In his new book Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (IVP, March 2011), Dr. Ken Stewart examines a number of provocative assumptions surrounding Reformed teaching: Is Calvin’s role exaggerated? Is the popular acronym “TULIP” a helpful device or an inaccurate yardstick? And how does Calvinism fare on race and gender issues? Stewart, a specialist in Christian history from the Reformation to the present, currently serves as a professor of theological studies at Covenant College. Here, byFaith editor Richard Doster speaks with Stewart about his book.


What prompted you to write this book?

Two things, so far as I can recall. First, I embraced Reformed theology while a university student in the 1970s. This involved exposure to such well-known books as Arthur Pink’s The Sovereignty of God; Steele and Thomas’ The Five Points of Calvinism Defined, Documented, and Defended; and Boettner’s Reformed Doctrine of Predestination—standard books that are still influencing inquirers today. But when I went to Westminster Seminary in the 1970s, I grew in an understanding that these books had some limitations, that they were capable of being improved upon. This process of trying to understand and to commend Reformed theology by putting its “best foot forward” is a concern that has fascinated me ever since. It has troubled me that the promotion of the Reformed faith is so closely tied to kinds of literature—like the books named—and modes of expression (TULIP being one) which are open to valid criticism. This means that the young and curious are still being taught the Reformed faith in ways that they will later need to reconsider. Surely we can improve on this situation by stating our Reformed distinctives in a way that is balanced, reflects good scholarship, and is winsome. But such old favorites are not set aside easily. Having grown up along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, I like to use this analogy: our Reformed boat has  become encrusted with barnacles, which we need to scrape off from time to time.

As I reflect on my involvement in the Reformed movement over four decades, it troubles me that our movement is so balkanized. By this expression I mean that we have a number of seminaries, publishing houses, theological writers, and factional movements at work in our constituency—the PCA and beyond—which are wanting us to believe that they alone have the inside track on what it means to be authentically Reformed. (I do not suggest that every seminary, publishing house, writer, or blog has this tendency.) There is too much “don’t trust them, trust us instead.” Think of the example of the Federal Vision movement. I am glad that the PCA’s General Assembly dealt with this movement, but in the years before that action took place, this was a movement whose specialty was telling the rest of us what it meant to be authentically Reformed, in spite of what we had earlier been told. Sadly, this is not an isolated example. We have internal squabbling among folks who probably agree 90 percent of the time. Through my book I want to say, “Move over. The Reformed faith is bigger and more capacious than you are suggesting. I do not have to march to your particular drumbeat to be authentically Reformed. We have a confession of faith which spells this out.” We need to celebrate agreement and concurrence rather than the reverse.

Early in the book you claim that Calvinists sometimes place too much emphasis on John Calvin. I suspect you’re being intentionally provocative, so explain: How can Calvinists overstate the importance of Calvin?

I am not being intentionally provocative. This is ultimately a historical question. My argument is with our fascination and heavy focus on John Calvin as the one who more or less epitomizes the Reformed faith by his life and writings. This is a rose-colored notion that began in the Victorian age. Current Reformation research shows us that in Calvin’s own lifetime he was one “heavyweight” Reformed leader among others, such as Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchius, and others. Each of these had his own massive following across Europe; none endorsed every opinion of Calvin (nor he, theirs). Reformation research also shows us that within 50 years of his death, Calvin’s influence had faded substantially, and not because of deterioration in the faith, but because the next generation of theologians, who also wrote theology books, was very trustworthy. Reformed theology moved “beyond Calvin” in the 17th century without ever repudiating him. This is the way things stayed for 200 years. In and around the year 1800 almost no one read Calvin because all his books had long since gone out of print. But in the early 19th century, people began to be fascinated with Calvin all over again. It happened for Luther too. People then began to write and read biographies of the forgotten Calvin. In 1843 a decision was made in Edinburgh that all his commentaries, his Tracts & Treatises and his Institutes, ought to be freshly translated. People began to call Calvin “the greatest Protestant theologian.” Spurgeon began to tell his students to buy all of Calvin’s commentaries. We are today continuing this Victorian obsession with Calvin which had not characterized the Reformed tradition for the 200 years preceding. We mistake the wide availability of his translated books, a decision made for us by the Victorians, with his permanent preeminence.

This process of trying to understand and to commend Reformed theology by putting its ‘best foot forward’ is a concern that has fascinated me.

It is simply not the case that the Reformed movement in Switzerland, in France, in the Netherlands, England, and Scotland had originally and subsequently been as indebted to John Calvin as we today suppose. To speak simply of England and Scotland, from which most of our ancestors have come, Calvin and Geneva were not the solitary sources of inspiration to which the Reformers of those countries looked. They borrowed from Luther, from Zwingli, from Bucer, from Bullinger, from Peter Martyr Vermigli, from Zanchius. Bucer and Vermigli actually held professorships in England. As for Scotland, John Knox was the only one out of six leading Reformers in that country who had anything to do with Calvin and Geneva. In short, since the Victorian age, our tendency has been to find Calvin behind every tree and under every rock. That view of Calvin’s dominance is simply not borne out if one looks at the big picture of things. Because of this, it is high time for us to start talking about the “Reformed theological tradition” instead of “the Calvinist tradition.” The latter perpetuates an exaggerated emphasis on Calvin and Geneva’s centrality.

