Last week I attended the “Think” Conference organised by Andrew Wilson on behalf of the Newfrontiers Theology Forum. Our subject was, “Is Calvinism Incoherent?” This book could have been written as a direct rebuttal of that charge.
Calvinism tends to get a bad rap. It is widely viewed as a sect pursued by dour white men in service of a dour white god. At the same time, there is the phenomenon of the “New Calvinists”, to such an extent that in March 2009 Time magazine listed New Calvinism as one of the “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” Both these views are somewhat overblown, and help perpetuate the myths that Stewart deals with. As it says on the tin, the book tackles ten myths, the first four being those which “Calvinists should not be circulating (but are)” and then six which “non-Calvinists should not be circulating (but are).” By way of review, I’ll simply offer a quick chapter-by-chapter comment…
1. One Man (Calvin) and One City (Geneva) are Determinative
A simple historical survey demonstrates that this is a myth. Other men (Zwingli, Bullinger, Bucer, Vermigli) and other cities (Zurich, Strasbourg, Frankfurt, Emden) had at least equal significance to Calvin and Geneva during the Reformation. Which means that “Calvinism” is much more variegated than we might think.
2. Calvin’s View of Predestination Must Be Ours
Predestination was not a novel idea dreamed up by Calvin. Indeed, it had been a significant theological strand running back to the teaching of Augustine – and was taught by men as diverse as Aquinas and Wyclif. Calvin’s own theology developed, from a place where predestination barely featured at all, to the 1559 edition of the Institutions by which point it can fairly be described as “double.” However, other key leaders of the Reformation did not hold to this view of double predestination. For example, Vermigli wrote, “I separate the reprobate from the predestinate because the Scriptures nowhere (that I know of) call men that shall be damned, predestinate.” Other Reformers, such as Beza, went even further than Calvin in stating the “double” nature of predestination. So there is a spectrum of thought, and as Stewart points out, the Reformed standards of the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith take a softer view on this matter than Calvin.
3. TULIP is the Yardstick of the Truly Reformed
This is perhaps the pivotal chapter of the book, demonstrating as it does that the TULIP acrostic used to sum up Calvinism (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints) is an invention of the last century, and hence relatively novel, and not especially helpful! Stewart quotes Spurgeon as giving a better example of how to summarize the “five points of Calvinism”:
I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called.
4. Calvinists Take a Dim View of Revival and Awakening
Another historical survey demonstrates that while some Calvinists have been (and are) hostile towards revival there has been (and is) a strong tradition of Reformed revivalists.
5. Calvinism is Largely Antimissionary
The evidence in this chapter is a logical extension of the previous one, and again the historical evidence undermines the charge.
6. Calvinism Promotes Antinomianism
A great concern of Arminianism is that a belief in “once saved always saved” has an inevitably corrosive effect on holiness. But again, the historical evidence simply doesn’t support the accusation that Calvinists fall into antinomianism more than anyone else.
7. Calvinism Leads to Theocracy
Wrong again! Roman Catholicism in medieval Europe promoted theocracy, the Reformation undermined it. Key to this myth is the notion of “Calvin’s Geneva” which purports Calvin as virtual dictator of that city, but this is simply untrue. Instead of the church governing Geneva, the political leaders of the city very clearly had authority over the church.
As this is starting to sound repetitive, I’ll cover the final three chapters in one hit.
8. Calvinism Undermines the Creative Arts
9. Calvinism Resists Gender Equality
10. Calvinism Has Fostered Racial Inequality
In each of these cases Stewart recognises that Calvinists have been guilty, but that there is nothing about Reformed theology that justifies such positions. As Calvin records in the Institutes “Sculpture and painting are gifts from God.” And, for his era, Calvin had a relatively progressive approach towards women. On the question of racial inequality we need to tread carefully and honestly appraise the attitudes and actions of the western nations of all theological stripes during the colonial era, and up to and including American slavery – in doing so we will find the ugly fact that while the Reformed churches were by no means exemplary, no-one else was either.
So there we have it. Ten myths, unpacked, faced up to, and dealt with. This is an extraordinarily helpful book, and should be read by Calvinist and Arminian alike, as it helps show how we have all tended to get things wrong!