A review of the book by Kenneth J Stewart
As one who was a beneficiary of two streams which came from three of the earlier resurgences of Calvinism mentioned by Kenneth Stewart in the later part of his book, it is my pleasure to share a little about this book and explain why it is worth spending the time to read and (I believe) the money to buy. The three earlier resurgences he mentioned provided those influences which led me into the school of theology known as Reformed (or Calvinistic).
They were Abraham Kuyper’s influence in bringing together the two groups of Churches in the Netherlands to form the Gereformeerde Kerken in de Nederlands which in the early twentieth century led Dutch settlers in New Zealand1 to, eventually, form their own congregations. They had been encouraged to join with the Presbyterian Church in that country only to discover that there were ministers who were teaching contrary to the Scriptures. When their protests fell on deaf ears they sought to discover how this situation could have come about and why nothing seemed to be able to correct the problem. They asked help from the churches “back home” in the Netherlands and discovered the problem was the 1901 Declaratory Act which had allowed ministers and elders to subscribe to the Westminster Confession but believe that the Bible was not the word of God but that it “contained the Word of God.”
The second of those resurgences was the upheaval which took place in the Presbyterian Church in America which led J Gresham Machen and several others to form Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.2 When the dutch folk in New Zealand went looking for ministers to help fill their pulpits they wanted to do more than merely provide ministers from the GKN, they wanted to be a truly New Zealand Church and so they sought to find Presbyterian ministers who would help them be more in line with the views of New Zealanders. The men from the OPC who came to New Zealand added their doctrinal views (based on the Westminster Standards) to those of the GKN ministers (the Three Forms of Unity). The denomination took the official stand that the Westminster Confession would be added to the Three Forms to become the doctrinal standards of the new Church. It was a bold move which has not always made life easy but it has helped the New Zealand Church appreciate both the continental and also the Scottish streams of Reformed theology.
If the former were influences on the Church in which I first met the doctrines of grace, the third resurgence was an influence on me personally, as it encouraged growth in the faith. This was the brought about by the Banner of Truth Trust books and a few (way too brief) meetings with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones and others of the trust. As a member of the New Zealand Armed Forces I traveled enough to learn that God had reformed-thinking people in denominations and places where we might least expect them.3 I was, for a time, a Christian book seller who gained great benefit from the policy of the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing house of charging only for books sold. This gave access to all the wonderful reprints of men who wrote before the turn of the century as well as some of the best of American writers in the Reformed tradition. As one, therefore, nurtured in the traditions of the Puritans, the Continental Reformed and Presbyterians (both Scottish and American) it has been a pleasure to read Kenneth Stewart’s book and find in it the same concerns that modern Christians develop an appreciation of the breadth of our heritage.
The one place in the book where I felt Mr Stewart failed to completely achieve his goal of dispelling the ten myths he set out to examine was in the section dealing with Calvinism and Art.4 The flaw is not in what he says but that he does not include enough in his purview as art. The Calvinist is not just accused of iconoclastic views, with respect to paintings and sculptures, which warp his sense of art but, in spite of the fact that much of modern Church music came from the Reformation, that his view of music is lacking. It was commonly argued that excessive syncopation and (in some circles) even harmony was unfitting for Church music. Art however involves much more than painting, sculpturing and music. It would have been good to see how Mr Stewart dealt with the theatrical arts (and hypocrisy) adornments and embellishments on housing and furniture and even the way printers modified the shapes of the lettering in the printing process. Or how about the change in the way painters (like Vermeer, Constable, Turner and so on) saw art as representational or how how the Reformation changed the way fictional stories were written.
