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

A Book Review (Part 2)

August 4, 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


In Part 1 in an earlier post, I began a review of Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition, by Kenneth Stewart (himself a Reformed Theologian).[1] The first post dealt with the first four “myths” that Stewart proposes, which 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.

Four Myths that Non-Calvinists Propagate, But Should Not

The next six “myths” are those propagated by non-Calvinists, but Stewart believes they do so inappropriately.  These six myths being circulated by non-Calvinists are:
(5) that Calvinism is largely antimissionary,
(6) that Calvinism is antinomian,
(7) that Calvinism promotes theocracy,
(8) that Calvinism undermines the creative arts,
(9) that Calvinism resists gender equity, and
(10) that Calvinism has engendered racial inequality.

Myth 5: Calvinism is largely antimissionary.

In some ways, Myth 4 (propagated by Calvinists) that Calvinists take a dim view of revivals and awakenings seems closely related to this Myth 5 (propagated by non-Calvinists), 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.

Myths 6, 8, 9, and 10

I will not deal with each of these purported “myths” individually, mainly because Stewart builds a fairly convincing case against the charges of antinomianism, undermining the creative arts, gender inequity, and racism. Some of these non-Calvinist “myths” might equally be said of other denominational traditions as well, though they may seem at points to attach to Reformed denominations more particularly. For example, the issue of racial inequality comes to mind for the Reformed tradition not only for their involvement in the slave trade in Europe and America but for the more recent practice of apartheid in South Africa (in a nation dominated by a Dutch Reformed church). However, other evangelical denominations have their own challenges with many of these issues, and Stewart cites adequate counterexamples to demonstrate that this practice is not inherent in the Reformed tradition.

Having acknowledged that other denominations share some of these problems, and with the numerous counterexamples that Stewart lists against each of these non-Calvinist propagated “myths,” it would seem to establish the fact that these accusations are not accurate of all Calvinists, and not characteristic of Calvinists as a whole. However, non-Calvinist readers may still be left with some doubt. There was a reason that Stewart listed each of these myths – they are indeed common accusations about Calvinists based on anecdotal evidence. For each of these four myths, it is easy to think of examples to demonstrate why such a charge might be made. It seems evident that there are at least some Calvinists, probably many Calvinists, for whom these charges are facts, not myths – or nobody would ever think such things. As the old saying goes, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”  These accusations were not fabricated out of the air, but come from real life experience – and thus Calvinists should be on guard lest what is true of a few becomes characteristic of the whole.  But again, Stewart builds a sufficient case to demonstrate that these charges do not pertain accurately to all Calvinists, and that they are not characteristic of the Reformed tradition as a whole.

Myth 7:  Calvinism promotes theocracy.

The way that Stewart frames Myth 7, that Calvinism promotes theocracy, is disappointing in that it misses the main point of this concern or accusation about the Reformed tradition. It is true that the early Calvinist church-state unions were essentially theocracies. However, theocracies have been largely absent in Western culture outside the Arab world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Furthermore, rather embarrassingly, Stewart hides the Calvinist Christian Reconstruction or Theonomy movement led by R. J. Rushdoony, Gary Bahnsen, and others in a footnote at the end of the chapter. However, the key issue is not the narrow issue of theocracy, but the broader question of whether Calvinists resisted religious liberty and separation of church and state.  Of this there can be no question, despite Stewart’s weak evidence to the contrary.  Calvinism has thrived primarily in settings such as Geneva in which it was the official state religion, backed by the power of the government. On this issue, the record of Calvinists is not stellar.  Allow me to challenge Stewart’s weak evidence with counterevidence.

Unlike Calvinists, it was the Baptists who were separatists rather than establishmentarians, advocating religious liberty rather than the establishment of a state church. Many Baptists came to America seeking to avoid the religious persecution they had experienced in Europe, only to find the persecution transported to America as well. Roger Williams, pastor of the first Baptist church in America, was exiled to Rhode Island from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of his religious convictions, driven by the established Calvinist Congregationalist church. He protested against the religious persecution in Massachusetts in works such as The Bloody Tenet of Persecution (1644) and The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, Made Yet More Bloody (1652). Imprisonment, taxation, whipping, and seizure of property were commonplace vehicles of this persecution.

