One of the ad nauseum refrains over at Communio Catholicism, or whatever it goes by, is the prediction that Calvin would have disowned Reformed Baptists as crypto-Anabaptists.
For the record, I’m not a Reformed Baptist myself, so I have no dog in this fight. But what is this hypothetical prediction supposed to amount to, anyway?
Is the critic predicting that if you took a 16C Frenchman and Protestant Reformer, put him in a time-machine, and suddenly transported him to the 21C, that when he stepped out of the time-machine he would express his disapprove of the SBC?
For all I know, that may well be true.
To this we could add a number of other equally pressing and pertinent questions:
What would a 16C Frenchman think of a woman in a pant’s suit?
What would a 16C Protestant think of the electric toothbrush?
What would a 16C Reformer think of teenage boys and girls who play volleyball on the beach in shorts and bikinis?
If the unspoken assumption underlying this dire prediction is that if you took a man from a different time and place, and transported him directly to our own time and place, he would shake his head and wag his finger at some of our doings here and now, then this is probably true.
Like everyone else, Calvin was largely shaped by the cultural assumptions of his day and age, by the socioeconomic structure and political challenges of his time.
So all this comparison really amounts to is to contrast a 16C European outlook with a 21C American outlook.
What would Calvin think of rollerblading or satellite TV or shopping malls or football or surfing?
If that’s what the Calvinian indictment of the SBC comes to, then it’s a pretty silly comparison.
Yes, if you take someone from one time and place, and instantly transplant him to another time and place, then he may well disapprove of what he sees.
He may be right to disapprove or wrong to disapprove. But he’s using his own historical frame of reference as the standard of comparison.
And yet, as far as hypotheticals go, a more meaningful question is: what would Calvin think of the SBC if Calvin were a baby-boomer raised in West Texas?
What if Calvin was one of our contemporaries? What if Calvin was an American? What if he grew up in a Southern Baptist church?
What, under those circumstances, would Calvin think of the SBC?
What would Calvin think of Anabaptism if Calvin were Amish by birth and breeding?
Paul Owen informs us that one reason he broke with the Presbyterians is because the Presbyterians have been corrupted by the Baptists.
And it’s quite true that modern-day Presbyterians view their Baptist neighbors very differently than 16C Protestants once viewed the Anabaptists. Is that a bad thing?
And that’s because, unlike Owen or Enloe—as he goes about posting the 172 installment of his series on Medieval conciliarism—we’re not caught in a time warp. Times change. People change.
The political realities of the 21C are quite different from the political realities of the 16C. The new enemies and new alliances are not the same as the old enemies and the old alliances.
The modern American experience is very different from the experience of a 16C French Protestant living in exile.
We have our own civilization. Our own challenges. Our own social ills.
We play the hand that God has dealt us in this generation. We creatively apply Reformed theology to our particular situation.
We adapt to new circumstances. That’s the world we know. The world we live in.
Naturally we see some things differently from our forbears since there are different things to see. Even if the chessboard were the same, the pieces have been rearranged.
Do the pseudo-Reformed crypto-Catholics really believe that we should make no allowance or adjustment for 500 hundred years of intervening history?
Oh, and while they pose as the old guard, our pseudo-Reformed crypto-Catholics are only too happy to exploit the American lifestyle.
Look at the freedom with which Owen hopscotches from one theological tradition to another. But this would not have been permissible or even possible 500 years ago.
A layman like Tim Enloe would not have been permitted to publicize his theological views 500 years ago.
The reason Enloe or Owen can fish around until he finds a fishpond to their liking is because the American experiment supplies him with so many watering holes to fish from.
Can the present learn from the past? Yes.
Can the past learn from the present? Yes as well.