Best Book on Calvinism?

Best Book on Calvinism? May 17, 2013

Our recent post about IVP’s new little handbook to all things Reformed convinced me we need to to reconsider together what Calvinism means. I’m not a Calvinist, but Kenneth Stewart is. He’s a very good thinker and a clear writer and he argues there is more than one kind of Calvinism, and many don’t even know that, especially many of the most vocal New Calvinists of our day. (Nor do some of them know their history of American evangelicalism, but I digress.) We are in Ken Stewart’s debt for his enough-is-enough book, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition. Non-Calvinists are not always informed about Calvinism, and are sometimes fond of pointed jabs that do not describe Calvinists accurately, and so a book like this that shows both deep commitment to Calvinism and friendly fire is one we all need. He is also concerned as well with those Calvinists who think they’ve got it figured out but don’t. What Stewart’s book will do is humble Calvinists into thinking their family is more diverse than is often supposed. As Roger Olson explained Arminian theology from the inside in his Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, so Stewart has provided for us a similar kind of volume.

For whom is this book written? Stewart says it’s for insiders, and I suppose that is especially true but I enjoyed the book and it helps me understand Calvinism. He writes so well it seems he’s writing this for all of us. One senses that this book is aimed in part at those Calvinists who are reducing Calvinism to only some of its theme or who are drawing on only one or two of its various waves. So he sketches in part one of the book those elements that Calvinists are saying about themselves that are simply not accurate.

What this book puts on the table for us all to see is this: Calvinism cannot simply be defined by one theologian, one church, or one idea but is a broad and varied theological persuasion with four centuries of historical conversation. It would be good for critics of Calvinism to read a book like Stewart’s and J.K.A. Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition, whose book I did not review but would welcome a review. So we all need not to equate the movement with its most prominent preachers today.

I believe more critics of Calvinism need to learn to distinguish the “architecture” of Calvinism (it’s emphasis on the glory of God, it’s grasp of God’s sovereignty and majesty and beauty, it’s focus on human sinfulness etc, which themes ought to draw us together) from the more specific articulations of Calvinism, where most of the critics focus. Stewart’s book keeps this sort of distinction, though these terms are mine, in mind to remind us of the essential story of Calvinism.

A brief sketch: Stewart discusses, with ample evidence and thorough explanations, four myths Calvinists should not be circulating (but are):

1. One Man (Calvin) and one City (Geneva) are determinative
2. Calvin’s view of (double) predestination must be ours
3. TULIP is the yardstick of the truly Reformed
4. Calvinists take a dim view of revival and awakening

And six myths non-Calvinists should not be circulating (but are):

1. Calvinism is largely antimissionary
2. Calvinism promotes antinomianism
3. Calvinism leads to theocracy
4. Calvinism undermines the creative arts
5. Calvinism resists gender equality
6. Calvinism has fostered racial inequality.

Recent statements by some Calvinists have brought again into focus kinds of sovereignty of God ideas that push double predestination to the fore, but Stewart shows that Calvin’s later and more radical views affirming double predestination were modified and toned down over time, and that Calvin’s view should not be pressed as the Calvinist view. Stewart’s sketch here is admirable.

As his examination of the (in)appropriateness of thinking TULIP is the best way to organize Calvinist theology. That chp alone is worth the price of this book. It might be healthier for us, and I include myself here, to speak of Calvinism as a tradition than of a specified set of beliefs.

And a comment about the charge that Calvinism is antinomian. My own experience is that this charge is false; Calvinists are not antinomian, and in fact have a tendency (paradoxically) toward a more legalistic framework. To be sure, an emphasis on election and final perseverance can promote antinomian ideas, but I’ve only seen such sillinesses among the immature or in the rhetoric of opponents.

However, Stewart observes that one form of antinomianism, and one not to be bothered by, is to think that Christians are not called to observe the Torah and are called to live out the gospel. But what I’m seeing today among some young Calvinists, e.g., Tullian Tchividjian, appears to me to be an exaggeration of grace theology at the expense of how the Bible frames ethical practices and injunctions. Not to mention how even Calvin talked about the law’s usefulness for the Christian. Clearly, there is no attempt with these — as has been the case at times in church history — to justify sin or to minimize sin. It has to do with the law and commands and how to frame ethics. In other words, instead of simply permitting someone like Jesus or Paul to say “follow me” or “do this” they tend to have a need to explain each and everyone of those as expressions of a grace at work in the life so that “follow me” really means “God’s grace will prompt following me.” As I view such approaches, the potency of the command and the appeal to the will are blunted. I don’t see this tendency in Calvin’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, which I’m reading now. All of this to say I was keen on what Stewart had to say about this tendency today. It’s perhaps a version of what is called Spirit-centered antinomianism or High Calvinism, but there is nothing in his book that makes me think he was thinking of this misguided recent trend among some young Calvinists.

This is a repost.

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  • I’m not sure it’s paradoxical that Calvinism tends toward (does not necessitate) legalism. It is a very hierarchical framework from God the Father on down and with the heavy emphasis on sovereignty defined as it is, it becomes somewhat scary to dare to go against that divinely-appointed hierarchy.

  • It’s true. Calvinism isn’t at fault for gender inequality. However – and I could be wrong here – but if I understand Calvinist theology properly, then in their view, God is at fault.

