 9Marks ministry (link), and Matt Chandler (link);
  • R.C. Sproul, Jr., in a "moment of weakness," confessed to leaving his email at the Ashley Madison site.
The Lord knows each one of us has our own issues with sin and temptation. I know this first-hand. What nearly killed me emotionally in my own public sin was that I sinned against a brother in Christ, brought a reproach on the gospel, and scorn on Arminius and Arminians. One must wonder, then, what effect all of the above-mentioned sins among the new Calvinists, and much more unmentioned, has had on the Calvinist resurgence. The folding of Mars Hill alone was shocking. No doubt this rocked those who attended his several churches -- that, and Driscoll's plagiarism (link), his fixing the New York Times Best Sellers list with his book, Real Marriage (link) -- David Jeremiah has done the same thing but has received little to no attention or ridicule for it (link) -- and his much-unwelcomed return to the pulpit (link/link). Still, I think the C.J. Mahaney scandal and sex abuse cover-up allegations quelled the Calvinist fervor for many of its former adherents.

As an aside: even Calvinists like Carl Trueman, and some old-line Calvinists like Presbyterian D.G. Hart, of Old Life: Reformed Faith and Practice, have heavily criticized the new-Calvinists, neo-Calvinists, neo-Puritans. (link/link/link/link) So, Arminians and other non-Calvinists were not the only ones carping over the Calvinist resurgence.

Now, even though there are relatively fewer Calvinist bloggers posting on Calvinism and Arminianism, there are still enough of them publishing consistently. The case used to be that there were more Calvinist bloggers consistently blogging on the pertinent issues of the Calvinist-Arminian debate than Arminian bloggers. Though our numbers should increase, there are more Arminian bloggers today publishing material consistently than in 2007, when I began blogging. Besides myself, there are various authors publishing at the Society of Evangelical Arminians, Roy Ingle of Arminian Today, Steven Sewell of The Arminian Files, Leighton Flowers of Soteriology 101, Andrew from Beyond Calvinism, Mike Barlotta of Dead Heroes Don't Save and Kingswood Hart of The Predestination Station. These are blogging consistently, or daily, on Arminian-Calvinist issues.

Still, there are Arminian bloggers who do not post consistently anymore, and some do not sense a need to do so. Why? Because their motivation has decreased due to a waning of Calvinist converts and the popularity of Calvinism. The only exception I note is Facebook, or private, membership-only forums. If one is looking for a theological fight, the toxic environment of Facebook is the new battlefield, not blogs. Yet this is not an indication that the Calvinist resurgence is still flowing well and strong -- more like, the ones who have decided to fully embrace the system, owning it as their own, are digging in their heels, ready to verbally abuse Arminians and defend Calvinism to the death on Facebook, or their private forums, rather than on blogs as in years past.

Calvinist scholar R. Scott Clark, of The Heidelblog, thought in 2014 that Calvinism was experiencing a much-needed kiss of life when the New York Times published Mark Oppenheimer's op-ed piece, "Evangelicals Find Themselves in the Midst of a Calvinist Revival." The piece was only about six or seven years too late. By the time Oppenheimer wrote his article, the resurgence was already waning. I could not resist then remarking about this article being published by the New York Behind-the-Times newspaper. The only community of believers still experiencing the effects of a Calvinist resurgence is the Southern Baptist Convention, since many of the young Calvinist Southern Baptists are entering churches, intent on changing non-Calvinist Southern Baptist churches into Calvinist Southern Baptist churches through stealth: they have been taught how to preach Calvinism without naming the teaching Calvinism. (link/link/link)

As for Calvinist publishing houses, we can always expect them to continue publishing Calvinist literature, as they should. Popularity should not dictate whether or not those at a publishing house distributes what they believe to be right doctrine. We can expect Crossway, P&R Publishing, Reformation Trust, Banner of Truth and other Calvinist publishing houses to print Calvinist sources; just as we can expect Randall House, Bethany, Wipf & Stock, and Brill to continue publishing Arminian sources.

What I have learned from the now-waning resurgence of Calvinism is that our passion as born-again believers should center on Jesus Christ and His gospel. The bare truth is that the one who will by grace trust in the crucified, risen, and exalted Jesus Christ, the only-begotten and divine Son of God, the same shall be saved. That is a primary, essential, non-negotiable doctrine. The secondary issue of the particular operations of God's grace is a non-essential doctrine. Too often we major on the minors and take up arms to defend secondary and tertiary issues. Arminians and Calvinists agree on Faith essentials.

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Dr. Ken Keathley, Professor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, rightly comments, "What is called Arminianism was nearly the universal view of the early church fathers and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy." See Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.