The Five Points of Calvinism Defined, Defended, and Documented. By David N. Steele; Curtis C. Thomas; S. Lance Quinn. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004. 247 pp. Paper, $12.99.
I’ll admit it—I’ve been corrected by the Calvinists. As I read this book, I made notes and prepared my review, and was planning to blast the book. But then I read Appendix A, and so decided to write a kinder, gentler review. Appendix A is entitled, “A Kinder, Gentler Calvinism.” I figured that if Calvinists can learn to be gracious toward those who disagree, I should return the favor with this review. Every Calvinist should read this appendix. But not just Calvinists; every Free Grace advocate should read it as well, substituting in “Free Grace theology” every time “Calvinism” is mentioned. The worst testimony to Free Grace theology is ungracious advocates. We must speak the truth, but do so in love (Eph 4:15 ).
Of course, since this is a book review, I do have to be somewhat critical, but will try to be kinder and gentler than originally planned. If I seem over-critical at times, I apologize. All I can say is, “You should have seen the first draft.”
Speaking of first drafts, my first criticism is that Appendix A, though calling for a kinder, gentler Calvinism, should have called for honesty as well. The Appendix critically quotes Laurence Vance’s 1991 edition of The Other Side of Calvinism. Though anything published is technically “fair game,” academic honesty requires that when a book is quoted, only the most recent edition is referenced. If an earlier edition is referenced, as in this appendix, the later edition must at least be mentioned in the footnote. This is not quibbling over details, because the appendix labels the book as a “bitter tirade…[which] moves beyond intellectual debate [and is] downright nasty” (p. 144). While that was somewhat true of the first edition (I have read both), the revised 1999 edition is a much kinder, gentler, intellectually honest, exegetical refutation of Calvinism. The two quotes given as examples of this “bitter tirade” are not found in the new edition (that I could find anyway).
So proper research and academic honesty is not Calvinism’s strong suit. And that about sums up the book. When it attempts to define the theology of James Arminius and his followers, only Calvinists are quoted. Then they write that the theology of the Arminians was condemned by Church councils as heretical, but fail to mention that the Synod of Dort, which condemned Arminius, was a Calvinistic council. No Arminians were allowed in. I am not an Arminian, but it doesn’t seem like they are getting a fair trial.
Following this condemnation of Arminians, the book attempts a Biblical defense of Calvinism (pp. 18-71). Their defense consists in taking one point at a time, explaining the point under consideration, and then listing multitudes of verses which they believe supports their view. There is never any exegesis of those verses. Sometimes a phrase or two in a particular verse is in italics for emphasis. Such a practice is not Biblically or intellectually honest. It gives the unaware reader the idea that Calvinism must be true because of all the verses it can quote. But having lots of verses does not make a view correct. All cults, heresies, isms—even Satan—can practice this tactic. The verses which supposedly support Calvinism have more than one interpretation, and I am personally convinced that none of them, properly understood, teach what Calvinists claim. The list is a good source for Calvinistic proof texts, but other than that, has very little value.
The longest regular section of the book is the Documentation section. It is devoted to providing an annotated bibliography on all the best and most popular Calvinistic books (pp. 78-138). If you’re looking for more Calvinistic reading, here’s the place to start.
The afterward was written by John MacArthur, in which he says that “the ‘five points’ are nothing more or less than what the Bible teaches. The doctrines of grace and divine sovereignty are the very lifeblood of the full and free salvation promised in the gospel” (p. 139). If anyone has wondered where John MacArthur stood, wonder no longer—he is a five-point Calvinist.
The rest of the Calvinism Defined, Defended and Documented is what I view as a digression. A full 100 pages is devoted to a common feature in Calvinistic books—a hodgepodge of appendices. I have already commented on one, but a few others bear critique as well. Appendix B, “Perseverance and Preservation” was interesting, particularly, the following quote: “We have a responsibility to persevere in the faith to the end (striving after holiness), and if we do not hold out, we have no basis for assurance that God is preserving us” (p. 149). This is an amazing admission from a Calvinist, that according to their theology, good works are necessary to make it to heaven. I know they say that such good works “prove” their salvation, rather than provide it, but if two Calvinists have faith, and only one perseveres in good works, which one makes it to heaven? The one with good works. Therefore, what is the distinguishing characteristic of those who make it to heaven? Not faith in Christ, but faithfulness to Christ.
Later, in Appendix E, we are introduced to some “Pitfalls Peculiar to Calvinists.” The first one listed is pride. We are told that “Calvinists too frequently look down their noses at their non-Reformed brothers in Christ. We place ourselves above them. We are the elite; we know more about the deep mysteries than they do. What good men we are. All such attitudes are proud” (p. 193). I heartily agree with this statement, for I have been on both sides. When I was a Calvinist, I smugly looked down my nose at other less-informed Christians. Now that I am not a Calvinist, I frequently get treated with disdain by Calvinists. And I still struggle with such theological pride. Who doesn’t? Even those who claim to have no theological convictions are proud of such a stance. So this appendix was a good reminder. Let us all watch out for pride.
But the Calvinist must be especially careful. Biblically, pride is at the root of all sin and is one of the worst offenses against the sovereignty and holiness of God (Prov 6:16 -17; 16:5; 21:4). If pride is a trait most Calvinists struggle with, and if pride is one of the worst sins, then by their own theology of perseverance, no Calvinist will make it to heaven who habitually struggles with pride. My heart aches for Calvinists who struggle with such a dilemma. There would be a lot less confusion if only they would see that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone, and all these struggles with sin and temptation relate to our sanctification and eternal reward.
A few of the other appendices had interesting information, but little of interest to JOTGES issues. If you are looking for a book which lists all the verses raised in the defense of Calvinism, this is a good book. If you want explanations of how they use these verses to defend their theology, you will have to look elsewhere.
Jeremy D. Myers