Calvin and the Calvinists

Written by Paul Helm and Carl Trueman (eds) Reviewed By Martin Dowries

This book is a reprint, without revision, of Paul Helm’s critique of R.T. Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. No doubt prompted by the re-issuing of Kendall’s work by Paternoster Press in 1997, it is good to see Helm’s early response being made available to a new readership. Kendall’s work, which earned him the D.Phil at Oxford, argues that the development of Calvin’s thought by Beza and the English Puritans (principally Perkins and Ames) represents a radical departure from the views of the Genevan reformer. For Calvin the atonement was universal and faith I was a passive persuasion of the mind. The later ‘Calvinists’ held that the atonement was limited and that faith was an act of the will. The upshot of this divergence, as represented by The Westminster Confession (which Kendall labels ‘crypto-arminian’), is that the Puritans taught a subtle form of salvation by works, preparation for grace and diverted the grounds of assurance from the atonement to acts of the will. Helm begins his response by asserting that Kendall has not only misread Calvin but has also ‘thoroughly distorted and misunderstood the teaching of the Puritans on preparation and on the nature of faith’. In a helpful introduction Helm traces the implications of Kendall’s thesis for our understanding of the gospel and for the retarded value of historic Reformed theology and literature (a substantial body which enjoyed a publishing renaissance in the 1960s).

Helm takes up the essential points of Kendall’s argument up in the remaining four chapters. The first of these outlines is on Calvin’s teaching on the atonement and the nature of faith. There is an impressive section has an impressive series of quotations from Calvin illustrating that an actual remission of sin took place in the atonement and that this was intended for the elect. Although Calvin is not committed to a limited atonement (it was a debate he did not live to see) it is deducible from his writing. Similarly, his view of faith as a firm and certain knowledge is qualified by the reality of doubt and is thus a recommendation of what faith ought to be. In chapter three Helm examines Kendall’s claim that whilst Calvin proposed a universal atonement, he did concede that the intercession of Christ is only for the elect. Helm deals with this on three levels. Historically such a presentation of Calvin is as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel, and only Kendall has found this item in Calvin’s thought. On the textual axis Helm shows that even in the passages using ‘all’ and ‘world’, what Calvin actually says and what Kendall claims he says are so very different from the conclusion that it is impossible to reconstruct Calvin’s doctrine on such ‘flimsy foundations’. Kendall’s solution begs questions, theologically speaking, for while I may be assured of the love of God by a universal atonement, how may I know that I am one of the elect for whom Christ intercedes? This is followed up by a discussion of conversion and the will. Again Helm demonstrates the unity of Calvin and the Puritans. For both, the will is renewed and not replaced at conversion; for both, faith is passive and active. In a somewhat embarrassing paragraph Helm shows that Kendall omitted a crucial word in a citation from Calvin and dubs his use of evidence ‘cavalier and unscholarly’. The final chapter deals with the Westminster Confession and the accusation that it teaches salvation by works. Once more Helm exonerates the Puritans by showing that the evidence does not support the theory. There is a brief reference at the end to the unity of Kendall’s thought with that of the English antinomians, a charge that he has had to face more than once.

The price of the book is somewhat disappointing, as it may be a deterrent. As an example of a response that critically engages with its subject, is based on solid scholarship, and which demonstrates a well marshalled argument and a compelling rebuttal, this book deserves to be read. This book is not only a good introduction to an important debate but is also a convincing refutation of a clearly untenable thesis.

Martin Dowries

Martin Dowries studied theology at Newport and is currently the Staff Worker for the Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship in Wales and the South West of England. At present he is writing a student introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity.