Will the Real Calvinist Please Stand?

Kenneth J. Stewart. Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011. 11-300.

Christian Historian Ken Stewart seeks to set the record straight regarding Calvinism. The book breaks down into two sections. The first division deals with four myths that are commonly spread by Calvinists. In this section Stewart seeks to answer the following questions:

  • Is the role of Calvin exaggerated by modern Calvinists?
  • Is there a standard Calvinist position on the doctrine of predestination?
  • Does TULIP accurately encapsulate the historic teachings of Reformed Theology?
  • Do Calvinists take a dim view of revival?

The second part of the book explores six views held by some non-Calvinists:

  • Is Calvinism antimissionary?
  • Does Calvinism promote antinomianism?
  • Does the system lead to theocracy?
  • Do Calvinists undermine the creative arts?
  • Did Calvin and his followers resist gender equality?
  • Has Calvinism fostered racial inequality?

When I picked up the book I was most interested to read the second division (myths that non-Calvinists circulate). However, in my estimation, the most insightful conclusions are drawn in the first section. Consider the first myth, which deals with Calvin’s exaggerated role in history. Stewart attributes the popularity of Calvin’s writings to a certain group of editors in the Victorian period that chose to reprint Calvin’s work on a large scale. The author comments,

We need therefore to accept that our readiness to suppose Calvin’s dominance in that age is as much a product of old literary iconography, now centuries old, combined with the well-intended republication programs of the Victorian period. We cannot know, at present, why those Victorian editors who made it their business to reprint Calvin’s works on such a massive scale did not show the same zeal for the writings of Zwingli, Bullinger and Peter Martyr (39).

From this Stewart concludes that Calvin’s influence should not be viewed as standing head and shoulders above the other Reformers.

Ten Myths seeks to accomplish several goals (288-90). Here I list two. First, modern Calvinism is interdependent with other eras of historic Calvinism. Stewart calls it “an alloy combining ideas and emphases from three, four or more eras.” Second, the book is a call for unity and forbearance. The movement is broader than most care to admit. It is a mistake for Calvinists to argue over which strand is the most loyal to the tradition.