Living for God’s Glory – Joel Beeke

9 02 2009

I’ve never liked the terms Calvinist or Reformed, when they are placed before the word Christian. The first makes you sound like the follower of some guy other than Jesus Christ. The second makes you sound like a Christian who has just been released from prison. The system of theology refered to as Calvinism often takes a lot of flack for its tennets. Often, just for a laugh, I read “the contemporary calvinist” blog which posts some of the more obscure criticisms. They range from the “Calvinism is a heresy and all calvinists are going to hell” type criticisms to the well thought out Arminian responses. Love him or hate him, Calvin has been very influential in shaping the Church. People are still arguing over his doctrinal tennets 500 years later. If thats not significant I don’t know what is.

I’ve adapted my style of reviewing for this review. Its a lengthy book so theres no way I can sum up each section. I’m going to tell you what I liked about the book, what I didn’t and then give some concluding remarks and a reccomendation.

Overview:

The book is quite a lenghty one, coming in at 416 pages. It is divided up into six sections: The history of Calvinism (1), Calvinism in the Mind (2), the heart (3), the church (4), in practice (5), and Calvinism’s Goals (6).  Joel Beeke is a prolific author who has written or coauthored fifty books, and contributed to 1500 journal, dictionary and book articles. While he is the books main author there are contributions from 8 other theologians.

What I liked:

Quite often we divorce the reformers from their historical setting. Without knowing the history we are prone to think that the reformers were intolerant and narrow minded. Beeke does a great job here. He highlights some of the key abuses the reformers were reacting against. When viewed in this light many of their  I had no idea that the five solas of the protestant reformation were formed in opposition to five key teachings of the Roman Catholic church. For example, Sola Scriptura as opposed to Scripture and Tradtion. The short discussion on the differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism was quite helpful. Beeke offers an excellent exposition of the five points of Calvinism and offers some great quotes: “Original sin is in us like our beard. We are shaved today and look clean; tomorrow our beard has grown again, nor does it cease growing while we remain on earth.” (page 54) and  “…we are active “sin-aholics” by nature.” (page 55).

Grier’s chapter on Phiosophical Calvinism was interesting. He highlighted some important points in the area of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Scripture is the key to understanding the nature of reality (page 152). God is the source of all knowledge and thus we only things when God makes them known to us (page 153). Divine command is the essence of mans moral obligation (page 156).

 Too often reformed theology books stop at the five points.  While they are not be depricated they do not represent the sum total of Gospel truth. Sections three through six demonstrate that quite clearly. Calvinism results in God honouring piety by means of the believers union with Christ by the Holy Spirit. What Calvin  meant by piety was quite different to what it means today. He said that true piety “consists in a sincere feeling which loves God as Father as much as it fears and reverences Him as Lord, embraces His righteousness, and dreads offending Him worse than death” (page 174). Calvinism is often thought of as a hinderance to evangelism, but ironically it gave Calvin and the Puritans some hope of success. They were to preach the Gospel to every person, in every town because God has his elect everywhere.

But what I liked most about this book was that it showed that Calvinism is a God honouring, biblically faithfull system of theology that affects all areas of life. It is practical and It satisfies the mind. It aids the church, while it truly relies on God’s power for its strength.  It is Christ centred. We can’t ask for much more in a theological system.

What I didn’t like:The chapter on the confessions was quite boring. This section would be helpful to someone interested in the history of their confessional church, but seeing as I go to an independent church, it bears little relevance. The book suffers from an over reliance on confessions and creeds. While they should not be depricated, a greater focus on scripture is what the book needed. In fact if you cut out the references and expositions of the confessions the book could have been shortened quite a bit. I didn’t enjoy the chapter on Church government. To someone interested the history of their denomination the Chapter would have been helpful. But living in a post denominational era one has to wonder why we bother flogging a dead horse?

 

But something that troubled me was the consistent view that Arminians were the enemy. They were the “heretical” sect leading people astray. Fortunately Arminians, however misguided they may be theologically, are not the enemy. I’m willing to bet that most Arminian’s would affirm and agree with Calvinists on the essentials of the Christian faith. There was also too much of an emphasis on the Limited atonement. My feelings on this doctrine is that it lacks practical value, and would cause more confusion than anything else.

