Reforming the Reformed
Type "Calvinism" into any web browser and you're likely to find multiple misconceptions about Calvinism and Reformed theology. Ironically, many come from the pens and mouths of Calvinists themselves. In Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (IVP Academic), Kenneth J. Stewart demonstrates that confusion and misapprehension reign among adherents as much, if not more, than among outsiders and opponents.
Stewart, professor of theology at Covenant College, a Reformed school in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, knows the terrain. Ten Myths, an extremely well-researched and lively tour of Reformed theology's history, sets the record straight regarding Calvinism's heroes, legends, beliefs, and fluctuating fortunes. The movement, Stewart argues, is currently riding the latest of six "waves of Calvinist resurgence" since the French Revolution. But all is not well. "It is no time," Stewart warns, "for triumphalism."
Much to my surprise, I discovered the author, a dedicated convert to Calvinism, chastising many who proudly call themselves Reformed. Even when writing about non-Calvinists' misconceptions, he seems intent on calling the new Calvinists and their leaders to a course correction. "We need fewer angular, sharp-elbowed Calvinists who glory in what distinguishes their stance from others," Stewart argues, "and a lot more supporters of the Reformed faith who rejoice in what they hold in common with others." What non-Calvinist wouldn't agree?
I should confess before continuing that I am one of those non-Calvinists, although I have tried to maintain a friendly, irenic tone. I find Stewart's approach refreshing; it gives me hope that both sides can be self-critical and fair as they discuss their differences.
Room for Debate
Four of Stewart's ten myths are held by many Calvinists themselves. First, John Calvin and his Genevan experiment do not determine the entire Reformed tradition. According to Stewart, "Calvinism" is something of a misnomer. Certain Reformed leaders disagreed with Calvin's theology and did not regard him as their spokesman. After Calvin, the movement branched off in several directions, not always remaining strictly faithful to his example.
Stewart's second myth might also come as a shock: Calvin's acolytes do not uniformly share his view of predestination. Many Reformed theologians have argued for single predestination (God has marked some for salvation) rather than Calvin's double predestination (God has marked some for salvation and some for damnation).
The third myth is that TULIP must be the benchmark of the truly Reformed. (TULIP stands for the doctrines of Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.) Stewart's thorough history shows that the acronym probably was coined around 1913. Many enthusiastic converts among the "young, restless, and Reformed" will be shocked to hear a sympathetic voice arguing that "TULIP cannot be allowed to function as a creed." According to Stewart, Reformed theologians past and present have wrongly turned this five-point doctrine into a "Procrustean formula"—an inflexible yardstick of belief.