03 August 2012

For Calvinism

Some months ago I received a free copy of Michael Horton’s For Calvinism from Zondervan as part of their blogger review programme. For various reasons, it has taken me much longer to review it than I expected, but here at last is my review:

This is one volume of a pair of books exploring two poles of contemporary American evangelicalism. Its sister volume, Against Calvinism by Roger Olsen, argues the case for an Arminian approach. Here Michael Horton offers a passionate and eirenical defence of the Calvinist pole.

His opening chapter outlines the essence of Calvinism in terms of the various solas of the Reformation: ‘Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the source and norm of Christian faith and practice, and this Word proclaims a salvation that is by God’s grace alone (sola gratia), in Christ alone (solo Christo), through faith alone (sola fide). Consequently, all of the glory goes to God alone (soli Deo gloria)’ (p. 27). Thus salvation is entirely and exclusively the work of God (monergism). This is contrasted with Arminianism, which proclaims the free gift of grace to all humankind coupled with an element of synergism (a degree of human cooperation in the work of salvation).

The bulk of the book is given over to an exposition of the so called five points of Calvinism (a.k.a. the doctrines of grace). In the first of these chapters, Horton makes the point that ‘Reformed theology never starts with the fall, but with God’s good creation’ (p. 35) and with the notion that humans are made in the image of God. Thus the first of the five points, total depravity, refers to a distortion of that original goodness. He also reminds us that the ‘total’ in this phrase is extensive rather than intensive; it implies that the distortion applies to every aspect of our being rather than that we are in some particular respect totally depraved.

Moving on to the doctrine of election, Horton insists that the Calvinist insistence on its unconditionality does not imply that it is somehow arbitrary. Rather, the point is that it is entirely a matter of God’s love for us and has nothing to do with our capacity for faith. Some Christians complain that this is not fair and Horton agrees: if God’s response to human sin were rooted exclusively in divine justice, we would all be justly condemned. Election is a matter of divine mercy rather than justice. This is an attractive presentation, but I’m not sure it really answers the most serious criticism of Calvinism, namely that it is inescapably and unacceptably deterministic.

The next chapter explores the doctrine of atonement. Horton summarizes six theories that have been proposed over the centuries to make sense of Christ’s atoning work. He points out that no one theory adequately accounts for the reality. However, in his view, two aspects are essential for any theory to reflect adequately the New Testament witness: redemption must be particular and objective. While no evangelical would dispute the second of these, it is questionable whether the New Testament really does imply that Christ died only for the sins of the elect. Horton marshals the most persuasive Calvinist arguments in favour of this view, but I confess I remain unconvinced.

Finally he combines effectual calling (his preferred term for irresistible grace) and perseverance into a single chapter. These he maintains are implications of the monergism that is fundamental to Calvinist theology.

Having given an outline of the intellectual dimension of Calvinism, Horton turns to its implications for Christian life and practice. Calvinism is variously criticized as either antinomian or legalistic. By contrast, Horton presents a Reformed spirituality in which we work out our sanctification in fear and trembling knowing that it is all by the grace of God. It is a spirituality rooted firmly in the means of grace and virtually opposite in direction to that of much contemporary Christianity. Much contemporary Christianity concentrates on the seeker after God and is directed Godwards; Calvinism is a spirituality for those who have been (perhaps unexpectedly) found by God – it is directed from God to humankind.

Another common criticism of Calvinism is that is has been or is indifferent or antipathetic to Christian mission. Horton admits that there have been hyper-Calvinistic distortions of which this would be true. However, he denies that this was ever true of mainstream Calvinist thinking and demonstrates his point by outlining the Calvinist contribution to Christian missionary activity.

In summary, this is a clearly written and carefully argued defence of Calvinism. It makes an excellent introduction to a major theological and spiritual root of contemporary evangelicalism.

Normal service will be resumed . . .

I am conscious that very little blogging has gone on here in recent months. I could live with that if I were using the time to write other less ephemeral pieces, but the truth is my writing seems to have dried up almost completely. No, I’m not suffering from ‘writer’s block’; I suspect it is largely due to the fact that, when I’m not editing, I have been busy organizing the annual conference for the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. This is the second year I’ve done it, but this year seems to have taken much more time and effort on my part. Anyway, I retire from the SfEP Council after the conference next month, so hopefully blog posting will be a bit more regular after that.