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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