The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel.By James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002. 240 pp. Cloth. $17.99.
The Doctrines of Grace by the late James Montgomery Boice, and his successor at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia , Philip Graham Ryken is an explanation and defense of Calvinistic theology. I read the book because I used to be a five-point hyper-Calvinist. Having since rejected the entire system, I occasionally like to see if any of the arguments have changed or developed. I discovered they have not. Although the tone of this book is the most gracious introduction to Calvinism I have ever read, the content of the book is typical Calvinism in that there really is not much grace, and very little gospel.
The book begins with the following statement: “The world should realize with increased clearness that Evangelicalism stands or falls with Calvinism” (p. 17). We are also told that “evangelicalism stands for the gospel and Calvinism stands for grace…the gospel is not really the gospel unless it is a gospel of grace” (p. 18).
How do the authors define and defend such a statement? In the first two chapters, they present the necessity of Calvinism for Evangelicals throughout history. Chapters 3-7 explain and defend the five points of Calvinism, and the final two chapters apply Calvinism to Christians today.
In the first section, regarding the necessity and historicity of Calvinism, I was pleased to read a fairly clear and accurate explanation of how Calvinism came to be. Very rarely do Calvinistic defenders recognize that the system known as “Calvinism” was actually developed many years after Calvin died in response to certain teachings associated with the Reformer Jacob Arminius (p. 18). Calvinism is responsive theology, which, as most historical theologians will admit, is not the most reliable way to do theology.
Another commendable trait in the book is its diagnosis of modern Christianity. The authors identified six negative trends which characterize evangelicalism today. They are: secularism, humanism, relativism, materialism, pragmatism, and anti-intellectualism (p. 21). Most pastors and church leaders today would heartily agree with the diagnosis, but maybe not with the prescription. Boice and Ryken recommend Calvinism as the cure.
One of the strongest aspects of the book is that each of the chapters which discuss the five points, also devote a short section to explaining the tough texts which seem to contradict that particular point. For example, in the chapter on Limited Atonement entitled “Particular Redemption,” texts like 2 Pet 2:1 and 1 John 2:2 are given a Calvinistic explanation (pp. 126-29). In the chapter on Perseverance of the Saints, the authors give their understandings of passages such as Heb 6:4-6 (p. 172) and the parable of the four soils in Matthew 13 (pp. 170-71).
Although there is much commendable information in the book itself, there is much that simply reaffirms my conviction to leave TULIP where it wilted. First, although the problem passages are gallantly dealt with, their approach leaves much to be desired. There is very little pure exegesis in the book. In nearly every instance where a tough passage is introduced, the authors turn to tradition for an explanation.
For example, regarding the doctrine of Total Depravity (renamed Radical Depravity), several passages are cited which seem to imply a human will which is able to choose or reject the gospel. Without attempting to explain the verses, the authors state that “the best way to approach [this] subject is through the debates that took place between the theological giants of past days” (p. 80). Then they recount the debates between Augustine and Pelagius (p. 80), and Luther and Erasmus (p. 82), and provide numerous quotes from Jonathan Edwards (p. 83), the Belgic Confession (p. 83), the Thirty-Nine Articles (p. 83), the Westminster Larger Catechism (p. 87), the Westminster Confession of Faith (p. 87), and the Baptist Confession (p. 87). This is nothing more than an appeal to tradition, one of the very things Luther fought against.
Another shortcoming of the book is the use of circular reasoning. Although we are told that “Calvinism begins in the mind” [p. 183] (rather than the Bible?), many fallacies are evident. In one place we are told that “if [Calvinism is] false, then preaching the gospel is a complete waste of time, for without sovereign grace sinners cannot possibly be delivered from their lost and deadly condition” (p. 210). In other words, if Calvinism is false, then evangelism is pointless, for there is no eternal salvation apart from Calvinism.
The other Calvinistic errors which originally caused me to reject the system were present as well. They confuse terms like “atonement” and “redemption” (p. 119), they make faith a work (p. 124), redefine the words “all” and “world” (p. 130), and teach that regeneration precedes faith (pp. 149-50).
On the issue of the assurance of salvation they seem unclear. In one place they say that assurance is found through faith alone in Christ alone, not by looking to one’s works and that the only way to know one is elect is by whether or not they have believed in Christ (p. 143). Works are for the purpose of aiding faith in the process of sanctification (p. 196). But elsewhere we are told that there is the possibility of false assurance and that the only way to really know if one has been chosen by God or not is if they persevere until the end (p. 157).
In the end, there is nothing new under the sun. This book gives the same, traditional Calvinistic teachings, just presented with new packaging and in the most gracious style I have ever seen. For any JOTGES reader who wants to touch up on or become more familiar with the teachings of Calvinists, I would heartily recommend this book. On the other hand, any reader looking for an accurate explanation of biblical grace will have to go elsewhere.
Jeremy D. Myers
North Valley Alliance Church