A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Daniel R. Hyde
The genre of “Calvinism 101” books is something like a shelf in the cottage industry that is Reformed publishing. Professor of church history and pastor, Shawn Wright is the latest to add his work to this shelf. His dual role as professor and pastor makes this an enjoyable read. In addition, the Socratic method of utilizing a question then offering an answer shows that he’s faced these questions before in dusty old books as well as face-to-face with struggling souls. In it, Wright spans a range of biblical, theological, historical, and practical questions.
The book has 40 questions divided into four unequal parts: Introductory Questions (17 Qs), Questions about Salvation (13 Qs), Additional Theological Questions (4 Qs), and Practical Questions (6 Qs).
Particularly enjoyable in the first part was the answer to the question of “does God love all people” (Q5)—yes. In this he relies on Geerhardus Vos but also on more recent theologians such as J.I. Packer, D.A. Carson, and John Frame. Their biblical and theological studies enable Wright—and us—to make a distinction between how God loves all people yet especially his peculiar people.
In the second part I enjoyed “is predestination fair?” (Q22). After helpfully disarming the language of “double predestination” from history, Wright exposits Romans 9, relying on stalwart exegetes Douglas Moo and Thomas Schreiner. Then he brings home the truth that what God says as Potter is more important than what we, as mere clay, think he should’ve said. This truth is that God isn’t a blind force but personal; there’s an asymmetry between election and reprobation; Arminians struggle with “fairness” too in their scheme of foreknowledge; and finally, the Bible’s central message is about redemption not predestination. These are truths those of us who hold to “Calvinism” sometimes forget in our preaching, teaching, writing, blogging, Facebook rants, and Twitter storms.
In the third part, Q34 on “does God have two ‘wills’” was a succinct and helpful chapter. Rightly distinguishing what theologians over the millennia call God’s secret and revealed will or decretive and preceptive will, Wright then takes us to Jesus himself. I thought this was a brilliant move! For example, Jesus spoke on the one hand of a “revealed” or “preceptive” will when he expressed a desire for his beloved Jerusalem to be gathered to him (Luke 13:24). On the other hand Jesus prayed to his Father, saying he’s hidden things from his disciples that only he knew along with the Father (Matt. 11:25–27). What makes this move so brilliant is that a lot of times in discussing these types of issues we forget to be Christ-centered. “What did Jesus say” is old Sunday school simplicity we need to go back to over and over again.
Finally, in the fourth part I found every chapter edifying! Wright takes up issues of prayer, missions, gospel offer, personal holiness, and assurance. These all resonated with me as a part-time professor but full-time pastor. I hear these questions all the time as I’m sure many of you do as well.
In terms of more critical interaction, I assert that the entire premise of this book and other “Calvinism 101” books is a modern, a-historical distinction between “Reformed” and “Calvinist.” As Professor Wright knows, these terms were used interchangeably originally whether by friend or foe. To be “Reformed” (a self-designation by men like John Calvin) was to be a “Calvinist” (a slur by theological enemies), to be a “Calvinist” was to be “Reformed.”
Yet so often today a wedge is driven between the two. In Wright’s words, “‘Reformed [is] a word with broader connotations than ‘Calvinism’” (p. 17). Perhaps this distinction holds true for brothers like Professor Wright, but only for moderns who’ve lost the sense of the terminology. He defines Calvinism as “a movement set on recovering the Bible’s understanding of the relationship between a sovereign God and responsible sinners” (p. 17). But, if this is the fundamental definition of Calvinism, it is not unique to Calvin. Wright doesn’t tell his readers that Augustinianism was present in the medieval church for a thousand years before Luther and Calvin arrived on the scene. This ancient theological movement expressed a high view of predestination and reprobation, for example. For argument’s sake, then, holding to the so-called “five points” today doesn’t make one a “Calvinist” any more than Thomas Aquinas was. Wright’s only sources for this distinction between “Calvinism” and “Reformed” are moderns: Philip Benedict, John R. de Witt, and I. John Hesselink.
Wright does cite Richard Muller’s pushback against the term “Reformed Baptist,” who forcefully showed this is an antithetical concept to the historical Reformed tradition (p. 19). As Muller shows, to be a “Calvinist” or “Reformed” church was to confess one of the catechisms or confessions of the Reformation. This meant confessing the baptism of believers’ children. Thus, historic Calvinism is not merely defined by its doctrine of salvation but by manifold doctrines contained in entire confessions. But Wright uses Muller to say “Reformed” therefore is the larger confessional issue while “Calvinist” is the soteriological issue. He then attempts to trace the Westminster Confession of Faith, Savoy Declaration, and London Baptist Confession concluding that they all agree on matters of soteriology. In other words, there is a kernel of Calvinistic soteriology within the husk of Reformed confessions that Baptists can pull out. This brings me to my main question for brothers like Professor Wright: why the modern fascination by Baptists to co-opt the terminology of “Calvinist” and even “Reformed” (when they mean much more than soteriology and necessarily include infant baptism)? Why not utilize terminology like “Evangelical Baptist” or “Sovereign Grace Baptist,” or the historical, “Particular Baptist?” I’m asking for a friend…
But I don’t want to end on a downer. I appreciate this book and commend it as a rich recipe book on the shelf of the cottage for its biblical, theological, and practical mixture.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde (Ph.D. cand.)
Oceanside United Reformed Church
I thank Rev. Hyde for this review, and I find his interest in the question of who owns the “Calvinist” label curious. On one level, most are less concerned for labels that the substance they reflect, and no one can doubt that in today’s actual usage both “Calvinist” and “Reformed” are used of Baptists. But the historic meaning of the label is of significance if only for historical understanding and reference.
That “Calvinist Baptist” is purely a modern notion is a proposition I find curious also. Just some quick reflections.
- In his magesterial History of the Puritans (1731) Daniel Neal seems to hold Baptists in disdain and gives them comparatively slight notice, he does their “Calvinistical” doctrine.
- In the The History of the English Baptists (1731), the first history of Baptists published, Thomas Crosby obviously considered Baptists a subset of the Puritans.
- The earliest Baptists themselves regularly used the term “Calvinistic Baptists” (although not “Reformed Baptist”).
- In the 1640s Baptists were criticized by Presbyterians, but by 1688 no Presbyterian or Congregationalist would have questioned the Baptists’ right to use the term, and they saw selves as common front against the established church.
- The 17th and 18th century Baptists were recognized by English Presbyterian and Congregationalists alike as recognized Baptists as sharing a common ethos and heritage.
- Andrew Fuller used the term of himself.
- Spurgeon used the term of himself.
As a related note, I find it curious also that Oliver Crisp, 1) finds the essence of “Reformed” in (Presbyterian or Episcopalian) ecclesiology, 2) argues that Baptists have no right to the label, and 3) the label still belongs to many of widely and surprisingly diverse theology! See Tom Nettles’ review here. ~ FGZ
Buy the books
40 QUESTIONS ABOUT CALVINISM, by Shawn D. Wright