I’m not sure exactly when I started exploring Reformed doctrine. It happened sometime in the late 2000’s, likely due to my crossing paths with the ministries of John Piper, Mark Driscoll (before he drove Mars Hill into a ditch), and Matt Chandler. Sometime between 2007 and 2010, I began really considering the doctrines of election and predestination, and it made me see parts of the New Testament with new eyes.
I grew up in the SBC, so if “Calvinism” was ever mentioned (which wasn’t often, in my circles), it was generally distrusted. In fact, thinking back to my early days of teaching college Sunday School classes, I shudder to remember the outright Arminianism that I taught for a few years. Suffice it to say, the tone and tenor of my teaching greatly changed.
Depending on whom you talk to, I’m not technically “reformed” in my theology as much as “Calvinistic” in my soteriology — meaning, I hold to what’s called the “Doctrines of Grace” but I’m not confessional in my theology. (I’m still looking into it, y’all, chill out.) But no matter what label I would use for my own position, I have become convinced that the “reformed” doctrine of salvation is the best way to interpret the Scriptures.
Why bring all this up? Just putting my cards on the table, so that when I say I found Dr. Sproul’s classic book on the “basics” of Reformed theology compelling and instructive, I’m clear about my starting point and that I was already inclined to agree with it. What I found in this helpful volume only confirmed my resolve on these issues.
What Is Reformed Theology? provides an outstanding primer on the basics of (you guessed it) Reformed theology, as well as chapter-long explications of the 5 “petals” of the TULIP acrostic (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints), while addressing the misconceptions of and arguments against each concept. Dr. Sproul doesn’t make assumptions about his reader, but carefully works through the core concepts, in order to demonstrate the soundness of a Reformed reading of Scripture.
I found this volume to be approachable though not simple. This isn’t a light and breezy read, but it’s also not tied down by opaque theological jargon. Dr. Sproul is a natural teacher, so his argumentation builds from simple to complex. If you’re looking to learn these concepts, this is a great resource. Dr. Sproul touches on different points in church history that address the doctrinal discussions involved, and provides a Biblical justification for the arguments used.
The examination of free will and “compatibilism” in the chapter on total depravity was particularly helpful in clarifying my understanding on the idea of how our volition co-exists with God’s sovereignty. I had been introduced to this idea before, but Dr. Sproul’s explanation helped me to settle the ideas in my mind so that I could explain it more easily in my own teaching and writing.
I also appreciated how Dr. Sproul took time to address misconceptions and misapplications of the TULIP acrostic, including a helpful explanation about how some of the terminology used in the name of each doctrine may actually confuse the issue. For example, he argued that “P” may be better explained as the Preservation of the Saints, because it is the work of God that holds us, and not simply that we hold on to Him. This helped me consider how the way we say things should be carefully considered when we discuss theological truths.
I do have two small critiques of this volume.
First, the chapter on covenant theology felt a bit thin. Granted, the nature of the volume did not allow for anything but the basics to be explained, but as someone who did not grow up in that mindset, I was hoping for a bit more meat on the bone when it came to the difference between covenant theology and other approaches like dispensationalism. I suppose the onus is on me to seek a deeper discussion on my own.
Secondly, the book just ends after the chapter on perseverance/preservation of the saints, the “P” of TULIP. I think a summary or concluding chapter that tied the ideas together again at the end would have been appropriate, rather than just running abruptly into the end-notes.
Also: End notes? Really? Hm.
What is Reformed Theology? is an incredibly helpful volume for people who are unfamiliar with Reformed thinking (or grew up hearing that Calvinists are missions-hating boogeymen) or those who want to solidify their understanding of the Doctrines of Grace. Clocking in at 250 pages, this is a speedy and effective way to get your feet set as you begin to explore this theological system.
Please Note: The publisher, Baker Books, provided my a paperback copy of the book in exchange for a honest review.
(I’m sorry it took me so long to write this, Baker! #OverdueBookReview )