Sociologist Peter Berger stands tall among American intellectuals. Berger presently serves as Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology and Theology and Director, Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at the prestigious Boston University. Among many influential titles to his credit are The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967), The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (1999), and more recently Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity (2003). Professor Berger also regularly contributes to The American Interest, an online magazine dealing with American culture and global interests >>>
A friend suggest I look at a recent digital essay penned by the eminent professor. Entitled, “Southern Baptists go swimming in Lake Geneva” I predicted Dr. Berger was going to put his sharpened, socio-interpretative blade to work, carving out a uniquely but indisputably sober analysis of the Calvinist Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. What I read shocked me. Berger’s tortured exposition of Calvinist soteriology is so visibly obvious, it almost defies words and certainly does defy purpose. Why would an eminent scholar publicly rattle on about a subject he obviously should know about but just as obviously appears entirely uninformed about?
Let me show you what I mean.
Professor Berger writes:
It should be noted that, from its inception in the sixteenth century, Calvinism has come in two versions—one closely following the teachings of the founding generation, the other having significantly softened the original harshness
First, Calvinism does not seem to have come in “two versions." More appropriately, Calvinism has consistently developed, historically speaking, as a theological trajectory waxing and waning within one version. That is, Calvinism per se may be viewed on a theological continuum rather than a simplistic dichotomy between “two versions” which Berger presumably thinks are entirely distinct. In addition, Berger appears to get it wrong concerning the “two versions” he supposes. Berger asserts one version simply followed the “founding generation” while the other “softened” the original founding “harshness.” But Reformed thinkers routinely go beyond the “founding generation” (i.e. John Calvin, et al) and cite the mighty Bishop of Hippo, Saint Augustine, as a “founder” of Calvinism (others, of course, cite Paul & Jesus but that is beside the point).
Much closer to the historical truth is, James Arminius protested against second generation Calvinists who, in his mind, were harsher in their theology than John Calvin! In other words, Arminius, who confessed he could (and would) attach his name in agreement to almost the entirety of John Calvin’s writings, saw himself as closer to the “original founders” than Theodore Beza, et al had become (more below).
The professor also states:
The original, full-bodied version of Calvinism has been symbolized by the acronym TULIP…Put together, these propositions add up to the so-called doctrine of double predestination—the assertion that God, from all eternity, has decided who will be saved and who will be damned.”
To suggest that the “original” version of Calvinism is symbolized by the TULIP is hardly accurate because, quite frankly, this idea has been thoroughly critiqued, and in many respects, decisively debunked, by a number of scholars. It is now widely argued to be highly doubtful John Calvin held to Limited Atonement, for example.More importantly so far as the “TULIP” itself is concerned, Reformed theologian, Kenneth Stewart, has historically demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the acrostic “T.U.L.I.P.” is an American invention going back a mere century or less (Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition).
And, while High Calvinism does “put together” and conclude “double predestination” Berger does not seem to accurately portray what “double predestination is: “the assertion that God, from all eternity, has decided who will be saved and who will be damned.” I don’t know why a Bible believing Christian of any particular branding would dispute “double predestination” if all is meant by it is that God decides who will be saved and who will not. Hence, his conclusion that “Arguably, this [double predestination] is the most repulsive doctrine in the history of the Christian religion” hardly follows.
Had the professor said something like “the idea that God created a specific number of people for the sole purpose of damning them to hell to glorify himself is the most repulsive doctrine in the history of the Christian religion"--which some Calvinists hold, by the way--I could understand the repugnant nature of the conclusion. Or, had the professor reflected upon the horrible decree of multiplied humanity who have died in the age of infancy and, because they were not covenant infants (i.e. children of elect parents), these unfortunate children burn for eternity in hell fire and conclude “this is the most repulsive doctrine in the history of the Christian religion” I could see his point (for the record, non-covenantal infants who die in infancy and consequently sent to a burning hell has a rich, broad, undeniable heritage in Reformed-Calvinist belief, another “deep, dark, dirty little secret” of Calvinism). But to equate "double predestination" with God deciding who and who is not saved makes very little historic-theological sense.
Again, so far as the content of the "TULIP" goes, Berger fails to strike rock. He strangely has Total Depravity meaning “human nature has no good features whatever” while “Unmerited election” (i.e. Unconditional Election) is simplistically defined as “we are saved by God’s grace, which we don’t deserve.” Neither Protestant nor Catholic, Liberal nor Fundamentalist, Universalist nor frankly filling in the blank with many, many others contests this theological assertion. Further, for Berger, Limited Atonement reductionistically means that “not all men are saved, only the elect.” To Berger’s credit, he could get by with his descriptions of both Irresistible Grace (“we cannot resist God’s action in saving us”) and Perseverance of the saints (“once God has placed us among the elect, we can never lose that status").
