A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Brendan Bollinger
Shawn Wright, Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, has provided the church with a fine introduction to the distinctive theological position of Calvinism. His purpose in writing, as he explains in his introduction, is fourfold: to explain the Calvinistic interpretation of key biblical doctrines; to inform those who are new to Calvinism; to glorify God and teach others to do likewise; and to show his readers how to rightly understand the gospel. Although these are lofty aspirations, Wright has managed to succeed in all four areas. His approach is systematic, biblically and historically informed, and remarkably thorough, and the format used in the 40 Questions series makes it very easy to locate particular topics/doctrines. The book consists of four main sections: Introductory Questions, Questions About Salvation, Additional Theological Questions, and Practical Questions. These sections are further divided into forty chapters, each of which is intended to answer a particular question. Of these forty chapters, Wright identifies numbers 2, 3, 6, 10, and 40 as especially important and foundational. These questions are notated in the summary below.
Part 1: Introductory Questions
In Part 1, Wright lays the theological foundation for his exposition of Calvinism by systematically establishing the system’s major presuppositions. In so doing, he directly interacts and contends with the foundational assumptions of other opposing systems of thought (most notably, Arminianism). In Questions 1-4, Wright explains what he means by Calvinism. He begins by distinguishing Calvinism from the Reformed Tradition, which he claims is a much broader system of thought which includes certain worldview distinctives, a particular sort of ecclesiology, and the cultural mandate (none of which are necessarily included in Calvinism). Calvinism, as a soteriological system, is a particular way of understanding how sinners are saved. Then, in questions 2-3 (which, as noted above, are very important), he explains the nature and content of Calvinism by presenting the “five points”—Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints. He also here describes the core truths which Calvinism seeks to defend: namely, that all history and life are ruled by the one sovereign and personal God, this God works all things to His glory, and, as part of this prerogative, He delights to set His affection on particular persons to save them. In question 4, Wright explains that one’s response to God’s revelation should be to recognize, love, and worship God for who He is, as well as reverently humble oneself before God’s transcendent greatness.
Wright dedicates questions 5-7 to discussing questions directly pertaining to God’s character. In question 5, he responds to the important query of whether Calvinists believe that God truly loves all of humanity, not just the elect. Wright’s answer is that God loves both the elect and non-elect truly but differently, similarly to how a Christian man loves his wife and the other women at his church truly but differently. God has a special relationship with his elect, but that does not mean He cannot love the non-elect. Question 6 (which is one of the most important in the book) deals with God’s grace. Here, Wright defines grace as one of God’s glorious attributes, namely, his disposition of love and mercy, whereby he freely chooses to love sinners and to draw them into relationship with himself despite their utter unworthiness. It is sovereignly executed, performed and directed by Him alone, with no outside help or influence. In Question 8, in answer to the query of whether the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace is biblical, Wright responds with a hard no, not merely because the direct biblical support for the doctrine is remarkably sparse, but also because those few verses that seem to support it (such as the so-called “universal” passages), when considered in context, do not in fact condone it.
Questions 8-12 deal with human responsibility. In questions 8 and 9, Wright compares the Calvinist and Arminian conceptions of human freedom: compatibilism and libertarianism, respectively. It is worth noting that, in summarizing the Arminian conception of human freedom, he quotes extensively from notable Arminians such as John Wesley, Robert E. Picirilli, and Roger Olson. As he does so, he provides a remarkably balanced and even generous assessment of his opponents’ views. However, this does not keep him from rejecting the Arminian conception of libertarian freedom (i.e., freedom is the ability to choose to do otherwise than one has done or will do) as lacking in direct or meaningful biblical support. Instead, Wright argues for the Calvinist conception of compatibilist freedom, which, in question 10 (another of the key questions in the book) he defines as the belief that the two apparently conflicting statements that “humans are morally responsible creatures” and “God is absolutely sovereign” are compatible (albeit, mysteriously). In Questions 11-12, he lays forth the biblical evidence for this position, arguing that because the Bible is replete with explicit assurances of God’s sovereignty (Deut. 32:39, Ps. 115:3, Isa. 45:7, etc.) and human responsibility (Gen. 3:16-17, Josh. 24:14, Ps. 1:1, etc.), and even includes some apparently self-contradictory verses which seem to fit with compatibilism (Prov. 21:1-2, Phil. 2:12-13), it follows that, while mysterious, compatibilism is thoroughly biblical.
