Book Analysis: Ten Myths About Calvinism

An intriguing title

The book caught my eye. For a Calvinist the question is, “Is the author for or against Calvinism? A defender or a critic?”

Summer is a time for extra reading and vacation time, especially, at least for ministers. Some for personal enjoyment and relaxation, others for information and instruction.

Kenneth J. Stewart’s book with the above title (IVP Academic, 2011) falls into the latter category.

We bring this book to the attention of our readers for a couple of reasons. First, because the marking of Reformation Day comes the end of this month (its 499th anniversary), and this book has everything to do with a Reformer and his doctrines. And second, because Stewart’s perspective, we fear, represents an increasingly popular perspective of too many ‘Calvinists’ of our day.

That increasingly popular perspective is, as is becoming plain, a modification of Calvin’s ‘Calvinism,’ which is to say, that which is woven into the confessional Reformed faith, and hence, of the gospel truth concerning God and the grace of salvation that is to be preached.

Before we demonstrate Stewart’s desired modification of historic Calvinism, we give a few words about Stewart and the book itself.

According to his introductory section, Stewart came to Calvinism from the ‘outside’, from what he calls the “revivalist stream of evangelism” (12). But, looking back, though he still considers himself to be committed to the Calvinistic perspective of faith and life, Stewart regrets that “[t]his new loyalty also involved my taking what I now recognize to be some wrong turns” (12).

As he further states, “For a considerable time I became a true zealot for the new cause” (12). It’s that past ‘zealotry’ that now evidently troubles Stewart. It is, in large part, what prompted him to write this book.

Stewart is well aware that over the past few decades there has been, as even Time magazine (March 25, 2009) recognized, a resurgence of interest among young theologians and their followers for Calvinism, for its truth of an omnipotent God and its systematic way of theologizing. The long-standing liberalism of the churches in which so many had been raised, which held to nothing for certain, proved to be a limp form of religion, its members drifting away from Christianity altogether in the end. It held no attraction to these young people. The newly discovered Calvinism, on the other hand, with its convictions and consistency has drawn them back to Scripture and truth, a biblical Christianity worth taking a stand for.

Well aware of this, Stewart is concerned that these new converts to Calvinism not make the same mistakes he made, mistakes that he would attribute to his initial over-zealousness for Calvin and his opinion on all matters, and too much certainty of being right and all others wrong. Such zeal, found in too many, must be tempered and modified.

And so the book.

Based on his own experience and journey into what he would call a better-balanced and more mature biblical, Reformed perspective, Stewart would like to counsel and caution the new generation of Calvinists, lest they be numbered with the extremists, because Calvinism, he warns, “has a tendency to generate its share.”

To this critical perspective of Stewart, treated particularly in the opening chapters of the book, we will return.

Why we are critical of Stewart we will make clear.

And it is not because Calvinism in the hands of zealots has not generated men of radical and extreme doctrinal positions. History has proved otherwise. There is, after all, a species of Calvinists that have deserved the label ‘hyper.’ The Deceiver knows how to push men of all persuasions to extremism when given the opportunity.

The important question is, what are the doctrinal emphases that Stewart puts in the category as extremism and tending to radicalism? What are the positions that Stewart cautions against as not ‘necessarily’ being required for one to consider himself Calvinistic and Reformed?

This is what is telling, as we shall see.

This is not to say that we take exception with everything that Stewart writes.

The book is divided into two main sections, two groups of what Stewart labels as ‘myths’ (mistaken notions) about Calvinism that are common, either because they are generally accepted (but should not be), or maliciously circulated by Calvinism’s enemies.

The first section is labeled “Four Myths Calvinists Should Not Be Circulating (But Are)”; the second section is labeled “Six Myths Non- Calvinists Should Not Be Circulating (But Are).”

Our concern is not so much with the second section, myths commonly circulated by non-Calvinists (or better, anti-Calvinists). In this section there is much with which we agree, especially Stewart’s refutation of those criticisms (calumnies) that have been hurled against Calvinism and the Reformed faith for centuries. We have in mind especially the first three myths or calumnies Stewart deals with: the myth that Calvinism is largely anti-missionary; the myth that Calvinism promotes antinomianism; and the myth that Calvinism leads to theocracy (the church ruling the state). These are charges that have been thrown at Calvinism since the days of the Reformation.

