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The Future of Calvinism

James S. Gidley

As we consider the future of Calvinism[1], we might pause to ask what right we have to meddle with this topic at all. Does not the future belong to God? Shall not his counsels come to pass, whatever we might think or do? Can we speak of the future without special revelation from the Lord of the future?

But having paused to ask these questions, we must also ask whether we are to approach the future passively, as if it were about to be let down from heaven before our eyes and we were only spectators of it. Does not the future depend on our choices and actions also?

The answer to all these questions is yes. This is the paradox of Calvinism and of the Bible: "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV). Thus we are warranted to proceed: looking to the future is part of working out our salvation.

Now, how shall we look to the future? Robert Pirsig has formulated the ancient Greek view as follows: "They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes."[2] This view has much to commend it. Others have spoken of the future of Calvinism before, and the only reasonable way to attempt it is to describe the tendencies of the past and present and to ponder where they may be heading.[3] Yet we must not approach the exercise as spectators but rather as participants. A biblical perspective on the future must not be an intellectual diversion, but a call to action—and a call to repentance if need be. Thus a proper discourse on the future of Calvinism will have to include brotherly advice and exhortation.

Now what is this Calvinism whose future we are to ponder? Many in our tradition have preferred to speak of "the Reformed faith," lest we should attribute to any man—even so great a man as John Calvin—the credit for what we regard to be the way of God revealed in the Scriptures, and lest it should be thought that we are disciples of a mere mortal. As Paul said of his apostleship, and by implication of his gospel: "not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father" (Galatians 1:1, NIV). In the main I agree with this sentiment in our tradition, but I do not shrink from the historical connection with Calvin, and it is fitting as we meet in honor of Calvin's birth that we should keep this connection before us and remember a man who was blessed of God and in whose blessing we share. So I shall speak of Calvinism.

But whether we call it the Reformed faith or Calvinism, does it have a future? Perhaps the vast majority of people today, if they even know what Calvinism is, would regard it as a thing of the past—a dead thing of the past.[4] And we must not be too elated by the modern scholarly interest in Calvin and Calvinism. The dispassionate approach of the scholarly historian, even when it issues in measured scholarly appreciation and praise, too often is a sign that the scholar regards the object of his study as a lifeless carcass on his dissecting table. When men speak passionately, prejudicially, even bigotedly about Calvinism, then you may know that they see it living still.

Is there then a future for Calvinism? You know its liabilities all too well. Its view of human depravity seems too morbid and pessimistic for our age. Its conundrums surrounding divine sovereignty and human responsibility seem futile to impatient modern minds. Its moral code seems hopelessly repressive to our modern licentiousness.

But we might ask in return: Is there a future for a world without Calvinism? Where is the confidence of this world? For what do men hope when they lay aside their Madison Avenue promotions and consider the naked future? If Calvinism is dead, then perhaps we would do better to pray for its resurrection than to inter the corpse.

When we turn to the church, the future of Calvinism does not seem so bleak. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in it. Reformed seminaries seem to sprout up like mushrooms, and Reformed world-and-life views seem to be in vogue. One evidence of resurgent interest is a book of essays entitled Reformed Theology in America.[5] The concluding piece in the volume is "The Future of Reformed Theology," by James Montgomery Boice. Boice holds out the hope of bright days ahead—if four important flaws are corrected and nine positive elements are stressed. While I shall not review Boice's points with you, his essay is another example of speaking of the future of Calvinism and of offering advice for action.

In the introductory essay[6] in the same volume, George Marsden classifies the Reformed into three groups: doctrinalists, culturalists, and pietists. The doctrinalists, of whom he uses the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as an example, see being Reformed as a matter of doctrinal faithfulness to the Scriptures and the Confession(s). The culturalists, with whom he associates the "progressive wing of the conservative Christian Reformed Church,"[7] see being Reformed as a matter of applying Christian principles to all areas of life. The pietists, whom he exemplifies by evangelicals who incline towards Reformed theology, see being Reformed as "find[ing] in Reformed theology the most biblical and healthiest expression of evangelical piety."[8] Marsden hastens to point out that these categories are not mutually exclusive; for example, a culturalist may have a high appreciation for sound doctrine and fervent piety. But they do represent important tendencies or emphases.

Marsden's classification provides a helpful starting point for coming to grips with Calvinism as a living force today. Doctrinalists stress right belief. Culturalists and pietists stress right action. Culturalists stress collective action, and pietists, individual action. Belief and behavior constitute a way of life, and so we here have different emphases within a way of life.

