Full Text for American Religious Scene- Volume 42 - Reformed Calvinistic Groups (Video)

No. 42. >> Dr. Rast, your discussion of the development of Baptist thought makes me wonder something. The Baptists started out as Calvinists and then changed over time. Did that happen to other Reformed Calvinistic groups? >>DR. LAWRENCE R. RAST, JR.: Well, you've anticipated where I'm going very well, David. Excellent question. Indeed, many of the churches were affected by the shifts in theology and practice over time. The Baptists certainly were not alone. In fact, in some ways, the Baptists lagged behind other Christian groups. We'll take a couple of cases in point here. But one group that really experienced a tremendous theological shift over the course of the 1700s here in America were the old Puritans or congregational churches. They had a fundamentally different look by the end of the 18th Century than they had had at the turn of it. Another group that experienced significant change during this period of time was the Church of England as a particular group within the Church of England emerged as an independent church. Namely, the Methodists. Now, what happened in both of these cases? Well, in the first case with the congregationalists, over time people began to be more and more overt and to express their unhappiness with the rigid Calvinism that had been the tradition. And as they expressed this concern in more and more vigorous ways, the theology of that particular tradition began to change. What I mean by that is if you had a New England way, it was very Calvinistic, double predestinarian, supralapsarian in the 1600s. As the 1700s dawn, that theology began a century long decline. So that by the time you entered the early 1800s, it was less and less prominent on the American scene. What were the concerns? Well, there were several. One was the basic issue of church membership. It was difficult to become a member of a Calvinist church. You had to pass through a rigorous examination on the part of pastors and elders before you were admitted to church membership. That passage was characterized by a series of steps through which you went which pastors and elders then would determine as to their veracity. Did these things really happen to you or not? What they were looking for were basic things like knowledge of the Bible, knowledge of the content of the Bible and then the application of that knowledge to one's life. That is to say did you know about the law of God? Had you heard the Gospel? Had you passed through a crisis point that really was life changing in which you absolutely despaired of your own ability to please God? And then had you moved onto a sense of a relationship with Christ? A mystical union in which you and he had come together as one. Now, all of that is very difficult to quantify, if you will. And so in the Calvinist system they began to look for evidences of this more mysterious relationship. And hence, over the course of the 1600s, the sanctified life came to be emphasized more and more and more. The fruits of faith became evidence of one's election. Therefore, if one did have the fruits of faith and one was working hard to keep the moral law of God as revealed in the Bible and one was being blessed in one's life, then perhaps that gave an indication that one was a among the elect. And therefore, one should be admitted to church membership. Now, most of the time that process took some time. It was typical for folks not to join the church until their late teens, early 20s. Though in same cases this would push into 30s, 40s and we have evidence of this finally occurring in some people's life when they were in their 60s or 70s. Here you have these Calvinists waiting and waiting for the Holy Spirit to give them an effectual call so that they can be truly converted. Patiently going to church each week, attending, hearing sermons. But not being admitted to the Sacrament of the Altar, participating in the communal meal, the Lord's Supper, and thus, not being considered a part of the church. And thus, also, not one of the elect. Desperately waiting always for the Spirit to render that effectual call. Well, there was a pastor in western Connecticut. A man by the name of Solomon Stoddard. And right around the year 1700 he began to say: Why do we do this to people? Why do we keep them from the Lord's Supper, hold that out in front of them like a carrot in the hope that at some point in their lives they will finally move to true church membership and have conversion? He said: Why don't we admit them to the Lord's Supper in the hope that this ordinance as he called it will convert them? In other words for Stoddard, the Lord's Supper was a converted ordinance. So the rigorous standards of church membership, that is only members attend the Lord's Supper, were challenged by Stoddard in a basic way. And that did change then the effects of the growth of his congregation. In fact, his congregation grew significantly. More and more were added to church membership. And the question among many Calvinists was: Well, here is his congregation experiencing a quantifiable blessing. Could he be right? Well, certainly some folks answered yes. Those were the ***Stoddardians. Then there were others who said no. They tended to be located more back in Boston. More traditional Puritans. And were very antagonistic towards Stoddard. A division emerged within and among the Puritans themselves in this respect. Stoddard was succeeded at his congregation by his grandson, Jonathan Edwards, whom we've already met. Edwards, interestingly enough, in the mid 1700s tried to change his grandfather's practice to close the communion table once again. The congregation removed him from his office and sent him out as their pastor. The result being he later on was a missionary -- Edwards was a missionary to the Indians, the Stockbridge Indians in western Massachusetts. Later on he moved south. And for a brief period was president of what is today Princeton University immediately prior to his death. What it shows, what this instance shows, are divisions within the Puritans themselves about who is part of the church. And within that there's a deeper question. Namely, what is the church? It's an Ecclesiological question. And Puritans were struggling with the definition of that. And once again, the struggles tended to center around that question of who is the elect, who is not? In the wake of this struggle -- and there were plenty of others. We've already talked about some of the issues regarding predestination and the theological pressures that that caused. But in the wake of this transition in Calvinist thinking here on the American scene, another group comes along and begins to proclaim a perspective that says this focus on election, this total consumption