What is a Calvinist?

I think Richard A. Muller of Calvin College  (Grand Rapids, MI) is among the best (if not the best) person to answer this question, and he introduces an answer quite well in his article “How Many Points?”:

Calvinism or, better, Reformed teaching, as defined by the great Reformed confessions
does include the so-called five points. Just as it is improper, however, to identify Calvin
as the sole progenitor of Reformed theology, so also is it incorrect to identify the five
points or the document from which they have been drawn, the Canons of Dort, as a full
confession of the Reformed faith, whole and entire unto itself. In other words, it would
be a major error — both historically and doctrinally — if the five points of Calvinism were
understood either as the sole or even as the absolutely primary basis for identifying
someone as holding the Calvinistic or Reformed faith. In fact, the Canons of Dort
contain five points only because the Arminian articles, the Remonstrance of 1610, to
which they responded, had five points. The number five, far from being sacrosanct, is
the result of a particular historical circumstance and was determined negatively by the
number of articles in the Arminian objection to confessional Calvinism.


For anyone who thinks he is a “Calvinist” simply for holding the so-called “Five Points,” then this article is for you. Of course, I don’t recommend anyone wanting to be a Calvinist per se, but simply a Christian who seeks to understand the whole counsel of God and who, indirectly, recognizes that Calvin got a lot of things right (and some things wrong).

Under the Influences

Lewis explains (without necessarily promoting) that in the Medieval Model of the universe:

…the spheres transmit (to the Earth) what are called Influences–the subject-matter of Astrology. Astrology is not specifically medieval. The Middle Ages inherited it from antiquity and bequeathed it to the Reneaissance. The statement that the medieval Church frowned upon this discipline is often taken in a sense that makes it untrue. Orthodox theologians could accept the theory that the plantes had an effect on events and on psychology, and, much more, on plants and minerals. It was not against this that the Church fought. She fought against three of its offshoots.

…(2) Against astrological determinism. The doctrine of influences could be carried so far as to exclude free will. Against this determinism, as in later ages against other forms of determinism, theology had to make a defence. Aquinas treats the question very clearly [Summa, I, cxv, Art. 4]. On the physical side the influence of the spheres is unquestioned. Celestial bodies affect terrestrial bodies, including those of men. And by affecting our bodies they can, but need not, affect our reason and our will. They can, because our higher faculties certainly receive something (accipiunt) from our lower. They need not, because any alteration of our imaginative power produced in this way generates, not a necessity, but only a propensity, to act thus or thus. The propensity can be resisted; hence the wise man will over-rule the stars. But more often it will not be resisted, for most men are not wise; hence, like actuarial predictions, astrological predictions about the behaviour of large masses of men will often be verified.

— C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, Cambridge University Press (1964). Pps. 103-4.

I don’t quote this because I’m a convert; but because our modern mindset so quickly dismisses this possibility as a sneeze to dust that we run the risk of losing the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. As I read this book, I combat the “over-scienced” objections which arise unbidden with the reminder that God made the heavenly bodies “for signs, and for seasons.” And with this my cocksure objections are at least quieted if not silenced. The wise men “saw His star”–what (in our chronological snobbery) might we be missing?

Lewis’ Ransom on ‘Space’

A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of “Space”: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now—now that the very name “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it “dead”; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment … . No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens—the heavens which declared the glory—the

“happy climes that ly
Where day never shuts his eye
Up in the broad fields of the sky.”

He quoted Milton’s words to himself lovingly, at this time and often.

Quoted in Michael Ward’s “C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem,” in Books & Culture, Jan-Feb 2008.

Kuhn on Secularism

Other reflections of the new science [Copernicanism, Newtonianism] can be discovered in the political philosophy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Several recent [c. 1957] writers have pointed to the significant parallels between the seventeenth-century conception of a mechanically functioning solar system and the eighteenth-century conception of a smoothly running society [footnote please!?]. The system of checks and balances incorporated in the Constitution of the United States, for example, was intended to give the new American society the same sort of stability in the presence of disruptive forces that the exact compensation of inertial forces and gravitational attraction had given to the Newtonian solar system. Also, the eighteenth century’s determination to derive the characteristics of a good society from the innate characteristics of the individual man may well have been fostered in part by the corpuscularism of the seventeenth century. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thought the individual appears again and again as the atom from which the mechanism, society, is fabricated. In the opening paragraphs of the declaration of Independence, Jefferson derived the right to revolution from the God-given or inalienable rights of the social atom, man, and his derivation seems to parallel the one in which Newton, a century earlier, had derived the mechanism of nature from the God-given or innate properties of the individual physical atom.

— Kuhn, Thomas S. The Copernican Revolution. 1st ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1957. Page 263.

