On October 19, a high-ranking official in the Southern Baptist Convention named resurgent Calvinism as the top challenge facing the congregation for the foreseeable futurequite a statement, especially when considering what an outside observer might imagine to be the usual suspects (social issues, religious liberty, or theological disagreements with other faiths). Yet, though this internal rift began quietly, it has been the subject of a number of recent books, including the new pair For Calvinism and Against Calvinism , written by Michael Horton and Roger E. Olson, respectively. The proliferation of introductory primers like these seem to testify to the growing awareness of this debate, and the effort to get older-style evangelical leaders to wake up to this threat seems to be shifting into a higher gear.
In a recent blog post at Patheos , Olson (author of one of the recent books) raised the alarm about the resurgence of Calvinist thinking by pointing to the way these neo-traditionalists have supposedly infiltrated the machinery of Baptist institutions:
. . . the controversy is reaching a critical point. The flashpoint of the controversy seems to be that many newly minted graduates of SBC seminaries are flooding into SBC pulpits without fully revealing their Calvinism and then, after becoming pastors, are attempting to impose Calvinism on the congregations. I know this to be true as I receive such reports from SBC people all over the South.
Olson goes on to deride those who want to bring the SBC back to its Calvinist roots, and, in an unfortunate moment of rhetorical overheating, asks if they also want to revive a commitment to racism.
In some ways, the movement back towards a rigorous, systematic theology, a return to (much) older sources (more Winthrop administration than Eisenhower administration) and a renewed emphasis on liturgy and high standards of individual piety shouldnt be all that surprising. Dissatisfied with the intellectual laxity and concessions to popular culture often displayed by evangelical churches, as well as the tendency of some pastors to conflate politics and religion in inappropriate ways, a small but influential number of evangelicals have come to embrace this return to their roots.
But are these young adherents and newly-minted academics and clergy simply calling for a renewed seriousness and a return to the sources in their faith? Or is Olson right that there is something subversive in this project, especially in the way it has been carried out? Does the Calvinist resurgence owe much to pastors keeping quiet about their commitments, then coming out of the closet on their congregations, as he alleges?
There can be little doubt that the evangelical movement as we knew it over the past few decades (with its emphasis on public political and cultural battles) is undergoing significant internal questioning and change. Does the reaction of people like Olson indicate that the insurgents might succeed and significantly alter the face of American Protestantism?