One myth, you say, is that TULIP is the yardstick of the truly Reformed. You’re not suggesting that the doctrines (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints) are negotiable, are you?

Once more, the question is historical. Like a lot of other Reformed people today, I was taught that TULIP was non-negotiable; if you didn’t buy into it, you needed to get off the Reformed bus. What I found through historical investigation is two things.

One, there have been identifiable points of Calvinism since the international Synod of Dordt (Holland) in 1618-1619. This synod, which drew representatives from across western Europe (England included), answered the Arminian challenge with a number of assertions. Longer ago than the 20th century, friends of Reformed theology who were familiar with these items took the liberty of putting them in their own words; they felt at perfect liberty to do so.

Secondly, the oldest printed reference to what we have come to call the five points of Calvinism, summarized in terms of TULIP, comes from 1913. In a magazine article of that year, the writer recalls having heard someone explain the points of Calvinism that way in 1908, but he admits that when he questioned contemporary Presbyterian leaders, including some Princetonians, about the points of Calvinism, they were all over the map. Most of them wanted to endorse the points of Calvinism from Dordt, yet the only one of the points that they consistently defined in our now-customary way was the “P” for perseverance.
Our Reformed theological tradition can include all kinds of people who love Christ and His Word and who have a healthy regard for the summaries of doctrine passed down to us in the Reformed confessions.
Thus, my argument is that we have treated TULIP as a kind of shibboleth for a long time on the mistaken assumption that it has come down to us, as is, from Dordt. I myself have been questioned about my stance towards TULIP in two PCA presbytery exams. Now, I say—hold on! Are we aware that this TULIP formula is of early 20th-century origin? Are we aware how poor is the actual correspondence between the letters of TULIP and the actual doctrinal deliverances of Dordt itself? I believe that our uncritical use of TULIP puts us under a false obligation to state Reformed theology in a narrow, crabbed way. The most obvious example of this is “L” for limited atonement. But Dordt did not say that the atonement of Christ was limited, but that it was “more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” They also allowed that the death of Christ served a great design—God’s electing purpose.

Though the PCA actually takes no stand on the Canons of Dordt (as we do with the Westminster Standards) we do stand by them to the extent that they are reflected in the Westminster Standards, written a quarter-century later. For these reasons, TULIP should have no actual standing in our churches or church courts. But we stand by Dordt at least to the extent that Dordt is found reflected in the Westminster Standards.

Another myth is that Calvinists have undermined the arts. In your book you describe the circumstances that caused Protestant churches to view art differently than the Catholic church—financial circumstances as well as theological beliefs. Can you elaborate on this?

Artists need support in the form of artistic commissions and patrons. Before the Reformation the primary—though not exclusive—patron of the arts in Europe was the Roman Catholic Church, which adorned its sanctuaries with statuary, stained glass, frescoes, murals, and mosaics. There were also portraits to be painted of church dignitaries. Of course, wealthy families and individuals were able to serve as art patrons too. When whole regions of Europe, acting under the direction of princes or regional governments, embraced forms of Protestantism—Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican—this support for the arts was either reduced or withdrawn, and for two reasons: fiscal and theological.

Europe’s initial Protestant churches were state or national churches and their support now became the concern of governments, whether national or regional. Not only did these governments drastically reduce funding for sponsorship of the arts, they also did very poorly in maintaining the fabric of church buildings. The “bare ruined choirs” of which Shakespeare wrote were buildings which had been looted of their building materials, notably roof slates, while under government jurisdiction. We find this hard to believe, but Europe at this time was far from having a Christian church adequately supported by the sacrificial gifts of worshipers.

And though often well-intentioned, European Catholicism too often failed to ensure that religious art did not cross a boundary between art that educated God’s people, and art as object of adoration—in which case there was a strong likelihood of idolatry. The situation was complicated further by the fact that pre-Reformation church art had not necessarily confined itself to persons and themes in Holy Scripture. Themes from the Apocryphal writings as well as semi-pagan themes sometimes adorned churches. Reformation attitudes toward art ranged across a spectrum from the Lutheran-Anglican approach, which permitted religious art in churches provided that it was true to Scripture and not the occasion for idolatry, to the Swiss Reformed view that no religious art should be given a place in churches because of the danger of idolatry and the perceived sufficiency of the written and preached Word for the support of true worship.

It is fair to say that the Reformed theological tradition has still not worked out all the kinks regarding art. We can be grateful for the illustrious artists associated with the Reformed theological tradition: Rembrandt would be one example. We owe a lot to Francis Schaeffer, who with his wife, Edith, was a great encourager of the arts in our evangelical Reformed tradition. He also introduced to our constituency the Reformed art historian Hans Rookmaaker, who helped many of us view art with greater appreciation. But there is still a lingering ambiguous feeling toward the arts such that we deprive the artistically-inclined of the affirmation that they ought to find in our churches and in our friendships.