Niebuhr on the synthetic type (and American civil religion)

I came across a very insightful quote this morning, which I think applies well to the American civil religion situation. H. Richard Niebuhr writes:

It is logical that when a synthetic answer has been given to the problem of Christ and culture, those who accept it should become more concerned about the defense of the culture synthesized with the gospel than about the gospel itself. The two things then seem to be so interconnected that the perennial gospel seems involved in the withering of the annual culture. Whether medieval of modern, feudal or democratic, agrarian or urban civilization has been united with the gospel, whether the synthesist is Roman or Anglican or Protestant, he tends to devote himself to the restoration or conservation of a culture and thus becomes a cultural Christian. The tendency toward cultural conservatism seems endemic in the [synthetic] school.

— H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1951), p. 146.


On Conviviality

In the words of Cicero’s Cato the Elder:

In my Youth I had always a Set of select Companions; for those Societies or Clubs now in Practice, took their Beginning when I was Quaestor, at the Time when the Mother of the Gods was brought to Rome. My Friends and I then had our Meetings and Collations duly; but these were always moderate, tho’ it was at an Age when our Blood was warm, which inevitably cools as Years come on. Nor did I ever measure my Pleasure in those Entertainments by any sensual Gratifications whatever, but solely by the Conversation or Discourses we held on various Subjects. For our Ancestors very wisely called those Meetings of Friends to eat and drink together, by the name of Convivium, or Living-together; as if Society were the Design of them: A Term much more proper than that of the Greeks, whose Name for them imports nothing but Eating and Drinking together; as if they preferred that Part of the Entertainment, which is truly in itself the least valuable.

— Cicero, De Senectute, ch XIII.


Reading Recap: July – Dec 2013


  1. Kirk, The Roots of American Order // A very helpful survey of the title subject (though misguided in a few places). Most helpful to me were the surveys of the Graeco-Roman civilizations and their impact on the development of “order, above all.” Most irritating to me was his tired appropriation of the Mosaic economy as “useful” apart from its place in the history of redemption. (See Machen’s comments on using the Scriptures to promote ‘patriotism’ in What is Faith?, ch. 4 “Faith Born of Need”.)
  2. Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative // A modern-day classic, very brief, worth reading. Changed my mind on 1) the validity of trade unions–provided they’re voluntary–based on the freedom to associate; and on 2) the validity of many Gov’t departments we take for granted today (i.e., the Dept. of Education, etc.). Worth a read for anyone on either side of the political spectrum.
  3. Farmer, The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values // The race-based slavery, manstealing, physical abuse, and marriage-wrecking issues aside (and that’s a lot!), I’m otherwise fascinated by the Southern complex of social thought. Same with the Boers in South Africa, before things went so awry regarding race. De Tocqueville’s dictum on the French Revolution–that “Half-way down the staircase we threw ourselves out of the window, in order to get sooner to the bottom. Such, in fact, is the common course of events. It is not when a system is at its worst that it is broken up, but when it begins to improve; when it allows men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate with one another, and to measure the extent of their rights and of their grievances by comparing their present with their past state.“–seems to apply to the American Civil War. Forcing change on those whose proper responsibility it is to see it done, in a culture of honor, only provokes resistance and a decreased impetus to effect that change. Good quotes here. I have more sympathy for the social and political reasons for their secession now–while retaining an objection to race-based slavery, abuse, manstealing, etc.


  1. Berry, Watch With Me // Beautiful, haunting. Sehnsucht.
  2. Durant, The Lessons of History // Helpful survey apart from his departure into godless speculation about where history can “prove the existence of God.” Very interesting insights otherwise, about the effect of geography on civilizations, etc. Worth checking out of library–probably not worth owning.
  3. Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming // Good for what it is. Oddly, what I took away most was his account of a poor preacher’s funeral sermon. I’ll leave that little gem for you to find on your own. I wept on “the occasion.”


  1. Robertson, The Current Justification Controversy // Perhaps it’s just an early-onset of a midlife crisis, but this volume made be weep for another reason. The recounting of the Norman Shepherd controversy at Westminster Theological Seminary — which took, incredibly, seven years to resolve. As our pastor has wondered aloud, “isn’t it simply amazing that the Church still exists at all?” Sadly Shepherd’s ghost still haunts too many halls.