Berger also states “The soft version of Calvinism has been associated with the name of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609).” Even though I mentioned above Arminius undoubtedly thought he was among those more closely related to Calvin’s theology than the scholastics (Beza, et al) had become, nonetheless one will find little, if any, support for the professor’s assertion, especially among Reformed theologians themselves. They routinely view Arminianism as mild semi-Pelagianism (heresy) and would undoubtedly vehemently oppose the thought that Arminianism is the “soft version” of Calvinism which we’ve inherited. For many of them, Arminians may be saved, but only barely saved (e.g. R.C. Sproul).
While Berger got his thoughts about Calvinism severely skewed, he made some enlightening assertions doing what he does best—cultural analysis.1 For example, Berger noted, “What happens in the Southern Baptist Convention is not a marginal event” within American Christianity. Being the largest Protestant denomination, who Southern Baptists are and what Southern Baptists do potentially affect most all Christians in some way.
In addition, Berger rightly characterized, in significant and appreciable ways, our Southern Baptist identity:
It [the SBC] was founded in 1845 over the issue of slavery…[but]… has long left behind its racist views, and it is no longer restricted to the South…What characterizes it today is a robustly conservative theology—the SBC is firm in its rejection of liberal interpretations of Christianity. That much makes for an affinity with Calvinism. But Southern Baptists, along with all other Evangelicals, emphasize the free decision of individuals to be converted, to “accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior”—an idea very much opposed to double predestination. This may be called the great Evangelical “whoever”, reverberating through the long history of American revivals, reiterated with every call for people to come to the altar and confess their faith—summarized in the most quoted sentence from the Gospels: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Luke 3:16) [sic]”2
In an around about way, Professor Berger may have given present name-change advocates in the Southern Baptist Convention a severe broadside in his social description of Southern Baptists. While correctly mentioning our birth over slavery3, Berger helpfully suggests Southern Baptists have “long left behind” their “racist views.” In addition, we’re not only no longer restricted to the south, but are also defined by a “robustly conservative theology” which remains “firm in its rejection of liberal interpretations of Christianity.” If Berger is correct, why would Southern Baptists dare jeopardize such an established cultural aura by changing our name?
Perhaps the most glaring lesson4 we may learn from this essay is, even intellectual elites are not necessarily experts in fields outside their discipline. Hence, we cannot rely on others to do the head work for us. We must develop the art of checking sources, using standard works of reference, and drawing legitimate but cautious inferences from the sources we cite. Professor Berger will remain a reputable icon among sociologists of religion and cultural analysts. Nonetheless we rightly expect purer scholarship from eminent elites like Peter Berger.
With that, I am…
1Yes, it remains a legitimate question: “Since Berger so misunderstood Calvinism proper, how could he offer enlightening commentary on Calvinism in the SBC?
2unfortunately, Berger misses his mark again when quoting the most famous verse in all the Bible. How curious and inexplicable sense it makes to quote the “most quoted sentence from the Gospels” but dis-join it from undeniably the most quoted Gospel writer to go along with it? One cannot even watch a football game on T.V without seeing John 3:16 staring at you from the stands. Luke 3:16?
3only an analytical answer could suffice on the issue of slavery and Southern Baptists
4quite honestly, there were other missteps in Berger's analysis including his wrongly characterizing Al Mohler. Berger writes: "Mohler was not altogether wrong when he said that Baptists turning to Calvinism are returning to their “historic roots”—it just isn’t his sort of Calvinism that dwells in these roots." Berger is dead wrong. Any who've drank at all from the Southern Baptist historical well can reasonably deny a strong, Calvinist tributary to the SBC. Hence, Mohler is not wrong to appeal to a strong Calvinist presence within Southern Baptist history, a Calvinist presence which looks very similar to his own Calvinism. Rather Al Mohler's views--along with other Founders Calvinist advocates--are historically misguided and consequently unhealthy for Southern Baptists because they routinely appeal exclusively to the strong Calvinist theological tributary while entirely overlooking the strong non-Calvinist theological tributary which, blended together, makes Southern Baptists unique in the wider Baptist family. In fact, truth be told, the non-Calvinist rapids were so swift and strong at least by the latter part of the 19th century, that strong Calvinism was washed way down stream. Hence, historical reductionism is not an inappropriate characterization to describe Mohler's flawed view of Southern Baptist history.