Calvinism in America Today and Tomorrow

The pioneer missionary Adonirum Judson, languishing in a Burmese jail, was asked, “What do you think now of the prospects for the conversion of the heathen?” He replied: “The prospects are as bright as the promises of God.” We will do well to regard the prospect for the future of Calvinism in America in the same light. Certainly it would be rash to affirm that the present status of Calvinism in America is satisfactory to earnest Christians who are at all serious about the Reformed Faith. In many respects the present status is deplorable. It is only by looking into the face of God by faith that we can anticipate the future with optimism.

The fact is that outside of the limited circles of a few denominations -most of them quite smallCalvinism is little known and less understood. The really large denominations of traditionally Calvinistic faith are practically dominated by Liberalism and Neo-orthodoxy, neither of which is compatible with real Calvinism. The denominations which are growing the fastest and which adhere strongly to the plenary inspiration and infallibility of Scripture are mostly Arminian in theology consider, for example, such bodies as the Nazarenes and the Christian and Missionary Alliance. And it is to be feared that too often even members of the denominations which still take Calvinism seriously and preach it faithfully hold it by a formalistic traditionalism rather than by real conviction.

Calvinism is grossly misunderstood and misrepresented today by people who should be better informed about it. A typical example of such misunderstanding is found in a book entitled Faiths Men Live By, by John Clark Archer, late Professor of Comparative Religion in Yale University. This book, which appeared first in 1934, has just come from the press in a second edition, revised by Carl E. Purinton, Professor of Religion in Boston University. We might not expect these learned professors to agree with Calvinism, but surely we have a right to expect them to know what it is and to state it accurately enough that its friends can recognize it. What the book actually presents, however, is a mere caricature of the Reformed Faith. It may be instructive to note what these university professors have to say about Calvinism.


We are told concerning Calvin that “His practical interpretation of civil liberty was that the church as the oracle of God should control the State and that John Calvin should control the church” (pp. 452–3). It would require considerable space to discuss the historical and theological blunders in this one sentence. A bit later we are informed that according to Calvin “man has no freedom of will whatsoever” (p. 453). Then we are told that “Calvin did not emphasize, as Luther did, justification by faith, remission of the punishment of sin, as a working out of God’s predetermination” (ibid.). On the next page we are told that Calvin held that “the state is human and humanly ordained” (p. 454), and that “the divine church is above the human state” (ibid.). The “Five Points” affirmed by the Synod of Dort against the Remonstrants are next very inexactly stated—absolute predestination is parenthetically explained as meaning “no freedom of the human will” and particular redemption is said to mean that “only the elect are saved”—and are declared to be a not altogether inexact summary of the Calvinistic faith (ibid.). This of course they are not, for Calvinism surely is much more than Anti-Arminianism. With one statement of this book we can heartily agree: “While Presbyterians have fallen somewhat sharply into two groups, fundamentalists and liberals, Calvinism as a creed sits rather lightly on them”. But we must demur when the author immediately adds: “They are, however, faithful children of the Calvinist tradition” (p. 455). That Calvinism as a creed sits rather lightly upon American Presbyterians might be called the understatement of the year, while the opinion that these Presbyterians on whom CaIvinism “sits lightly” are faithful children of the Calvinist tradition must “be rated as wildly untrue. The fact is, as Professor R. B. Kuiper used to remark to his students at Westminster Seminary, that most American Presbyterians who are not liberals are either Methodists or Baptists. The convinced and consistent Calvinist is the rare exception among them. Most American Presbyterians have never in their Me been exposed to a clear and accurate statement—let alone a defence—of the Reformed Faith. Those who are not liberals or Neo-orthodox are, with few exceptions, e i the r naively Arminian or naively Anabaptistic in their real convictions.

If a great revival of Biblical Christianity were to sweep the country, the present poor status of Calvinism might be radically changed for the better. But lacking such a revival, there seems to be little hope for a rebirth of Calvinism in the large denominations which have succumbed to the virus of liberalism and the poison of Barthianism. Where Christianity itself is in peril, we cannot expect Calvinism to flourish. We must conclude, therefore, that the future of Calvinism, so far as the Visible Church as institute is concerned, is bound together with the life and witness of the smaller bodies in which it is still known, preached and loved.

Apart from the continued confession of Calvinism in the small but consistently Reformed denominations, the writer believes that Calvinists could do much more than they are doing to win Arminians and other fundamentalists to the Reformed Faith. There is need for a great deal more literature that will present the Reformed Faith in a simple and convincing manner to American Christians who are without much theological knowledge or doctrinal consciousness. There are many such who truly love the Lord and are willing to listen or read if we have the earnestness and patience needed to present the truth to them on a level that meets them where they are.

The writer is convinced that a great deal of non-Reformed thinking among American Christians is due to ignorance and misunderstanding rather than to deliberate, conscious decision after examination of the various alternatives. Recently I was invited by a college student in one of my Bible courses to address a young people’s group in her church, a congregation of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. After the meeting, I attended the evening service of the congregation. Many churches of the large denominations in this area do not have evening services any more, which is certainly not a sign of vitality. This C. & M. A. church, however, was well filled with eager, attentive worshippers. One could sense almost immediately the irreverence and moral earnestness, and the happy faces on all sides showed that this was a body of people to whom Christianity is vitally real and satisfying. The minister preached on the text “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found,” and the sermon, while differing somewhat in emphasis from what a convinced Calvinist would present, was simple, direct, earnest and constantly enforced by appeal to the words of Scripture. I have heard many less Scriptural and less edifying sermons from officially Calvinistic pulpits. This congregation is growing steadily, has a finely equipped physical plant, and supports missionary work with outstanding generosity; their Sabbath School alone gives about $2,000 yearly to missions. The people seemed to be mostly middle class folk with ordinary education; perhaps only a few were college graduates.

As I drove home after the service, I wondered how this church’s manifest vitality and success are to be accounted for. Surely the explanation is not that Arminianism is a more Scriptural confession than Calvinism. I am sure that the vitality and success are in spite of Arminianism, not because of it. Their theology is defective, yet God has clearly blessed the elements of Christian truth which they do proclaim. And these people are not really anti-Calvinists; they are naive Arminians who are simply unaware of what Calvinism is and of what can be said in its favor. They have never faced the real issues between Calvinism and Arminianism, and their only knowledge of the Reformed Faith is derived from the type of caricature described earlier in this article. These folk have not rejected Calvinism; they have never been exposed to it.

There are many such churches and such people in America today. Should not serious Calvinists try to find ways to witness to them of the truth of the Reformed Faith? How can they learn of it if not from those who already believe it? There is more hope for the future of Calvinism among such people, who tremble at the Word of God, than among the backslidden, lukewarm “children of the Calvinist tradition” in the old-line denominations. Let us not self-righteously say, “This people who knoweth not the law are cursed” while we continue to talk about Calvinism in our own circles. God calls us to be witnesses for His truth, not only among those who already accept it, but among those who do not.

Calvinism has one tremendous advantage—it is truth. There are only two fully consistent systems of belief. One is consistent Biblical theism, or Calvinism; the other is its exact antithesis, namely consistent atheistic humanism. The most basic concept of the first is God unlimited by man, while that of the second is man unlimited by God. It is between these two that the battle must finally be fought. Between these two logical opposites we find the whole range of inconsistently theistic views (including Arminianism), of which the most basic concept is God limited by man. These inconsistent views must ultimately break down, and it must finally be recognized that the real issue is man as conceived by humanism versus God as conceived by Calvinism. Let us be strong and of a good courage. The God of Calvinism is the living and true God. The issue is in his hands.