Calvinism as a temperament

Those of us who approach theology as a science assume persuasion occurs when evidence is marshaled into a compelling argument. But even when we agree on the body of evidence, we may still find ourselves at odds in how we interpret the evidence. And the process of interpretation that leads to conclusions that give rise to our convictions is more than a mental exercise. We arrive at our convictions by volitional and emotional means, too.

A passage in James Eglinton’s biography of Herman Bavinck speaks to the way the whole person is needed to hold a conviction. As a Dutch theologian steeped in the Reformed tradition, Bavinck had visited America in 1892 “to defend Calvinism” as a complete worldview. According to Eglinton, Bavinck concluded that Calvinism was unlikely to gain ground in America, but not for purely intellectual objections:

For all that his impressions of America were flattering and open, Bavinck held out little hope for Calvinism’s future prospects there. Arminianism, rather than Calvinism, would more readily take root in American soil. “As Calvinism has found little acceptance there, Arminianism (through Methodism) has gained mastery over the American spirit. The American is too aware of himself, he is too much conscious of his power, his will is too strong, to be a Calvinist.”

. . . while deism was still the philosophy du jour in America, European culture had since moved over to pantheism. In its assumptions regarding a distant deity who can be satisfied by human virtue, Bavinck believed, deism tended toward optimism and moralism–both qualities he found in abundance in the unscarred American spirit. The European Geist, however, had become deeply pessimistic about human nature and the future of European culture.

. . . Calvinism had a distinct promise in Europe: it directed morally apathetic, culturally despairing Europeans to utter dependence on a divine grace powerful enough to reform individuals and transform their societies. To Americans–already optimistic, convinced of their capacity for virtue, and looking wholly to the future–this antidote seemed unnecessary. The Calvinist missionary had come home with disappointing news about unresponsive natives on distant shores: America was, and would likely remain, the land of moralistic deism.
[Eglinton, Bavinck: A Critical Biography, 188-189.]

Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Lead pastor at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian, theological Luddite, and long-suffering Atlanta Falcons fan. A student of one book.

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