I hope that there will be no disagreement that Calvinism ought to embrace all three emphases. We ought to have correct belief, and we ought to live correctly, both individually and collectively. But it does not follow that we may simply blend these three emphases together to create an appropriate composite Calvinism, like spiritual bakers trying to produce the perfect cake. There is a more profound assessment of Calvinism which is capable of unifying all three emphases and of judging and correcting the deficiencies and aberrations of their devotees.

Fundamentally, Calvinism is that way of life, or that religion, that seeks God's glory in all things, and in so doing seeks the enjoyment of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as its preeminent joy.[9] The true Calvinist seeks to live before God and for the glory of God in thought, word, and deed. Remember Calvin's own motto: "My heart I give to Thee, O Lord, promptly and sincerely." Out of the heart are the issues of life—in giving God our hearts, we have given him our all.[10]

Let us then consider how the doctrinalist, the culturalist, and the pietist measure up to this exacting standard. My comments will necessarily be brief, and my criticisms may seem harsh. But if we are to hold to a high standard, we must not flinch at stating hard things.

I shall begin with pietism. Among the pietists we see a laudable concern for evangelism and discipleship. We see strenuous efforts to turn men's hearts to Christ and to live for Him. Thus far we see genuine effort to live out the fundamental principle of Calvinism.

Continuing to examine this wing of the Calvinistic mansion, I see those evangelicals who prefer Calvinism in one form or another as the best expression of evangelical theology and yet who do not unite with a conservative Calvinistic church.[11] Thus far I follow Marsden. I go one step further and infer that this group would tend to see Calvinism principally, if not exclusively, as a theology, rather than as a way of life. Evangelical piety is seen as primary, but when intellectual support is needed, Reformed theology is preferred to some other theology.

The evangelical pietist thus fails to be a Calvinist ecclesiastically, and thus fails to exercise or obscures the exercise of that true church discipline which historically has been a hallmark of the Reformed churches. The evangelical pietist can be content to be a member of a liberal church. Therefore while his theology, teaching, and preaching call for repentance from liberalism as a necessity for salvation, his ecclesiastical action—or inaction—says that no such repentance is necessary. To be content to sit down in ecclesiastical fellowship with those whom one regards to be enemies of the cross of Christ contradicts in deed what one preaches in word.

Thus the church loses its character as the community of those who are being saved. And however much the pietist may take refuge in the concept of the invisible church, his ecclesiastical compromise with liberalism contradicts his gospel.

Or the evangelical pietist becomes an independent, severing organic ties with any congregation except his own local one.[12] Here there is simply a failure to live out the oneness of the body of Christ ecclesiastically, with the consequent disruption of sound discipline. And I marvel at anyone who might criticize denominationalism, only to take refuge in independency, in which each local congregation is a denomination unto itself.

Now let us turn to the culturalists. First notice that there is a pietist-culturalist connection. At least since Carl Henry's The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, published in 1947, there have been voices for social concern from within evangelicalism or fundamentalism. Perhaps the most visible recent manifestation of this has been the emergence of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and the alliance of the religious right with the political right.

Just as Calvinism proves to be a theological treasure-trove for the pietist, it becomes a worldview warehouse for the pietist turned culturalist. If one is to make an impact on society, eventually one needs some intellectual weight. This, Calvinism can provide.[13]

But culturalism has much deeper roots in Calvinism and an honorable history. In the modern era, the work of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, and others have provided a sweeping Calvinistic view of culture. Even more recently, the theonomists or Christian Reconstructionists have developed comprehensive plans for the detailed application of God's law to civil society.

We must praise the culturalists for their all-embracing vision, their desire to bring all of life into obedience to Christ. They have endeavored to rouse the church out of its insularity and absorption in individual piety. Their watchword "All of life redeemed" is a great and fundamental biblical insight.

In a short lecture, it is impossible to go into any detail in analyzing the various movements in the culturalist camp. In keeping with my purpose, I shall simply raise what I believe to be an important warning sign. For all varieties of culturalists there is the danger of making the preservation or transformation of society into the primary aim of the church and the Christian. This obscures the eschatological hope of the church or even supplants it.

The hope of eternal glory, being perceived as something remote and intangible, can slip from our attention to make way for more tangible results in this life. Insensibly our agenda for this world becomes our hope. Pragmatism is not far behind, and the longing for visible results infects everything. Spiritually this means the eclipse of the glory of God as our aim and the loss of the enjoyment of God as our preeminent joy.[14]

Now let us turn to the doctrinalist camp. At the outset we must be on guard against the temptation to think that the doctrinalist camp must be the true heir of historic Calvinism. I say this not only because I have rather strongly criticized the pietists and culturalists, thus possibly leaving the impression that I would now sing the praises of the doctrinalists, but also because I think that we gathered here on this occasion would most likely identify ourselves with the doctrinalist camp. And if we are blind to any faults, it is most likely that we are blind to our own.