    I don’t hold that view. I think fallen humanity is at fault for all the terrible things in this world. But a Calvinist position would place God at fault for all of those atrocities. What I would want to hear is why a Calvinist thinks God wants gender and racial inequality, along with the war and genocides we see around the world.

  • LT

    Excellent!! A post on the myths of Calvinism and the first two comments out of the box repeat them. Folks, did you even read the post before commenting, or did you go into kneejerk reaction mode?

  • Mine was sort of a bad joke.

  • LT

    Ok, but don’t you think that Calvinists have thought of that, and have some answers to it?

    To say that God “wants” something is somewhat tricky since it uses a commonly thought of human category for God himself, and without human thought. But even then, it’s not entirely without merit. We often “want” things that we think will be bad in the short term because we see the long term good. And we do those things because of the greater good. While all analogies ultimately (and sometimes sooner) fail, the point the Bible seems to make fairly clear is that God does all things for his glory. God, in his wisdom, apparently knows that his great glory and perfection shines most brightly against the backdrop of sinfulness and brokenness.

    Furthermore we live in a broken world where sin brings consequences. And gender and racial inequality, wars, etc. only make sense in this context.

    Two closing comments:
    1. Is the alternative any better? Is a world of out of control random evil better than a world where a loving God is sovereignly ordaining and controlling evil for his own good purposes? I say no.

    2. This type of question is a theodicy type question which is ultimately the attempt to do theology by mere logic apart from revelation. It ultimately submits the revelation of God about himself to the judgment of the created ones. I think that is wrong both theologically and methodologically.

    But to the main point, the myths about Calvinism that the article talks about and that you repeat are not something Calvinists have never thought of, and to which Calvinists have no answer. It would be helpful not to perpetuate these myths.

  • Bev Mitchell


    Your comments on this book, which I read a while back, prompted me to do a quick check on Calvinist responses to it. Searching on the White Horse Inn revealed nothing. At GC, it appears that most of the references to it come from Justin Taylor. There was also a reference to a brief statement from Stewart on why he wrote the book. In the piece, he speaks of fringe players among Calvinists (no names, but apparently numerous and youthful) and quite clearly refers to Calvinism as a movement – almost sounds like Roger Olson referring to Arminianism (or at least post-conservatism) as a movement. This may well be correct, but it seems to me that many (most?) people think of Calvinism more as a closed system of theological thought overseen by a quasi-magesterium, than as a movement. This reorientation could be a good thing if catches on. Is there more out there on the ‘official’ calvinist response to Stewart’s good book?

    Here is the link for the short statement by Stewart

  • scotmcknight

    From what I’ve heard, the traditionally Reformed both agree with Stewart and think what he wrote needs to be said, but it was what most were thinking. So he expresses the Reformed approach. The Neo’s simply aren’t worried about traditional Reformed thinking; they are into their movement.

  • I may have read it wrong, but it seemed that you just expressed the myth in prettier language. Although you did express it very well.

  • Westcoastlife

    I am curious what Steward thinks about women in leadership, from an earlier post he said he thought Calvin was ahead of his time on women in ministry and that the early Calvinists supported secular women leaders (I know they supported Queen Elizabeth over Queen Mary in England), but what about women having absolute top authority in the Church, does he mention this? I’d be curious to know his own thoughts on it too.

    There are many shades of moderation that can still, ultimately, support what the NeoCals brashly support with a heavy dose of overkill (Piper not letting women read scripture in his church, for example). Would he be OK with a woman as the head of a Calvinist denomination? Would that be a problem, or at least, be viewed by him as ignoring the base teachings of Calvinism?

    Then, reading this, I wonder if he is saying Calvinism was actually against racial discrimination? Or, is he just saying it wasn’t as bad as the Puritans and Southern Slave owners made it out to be?

    I guess I am looking at Calvinists as a group who viewed God as holy and sin as terrible, but really didn’t transform much from the world around them (historically), or transform the sexist and misogynistic world around them either. I always hear “they were products of their time” arguments. Is he saying that they were gender and racial egalitarians ahead of their time yet somehow we have all misread them? Or just more moderate than large swaths of the early American Calvinists?

    If it is just degree, then I don’t think it changes much. Any leader who was evil because he was a “product of his time” probably isn’t worth following. Who knows what else he couldn’t manage to sort out. Sure, no one has the complete truth, but I am fine with living with the tension in the Bible between Hebrews are Romans and not buying into one side. When I look at the people who were so assured they suddenly understood things like the mechanisms of atonement, I look at their lives. If they were just a product of their time and place, then I hold their views pretty lightly. Sure, Calvinism as a whole was not completely caught up in their (the early leader’s) minute views, but Calvinists viewed Calvinist Education as truth and any other denomination as useless. That says something, what are they afraid of their own people learning? All truth is God’s truth, if Mother Teresa teaches it to me, a non-catholic, then that is from God too. A Calvinist, historically, would argue this is not possible, as depravity is complete in a non-elect (Catholics were, historically, non-elects to them). That attitude doesn’t seem to be addressed in your review, but to me, that is the main contention I have. God works in mysterious ways and we don’t know where He comes from or where he is going.