An Extended Debate About the Meaning and the Truth of Calvinism

You won’t find a more intelligent and comprehensive book on early American theology than E. Brooks Holifield’s magisterial work Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War. Holifield’s main theme is “that a majority of theologians in early America shared a preoccupation with the reasonableness of Christianity” (4). Surrounding this main thesis are five other themes which “amplify and qualify” it. The second of these themes is the importance of Calvinism.

Holifield, a highly respected historian and professor at Candler School of Theology (Emory University), argues that to a large degree theology in America “was an extended debate, stretching over more than two centuries, about the meaning and the truth of Calvinism” (10). From the age of the Puritans to the Civil War–and one could argue for the next 150 years as well–American theologians made their appeals for a true Calvinism, a modified Calvinism, or a clean break from Calvininsm. Some new theologies emerged from within the Reformed tradition, while “a host of other traditions attained greater self-definition by positioning themselves against the Calvinists” (12). But Calvinism (or Reformed theology to be more precise) was the tradition that shaped the terms and substance of the debate (11).

Clearly, there is an historical explanation for this phenomenon. Although Catholics and Anglicans had already arrived in the New World in the early 17th century, “it was the coming of the English Calvinists to New England that produced the first substantial corpus of theological writings” and set the agenda for a theological debate that would endure for the centuries to follow (25). America’s default theological setting is Reformed.

Besides this critical historical explanation, I can think of other reasons why American theology almost always snaps back to an extended debate about Reformed theology.

1. It is an all-encompassing worldview which, when handled with consistency, does not easily accommodate other intellectual rivals.

2. It is a scandalous theology, utterly at odds with later American ideas of egalitarianism and self-determination.

3. It is so absolutely other-worldly–either in glory or in shame, depending on your perspective–that it begs for a response. It’s almost impossible to be indifferent to Calvinism.

4. When pastors, theologians, churches, denominations, and movements are gripped by the vision of  Reformed theology, they tend to be dogged in their persistence to perpetuate it, defend it, and celebrate it.

Although Calvinism is certainly not the dominant theological tradition like it was in the early days of this country, it continues to be a potent strain of religious devotion. Read through the most popular blogs and you’ll see the debate has not died down. When it comes to assessing Geneva, one person’s city on a hill is another person’s pit of hell.

American theology is still an extended debate about the meaning and truth of Calvinism.