What’s the Matter with Calvinists?

This week I was on a conference call with a bunch of fellow faith-and-workers, and one person said that a certain theologian has done a lot of work on vocation “because he’s a Calvinist.” I commented that it would be better to say he’s done a lot of work on vocation in spite of the fact that he’s a Calvinist, because Reformed theologians haven’t actually been much of a presence in the movement.

That was an exaggeration. But to say that something is an exaggeration is to say that it is an inflated description of something that is really there.

I make this provocative statement because I think the narrative that Reformed theology is stronger (more developed, or just more active) than its rivals in the area of vocation is deeply embedded in the minds of us Reformed folks, and it isn’t true. Both the movement and we in the Reformed world are ill served by the narrative. Let’s take each of those points in turn:

It’s deeply embedded. My experience this week was only the latest in a long series. I remember sitting around a lunch table with a group of pastors from various Reformed traditions (it was at a heavily Reformed conference), talking with them about how the faith and work movement brings together Christians of many different theological traditions around the idea of vocation. “But that’s just Reformed theology,” said one of them. He went on to express admiration for how the movement was sneakily getting such a broad swath of Christians to embrace Reformed theology without realizing it.

It isn’t true. I mean no disrespect to the fine Calvinist theologians who have contributed to the movement. Last year the seminary network that I’m honored to serve welcomed our first confessionally Reformed seminary as a partner, and there are Calvinists at our other schools doing fine work. It is no disrespect to them to say that they do not compose a disproportionate share of the movement’s theological leadership.

If any tradition can claim a disproportionate presence in the movement’s theological leadership, I think it’s Anglicans. And I think the explanation for that is not theological but the unique cultural conditions of the Anglican communion, which has forced Anglicans to confront the crisis of ecclesial authority in the pluralistic, globalizing world earlier and more acutely than the rest of us. They are the canary in the coal mine of advanced modernity. Since vocation must be central to any serious solution to that crisis, the Anglicans have discovered it more aggressively than the rest of us.

It is true that there are lots of Reformed people in the movement, including people who are, as individuals, theologically well-developed. But if we look specifically at those whose particular contribution to the movement is to cultivate its theological development, whether we’re talking about academic theologians or anyone who makes this kind of contribution from any professional platform, I think you would be hard pressed to make a case that the Reformed are a disproportionate presence in the way that, say, Anglicans are given their size.

Of course there are unclear boundary cases (would you call him Reformed?). Of course there are disputes over what “Reformed” means. Some people think any Anglican who is lower-church than Archbishop Laud is “Reformed.”  But the more strongly convinced we Reformed people are that we’re the leaders, the stricter an evidentiary standard that claim ought to be held to. If we can only defend the claim by quibbling about definitions, we’d be better off modifying the claim.

We’re poorly served by it. Another experience I had this week, which contributed to my decision to post about this on The Green Room, was some serious pushback from my Reformed friends to this post on my personal blog. In it, I pointed out that we Reformed folks tend to think of ourselves as The Rightful Leaders of the Protestant world, owing to what we see as our superior theological development, and this condescending attitude is actually a significant hindrance to our ability to contribute constructively in the Protestant world. It isolates us.

I was surprised that Reformed friends replied to me over email with various forms of “Yes, but…” The problem of Reformed condescension seems to be acknowledged as something that exists, but not as something we ought to be talking about. That strikes me as a less than the optimal approach.

This narrative also ill-serves the Reformed world because, thinking that we have already mastered the theology of vocation, we neglect it. All too often, when Reformed folks are encouraged to develop a more robust theology of vocation, the response is something that can be summarized as “we already know all about that, because we’re Reformed.” And so this area of dire theological need languishes.

And the movement is not well served in turn, because the isolation and underdevelopment of Reformed theology described above leave the movement less able to draw on the real strengths Reformed theology could be contributing. The movement is increasingly aware of the need to include a theological account of suffering and evil as we experience them in our work. These are topics where Reformed theology really can make a unique contribution, having exerted so much effort to consider how suffering and evil can be understood in light of God’s providence. You may not share the Reformed view, but I think anyone would benefit from engaging Reformed reflection on these topics.

Nobody wants to follow a leader who thinks of themselves as The Rightful Leader. We’ll lead to the extent that we contribute, and we’ll contribute to the extent that we humble ourselves and think not about whether we’re leading, but about what the church needs and how we can serve it.

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