Ten Myths about Calvinism:
Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition
A Book Review (Part 2)
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). 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.” 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.
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.” 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. 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. 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.
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.