Having said this, I must also say that I am deeply indebted to the doctrinalists. Those whose concern has been to remain faithful to God's truth have both taught the church of the glories of her Redeemer and have set a godly example in many a dark day. "Defender of the faith," when deserved, is an honorable title in the church.

We have already seen that doctrine can be valued for its effect on piety or culture. But the doctrinalist sees doctrine as valuable in its own right. With this attitude comes the temptation to intellectualism and dead orthodoxy. I am reminded of the old joke about a departed saint coming to a crossroads at which there are two signs: "This way to heaven" and "This way to discussions about heaven." The doctrinalist may pause a good while at such a crossroads.

A related danger into which we may fall is that we may fail to act for God's glory when that is required, particularly in the ecclesiastical arena. A prime example of this is afforded us in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the Presbyterian Church in the USA in the 1920s. In 1924 a large group of Presbyterian ministers published the Auburn Affirmation—which really should have been called the Auburn Denial. The Auburn Affirmation essentially denied that it was necessary to believe in the infallibility of the Bible, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, and the continuing life and supernatural power of our Lord Jesus Christ.[15] Eventually nearly 1300 Presbyterian ministers signed this statement. Not one was ever brought to trial for violation of his ordination vows.[16]

Where were the doctrinalists? Not even J. Gresham Machen, who certainly had the resolution to act on other occasions, appears favorably in this dark episode. In the year before the Auburn Affirmation was composed, Machen's Christianity and Liberalism had been published. Machen argued clearly and forcefully that Christianity and liberalism were not only different religions, but different types of religions. Yet his clarion call was for the liberals to withdraw voluntarily from the churches whose confessions they no longer conscientiously upheld.[17] If Machen's analysis was correct, this amounted to calling wolves to a voluntary cessation of biting and devouring the sheep.

Even for Machen, there is a sense in which his failure to bring judicial charges against the Auburn Affirmationists contradicted his teaching and preaching.[18] There is a time when sermons and declarations are not enough. Action is called for. If we are not alert, the time when action can be effective may pass us by unawares. Too late we realize that the moment is gone. Machen realized this in later years.[19]

Thus we come full circle back to pietism. The doctrinalist can be tempted to passivism in ecclesiastical or civil affairs, thus acting like a pietist.

Who then is the true Calvinist? Whose future is the future of Calvinism? To answer this, I venture to call your attention to a familiar document, the Shorter Catechism, and in particular to one question. No, not the fundamental first question nor the enlightening second question, but the third: "What do the Scriptures principally teach? The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man."

There are two main parts to the answer, and the rest of the Catechism is structured into two corresponding parts. From what I have said so far, I think you will agree that the danger for the pietist and the culturalist is to place undue emphasis on the second part—our duty to God; while for the doctrinalist, the danger is to place undue emphasis on the first part—what we are to believe.

Now the corrective to these tendencies is not simply that the Catechism puts these two things together. If this were all there was to it, then we would have a sort of unstable equilibrium. Picture two children balanced at opposite ends of a seesaw. They cannot remain forever at the same level. Likewise with the attempt to "balance" doctrine and duty. Now and again doctrine will fall too low, now and again, duty.

Neither is it sufficient to say, "Right doctrine leads to right living," though this is true as far as it goes. This watchword still leaves us in an unstable equilibrium. Is the intent to say "All we need to do is to pay attention to doctrine, and right living will follow automatically"? Or do we mean "Right living is preeminent, and right doctrine is a means to that end"?

No, we must turn again to the words of the Catechism. I ask you, why does it say "what man is to believe concerning God"? Why not simply "the truth about God"? I believe that the writers of the Catechism have grasped a profound biblical insight at this point. The Bible never encourages us to take an abstract or purely intellectual view of doctrine. The truth about God never comes to us merely as a set of ideas for contemplation. Rather it comes to us as that which demands assent. The truth about God ought to be believed.

Therefore the study of theology is always a moral and spiritual matter. It is not merely an error but a sin to embrace a false doctrine. True Calvinists have always seen this, as did Calvin himself. If you want to know the reason why Calvin dealt so rigorously with his theological opponents, this is it. A man's theology reveals not only his mind, but also his heart.

To put it in a nutshell, in matters of religion, doctrine and duty are one. Moral midgets do not make theological giants.

