OWENSBORO, Ky. — Within the Southern Baptist Convention a controversy is brewing that's as old as the outgrowth of the Reformation.
Do your actions help determine your eternal salvation or is your life, death — and salvation — predestined by God?
"If you're a Christian, it's not because you found Jesus," said the Rev. Jamus Edwards, pastor for preaching and vision Pleasant Valley Community Church here. "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, has gained a following in recent years among many young pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention and smaller denominations and church-planting groups.
Critics see New Calvinism as 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.
Pleasant Valley is a member of the state and national branches of the Southern Baptist Convention but was denied membership in the local affiliate because its views differ from those of most member churches, according to a report from the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association.
Besides some Southern Baptist circles, 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 larger Louisville, Ky.-based Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The most recent research on the topic by Southern Baptist agencies, from 2006 and 2007, found support for Calvinism among nearly 30 percent of pastors who were recent graduates of the denomination's six seminaries. That's triple the 10 percent support among Southern Baptist pastors overall.
"When we train pastors, we're not training them to be Calvinists," President Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville has said. But he said they often come to such beliefs in their studies.
"This is a generation that is having to face the full weight of a secular age," Mohler has said. "There is no way they are going to step into the pulpit without having their most basic questions answered."
Among Southern Baptists, critics fear Calvinism could blunt their historical commitment to evangelism by de-emphasizing the human role in persuading others to accept Jesus. The New Calvinists say they answer that criticism with their actions.
"We eat, sleep and breathe evangelism and missions," said Pleasant Valley's Edwards, 28.
The church's strong emphasis on the power of God in reaching sinners has "played out in my own life," said Executive Director Roger Chilton of Friends of Sinners, a rehabilitation program that brings recovering addicts to Pleasant Valley's services.
Chilton said he was a former addict and prison inmate who only "went to church to get people off my back" but eventually was won over by the outreach of Christians.
"People like myself can come in and feel the love of God," he said.
April Stracener, an adoptive mother of two with a third in the works, said she appreciates Pleasant Valley's support for both evangelistic and social outreaches, such as boosting members' efforts to adopt.
Edwards said it took him years to accept Reformed theology, and he said his beliefs were tested when he conducted funerals for an infant and a murder victim within a six-month period.
"You think I didn't have questions?" he said. While concluding that God brings good out of evil, "we're not so arrogant to say we know why God allows things to happen," he said.
Even supporters of the Reformed movement acknowledge that some young Calvinists bring a belligerent zeal to debates with their opponents.
Pastor Daniel Montgomery of Sojourn Community Church, which launched in 2000 and has attendance approaching 3,000 at four campuses in Louisville and Southern Indiana, said such attitudes can be corrected by appreciating the "paradox, beauty and mysticism" in the Bible — for example, acknowledging the roles of both human free will and God's sovereignty.
Calvinism or Reformed theology consists of doctrines rooted in the writings of 16th-century Protestant reformer John Calvin.
The so-called five points of Calvinism— summarized after Calvin's death and highlighting only a portion of his wide-ranging theology — are often summarized by the acronym TULIP:
— Humans are Totally depraved.
— God Unconditionally elects some for salvation.
— Jesus' death made Limited atonement effective only for the elect.
— Grace is Irresistible to the elect.
— Saints will Persevere to the end.
Many Calvinists embrace only three or four points, but New Calvinist pastors and churches typically accept all five.
The New Calvinist movement has been driven by books by contemporary authors such as Minnesota pastor John Piper and John MacArthur, conferences such as Together for the Gospel, and a revived interest in the devotional writings of 18th-century Puritan Jonathan Edwards and the sermons of 19th-century English Baptist Charles Spurgeon.
Sources: "Calvin for Armchair Theologians," by Christopher Elwood; "Young, Restless and Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists," by Collin Hansen; "Trouble with the Tulip," by Frank Page; Courier-Journal archives.