Previous articles in this series: Oct. 1, Nov. 1 and Nov. 15, 2016 editorials.
With this editorial we conclude our critique of Kenneth Stewart’s book, Ten Myths About Calvinism (IVP Academic, 2011).
What Stewart’s book makes plain is that he wants to retain the right to be called a ‘Calvinist’ while he calls into question the very doctrines that were central to Calvin himself—in fact, 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, 2016 editorial).
We devote one more editorial to Stewart’s book because we are convinced that, in too many instances, this is becoming the ‘Calvinism’ of our day. What Stewart is proposing is a ‘neo-Calvinism’ that he wants others, new to Calvinism, to adopt as their own.
Stewart himself came to Calvinism from the ‘outside,’ filled with zeal for Calvinism. But now, upon reflection, he is convinced he was overly zealous for a ‘too stringent’ brand of Calvinism and would like to counsel other young Calvinists to temper their zeal and focus their energies on doctrines that are of a “truly abiding value in Calvinism” (93). And, according to Stewart, those of a “truly abiding value” are the ones that would “serve the interests of ‘our common Christianity.’” (93)
And “our common Christianity,” of course, extends beyond those who profess any brand of Calvinism. This is plain from Stewart’s telling remark in connection with two Anglican evangelicals of Calvinist repute in the late 1700s, who wrote to criticize their bishop who had publicly opposed Calvinism. But, remarks Stewart, they wrote in such a way that showed “…they were determined not to contend for the Calvinist system so much [!] as what they termed ‘our common Christianity,’ that is, things held in common by all scriptural Christians” (83).
This Stewart found commendable.
You may recall 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)” (emphasis added).
As previously stated, our main concern is not with the ‘myths’ of the second section, but with Stewart’s first section, namely, “Four Myths Calvinists Should Not Be Circulating (But Are).”
Having critiqued the first two of what Stewart labels as myths spread by Calvinists, namely, “One Man (Calvin) and One City (Geneva) Are Determinative” and “Calvin’s View of Predestination Must Be Ours,” we offer a brief critique of Stewart’s criticism of what he labels the third myth about Calvinism, namely, that “TULIP [should be] the yardstick of what is truly [!] Reformed.”
Upon reading that some fellow, in the name of what is truly Reformed and Calvinistic, wants to jettison TULIP as an orthodox and proper description of Reformed Calvinism, one might be inclined simply to dismiss that fellow as an ‘egghead’ of the ‘first water,’ and proceed to the next ‘chicken coop’ to gather something worth one’s time.
But we would not call Stewart an ‘egghead.’ An apostatizing Calvinist perhaps, but not an ‘egghead.’
Keep in mind that Stewart represents a movement within Calvinism that wants to change Calvinism’s time-honored doctrines and perspective by claiming that it is the traditional interpretations of Calvin’s writings, and even of the Reformed creeds (in particular of the Canons of Dordt), that has had it all wrong. It is this new perspective that must be adopted and proclaimed.
As there is a ‘New Perspective on Paul’ that has become all the rage among the new generation of biblical scholars (how could men so ‘ancient’ as Luther, Calvin, Turretin, Hodge, Bavinck, et al correctly understand Paul’s writings?), so there is to be a ‘New Perspective’ on the reading of Calvin and the Reformed creeds, in particular of the Canons of Dordt.
It is Stewart’s thesis that the points of doctrine represented by the acronym TULIP are not “a faithful…theological shorthand for a much more comprehensive statement of Calvinist theology delivered at the international Reformed Synod hosted at Dordrecht, the Netherlands in 1618-19” (76).
Notice, Stewart speaks of the Canons in terms of being “much more comprehensive” [!] than the doctrines represented by TULIP.
And make no mistake, by “much more [!] comprehensive” Stewart wants us to believe that the Canons do not really condemn the very doctrinal errors they were drawn up to condemn. This is why Stewart takes aim at TULIP and, in particular, the doctrines represented by the descriptive labels ‘total depravity,’ ‘limited atonement,’ and ‘irresistible grace’ (cf. p. 77).
According to Stewart, to use such terminology to describe what Calvin and the Canons have taught is to have misread and misunderstood both Calvin and Dordt.
And where, pray tell, is the proof of that?
To be blunt, we find Stewart’s proof and evidence of this startling contention altogether baffling.
Mind you, we are not baffled by what doctrines Stewart, by some theological sleight of hand, wants to have disappear in order to replace them with some newly minted, and less offensive, doctrines. We are baffled by what Stewart offers as proof for his contention that TULIP is not the right ‘flower’ to correctly represent the positions of Calvin and the Canons when it comes to the doctrines of sin and grace, baffled that Stewart should think his ‘brief ’ against the use of TULIP to describe historic Calvinism should carry any weight.
Stewart spends a number of pages demonstrating that the acronym TULIP is of relatively recent vintage, an acronym that almost certainly did not occur until the early 1900s.
Stewart then proceeds to list a number of theologians with a reputation as Calvinists who used terms other than the ones represented by TULIP to describe the five points associated with Calvinism, men such as the Presbyterians B.B. Warfield and R. L. Dabney, the Anglican Bishop W. Parks (a close friend of Toplady), as well as John Gill, and more recently J. I. Packer. Other names are enlisted, men such as C. Spurgeon and H. Bonar of Scottish extraction. Men, one and all, whom most have identified with historic Calvinism, but who used labels other than those of TULIP to describe the five points—labels such as the Fall of man, original sin, particular atonement, general redemption, and effectual calling in place of total depravity, limited atonement, and irresistible grace (cf. p. 80ff ).