The same coalescence of doctrine and duty appears in the second part of Shorter Catechism answer 3. The duty God requires of man is taught by the Scriptures. In contrast to modern agnosticism about ethics, the Bible teaches that our duty to God is something that can be transmitted from one mind to another. Not only is doctrine duty, but duty is doctrine. And so it is not quite the whole story to say that questions 4 to 38 of the Catechism[20] focus on doctrine, while questions 39 to 107[21] focus on duty. It is all doctrine, and it is all duty. Which brings us back again to the true character of the Calvinist as one who seeks to live before God and to the glory of God in every thought, word, and deed.

The contest with liberalism in the 1920s and 1930s may have left us with the impression that the defense of the faith is primarily or even purely an intellectual matter. After all, the hallmark of liberalism was its belief in morality. But the battle was not purely intellectual then, and by no stretch of the imagination is it so now. Few people are captivated by subtle heresies and philosophies. Multitudes are enslaved by the idols Eros and Mammon. Many, if they knew themselves truly, would have to list their "religious preference" as "Mammonist"—worshiper of money; or "Eroticist"—worshiper of sensual pleasure. One need only turn to daytime television talk shows or late-night television "get rich" advertisements to see how respectable it has become to be a worshiper of Eros or Mammon.

If the church is to survive the onslaughts of these cruel and destructive idolatries, she must recover a high view of the law of God. It is not only the gospel that is under attack, but also the law. In such a time, that middle portion of the Catechism that expounds the ten commandments shall be a strong tower to those who will take refuge therein.

A church that is scintillating in theological orthodoxy but lax in obedience is of little worth in the kingdom; as our Lord said, "Anyone who breaks the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19, NIV).

Let it not be thought that preaching and teaching our duty to God must obscure the gospel. Whoever considers the purity of God's law in comparison to the corruption of his own heart and life will be driven all the more completely to trust in Jesus alone for salvation. Moreover, salvation is unto obedience (Ephesians 2:10), and though obedience cannot be perfect in this life, the true believer will be marked by that striving after "holiness without which no man shall see the Lord" (Hebrew 12:14, KJV). The preaching and defense of the gospel includes the preaching and defense of the law of God.

Finally, let us return to the future. The culture around us offers little hope for a resurgence of Calvinism, particularly that true Calvinism that I have attempted to describe. What appeal can we make to the world, and what shall preserve us from the pitfalls of pietism, culturalism, and doctrinalism?

Calvinism's future would indeed be bleak if we have only to appeal to unregenerate human nature for approval. And if we have only our own resources to rest upon, we too shall all fall away. But thus it has always been. Calvinism not only preaches the sovereign grace of God as the source of all blessing, but it also depends for its very survival upon that same sovereign grace. "When you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth" (Psalm 104:28-30, NIV).

Calvinism has a future as long as the Spirit of God renews the hearts of men and women, of children and infants, and leads them to live to his glory and to find their joy in him.

But we have been looking at the future as merely that which follows upon and grows out of present conditions. The Scripture invites us to turn our gaze from the swiftly receding present to the eternal future. For as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Jesus "must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet ... When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all" (1 Corinthians 15:25-28, NIV).

The great consummation of all things is that which the true Calvinist lives for and longs for—that God may be all in all. The future that really matters belongs to Calvinism.


[1] This lecture was originally given on July 10, 1992 at a celebration of Calvin's birthday at Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Sewickley, PA. I have edited the lecture somewhat and have added a few footnotes. Nevertheless, I have tried to preserve the spirit of an oral address, and I hope that the reader will forgive me if he finds a rhetorical device where a more careful argument might be expected in a written paper.

[2] Pirsig, R., Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Morrow, NY, 1984 edition, p. 1.

[3] The astute reader will notice that I have already transformed the subject given in the title. You may now expect that I shall say little about the future and shall concentrate on the past and present.

[4] I am here thinking primarily of conditions in the USA. Those familiar with conditions elsewhere must decide for themselves how well this statement describes those conditions.

[5] David Wells, ed., Eerdmans, 1985.

[6] "Reformed and American," ibid., p. 1-12.

[7] Ibid., p. 2. Marsden identifies himself with this wing of the CRC. I wonder if J. Gresham Machen would have described himself as a leader of the regressive wing of the liberal Presbyterian Church in the USA?

[8] Ibid., p. 3.

[9] See Shorter Catechism, Q. 1.

[10] I am indebted to the Rev. Lawrence Semel for the last expression.

[11] I use the word "church" here for what is often called a "denomination." Evangelical pietists may be members of local churches that are more or less Calvinistic, but by (Marsden's) definition, do not belong to a conservative Calvinistic denomination.

