Interview with Ken Stewart about his book ‘Ten Myths About Calvinism’

Derek Ouellette —  September 21, 2011 — 8 Comments

Earlier in the year a book was released by Ken Stewart titled ‘Ten Myths About Calvinism‘. It’s a fantastic read which will be shelved in my library right next to Roger Olson’s ‘Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities‘. I have had the pleasure to engage in ongoing conversations with Ken. While my readers will know well that I disagree with Ken’s soteriology, he stands apart from most Calvinists I have read and engaged with in recent years. He often seeks to find areas of agreement with other Christian traditions and tries to distance himself from more extreme forms of his Calvinist tradition. Dialogue between Calvinists and non-Calvinists have been sharp in recent decades (all parties may be at fault), yet if more Calvinists approached dialogue in the humble spirit which Ken exhibits, perhaps more non-Calvinists would be willing to listen and a cordial conversation would ensue. Less ad hominem and position-caricaturization, more humble and honest dialogue (as I write this I am keenly aware of my own failure to consistently do this).

That said, I was doubly-honored when Ken agreed to answer a few questions that had arose in my mind while reading ‘Ten Myths’. I ask these questions as an Arminian and as such I explore certain lines of thought with Ken that I have not seen elsewhere on the internet.

The Interview

DEREK: You’ve commented on my blog and elsewhere that you have written this book with your own Presbyterian stream in mind (this comes out in the book as well). Yet many people have used your book as a buffer, or a weapon perhaps, against the “neo-reformed” movement. Why do you suppose people have done that?

KEN: I think that there are several reasons for this.  One is that whether inside the Presbyterian and Reformed churches  or in the neo-Reformed movement (which is often Baptist, Bible Church or Independent – like the Acts 29 movement or Harvest Bible Chapel) Calvinists have a tendency to stake out extreme positions which are designed to accentuate points of disagreement with other Christians.  This happens because evangelical recruits to a new cause (and that cause can be an evangelical re-affiliated to Catholicism or to Orthodoxy or to Calvinism or to Pentecostalism) generally try to accentuate how much better life is or how much better believing is under their new system.  Perhaps it is that we need to prove ourselves to our new peer group.  Inside Presbyterian and Reformed circles we have this problem: people who have switched from one branch of the Christian family to ours – and now they have to prove themselves.  Inside various Baptist groups, the problem seems to be not that people have switched and become Baptist, but that having been Baptist they have come to see Christian doctrine differently.  So, my first answer is: wherever people are becoming swashbuckling about their newfound Calvinism, this book offers some help.

Beyond this, I would say that we are also dealing with something that bumps up against questions of temperament and psychological profile. If you get a combination of Calvinism and an authoritarian personality type, you have a confluence of two influences in a person and it is a little difficult to tell what is doctrinal and what is psychological profile.  The true principle of God’s total sovereignty further emboldens some people who are already on the very bold side.   In fairness, I think that I can say that there are Pentecostals who show a similar ‘mix’ of temperament and doctrine. The same is probably true in all branches of the Christian family.   But here, we are talking about Calvinists. Why is it that meek Calvinists are hard to find?  I don’t mean that there aren’t any; I just see plenty of the other kind. So here too, we have an issue that is bigger than the boundaries of explicitly Presbyterian denominations.  All this to say that the issues I confront within Presbyterianism are wider and I am happy if readers see that my prescription medicine is capable of wider application.

DEREK: If some of the tendencies in your Presbyterian stream are common features found in the neo-reformed movement, why does it matter that people have used your book to champion their anti-neo-reformed polemic?

KEN: I don’t object to their doing so.  What I do object to is reviewers or bloggers who second-guess me and suppose that I wrote this book to take a hammer blow at Mark Driscoll or John Piper. That just isn’t true. It wasn’t my intention.  I have needed to communicate this to John Piper, for whom I have a strong admiration.  But it is also true that Piper and people of his perspective share in some of the extremisms that I find in my own constituency.

DEREK: In ‘Ten Myth’s you advocate an exchange of terms, preferring “Reformed” over “Calvinist”. Many Arminians such as Robert Picirilli have argued that Arminians are a part of the Reformed Tradition. If this is so, than using the term “Reformed” rather than Calvinist may suite to blur the line between Calvinists and Arminians. How do you think the term “Reformed” in exchange for “Calvinist” would affect the ongoing Arminian/Calvinist dialogue?

KEN: This is a really interesting question. But it has layers to it.