All of which may be true. But proving what?
That the acronym TULIP might be of twentieth-century vintage is not surprising. It is used, after all, to identify and describe the five heads of the Canons of Dordt, which is a Dutch Reformed confession. And TULIP is an English acronym.
When did our Dutch Reformed fathers come to the States and begin to translate their confessions into English and use English as their theological language?
In the early part of the twentieth century!
Is it, then, really at all surprising that the acronym TULIP should spring up and become popular at that time? To be sure, Presbyterians were familiar with the Canons. But as for tulips, would such be their flower (label) of choice?
And looking over the names on Stewart’s list, there are more than one whose consistent Calvinism leaves something to be desired. Dabney? Packer these days? And others as well.
What becomes plain is that Stewart wants to have Calvinists maintain depravity without describing it as total, atonement without maintaining it is limited (as to its scope), and salvation all of grace but not a grace that is irresistible in its power.
After all, when it comes to the latter, how can you justify proclaiming a God who is gracious to all (in some sense, as in a well-meant offer), if you are fully persuaded that His Holy Spirit has determined to be gracious unto and to work grace only in some?
Out with “irresistible”!
Let it be understood that what determines whether the descriptive adjectives “total,” “limited,” and “irresistible” are accurate, truthful descriptions of Calvin’s teachings or of Dordt’s declarations is not what this or that self-professed Calvinistic theologian wrote or taught. The question is, what did Calvin and the Canons themselves declare concerning the doctrines at issue?
Nor is the question whether either Calvin or Dordt used the adjectives total, limited, or irresistible. The question is, do these adjectives accurately describe the language of Calvin and Dordt when it comes to these doctrines?
Without equivocation, we say, they do!
For instance, when it comes to the doctrine of the depth of fallen man’s corruption, what do you find in Calvin’s writings?
One quote from his Institutes should suffice.
Therefore let us hold this as an undoubted truth…: the mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure, and infamous. The heart is so steeped in the poison of sin that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench. But if some men occasionally make a show of good, their minds nevertheless ever remain enveloped in hypocrisy and deceitful craft, and their hearts bound by inner perversity.1
We submit to you this is a depravity as total as depravity, a being dead in trespasses and sins, can get.
Turning to the Canons, Heads III/IV, we find language just as uncompromising. What underscores the Canon’s perspective on this truth about man can be found in Dordt’s rejection of errors. There the Synod rejected the error (#4) of those
Who teach that the unregenerate man is not really nor utterly [!] dead in sin, nor destitute of all powers unto spiritual good, but that he can yet hunger and thirst after righteousness and life, and offer the sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit, which is pleasing to God.
Utterly dead in sin.
Not even those given to escape plain truths by resorting to ‘nuances’ can nuance a difference between the two phrases, we would think.
In the interest of space, we must leave unaddressed the issue of applying the adjective “limited” to “atonement.” Perhaps in a later article.
We content ourselves with addressing the ‘correctness’ of describing Dordt’s doctrine of saving grace as being of an ‘irresistible’ sort.
The Canons, in its rejection of errors, is quite illuminating on this point. Dordt’s synod rejected as guilty of error,
Those who teach that God in the regeneration of man does not use such powers of His omnipotence [!] as potently and infallibly bend man’s will to faith and conversion, but that all the works of grace having been accomplished, which God employs to convert man, man may yet so resist[!] God and the Holy Spirit when God intends man’s regeneration and wills to regenerate him, and indeed that man often does so resist….
Rejection: For this is nothing less than the denial of all the efficiency [!] of God’s grace in our conversion, and the subjecting of the will of Almighty God to the will of man (Head III/IV, B, Error 8).
So grace is defined by Dordt in terms of an “omnipotence” that “infallibly bends man’s will,” and then states that those who would challenge this are guilty of denying “the efficiency of God’s grace.”
If you can find a difference between what the Reformed have described as irresistible grace and what Dordt calls the ‘efficiency of God’s grace,’ all I can say is, you are more ‘nuanced’ than I am.
But I would then challenge your orthodoxy.
And it is this matter of orthodoxy that is the key point!
That is the issue. Not, what does this theologian of Calvinistic reputation say?, and how does that one couch his description of this “Calvinistic” point or that? In fact, not even what might be found in some writing by Calvin himself is decisive.
Once the Lord Christ spoke through His church at the Synod of Dordt (1618-19), not even Calvin himself may define what is Reformed or what has become known as ‘Calvinism,’ not if you claim to be a truly Reformed officebearer.
The question is, what saith the Canons?
Dordt defines what is orthodox truth for one who would call himself Reformed and consistently Calvinistic. The Reformed officebearer is bound by its explanations through the Formula of Subscription.
And one subscribes because he is fully convinced that what Dordt’s international synod in its five heads of doctrine set forth is in full accord with the Apostolic Scriptures.
Say what Stewart will, it is TULIP (and what its letters describe) that is the flower that properly represents the Canons of Dordt with its doctrines so firmly rooted in the soil of the Scriptures.
1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. I, ed. John T. McNeill; transl. Ford L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 340.