BOOK REVIEW: 13 Books about Calvinism
by Michael J. Penfold
Theologically sound, well-written books on the subject of election and predestination, that avoid the extremes of “limited atonement” (Calvinism) on the one hand, and the “falling away” doctrine (Arminianism) on the other, can be hard to come by. Listed here are 13 volumes that engage with the Biblical text using a proper grammatical-historical hermeneutic and which provide a wealth of helpful material to enable the reader to navigate these notoriously difficult waters with safety.
1. Determined to Believe?
Professor John Lennox, speaker, debater and author of numerous books (God’s Undertaker, Gunning for God, Key Bible Concepts etc.) tackles the huge topic of the sovereignty of God, freedom, faith and human responsibility in his 368 page book Determined to Believe? (9780857218728). Have you ever asked yourself the following questions?: If sinners are “capable of trusting in Christ” are they not contributing to their salvation and thus denying free grace? How can someone who is “dead in sins” exercise saving faith? Surely they have to be regenerated first, before they can believe? Since Christ only saves His sheep, and only draws to Himself those given to Him by the Father, the doctrine of unconditional election must surely be true? If so, this is the book for you! Lennox’s 5 chapter headings are: 1. The Problem Defined, 2. The Theology of Determinism, 3. The Gospel and Determinism, 4. Israel and Determinism, 5. Assurance and Determinism. J.P. Moreland writes: “John Lennox is widely recognised as one of the top Christian intellectuals of our time. Yet he is also rightly admired for his uncanny ability to get right down to the basic issues in a discussion and to write about them with a simple clarity that still exemplifies depth and range of treatment. And, as one would expect, Determined to Believe? is a model of these vitrues. This is no ordinary rehash of old debates about Calvinism vs. Arminianism, God’s sovereignty vs. free will and moral responsibility, and so on. In fact, the real brilliance of the book lies in Lennox’s insistence that we set aside old labels and try a fresh approach with new eyes to the topics related to the acceptance or non-acceptance of theological determinism. As a result, this is a treasure trove of clear, easy to understand biblical exegesis, helpful definitions of key terms like ‘foreknowledge’ and ‘predestine’, and coverage of theological determinism as it relates to the human condition, the nation of Israel and the hardening of Pharoah’s heart, and the assurance a believer may rightly claim regarding one’s salvation. I highly recommend this refreshing and helpful book.”
2. Whosoever Will
David Allen’s comprehensive yet helpfully readable 320 page book Whosoever Will (9780805464160) is subtitled, “A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism”. Chapter 1 is a masterful exposition of that well known text John 3:16. Chapters 2-6 treat each of the five points of Calvinism under the acronym TULIP. David Allen’s chapter 4 on “The Atonement: Limited or Universal?” is essential reading. In this chapter he lucidly argues for unlimited atonement under five headings: 1. Historical Considerations – Allen demonstrates that the true position of many well-known names (Thomas Cranmer, Richard Baxter, Stephen Charnock, Robert Dabney, et al) was actually that of universal atonement. 2. Exegetical Considerations – With the precision of a skilled exegete Allen handles the key texts of the New Testament that affirm unlimited atonement by the use of ‘all’ and ‘many’; ‘the world’ and ‘the Church’ etc. 3. Theological Considerations – Allen faces up to the implications of John Owen’s critical double payment argument, answers it well and then shows that other Calvinists have been stoutly critical of Owen’s seemingly unassailable argument. 4. Logical Considerations – In this brief section Allen asserts that we do not have to abandon our God-given faculty of thinking and be hoodwinked by a logical fallacy which insists that a statement of particularity precludes universality. 5. Practical Considerations – The 6 pages under this heading are essential reading for anyone who preaches the gospel, as Allen penetrates the fog that often surrounds terms used in gospel preaching by those who feel compelled to avoid telling sinners that “Christ died for them”, and shows that much of the confusion in preaching is caused by misunderstanding the distinction between the intent of the atonement and its application. The one caveat on the book is that, since it was born out of a controversy among Southern Baptists in the USA, it is heavy with their particular terminology, especially in chapters 6-11. However, that should not hinder a discerning reader deriving huge benefit from the book.
3. The Extent of the Atonement
In The Extent of the Atonement (9781433643927), author David Allen reviews beliefs about the extent of Christ’s atonement throughout Church history – from the early Church Fathers up to the present – and on his way through makes a careful Scriptural critique of the various views. This 848 page work is the result of 10 years of research. Allen demonstrates conclusively that most of the influential names that are assumed to be supporters of limited atonement actually taught a universal atonement. The last chapter, “Why Belief in Unlimited Atonement Matters”, is alone worth the price of the book. Allen is a lucid writer with a very clear expression and flow. The book is peppered throughout with memorable expressions: “Limited atonement is a doctrine in search of a text”; “One of the problems endemic in discussions of Calvinism is that people sometimes make use of the same vocabulary but employ a different dictionary”. Readers of all levels will be amply repaid by perusing this tremendous book. It contains very useful indices of names, subjects and Scriptures, which make it an easily-referenced encyclopaedia on the subject of the atonement. Published in 2016, this book has been described as “monumental”, an “absolute tour de force” and “an education in how to do theology responsibly and how to read the Bible faithfully.”
4. Election and Predestination
This excellent volume by Samuel Fisk B.A. M.A., was originally published by Loizeaux Brothers in 1973 under the title Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom (still available second hand on Amazon). However, in 1997 Penfold Book & Bible House published a British edition under the title Election and Predestination, Keys to a Clearer Understanding (9781900742030) which is more widely available and which has extra appendices added. This book’s 193 pages are laid out in three distinct sections. The first 92 pages discuss issues such as free will, God’s sovereignty, total depravity and God’s foreknowledge. The next 55 pages deal with 20 of the most well-known verses in the New Testament relating to the issues of election, predestination and foreknowledge. Fisk makes some of his own comments on each verse but also adds comments from a host of other commentators such as W.E. Vine, Sir Robert Anderson, C.H. Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle, A.T. Robertson and J. Sidlow Baxter, to name but a few. This has the effect of revealing the fact that scholarly men do not always take key “Calvinistic texts” the way one might expect! The third section of the book is made up of 7 appendices with intriguing titles such as “Pink on Human Responsibility”, “An Answer to John Owen”, “God’s Willingness vs Man’s Unwillingness”, “A.W Tozer on Sovereignty and Free Will” and “Some Little Known Statements of John Calvin”. This is an indispensable volume in understanding the Calvinism/Arminianism debate.
5. Calvinistic Paths Retraced
Calvinistic Paths Retraced (9780914012252) is Samuel Fisk’s sequel to Election and Predestination. While his first book majors on expounding Bible verses, this book homes in on historical events, leading characters in the controversy and denominational doctrines (still, 25 Bible verses are in reality given “expanded treatment”). Fisk very effectively reviews the Calvinistic T.U.L.I.P. acrostic. The third chapter of this book, showing the inconsistency of a “4-point position”, is well worth the price of the book. Fisk’s treatment of the history of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) is eye-opening. In 238 pages, Fisk quotes around 300 leading authors from the evangelical world, making this volume a “text book” of information on the subject. Look out for an interesting read in Chapter 5 – “Bible Translations that Conditioned Men’s Thinking” and for Appendix A – “Does Unlimited Atonement Lead to Universalism?”
6. The Death Christ Died
Robert P. Lightner’s book The Death Christ Died (171 pages, 9780825431555) expounds what the Bible has to say about the unlimited atonement that Christ affected at the cross, while clearly showing that there is no link between the truth of “unlimited atonement” on the one hand and the error of “universalism” on the other. Christ did not just die for the elect! He is the propitiation not for believers’ sins only, but also for the sins of the whole world. This landmark work will dispel any thought from the reader’s mind that the death of Christ was limited in any way. Lightner rejects both the Arminian and Calvinistic views of the death of Christ, instead declaring that the Bible teaches “the vicarious and substitutionary nature of the atonement”, which “full and complete sacrifice” is provisionary and applied only to those who exercise faith in Christ. Such faith does not contribute to a person’s salvation, but is simply the method whereby a sovereign God applies the benefits of Calvary to the believing sinner.
