Dordt College News

From the president

May 14, 2010

“Calvinism” makes a comeback

I’m not quite sure when I first realized that “Calvinism” was back. 

I don’t mean by that the Reformed doctrines held by Calvinists; they never went away. Faithful churches have taught and proclaimed those doctrines for the past half millennium. No, it’s the word “Calvinism” that’s back—and with a positive cachet that it probably hasn’t had for at least 100 years.

Dr. Carl E. ZylstraI may have realized that I could again use the word “Calvinism” in a positive sense in American culture shortly after January 19, 2010, when I was reading a blog posting on the victory of Scott Brown as the new senator from Massachusetts. The blog was written by a conservative Roman Catholic writer who, far from bemoaning the loss of that senate seat previously held by the Roman Catholic Democrat Ted Kennedy, now was exulting in the election of a Protestant Republican who, according to this writer, was affiliated with a traditionally Calvinist denomination.  However, the writer went on to reassure his readers that they need not worry because this denomination (the Christian Reformed Church in North America) was “not your father’s brand of Calvinism.” Rather the Calvinism espoused by this denomination, according to the writer, was an upbeat, positive, culture-engaging Christianity that sought to make a true difference to the benefit of all in society.

Whether or not I agree with that assessment of Senator Brown is not the point.  The point is that this national writer could use the term “Calvinism” in a secular political context as a positive descriptor and value. Coming on the heels of Time magazine’s 2009 identification of “The New Calvinism” as one of the ten top culture shaping movements of the next 20 years, this commentary helped convince me that a new dawn had broken in America where, at least linguistically, the word “Calvinism” was back and now carried a positive connotation that had been missing for quite some time.

It was only about a decade ago in this space that I wrote about the linguistic labels we should be applying as we tried to describe our philosophical stance as a college—and settled on the term “Reformed.” I still like that term. References to a Reformed worldview are readily understood among academicians who pay attention to the varied worldviews on which institutions of higher education are based. Even among Christian colleges we often describe each other with appreciation as being (among others) Holiness, Anabaptist, Fundamentalist, or Reformed. 

However, in a day when a third of the young pastors in America’s largest protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, describe themselves as “Calvinists,” then we know that we certainly have come a long way from the day when Reformed Christians cowered under H. L. Mencken’s reputed slam that “A Calvinist is someone who is afraid that someone somewhere might be having a good time.”

Last summer my wife and I were worshiping in All Souls Church, a vibrant and thriving Anglican congregation in the heart of London.  Before the sermon began, the pastor called the thousands of assembled worshipers to acknowledge the importance of that year’s being the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin—and to visit the church bookstore after the service to purchase key volumes on the life and impact of Calvin. 

It seems good timing, then, that Dordt College is hosting a Calvinism conference this spring, examining the future of Calvinism for the twenty-first century. There are various streams of Calvinist thought that can be compared and contrasted. And there will certainly be debates about which portions of the heritage need to be transformed and which parts need to be reaffirmed and propagated. But one thing is certain, the term “Calvinism” is back.

I’m glad that Dordt College never gave up on the principles of authentic Reformed biblical understanding under whatever name it’s been called during the first 55 years of our history. But I’m also happy that we don’t have to duck the “Calvinist” label that is so often applied to those same principles.

So call us what you want, “Reformed” or “Calvinist.” What really counts is that Dordt College remains founded on the principles of Sacred Scripture. For if we do, whatever term others use to describe those principles ought to be just fine with us.  We’re happy when, as in our present day, the terms they use increasingly carry a positive tone of admiration—not for who we are, but for the glory of the God we serve.

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