For Calvinism by Michael Horton

Reposting this 2011 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $2.99
For Calvinism

Summary: A moderate Calvinism explained.

One of the comments on the review of Against Calvinism, objected to the title.  I noted in the review that Olson was not objecting to Calvinism as a whole, but particular extremes within Calvinism.  Well Michael Horton, in the introduction, objects to the title as well.  He does not really like the term Calvinism (because it is named after Calvin and because of that is sectarian in feel).  He would prefer ‘the gospel’ or ‘the gospel of grace’.

He quotes Charles Spurgeon as saying that, “I have no own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism…it is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel and nothing else.”  This really gets to the heart of what I object to about Calvinism.  The fact that many Calvinists seem unable to distinguish that their understanding of the gospel (a gospel focused on Salvation, Justification and Grace), is only one aspect of the gospel.  Scot McKnight has a very good book (King Jesus Gospel) about the problem with focusing on salvation instead of Jesus Christ as the gospel.  I want to affirm with Michael Horton, that in the vast majority of theological issues and beliefs, Christians agree.  The discussion about Calvinism is not about whether each side is Christian, but rather the discussion about relatively minor issues within Christianity (important, but minor).

So much of this discussion is about definition. For instance, Horton discusses the difference between foreknowledge and foreordination of events. He argues that in reality these are basically the same thing, but saying they are the same does not make them the same. To some, the difference is great, to others like Horton, the difference between the two is so meaningless as to be indistinguishable.  On both sides (Calvinism and Arminianism), there are many of the same concepts that are being discussed, but the definitions and understanding are vastly different, which makes it hard not to talk past one another.  Both Horton and Olson really do try hard not to talk past one another, but I just do not think it is possible.

I really struggled through this book.  I worked on it for nearly three weeks before I finished it.  And I did a decent bit of skimming in the second third of the book.  I was frankly fairly tired of the conversation.  But I also spent more time praying about the content of this book than any I have read in recent memory.  I am increasingly aware of my frustration with this discussion.  At some point it seems that both sides need to admit that neither side adequately can account for the whole of scripture.  I am incapable of conceiving of a God that would intentionally construct TULIP. I do not say this lightly.  I very well may be wrong about this.  But my understanding of scripture says that while neither Calvinism nor Arminianism can account for all of scripture, Limited Atonement and Irresistible Grace (Horton prefers Effective Grace for good reason), seem to violate my understanding of the nature of God.  God is whom God is, my understanding does not change him.  And God is a big God, that I am sure will convict me of my poor understanding and move me toward a better understanding in this life, and will reveal much more in the next.  But I still cannot conceive that God only came to earth to die for some.

In the end, I think these books are helpful in understanding the positions.  But I think that the whole framing of the question is distorting the answer.  Our focus should be on Christ and his Kingdom and the role that we are permitted to play in God’s grand narrative.  Instead this discussion gets us bogged down in details that are just not adequately revealed in Scripture and focuses us on our own salvation instead of the person of Christ.

I do not want to be too negative about For Calvinism. There are three things that I think are very good and helpful to the conversation. One, Horton is very clear that proper Calvinist theology must start at Creation, not the Fall. Too often I have heard the fall presented as the basis of theology. Horton is clear that humans were created good and without sin.

Second, Horton defends Calvinism as valuing missions and evangelism. I do not question Calvinism’s commitment to evangelism or missions, but I do know some that do, so this was useful. I wish it was earlier in the book because I think it might have changed some of the tone of the book, focusing more on the mission of the church and implication of the mission for Calvinism. However, Horton does not mention what I do think is a more subtle but harder to defend charge, that Calvinist cares more about getting the message out than how it is received. Some of the most confrontational and aggressive evangelists and missionaries I have been exposed to are Calvinist. Because their theology says God alone saves, I think there is a lack of awareness that offending the hearer can alienate them from God. In fact, I have talked to some that view offendedness as a badge of honor.

Third, Horton spends the last chapter really looking at strengths and weaknesses within Calvinism. This self-critical reflection I believe is a strength of Calvinism.  Horton spends some time talking about the problems of the “Young, Restless and Reformed” and here hints at the problems of presentation that I wish he would have dealt with fully in the missions and evangelism chapter.

Honestly, after reading both books, I am more changed by the For Calvinism side of the argument.  Horton seems like a likable guy and clearly is the type of Calvinist that is willing to both engage in a helpful discussion and call for moderation within his own movement.  Olson was a bit more bombastic (although still made a real effort at being charitable).  But my opinion was actually strengthened against a hard Calvinism.

By the way, until I looked at the cover of For Calvinism, I did not realize that both books had an image of Tulips. For Calvinism, has three healthy full tulips (and a bright green background), Against Calvinism has three tulips with dried up petals that are about to fall (and a bright red background). Clever and subtle, a nice design element.