  1. Helm, Calvin’s Ideas // Rigorous, patient, and insightful. Helm is a brilliant man who writes simply and clearly, able to condense and simplify complicated arguments. This has been a helpful and enjoyable read. I believe others (e.g., Oliphint) have misread him. An aroma of depth and seasoned maturity rise from every page. Helm is the kind of “elder” who one would treasure to have as a neighbor and frequent dinner guest. No doubt the after dinner conversation on the front porch would be deeply life-changing.
  2. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life // I read this acclaimed biography to prepare for my 2nd annual Reformation Night performance (for the young kids of our congregation)–this year I was Calvin, last year I was Luther. Not quite as good as I was expecting, but Selderhuis does present a side of Calvin I hadn’t seen from his other biographers.


  1. Hyde, Welcome to a Reformed Church // Complimentary when I visited Danny Hyde’s church while on travel for work. A great little read; likely the gift I’ll give to each of my family at Sean’s baptism.
  2. Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology // Waters makes his way through the development and major players of the so-called “Federal Vision.” Helpful as this was, I think it could have been better. The OPC Report on Justification (pdf) is just as helpful (if not more so), though without as many source quotes. The complex of dangerous positions, and influencing streams, led to the chimera that is the Federal Vision; lion-headed enough to deceive, fire-breathing enough to burn. It is grievous and remarkable how many have been led astray by these men. While I may be a co-belligerent with them against ‘easy-believism’ and against the revivalism-influenced introspective stance of “evangellyicals,” co-belligerents are not always the best of allies. Claiming their differences to be only “exceptions,” their exceptions are better called “rejection of the entire system.” To draw a parallel, one cannot claim to affirm the Trinity as described by the confession, while “taking exception” to the hypostatic union.
  3. Petto, The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace // Rev. Brown first introduced me to the work of Samuel Petto on his excellent (but now defunct) blog a few years ago. Petto would’ve been a Savoy-man, with Owen, but for understandable reasons. The relation of the Mosaic economy to Covenant Theology is still a hotly debated issue today.
  4. VanDrunen, A Biblical Case for Natural Law (cheaper, cheaper still) // For anyone interested in the very old, but (oddly) “controversial,” idea of natural law, this is a very concise (and affordable) little introduction to one of VanDrunen’s arguments for the continuing validity of natural law–yes, even for Protestants.


  1. Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification // If not for Stonehouse’s bio of Machen, this would have been the best-of-year. An absolutely fantastic resource, highly recommended. Buchanan rehearses the historical and exegetical foundations for the Protestant Reformed doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone.
  2. Brown, Christ and the Condition // I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, but with the upcoming overture to the OPC GA regarding the doctrine of republication, it was an especially helpful read. Brown makes his case that the Mosaic covenant, for all its difficulties, has often been seen to have, “in some sense,” a works-principle involved. (Of course, the reward was temporal and typological, and based on meritum ex pacto, not meritum de condigno nor meritum de congruo).

Thanks for stopping by, and happy reading in 2014!

Helm Reviews Wright

I’ve just stumbled across a few excellent posts, wherein a new-found favorite theologian of mine, Paul Helm, reviews Bishop NT Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (London SPCK):

  1. Wright in General
  2. Why ‘Covenant Faithfulness’ is Not Divine Righteousness (and cannot be)
  3. Wright and Righteousness
  4. Wright and the Reformation

Professor Helm provides a very helpful analysis. He writes at Helm’s Deep.

Reading Recap: Jan – Jun 2013


  1. Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Library of Religious Biography) // Surprisingly cynical at times, but nevertheless a revealing study of this “first American celebrity.” (more)
  2. Lyle Dorsett, Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America (Library of Religious Biography) // Another religious celebrity, and contemporary of Machen. A tragic figure, but telling of his times. Machen initially supported him as one “who preaches the true gospel,” and as a fellow fundamentalist, but would later cool to his overly “roughhouse” antics (per Stonehouse).
  3. Daniel Hyde, In Living Color: Images of Christ and the Means of Grace // Re-read this with the men’s reading group at Church. The 2nd commandment is largely ignored today, as are the divinely appointed means of grace in general. Typical of its author’s work, this brief book is clear, concise and convincing.
  4. Ned Stonehouse, Machen: A Biographical Memoir. // A thoroughly enjoyable tour of Machen’s life and work. I enjoyed every page of this 400+ tribute. (Front-runner for best of year.)


