The Status of Calvinism in Australia and its Prospects

When last year the Editor asked me (Prof. Runia–Ed.) to write all article on the Status and Prospects of Calvinism in Australia, I gladly accepted this opportunity to inform the American readers about the situation in this part of the world. At the same time I asked permission to include in this article the view of a few other Calvinists, who know the Australian situation much better than I, a rather recent newcomer.

It is therefore a pleasure first to give here the view of the Rev. Robert Swanton, B.D., M.A., Presbyterian minister in Melbourne, one of the outstanding Evangelicals and Calvinists in Australia and co-editor of the Reformed Theological Review. In his article Mr. Swanton approaches the subject from the historical side, and at the same time gives a survey of the whole field. It runs as follows.


“Though originally discovered by the Dutch, Australia was first settled by the British as a penal colony in 1788. Through the influence of William Wilberforce, Richard Johnston was appointed first chaplain at Sydney, and as the Anglican Evangelicals were not generally Arminians, like the Methodists, it may be inferred that Johnston had Calvinistic leanings, However, Calvinism of the more traditional type gained forceful expression with the advent of John Dunmore Lang, the first Presbyterian minister, who for over half a century, in the rapidly developing colony, exercised considerable influence and played an important role, not only in the ecclesiastical but also the political and social spheres. With a large infusion of its ministers from the virile Free Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church throughout the greater part of the century maintained a vigorous Reformed witness. However, around the turn of the century the influence of European Liberalism began to be felt, and advantage being taken of a modified subscription to the Westminster Confession, an extreme form of modernism through the teachings of Dr. S. Angus of Sydney had considerable vogue in the twenties and thirties of this present century. This, however, in the face of more recent theological developments, has now greatly waned.

“In audition to the traditional Calvinists within the Presbyterian Church there has been considerable affinity with the Reformed position in the large Anglican Diocese of Sydney with its pronounced Evangelical sympathies. The writings of a former principal of Moore College in Sydney, Dr. T. C. Hammond, which have been published by the L.V.F. London, are widely known. Since the last World War the introduction from Holland of the Reformed Churches, with their newly instituted Theological College, has promoted interest in Calvinism and it is anticipated that increasingly they will be the means of spreading the Calvinistic witness in this country.

“Generally a greater interest is manifested in the writings of Calvin within the theological colleges than in the earlier years of the century. This has been partly stimulated (but not only) through the influence of neo-orthodox writers such as Barth and Brunner. In 1941 a group of Calvinists inaugurated The Reformed Theological Review and although (as the only journal of its type in the country) it has somewhat widened its scope to include many contributions fro m scholars of other theological traditions (notably the distinguished Lutheran, Dr. Hermann Sasse) it generally endeavors to maintain a Reformed emphasis and has served a generaUy useful purpose as a medium of theological thought and discussion.

“An increasing interest of a popular nature in the Reformer is indicated by the publication in 1957 of a volume of over two hundred pages on Profiles of John Calvin and tile Institutes, by Harold Whitney, a Queensland minister, who with considerable analytical and interpretative ability provides a useful introduction to the life, work, and thought of the Reformer, and especially to the great theological classic of the Reformer.

“As to the crucial function of preaching in the Churches it is to be observed that, while, as the result of a theological liberalism now on the wane there is a widespread moderatism, yet there are some signs of an increasing proclamation of the Gospel of God’s sovereign grace. (This large country with a population of only ten millions, is largely dependent for its theological literature and thought on Europe and America. Despite the adverse exchange rate, it might be added that the great work of the Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, in publishing in English not only the works of Calvin but also of modern Dutch Calvinism, is highly valued.)”


The second short article is from the pen of Dr. Leon Morris, Vice Principal of Ridley College (Anglic.), Melbourne, aDd the well-known author of several scholarly Works (The Preaching of the Cross, I Corinthians and I and II Thessalonians in the Tyndale N. T. Commentaries, etc.). Dr. Morris confines himself to the Anglican Church and offers the following comments.

“Within the Church of England it might be expected that there would be a strong Calvinist group. for the Thirty-Nine Articles. the official doctrinal statement, arc written from a mildly Calvinist point of view. In practice evangelicals within the church are generally Calvinistic, while those who are not evangelically inclined more often than not repudiate Calvinism, sometimes with consider· able vigor. It should be added that most of those who declare themselves opposed to Calvinism give little sign of understanding what the term means. It has become something of a bogey, and men do not trouble to inquire into it accordingly. But among the scholars of the Church of England in Australia quite a high proportion is avowedly Calvinistic.

