Greg Foster has written a fascinating, helpful, and dense book for us in his The Joy of Calvinism. Right from the start - even from the introduction - I realized that this book was not going to go at all as I had anticipated it...and that was a good thing. Instead of a popular-level read on why Calvinism both makes sense and leads to joy, Foster has written a philosophical treatise on the merits of Calvinism as being the most straightforward manner to put the pieces of the Bible together and THAT should lead us to joy. Foster often does a "compare and contrast" between how a Calvinist would understand a passage and how those in other camps might see the passage - at times this is quite helpful though at other times I couldn't help but wonder if those in other camps would see Foster's characterization of them as accurate (note: I'm not saying that Foster is wrong, but rather I am saying that those whom Foster criticizes wouldn't necessarily agree with his understanding of their positions). That said, on to the review itself:
The challenge begins with the first chapter itself - "Detour" in which Foster challenges just about every preconception of Calvinism that there is and shows how Calvinism is often misunderstood both by its critics and its defenders. One of the most helpful sections in this chapter concerns the two understandings of free will: "Who is more free, the sober and self-controlled man or the addict? Who is more free, the man with nature and well-ordered desires or the pervert? In one sense, they are all equally free. That is, they are all free to act within the bounds of their capacities...and they are fully responsible for their actions. And yet, those whose capacities and powers give them a wider scope to exercise their freedom are, in another important sense, freer (p.33-34)." And again: "The addict is free, but the sober man is (in one sense) freer. The addict can freely struggle to overcome his addition or freely wallow in it, but the sober man is free to do many other things...that the addict isn't free to do because of his addiction (p.34)."
Helpfully, Foster continues to show the differences between Calvinism and other theological systems by saying that "When we discuss the differences between theological traditions, these are the differences we tend to focus on. What is the salvation system we need to use? Is it the sacraments? Belief? The `means of grace'? Yet the most important issue is usually overlooked. Are you saved by a salvation system or by Jesus himself? That is the difference between Calvinism and all other systems. (p.54)"
As one might imagine, Foster continues throughout the book in this manner - dismantling false understandings and rebuilding them according to a robust understanding of what the Scriptures actually teach. On one level, I would expect this book to ruffle a great number of theological feathers both for those who do not subscribe to some sort of Calvinism as well as for some of those who do. At the same time, I found Foster to be thought-provoking and helpful in the ways that he sums up his arguments. One example that he used a few times is that of what one of my theology professors called "embracing the tension" - the idea that we simply don't have every answer that we want and we need to be ok with that. "There is a very edifying Scripture in the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses is announcing the renewed covenant between God and his people at Moab. He says, `The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.' This is a balance that we must maintain. On the one hand, we must not speculate about the secret things God has not chosen to reveal to us. On the other hand, we must not deny or neglect any of the truth God has chosen to reveal (p.87)."
Another false assumption that Foster ably tackles is found on page 89: "But sin is not misfortune. It's something we do. It's a crime, not an accident. We need not only to be healed but also to be pardoned." Or to clarify, Foster speaks of a judge with a courtroom of convicts: nobody would ask why the judge doesn't pardon them all. Instead, people are amazed that the judge pardons any. This is the right and true understanding of God choosing some for salvation and not others.
There is much that is helpful in this book, so let me give but two more quotations, this time about personal choice, arguing against the idea that we ourselves determine our eternal destinies: "When people are told that they determine their own eternal destinies, they can't help but picture God as coming to them, wooing them, asking for permission to work in their lives. This conception puts people in the driver's seat with God. That obviously creates difficulties getting people to conceive of God as sovereign Lord (p.97)." And the follow-up thought? "Incidentally, the arrogance of choice also involves the anxiety of choice. Did I really give myself over to Jesus? Or am I self-deceived? I still sin. I know that sinful hearts are deceptive and above all self-deceptive. So how can I know I truly choose Jesus? When the ultimate issue of eternal life or death is determined by my own choice, there will always be this element of self-doubt (p.99)." Of course the answer is that the surety for our salvation resides with God, and that topic is broached in the chapter entitled "God Loves You Unbreakably" (which, I would add, I found to be the best in the entire book), but that's a discussion for another time.
In this book I found very little to disagree with, though oftentimes I would have to re-read a sentence or paragraph multiple times to truly understand the point that the author was making. Of course, standard disclaimers would apply - there is a mention of the version of the Apostle's Creed which speaks of Christ "descending into Hell" and there is at least one mention of infant baptism, though both of these are given in examples and not the main point or argument - however I found very little that wasn't carefully thought out and argued. Even when I disagreed at points (which were always minor), I still found the author to have offered a candid and solid defense of his view.
In summary, I found this to be a great book. Not because it's an easy read (it isn't, though it is mercifully short). Not because the concepts were easy to grasp (they weren't). Rather, I found this to be a great book because it got me thinking. The author did this through numerous means - logic, direct appeal to the Scriptures, creative metaphors. In short, it carved Biblical ruts in my mind, and there's no better place to be than trundling along in the paths that Christ carved for us.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I wish to note that the publisher of this book, Crossway, provided it to me at no cost as a review sample. That said, my review is in no way influenced or controlled by them and thus I write my review of this book with honesty and integrity.)