In spite of this flaw, however, this is a book which delivers what it sets out to do, both in terms of its dispelling the myths it describes and encouraging a broader understanding of our Reformed heritage. In all fairness it has to be said that even the chapter dealing with art provides enough information to show the charge against the Reformed is greatly exaggerated and in most cases refers only to art in the Churches. We too seldom appreciate the significance of the encouragement given by the Reformers to art in the home and in public places. Second to providing good information which leads to further study (and, yes, Mr Stewart even makes some worthwhile suggestions in that direction) is the ability to ask thought-provoking questions of the reader. Certainly the last question in this chapter on the arts is a challenge to any thoughtful Christian of our era.5
His dealing with the four myths perpetrated by Calvinists is well done. He certainly manages to convince the reader that, as Calvinists, we do seem to have a poor record when it comes to dealing with extreme versions of our tradition. This writer found it a little difficult at times to decide whether the use, say, of a term like “High Calvinism” was a synonym for “Hypercalvinism,” a replacement for “consistent Calvinist” or a way that opponents use to refer to those who “believe all five points of Calvinism.” Sometimes, surely, our difficulty in dealing with the extreme versions of Calvinism is that – on investigation – some of those extremists are more difficult to pin down than we first thought. Then, too, the very breadth of Calvinistic thought allows for faulty expressions which others find implication in which were never really intended. Perhaps the most useful result of reading Mr Stewart’s contribution to this discussion is the way he brings to mind details not contained in the book itself but which corroborate his arguments. This process is consolidated by the questions at the end of each chapter which give an opportunity for sharing some of these insights with others, when used as a study guide. In this writer’s opinion it is well suited for such a role.
For me, personally, the chapter I enjoyed the most was the one dealing with the TULIP acrostic. The historical journey back to the Canons of the Synod of Dordt was a delight, especially for one for whom both the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms were the common fare in the Church. In discussions with Arminians it has quite often been a frustration that they “know” exactly what the letters of the acrostic say. They know all the evil implications of the words (all of which are found in the conclusion to the Canons)6 but actually know little of what Calvinists really believe. If they are prepared to listen and learn – which occasionally happens – it has been my experience that a good way to explain the Reformed Faith (or the doctrines of grace) to them has been to take them through the Canons of Dordt’s teaching. It truly is a better way to help explain the gospel than to use the approach suggested by TULIP. The acrostic may be helpful in certain situations (say for a quick check on where the conversation has reached in what you are trying to say) but it is better, and more often than not more natural, to take the time and explain in detail what we actually believe are the implications as well as the hallmarks of the Reformed Faith. One wise man once told me it was not necessary to cover the whole of the Bible’s teaching in one meeting. Likewise, if the person you are talking to wants to change the conversation, do so. Evangelism is not a sales pitch. It’s answering questions about why we believe as we do. When the answer has been given, unless the person wants more information (in which case they will ask) be quiet and let the Holy Spirit do his work. Our aim is not to win a debate it is to bring the person to love our God and serve him. And the acrostic does not do that at all well, it encourages a sales pitch or (worse) even a confrontational approach. It does not lend itself well to presenting an easy-to-grasp picture of the doctrines it is supposed to represent – hence the reason so many conference speakers have to modify that names of some of the five points.
The good thing about using the Canons is that the origin of the five points in the Remonstrance can be explained first. This approach allows a serious student to research those five points and begin to see the real problem that led to Christ’s death on our behalf – the real effects of sin. The problem is that discussions on the basis of the TULIP acrostic often lead to unnecessary confrontation and, then in order to defend the five points, there is little place for the equally Calvinistic emphases on the need for evangelism, the responsibility of repentance and faith and even the place of the Law in guiding the life of the believer. For the Arminian who happens to be a Christian these are clearly taught in the Bible and to deny them (by our silence) only reinforces his (false) idea that we do not believe in these things. If the only result of reading this book is that it makes the reader aware that stating the doctrines of TULIP is an inadequate way to explain to those of other traditions what is distinctive about Calvinism then Kenneth Stewart will have done a great job of helping Christendom begin to repair the unity which should obtain between Christians of the Protestant Church.
The six myths which are attributed to Calvinists cover a broad range of topics from missions, the role of the Law in the life of the believer, theocracy, creative arts, gender equality and racial inequality. All but the one mentioned above are well done and that one was certainly dealt with persuasively. None of the charges laid against the Reformed faith are new, nor are the answers to the charges. Where Kenneth Stewart is beneficial is in the way his argument is brought together. He threads his way through the subjects and neatly avoids giving unfair criticism to either detractor or defender. It is a masterful example of how a strong case can be made without causing unnecessary offense.
It is the writer’s hope, however, that this book will be like Calvin’s Institutes. Designed to explain the truth about the doctrines taught among those of his subjects who were Protestant, in answer to the calumnies and distortions currently circulating about those beliefs the small booklet grew until it became a really useful compendium of truth. Perhaps a more extended version could include some discussion of the way the Reformed handle key texts which are germane to the myth. This could be useful since it is often alleged that the Reformed need to twist the plain meaning of Scripture to find support for their views. This writer, for one, will be interested in any new offering from the pen of Kenneth J Stewart.