Even at 500, Calvin isn't Slowing Down

Daniel Burke, Religion News Service

Even at 500, Calvin isn't Slowing Down

Like most 24-year-old men, Stephen Jones is keenly interested in sin. But while many of his peers enjoy their youthful indiscretions, Jones takes a more, shall we say, Puritanical stand.

Last weekend (June 12-15), Jones and 4,000 other young Christians packed into a convention center in Palm Springs, Calif., to hear preachers tell them that they are totally depraved, incapable of doing the right thing without a mighty hand from God, and -- most importantly -- have absolutely no control over their eternal fate.

The mind behind that message is John Calvin, the 16th-century Reformer often better known for condemning sinners and heretics than for igniting evangelical zeal. But as Presbyterian and other Reformed churches prepare for the 500th birthday of their spiritual godfather on July 10, increasingly, it is young American evangelicals who are taking up his theological torch.

"His theology is the hottest, most explosive thing being discussed right now," said Justin Taylor, 32, a self-described Calvinist, and an editorial director at Crossway, a Christian publisher in the evangelical heartland of Wheaton, Ill. "What he taught is extraordinarily influential right now."

Young evangelicals are scooping up books by neo-Calvinist authors, packing churches and conventions led by Calvinist preachers and studying at staunchly Calvinist seminaries. They're blogging their way through Calvin's behemoth "Institutes of the Christian Religion," setting up Facebook fan clubs and opening Twitter feeds.

Many proudly bare their fidelity to Calvinism's "five points" of predestination as if they were stars on a general's chest. Earlier this year, Time magazine served notice that "The New Calvinism" is one of "10 ideas that are changing the world right now."

In other words, Calvinism has moved out of the Puritan meetinghouse and into the megachurch.

Though he is often portrayed as a dour, prickly Puritan, Calvin was a sensitive pastor with a thankless task, said Karin Maag, a professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"He had the complicated and painstaking job of creating a new church," Maag said. "It's easy to get people together on what they don't like, but to make the Reformation take hold in people's lives and people's hearts was rather more difficult."

So, while Martin Luther fired up the masses, Calvin, essentially, gave them new rules. Maag said the people of Geneva were not exactly appreciative: they named their dogs after Calvin and sang rude songs outside his window. As a Protestant leader in a Catholic territory, Calvin lived under the constant threat of siege, Maag said.

American neo-Calvinists say they are similarly besieged by the forces of secularism. And while the ministers and churches of their youth kept them entertained, they didn't offer the kind of intellectual firepower many find in Calvinism.

"Most of them grew up in some kind of church but they were not taught much doctrinal formation; they played youth-group games," said Collin Hansen, author of the 2008 book "Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists." "When they went to college, the games didn't seem worth it."

Calvinism, Hansen and others say, provides a time-tested doctrinal anchor to keep young evangelicals from being swept away by the mainstream. Some of the largest neo-Calvinist churches -- Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, and Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington -- stand in the country's most secular cities.

"Calvin's is a sovereign God who answers all questions," Jones said, "by causing us to lose ourselves and truly deny ourselves."


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