A Kinder, Gentler Calvinism?
Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition. Kenneth J. Stewart. IVP Academic. 2011.
I have always been an admirer of the character and service of George H.W. Bush. In his speech accepting his party’s nomination for the Presidency he talked of his future “kinder and gentler” conservatism. Though it did not dissuade me from voting for him and has not diminished my respect for him, I think it an unfortunate choice of words. It was taken as descriptive of Bush’s conservatism in contrast with Reagan’s which was what – meaner, harsher?
Dr. Kenneth J. Stewart, Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College, has given us a book in which he seeks to address what he conceives to be myths concerning the Calvinistic tradition. As it turns out the book advocates what might be called a kinder, gentler Calvinism in contrast with a more rigid, less ameliorable, tougher Calvinism.
Following the introduction, the book is divided into two sections with four chapters addressing myths he believes circulate among Calvinists followed by six addressing myths he believes circulate among non-Calvinists. My intention in this review is to address the introduction and the first four chapters.
While Dr. Stewart obviously hopes non-Calvinists will read the book, he knows that he has “written a book like this for those who are already consciously Calvinistic” (p. 12). He has five reasons for addressing us, his fellow Calvinists: (1) our tendency to generate extremism on the fringes more difficult to restrain than extremism on the edges of other expressions of Christianity; (2) our tendency to a romantic primevalism that gets us hung up on Calvin and stuck in a perceived “golden age” which is the 16th century; (3) our failure sufficiently to appreciate Calvinism’s potential for diverse development, which makes us hold onto certain unnecessary distinctives, rather than being open to alternatives; (4) our failure to appreciate our own movement’s complexity with regard to such matters as polity, theology, and evangelism; (5) our failure to be as receptive as we should our opponents’ criticisms and complaints regarding our doctrine and practice.
In the chapters that follow the four myths which we Calvinists ourselves accept and propagate are taken up. The first two address Dr. Stewart’s problems with Calvin himself: Myth 1. Calvin and Geneva are determinative of Calvinism. Myth 2. We must take Calvin’s view of predestination (make that a double, not a single). Then there are two problems associated with Calvin’s followers: Myth 3. TULIP defines what it means to be truly Reformed. Myth 4. Calvinists are lukewarm if not cold toward revival and awakening.
As one reads the book, it becomes clear that Dr. Stewart has given away his agenda with his five reasons for addressing his fellow Calvinists. What Dr. Stewart wants is a Calvinism that is nicer (Reason 1), that is less dependent upon and deferential to Calvin ( Reason 2), that is accepting of a wider diversity of doctrine and practice (Reasons 3, 4), and that is more sensitive and accommodating toward its critics (Reason 5).
Dr. Stewart thinks that Calvin and Geneva are too highly esteemed by many Calvinists. This he attributes largely to an 18th century romanticizing of Calvin as the source and standard of Reformed theology and Geneva as the example of a Reformed civilization (state, church, culture). He does not think it proper that Calvin should have the authority he has in the discussion of what Reformed doctrine and practice are. Dr. Stewart is correct to make the unremarkable observation that Calvin had his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. Calvin is one among others. But Dr. Stewart is mistaken if he thinks that it is something of a quirk of history that gives Calvin his unique role. It is the historians and theologians who, whether or not they like and/or agree with Calvin, have given the status of the magisterial Reformer and theologian among the magisterial Reformed theologians who came before, labored contemporaneously with, and have come after him. Of course, Calvin is not infallible. Of course, he made his mistakes. Who thinks otherwise? Who thinks quoting Calvin settles a controversy? But he holds the position he does simply because in the judgment of history he deserves it.
Dr. Stewart does not believe Calvin’s developed view of predestination should be accepted as the standard view of the doctrine. He regards the developed view as less pastoral and more analytical than Calvin’s earlier treatment of the doctrine. To put it simply, Dr. Stewart wants Calvinists to hold to single predestination, not the objectionable double predestination. Perhaps Dr. Stewart wants to say nothing more than something like this: The Westminster Confession reserves the word “predestinate” for God’s dealings with the elect while it uses the words “pass by” and ”ordain to dishonor and wrath” for God’s dealings with the reprobate. If so, then, when precision is required, we should observe the distinction. However, in non-technical popular usage predestine (predestinate) means to destine before hand which can be applied to both the elect and the reprobate, if we believe that God’s decision determines the eternal destiny of both. Double predestination is not dependent on whether or not the decree regards man as sinner.
But what Dr. Stewart wants is a doctrine of predestination that “has moved beyond Calvin”, that is “shorn of some excesses attached to Calvin’s own views”, that is the result of Calvin’s successors efforts “to ameliorate or modify his (Calvin’s) teaching” (p. 71). Apparently Dr. Stewart believes the doctrine should be that God takes the initiative in the salvation of the elect by choosing them but that God does not predestine the lost to eternal damnation. At the end of the day, regardless of the language we chose and whether or not it is Calvin’s, the question remains, “Did God in eternity determine the eternal state of all angels and humans?” Does God determine who are “the vessels of wrath” and “the vessels of mercy” without regard to any foresight of their worth, character, decisions, responses, or usefulness?
Dr. Stewart thinks the Five Points of Calvinism are an inadequate expression and standard of Calvinism. It has often been noted that the five points are the “five soteriological points of Calvinism.” They summarize the response of the Synod of Dordt to the issues raised by Arminius and his followers. But Dr. Stewart’s problem with the Five Points is not that, since Baptists can affirm them, they cannot be regarded as defining Reformed theology. Nor is his problem that they come nowhere near summarizing the breadth and depth of Reformed theology. His problem is with how definitive they are when it comes to the issues they address – particularly the extent of the atonement. Once it is acknowledged that there is much more to Calvinism than the five points, and that one can affirm the Five Points and not be Reformed, the question has to be asked: Can one who does not agree with the substance of the five points (if not the terminology) be regarded as holding the truly Reformed faith?
Dr. Stewart wants us to understand that Calvinism is much more open to revivals and spiritual renewal than we might think. Now, as one of a small minority who have some criticisms of “experimental Calvinism” and revivalism, but who could hold of convention of likeminded folks in a phone booth (if he could find one), I ask why Dr. Stewart thinks that we Calvinists hold to the myth that “Calvinists take a dim view of revival and awakening.” Who do evangelical Calvinists look to as the exemplars of Calvinistic treatment of the soul? Edwards. Whitefield. Piper. What historians and theologians look favorably upon revivals and awakenings? Iain Murray, Lloyd-Jones, Packer. Those such as Nevin of an earlier age and Clark and Hart of the present day seem to be assigned to the cranky edge of Reformed faith and practice. It seems to me incontrovertible that this supposed myth is no myth at all, as even those who have reservations acknowledge that at least since the Great Awakening Calvinists have been not only open to but embracing of revivals and awakenings.
In the end one wonders why this book was written. It seems it will serve to cause those who favor a broader, softer Calvinism to say, “Amen.” Meanwhile, this book will not cause those who hold a more defined and robust Calvinism to change their minds. The book does little to advance serious discussion and debate among those in the Calvinistic tradition.
It poses another problem for confessional Presbyterians, such as ministers and elders of the Presbyterian Church in America. It really is not an academic book which would provide a better understanding of varieties of Calvinism. It rather is an advocacy book.
And what it advocates is going to a place no one bound by vows accepting the Westminster Standards as teaching the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture may go.
This review was written for the Aquila Report (http://theaquilareport.com/). By kind permission of the editors it appears here upon its publication there.