We all know the stereotypes of the cranky Calvinist who is serious, doctrinaire and fervent but lacks joy. I think of the Danish sect portrayed in Babette’s Feast with their sour faces, scandalized by a good meal. But is this a fair portrayal of Calvinism? Author Greg Forster claims it is not. He argues in The Joy of Calvinism that not only do Calvinists have joy but that “if you want to understand the command to rejoice at all times, and still more if you want to obey it, of all the places you might start looking for help with the problem, the best place to start is Calvinism.(14)” And so he wrote this book as a sort of lay exposition of Calvinist doctrine to draw attention to the joy of Calvinism, especially as it relates to soteriology (salvation).
[Personal Note: At the interest of self disclosure, I read this book as a non-Calvinist but I am not an anti-Calvinist. My own spiritual formation has been shaped, in part, by my reading Calvinists and Reformed authors and I regard many Calvinist theologians warmly. Certain passages of Calvin's Institutes bring me to my knees and I hear within his prose pure worship. But there are other voices that have formed me and I don't feel like I can buy into the Calvinist system completely. Rather than saying I am a non-Calvinist, it makes sense to say that while others boast that they are five-point-Calvinists, I am at best a .5 Calvinist. It is part of my Evangelical heritage, but not necessarily where I theologically locate myself. Back to my review.]
Forster thinks Calvinists have not presented their own theology in winsome ways, often focusing on the things they don’t believe, rather than stating positively what they do believe. He observes:
It sometimes feels like Calvinists invoke the five points, then apologize for invoking the five points, and then explain how the five points don’t really mean what they seem to mean and aren’t really saying what they seem to be saying. This can’t possibly be the best way to introduce people to what we believe.(16)
So this book promises to get beyond TULIP (a modern summary of Calvinism), formulas and technicalities to what is positively wonderful about Calvinist beliefs. So after a brief detour addressing ‘five points about Calvinism’ and trying to correct many misconceptions (i.e. Calvinists have free will, aren’t saved against their will, are wholly defiled but not ‘totally depraved,’ do not deny God’s love for the lost, or concerned only with God’s sovereignty) most of the book is dedicated to presenting a positive account of what Calvinists believe. Forster divides his chapters into<
four headings, each addressing an aspect of God’s love: God loves you personally, unconditionally,irresistibly, and unbreakably.
By framing Calvinist doctrine in terms of God’s Love, Forster is able to draw out some of the pastoral implications of Calvinist dogma and show where Calvinists have drawn comfort from their core beliefs. That God loves us personally, is the positive implications of the doctrine of limited atonement/election. Forster claims that to say that God loves humanity is to abstract God’s love because real love is personal and involves doing concrete things for concrete individuals (48). To say that God loves unconditionally is to say that God’s choice of the elect resides solely in his own character and love and not on any of our techniques or our own character. To say that the love of God is irresistible means that when we experience God’s good work and love we cannot help but give ourselves over to him in wonder and devotion because of his goodness to him. To say that God’s love is unbreakable means that we trust that God will continue to preserve us and keep us on the path of salvation. All of this taken together, causes and sustains the joy of the convinced Calvinist.
Despite the merits of this book I think Foster occasionally comes across as uppity. He repeatedly diverges from his ‘positive presentation’ of Calvinism to show up other Christian traditions and I don’t think he always characterizes them well. For example, he argues that Calvinism alone places the hope of salvation squarely on the cross of Christ, but other Christian traditions set up a ‘salvation system.’ Roman Catholics are saved through the Church and the sacraments, Lutherans likewise trust the sacraments as ‘means of Grace,’ Arminians lay there hope solely on the moment of decision(53-54). Forster is quick to dismiss these other traditions for putting hope for salvation in something else besides Christ’s substitutionary atonement, but his quick dismissal betrays a low view of sacraments, ecclesiology and human freedom. He is also rather flippant in his characterization of each tradition. It would have been better if he presented the positive aspects of Calvinism without resorting to an apologetic and an ‘over and against’ posture.
I also disagree with his sole focus on soteriology. Calvinists’ sometimes focus narrowly on a theology of the atonement which looks at the cross and resurrection only but fails to place Christ’s redeeming work with little regard to the wider Biblical story. A focus on salvation is not wrong, per se. It just isn’t wright. I personally need a theology which is richer than one atonement model. I need to hear how Jesus fulfills the hopes of Israel, blesses the nations and brings his Kingdom rule to the earth. I get more joy out of stories than I do out of propositions.
I thought this book offered a good summary statement of Calvinist belief from someone inside their ranks. I think Forster did a good job of framing Calvinism as a theology of God’s love. Yet, in exploring the ‘joyful life’ from a Calvinist expression, I think J.I. Packer’s Knowing God or even John Piper’s Desiring God is a more helpful exploration of the theme. I would recommend this book to Calvinist friends seeking a better grasp of their own tradition and theological contribution.
Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for review. This is my fair and honest review.