7. The Dark Side of Calvinism
In The Dark Side of Calvinism, the author, George Bryson, interacts with the writings of the “new-Calvinist” heavyweights such as R.C. Sproul, John Piper and John MacArthur, which goes to make this 398 page work particularly useful. The format of the book is as follows: each of the 5 points of Calvinism is explained in a separate chapter (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and the Perseverance of the saints). Following each such chapter, there’s a chapter refuting the particular item from T.U.L.I.P.. While the author does indeed believe that people are depraved, and that once a person is saved they are forever saved, he shows that Calvinism’s “total depravity” and “perseverance of the saints” are not what many people think they are! Bryson is scrupulously fair in his quotations of Calvinistic authors, and documents his book with 618 footnotes. Most of the key texts of scripture that relate to the topic are dealt with in their relevants contexts. The Dark Side of Calvinism (9781931667883) is a thoroughly worthwhile read.
8. The Faith of God’s Elect
In The Faith of God’s Elect (9780948417795) John Parkinson compares “the election of Scripture” with “the election of Calvinistic theology” and sets out to prove they are incompatible, contradictory and materially different. The “elect of God” is His own beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Those who are in Him are “chosen in Him” and share in His chosenness. Election is not to salvation, but to blessings and purposes which follow salvation. Election applies exclusively to the redeemed, having no relevance to the unbeliever. Parkinson traces the idea of “election to salvation” to the ideas of Augustine of Hippo. He further contends that Reformed theologians have superimposed their Calvinistic ideas on to the Bible by utilising a chain of deductive syllogisms, a form of logic from Aristotle that is inappropriate for use in formulating Christian doctrine. Salvation is certainly entirely God’s work, but rather than limiting the scope of the gospel, this truth liberates it. Any person can become a vessel of mercy (Rom 9:23); one of Christ’s sheep (John 10:9); one of the Father’s given ones (John 6:37); one of those who shall believe on Him (John 17:20); and, gloriously true, one of God’s elect (Titus 1:1). God is sovereign, and because of Calvary, He is free to save whom He pleases. 128 pages, paperback.
9. Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism
C. Gordon Olson’s 467 page work Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism (9780962485077) is a highly recommended and comprehensive work from the pen of a careful writer. A few of his chapter headings will serve to whet the appetite: “For whom did Christ die?”, “God’s glorious foreknown purpose for His church”, “Who are God’s chosen people?”, “How can dead men believe?”, “Quotations of Calvin on general redemption” and “The Impact of Philosophy”. An inductive approach to the Bible is emphasised, utilising careful word studies of the original Hebrew and Greek, considering the context of each of 100’s of passages. Seven chapters critique Calvinism, especially focusing on word studies of foreknowledge, election and foreordination. Four chapters defend eternal security. “I have never found anything on…salvation as helpful and thorough…Olson exercises great care in word studies and is faithful to the biblical context. Furthermore, his attitude and style of writing is gracious rather than pugnacious. I wish I had it in my earlier days of teaching” – Dr. Earl Radmacher, President Emeritus, Western CB Seminary
10. God’s Way of Electing Souls
The author of God’s Way of Election Souls (156 pages, 9781909789081) is known to us only by the initials “MSB”. However, the anonymity of the author does not detract from the cogent and fresh scriptural arguments he brings to bear on the question of exactly “how election works”. To quote the author: “The Scriptures teach us that God, instead of electing souls ‘to’ faith, elects them ‘by’ faith in Christ – that His loving Spirit, instead of ‘passing by’ the majority of those to whom the gospel is sent, and only ‘striving’ with a few, strives with every soul who hears or knows the ‘good news’ of God’s love to him in Jesus, and urges each soul to be ‘made accepted in the beloved’ by believing in Jesus as his Saviour and thus become one of God’s elect ‘children’ ‘by faith in Christ Jesus’. We learn from Scripture that God withholds nothing that is necessary to enable man to accept His gracious offer, but on the contrary urges it upon his acceptance by every means, short of actual compulsion; and when He declares with an oath, ‘As I live saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked should turn from his way and life’; and that, ‘He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance’; we may be quite certain that He literally means what He so solemnly declares.”