John Clarke, who detailed persecution by Calvinist authorities in Ill News from New England, was imprisoned with Obadiah Holmes for the “sin” of ministering in Massachusetts. Holmes was also brutally whipped thirty times with a three-pronged whip. Governor Endicott explained that these Baptist ministers were being imprisoned because they “denied infant baptism” and that they “deserved death.”[2] Isaac Backus, originally a Congregationalist deeply influenced by Jonathan Edwards’ theology, helped restore Calvinistic theology to the Separate Baptists.  But he was tireless in writing tracts and petitions for religious liberty in Connecticut. His mother, like many Baptists, was imprisoned for thirteen weeks for refusing to pay the tax for the established Congregationalist church.[3]

The Baptist leader John Leland, after playing a key role in winning religious freedom in Virginia and helping obtain the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, moved back to Massachusetts and experienced even more persecution. He wrote tracts such as The Rights of Conscience Inalienable; and therefore Religious Opinions not Cognizable by Law: Or, The Highflying Churchman, Stript of His Legal Robe, Appears a Yahoo (1791), in which he called for religious liberty in Connecticut for not only Baptists but for “Jews, Turks, heathen, papists, or deists.”[4] He even brought a 1,200 pound block of cheese to the White House on January 1, 1802, to lobby President Jefferson for religious liberty.[5] The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution became federal law in 1791, but the Presbyterian/ Congregationalist established churches in the New England states continued to fight doggedly against disestablishment in their own states.  The state of Massachusetts did not disestablish the Congregationalist state church until 1833, forty-two years after the First Amendment.[6] So while Baptists were at the forefront of the fight for religious liberty, Calvinists such as the Congregationalists fought it in a delaying action for four decades after the First Amendment granted freedom of religion.  So, on this point, Stewart ignores a great amount of counterevidence and has not provided adequate evidence to substantiate his claim.

Conclusion

Stewart concludes Ten Myths about Calvinism with a reflective chapter which weaves together the various threads of Calvinism and makes his projections for the future of Calvinism.  Entitled “Recovering Our Bearings: Calvinism in the Twenty-First Century,” Stewart recommends that Calvinism get more in touch with the diversity within its own tradition and urges his fellow Calvinists to reject triumphalism in favor of an humbler, more cooperative Calvinism that seeks out commonalities with other believers rather than constantly hammering on areas of difference.

Ten Myths about Calvinism is a great read, a well-researched, well-documented, and interesting book.  I believe that it will become a standard book in the field; I already see references to it in numerous publications. I strongly recommend this book whether you are a Calvinist or not. You will be enriched by reading it.


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

[2] William R. Estep, Revolution within the Revolution: The First Amendment in Historical Context, 1612-1789 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 86-92.

[3]Ibid., 97-119.

[4] Ibid., 157-170. John Leland, The Rights of Conscience Inalienable; and therefore Religious Opinions not Cognizable by Law: Or, The High-Flying Churchman, Stript of His Legal Robe, Appears a Yahoo, is available online at http://classicliberal.tripod.com/misc/ conscience.html.

[5] Stephen Waldman, “The Framers and the Faithful: How Modern Evangelicals Are Ignoring Their Own History,” Washington Monthly (April 2006), available online at http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0604.waldman.html.

[6] An excellent survey of disestablishment of state churches is provided by Carl Esbeck, “Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic,” Brigham Young University Law Review (February 6, 2004), 1-69; available online at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3736/is_200402/ai_n9474018/pg_1. Esbeck notes that for John Adams in 1775, disestablishing the state church was about as likely as dislodging the planets from their orbits in the solar system (p. 44).

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Job

“So while Baptists were at the forefront of the fight for religious liberty, Calvinists such as the Congregationalists fought it in a delaying action for four decades after the First Amendment granted freedom of religion. ”

Does this book deal with Calvinistic Baptists, i.e. Particular Baptists, in his book with regards to this area?

“Calvinism has thrived primarily in settings such as Geneva in which it was the official state religion, backed by the power of the government.”

So, the Southern Baptist Convention, which was dominated by Calvinism until well in the 20th century, was backed by the power of the government? (Further, Calvinist denominations continued to thrive in America long after the full implementation of the 1st amendment. It was liberalism that ended their growth and vitality, not lack of state support.) Also, what of the Dissenters – i.e. Puritans and Baptists – who were persecuted by both the Anglicans and the Catholics in England?

” … 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”

Pardon me, but the “evidence” that Calvinism is anti-missionary is largely anecdotal as well. Suffice to say that there is no way to “prove” that Calvinism is NOT anti-missionary to a person who firmly believes that it is. It must be acknowledged that the reasons why such people believe that Calvinism is anti-missionary is because of 1. logical (to them) conclusions that they draw from the doctrines of unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace and 2. their being unable to conceive of evangelistic methodology that is not centered around convincing someone to make a decision for Jesus Christ (to employ almost verbatim the statement of a sincere non-Calvinist evangelist on SBC Voices). Because of this, 144,000 William Careys will be “anecdotal” while 1 John Ryland Sr. will represent Calvinism (or “many Calvinists”).

Further, – and I say this without having read the book, so I am speaking in general terms as opposed to the context in which the reviewer is addressing – including Lutherans among the Calvinist missionaries is appropriate because Lutherans and Calvinists have similar soteriology.