“The prospects of Calvinism within the Anglican Church depend on this fact. Where the leaders of thought follow a certain line it is certain that many of the next generation will be found there, too. It seems fairly certain accordingly that Calvinism will advance rather than slip back within Anglicanism in the years immediately ahead. Against this should be weighed the fact that the majority of Anglicans in this country are not evangelicals, and are suspicious of all things evangelical. Thus it does not seem likely that this church will be predominantly Calvinistic in the foreseeable future. A cautious optimism might well sum up the viewpoint of the Australian evangelical Anglican as be looks ahead.

“Of other denominations, it seems true, generally speaking. that the more evangelical are the more likely to be Calvinistic. We should except, of course, the Methodists and related groups. We should also insert the proviso that strict Calvinism, with a firm adherence to all the tenets of that system, is fairly rare. But Australian evangelicalism as a whole owns allegiance in general terms to Calvinism rather than to Arminianism or any other system. Consequently where evangelicalism is strong there Calvinism flourishes.”


It will suffice to offer only a few additional remarks to these comments. They give a reliable over-all picture of the Australian situation. I give my own comments in the following cursory points.

1. Beside the larger denominations, in which there is not much devotion to Calvinism (see above), there are three smaller denominations, all of an avowedly Calvinistic nature. They are:

The Free Presbyterian Church (official name: the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia), which is of Scottish origin and strictly adheres to the Westminster Confession, interpreting the original chapters on the relation of Church and State as supporting the cstablishment principle.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church, here established by Irish settlers and still a part of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland. This Church too strictly maintains the Westminster Confession, but has accepted the explanatory statement adopted by the Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1647.

The Reformed Churches of Australia (and their sister churches in New Zealand), established by Dutch migrants after the second World War. Their standards are the three also held by the Christian Reformed Church. in addition to which in 1957 the Westminster Confession was accepted. but with some restrictions.

The relation between these three denominations is very satisfactory, and there is the growing conviction that, in spite of the differences of background, they have to stand side by side in the propagation and defense of the faith. One of the points under discussion is the possibility of establishing a Federal Council of Reformed (Presbyterian) Churches. A gladdening sign of growing cooperation is found in the fact that this year students from all three denominations entered the first class of the Reformed Theological College in Geelong, an independent institution in its fifth year of existence, with three professors and 15 students.

2. All three Churches are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that they have a great task and mission in this Australian world. Especially the Reformed Churches. with their Dutch-Calvinistic background, are conscious of their calling in this regard. But at the same time they are increasingly aware of the danger that this sam e Dutch-Calvinistic background may prove to be a great obstacle. In this I fully agree with what Prof. Dr. W. Stafford Reid of Montreal wrote in the International Reformed Bulletin of October, 1958, about the Dutch migrants in Canada. I quote (only substituting the word Australia for Canada): the one major problem in this regard is that of communication. For one thing, there is the problem of language, since many of the Dutch writings are unavailable in translation. Then too there is the matter of making the new thought relevant to a new situation. A great danger is that a good many of the newcomers may feel that they should simply reproduce in Australia what they had known at home. If they should do this, they would not be the first to try and fail, but it would be unfortunate sin c e they would lose the opportunity to exercise a wide influence in the home of their adoption.”

3. We must say, however, that in general the future for Calvinism in Australia seems to be rather dark. As both the Rev. Mr. Swanton and Dr. Morris have already pointed out, there is no fertile soil for the seed of truly scriptural teaching, as Calvinism wants to be. This also clearly appears from the whole structure of the ecumenical movement, as this is organized in Australia. In many respects the Australian Department of the World Council of Churches is still dominated by Liberalism and opposed to historical Calvinism. It is true, among the younger generation the influence of the Bartman theology makes itself felt more and more, and due to this influence the teaching of Calvin again becomes an object of study (one of the subjects of the yearly federal conference of the A.S.G.M. was the teaching of Calvin), but whether this will result in a genuine acceptance of this teaching can· not yet be determined. The future will have to prove this.



4. Yet we are not pessimistic. On the contrary. As Prof. Gerstner of Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary wrote in Christianity Today of January 5, 1959: “Calvinists are incurable optimists. They are not Calvinists because they are optimists, but optimists because they are Calvinists. Calvinism teaches that every picayune event which occurs in the least important circumstance of the most trifling occasion to the most insignificant creature is the perfect outworking of the infinitely wise and good will of an eternal sovereign God. A person who believes that is, by definition, an optimist.”

We do not know God’s plan for the future. But we do know that we are called to serve him with all that is in us. And in this knowledge we seize the opportunities (even the small ones) as they present them· selves, assured that he who calls is faithful.