with it, points people in the wrong direction. It leads to no assurance. Instead, causes them consistently to question whether they are people of God or not. In the Scriptures, said this other group, we see nothing of the sort. In fact, there are clear witnesses in the Bible that say the message of the Gospel was presented to people. And then they were challenged to accept it or not. This group, of course, were the Methodists. And Methodist preachers beginning in the very late 1730s and then on through the century came more and more to the forefront in America. They challenged the assumptions of the Reformed tradition across the board. Congregationalists were affected. Presbyterians were affected. The Church of England, the Anglicans, were affected. All were affected by Methodist preaching. Now, this movement began right around the year 1740 in the British Isles, especially in England. And it centered around a number of young priests within the Church of England who began to preach in all kinds of places in very contemporary ways. And in such a manner as to challenge people to take responsibility for their eternal destiny. Most of the time these preachers -- and we'll talk about who they are in particular a little bit down the road. But most of the time these preachers would emphasize this message among those who had been largely dispossessed. That is to say the state and stable Anglican churches were not the most fruitful ground for this preaching. In fact, many of these churches were closed to these gentlemen. They were not allowed to preach. Even though they were priests in good standing in the Church of England. And so they went outdoors. They went to common places. And they preached to whomever they could gather together. Oftentimes the lower classes. And the message that they preached to these people was very simple. There is no eternal election that puts you in a particular path. Rather, the Scriptures present to you the way of death and the way of life. Choose the way of life. Now, think about the setting for this socially speaking. Dispossessed, poor English people had often been told that their setting in life, the place in which they found themselves, was the result of God's action. Your vocation -- say you're a coal miner where you spend 12 hours a day at least in the pit. It was something God had given you to do. Therefore, do it and stay there and don't complain. To seek to move out of that kind of setting was to say: I'm not content with what God has given me. Socially speaking then to move from the lower class to an upper class was virtually impossible. To do so was to work against the will of God. Much of that thinking was transferred into theology, as well. If you were one of the elect, it was God's doing. He had placed you there, you could rejoice in that. If you were one of the reprobate, God had placed you there, don't complain about it. And there's certainly nothing you can do about it. Leave it at that. Imagine the empowering character of this message as these preachers come along and say: You may not be able to do much about your social setting. But you can do everything about your eternal setting. Your destiny, heaven or hell, is not set as it were by an external authority who has forced you into any kind of mold. Rather, the choice is yours. Choose life. Not surprisingly this is an explosively powerful message within this context. And people flock to hear these preachers who empower them and who give them a sense of hope where all else is hopelessness. We call this new theology Arminianism. It takes its name from a Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius who died in 1609. Arminius had made his impact by challenging the Calvinist thinking of the double predestinarians in the setting of the Netherlands. In fact, his challenges had led to the Synod of Dort that we had spoken about a little bit earlier. And on each of those old five points of the Calvinists, the old TULIP, total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the faithful. On each of those points Arminians challenge the reigning Calvinism. He certainly agreed that human beings were sinful. Though he tended to locate sin as action. Sin as total depravity, as original, he did not overtly deny. But he tended to locate his discussion of sin in the actual acts that people carried out. When it came to matters of election, we have the most important element of early Arminianism. Namely, election was carried out in view of faith, ***intutu fides. And what that simply meant was God, on the basis of his foreknowledge, knowing all things, looked into the future, saw who would ultimately come to faith and on that basis elected them in eternity to faith. Now, the Calvinists accused Arminius of being a synergist for that reason. Namely, saying human beings triggered, if you will, God's electing act. That is to say God was passively moved by the human action. Waiting for human beings to act. And then finally acting himself. But the Arminians said the other side of the coin is far worse. Namely, God being the cause of sin, which is precisely what they accused the Calvinists of doing. Clearly, different theological perspectives at work. Different material principles one might say coming forth from a similar reading of the Scriptures. But in respect then to the other elements of the TULIP, the Arminians went onto say the atoning work of Christ is not limited. It is for all. Grace when it comes is not resistible. But in fact, human beings have the willful ability to say no to God's offer of grace and to accept the offer of grace as it is revealed to them. And finally, in terms of perseverance, there is no guarantee that one will stay firm to the end. It is a possibility that one can fall from faith. So those five points, once again, become the context for early Arminian preaching. But where things begin to focus, where they begin to take on a particular point as time goes by, is in that issue of then -- of how does one come to be converted? And as the 1700s play themselves out, more and more the focus is put on the choice. God lays before you the way of life, the way of death. Choose life. Choose life. It is a tremendously significant theological shift that occurs in this respect. And it impacts all of the churches, particularly here on the American religious scene. In fact, from the reigning Calvinism of the 1600s we see a century-long decline. While at the same time Arminianism is on the rise. And as we move from the 1700s into the 1800s, Calvinism will continue to struggle. Will become a decided minority here in the United States. And this new Arminian branch of the Reformed tradition will come to dominate. I can't underscore enough just how significant this transition is. It changes everything about American Christianity.