Finally, by virtue of my being a dedicated, devoted Baptist, I must say that I am not interested at all in “Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition.” Instead, my interest is in Calvinism in the Baptist context, i.e. Particular Baptists, who have 400 years of tradition and include such figures as John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon and the aforementioned William Carey. It would be far more useful to examine books produced by and views of Particular and otherwise Calvinistic/Reformed Baptists on a site titled “SBC Today” than one written by a product of Reformed Theological Seminary. The issues concerning Anglicans, Presbyterians, or those who are simply broadly evangelical without doctrinal or denominational distinctives (i.e. non-denominational Calvinists) are quite diverse from Baptists. A Calvinist Southern Baptist has much more in common with Frank Page than with a Presbyterian and the converse is also true … Frank Page has more in common with Mark Dever than with a Methodist or Pentecostal. So why not narrow the discussion from “Calvinism” or “Reformed” in general to the doctrines and history of Particular Baptists?

Steve Lemke

Sorry, Job, but the partial Calvinism of Particular Baptists is not what this book is about. As the author of the book noted in a reply comment to Part 1 of this review, this book was written by a Reformed thologian, and addressed primarily to Calvinists (i.e., real Calvinists–people in the Presbyterian tradition). I do strongly encourage you to read the book, though. It really does clear up some myths about Calvinism, and proposes a very positive vision for the future of Calvinism.

Job

Dr. Lemke:

Allow me to say in advance that it is not my intent to be flippant, dismissive or otherwise disrespectful in my comments though my words might appear to be.

1. How is reading a book by and for Presbyterians going to make me a better Baptist?

2. As I am Baptist, my primary concern is rather appropriately not with the future of Calvinism, but rather with the future of Baptists. If there is a boom in (evangelical) Presbyterianism but a decline among Particular Baptists, how and why should one such as myself view that as a good thing (apart from, of course, Christ being preached)?

3. Why is a book intended for people of the Presbyterian tradition being reviewed on a Southern Baptist site? What relevance does it have to Southern Baptist issues, Southern Baptist institutions, Southern Baptist people, etc.? For example, are reviews of books dealing with Messianic Judaism, the Assemblies of God and Church of God In Christ denominations, and female pastors in the United Methodist Church forthcoming? If not, why not? Such books would be no less out of place on SBC Today than this selection.

I say this because on the “About SBC Today” page, there is the sentence: “SBC Today exists to restore unity in the convention around biblical discipleship and our historic Baptist distinctives.” How does reviewing a book by and for Presbyterians contribute to that mission? My position is that it does not, but rather the “Studies in Baptist History and Thought” series by Wipf & Stock just might.

Now, I haven’t read any selections from the Studies in Baptist History and Thought series yet, but allow me to say that they are far higher on my priority list than “Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition” is or will be for some time. The reason for this is that learning Baptist history and thought is much more useful to me as a Southern Baptist than learning about Presbyterianism will ever be. (Yes, the Studies in Baptist History and Thought series does contain selections on Particular Baptists.)

I must ask of you … is it better for me to learn more from and about Baptists, or learn more from and about the intended audience of Kenneth Stewart’s book?

Ron Hale

Dear Job,
Don’t you think Dr. Lemke is wise enough, old enough, and educated enough to make a choice about the books that he reads and decides to review.

Respectfully, I would encourage you to spend some extra energy in contacting LifeWay and asking them “why” they promote books by R.C. Sproul and many others of the Presbyterian Reformed branch.

Steve Lemke

Thanks for your comments, Job. I would be happy for Baptists to get much more focused on reading our own Southern Baptist theologians rather than Presbyterians, as Ron Nash noted. I don’t know of any recent Particular Baptist authors — we don’t have any Particular Baptist churches in New Orleans, though we do have some which lean toward Calvinistic soteriology. Anyway, if you would rather read Baptist works rather than Presbyterian works, I applaud you. You’ll save a lot of time not only in the time it takes to read but also in reading long reviews and writing long replies to reviews about such books.

I read more widely because I am a theologian, and that is part of my responsibility. I posted my review in SBC Today because (a) this topic is one that consistently draws the most readers and most comments at SBC Today and other such blogs, (b) the second half of the book and six of Stewart’s “myths” dealt with what he perceived to be confusions of non-Calvinists, and (c) the author consciously intended as a secondary goal for the book to be read by non-Calvinist evangelicals. As Dr. Stewart noted in his comment/reply to the first part of my review, “I wrote the book as a conservative Presbyterian to other Presbyterian and Reformed people. Yet I was conscious that the book lent itself to wider applications in broader evangelical Christianity.” It was this broader application that justifies such a review.

