I first thought of these blog entries back in January. I had had a conversation or two with friends in which they asked my why I thought there was this resurgence of Calvinism among younger evangelicals. Of course, theologically, the answer is “because of the sovereignty of God.” But I’ve never been convinced by hyper-Calvinism’s argument that because God has determined the ends, the means don’t matter. Means do matter. And as a Christian, as an historian who had lived through the very change I was considering, I wondered what factors had been used by God.
Before I go further, I acknowledge that in this blog I depart from giving answers that even Arminian friends of mine could agree with. (For more on how those of us who are more Reformed in our soteriology can work with the more Arminian see a blog I wrote recently over at the T4G website.) If my Arminian friends agree that this rise has happened/is happening, then there is no reason an Arminian should want to disagree about the effect of any of the previous nine influences I’ve noted. They may lament such influences, but they need not dissent from my suggestions, at least not for theological reasons.
This tenth and final influence that I note will be different.
When I doodled this list back in January, I tried to imagine the influences chronologically, like a picture slowly developing. Under God, where did this come from, who's given it shape, lines, color? From the background noise of respect for Spurgeon and the reprinting of his sermons to the latest conference John Piper has addressed or blog he’s written, I’ve tried to trace out this path from inside American evangelicalism for the last several decades. This last influence that I suggest is, however, less immediately obvious. But I think it has been increasingly present throughout the last part of the 20th century in America. And I think it has shaped the “theological climate” in which weaker, more wan versions of Christianity pale and fade, and in which more uncut, vigorous versions thrive. It is the rise of secularism and decline of Christian nominalism.
This may seem as unlikely as saying that the Great Awakening was caused by the Enlightenment, but I think there is actually a little more reason to suspect this observation of being true. My fundamental thesis is this: Arminianism is a theodicy. That is, Arminianism tries to exculpate God from the problem of evil. It tries to make sense of God in a world with sin and suffering.
Much as the modern Limitedness of God and Process thinking has tried to get God off the hook by redefining what God knows or is responsible for, so its earlier ancestor—Arminianism—with the best of motives (honoring God) desired to make sense of God. (See Richard Mueller’s excellent study of Arminius, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy [Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1991] 309pp.) In the course of constructing a theology and philosophy and of exegeting Scripture, Arminius & Co redefined term after term so as to both present God as the majestic being He so clearly is, and us as the responsible beings we so clearly are. But they did this by reversing too many Biblical truths about who first chooses whom, and how specifically the choice is made, and to what end.
My point in this already too-long entry is not how much Arminianism changed, but how incomplete their labors were. They said God hadn’t predestined and elected the way most earlier Protestant theologians understood Scripture to teach, but they didn’t say God couldn’t. In a nominally Christian culture, Arminianism may appear to be a satisfying explanation of the problem of evil—“God’s good; it’s our fault”. But as the acids of modernity have eaten away at more and more of the Bible’s teachings and even presuppositions about God, that answer is proving woefully insufficient to more radical critics. It appears merely like moving the wrinkle in the carpet. A backslidden United Methodist may be satisfied with such teaching, but a Deist, a Buddhist or an atheist would have no reasons to be. A. C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and their like will not for a moment be satisfied with someone saying “Well, God could have made this world without suffering, but in order to be loved with dignity by free beings, He decided He must allow such sin and suffering as we experience.”
Really? Then hang being loved with dignity! Forget the whole experiment! It costs too much! Furthermore, what kind of God NEEDS to be worshipped? What kind of deity is this?!
And it’s this line of questioning that I think has quietly, deeply, perhaps subtly been re-shaping the field into one in which the half-measures of Arminianism are not even beginning to be satisfying. They are attractive to fewer and fewer people. Their adherents average age will grow even as their numbers shrink. They will be recruited mainly from the churched, and perhaps even those who’ve nurtured grievances against God, for allowing this or that to happen.
Reformed theology, on the other hand, teaches about a god who is GOD. The kind of objections that seem to motivate Arminianism are disallowed by the very presuppositions Calvinism understands the Bible to teach about God. This God is sovereign and exercises His sovereignty. This God is centered on Himself. And this God is understood to be morally good in being so Self-centered. In fact, it would be evil, wrong, deceptive for Him to be centered on anything other than His own glory. There is no apology about this.
This God saves to make His name known (read Exodus, or Ezekiel!). This God has created us to display His own power and glory, His holiness and mercy to His creation. Creation is a theatre for His glory. This is the God of Genesis 1 and Revelation 22. Even as the book of Revelation came not from John’s philosophical discussions in the king’s court, but from the crucible of persecution by worldly powers opposed to God, so this world’s increasingly open and categorical denials of God and His power will likely be met not by retreats, compromises, edits and revisions, but by awakenings and rediscoveries of the majesty and power of the true God who reveals Himself in the Bible, the God who made us and who will judge us, the God who in love pursued us even to the depths of the incarnation and humiliation of the cross.
This is Christianity straight and undiluted. And the questing, probing spirit of the rising generation has, by this God’s grace, found this Rock. May they stand upon it faithfully in these unbelieving times, until God calls them home to Himself.