First, the term Reformed is better than Calvinist because it protects two valuable principles.  It is my understanding that the term Calvinist was first used by enemies of Protestantism who wanted to discredit the teaching coming out of Geneva by making it seem to be overly associated with one Reformer, Calvin.  It was a kind of epithet.  Over time, it has been turned into a badge of honor by people who are proud to wear it.  Reformed is a much better term because it emphasizes the collective approach of many non-Lutheran Reformers in south Germany, the Swiss Cantons, France, the Netherlands, Britain, Hungary.  ‘Reformed’ is the generic term that wraps all these non-Lutheran (and non-Anabaptist) Protestant movements together.  If you were in Zurich or Strasbourg or Heidelberg or Edinburgh in this period of time, you had prominent local Reformation leaders who were not just ‘little Calvins’ but actually Calvin’s peers, who regularly saw things differently from him.  So today, a person who insists that he/she is a Calvinist is unwittingly advertising that he/she is under the mis-impression that Calvin towered above all these others.  The ‘harvest’ or ‘legacy’ of this non-Lutheran/non-Anabaptist Protestantism is provided in the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. If we want to know what the collective opinion of these Reformers was, we consult those statements (all of which are available online, as well as in print). It is not about ‘one man’. This view is historically unsound; my book shows that this is a piece of ‘lore’.  So there are two reasons to prefer ‘Reformed’ to ‘Calvinist’.

Now, to come to the viewpoint of Picirilli.  This view was advanced already by the biographer of Arminius, Carl Bangs who stood within the American Wesleyan/Holiness tradition.  I think that there is something to this idea, although it requires us to stretch our categories somewhat.  Let me approach this by saying that this view is rather like the view of a good number of Baptists who maintain, that although they are in disagreement with the Reformed theological tradition about infant baptism, they still identify with most of the Reformed tradition (especially the understanding of the application of salvation to individuals by God’s discriminating mercy).  If they can be reckoned part of the Reformed tradition, why cannot people in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition?   My answer is two-fold.  First, unlike the Baptists I refer to (who dissent about Baptism, but are in large agreement about soteriology) most persons like Bangs or Picirilli disagree about the soteriology.  What has to be resolved is the question of what Reformed doctrines are so important, so central that one cannot abandon them and still be part of the tradition.  I know Reformed scholars who would deny membership in the Reformed tradition to both such Baptists and such Wesleyan-Arminian-Holiness people.  All I can say is that I am still working on this question.

To people in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition who want to identify with the Reformed tradition, I would give this friendly caution.  Please understand that even if Arminius still belonged to the Reformed tradition, the developments among Arminius’ seventeenth century followers were even less acceptable to the Reformed tradition (these are the people whom Roger Olson calls “Arminians of the head”, as opposed to “of the heart”). These men were headed on a very liberal trajectory, such that Wesley in the next century had to reach behind them to Arminius himself.  My point is that the trajectory of the Arminian tradition would lead it steadily further from the Reformed trajectory.  This accelerated over time.  The Wesleyan doctrine of ‘perfect love’ added something not a part of the Reformed tradition. By the nineteenth century, the Wesleyan embrace of revivalism (as opposed to conventional revival) added something else. As the nineteenth century went on, there emerged by late century the idea of not only a second work of grace, but a third and a fourth. The emergence of Pentecostalism in 1906 propelled the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition further away from the Reformed tradition.

Please understand that I rehearse this not to mock the other tradition, but to point out that people like Bangs and Picirilli are asking only one of two important questions.  You cannot ask the question “wasn’t Arminius actually a part of the Reformed tradition, broadly conceived?”  without facing the other also. These traditions have diverged farther and farther apart over time.  My guess is that those who want to press the ‘Arminius as Reformed’ idea very far will encounter opposition from within the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition from those who sense (correctly) that this trajectory, once followed, will call into question a lot of features of the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition over the last 250 years which have taken on tremendous importance and are considered non-negotiable.

DEREK: Perhaps the most shocking myth in your book has to do with the acronym “T.U.L.I.P”, where you point out that it appears for the first time in print in 1913. In my experience T.U.L.I.P is the most common and identifiable feature to Calvinism, yet you suggest a distancing of it even though it is in one way or another rooted in the points of Dordt. Why?

KEN: This is a hard needle to thread. But what it comes down to is this.  Of course there were ‘points of Calvinism’ asserted at Dordt. There is no getting away from that.  But with this admitted, TULIP needs to be abandoned because 1) the points of Dordt were actually four, not five   2)The points of Dordt are not Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, etc. but  “Divine Election, Christ’s Death & Human Redemption, Human Corruption & Conversion, and Perseverance. Only in the last item is there any real overlap.  3) TULIP is made in America, early 20th century and so friends of Reformed theology earlier had complete liberty in putting the thrust of Dordt into their own words.  I like that better. It avoids so much squabbling over unfortunate word choices associated with TULIP.

DEREK: What would be the benefit for Calvinism today if Calvinists hoisted up other Reformed leaders (Zwingly, Bullinger, Peter Martyr et al.) and other Reformed cities (Zurich, Strasbourg, Basel) to the same level of equal prominence as Calvin and Geneva?

KEN: It would keep followers of Calvin from using his books and treatises like ‘trump cards’ the way they do now. When people do this today, they are implicitly equating Calvin’s views with the non-Lutheran half of the Reformation. Calvin was not the ‘only player in town’.  But the fact remains that the Victorians made his writings easily available in translation for us, and 150 years later, his co-Reformers haven’t been allowed to catch up.  We can’t quickly change that, but we could adopt a humbler attitude and acknowledge that Calvin’s views are not the last word; we could acknowledge that his co-Reformers often took a low road when he took a high road.

