Ten Myths About Calvinism: A Review

In the mid-sixties, my family was in a horrible car crash on Christmas day. The car was totaled. My Dad had a broken ankle and severe lacerations on his forehead. The rest of the family all had their various bruises, cuts, strains, etc. Thankfully, no one was permanently disabled or killed. But my older sister – suffered the strangest of effects. For weeks afterward, she was plagued with uncontrollable crying. It seemed to have no direct connection to her emotional state either. Sad or happy, otherwise engaged or simply thoughtful, nevertheless, she would break out into tears. Everyone thought it would just go away on its own – an after effect of the shock of the whole incident. It didn’t.

One day, my Mom – who had suffered some serious back discomfort from all of this, went to see a Chiropractor who was invaluable in relieving her physical distress. As the whole incident was discussed with him, and all of our various conditions gone over – the curious case of my sister was visited too. And the good Dr. suggested Nancy (my sister) come to see him as well. It was amazing. One adjustment, one thing seriously out of place – put back into place – relieved what everyone assumed was a purely emotional malady. A pinched nerve (or so it was assumed) was producing the episodic and inexplicable crying. It ended that day.

How does all of this relate to Ken Stewart’s “Ten Myths About Calvinism”? Because for lack of a better term – this book is an exercise in ecclesiastical, historical chiropractic. It serves to realign some very critical, misaligned historical conceptions that for some (I have not a doubt in the world) have been producing undiagnosed pains, discomforts and perhaps even tears. It is a healing book. And I am profoundly grateful for it.

Dr. Stewart’s bona fides as standing solidly mid-stream in the Reformed and Calvinistic school is without question. A Th. M from Westminster Seminary; Ph. D from the University of Edinburgh and his 14 year tenure on the faculty of Covenant College (Lookout Mountain GA – PCA) speak for themselves. His bio on Covenant’s website reads in part: “Dr. Stewart is a specialist in the history of Christianity from the Reformation to the present with special interest in the development of the evangelical Protestant tradition.” But it is his thorough research, irenic spirit, and his obvious commitment to and fearless pursuit of – historical Reformation truth as demonstrated in this book that makes me so desirous that this fine work attain a broad reading.

I will confess that on first gloss, not all of the chapter titles intrigued me.

The first 4 chapter are devoted to “Four Myths Calvinists Should Not Be Circulating (But Are) – and were what garnered my immediate attention. As one who considers himself self-consciously “Calvinistic” I found that I had participated at one time or another and to greater or lesser degrees – in believing and propagating the first 3. These “myths” in the order cited in the book are:

1. One man (Calvin) and One City (Geneva) Are Determinative.

2. Calvin’s View of Predestination Must Be Ours.

3. TULIP is the Yardstick of the Truly Reformed.

4. Calvinists Take a Dim View of Revival and Awakening.

To my chagrin – I’ve owned all of the first three in some respect. And have at times hidden my lack of agreement with the 4th. That said – and with each chapter’s discoveries richly documented and footnoted – I found chapter 3 of absolute necessity in the face of the current trend of what Collin Hansen has termed the “Young, Restless and Reformed” movement.

Convincingly establishing that TULIP is a 20th century device (decidedly unhelpful due to its unfortunate reductionism), Dr. Stewart notes that there are 2 predominant “schools” who adhere to it most. The “sovereign grace” school (of which I would have located myself) for whom “the TULIP acronym is sacrosanct; it is a historic formula understood to have been passed down to us by our forebears”, is one. For those in this school, “Dislike and scorn of TULIP is reckoned as being akin to negative attitudes toward the Bible and gospel; unbelievers misjudge them all.”

In contrast, the “apologetic” school shows a “heightened awareness that the doctrines summarized under the rubric of TULIP are capable of being grossly misunderstood.” Hence there have been numerous attempts to reconstruct more accurate ways of explicating the doctrines referred to so as to inhibit those misunderstandings. Dr. Stewart’s footnote refers to no less than 8 examples of this school including the likes of R. C. Sproul, Roger Nicole, Timothy George etc. Of course several myths get exploded in this chapter: That Calvin coined “TULIP”, or that the Synod of Dordt coined it. In fact, Dr. Stewart’s extensive research can trace it no further back than 1913. Do see the detailed historical breakdown (pages 93-95) and appendix in this regard.