In Questions 13-17, Wright provides a helpful explanation of some of the history of Calvinism and its main evangelical rival, Arminianism. Question 13 deals with the life and thoughts of John Calvin (1509-1564) who, while he was not the first to articulate the doctrinal points which would become known by his name, expressed them in an unusually clear, concise, and compelling manner. In Question 14, Wright discusses some other historical figures who, while they lived before Calvin, nevertheless agreed with much of his doctrine, such as Augustine of Hippo, Gottschalk of Orbais, and Bernard of Clairvaux. Question 15 addresses the life and thought of Jacob (or James) Arminius, who first articulated the rudimentary doctrines which, when developed by his followers, would become known as Arminianism. Finally, Wright concludes this helpful section with a summary of the Synod of Dort and its 18 clarifying points (which were articulated in response to the Remonstrants, who had presented their Arminian theology to the Synod).
Part 2: Questions about Salvation
In Part 2, Wright begins to build upon the foundation he laid in Part 1 by presenting the doctrinal convictions of Calvinism. He does this by working systematically through the concepts of the “five points” (detailed in the introduction) and addressing numerous issues or concerns with each. He begins, fittingly enough, by discussing humanity’s sinfulness and the consequent necessity of divine intervention in Questions 18-22 (which address both the doctrines of Total Depravity and Unconditional Election). Wright quickly establishes in Question 18 that sin, which was introduced at the Fall, has infected every part of every member of humanity, thereby rendering us morally repugnant to God and utterly incapable of doing anything to repair our broken relationship with the Lord. This realization, naturally enough, leads one to the conclusion that God in His grace must sovereignly and independently save dead and corrupt sinners. In Questions 19-22, Wright explains how God goes about saving sinners through the process of predestination and, more specifically, election. Question 19 establishes that, while important, the doctrine of predestination is not the central tenet of Calvinism (God as sovereign Lord is) contra the often-fierce opposition to this doctrine from Arminians. He then goes on to define predestination as God’s eternal determination for all intelligent moral beings (humans and angels) which consists of two components: election (God’s selection of who will be saved) and reprobation (God’s condemnation of the non-elect). In Question 20 (one of the key questions in the book), Wright presents the Bible’s teaching on predestination and election: namely, that God (who is always the subject of the verb “to predestine,” prohorizō) eternally predestined and elected certain individuals to salvation for His glory. Questions 21-22 establish that this divine decision is both unconditional and perfectly fair. While Arminians reject God’s reprobation as being unfair, the Bible teaches that God does, in fact, choose individuals for salvation (and consequently leaves others out).
Questions 23-26 deal with the extent of Christ’s atonement and Calvinism’s assertion of “limited atonement.” In Question 23-25, Wright contends that the Bible seems to indicate that Jesus died only for the elect, both because the “universal” texts which use the words “world” and “all” do not (when considered in context) use these terms to refer to “every human who has ever lived.” Also, the Bible speaks of Christ’s death as accomplishing salvation (i.e., using the terms “propitiation” and “ransom”), not merely making salvation possible. Wright also makes the interesting point that, if Christ’s death only made possible the salvation of all of humanity, there would be an apparent disconnect in the working of the Persons of the Trinity, since the Father would, even according to Arminianism, have at least foreknown who would be saved (i.e., the elect), Christ would have died for all persons, but the Spirit would convict of sin and draw all who heard the gospel, but would only seal those who believed. Whereas, in the Calvinist scheme, all three Persons of the Trinity are unified in their active pursuit of the elect. In Question 26, Wright argues that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement implies particular redemption, since Christ would have to be the substitute for particular individuals, not merely “humanity” as an abstract unit.
In Questions 27-30, Wright speaks of God’s power grace and His preservation of His people (thereby addressing both “Irresistible Grace” and the “Perseverance of the Saints”). Question 27 establishes that God’s grace is sovereign, particular, and effective, and will always accomplish God’s purpose—the salvation of sinners. No one can resist God’s grace and all those whom he chooses to save will be saved. Then, Question 28 helps clarify why it is that so many people seem perfectly capable of resisting God’s call to salvation. The reason for this, according to Wright, is that there are two different calls of God: the general call (which is issued to all of humanity, is unable to provide salvation, and can be resisted) and the efficacious call (which the Holy Spirit issues in the hearts of the elect and always accomplishes salvation). Wright continues in Question 29 to explain that this efficacious call takes effect through the process of regeneration, whereby God changes the hearts and minds of the elect so that they can love Him and His truth, and exercise faith. Finally, in Question 30, Wright points out that the natural consequence of salvation being all of grace is that salvation is utterly, unshakably secure: the elect will never fall away from the faith, and those Christians who do walk away are either going to return one day or were never real Christians to begin with. However, this doesn’t excuse Christians from moral living (according to the doctrine of compatibilism, humans are still responsible to live well).