In your discussion of women and the church you cite anecdotal evidence that Calvinism has retarded the advancement of women. But you go on to point out that it’s one thing to demonstrate that Calvinism has been associated with certain views on gender, but it’s another to demonstrate that these attitudes originated within Calvinism. What should we know if we’re to have a proper understanding of Reformed thought and gender equality?

[Three things] First, Calvin shared in the ascendant Renaissance thinking about gender. He distanced himself from a traditional Greek view, alive and well in medieval Catholicism, that a woman was a defective version of a man and thus substandard. On the basis of Genesis 1:26-27, Calvin affirmed that Eve shared equally in the possession of God’s image. The old Greek view is not current now, but it is possible that we do not emphasize sufficiently Eve’s standing as truly God’s image, as was her husband. We have strong patriarchal tendencies at work in our tradition and we must be careful not to go beyond what Scripture says.

Second, this “elevated” view of woman expressed itself in Calvin in surprising ways. He supported legislation that allowed a wronged woman to initiate a divorce proceeding— a quite revolutionary notion in that time, which tended to favor male rights over female. He supported universal education for girls and boys across Geneva, an idea soon duplicated in Scotland. He conducted extensive correspondence with queens and princesses across Europe when he judged that these influential women had it within their power to advance and befriend struggling Protestant movements in their territories. He would occasionally seek a woman’s literary endorsement to introduce one of his publications. All of these, though from another time, are instructive for us now. Several modern historians have stressed the significance of these Reformation-era women and termed them “church mothers” without whose labor the advance of the Reformation would have been materially hindered. I think this is a delightful way of looking at matters and believe that we have such women today whose service of Christ might be recognized that way.

Third, we are not surprised that Calvin affirmed the pastoral office and the office of elder for men. But it deserves to be better known that he saw the work of deacons as divisible into two types—one of which employed women in the distribution of help to the sick and needy. He believed that the order of widows, referenced by Paul in 1 Timothy 5, had in fact been part of the diaconal ministry of early Christianity. And in this connection, it is worth noting that Calvin did not suppose that the official ministry of the church ends with the usual three: pastor, elder, deacon. He maintained that religious teachers of Scripture and theology ought to comprise another order of ministry, the “doctors,” an office which lives on in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

So we ought to be more open to seeing in Calvin a person who was ready to take adaptive action when ministry circumstances required it. It is fair to say that he found a place in recognized ministry for women beyond what our churches do today. But this must not be said in a way that eclipses his agreement with our position on pastors and elders.

I suspect many people think of Reformed churches as being fairly homogeneous, as having long-established doctrinal standards, and as being somewhat static in their theological thought. Your book paints a different picture—of greater diversity, of theologians and laypeople forever grappling with what Reformed really means. True?

Yes, this is true. But it should be counterbalanced with a second principle. Any reader of my book who goes away thinking that I am plunking for “diversity” plain and simple will misrepresent me. Because the acceptance of diversity without an accompanying acceptance of boundaries is a recipe for chaos. And that is what we see unfolding in some churches, formerly called “mainline,” in North America and Europe today. Everything is allowed, no opinion is forbidden. That is unbridled diversity.

What I am maintaining, instead, is that if we take the broad view, our Reformed theological tradition can include all kinds of people who love Christ and His Word and who have a healthy regard for the summaries of doctrine passed down to us in the Reformed confessions. Rather than taking what I have called the balkanizing road according to which the number of the “truly Reformed” is more and more narrowly circumscribed (which leads to more and more rivalry and acrimony), we should take the approach which says, “How many people can we get to rally around our Reformed confessions taken as a unifying force?”

But this approach will depend on developing a quite broad understanding of what our Reformed tradition is. It is beyond Calvin; it is beyond the 16th century; it is beyond Britain, beyond America. It is beyond Banner of Truth, Presbyterian and Reformed, etc. It is beyond Grand Rapids. We must break out of our conservative Reformed subculture, which is turning into an echo chamber. Someone has said, “We are good at giving high-fives to one another.”

Having said this, overcoming balkanization will also require us to come to terms with the fact that the summaries of Reformation teaching which we have in the Westminster Standards, for instance, must be supplemented by something more current and more contemporary. I am encouraged, in this regard, by the General Assembly’s determination to provide forums for open discussion of vexing contemporary questions without fear of suspicion. But the bottom line is, why settle for a small tent when our tent could be large and capacious? Why accept, almost as an unchallengeable truth, the notion that in order to be true to the Reformed faith, we must accept smallness? There is nothing intrinsically Reformed about this remnant mentality. Our areas of agreement with one another, and with a very large portion of evangelical Protestantism, vastly outnumber our areas of disagreement. Let’s build on this.

Dr. Ken Stewart is a specialist in the history of Christianity from the Reformation to the present with special emphasis on the development of the evangelical Protestant tradition. He has taught at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA., since 1997.

About the author, Richard Doster

Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith. He is also the author of two novels, Safe at Home (March 2008) and Crossing the Lines (June 2009), both published by David C. Cook Publishers.