 Conclusion and Reccomendation:

Whenever someone says “I’m a Calvinist”,  “I’m an Arminian” or “I’m a this or that Christian” I’m reminded of Paul’s opening remarks in his letter to the Corinthians. “I am of Appollos ! I am on Paul…Is Christ divided?” Spurgeon wrote, in his defence of Calvinism, that everyone is born an Arminian and that God opens our eyes to the truth of his word. While we can reason the truths of reformed theology from scripture, our acceptance of them comes by divine revelation of the Holy Spirit within us. Something the reformed camp would do well to remember.

The diversity of material presented in the book makes it difficult to sum it up without writing a book length review. The ideas of both camps were presented in a largely irenic fashion (I say that with some reservations above). People need to be taught good doctrine. It gives them a solid grounding in the Christian faith. I know from personal experience. Too many introductions to reformed theology stop at the five points, as if they convey the entire Gospel truth. Beeke does a great job at taking this further than most introductions would.

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4 responses

9 02 2009
Mason

I read this one a few months ago, and for what it’s trying to do I thought it was quite good.
Like you I was putt off by swipes at Arminians (and at times the New Perspective if you were looking for the code phrases), but Beek was much better about that than many other Calvinists at least.
I really enjoyed the breadth of this book, how it covered so much of what it means to be Reformed ranging from the history, to TULIP, to church and family, to philosophy. With this broader approach I finished the book feeling like I actually learned a good amount about the Reformed tradition, despite having studied a lot of Reformed authors and living in the American Mecca of Calvinism. Seeing as the goal was to be an intro to Calvinism, I think it serves well in that role.

Also, good point about the reliance on Confessions. I think there is much to value in Westminster and other Reformed Confessions, but I often feel that they are set up implicitly as just as infallible as the Scriptures. So in debates like disagreements with the NPP, there is a tendency to show how the other side disagrees with a Confession so they must be wrong. To me that isn’t any kind of definitive argument.

9 02 2009
aworthydiscussion

Yeah it is a good book. I founds its treatment to be quite fair and reasonable. I have never been part of a church that has used a confession in any shape or form. Even now living in a post confession, post denominational era, I don’t see the point of going into great detail about these confessions.

The scope of the book was what I really liked. I was glad to see that it didn’t stop at the five points. Too many reformed books do (Sproul’s “What is reformed theology” and Boettner’s “Reformed doctrine of predestination”)

I’m not sure what to make of your town as the Mecca of Calvinism – is that a good thing or a bad thing LOL!! I guess it could be good as long as people are not sectarian about it.

9 02 2009
Mason

There are just an unbelievable amount of Reformed churches in the Midwest and especially concentrated here in West MI. Mostly Dutch Reformed to be exact, has to do with this being the area they settled after immigrating, in my high school every third person was Vander-something.
Look up the Holland Michigan Tulip Festival sometime online and you’ll see what I mean, Holland is less than an hour from my city.
Theologically I have a lot more in common with the Scottish and English Reformed churches (and more of an ethnic tie as well). There actually are a number of differences depending on which national flavor of Reformed a church is, which you wouldn’t think if they are all Calvinists, but thats how it ends up.

As far as Confessions and church structure being beside the point in a post-denominational era, there might be movements in that direction here, but I think that is much more fitting to NZ than the situation in the States. Here we still have a good amount of Denominationalism, and we might be getting past some of the more damaging idea about ‘others’ in denominations besides ours, they still are a significant part of many peoples theological identity.

10 02 2009
aworthydiscussion

LOL Well my grandparents are dutch. They immigrated to South africa after the 2nd world war. In fact they were paid by the dutch government to go and populate Africa LOL !! How times have changed. But unfortunately they are not reformed, they’re (Roman?) Catholic. In fact I think they are Charismatic Catholic. I grew up with a lot of Dutch (Afrikaans) speaking people. Nearly married one once, thank GOD i didnt!! BTW – Berkhof was Dutch Reformed I think….

I guess for me having been in a few churches (Both in South Africa, and New Zealand) that have never used confessions to deliniate themselves I found such a reliance strange. The amount of denominationalism you talk about makes the confession thing a bit more understandable. I guess when they’ve been part of your theological identity for so long its hard to let go. It’s the same the other way round. If it’s never been part of your identity before then its difficult to accept and you become skeptical.

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