In two sentences, what is a Calvinist?
From the first time I learned Mere Calvinism was coming out I’ve been excited. My initial thought was this would be C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity meets two other P&R classics: The Five Points of Calvinism by David Steele & Curtis Thomas and The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Loraine Boettner. I wasn’t disappointed. As Tim Challies has already pointed out, Mere Calvinism is one of the best introductions to the Five Points of Calvinism you’ll find.
This was my first time reading anything from the author Jim Orrick. Orrick is a Professor at Boyce College and has pastored at Storms Creek Missionary Baptist Church in Ohio. Orrick’s style is engaging and conversational. One gets the impression from the book that the work is coming out of years of conversations he has held with people (young and old) about the doctrines of grace.
In addition to his approachable style, a real strength of this book is his outstanding skill in smoothly weaving Scripture into his explanations and to also vividly illustrate his points. One of my favorite illustrations was on objections to Unconditional Election.
“If you reject unconditional election and hold to conditional election, it might seem like everyone has a chance to be saved—but to be consistent, you will have to abandon the idea that God knows everything…If God knows that myriads of people will live lives of rebellion against him and consequently be damned forever, and he nevertheless allows them to be born, he is still open to the accusation of being unfair and monstrous” (page 73-4).
His point is that denying the clear teaching of election could lead one to question if God even knows the future. This then could lead to non-orthodox views on the doctrine of God—such as Open Theism.
I found these types of logical illustrations throughout the book. Jim Orrick’s style is also very pastoral and irenic (aiming at peace). The book is really saturated with Scripture and has many references to the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Additionally, the Questions for Contemplation and Discussion at the end of each chapter would be excellent for personal or group discussions.
With that said, I would want to offer a few critiques, especially for those who are confessionally Presbyterian & Reformed, or confessional Baptists.
First, Jim Orrick is quick to mention in his introductory chapter that Calvinism is more than the Five Points. I was hoping he’d go in a confessional direction with this thought, but he did not. His point is that Calvinism “is a way of looking at everything in the world” (page 23).
While I would agree with his statement and that the “Calvinistic way of thinking is rooted in the confidence that God is in control of everything,” I wouldn’t limit the definition of Calvinism to this. Many Christians who wouldn’t consider themselves to be Calvinists would also affirm those statements.
Secondly, there is no mention of the sacraments being a means of grace. Both the London Baptist Confession (30.1) and Westminster Confession (29.1) affirm the Lord’s Supper provides “spiritual nourishment.” As a book that is intending to go beyond the five points, I would have enjoyed a discussion on how the sacraments—as means of grace—factor in to the Perseverance of the Saints.
Third, confessionally Reformed readers may discern considerable “Lordship Salvation” language in some sections of the book. I’d recommend simply reading and referencing the Westminster Confession and catechisms on the topics of justification and sanctification for better clarity on the historic Reformed teaching.
At the close of the book, Orrick asks what Calvinism is in two sentences. He answers “First, a Calvinist believes that God always does whatever he pleases. Second, a Calvinist believes that God initiates, sustains, and completes the salvation of everyone who gets saved.” Yes, and amen, this is absolutely true! But understanding these truths is just a gateway into Reformed theology. As W. Robert Godfrey has said, and I would concur, “If you want to know the points of Calvinism read the 37 articles of the Belgic Confession, read the Westminster Confession. That’s the summary of Calvinism.”
With those things said, Mere Calvinism really is a fantastic book that I would recommend to those new to Reformed theology or are just looking for fresh ways to communicate the five points. And the decisive question I often ask myself when evaluating a book—would I buy it for my sons to read? —Yes! I definitely would and will!
Published by Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing