Calvinism and Conflict

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Last Saturday was the day set aside for the annual festival commemorating "The Conversion of St. Paul." Did anyone notice? Still, Paul is "all over the place" in Christianity. Almost everything about him evokes or signals conflict.

Conflict # 1: Some Protestants don't make much of a "St." in any context, so to them he is a.k.a "Paul the Apostle."

Conflict # 2: Was Paul "converted"? For many Christians the story in the biblical book of Acts triggers stories about how Paul turned his back on the Judaism of his ancestors, his youth, his companions and how he is indirectly the progenitor of Christian anti-Semitism. In recent years, however, many experts on Paul speak not of his conversion from Judaism but of his vocation within it, and contend that he must be reread in this light.

Had enough? Conflict # 3: Many attack Paul as someone who took the stories of the simple Jesus in the four Gospels and complicated them. Others see him as fashioner of a new faith. He never quotes the Gospels and he seldom quotes Jesus -- the center of his faith. In fact, he wrote his letters (collected in the New Testament canon) before the Jesus stories were collected and edited into those Gospels.

Then followed conflicts # 4 ff. over the content of Paul's letters. The Protestant Reformation, for example, cited him as a teacher of divine grace and a critic of any notion that human effort produced or contributed to the salvation of humans. Let's stop here.

What does any of this ancient or late-medieval history have to do with the mission of Sightings, which is to spot and comment on religion in public life? Answer: very much. It may not make the front page (though, for example, the January 24, 2014, International New York Times provided updates on Pauline controversies.) Since we've stopped here, we can pay attention to fights over one school of interpretation of Paul called Calvinism. Catholics, Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, "Nones," and none of the above may yawn, but they do well to pay attention because controversies over Calvinism are causing conflict, tension, and division in Evangelicalism, which, everyone agrees, is of great importance in "public religion in America."

Calvinism, we keep being reminded, was the faith of the Puritans who settled most early American colonies, and its teachings are reflected in founding documents. Since the U.S. Constitution is so preoccupied with checks and balances, some old-timers found that the "don't-trust-anyone" motifs in the Constitution made it seem like a Presbyterian (Calvinist) document.

Mark Oppenheimer, the author of the Times report, quotes Brad Vermurlen, who is writing a dissertation on "neo-Calvinism" at the non-Calvinist University of Notre Dame. Vermurlen sees the current theme as a replacement of recent perhaps-fads such as "The Emergent Church" talk of ten years ago and "The Missional Church" of five years ago. It certainly challenges the "Prosperity Gospel," which is the opposite of Calvinism on the theological spectrum. Vermurlen wonders whether the Calvinist uprising and conflict "is one of those things American evangelicals want to talk about for five years and then they'll go on living their lives and planting their churches. Or is this something we'll see 10 or 20 years from now?"

For now, the movement has helped place what we might call Calvinist "theological-theology" on the agenda at seminaries, church growth institutes, and opinion fashioners in the media. So long as it inspires growth in some Southern Baptist and other churches and deals with issues of human destiny, its partisans will not heed the sneers and yawns of the uninvolved. Is it destined or predestined to hold its place in the public sphere?

Resources and Additional Reading:

Oppenheimer, Mark. "Evangelicals Find Themselves in the Midst of a Calvinist Revival." International New York Times, January 3, 2014.

Burk, Denny. "New York Times reports on Calvinist resurgence." Denny Burke: A Commentary on Theology, Politics, and Culture Blog, January 3, 2014.

McCall, Thomas. "Two Cheers for the Resurgence of Calvinism in Evangelicalism: A Wesleyan-Arminian Perspective." This article is an abridged version (by Justin Taylor) of remarks delivered by McCall at TEDS. The Gospel Coalition's Justin Taylor Between Two Worlds Blog, April 29, 2008.

Smith, Brittany. "Theologians Debate Calvinism Amid Calvinist Resurgence." Christian Post Church & Ministry, March 18, 2012.

Burek, Josh. "Christian faith: Calvinism is back." Christian Science Monitor, March 27, 2010.

Shellnutt, Kate. "Young Christians turn to centuries-old teachings of church fathers." Houston Chronicle, October 28, 2010.

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

NOTE: This article is not available for republication without the consent of Sightings. Please contact the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at