In The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch writes:
In the study of the history of missions, one can even be formulaic about asserting that all great missionary movements begin at the fringes of the church, among the poor and the marginalized, and seldom, if ever, at the center.
It is vital that in pursuing missional modes of church, we get out of the stifling equilibrium of the center of our movements and denominations, move to the fringes, and engage in real mission there.
But there’s more to it than just mission; most great movements of mission have inspired significant and related movements of renewal in the life of the church. It seems that when the church engages at the fringes, it almost always brings life to the center. This says a whole lot about God and gospel, and the church will do well to heed it.
This got me thinking: I've criticized 5-point Calvinism in the past for appealing to the well-off and comfortable, and rarely if ever being adopted by those at the margins.
If both are true, that Calvinism almost never appeals to the marginalized, and that all great missionary movements begin among the marginalized, has Calvinism ever led to a great missionary movement? Could it?
Of course I don’t mean to ask whether an individual Calvinist can be a successful evangelist; God can use anyone anywhere. What I question is whether the doctrines of Calvinism, particularly in their Piper/Edwards/determinist form, would ever appeal beyond those who are comfortable in society.
Or perhaps another way to think of it, can Calvinists be successful at evangelism without compromising the basic tenants of 5-point Calvinism (TULIP)?
Calvinism in China
Look again at China as an illustration:
In May, 2009 an article appeared in The Guardian which discussed the growth of Calvinism in China. The article noted:
Although Calvinism is shrinking in western Europe and North America, it is experiencing an extraordinary success in China. [...] but it's absolutely unlike the pattern in Africa and Latin America. There, the fastest growing forms of Christianity are pentecostal, and they are spreading among the poor.
But in China neither of those things are to be true.
[...] in China, the place where Calvinism is spreading fastest is the elite universities, fuelled by prodigies of learning and translation.
Another writer, Fredrik Fällman of Stockholm University, explains:
The phenomenon of "New Calvinists" in contemporary China is primarily a development in the big cities of Eastern and Central China, and most people involved are relatively well educated. [...] It is a multi-faceted phenomenon, but very much oriented to the elites in society, in that way, resembling the Cultural Christians of the 1980-90's. There is another similarity with the forerunners on the notion of influence. These groups cannot easily gain influence over the majority of Pentecostal and charismatic movements or the CCC/TSPM, but the important thing is to be right, to break the new and correct path.
In another place, Fällman adds, "Reformed Christianity may also appeal to the subconscious Confucian thought patterns and beliefs that linger among Chinese elite intellectuals in general."
This, of course, is unsurprising. We would expect determinist theology to appeal to "elites", who live comfortably, insulated from the world's worst evils, and therefore have an easy time believing that the world is just as God intended it to be.
Are there any examples of successful Calvinist missionary movements?
In his article “How to Teach and Preach ‘Calvinism’”, John Piper writes:
Make Spurgeon and Whitefield your models rather than Owen or Calvin, because the former were evangelists and won many people to Christ in a way that is nearer to our own day.
If Whitefield and Spurgeon are the go-to models of successful Calvinist evangelists, could they be effective counter-examples to my suggestion? As noted above, I do not mean to suggest that individual Calvinists cannot be successful missionaries or evangelists; the question is whether their theology would ever birth a great missionary movement. Still, lets take a closer look at their respective ministries:
It's interesting that Piper uses Whitefield as an example when, on another occasion, Piper himself noted that other Calvinists at the time found Whitefield's Calvinism suspect because of his evangelism! Piper states:
The Particular Baptists [that is, “the Calvinistic Baptists, in distinction from the General (or Arminian) Baptists” (note 5)] did not like either of these evangelical leaders. Wesley was not a Calvinist, and Whitefield’s Calvinism was suspect, to say the least, because of the kind of evangelistic preaching he did. The Particular Baptists spoke derisively of Whitefield’s “Arminian dialect.”
While I do not know very much about Whitefield, I have previously noted Dr Brendlinger’s writings about him and Wesley in his book Social Justice Through the Eyes of Wesley:
Dr Irv A Brendlinger, Professor of Church History and Theology at George Fox University, notes two major areas of disagreement between John Wesley (Arminian) and George Whitefield (Calvinist):
- “A major disagreement was over Whitefield's staunch position on predestination"; and
- "The other disagreement between Wesley and Whitefield was over slavery. Both men spent time in Georgia and observed slavery first-hand. While Wesley's attitude towards slavery was consistent--unequivocally opposed--Whitefield's view changed from opposition to support” (p 5).
To me, the second disagreement makes sense in light of the first: why would Whitefield fight against evil if he believed that God had ordained that evil for His greater glory?
More than just supporting slavery, Whitefield actually believed slavery could advance evangelism!
Dr Brendlinger writes:
While Whitefield was a friend of Benezet and opposed the abuses of slavery, he was not against slavery itself. In fact, he lobbied for the introduction of slavery in the colony of Georgia and when it was legalized he became the owner of some fifty slaves on the land that housed his orphanage, Bethesda. His sentiments are seen clearly in a letter he wrote to Wesley in 1751.
Whitefield's position had changed from his earlier opposition to slavery so that now he saw it as necessary for the financial survival of his orphanage and a possible means to the conversion of Africans. He was deeply opposed to the slave trade and abuses within slavery, but felt it could be a workable and beneficial system if handled justly.
The form of predestination Wesley opposed could take a softer position on slavery because, in the context of theological determinism, a system [in which a slave owner could deprive a slave of all spiritual exposure] ...was irrelevant; God would work salvation in the elect regardless of circumstances"
Regarding John Wesley's evangelistic outlook, on the other hand, Dr Brendlinger writes (bold mine):
Because he believed the atonement is universal, it follows that all persons are potentially recipients of God's saving grace. Wesley was convinced that the most effective way of communicating God's love was through doing good works for ones neighbour. This is clearly seen in his sermon, "Free Grace," in which he stated that the doctrine of predestination (and limited atonement) destroys a major motivation for doing good to others.
The focal point for Wesley was that every slave was a potential believer and doing good for them as neighbours, acting in love, would be the most effective means of persuading them of God's love. This clearly flies in the face of the evangelizing approach of others, such as Whitefield and the SPG, who believed that slavery, in spite of its brutality and cruelty, facilitated evangelism by exposing Africans to Christianity. There was no question that this aspect of Wesley's theology influenced his position. From his own actions on behalf of the slave, it is clear that the good works he envisioned as a means of evangelizing the slave included: helping the destitute slave, and especially removing the chains of slavery.
Wesley's doctrine of prevenient grace helped lay a foundation for antislavery thought, his own and that of his followers, by addressing the nature of the slave (capable of experiencing a relationship with God), the nature of the slave owner and slave trader (they knew right from wrong and had a capacity for benevolence), and the nature of Christianity, which seeks to bring all to awareness of God's love and grace by doing good to others. (p 87-90)
He also noted the importance of belief in free-will to Wesley & Whitefield’s missionary movement and the societal change that resulted:
One result of Wesley's teaching was a general softening of the harsh Calvinism of the time. [...] He taught people to take responsibility for their situation, rather than acquiescing to theological fatalism. [...] Wesley's Arminianism encouraged people to share in the responsibility for their position, both temporal and eternal. [...] Rather than helpless victims, people could work to alter their own conditions and, even more relevant to social reform, they could work to alter the conditions of their fellows.
What Wesley taught in this regard was powerful not because it was new, although it was for many, but because he successfully proliferated such ideas. People believed them and acted on them. The number of people who so responded continued to multiply. The emotional and theological climate of the country began to change. In the early part of the eighteenth century, people tended to accept slavery as a reality of a fallen world and to challenge it theologically would be to doubt God's sovereign purposes. But by the latter part of the century, the views were very different; people viewed slavery as something that needed to be challenged theologically and abolished. Two facts make it reasonable to attribute the change in large part to Wesley: his interpretation (and application) of Arminius is completely consistent with this different way of thinking, and Methodism grew so extensively that his influence was felt throughout Britain and America. At the very least Wesley's work functioned as a kind of "leven" in society.
All of this, I think, tempers any suggestion that Calvinism contributed to the movement; rather it seems that Whitefield’s positive involvement was to some degree in spite of his Calvinism.
We also begin to see his attitude towards the marginalized; on the one hand, towards the orphan, but on the other, towards those held in slavery.
Could Spurgeon's work in evangelism counter my suggestion that no great missionary movement will result from Calvinism? I don’t think so.
In fact Dave Hunt notes, “especially in his later years, Spurgeon often made statements that were in direct conflict with Calvinism. His favorite sermon, the one through which he said more souls had come to Christ than through any other, was criticized by many Calvinists as being Arminian!” (What Love Is This?, p 38, bold mine)
Hunt later quotes AC Underwood who wrote that while “Charles Haddon Spurgeon always claimed to be a Calvinist...his intense zeal for the conversion of souls led him to step outside the bounds of the creed he had inherited.”:
His sermon on “Compel them to come in” was criticized as Arminian and unsound. To his critics he replied: “My Master set His seal on that message. I never preached a sermon by which so many souls were won to God.... If it be thought an evil thing to bid the sinner lay hold of eternal life, I will yet be more evil in this respect and herein imitate my Lord and His apostles.”
More than once Spurgeon prayed, “Lord, hasten to bring in all Thine elect, and then elect some more.” He seems to have used that phrase often in conversation, and on his lips it was no mere badinage. [...] The truth seems to be that the old Calvinistic phrases were often on Spurgeon’s lips but the genuine Calvinistic meaning had gone out of them.
J. C. Carlile admits that “illogical as it may seem, Spurgeon’s Calvinism was of such a character that while he proclaimed the majesty of God he did not hesitate to ascribe freedom of will to man and to insist that any man might find in Jesus Christ deliverance from the power of sin (emphasis added).” (A History of English Baptists, p 203-206, quoted in What Love Is This?, p 154-55, bold mine).
Spurgeon himself admitted he sounded Arminian at times, saying for example, at the end of his sermon “Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility” (bold mine):
Now, with regard to myself; you may some of you go away and say, that I was Antinomian in the first part of the sermon and Arminian at the end. I care not. I beg of you to search the Bible for yourselves. To the law and to the testimony; if I speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in me. I am willing to come to that test. Have nothing to do with me where I have nothing to do with Christ. Where I separate from the truth, cast my words away. But if what I say be God's teaching, I charge you, by him that sent me, give these things your thoughts, and turn unto the Lord with all your hearts.
In the same sermon he criticized Calvinists who hold to double predestination, saying (bold mine):
I believe the higher a man goes the better, when he is preaching the matter of salvation. The reason why a man is saved is grace, grace, grace; and you may go as high as you like there. But when you come to the question as to why men are damned, then the Arminian is far more right than the Antinomian. I care not for any denomination or party, I am as high as Huntingdon upon the matter of salvation, but question me about damnation, and you will get a very different answer. By the grace of God I ask no man's applause, I preach the Bible as I find it. Where we get wrong is where the Calvinist begins to meddle with the question of damnation, and interferes with the justice of God; or when the Arminian denies the doctrine of grace.
He similarly criticized Calvinists who teach limited atonement, on 1 Timothy 2:3-4 teaching:
What then? Shall we try to put another meaning into the text than that which it fairly bears? I trow not. You must, most of you, be acquainted with the general method in which our older Calvinistic friends deal with this text. "All men," say they,—"that is, some men": as if the Holy Ghost could not have said "some men" if he had meant some men. "All men," say they; "that is, some of all sorts of men": as if the Lord could not have said "all sorts of men" if he had meant that. The Holy Ghost by the apostle has written "all men," and unquestionably he means all men. I know how to get rid of the force of the "alls" according to that critical method which some time ago was very current, but I do not see how it can be applied here with due regard to truth. I was reading just now the exposition of a very able doctor who explains the text so as to explain it away; he applies grammatical gunpowder to it, and explodes it by way of expounding it. I thought when I read his exposition that it would have been a very capital comment upon the text if it had read, "Who will not have all men to be saved, nor come to a knowledge of the truth." [...] My love of consistency with my own doctrinal views is not great enough to allow me knowingly to alter a single text of Scripture. [...] So runs the text, and so we must read it, "God our Savior; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth."
Does not the text mean that it is the wish of God that men should be saved? The word "wish" gives as much force to the original as it really requires, and the passage should run thus—"whose wish it is that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth." As it is my wish that it should be so, as it is your wish that it might be so, so it is God's wish that all men should be saved; for, assuredly, he is not less benevolent than we are.
Even in the famous sermon where he declared “Calvinism is the gospel”, he criticized the doctrine of Limited Atonement where it is applied to limit the extent of the atonement (note, everyone except universalists hold that the intent and application are limited; that is, I hold the intent was to save all those who believe, and the application is only to those who do believe):
I know there are some who think it necessary to their system of theology to limit the merit of the blood of Jesus: if my theological system needed such a limitation, I would cast it to the winds. I cannot, I dare not allow the thought to find a lodging in my mind, it seems so near akin to blasphemy. In Christ's finished work I see an ocean of merit; my plummet finds no bottom, my eye discovers no shore. There must be sufficient efficacy in the blood of Christ, if God had so willed it, to have saved not only all in this world, but all in ten thousand worlds, had they transgressed their Maker's law. Once admit infinity into the matter, and limit is out of the question. Having a Divine Person for an offering, it is not consistent to conceive of limited value; bound and measure are terms inapplicable to the Divine sacrifice. The intent of the Divine purpose fixes the application of the infinite offering, but does not change it into a finite work.
With these examples in mind, can it be said that Calvinism contributed to his evangelism? It seems that his views were often in conflict with the Calvinists of his day (and many of the Calvinists today), and his evangelistic zeal was even at the time criticized as being "Arminian".
One last thought
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’ (1 Cor 1:26-31, NIVUK).
It seems that there was a principle at work in the 1st century which, as Alan Hirsch noted, has remained true for all great missionary movements since. “This says a whole lot about God and gospel, and the church will do well to heed it.”
- Irv Brendlinger, "John Wesley's theological challenge to slavery";
- Alan Hirsch & Sean Gladding, "Missional Culture and Ministry Training" (Seedbed);
- The Complete List of Dr David Allen's Chapter-by-Chapter Review of "From Heaven He Came and Sought Her";
- TC Moore, "Puritans and the Proof in the Pudding: Is Slave-owning Unrelated to Calvinism?";
- “The family secret”: when Calvinists all but deny Calvinism.