11. The Nature of the Atonement
Morison’s 98 page work The Nature of the Atonement (9781909789197) is a unique volume containing a line of argument not seen in any other title in this list. The following comes directly from the publisher’s own website: “The doctrine of the atonement is among the most important of Scripture. Only by correctly understanding the truth of the atonement can we understand the true significance of the death of Christ. For all its importance, the atonement has often been misunderstood, and frequently confounded with some other great scriptural truths, such as pardon, justification, redemption, reconciliation and the payment of debt. In this clearly written book, Morison lucidly expounds the true meaning of atonement, distinguishing it clearly from other related but distinct truths. This book will reward the reader with a fresh appreciation of the grace of God and the greatness of the death of Christ. James Morison (1816-1893) was born in Bathgate, Scotland, and educated at Edinburgh University. Originally ordained a minister in the United Secession Church, he suspended from his ministry because he did not hold the doctrine of limited atonement. He continued to preach the gospel, and saw many souls saved, before he died in Glasgow in 1893.”
12. The Extent of the Atonement
James Morison’s other title on the atonement deals with its extent and answers the question “For whom did Christ die?” Concerning The Extent of the Atonement (167 pages, 9781909789234) the publisher says, “Morison outlines a clear, coherent, and, above all, scriptural case against the doctrine of a limited atonement. In the chapters of this book, he examines the biblical evidence – both direct and indirect – for the universal scope of Christ’s atoning work. But this is no dry theological treatise. Morison’s writing breathes an evangelical fervour and an evident love for souls. Above all, he is careful at every turn of his argument to exalt Christ. The reader will find his heart warmed, and his soul moved to worship the Son of God, Who loved sinners, and gave Himself for them. This is a book to be read, considered, and enjoyed.” In a chapter titled “Additional observations” Morison states, “Augustine died AD 429, and up to his time, at least, there is not the slightest evidence that any Christian ever dreamed of a propitiation for the elect alone.” Both of Morison’s books on the atonement make compelling reading.
13. The Dangers of Reformed Theology
George Zeller from New Jersey, USA, has written widely on the subject of Calvinism and Reformed theology in internet articles and study materials. One of his most effective books is called “The Dangers of Reformed Theology” which can be read online. Zeller presents 14 issues of doctrinal significance about which Reformed Bible teachers are out of step with Biblical truth. Several of Zeller’s chapters touch on eschatological themes. Reformed and/or Covenant theology is an interwoven system – as is Dispensationalism – and Zeller does a useful service in collating the various threads together. His work highlights the fact that between Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism lies a vast chasm that leaves the believer with a clear and definite choice to make. Here is a complete listing of the 14 chapters in Zeller’s book:
- The danger of teaching that Christ died only for the elect
- The danger of teaching that regeneration precedes faith
- The danger of teaching that faith is the gift of God
- The danger of adding additional requirements to saving faith
- The danger of teaching that the believer does not possess an old nature
- The danger of denying the literal 1,000 year Kingdom
- The danger of not understanding the Bible in its literal normal sense
- The danger of teaching that all or most prophecies were fulfilled in 70 A.D.
- The danger of Covenant Theology
- The danger of putting believers under The Law
- The danger of teaching the erroneous doctrine of “Vicarious law-keeping”
- The danger of teaching that the Saviour bore our sins prior to Calvary’s cross
- The danger of neglecting the heavenly ministry
- The danger of neglecting the heavenly position
Zeller’s book is available online, so there’s no need to look up ISBN’s. If you only read one book in this list, be sure to read Zeller.
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