This chapter alone is worth the price of the book in its clarion call for us to step back – no matter how tempting it may be – from the sound-bite, Twitterized approach to expounding Biblical truth and the deep, deep doctrines of the Bible in easily distorted and misconstruable forms. This, because such truths are not to be imbibed like M&M’s, and secondly because our own Reformed tradition is NOT so neatly tied up in tidy little packages. Indeed, as the subtitle to this book reminds us – we desperately need to recover the “Breadth of the Reformed Tradition” – and not yield to a pop-history that makes doctrinal expressions lose their appropriate nuances at the hands of the very giants who went before us. When one wants to posit “THE” Reformed view – we must be exceedingly careful. Dr. Stewart will go to great lengths to show how Calvin, Bucer, Zwingli, Luther and a vast array of others spoke guardedly and often with subtle shades that allow for a necessary breadth of understanding and expression virtually lost in some circles today.

The balance of the book is occupied with “Six Myths Non-Calvinists Should Not Be Circulating (But Are).

These are:

1. (ch. 5) Calvinism is Largely Antimissionary.

2. (ch. 6) Calvinism Promotes Antinomianism.

3. (ch. 7) Calvinism Leads to Theocracy.

4. (ch. 8) Calvinism Undermines the Creative Arts.

5. (ch. 9) Calvinism Resists Gender Equality.

6. (ch. 10) Calvinism Has Fostered Racial Inequality.

What I found so interesting in each of these chapters is – that once I got into them, I found myself engrossed in the topics, and delighted at the treatments. And to be honest – these were not topics that interested me on the surface. But there are truly important things said – and re-aligned in each one of them. None could be left out without harming the book over all.

Chapters 9 & 10 especially blew the dust off of topics I had felt some discomfort with, but really had never identified too clearly for myself. I knew “something” was out of joint in these areas – but just what, I was never able to pinpoint – nor (to my embarrassment) did I ever take the proper time to delve into. Once again, I commend these each to you as not only enlightening, but as a means to relieve what may be the source of unidentified discomfort in your own thinking. These are necessary issues we tend to discard because it would require either too much effort to unpack and think through – or perhaps we secretly fear will reveal something we don’t want to see. But let Dr. Stewart take you there. It will be very much worth it.

When the Bible records history – it does so relentlessly – exposing the sins, failures and foibles of its subjects. And the Church can do no less when we look into our own history after the canon had closed. To create a pop version of our own history leads to the creation and perpetuation of the kinds of myths Dr. Stewart labors so lovingly to disabuse us of in this book. He is unafraid to let the truth be known. Especially the truth that as Reformed believers, not all exists in a mythical, monolith of doctrinal precision on every point. Some amazing shades appear in some unexpected places. We’re not talking about foundational formulations which have stood the test of time and scrutiny – but of extrapolations upon the foundations which may or may not be chipped all from the same stone.

But that is as we ought to expect, isn’t it? If Calvin can say the best of theologians are men at best (I “think” it was Calvin) can we not own the reality that each was fallen and each still needs have their assumptions and reasonings tested and re-tested against the canon of Scripture, and the assumptions, reasonings and analyses of other fine (and increasingly informed) theological minds? It seems so. To me at least.

David Hackett Fischer once wrote: “History is, in short, a problem-solving discipline. A historian is someone (anyone) who asks an open-ended question about past events and answers it with selected facts which are arranged in the form of an explanatory paradigm.” Such an endeavor unfolds in a very wonderful way in this book.

Buy it. Read it. Give it to a friend. And let’s grow together. Come to Dr. Stewart for an “adjustment”. I promise you, you’ll feel better when you leave.

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