I admit it: I came to seminary knowing nothing about theology. Well, next to nothing. I had taken Early Judaism and Intro to the New Testament in college, but I had never formally studied theology or church history. I had read a few books on certain areas of theology (like women in ministry) and history (like American evangelicalism), but I knew little about Luther, less about Barth, and nothing of Chrysostom—an ignorance that often made me feel a little self-conscious around my seminary peers, even after I realized most of the ones who talked most in class were just spouting their uninformed personal opinions.
To help me move beyond my feelings of inadequacy in the very field in which I have a degree, I have decided to work on supplementing my Fuller intro classes this summer. In all of my systematic theology and church history classes, I received such a brief overview. It seems essential to do a great deal of additional study on my own if I’m going to develop my own views on important topics or have a good sense of my place in the larger two-thousand-year-old ecclesia.
To this end, I recently read Kenneth Stewart’s new book, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition. It sounds like some sort of apologetics book for Calvinists, but it’s not. It’s really historical theology through and through. Each of the myths Stewart attacks are rooted in misunderstandings of the history of the Reformed tradition. There are obviously ten separate misconceptions Stewart addresses, but for the purposes of this blog, I’d like to focus on two discussions that particularly captivated me: Calvinism as antimissions and antinomian.
First, in the missions chapter, Stewart covered much more that Calvinism and missions. In fact he actually gave a good deal of general information about Reformation-era Protestant and Catholic missions. It’s easy to criticize early Protestants for not being as enthused about global missions, for instance, but we have to consider the obstacles they faced. Not only were many early Protestants persecuted, they also lacked the financial and political backing from seafaring nations that would have enabled them to take the gospel abroad. I had never thought about that before: the countries where Protestant views first flourished were not sea powers at the time. And that made a difference. Stewart also pointed out that Protestants, like Erasmus and other Christian humanists who remained within the Catholic church, were very concerned about renewal within the church in Europe. In some sense, then, while Catholic missionaries traveled to the Americas and beyond (with more success at both conversation and compassion in some places than others…), Protestants maintained a more local focus, hoping to reform and reinvigorate the faith of the common people closer by.
Secondly, in the antinomianism chapter, I learned that due to their constant pushing of grace, grace, grace, early Protestants were often thought to be law-haters (even Ten-Commandments-haters!) by their Catholic sisters and brothers. There was a general fear that this Reformed faith was going to lead to people who found assumptions of morality’s irrelevance, which led to some pro-orthopraxy statements from the Council of Trent, intended to combat this new dangerous tendency among Christians. For example, “If any one saith, that Christ Jesus was given of God to men, as a redeemer in whom to trust, and not also as a legislator whom to obey; let him be anathema.”
So pulling this all together, these two chapters (of which these few points are not the majority, really—just some of the stuff I took away) got me thinking about today’s church, and particularly today’s evangelicalism. Today I think lots of more moderate evangelicals are taking a renewed interest in more local missions, which is similar to the early Protestants. We care about giving people something more than “cultural Christianity” (such as exists in the South), and we find it strange and a bit hypocritical to give large sums of money to the Cooperative Fund for international missions when we have so much to work on here at home. On this issue, then, I felt I related well to the Reformers.
But when it came to the concerns about antinomianism, I felt I could really connect with where the Council of Trent was coming from. I think to how today’s moderate evangelicals have also called for orthopraxy, when it comes to social justice issues, especially, but also in other matters. Instead of merely worrying about having our doctrinal ducks in a row, we have said that it’s important to live righteously. I’m not saying the Reformers didn’t care about this too—I think most of them did—but I relate to the concern of the Catholics. They weren’t quite certain where this new branch of Christianity was headed, and they wanted to state firmly that what we do matters. I really appreciate that.
Like I said, these aren’t the #1 points of these chapters, much less the whole book; however, I would say they are characteristic of a lot of what I learned from Stewart. In giving me some more background on the Reformation era, both of these chapters increased my appreciation for where both Protestants and Catholics (particularly those who wanted to reform the Catholic church from within) were coming from back then. And that’s something I think I’ve really been lacking and desiring. Protestants so often just tell their side of the story, and also neglect to really take any of the episodes they recount and situate them within a larger narrative. I want that context, and I want that more multifaceted view. Ultimately, I really want to understand this transition within the church, because I think that in better knowing that story, I will have a better sense of my own theological commitments, as well as what traditions I can confidently draw from myself.