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Ten Myths about Calvinism by Kenneth J. Stewart

D. G. Hart

Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition, by Kenneth J. Stewart. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011, 301 pages, $24.00, paper.

Orthodox Presbyterians (along with other conservative Calvinists) get nervous when they see the word broad applied to Reformed Protestantism. After all, the existence of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, not to mention other conservative Reformed communions, is tethered to resisting the increasing breadth of the historic Protestant church. Lefferts Loetscher’s book, The Broadening Church: A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church since 1869 (1954), for instance, documents the doctrinal latitude that prevailed within the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and employs the word broad to characterize the very developments that led conservatives to oppose liberalism and found a new Presbyterian communion. Orthodox Presbyterians might not draw the line that narrowly, as if that is the best way to describe a Reformed church. But breadth has always connoted unacceptable latitude for conservatives.

Kenneth J. Stewart’s use of the word in his subtitle, Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition, is both odd and telling given the record of conservative Presbyterians’ opposition (both OPC and PCA) to theological liberalism. Potential readers should not dismiss the book because Stewart approves of breadth—he does, after all, want to recover Reformed Protestantism’s breadth. Still, the author’s word choice is indicative of his purpose. “Extremists” (12) have had too much sway within contemporary Calvinism for Stewart’s taste. His book is designed to walk Calvinists away from the cliff of self-destruction back to the safety of moderation. The word he uses to describe this better place is “mainstream.” Stewart believes he has found this valuable moderate understanding of Calvinism and by clearing away the ten myths in which both Calvinists and non-Calvinists traffic he provides Reformed Protestants with a healthier understanding of their tradition.

Of the book’s ten myths, four are ones of which Calvinists are guilty and six are common among non-Calvinists. This uncanny resemblance to the Decalogue begins with an inversion of the first commandment—if people are to have only one God, Calvinists, according to Stewart, are wrong to have only one founder of Calvinism. The Covenant College professor argues correctly that Calvin was only one of many Reformed Protestant churchmen so that appeals to the Geneva pastor to settle debates miss the Reformed tradition’s variety and breadth. The next two myths more or less follow from this. Calvin’s view of predestination is not the standard for Calvinism (#2) any more than TULIP (Stewart does not attribute this to Calvin) should be the measure (#3). Rounding out the myths that Calvinists tell about themselves is one that says Calvinism is skeptical of revival and pietism (#4). Myth four is one case where Stewart gives evidence—most of the others he attributes to the mythological “some,” “many,” and “most,” such that a reader wonders who exactly these extremists are. Stewart apparently knows.

The other six myths involve complaints about Calvinism by outsiders. These include: hostility to missions (#5), indifference to moral living (#6), support for theocratic governments (#7), opposition to the arts (#8), advocacy of male chauvinism (#9), and encouragement of racism (#10).

The net effect of Stewart’s demythologization is not simply to present a more complicated view of Calvinism but also a less conservative and more progressive Reformed tradition. In his chapter on gender Stewart, for instance, describes Calvin as “progressive” for his time on women’s roles (229). This gives the book a feel of doing for the history of Calvinism what John Frame did for the regulative principle of worship—namely, redefine it so that the definer is now in the mainstream of the new definition. First, Stewart reconceives Calvinism by taking better account of Reformed Protestantism’s various streams of historical development. Then, he presents a different view of Calvinism on a variety of modern topics like politics, race, and gender. The result is a Calvinism that is not combative in the church and appealing to its cultured despisers. Stewart’s breadth, then, is twofold—first, a broader historical account and second, a more inclusive version of contemporary Calvinism.

This leaves Stewart’s reconstruction in a major bind because his call for inclusion winds up being divorced from historical recovery. Instead of going back to the sources, Stewart wants to point out the breadth of early Reformed Protestantism apparently to argue for contemporary broadness. Whether the diversity of older Reformed voices will support contemporary progressivism is a question that generally haunts proponents of breadth.

Stewart’s appeal to diversity has its moments. For instance, in his historical recovery he is right to remind Calvinists and others that John Calvin was only a convert to Protestantism some twelve years after Ulrich Zwingli’s initial reforms in Zurich, which were technically the beginning of Reformed Protestantism. Meanwhile, Geneva was relatively late to the Reformed world, after other Swiss cities such as Basle and Bern. In other words, Calvin did not found Calvinism and his writings are not the ur-text for the Reformed tradition. At the same time, in Stewart’s haste to back away from the full-throttled Calvinism of the Five Points, he shows a remarkable disdain for Dutch Calvinism and the Synod of Dordt. He writes that Presbyterians owe “no explicit loyalty to the Canons of Dordt” except to the extent that Reformed teaching is embodied in the Westminster Standards (90). He adds that lots of participants in the new Calvinist movement—Southern Baptists, charismatics, Anglicans—also have no obligations to acknowledge Dordt, as if any of these Protestants are tied to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (91). To be sure, Dordt was a response to real diversity within the Dutch churches about predestination and its implications. But Dordt itself was an international synod that gained the approval of Reformed churches throughout Europe (and it was hardly at variance with the Westminster Assembly). Stewart’s appeal to diversity, in other words, is selective and betrays an attempt to fashion a Calvinism friendly to the broader evangelical world.

The Calvinist history which Stewart seems most interested to recover is not Calvin’s teaching on predestination or seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy reflected in Dordt and Westminster but the Calvinist renewal movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here the book’s conclusion is telling. Stewart describes five movements of Calvinist resurgence, few of which were based in the Reformed churches or held to the Reformed confessions but often took shape in parachurch agencies highly beholden to the revivalist side of experimental Calvinism. The first and most recent is Martin Lloyd Jones and James Montgomery Boice. In the second, Stewart lumps together the Sovereign Grace Union and isolated Reformed leaders like Machen, Arthur W. Pink, and Louis Berkhof. The third example of Calvinist resurgence was Abraham Kuyper and neo-Calvinism. The fourth was the early nineteenth-century reveil (revival) associated in part with Robert Haldane but that took root across Europe and helped in part to bring Calvin’s works back into circulation. The last instance of resurgence was the Great Awakening of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. These movements yielded a Calvinism that was “new-old ... a fusion of elements from long ago with contemporary developments” (288). They also represent the kind of Calvinism Stewart thinks “we” need—“fewer angular, sharp-elbowed Calvinists who glory in what distinguishes their stance from that of others and a lot more supporters of the Reformed faith who rejoice in what they hold in common with others” (289).

Whether Stewart’s historical revisionism will yield the kind of smooth and generous Calvinism for which he hopes is questionable since the very distinction he makes between the good and bad kinds of Calvinism rests on doing exactly what he forbids—namely distinguishing one kind from another. It is also not clear whether Stewart himself is up to the challenge of Calvinist diversity since he ends his brief for a kinder, gentler Calvinism with Calvin having the last word. “Calvin, after all, insisted he would if necessary ‘cross ten seas,’ ” Stewart writes, “if he could promote agreement in the central doctrines of the faith with fellow believers” (290). The book that precedes this last sentence is well worth the read because it is filled with important historical material. Whether the evidence permits a breadth of interpretations is not something that Stewart admits.

Darryl G. Hart is visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and an elder at Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, November, 2012.

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