Covenant College Professor Tells us that “Limited Atonement Cannot be Allowed to Function as a Creed”

Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition , Kenneth J. Stewart, IVP, 2011

Mr. Stewart’s book is more ideological than historical. He aims to promote conformity to his own notion of tolerance. In the process, he seeks to exclude those he refers to as “thoroughly reformed” (p15) as extremists. Even though they don’t call ourselves that, he will label them that and then blame their “primitivism” (back to the 16th century) for the label!

For example, on p93, Stewart concludes that “TULIP cannot be allowed to function as a creed”. This dogmatism about what cannot be allowed follows a caricature of those who use the acronym “tulip” for Dordt’s response to the five points of Arminius. Stewart writes as if “conservative Calvinists” were more concerned about the acronym than about the specific doctrines. He does this, even though on pages 94-95, he lists various five-point books which use different acronyms.

(I notice that Stewart has no reference to the book written by McGregor Wright, No Place for Sovereignty, even though it was published also by IVP. Perhaps Stewart has already dismissed Mr Wright to the margins. And the best way to do that is to ignore a person.)

I notice also that Stewart, who teaches at Covenant College, makes no reference to the Systematic Theology of Robert Reymond, who taught for many years at Covenant Seminary. Perhaps all five point supra-lapsarians have been placed in some forgotten ghetto. Certainly the IVP book, Why I Am Not An Arminian, was strident in its criticism of supra-lapsarians.

Stewart accuses somebody with having a “Procrustean formula” (p84) and also with being “uncritical”. His criticism is itself an uncritical accusation (a formula) which seeks to be self-fulfilling. If you don’t join him (also Michael Haykin and Reid Ferguson) in rejecting the idea of “limited atonement”, then you become guilty of defending the acronym. Since he thinks some of us are on the margins, the purpose of the book is to either re-educate us (the assumption is that we just don’t know the past) or to put us in our place–on the margins where he claims we already are!

If those who care about antithesis with universal and governmental notions of the atonement are simply “strident” (AW Pink, p280) and “contentious” (Nettleton, p87) and “belligerent” (p85) malcontents, why does Stewart think he needs to “blow the whistle on” them? (p12) The answer is that Stewart is a relativist, who thinks the five points are only “one form of Christianity”.

To him, the five debates are not about the gospel, but at the most, only about finding out later how you came to believe (p16) the “gospel” that all evangelicals have in common. This is why Stewart’s book is endorsed by folks like Richard Mouw, who in his own book, Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, explains that “limited atonement” is for him only a “shelf doctrine” which has no practical import, except for his claim to still be a “card-carrying Calvinist”.

Those who want to dismiss TR’s want to bring forward into history the sufficient formula embraced by Dordt but leave behind limited atonement (intended for the elect alone) as “an index for gauging orthodoxy”. Aiming at “inclusion”, they must exclude those of us who won’t tolerate a propitiation that does not propitiate. Aiming at “accomodation”, they cannot accomodate those who deny that there is “generous room at the cross” for every sinner.

Stewart can write all he wants about the “adequacy and capaciousness” of an atonement to save the non-elect. But if the death of Christ does not save the non-elect, then it was not enough to save them. And since this is true, this is either because God never intended the death of Christ to save the non-elect or because the death by itself is not adequate to save anybody. (On this topic of “sufficient/efficient”, I would recommend the book by baptist Tom Nettles, By His Grace and For His Glory, another five-point book not mentioned by Stewart.)

But Stewart warns us (p89) that if we do not go along with his “sufficient for everybody” Procrustean formula, we will end up in a marginalized “self-imposed ghetto”. He demands that we learn to teach a gospel of which the Arminians can approve.

Stewart does not seem to notice that the “gospel” held in common by evangelicals is an Arminian antithesis, opposite to the TRUTH confessed by Dordt. To him, Calvinism has nothing to do with God’s effectual call, but only a good thing if learned incrementally and with moderation. As a relativist with “breadth” and “diversity”, he thinks some of us “have too much of a good thing.” (p13)

Stewart does manage to show that his kind of relativism is not new in Reformed history. He points to Warfield’s (Plan of Salvation) embrace of all super-naturalists (Arminians and Romanists included) as having something in common which is more basic than any Calvinist antithesis.

But even here, we have ideology at work and not history only. Instead of discovering that the tradition was not as clear about grace as it could have been, and that it is now better because of more antithesis, Stewart simply assumes that what’s more recent has to be worse. Too much of a good thing is a very bad thing, the relativists want to tell us, even as they are in the very act of attempting to change our notions of what is “moderate”.

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4 Comments on “Covenant College Professor Tells us that “Limited Atonement Cannot be Allowed to Function as a Creed””

  1. markmcculley Says:

    William Smith—–“Once it is acknowledged that there is much more to Calvinism than the five points, and that one can affirm the Five Points and not be Reformed, the question has to be asked: Can one who does not agree with the substance of the five points (if not the terminology) be regarded as holding the truly Reformed faith? Dr. Stewart wants us to understand that Calvinism is much more open to revivals renewal than we might think.

    Now, as one of a small minority who have some criticisms of “experimental Calvinism” and revivalism, but who could hold of convention of likeminded folks in a phone booth (if he could find one), I ask why Dr. Stewart thinks that….“Calvinists take a dim view of revival and awakening.”. Those such as Nevin of an earlier age and Clark and Hart of the present day seem to be assigned to the cranky edge of Reformed faith and practice. It seems to me incontrovertible that this supposed myth is no myth at all… In the end one wonders why this book was written. It seems it will serve to cause those who favor a broader, softer Calvinism to say, “Amen.”

    Meanwhile, this book will not cause those who hold a more defined and robust Calvinism to change their minds. The book does little to advance serious discussion and debate among those in the Calvinistic tradition. It poses another problem for confessional Presbyterians. It really is not an academic book which would provide a better understanding of varieties of Calvinism. It rather is an advocacy book. And what it advocates is going to a place no one bound by vows accepting the Westminster Standards as teaching the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture may go.

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