Calvinists, Please Rescue Evangelicals From Perfectionism

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  • Mark D. Tooley
    Mark Tooley is the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).
By Mark D. Tooley, Christian Post Contributor
July 11, 2014|10:09 am

Wesleyan and Anabaptist perfectionisms are the emerging dominant forms of Christian social witness in America, according to this fascinating piece in First Things by Dale Coulter of Regent University. He's certainly right about their pervasive influence but unduly optimistic about their plausibility and sustainability, much less desirability.

As a Methodist, I hope thoughtful Calvinists will provide a corrective dose of realism and sturdy doctrine to the social cul-de-sacs and Utopianism towards which both perfectionist traditions seem to spiral when untethered from church teaching about the limits of fallen humanity. It's not fair to fault Methodism exclusively for the excesses of the Social Gospel, whose key early proponent, Walter Rauschenbusch, was a liberal northern Baptist. It was fueled by German romanticism and New England, post-Congregationalist Unitarian transcendentalism. But Wesleyanism, once liberalized and unhinged from supernatural teachings about Christian cosmology, generously watered the roots of the Social Gospel movement and ultimately fully embraced it.

Methodism as a mass movement provided much of the activist machinery for Social Gospel energy if not much of the intellectual formation. This storyline is often repeated. Wesleyans are more comfortably doers than deep thinkers, Much of official Methodism, as it transitioned through its Prohibition crusade, easily abandoned traditional Methodism's affirmation of human nature's total depravity and complete need for transformation through the new birth. The new imperative, displacing evangelism and holiness, became earnest intent and constant activity for societal improvement. No human condition was beyond the reach of social and political reform.

Meanwhile, traditional Anabaptists may have sought perfection in their own separatist communities but never imagined it for other communities, much less society as a whole. The new Yoder-Hauerwas generated mythology, facilitated by coating Karl Barth with a Mennonite veneer, has created at least two somber and sober generations of Christian activism who imagine they can impose the Peaceable Kingdom upon the world, however coercively. No amount of failure, or contradiction by traditional Christian doctrine, can dissuade their zeal. They exclaim without any consciousness of irony, "Abjure all violence, or else!"

The political activism of these neo-Anabaptists and the neo-Wesleyan perfectionists almost perfectly if often incoherently align with each other and with a wider secular liberal narrative. They all have the same despised adversaries: theologically traditional Christians who insist the world is not perfectible this side of the Eschaton.

Unfortunately, traditional Anabaptists, being separatists, won't correct their errant progeny. And traditional Wesleyans, although instinctively recognizing the problems, don't have the historical intellectual resources to challenge their utopian heirs.

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So both perfectionist schools of thought are prevailing throughout Evangelicalism, which being a modern movement and not a deep tradition, is susceptible to American fads, especially an ambitious, soaring perfectionism that offers a seductive alternative to the much harder path of Christian orthodoxy, with its focus on sin and redemption.

So absent mass conversion by Protestants and Evangelicals to Catholicism, traditional Calvinists, with their own venerable traditions of social engagement in the sin-soaked kingdom of man, will have to point the way forward. Troublingly, many Calvinists are instead succumbing to their own funk, partly based on their own unconscious perfectionism, disowning social engagement, especially statecraft, because society they think has become too depraved for reformation.

Calvinists, and all traditional Christians, should know that society is always depraved. But the church is called constantly to work for incremental social reformation as a witness to the truly perfect Kingdom that's not yet realizable.

So let's hope that Calvinists come to the rescue, inspiring many others to follow, lest the Protestant/Evangelical church careen more completely into the perfectionist black hole. Calvinists, come forth!

Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and is a native of Arlington, Virginia. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988, when he wrote a study about denominational funding of pro-Marxist groups for his local congregation. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Virginia. Follow Mark on Twitter @markdtooley.
 

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