While we cannot agree with everything found in these sections, such as Stewart concurring with the charge that the doctrine of eternal justification is inherently antinomian, we can agree that these charges regularly circulated by Rome and the Arminians are myths that are to be refuted and dismissed.

The three remaining myths Stewart treats in the second section are the myths that Calvinism undermines the creative arts; that Calvinism resists gender equality; and that Calvinism has fostered racial inequality. These are charges of a more modern vintage, which charges are certainly fabrications of the opponents of Calvinism, but which we leave to the interested reader to read and consider.

The focus of our issue with Stewart is found in his first section, the section entitled “Four Myths Calvinists Should Not Be Circulating (But Are).” It is here that Stewart’s growing unhappiness with (and departure from) historic Calvinism is revealed. This is made plain by what he labels as the “Four Myths”, and in particular myths two and three.

The four things that Stewart is convinced should be labeled as myths by true, heart-Calvinists are; that “One Man (Calvin) and One City (Geneva) Are Determinative”; that “Calvin’s View of Predestination Must Be Ours”; that “TULIP is the Yardstick of the Truly Reformed”; that “Calvinists Take a Dim View of Revival and Awakening.”

It is in these chapters that Stewart’s desire to revise what is nothing else than historic Calvinistic and the historic Reformed consensus comes to light.

Stewart’s mischievous purpose is really indicated by his subtitle listed on his book’s cover: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition.

In other words, there is a line of historic Calvinism that Stewart has found to be too narrow, which line he would persuade young Calvinists to broaden, that is, become more inclusive of divergent views. This becomes apparent in Stewart’s first section.

That this is Stewart’s deepest intention (and not just defending the historic Reformed faith against calumnies that continue to be hurled against it to this present day) becomes plain already in his introductory section.

Having stated that the Calvinistic strain of Christianity has generated more than its share of extremists, Stewart goes on to state that he has come to the conclusion that “. . .Calvinism has had more trouble restraining its ‘ultras’ than some other forms of Christianity” (12). And then, a telling remark in which Stewart suggests (but really, as becomes plain, is convinced of) that “. . .Calvinism’s reluctance to do this reflects the prominence given by the movement to the conception of God as omnipotent. . .” (13). Stewart assures his readers that he does not dispute God’s sovereign omnipotence, but even then goes on to warn against this “obsession with omnipotence” characterizing it as being “lopsided” (13).

There is reason already in the introduction to be suspect of Stewart’s commitment to thoroughgoing Calvinism. His stated fears and unflattering descriptions of Calvinism in the context of the sovereignty of God indicates quite a drift from what must have initially drawn Stewart to Calvinism.

The direction in which Stewart has drifted is made plain especially in the first three items he wants to label as myths.

The first matter Stewart would have the new generation of Calvinists categorize as a myth is what he labels as “One Man (Calvin) and One City (Geneva) Are Determinative,” by which he means, evidently, as determinative of what historically has come under the banner of Calvinism and what is to be considered biblically true.

Stewart’s position is that “The notion of Calvin’s and Geneva’s dominance. . .[is a] belief [that] has always stood on a suspect foundation” (22).

If all that Stewart was interested in demonstrating in this section was that there were many outstanding Reformers who contributed to the Reformation and the return to biblical truth that came under the name Reformed in time—men such as Bullinger, Bucer, Vermigli, à Lasco, and others—we would have no problem with Stewart’s thesis.

Who would dispute that the Reformation was the fruit of the work of more than one man and one city with its seminary, which men and their contributions ought not be forgotten. Something we here at the Standard Bearer are convinced is exactly the value of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation’s beginning, a glorious opportunity to call to mind, once Luther took his stand and nailed the 95 theses to Wittenberg’s church door, how many men of biblical conviction and spiritual resolve took heed to Luther’s trumpet call and God used in reforming His church and in reviving the life of its members. Young Jean Calvin was only one of many. And Geneva was not the only city where the truth took deep root (for a time).

But Stewart’s interest is broader than that. What Stewart is set upon is to get at some of Calvin’s core doctrines, and raise questions whether one really has to be committed to such doctrines without reservation in order yet to have the right to lay claim to the name “Reformed.” And, we would suppose, not be suspended and deposed from office for expressing “reservations’ about this or that Calvinistic doctrine.

That this is Stewart’s intention becomes clearly manifest in his following chapters, especially, what he labels as common myths two and three (cf. above), as we intend to demonstrate in a future article.