New Calvinism finds Southern Baptist fans; Some see threat to evangelism

Besides some Southern Baptist circles, the New Calvinism is notable in such church-planting and denominational groups as the Acts 29 Network, Sovereign Grace Ministries and the Presbyterian Church in America, which is separate from the Louisville-based Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The music team in the warehouse-turned-church led the crowd of about 500 with up-tempo versions of traditional and modern hymns, riffing on sin and redemption as much as on guitar and drums.

Mixed in with Pleasant Valley Community Church’s modern style, and the pastor’s tirelessly upbeat demeanor, were the clear signs of the revived popularity of Calvinism. Also known as Reformed theology, these doctrines put a heavy emphasis on God’s power and grace in predestining or controlling human events and choices.

“If you’re a Christian, it’s not because you found Jesus,” said the Rev. Jamus Edwards, pastor for preaching and vision at the Southern Baptist congregation just east of downtown. “Not only were you not looking for him, but you couldn’t have looked for him. He came to look for his kids. The good news is: You’re the kind of person Jesus has come to save.”

The New Calvinist movement — rooted in the doctrines of 16th-century Protestant reformer John Calvin and his followers — has gained a following in recent years among many young pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention and smaller denominations and church-planting groups.

In addition to its emphasis on God’s power, New Calvinist churches typically have tightly disciplined congregations led by male elders.

Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — from which Edwards graduated in 2008 — is playing a leading role in training and sending out pastors influenced by such views. And those views are increasingly spreading to the pews and folding chairs of the churches these pastors are leading.

“It’s a comfort to know that whatever happens, God is in control,” said Pleasant Valley member Larry Blake.

At Pleasant Valley, attendance has grown from about 40 to 500 in five years.

Sojourn Community Church, which launched in 2000 and is strongly influenced by Calvinism, has become Kentuckiana’s newest large church, with attendance approaching 3,000 at four campuses in Louisville and Southern Indiana.

But among Southern Baptists, conflict over New Calvinism has also grown.

Critics see in the New Calvinism a ruthless approach to both salvation and human affairs — with God destining some people for eternal damnation and many to natural disasters, torture and other earthly miseries.

Such an approach can make God out to be “morally ambiguous at best and a moral monster at worst,” wrote Roger Olson, a professor of theology at the Baptist-affiliated Baylor University in Texas, in his 2011 book, “Against Calvinism.”

In October 2011, Pleasant Valley, a member of the state and national branches of the Southern Baptist Convention, was denied membership by its local affiliate, the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association.

An association report said that while Pleasant Valley has “sound” doctrine, its Calvinist views differ from those of most member churches and its leaders showed an “aggressive and disappointing” attitude.