31 Days, 31 Books
In 1858, the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes published his amusing poem “The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or The Wonderful One Hoss Shay.” Many think that Holmes was writing about the collapse of the remaining vestiges of New England’s Calvinistic theology. The time from the early 1800s through much of the 20th century was not a heyday of Calvinistic successes. The major universities that the Puritans and Presbyterians had founded were caving in to the theological liberals. Revivalism, especially as promoted by Charles G. Finney, promoted Arminian theology. The ever moving frontier was increasingly open to non-Calvinistic and, in many cases, non-orthodox theologies. The Calvinism of the Southern states was muted by the Confederacy’s loss of the War. Quickly scurrying into the universities and bastions of thought, Darwinian Naturalism was moving to the forefront of thought. Old Princeton Seminary stood like a rock in its Calvinism. It was unmoveable, but after the death of theologian B. B. Warfield, it moved. The Scopes Trial, while not aimed at Calvinism, left a general impression that Christian doctrines had best be left in the heart and kept off the public square. The sound doctrine that Charles Spurgeon had preached in England had undergone great assaults while the big man was living and even more after he was gone.
The Presbyterians were fractured. The Baptists were inching toward less Calvinistic theology. The Dutch Reformed were, by being Dutch, confined to a sub-culture and to only a few regions of the country. The Calvinistic heritage was fading away, the books were increasingly out of print, and the pulpits were pouring forth a different message.
One would not have expected in the 1930s (or even as late as the 1960s) to see a revival of Calvinistic doctrines.
God delights in Reformation. Not just one Reformation confined to Europe in the 1500s, but many Reformations throughout history. And God delights in launching Reformations in unexpected places. Unexpected places, like Arkansas.
Two Arkansas Baptists were teaching Calvinistic doctrines. There were others, but they were few and far apart. Young preachers who got their minds all tangled up after reading Charles Spurgeon and Arthur Pink found that the pulpit calls were fewer and fewer. A young preacher might get along just fine until he preached on Romans 8:28 and on through chapter 9, or when he preached on Ephesians 1 or John 6. Calvinism was grounds for firing a pastor. Calvinists were few and far apart, and yet persevering.
These two Arkansas Baptist preachers, named David Steele and Curtis Thomas, put together a teaching outline on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It was designed to thoroughly teach the doctrines related to justification by faith and the sovereignty of God in salvation. The outline would enable both teachers and students to seriously study this key letter that had so changed the world time and time again. After all, it was Luther’s study of Romans that broke open his understanding of God’s saving grace. It was Romans that Robert Haldane had taught through that brought a Reformation to Geneva in the 1800s.
Since Romans dealt with all five of those doctrines commonly called “The Five Points of Calvinism,” an appendix was attached to the Romans book. It listed the Five Points of Calvinism and then defined those doctrines with printed Bible verses from Romans and the rest of the Bible from which the doctrines were derived.
The two Arkansas Baptists had the occasion to show the outline to Gordon H. Clark. Clark was one of the leading Calvinist scholars of that time. He was skilled in both theology and philosophy. He had written widely on a number of topics. He was brilliant and well respected and unwavering in his commitment to Calvinism. He liked the outline and put in a good word to Charles Craig at Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. Soon Romans: An Interpretive Outline was published. Clark wrote the forward to the book.
Because of the increasing interest in the Five Points of Calvinism, the appendix of the Romans book was published in a separate volume called The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Documented, and Defended. Half to the two-thirds of the book was Bible verses. Another portion of the book was a bibliography of Calvinistic works. At the time, Calvinistic books were not all that easy to pick up.
Through the years, numerous copies of the Five Points were bought, read, given away, thrown away in anger, read again, underlined, and used in arguments and Bible studies. The book has remained in print for over fifty years. The covers have changed and additional information has been added. The current edition includes more theological and historical information and 8 appendices on different aspects of the doctrines. The late Baptist theologian Roger Nicole wrote the foreword to the most recent edition, with an afterword by John MacArthur.
I remember well spending an evening or two poring through my increasingly ragged Revised Standard Version of the Bible that my home town Methodist Church had given to me. I was reading and thinking about and highlighting all the verses that Steele and Thomas had gathered in support of God’s Sovereignty in Grace.
Very soon the covers of my dull green Presbyterian and Reformed copy of The Five Points were flared out from use. Yes, I was fortifying arguments for debates. The controversy over Calvinism was raging all around me. But the prime battle was in my own soul. I was seeing in Scripture and thought my own sin nature and total inability to come to Christ. The thought that I was a Christian because of God’s electing grace was life-changing. And it was not primarily the limited atonement but the definiteness of the atonement that was slowly sinking in. In the year or so before I learned of the 5 Points, I thought that I got into Christianity on my own and could get out on my own, if I so choose. But now, I recognized the irresistible and effectual work of the Holy Spirit in calling me out of my sins. My perseverance was the ongoing effect of God’s preservation of me.
There are those who balk at Calvinism being “reduced” to the Five Points of Calvinism. The Sovereignty of God extends far beyond the Doctrines of Grace. The authority of Scripture embraces all of life and faith. But our understanding must begin somewhere. For a self-centered, self-righteous, theologically confused, vulnerable, Biblically illiterate young kid in college, my understanding truly had to begin with salvation. One simple doctrine, one point: Christ saves sinners. That can be expanded into Five Points or a thousand points. I am still learning of the implications of God’s plan for all eternity reaching a totally underserving person like me.