Previous article in this series: October 1, 2016, p. 5.
We continue our critique of Kenneth Stewart’s book, Ten Myths About Calvinism (IVP Academic, 2011—cf. SB, Oct. 1 editorial).
Our thesis is that Stewart’s book makes it plain that, when all is said and done, what Stewart wants is to retain the right to be called a ‘Calvinist’ (and ‘Reformed’) while undermining doctrines that were central to Calvin himself—doctrines that are fundamental to any theology that has the right to call itself ‘historically Reformed.’ In particular, doctrines that have to do with God’s sovereign will and grace (cf. the Oct. 1 editorial).
We devote some editorials to this because we are convinced that, in far too many instances, this is becoming the ‘Calvinism’ of our day, a ‘neo-Calvinism’ that Stewart wants to encourage and justify.
We remind the reader that Stewart’s book is divided into two sections: The first is labeled: “Four Myths Calvinists Should Not Be Circulating (But Are)”; the second is labeled: “Six Myths Non-Calvinists Should Not Be Circulating (But Are).”
As stated, our main concern is not with the second section, myths commonly circulated by non-Calvinists (or better, anti-Calvinists), though we cannot agree with everything Stewart writes in that section either. Rather our focus is on Stewart’s first section entitled “Four Myths Calvinists Should Not Be Circulating (But Are).”
The four ideas that, according to Stewart, contemporary Calvinists should dismiss as myths are these: “One Man (Calvin) and One City (Geneva) Are Determinative”; “Calvin’s View of Predestination Must Be Ours”; “TULIP is the Yardstick of the Truly Reformed”; and, “Calvinists Take a Dim View of Revival and Awakening.”
It is especially in myths two and three (as he calls them) that Stewart’s departure from historic Calvinism is exposed.
However, it is in his first ‘myth’ that Stewart lays the groundwork for what he labels as ‘myths’ two and three.
Stewart, while compelled to acknowledge that in the days of Calvin and Beza “Geneva enjoyed this reputation as a bastion of Reformation orthodoxy and zeal throughout the sixteenth century” and that, as a result, “…theological students from across Europe flocked there in great numbers” (23-25), yet goes to great lengths to prove how quickly the academy at Geneva went apostate and “…lost its exemplary reputation for rigorous Christianity…” in the centuries following (25).
As a result of Geneva’s loss of reputation, in the next two centuries European theologians other than Calvin were the theologians of influence and were the names on everyone’s lips.
Stewart goes on to contend that it was not until the 1800s that the works of Calvin, such as his Institutes and Calvin’s Calvinism, enjoyed a revival and publishing surge, putting his writings back on shelves of Reformed believers.
And this supposedly warrants the conclusion that,
Despite what conservative Calvinistic literature continues to reiterate by profuse references to Calvin and the city he labored in, it is not justifiable [emphasis added] to continue to think in terms of a preeminent reformer [namely, Calvin] and [his] city being the prime mediators of this theological movement down to our own time” (35).
In reality, what is not justifiable is that Stewart should argue that because Geneva early on lost its reputation as a bastion of orthodoxy, that therefore Calvin’s influence upon orthodox Reformed thinking was not of primary (defining) significance over the following 200 years. As if it is just that ‘recent’ zealots in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have made it seem that Calvin and his writings were of primary influence.
To be sure, soon after the death of Beza (Calvin’s successor in Geneva) solid ‘Calvinism’ ceased to be taught in the Academy of Geneva. But does it follow that Calvin’s doctrinal influence and stature in other Reformed academies that sprang up across Europe also rapidly faded and were dismissed? Especially when it was Calvin’s and Beza’s students that taught in so many of these academies?
An argument without merit.
And then to argue that because in the two centuries following Calvin’s death it was not Calvin’s works that Reformed believers commonly quoted but many other Reformed writings and preachers, that therefore Calvin’s theological positions were not of primary influence for Reformed orthodoxy is another specious argument.
The question is not with what books and theologians the people were most familiar in the two hundred years following Calvin’s death, and what writers they quoted. The question is, From whom did these popular preachers and writers (whom the people quoted) learn their Reformed orthodoxy, whose books and writings were their source?
From whom but Calvin primarily!
Zacharias Ursinus and Guido deBrés come to mind. Dutch Protestants in the centuries following Calvin’s death quoted the Catechism (Heidelberg) and Confession (Belgic) of these two stalwarts again and again.
But from whom, pray tell, did these two get their doctrine and convictions?
From whom but Calvin himself, under whom they had studied.
Stewart’s argument is forced.
What’s behind Stewart’s misleading argument? Clearly this: Stewart wants to make room in the Reformed church world for men whose teachings are at odds with Calvin and his “Calvinism,” and that in the fundamental area of his doctrines of grace.
Calvinism redefined, if you will.
Something that is subscribed to by far too many today, who want to remain in Reformed churches but without being truly Calvinistic.
And that brings us to what Stewart labels as the second myth about what should be allowed to define a Calvinist.
