Sometimes the books we get most frustrated about can be really helpful. And let me tell you I got frustrated with this book. (Enough that my Aunt asked me what I was reading, because I was muttering and growling in the corner without realizing it.) Frustration is not all bad, because it can force to you really dive into yourself to understand what is causing the frustration. What’s So Great About the Doctrines of Grace is another short title by the Reformation Trust. I again want to thank them for both putting their books out for wide readership and for making them free (at least for a short time on Kindle.) It proves to me that they are interested in getting out the ideas, not making money.
This is a fairly good book that quickly identifies the basics of Calvinism by running through the TULIP acrostic. Calvinists identify this short acrostic as the basics of Grace. The format is simple, there is a brief introduction, then each letter is discussed in a chapter and the chapter ends with an attempt at explaining why that doctorine is so important to our daily life. (What is so great about….) I like the format and it is easy to read and the prose is well written. The book heavily cites scripture and is readable by someone new to Christianity. (I recommend it far above Welcome to a Reformed Church).
What was frustrating is the tone of the book. The problem is common to many books that have clearly defined sides of an argument (especially those where the arguments have not fundamentally changed in a while). A good example are the debates about Evolution and Creation. Both sides pick the arguments of the other side that are the weakest or held by a small minority and counter those, instead of addressing the other side as a reasonable disagreement by people that have actually thought about and worked through the issues.
Calvinism and Arminianism are entrenched ideas, and I increasingly find myself convinced that both sides are wrong about some of the issues but both sides agree about the majority of how we actually work in the world.
What started me off on the wrong foot was early on that Phillips asserts that Isaiah, Jonah, Habakkuk and other biblical characters were “Calvinist” through “personal experience of the Lord.” Phillips sets up a straw man arguments to prove his point. He starts by asserting that some insist that Calvinism is the result of 18th Century Enlightenment thinking. So then he goes on, “Was Isaiah a closet rationalist, under the influence of Plato and Aristotle…hardly the case, given Isaiah wrote in the late eighth and early seventh centuries BC.” Then a few lines later, “Jonah attained his “Calvinism” in the belly of the whale.” So in the end Phillips “proves” his point by asserting that biblical characters had the same “Calvinist” understanding as he does. This is just a form of projection that many people use, but is not actually helpful to gaining understanding of scripture.
All of us read scripture through our own lenses. Phillips claims he is reading “the plain meaning of scripture” in one area and takes scripture to mean exactly what is says when discussing Total Depravity. But later when discussing Limited Atonement, he shows that what would seem to be the plain meaning of scripture (for instance when scripture says Christ desires that all be saved) is not actually what it really means. The hard part of being a Christian and reading scripture is opening up ourselves to the Holy Spirit and scripture to really move us past an understanding that is not culturally constructed.
I find myself agreeing with much of the basic description of the acrostic. But the longer the description of the doctrine goes on the more details there are to disagree with. Again my main frustration with Calvinism, seems to not be the theology, but their approach to theology and intellectual engagement. There is no humility to this book. No sense that our understanding is necessarily limited (because we are human) and therefore an attempt to discuss God (that we should be attempting) must be humble in its presentation because it will always be incomplete and frankly wrong.
If you are interested in learning how Calivinists view the their five points (TULIP) this is a good book. If you are looking for a balanced look at TULIP that looks at the different sides with grace and humility, I would look for another book.