Later Note: After reading James KA Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist, I wish that the title of this book (and its partner) were changed to For TULIP and Against TULIP or For Predestination and Against Predestination. The real issue that is being discussed is not Calvinism broadly, but a fairly small issues within Calvinism. If this were predominately about broader Reformed Theology then there should have been a much greater discussion of covenant.

For Calvinism by Michael Horton Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition
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An ebook was provided by the publisher through Netgalley for purposes of review.

2 Comments

When I was wrestling with Calvinism I found three truths very helpful. (I know this is way too long, but I offer it for your consideration. caveat lector!

First, God does not owe mercy to anyone. What each and every one of us deserves is wrath for our contempt for and ingratitude to God which leads to our selfish rebellion against him. If God were not to save me, He would do me no injustice, nor would He do his mercy and injustice. As He says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.”

The second great truth was that the Arminian position wants to put each person in control of their salvation. It asserts that God wants everyone to receive mercy and has done all He can to make that possible, but now it is up to each one of us. But this idea that we have to be in control; that we must have the last word is precisely the way sin operates. It makes us the center of our lives and puts God at our mercy. We are ultimate, but isn’t that precisely the idea with which the serpent tempted Adam and Eve… “You shall be as God…”

The third is that in our salvation God is to get all the praise and glory. But if God has to wait upon me and I have the final say, then I get some credit for making the ‘smart’ choice. Now, someone may not want to take any of the credit, but they deserve credit for choosing wisely and thus God cannot get all the credit.

As I pondered this I began to wonder why I had asked God to save me through faith in his Son. I thought to myself, is it because I was smart enough to see my need and the beauty of the Gospel? But, then it occurred to me that those who weren’t as intelligent would have an excuse at the Day of Judgment. I could hear them saying, “You didn’t make us smart enough…..” Then I thought it might not be my intelligence, but my lack of intelligence. After all, not many wise, etc. But then, really smart and educated people would have an excuse. And so I went through every cause I could think of as to why I believed, was it my grand parents prayers, my upbringing, my opportunities, etc. But whenever I thought that I had found the reason/cause for my believing, I knew that those lacking such decisive factors could complain about being condemned. Finally, it was crystal clear, the cause had to lie in God and in the mystery of his will.

Later on I came to realize that everyone believes in sovereign effective grace when they are praying for loved ones. We don’t say to God, “Lord, my (loved one, friend, co-worker, nasty neighbor, etc.) needs to believe in Christ. I know you can’t make them believe; you can’t change their heart so they will believe because you would violate their free will. I know you can send people to invite them to hear the message, but I really wish you could do something more.” No, here is how we pray, “Lord, save my (loved one, friend, co-worker, or nasty neighbor). Change him! Open his eyes! Bring him to Christ!” We pray with the assurance that God can bring that person to saving faith, just like He brought us. If nothing else could persuade a person that the Reformed view is the proper exposition of Scripture’s teaching, his prayers would be an unanswerable proof.

Of course the beauty of sovereign grace is that God can most certainly bring us to Christ without violating our wills. As Creator and Lord, He has every right to re-make who we are. When He changes us, we then act according to our new nature. Our old nature wanted nothing to do with Christ unless He was willing to serve our own agendas. But now, having been born again by the Spirit, we find new desires arising from our new hearts and we freely choose what we now desire. We would never have chosen to be born again, but having been born again we freely embrace Christ as He is offered in the Gospel. This should not surprise us because our Lord himself taught us, “Unless you are born again you cannot enter the Kingdom,” and a little further on in his conversation with Nicodemus, “Unless you are born again you cannot even see the Kingdom.” The word ‘unless’ indicates the necessity of a prior condition to entering or seeing. You must be born again and then you can see and come into Christ’s Kingdom and you will do so with perfect freedom of will.

It is when we realize that mercy is God’s free gift to give to whom He will and that we are at his mercy and not the ‘captains of our destiny’ that we will be most fit to embrace Christ without reservation and to give all the glory to God for our salvation.

Warmest regards,

Jim

    It is not that I don’t think that Calvinism doesn’t explain some scriptures better than Arminianism. But there are also scripture that seem to suggest a role for us in our faith in a way that Calvinism cannot adequately account for.

    As I said in the review, it seems to me that taking all of scripture, neither side can adequately address the whole of scripture.

    (Also I think you are reading more American individualism into Arminianism than what is really there. No orthodox Arminian believes that they can save themselves, instead they believe that they are given the grace to accept salvation, but also the grace to deny it as well. We deserve no glory in the acceptance of salvation, we are saved completely through God’s power. Yes there are some Armininians that do not present this well, or misunderstand the traditional teachings. But just as Calvin and many of the founders of Calvinism denied double predestination, traditional orthodox Arminians deny any role of our power in our own salvation.)

    As I said in the review, it is hard to not read our own biases into other’s positions. If we take face value what the best of the other’s arguments are there is less difference between the two positions than what is commonly thought.

    (Although there are non-orthodox Arminians and non-ortrodox Calvinists that distort the teaching of their own side and that move to places that deny historic creeds.)

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