[12] Some Calvinistic pietists no doubt are united to conservative evangelical denominations, to which these criticisms would not apply, at least not in the same way or with the same force. The question would remain, however, how far Calvinism as a way of life is brought to expression in such churches.

[13] I do not mean to say that Calvinism is the only place where pietist/culturalists are turning for intellectual support, but only that it seems to be one of the current options.

[14] The pietists and the doctrinalists are by no means exempt from similar temptations. As culturalism can degenerate into social activism, so also can pietism degenerate into self-improvement programs, and doctrinalism into scholarly prestige.

[15] See article IV of the Auburn Affirmation, the text of which is reprinted in Rian, Edwin H., The Presbyterian Conflict, Eerdmans, 1940, reprinted by the Committee for the Historian, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1992, pp. 205-208.

[16] For the history of the controversy, see Rian, op. cit. See also Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, p. 364 (first edition, Eerdmans, 1954).

[17] Machen writes: "A separation between the two parties [liberal and conservative] in the church is the crying need of the hour" (Christianity and Liberalism, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1956; original copyright, 1923; p. 160). "Whether it be desirable or not, the ordination declaration is part of the constitution of the Church. If a man can stand on that platform he may be an officer in the Presbyterian Church; if he cannot stand on it he has no right to be an officer in the Presbyterian Church ... Finding the existing 'evangelical' churches to be bound up to a creed which he does not accept, he may either unite himself with some other existing body or else found a new body to suit himself ... By withdrawing from the confessional churches—those churches that are founded upon a creed derived from scripture—the liberal preacher would indeed sacrifice the opportunity, almost within his grasp, of so obtaining control of those confessional churches as to change their fundamental character ... But liberalism would certainly not suffer in the end ... The liberal preacher would obtain the full personal respect even of his opponents, and the whole discussion would be placed on higher ground" (pp. 164-165).

"If there ought to be a separation between the liberals and the conservatives in the Church, why should not the conservatives be the ones to withdraw? ... But in remaining in the existing churches the conservatives are in a fundamentally different position from the liberals; for the conservatives are in agreement with the plain constitutions of the churches, while the liberal party can maintain itself only by an equivocal subscription to declarations which it does not really believe.

"But how shall so anomalous a situation be brought to an end? The best way would undoubtedly be the voluntary withdrawal of the liberal ministers from those churches whose confessions they do not, in the plain historical sense, accept. And we have not altogether abandoned hope of such a solution" (pp. 166-167).

"But is not the advocacy of such separation a flagrant instance of intolerance?" (p. 167). Machen then argues for about two pages that this is not intolerant because the church is a voluntary society.

"What is the duty of Christian men at such a time? What is the duty in particular, of Christian officers in the Church?" (p. 173). Machen enumerates four things: (1) The intellectual defense of the faith should be prosecuted vigorously (here he argues against those who would forgo all intellectual defense in favor of evangelism); (2) Christian officers in the Church should oppose the ordination of those who are not true believers; (3) Church members should not call liberals as pastors of their churches; (4) Christian education should be pursued vigorously. (pp. 173-177). He then calls for true Christians to gather together for consultation and encouragement (reminiscent of Luther's idea of the ecclesiola in ecclesia—the (little) church within the church).

Seeing that Machen had to contend with conservatives who opposed making even an intellectual defense of the gospel and with those who thought that even the suggestion of voluntary withdrawal was intolerant, I sympathize with his predicament. Yet the way of the Cross is never easy.

[18] I do not mean to imply that it was his responsibility alone. Nor do I wish to detract from that just admiration and gratitude to God that we ought to have for such a faithful defender of the truth.

[19] Machen, writing in The Presbyterian Guardian (in 1936) immediately after the formation of what was later to become the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, in an article entitled "A True Presbyterian Church at Last," said: "What a fearful sin of omission it was, for example, that an effort was not made in 1924, in every single presbytery in which any of us stood, to bring the Auburn Affirmationists to trial!" (quoted in Stonehouse, op. cit., p. 501).

[20] Concerning the nature of God, God's decrees, sin, Christ, Christ's work, and salvation.

[21] Concerning the law of God, faith, repentance, and the means of grace (the Word, sacraments, and prayer).

James S. Gidley is a professor at Geneva College, where he is chairman of the Engineering Department. Mr. Gidley is a ruling elder of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Sewickley, Pennsylvania. He is also a member of the Christian Education Committee and the Subcommittee on Ministerial Training. Reprinted from Ordained Servant 2.2, April 1993.

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