  1. Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology // How might one escape our technopoly without becoming too much of a Luddite? “To ask the question is the solution.” Filled with great insights and quotes. “In short, a technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.” (185)


  1. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations // Lasch is a newcomer to my mind and my library. I will need to read more of him, especially after the new horizons opened to me upon reading his two articles “What’s Wrong with the Right?” and “Why the Left Has No Future” (available here). This volume discusses the advent of the breakdown of personality. Disturbing. It probably deserves another reading.
  2. Twenge and Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement // Lightweight in comparison to Lasch, but nevertheless some interesting insights into modern culture. They seem to focus on vanity rather than true Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as Lasch does above. Longer than it needed to be. (more)


  1. Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness // If you’ve read Owen’s Mortification of Sin, or much of Jerry Bridges, this is in the same vein and just as helpful. I read it somewhat begrudgingly because I’ve read so many books on this topic (“to no avail”) but I’m glad I did. What stuck out to me most was the sections on worldliness in entertainment–I’ve said many times before that “adultery isn’t entertainment,” but DeYoung kicks it up a notch or two. To commandeer a phrase he quoted from Tozer (I think): “The greatest need of my [family] is my holiness.” Amen. May God assist me in making another turn. Another helpful thought: “…the only way to extraordinary holiness is through the ordinary means” –a similar theme to Hyde’s book above.
  2. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains // Fantastic little book. Quite similar to Postman’s Technopoly in places, but fascinating nonetheless. Discusses neuroplasticity.


  1. Mark Noll, Christians in the American Revolution // Classic Noll. Some very helpful insights in this little book. The (over?) emphasis on experience in conversion contributed to the rise of American Baptistic theology/ecclesiology. Three similarities between Whig libertarianism and colonial Christianity led to their mingling: 1) human depravity 2) the mutual dependence between virtue, liberty, and societal welfare, and 3) a view of history as cosmic battle between forces of good and evil.  This is a fantastic little book; of all the books I’ve read on the conflation / confluence of Great Awakening-style religion and libertarian politics in the past few years (and there have been a few) this one seems to be answering the most questions for me. This is the book I’ve been looking for for years. (Of course, the “Notes on Sources” and bibliographic essay will prove expensive…)
  2. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other // More about robots than I’d expected, but I see where she’s going–the device as ‘relational artifact,’ as external emotional crutch. Many important questions and lessons in this book. Disconnect from phone as much as possible. No phones at table, when we are (or have) guests, in meetings. Phones not just out of sight but OFF during family meals. Be where we are. Bodes very poorly for any hope for depth of culture in the future. As she slowly begins to close the book, I have to admit Ms Turkle’s prose seems to blossom in beauty. The book has been engaging from the start, but now she displays her gifts as a writer not only as a psychoanalyst/researcher/etc. The epilogue, I’m almost embarrassed to say, nearly brings a tear to my eye. I would say to her, “Yes–yes, I understand.”
  3. John Piper, This Momentary Marriage // While I appreciate Piper’s dead-earnest intensity about all things, I sometimes get a slight hint of — not quite gnosticism, but a devaluing of the here and now, a lessening of the gifts of God in and of themselves. Yes, we ought to be thankful, but we’re thankful because the gifts are, themselves, enjoyable. Must there be such a ferocity to our devotion? Isn’t there a sense in which I say to my wife that I love her for who she is? Loving her for Christ’s sake sounds like the legalism Luther freed us from in order to love more genuinely. Some really good chapters in here, I suppose I shouldn’t be that surprised. The chapter on spiritual offspring held forth a somewhat thin view of God’s grace as mediated in and through natural families (said the Reformed guy about the Baptist). Overall, especially for its length, this is a decent hortatory read, and I would recommend it. He makes a pretty strong argument about the illegitimacy of remarriage after divorce (even in the case of adultery/fornication), but I don’t think it’s ultimately convincing. For all the reasons one marries in the first place, including the prevention of fornication, remarriage after the departure of an unbelieving spouse is, I think the Scriptures teach, permitted–possibly even recommended. Does the unwilling victim of divorce suddenly gain the “gift of celibacy”?
  4. J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? // So relevant today! I would’ve expected nothing less from Machen’s pen; this is a wonderfully edifying read. Has the affirmations of orthodox faith as well as nearly sermon-like exhortation to belief and amazement at the gospel about (not of) Jesus Christ. And I absolutely love his ‘older’ writing style, so clear, so eloquent, so careful. Who writes like this today?


  1. William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age // Another one on the “technology is killing us and our culture” topic, highly recommended to me by my brother Joseph. What a great little book. The survey of the 7 philosophers was a lot of fun, and even helpful. (I’m further inspired to read some more of Seneca, Cicero, and some of the other classical authors.) Despite Alan Jacobs’ recent rant (‘Enough is Enough‘), and even though people have been saying these things for centuries (‘Plus ça Change‘), I think some of these things bear repeating from time to time. Because, “If we stop remembering, then we’ll forget.” Of the handful of books I’ve read on this topic, this was probably the most fun.
  2. Ted Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart // A very wise and balanced book. I will no doubt return to it often as our children grow. A few ‘new to me’ insights or principles, but overall just what I’d expected. Together with Beeke’s Parenting by God’s Promises one is well equipped for child-rearing.