    D.R. Randle

    Steve,

    I believe that you are mistaken in saying that “we don’t have any Particular Baptist churches in New Orleans.” Unless Pontchartrain Baptist Church (an SBC congregation) has ceased to exist in the last year or has changed its constitution since I was a member in 2003, then they are a Particular Baptist Church. The elders and deacons – according to the Constitution that was affirmed while I was there – must hold to all 5 points of Calvinism. Additionally, Vintage Church is an Acts 29 Church in the city. I would assume they would be Particular Baptists (their statement of faith reads, “Christ went to the cross in the place of the sinful believer and died in our place for our sin” – seems pretty particular-leaning to me).

    Also, I may be mistaken about this, but I believe there is still a Reformed Baptist (non-SBC) Church on the Westbank and 2 other Reformed Baptist (not sure of affiliation) Churches in Franklinton and Slidell (which are only minutes away).

Bart Barber

Thank you for the review. As a Southern Baptist who is also a student of Church History, allow me to note, contra Job, that there are a great many Southern Baptists whose academic interests or plain-old curiosity make posts such as this one beneficial to us.

Bill Mac

Interesting. Most of my exposure to Calvinism has been within the boundaries of SBC Calvinism so many of these don’t ring true to my experience.

1. Normally, I have seen Calvinists defending themselves from the charge that they worship or follow John Calvin.
2. Honestly I haven’t heard much about Calvin’s view of predestination.
3. This one is, I think, fair and familiar. Like it or not, TULIP has come to represent, at least in shorthand form what Calvinists think other Calvinists believe. In the non-Calvinist camp, those who hold to TULIP are usually called “extreme Calvinists”. I personally don’t see any great significance in the age of the acrostic, the underlying doctrines have been around longer.
4. I have never heard this myth propagated by Calvinists, but rather by non-Calvinists.
5. This one is certainly a common myth propagated by non-Calvinists.
6-10: I’ve never heard these theories suggested by anyone. Must be they haven’t penetrated the ranks of the SBC yet. I guess Paige Patterson did say that Calvinists tended to be antinomian, but I wouldn’t call that a widespread myth.

Steve Lemke

D. R.,
I don’t think you read all of my sentence, which was, “I don’t know of any recent Particular Baptist authors — we don’t have any Particular Baptist churches in New Orleans, though we do have some which lean toward Calvinistic soteriology.” The churches you mentioned are Southern Baptist churches “which lean toward Calvinistic soteriology,” not members of the Particular Baptist denomination. As a matter of fact, I’ve had trouble finding a current denomination by that name.

    D.R. Randle

    Steve,

    I did read your entire sentence. It seems like you might want to define your terms better. When most scholars speak of Particular Baptists today they are speaking of Baptists who hold to Particular Atonement. And given that you contrasted Particular Baptists with those who simply “lean toward Calvinistic soteriology” it’s pretty reasonable to assume no denomination was implied in your statement. The reality is that those Churches I mentioned don’t simply lean Calvinistic, but identify themselves as Reformed or even as Particular Baptists. I know Jerry Smith at Pontchartrain. He would certainly call himself a Particular Baptist. Thus your original statement was either untrue or unclear. Regardless, my assertion stands that you are incorrect in saying there are no Particular Baptist Churches in NOLA.

Randy Everist

\”Thus your original statement was either untrue or unclear. Regardless, my assertion stands that you are incorrect in saying there are no Particular Baptist Churches in NOLA.\”

Just to be helpful, whether or not his statement is untrue or unclear does hold regard to whether or not your assertion that Dr. Lemke is incorrect stands. Now you may have intended it as a disjunction rather than a dilemma, so that Dr. Lemke\’s statment could have been both untrue and unclear; but in that case what you said is that irrespective of whether not that disjunction is true, it is true to say Dr. Lemke is incorrect. But disjunctions are only true if at least one of the disjuncts is true. But if neither are true, then by logical necessity Dr. Lemke was right. In that case, your assertion that he is incorrect is false (on pain of logical contradiction). If you meant it as a dilemma, where one side must be true and the other false, and the dilemma is false (which is the case if both sides are false), then Dr. Lemke\’s claim is true of logical necessity, and thus the statement that he is incorrect is false. If the dilemma is true but it is only the case that Dr. Lemke\’s statement is not sufficiently clear, then again by logical necessity his statement is true and hence it is false to say he is incorrect.

It is, in fact, only in the case that Dr. Lemke\’s statement was untrue that he is incorrect. Why? Simply because you two are operating on differing definitions. Within the context of his comments, his thoughts (as he expounded upon) surrounded a specific denomination. Your thoughts on the subject revolved around a specific set of doctrines. But the two terms are different and to insist that Dr. Lemke\’s claim was incorrect on the basis of the second term when he used the first is the fallacy of equivocation. Now, whether or not he \”should have\” used the term is clearly up for debate, as language is inherently subjective–and that on differing levels.

There. All that time spent over such a little thing. :)

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