Ten Myths about Calvinism:
Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition

A Book Review (Part 1)

August 3, 2011

By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the
Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

The subject of Calvinism and Reformed Theology has been one of the “hottest” topics in the evangelical world generally, and among Southern Baptists in particular. Ten Myths about Calvinism[1] makes a valuable contribution to that dialogue. It is authored by Kenneth Stewart, a professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Georgia, who embraces Reformed Theology but writes with balance and fairness that is missing many times in this discussion.

Four Myths that Calvinists Propagate, But Should Not

Of the ten “myths” about Calvinism that Stewart proposes, the first four are myths he believes that Calvinists are circulating, but they should not be doing so.  These four Calvinist-propounded myths are:
(1) that one man (John Calvin) and one city (Geneva) is determinative of all of Calvinism,
(2) that Calvin’s view of predestination must be ours,
(3) that the ‘TULIP” is an appropriate yardstick concerning who is truly Reformed in theology, and
(4) that Calvinists take a dim view of revival and awakening.

Myth 1:  One man (John Calvin) and one city (Geneva) is determinative of all of Calvinism.

Regarding the first “myth,” Stewart builds a convincing and well-documented case that Calvin’s writings were impactful in his own day, but no more so than Reformed leaders of other Swiss cantons.  Calvin’s theological impact had “actually gone into eclipse by the late sixteenth century” (p. 29), and a hybrid form of “Anglo-Calvinism” that had blended with other traditions had emerged (p. 29). Indeed, even in Geneva, Anglican evangelical writer Thomas Haweis remarked in 1800 that “I doubt if there remains a single professor or pastor at Geneva who adheres to Calvin” (p. 25); and British visitor Henry Drummond was unable to find a single volume of Calvin’s Institutes available for sale in Geneva in 1817 (p. 31). It was Victorian England that brought a resurgence in interest in Calvin’s thought by republishing and promulgating his works.  In tracing the influence of the other Reformed thinkers other than Calvin himself, Stewart is, as the subtitle of the book indicates, attempting to recover the full breadth of the Reformed tradition.

Myth 2: Calvin’s view of predestination must be ours.

Stewart also provides compelling evidence to debunk the second “myth,” that Calvin’s view of predestination must be ours. First of all, Stewart traces the development of the doctrine of predestination in Calvin’s own thought.  In the first edition of the Institutes, Calvin endorsed only a modest “consolatory” perspective on predestination, that is, as an assurance of the salvation of believers (p. 49); and a confession penned by Calvin in the same year (1536) to which all the residents of Geneva had to subscribe did not even mention predestination or election (p. 49). It was only after Calvin’s expulsion from Geneva and his contact with the higher predestination view of Martin Bucer in Strasbourg that Calvin took a stronger stance on predestination (pp. 51-56). Key second-generation Reformed leaders such as Heinrich Bullinger and Peter Martyr Vermigli soft-pedaled Calvin’s perspective on predestination, particularly with regard to unbelievers.  It was largely the third generation of Reformed thinkers (principally Theodore Beza and William Perkins) who developed and popularized the stronger Reformed view of predestination (pp. 57-63).  However, most standard Reformed confessions follow Bullinger and the softer “consolatory” view of predestination, namely the Formula of Concord of 1577 (in Lutheranism), the Articles of the Church of England (1547, 1563), the Belgic Confession of 1559, the Scots Confession of 1560, the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, and the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 (pp. 63-65).

Myth 3: The ‘TULIP” acronym is an appropriate yardstick concerning who is truly Reformed in theology.

It is Stewart’s third “myth” (that the “TULIP” acrostic is not regulative of what is or is not legitimate Reformed Theology) that has garnered the most comment about this book, and is probably its greatest contribution. Stewart notes that the “sovereign grace” school of Calvinism has considered the TULIP as a “sacrosanct” historical formula, while the “apologetic” school of Calvinism attempted to alter and reword the acrostic to soften its negative impact on non-Calvinist hearers. Stewart asserts, however, that both of these schools are “unwittingly working from a mistaken premise,” namely the “unwarranted belief” and “common assumption that the acronym TULIP is itself historic” (pp. 76-77).  Stewart traces how Calvinist theologians in the seventeenth and eighteenth century addressed the five doctrines arising from the Synod of Dort utilizing a variety of terms, and none used the TULIP acrostic.  The use of the TULIP acrostic as we now know it does not appear in the record until the twentieth century. The earliest published references are in a periodical article by R. M. Vail in 1913 (reprinted in the appendix of this book), which Vail took from some lectures by a Dr. McAfee in 1905 2(pp. 291-292).  The earliest best-known published source Stewart found (pp. 78-79, 86-87) was Loraine Boettner’s 1932 book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. However, even Boettner warned against “a too close identification of the Five Points and the Calvinist system.”[2] Stewart provides a useful chart summarizing how each of the major Reformed theologians in the last few decades has utilized the TULIP (pp. 93-95).  Since Stewart asserts that the TULIP acronym is built on a misunderstanding of the historical basis of this acronym, he challenges the “slavish, unquestioning loyalty” to the five points (p. 87).  Noting that various Reformed confessions do not align with the five points of the TULIP, Stewart boldly states, “Calling the paraphrasing of Dordt by TULIP a broad-brush approach is arguably too kind. TULIP cannot be allowed to function as a creed” (p. 93).

Myth 4: Calvinists take a dim view of revivals and awakenings.

Stewart does not build as strong a historical basis for the fourth “myth,” that Calvinists take a dim view of revivals and awakenings.  While he notes the involvement of some Calvinists in various awakenings and revivals, he must also list others who opposed the awakenings and revivals. For the most part, Stewart is offering only a moderately convincing apology for Calvinism in this chapter.  The same is true for the next chapter, the first of six myths that non-Calvinists should not be circulating, but they are. Somewhat related to Myth 4, Myth 5 asserts that Calvinism is largely antimissionary. Stewart’s evidence is rather anecdotal, listing a few well-known Calvinist missionaries but never providing adequate evidence that this was true of Calvinism as a whole.  Stewart also drifts off-target in this chapter by addressing the missionary efforts of Catholics, Lutherans, and others, which does little to establish his premise about the missions efforts of Calvinists

In addition to myth (5) that Calvinism is largely antimissionary, the other myths that non-Calvinists propagate are:
(6) Calvinism is antinomian,
(7) Calvinism promotes theocracy,
(8) Calvinism undermines the creative arts,
(9) Calvinism resists gender equity, and
(10) Calvinism has engendered racial inequality.

These will be the subject of the next post.

[1] Kenneth J. Stewart, Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011).

[2] Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1932), 59, cited in Stewart, p. 88.