DEREK: One of the greatest discoveries I’ve made while reading ‘Ten Myth’s’ came early on with the introduction of Peter Martyr, a figure who is just now being rediscovered and many scholars are even considering the possibility that he was as influential as John Calvin during the reformation era, if not more so. What could be the consequences for the future identity of Calvinism if that turned out to be true?

KEN: I am not an expert in this area. But two things come to mind.  First, Martyr expressed himself much more guardedly about predestination than did Calvin. He definitely believed in it in the sense of God’s discriminating mercy. But he refused ever to speak about a predestination to death or to condemnation because the Bible doesn’t talk that way.  He is a model of a more restrained handling of this subject.  Also, those who begin to look into it find that Martyr had a tremendous influence on the Anglican tradition. Both the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles of Religion show his influence.

DEREK: If you could add an “eleventh myth” what would it be?

KEN: I had originally intended to have a chapter called “Myth: the need for no progress in theology” which would have critically examined the common Calvinist attitude that all we need to get by are the great theological books of the 19th century.  There is a terrible “stand-patism” among conservative Calvinists; they are too busy conserving.  But thoughtful Reformed theologians (I would have used the late Geoffrey Bromiley of Fuller as an example) were ready to point out whole aspects of theology that needed reconsideration by those who were conservative in theological tendency. There are some hopeful signs of new developments along those lines.  I am glad I didn’t write this chapter; it would have further extended an already-long project.

DEREK: You made the comment on my blog that “honey is more attractive than vinegar” and have endeavored to live up to that both in our dialogue and in your book. I admit, when I interact with Calvinists online and read many of their books, I mostly taste vinegar. What are some of the changes leading Calvinists need to make so that Calvinism can taste more like honey and less like vinegar?

KEN: This leads back to some original concerns I registered. Too many ‘vinegar’ Calvinists feel that they have something to prove. They want to be the ‘scourge’ of the broadly evangelical world in order to prove that they have really moved beyond it.  The ‘honeyed’ approach would be to try to show that the Reformed theological tradition offers a lot of resources which would help us all to be better evangelicals. That is certainly the way it has proved for me.  But I part company with people who insist that evangelicalism is the problem to be overcome.  No, unbelief is the problem!

DEREK: Ken thanks for the honey. These discussions have been encouraging.

Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton

    “They want to be the ‘scourge’ of the broadly evangelical world in order to prove that they have really moved beyond it.” This is where I find Pelagianism within the neo-Reformed perspective, when it turns into a means of earning salvation through others’ scorn. The theology itself makes sense to me on a personal level. God drew me to Him; I don’t feel like I had a choice. I’m just unwilling to go through the chain of logical, “If x is true, than y must be also true,” that lands me in a cruel deterministic universe. It can never be other than a mystery to me if I’m to remain a faithful disciple.

    I’m grateful for this interview. Wouldn’t it be such a different world if Christians were genuinely trying to seek the truth together through experimenting with different theological emphases and traditions rather than trying to prove their faux martyrdom by staking out claims in deliberately disagreeable terms?

  • Myron

    Great work here, Derek (as usual)! I’ve wanted to get my hands on Dr. Stewart’s book for some time, but now I’ve REALLY got to read it! Thanks for conducting such an illuminating interview. And many thanks to Dr. Stewart for his candor and clarity!

  • http://growinggrace-full.blogspot.com/ Chris Donato

    Well done, Derek and Ken!

  • http://WWW.LAMBSPOET.BLOGSPOT.COM David Severy

    MY FAVORITE QUOTE ON THE SUBJECT:
    “Calvinism emphasized divine sovereignty and free grace; Arminianism emphasized human responsibility. The one restricts the saving grace to the elect; the other extends it to all men on the condition of faith. Both are right in what they assert; both are wrong in what they deny. If one important truth is pressed to the exclusion of another truth of equal importance, it becomes an error, and loses its hold upon the conscience. The Bible gives us a theology which is more human than Calvinism and more divine that Arminianism, and more Christian than either of them.” Phillip Schaff

  • http://www.theruthlessmonk.blogspot.com Les

    I’ve also be thinking through the current Calvinism/Arminianism dialogue (or might it more accurately be called “feud?”) and it’s always refreshing to hear a discussion between two believers who are trying to understand each other more, not just create straw men that they can then knock off their horses. It’s also helpful to hear from a Calvinist why other Calvinists often seem so caustic. Great interview!

  • Jon Sellers

    Nicely done. I hope Ken’s message will be taken to heart by many Calvinists. I am encouraged.

  • Bobby Grow

    Thanks for the interview! I still need to read Ken’s book.

    Derek, the next book you need to read on Calvinism is: Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., “Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church,” (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, June 2012). This will give you a look into a world of Calvinism not many know of, one that moves around the usual debate between Calvinists/Arminians.

    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      Thanks for the recommendation. Sounds good. I’ll check it out.