Part 3: Additional Theological Questions
In Part 3, Wright addresses some additional theological questions which often arise in discussions of Calvinism. In Question 31, he summarizes the position of hyper-Calvinism, which overemphasizes God’s sovereignty to the exclusion of human responsibility, and he points out that this is both unbiblical and out of line with traditional, orthodox Calvinism. In Question 32, Wright answers the prickly issue of whether God is responsible for sin and evil by pointing out that, while the Bible speaks of God controlling sin and evil, it never speaks of Him as evil and therefore, although it is mysterious, we can be sure that God is not responsible for the evil we see and experience. Question 33 deals with the order of the divine decrees and discusses the differences between supralapsarianism (which teaches that God decreed to choose the elect and un-elect prior to His decrees to create humanity and to allow evil into the world) and infralapsarianism (which teaches that God decreed to choose the elect and un-elect after He decreed to create the world and to allow evil into it). Ultimately, Wright sides with infralapsarianism, although he points out that it is dangerous and irreverent to pry too closely into the mind of God. In Question 34, he claims that, while God is a unified being whose will is consequently indivisible, humans nevertheless experience two different types of wills when dealing with God (not distinct in fact, but in perception): namely, the revealed (knowable) and hidden (unknowable) wills of God which help to explain how God can both desire all men to come to salvation and choose only particular men to actually obtain salvation—His will is simply deeper than we can comprehend.
Part 4: Practical Questions
Part 4 is dedicated to addressing practical questions. In Question 35, Wright argues that all Calvinists ought to pray because God commands it, we receive real benefit from it, and God uses it to accomplish His ends. In Question 36, he maintains that Calvinists ought to continue practicing evangelism and missions, not merely because many notable evangelists and missionaries throughout history have been Calvinists, but also because God uses the ministry of the elect to draw the others of the elect to himself. Likewise, Question 37 maintains that Calvinists should pursue personal holiness for the same reasons they should pray, evangelize, and live on mission: because God commands and uses it to accomplish his glory. Wright then counteracts the claim that Calvinism destroys any assurance in salvation in Question 39 by pointing out that, while Calvinism cannot remove all doubts, its emphasis on God as sovereign Lord can serve as a doctrinal anchor of assurance amid intense doubts. Finally, Wright concludes the book with question 40 (the final key question of the book) in which he explains the importance of the previous 39 questions. They are not important, he says, because one must be a Calvinist to be saved, or because one must understand Calvinism, but instead they are important because they help us to better know God and ourselves and to live life to God’s glory and for our joy.
Assessment and Recommendation
Wright’s book is remarkably rich and thorough, given its relatively small size. In a mere 296 pages, he manages to carefully and thoughtfully address many critical theological issues in a manner that is clear, concise, biblically and historically informed, informative, and engaging (a difficult balance to strike, indeed). His exposition of Calvinist doctrine is spot-on and avoids sounding pedantic or argumentative. However, perhaps the most impressive part of this book was his summaries of and interactions with opposing viewpoints, especially Arminian doctrine. His presentation of Arminian viewpoints (often using the words of notable Arminians) was balanced and even gentle, but there was still no equivocation: the reader knows the whole time exactly where Wright stands and, although he may interact generously with his opponents, he is nonetheless perfectly clear in his disagreement with them and is not afraid to level significant arguments and criticisms against them.
The book’s only weakness is its format: while the structure of the 40 Questions series is helpful for quickly locating particular topics of interest, it makes any sort of sustained argument difficult to maintain and dramatically limits the scope of Wright’s treatment of the topic. This is particularly telling in the historical section (Questions 13-17), which, while perfectly adequate for the task at hand, nevertheless felt rather abbreviated. All told, however, this book is a grand accomplishment, and it has become my top recommendation for anyone interested in learning more about Calvinism.
Buy the books
40 QUESTIONS ABOUT CALVINISM, by Shawn D. Wright