Calvinism

A Very Short Introduction

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Jon Balserak
Very Short Introductions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2017.
     144 pages.
     $10.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780198753711.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jon Balserak seeks to introduce Calvinism by exploring “some of the main ideas associated with Calvinism” (xiii), neither seeking to “defend or attack its truthfulness” (xiii) nor providing “a detailed history of it” (xiii). In fact, it is very difficult for one to accurately and compellingly explain Calvinism in a pocket book size because as the author admits, “during its roughly 500-year existence, it has had to adapt as it moved into different countries, and has consequently grown more diverse, covering not only theology but also terrain associated with politics, psychology, philosophy, the sciences, and the arts” (xiii). Balserak does it by adapting traditional theological methods to contemporary readers and providing a variety of Reformed theological resources.

Balserak approaches Calvinism as a subject matter in a stimulating and reachable way by adapting traditional theological questions, distinctions, and loci to the contemporary reader. This is illustrated most clearly in chapter 2 on the doctrine of conversion. He deals with the doctrines of divine decree and human assurance in relation to the doctrine of conversion with such theological questions as “how to speak to someone about God’s love” (13), and “how to address depression and human inability” (13). Adapting traditional theological issues to contemporary ones, he asserts that God is the author of conversion, and that this is the kernel of the Calvinistic doctrine of conversion. In addition to this, Balserak clarifies complex aspects of theological questions by employing scholastic distinctions adapted to contemporary readers such as the distinction between “speaking about that love and applying it to people” (14). Furthermore, it is interesting that he does not follow the traditional order of presenting theological loci. If so, in chapter 2, there would be the subject of theological knowledge, which is instead found in chapter 5 of this book. We assume this is probably because, through the doctrine of conversion, Balserak wants to outline the human relationship with God, which would be one of the most inspiring subjects for contemporary readers. Additionally, in chapter 4, which deals with the doctrine of the marks of the church, he translates this into an issue of “finding the church” (50), or a theological question like “there are numerous local churches to choose from…How does a Christian find one to attend?” (50).

Balserak employs a variety of Reformed theological resources for helping readers understand “the main ideas associated with Calvinism” (xiii). In chapter 2, by illustrating many theological figures who emphasize the utmost importance of conversion, he suggests not only English puritans, such as John Owen and Richard Baxter, but also contemporary Calvinist preachers like J. Ligon Duncan III and Tim Keller. In chapter 3, by asserting that “the Reformed tradition has a more dynamic sense of the Christian responsibilities in the world than do other traditions” (32), he gives not only familiar examples of theologians (e.g., Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Richard Mouw), but also a variety of examples of literati (e.g., T. S. Eliot and Marilyn Robinson), politicians (e.g., John Winthrop), and socio-economists (e.g., Max Weber).  And by evaluating Calvinism’s cultural legacy, he presents its positive influences on science, art, and capitalism as well as its negative ones on politics, especially the case of the Afrikaner Calvinism (i.e., apartheid). In chapter 4, he announces both traditional Calvinist ideas of the church (i.e., the distinction between the visible church and the invisible church, infant baptism, the three marks of the church, and the two kingdom doctrine) and modernized Calvinist ones (i.e., John Murray’s rejection of the invisible church, David F. Wright’s baptismal regeneration, Mark Dever’s nine marks of the church, and Kuyperians’s common kingdom model). In chapter 5, he shows that there are various Calvinist responses to the Enlightenment on theological knowledge: (1) accepting a Kantian understanding of knowledge, Karl Barth argues that “God could ‘break through’ to communicate to humankind in moments of ‘crisis’” (69); (2) discarding Kant and choosing to adopt philosophical positions devised by Scottish common-sense realism, American Calvinists like John Witherspoon, Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, Robert Lewis Dabney, and B. B. Warfield, “assume the original powers of the human mind to form valid judgement about reality on the basis of data presented by the senses” (69); (3) discarding Enlightenment findings, Cornelius Van Til developes “a distinctively Reformed approach to the question of knowledge and the defense of the Christian faith” (70). In chapter 6, Balserak provides a variety of ideas such as the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, the compatibility between God’s decrees and human freedom, the decree of reprobation (i.e., infra- and supralapsarianism), and the scope of atonement (i.e., limited atonement and hypothetical universalism) with which all Reformed Christians do not agree. In chapter 7, he defends the truthfulness of Calvinist doctrines such as original sin, total depravity, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saint by providing complementary examples (e.g., federal representation and Jonathan Edwards’s realism regarding original sin, and common grace and its objection on total depravity), although he says in the preface that he does not seek to defend its truthfulness.

Overall, this book achieves its goal to introduce readers to the topics of Calvinism in a stimulating and accessible way. As a Korean Calvinist, I especially appreciate Balserak’s interest in Korean Calvinists like Jaejoon Kim, Nam-Joon Kim, and Hyung-Nong Park. However, it would be better to propose the reason why he chose “some of main ideas associated with Calvinism” (xiii), but not others. In addition to this, a very small revision is needed for the address of Yullin Presbyterian Church: that is, not Seoul, but Anyang of South Korea.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eundeuk Kim is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theology at the Calvin Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jon Balserak is senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of Bristol. He has published numerous scholarly articles on John Calvin and the Calvinist and Reformed tradition.

Keywords: 

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