A SWOT analysis of Calvinism today

Michael Horton’s presentation

Chapter 8 of Michael Horton’s For Calvinism offers a SWOT analysis of Calvinism today, that is, an examination of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, according to his assessment.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The first thing that Horton considers a strength of Calvinism these days is its intellectual boldness. Early in the rise of Reformed churches, the catechizing of members was given a high priority among the activities of pastors. They were instrumental in establishing and reviving centers of higher learning, which also produced significant published works. Their leadership bore fruit in the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Heidelberg. New universities grew out of their work, in Zurich, Geneva, Leiden, Utrecht, and Edinburgh. For the New England Puritans, it was common to build a church first, then houses, and then a college, because they expected ministers to be well educated (170-71).

This strength requires Reformed Christians always to “be on guard against intellectual pride and the reduction of the faith to sound doctrine” (172). Also needing to be protected is warm heartedness in worship and service. The Reformed “concern for getting the gospel right” can sometimes become “disconnected from the zeal to get the gospel out” (173). “Getting it right” must be a means “to the greater end of trusting, praising, and obeying the God to whom these doctrines refer” (173). Preaching must be a means of grace, not simply of instruction, stimulating thanksgiving and fellowship with God and each other (174).

Calvinists are generally strong in their love for truth, but this can foster factionalism (175-78). It is a good thing for us to take seriously the truth that God has revealed to us, but we should be appropriately humble about the fallibility of our interpretations of that truth. Our conviction that illumination is God’s work should soften our efforts to convince others of what we believe to be the truth.

Respect for tradition is strong in Reformed circles but this can develop into a stifling traditionalism. While being grateful for the people who served God faithfully in the past, we must beware of turning them into heroes whose faults we ignore. We do “better to subscribe to confessions of faith than to venerate traditions and individuals, drawing from the fountains which fed the thought and life of those whom we admire, rather than focusing on the people and their work (178-79).

Opportunities and Threats

A movement dubbed the “New Calvinism” has made news in recent years, and we can be grateful for the revived interest in the doctrines of grace, but we must beware of the threat that the church might be replaced with a movement. This is a risk that may be realized if the richness and breadth of Reformed faith is reduced to a few doctrines, particularly if “those doctrines lose much of their supporting rationale” (180). Horton therefore expresses small confidence “in the longevity or depth of a ‘New Calvinism’ movement that does not become a feeder for actual churches” (181).

Given the traditional Calvinist love of truth, the new interest in sound doctrine is encouraging, but it will simply develop into a new fundamentalism if care is not taken. “The real question is not whether we are conservative or progressive, but whether we are Reformed and always being reformed by God’s Word” (181-82). God’s Word exposes bare conservatism as “just another form of self-justification,” which distracts us from the gospel as much as progressivism does (184). Horton passes along the wise counsel of Abraham Kuyper, who urged that orthodoxy not be confused with conservatism, but that the Spirit of God be allowed to renew the church through his Word. In this way, the needs of new times can be discerned and addressed with the perennially relevant gospel. “It is not by nostalgia for a supposedly golden age (even the Reformation), but by returning to the founding events of Christ’s saving work that each generation can experience the liberating power of the gospel for its own time and place” (188). Horton would welcome a new reformation, one in which we will feel called “not to simply repeat slogans, but to clarify and, on the basis of Scripture, at times even modify our understanding and practice in order to achieve greater precision in teaching and obeying God’s Word faithfully” (190).

My reflections

A comment on Horton’s autobiographical “afterword”

Michael Horton concludes this book with a very interesting description of how he became a Calvinist after his older brother urged him to read Romans, which he did many times. He speaks of the period that followed his theological conversion, when he “became pretty hard to live with” because of his penchant to debate with people who did not share his Calvinistic understanding of Scripture. But I am thankful for what Horton learned through this experience. I find him a very winsome Calvinist, and I have heard Arminians testify well about their relationship with him too. I think that he models the strengths of Calvinism that he described in the eighth chapter, and that his awareness of the ways in which Calvinists can stumble in their zeal has borne good fruit in his own life and ministry.

A general response to the SWOT analysis and to the book as a whole

Although I have been a Calvinist doctrinally for most of my adult life, I have worked and worshipped outside of the Reformed church world, so I am not in a position to supplement Horton’s SWOT analysis. But, from my own observation of Calvinism both within and outside of the confessionally Reformed churches, I think that Horton has done well in identifying strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats. I have enjoyed his presentation of Calvinism, both in terms of the canons of Dort with which it is so widely associated, and in terms of the broader and richer life of the Reformed church, within which these play a subsidiary confessional role.

I hope that the Lord will use this book to advance his good purposes in the lives of professing Calvinists, as well as in the lives of Arminians. God does his work in and through his people on both sides of this theological divide between monergism and synergism, and I am convinced that God’s kingdom purposes will best be served when we understand one another well, and represent one another both accurately and charitably. The issues concerning which we differ are very important, and it is good that we should be passionate about the truth as we understand it, but never in a way that gives unnecessary offense or hinders the fellowship in Christ that should draw us all together within the one, holy, universal and apostolic church that Jesus is building in the world.

An interesting excerpt from John Newton that models a good Calvinist attitude to Arminians

During a recent visit, my long-time friend, Grant Gordon, kindly gave me a copy of his latest book. I’m enjoying Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland, Jr., and it struck me as a providential coincidence this morning, when I read a section of a letter from October 1771 which provides a good example of the sort of spirit which Michael Horton has urged upon his fellow Calvinists, and modeled so well himself. Upon reading his young friend’s first book of poems, Newton wrote these helpful comments:

“You say, ‘I have aimed to displease the Arminians’, I had rather you aimed to be useful to them, than to displease them. There are many Arminians who are so only for want of clearer light. They fear the Lord, and walk humbly before him. And as they go on, by an increasing acquaintance with their own hearts and the word of God, their objections and difficulties gradually subside. And in the Lord’s time (for he is the only effectual teacher) they receive the doctrines of grace which they were once afraid of. Now these should not be displeased, by our endeavouring to declare the truth in terms the most offensive to them which we can find, but we should rather seek out the softest and most winning way of encountering their prejudices. Otherwise we make a parade, and grow big with a sense of our own wisdom and importance, but we shall do little good. Our Lord you know taught his disciples as they were able to bear it, he did not aim to displease them though it is pretty plain they had a good deal of the Arminian spirit in them for some time after they began to follow him. You will perhaps say, ‘An humble Arminian! Surely that is impossible.’ I believe it not more impossible to find a humble Arminian, than a proud and self-sufficient Calvinist. The doctrines of grace are humbling, that is in their power and experience, but a man may hold them all in the notion, and be very proud. He certainly is so, if he thinks his assenting to them is a proof of his humility, and despises others as proud and ignorant in comparison of himself” (Gordon, ed. 15).

With that beneficial perspective from another Calvinist in the late 18th C, I conclude this review/interaction with Michael Horton’s fine book in the 21st.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Part 4. Part 5, Part 6.

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2 Responses to A SWOT analysis of Calvinism today

  1. Stan Fowler says:

    Wise counsel, indeed! I still remember how obnoxious I sometimes was after I became a convinced Calvinist while in university. I recall the Sunday afternoon argument with my parents and my brother, which left them physically ill and unable to attend the evening service, while I went happily off to church. I think that God’s grace has over the years made me a better advocate for the doctrines of grace. We need to keep the conversation going and talk to each other rather than about each other.

  2. Chris Wettstein says:

    I like that statement, Stan Fowler: “talk to each other rather than about each other.” That makes a big difference. I’d say we need more of that in various camps.

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