For Calvinism. By Michael Horton. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 208 pages. Paperback, $16.99.
In For Calvinism, Michael Horton (Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California) explores Biblical and historical roots beneath the doctrines of grace – commonly referred to as Calvinism. Published by Zondervan alongside Roger Olsen’s Against Calvinism, these two books speak to one of the theological trends that is (according to Time Magazine) “changing the world.”
Throughout the book, Horton encounters caricatures and stereotypes head-on – providing historical evidence through sermons, creeds, and catechisms – explaining that those who hold those certain positions stand on the fringes of Reformed theology, or are misunderstood assumptions by those outside of Calvinism about Calvinists.
An example of such misunderstandings is the Calvinistic understanding of depravity. Whereas critics of Reformed theology often argue that Calvinists begin theologically with Gen 3 (The Fall), rather than Gen 1 (The Creation), Horton contends that Reformed theology begins with the Creator God and His prize creation, man. Man was created with freedom of will, and chose sin, evil, and death, thereby shackling all of creation in sin. The result is that all of humanity now chooses sin freely, and – controlled by sin – cannot choose otherwise.
Another such example of confusion exists around the Calvinistic understanding of election. Horton writes, “It is impossible to read the Bible without recognizing God’s freedom to choose some and not others” (54). This does not, however, mean that God plays an active role in reprobation – that is, “God’s decision not to save some” (57). Horton states explicitly that, “God is not active in hardening hearts in the same way that he is active in softening hearts” (57).
Horton defends the doctrine of limited atonement, but only after sharing his preference for the terms “definite atonement,” or “particular redemption.” This is certainly the most hotly debated of the five points of Calvinism, and one that many Calvinists – both historic and modern – flatly deny. For Horton, however, the argument against the Calvinistic understanding of the atonement has lost its center. Whereas those in disagreement argue that Scripture plainly states that Christ died for all, Horton maintains that the question is not for whom did Christ die, but rather, does his atonement save, or merely make man saveable? Calvinists, according to Horton, believe that the atonement is limited in its extent, while unlimited in its efficacy, while Arminians maintain that it is unlimited in extent, while remaining limited in its efficacy. Rather than leading Calvinists to proclaim the gospel to only those elected for salvation, Horton maintains that, “we declare not only generally to all but to particularly to each person that Christ’s death is sufficient to save him or her” (97).
Perhaps the most common objection to Calvinism is that a Calvinistic understanding of election and predestination leads to a lax in evangelistic and missionary zeal. Horton quotes the late Southern Baptist church historian William R. Estep as stating, “Calvinism is anti-missionary,” and that the doctrine of election forces evangelistic and missionary efforts to be, “exercises in futility.” Responding to this accusation, Horton writes,
The premises in Estep’s article do indeed follow logically to his conclusion. If election eliminates personal responsibility for responding to the gospel and the gospel itself is not to be proclaimed indiscriminately to every person, of course the missionary enterprise would be a fool’s errand. However, none of the premises is actually held by Calvinists. But they are widely assumed by non-Calvinists. It is a caricature of Calvinism that leads to the conclusion that, on logical grounds, it is inimical to missions (151-152).
Horton then describes the rich history of Calvinist missions, from Calvin himself to Carey and Eliot, from Brainerd to Livingstone. This historical survey of the manner in which Calvinism has provided the impetus for innumerable missionary endeavors renders accusations to the contrary completely lacking in historical fact. Horton further provides a compelling Biblical argument for the logic of Calvinism in missions.
Sadly, For Calvinism will primarily be read by the already-convinced, or the will-not-be-convinced. This is not due to the author’s tone, as much as the topic. Few stumble upon books like For Calvinism without a predetermined (freely-chosen, of course) position in mind. However, even those predisposed against Calvinism will find in Dr. Horton a gracious host, welcoming them to explore the vast richness of the Calvinist theology.
This review appears in the forthcoming Southwestern Journal of Theology 56.1 (Fall 2013): 99-101.