Stewart’s second myth (which is, we are convinced, what prompted Stewart to write his book to begin with), is that “Calvin’s View of Predestination Must Be Ours”—that is, if one is to be considered orthodox and Reformed.
There is, of course, a semblance of truth to Stewart’s contention. The primary question for the Reformed believer is not whether one’s view of predestination lines up with Calvin’s. The great question is, Does one’s view line up with the Scriptures? With the apostles? And what about the creeds?
And then, when it comes to Calvin, the question is, Does his doctrine line up with that of the apostles and Scripture? If so, what should ours be?
Significantly, Stewart never raises or seeks to answer that question.
What Stewart is intent on doing is warning young Calvinists from “exalting Calvin’s understanding of predestination…” above other Reformers’ view of the doctrine (46).
Why Stewart wants to dissuade young Calvinists from adopting Calvin’s view in the name of the biblical and Reformed faith becomes plain. Stewart is compelled to acknowledge that the mature, fully developed Calvin in his later writings, as he responded to the errors of Pighius and then of Bolsec, explicitly taught what has become known as “double predestination,” a predestination in which God from eternity not only elected some of mankind unto eternal salvation, but also reprobated the rest unto a damnation—and that before they had done good or evil (cf. 53, 54).
Stewart is not happy with the doctrine of eternal reprobation. Those Reformers who taught double predestination Stewart labels as holding to a ‘strident’ form of the doctrine.
What is telling is that Stewart lists Arminius (who studied in Geneva under Beza) as a casualty of Geneva’s ‘strident’ view.
Stewart informs the reader that in Arminius’ examinations for ordination as a minister in Amsterdam and then for professorship in the University of Leiden there is no evidence that he was required to “… endorse the strident [!] predestinarian teaching he found taught at Geneva” (67).
A paragraph later, in speaking of Arminius’ conflict with Gomarus in the University of Leiden over Arminius’ teaching, Stewart states that Arminius and Gomarus “…diverged…in their adherence to the strident [!] elaborations of the doctrine of predestination associated with contemporary scholars Beza and Perkins.”
What Stewart is implying is that it was Calvin and his disciples’ ‘strident’ view of predestination (one might as well read ‘hyper’ view, Calvin then being the original hyper-Calvinist!) that Arminius and his followers reacted to (and understandably so!), and is what drove them to their “Arminianism.” Stewart clearly implies, if certain Calvinists (Calvin among them) had been less ‘strident’ in their views, the overreaction of Arminius could have been avoided.
So, it is Calvin and his brand of Calvinism that is to be blamed for Arminius and many others becoming “Arminians.” Quite an allegation.
And, evidently, we must conclude that the best way to keep church members from leaving the Reformed faith is to be a little less ‘Calvinistic.’
But then, this question: Would what one is left with be the Reformed faith anymore?
To support his claim that Reformed men have the right to reject Calvin’s ‘strident’ view, Stewart contends that other early theologians of Reformed reputation were not nearly so ‘strident’ (hyper) in their doctrine of predestination. He mentions the names of Bullinger and Peter Vermigli among others (58). It is Stewart’s contention that these men taught what is known as “single predestination,” a sovereign, eternal election unto salvation, but not an equally sovereign, eternal reprobation unto condemnation.
We contend Stewart misrepresents these Reformers.
Vermigli is a case in point, as any honest reading of Vermigli’s own words makes plain. While it is true that Vermigli insisted that Scripture uses the word ‘predestination’ only in connection with ‘election unto salvation’, for all that he held to a reprobation from eternity. Quoting Vermigli himself (lifted from a larger quotation found in Stewart’s book), Stewart finds Vermigli stating,
Reprobation is the most wise purpose of God, whereby he hath before all eternitie [!], constantly decreed without any injustice, not to have mercie on those whome he hath not loved, but hath passed over them (59, 60).
Notice that God determined to have no mercy “…on those whom he hath not loved…,” that is, has not loved from “before all eternitie.” That is not the language of those today who, though wanting to retain the name Reformed, are committed to a ‘single predestination’ view in order to jettison the doctrine of reprobation.
Why jettison the doctrine of reprobation?
Why else, but in the service of the well-meant gospel offer (of which Stewart is well aware and favors).
To be sure, there has been since Calvin’s day many a theologian whose teaching on predestination has been something other than that of Calvin himself, men who still claim to be Reformed.
But that does not make them so.
In the end, it comes to this: for the man claiming the right to be labeled orthodox and Reformed, the determining factor is not whether one’s position on predestination is that of Calvin’s; the key factor is, is your position that which is set forth in the Reformed creeds, in this instance, in the Canons of Dordt? And for the Calvinistic Presbyterian, is it still that which is set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms?
No? Then one has forfeited the right of claim to being orthodox and Reformed.
And, to being truly Calvinistic.
And, say what Stewart will, it is Calvin’s Calvinism that is found in the Canons of Dordt (and in the Westminster Confessions as well). Something that Stewart wants to deny, especially in his third myth about TULIP being the yardstick of Calvinism.
That we hope to treat in a future article.