The Importance of Calvinism

A substantial part of the history of theology in early America was an extended debate, stretching over more than two centuries, about the meaning and the truth of Calvinism. Historians of American religion have departed from earlier assumptions that the Calvinist clergy of New England deserve a place of special privilege in the national religious narrative, but New England Calvinism, and other forms of Calvinist theology elsewhere, attained to such a position of dominance in highly respected institutions, from denominations to colleges and seminaries, that most subsequent theological movements had to define themselves in relation to the Calvinist traditions. In a history of American theology, the Calvinists loom large.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the two largest Calvinist denominations in colonial America, the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians, could no longer claim predominance in membership, and the Dutch Reformed had ascendancy only in regional ethnic enclaves. The Baptists stepped in to spread Calvinist theology to a large segment of the population, however, so Calvinism remained a flash point for theological controversy throughout the nation. In attempting to refute the varied forms of American Calvinism, its opponents altered the tone and emphasis of their own theological traditions. In their efforts at defense, Calvinists altered the meaning and force of Calvinism. Opponents claimed that Calvinism was, in the most negative sense of the word, speculative; Calvinists insisted it was eminently practical.

It would be more precise to refer to the ''Reformed'' rather than merely to the ''Calvinist'' tradition, for the French Protestant reformer of sixteenth-century Geneva, John Calvin, was only one important source of the theological tradition that so often bore his name. From early in the sixteenth century, the adherents of that tradition chose to designate themselves as Reformed, a name designed to distinguish them from Catholics, Lutherans, and the early Anabaptists. American Reformed thinkers took their cues not merely from Calvin and his Zurich contemporary Ulrich Zwingli but also from late-sixteenth-century European Calvinists who gave the theology a more systematic form, seventeenth-century Protestant scholastics who formulated it in ways amenable to teaching in the classroom, and generations of European theologians who revised it in response to continued criticism.

The defining mark of Reformed theology was its regard for the glory of God, which entailed a pronounced insistence on divine sovereignty. Calvin had taught that no event occurred apart from the all-powerful direction of God and that salvation depended entirely on the divine will. Convinced by scripture that God had chosen only a select number — the elect — for salvation, Calvin and his followers committed themselves to defend the doctrine of predestination, or election, against critics who charged that it implied an arbitrary and unjust God. While predestination was by no means the central theme of Reformed thought, it figured prominently in the debates between Calvinists and their opponents. But Reformed theologians themselves were more likely to write about the crippling effects of original sin and depravity, the power of grace to transform the sinful heart, the value of divine law as a guide to the Christian life, the insistence that saving truth came through scripture alone, and the necessity that the church order its ministry and structure in close accord with scriptural instruction. Each of these topics, however, could assume different nuances of meaning as the tradition changed over time.

One example is the debate within Reformed thought about the nature of human freedom. Despite often being associated with a simple denial of free will, Reformed theologians always insisted that human beings had sufficient freedom to make them responsible for their actions, though theologians continually redefined the meaning of freedom. In the early seventeenth century, American Calvinist preachers defined human beings as ''causes by counsel,'' meaning that the human will and intellect always participated in any decision, whatever its ultimate cause might be. By the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards drew on British philosophy to define freedom as one's ability to do what one pleases, even though the will was always determined. In his distinction between moral and natural inability—the former situated within the will and the latter imposed from outside the will — Edwards helped define a style of reflection on the issue that divided Reformed theologians but proved sufficiently flexible to accommodate the needs of Reformed revivalists and to counter the charge that they were simple determinists. In its understanding of freedom, as of many other topics, the Reformed tradition proved to be flexible, able to absorb change without abandoning its identity.

The first century and a half of theology in America consisted largely of debates internal to the Reformed tradition. While seventeenth-century Quaker thought and eighteenth-century Anglicanism provided alternatives, the Reformed theologians, especially in New England, virtually monopolized theological publication and discussion. The opening chapters of this book give the impression that New England entirely dominated the colonial story, but that impression fades as other traditions later come into view. William Penn and Francis Daniel Pastorius in Pennsylvania, the Anglicans Thomas Bray and Devereux Jarratt, the Lutherans Justus Falckner and Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the Universalists George de Benneville and John and Judith Murray, along with scores of other colonial figures, eventually speak their piece. They speak not as isolated figures, as they would in a strictly chronological narrative, but as participants in the traditions that later claimed them as founding figures. And yet even they often have to speak in opposition to the continuing power of Reformed theology in the religious culture.

By the early nineteenth century, Reformed theologians defended their views against an even wider array of critics. Some, like the New England ''theologians of virtue'' and the early Unitarians, emerged from within the Reformed tradition itself. But a host of other traditions attained greater self-definition by positioning themselves against the Calvinists. Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Disciples, Freewill Baptists, Quakers, and Mormons represented the variety of theological traditions that, with the increasing of American religious diversity, began to present themselves as alternatives to Calvinist thought and piety.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment