RPM, Volume 15, Number 18, April 28 to May 4, 2013

Where'd All These Calvinists Come From?

Part 4 of 10

By Mark Dever

Some astute inquirers have noticed that all the influences I've mentioned so far have been British. A couple of observations about this: My wife and I lived in Britain for 6 1/2 years, and I would say that there is something in the British culture (perhaps it is part of living in a much older place) which is at home with given-ness. That is, where an American would say, "that's unfair" a British person might simply respond "that's the way life is." There is both maturity and resignation in this British response. Such different responses have advantages and disadvantages for both sides. It is simply the case that our friends in Britain are the children of those who stayed, and we Americans are all the children of those who left. Consider the interesting gene pool that's created!

I'm not saying that Britain 70 or 80 years ago was a hotbed of Calvinism. It wasn't. But there was an at-home-ness with the Bible's teaching on election and predestination that seems somehow more alien to Americans. During the mid-20th century, Reformed theology was not totally absent from America. There was the Dutch Reformed community in Michigan and the mid-west. I first read Flavel and Baxter not from the Banner re-prints, but from those by Baker (though that Baker Book House is, sadly, long gone). A. W. Pink travelled around and made friends with various conservative Reformed Baptist ministers (among whom one was my great-grandfather, Leaman Winstead). But on the whole, the early and mid-20th-century was a desert time for Reformed theology in the broader English-speaking evangelical America.

And then came what many may see as an unlikely aid to the cause.

Among the most deadly objections to Calvinism among American evangelicals was the charge that it killed missions and evangelism. American evangelicals have had, for a hundred years or more, an inability to distinguish between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism. Calvinism teaches the absolute sovereignty of God and the real responsibility of man. Hyper-Calvinism teaches that because God is sovereign our actions, essentially, don't matter. That is, because the end is already established, the means may be dispensed with. (Thank God Paul didn't think that! Look at Romans 9-10 — the strongest statement on predestination leads to the strongest call for missions and evangelism! He himself had been encouraged in his evangelism in Corinth by the doctrine of election — see Acts 18.) Even among those who could distinguish between the two, Calvinism was dismissed by saying that it always led to hyper-Calvinism. The slippery slope is always a fascinating argument. The inevitablity of certain consequences from certain circumstances at least always sounds compelling.

And then came Evangelism Explosion. D. James Kennedy, a native of Augusta, Georgia, became the pastor of a little PCUS church in Ft. Lauderdale in 1959. He began training his people to do evangelism. And by 1962, he had organized this as a program called Evangelism Explosion. The book continues on, in its 4th edition. It has been used literally around the world. It is the subject of much debate and criticism among evangelicals. Missional types dismiss it as a modernistic sales job, assuming too much to be of any use today. Reformed types dismiss it as one-sided, coercive, or decisionistic. Nevertheless, neither of those sets of discussions need to detain us as a matter of history.

My suggestion is that Evangelism Explosion (and the subsequent dramatic growth of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, especially in the 1960's) became a quiet, but telling piece of counter-evidence against the stereotype of Calvinism killing evangelism. Kennedy was unashamedly Calvinistic in the soteriology he presented in his sermons. He later joined the PCA, with the Westminster Confession as its doctrinal standard. Regardless of how consistent or inconsistent one takes aspects of EE to be with Reformed theology, a church that clearly meant to be Calvinistic pumping out evangelism, and evangelism training throughout the 1960s and 1970s was a telling argument in pragmatic America. I'm not sure anyone thought of it at the time. But I think that it substantially weakened the ground of the opponents of Reformed theology. A pastor born in the 1920s, coming to maturity in the 1940s may have assumed that Calvinism was as gone as the horse and buggy, and partly he may have assumed that because of the "evangelism-killing" argument. But a pastor born in the 1960s, maturing in the 1980s, would have a hard time taking it for granted that a Calvinistic theology always (slippery slope) leads to killing missions and evangelism. There would be too many churches around him using Evangelism Explosion.

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