Reviewed by Fred G. Zaspel
We in the older generation are still sometimes stunned at the advance of “Calvinism” witnessed in the last 30 or 35 years. That being “Reformed” should be considered cool is something most of us could never have imagined. Yet here we are, 2014, and it’s not old dead guys who wore powdered wigs and three pointed hats but young, up-and-coming preachers and theologians who are carrying the torch, expounding and applying the old doctrines of human depravity and divine sovereignty. Calvinism is in, and no one can doubt it. It would be too much to say it has won, but that it has gained and is still gaining ground is obvious.
Still, however, the perception lingers with some that the doctrines of grace are the mere intellectual curiosities of stodgy and dry theologians and likely a hindrance to a vibrant Christian piety. And it would be a surprise to many to learn that the divines who assembled at the Synod of Dort (1618-19) had not just theological but pastoral concerns in their deliberations — that for them these doctrines were vital to Christian life and living. But this is precisely what young, up-and-coming Calvinist theologian Matthew Barrett displays for us in his The Grace of Godliness: An Introduction to Doctrine and Piety in the Canons of Dort (Joshua Press, 2013). All theological sides will acknowledge the value of this little book for historical studies: that the delegates of Dort were pastoral-theologians whose concern was for the nurture of souls has until now been a point almost entirely overlooked.
Barrett sets the stage with a quick and concise yet helpful overview of the ecclesiastical and theological background of Dort, surveying the life and teachings of Arminius, the role of the Remonstrants, the Counter-Remonstrants, and the larger setting in the Netherlands leading up to the now famously influential Synod. Barrett then takes up, in turn, each of the heads of doctrine in the ordering of the Canons, along with their own emphases in pastoral application. These four chapters, covering the “five points,” are titled as follows:
Chapter 3 Divine Predestination: Source of Assurance, Humility, and Holiness
Chapter 4 Particular Atonement: Cause for Personal and Corporate Worship
Chapter 5 Total Depravity and Effectual Grace: Humble Gratitude and the Death of Pride
Chapter 6 The Perseverance of the Saints: Incentive to Holy Living
The titles and subtitles of each chapter capsulize respectively the theological and pastoral areas of concern addressed in each successive Canon. Barrett captures each with theological and historical accuracy, showing the vital link between doctrine and piety in each.
A recurring theme is humility and the defeat of pride. Like Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, Arminians, and Christians of all varieties, Calvinists are not immune from ugly sins such as pride, self-centeredness, and self-sufficiency. But Dort proclaims loudly that pride in all its forms is – or at least ought to be – profoundly impaired by the theology Calvinists profess, for everything about it is self-humbling and God-exalting. And yet, at the same time it is the stuff of Christian joy and worshipful rejoicing. These teachings of human inability and utter dependence on divine initiative and grace are designed to humble the sinner and glorify the saving God. The struggle with remaining sin continues, but these doctrines, deeply understood and imbibed, radically God-centered as they are, serve to shape the heart in a genuine experiential holiness.
Following these expositions Barrett provides a series of appendices, mostly primary sources and primary source information, helpful for both theological and historical study.
Whether you are Arminian or Calvinist, you will want to read this book before you speak on the subject of the history of Calvinism just to make sure you understand it rightly and represent it fairly. Matthew Barrett–Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University, Executive Editor at Credo Magazine, and member of our Board of Reference here at Books At a Glance–has served the community of Historical Theology well in demonstrating that for the theologians of Dort doctrine is indeed married to piety. And he has served the preacher well also, and the Christian community at large, in reminding us that the doctrines of grace are not mere items of dogma but rich in the promotion of warm Christian worship, assurance, and piety. Highly recommended.
Fred G. Zaspel is Pastor of Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA, professor of theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary, and executive editor here at Books At a Glance.
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The Grace Of Godliness