Edwin H. Palmer. The Five Points of Calvinism. Baker, 1972. 132 pp.
Palmer’s book is a small summary of Reformed soteriology written as an introduction for the uninformed layman, containing an average of twenty study questions at the end of each chapter. It is not for the theologically astute, although it does have some good insights, especially in the latter chapters. The title of the book can be misleading, because five points cannot adequately express what Calvinism is, and because the five points were not Calvin’s devising (5). The breadth of Calvinism is in a sense as broad as the Bible, and Calvinism is, at its heart, really “an attempt to express all the Bible and only the Bible” (5). Calvinism is not and was not a novelty or an invention, but rather a rediscovery of truths that were for many years absent from the church (6).
The first five chapters are a discussion and defense of each of the five points, which are followed by three additional chapters: (6) The Great Mystery, (7) Twelve Theses on Reprobation, and (8) Resource Materials (i.e., extended citations from Calvin and early Reformed confessions and catechisms).
Every part of man’s being is corrupt due to the fall of Adam. But this corruption is extensive rather than intensive. Man is not as bad as he could be, due to God’s common grace (10). He may do some “relatively good deeds,” but he is incapable of doing any real good, seeing that his actions do not flow from faith and a desire to glorify God (11). Thus, all of the actions of fallen man are only and always sin. Man is unable to do, understand, or even to desire what is good. God must intervene by giving a new heart, causing the new birth, creating anew, and resurrecting from spiritual death (17).
God has foreordained all things. Predestination, dividing into election and reprobation, is a subset of foreordination, referring specifically “to man’s eternal destiny” (25). That unconditional election is true is apparent from the fact that it seems to call God’s justice into question-something Paul’s view in Romans 9 certainly does. Man is still free to do whatever he wants, although he does not have a free will to choose between good and evil, seeing that he cannot want the good (35). This view of predestination results in a greater gratitude to God and a more solid foundation for assurance (38).
Christ died specifically to accomplish what God decreed in election. The atonement is not limited in its power to save, but it is limited in its scope. Since the elect are the special objects of God’s love, Christ died to procure their salvation. The “world” is not “every single person,” but “people from every tribe and nation” (45). Because Christ really accomplished an actual atonement, all those atoned for will certainly be saved (49). This position of limited atonement does not remove the obligation for a free offer of the gospel to all sinners, but how it does not is “a fundamental mystery” (51).
Irresistible grace grows out of the previous chapters as a logical necessity. Although grace is irresistible, it is by no means coercive. Rather, God “radically alters [a man’s] character” so that he willingly believes (58). The effectual nature of this grace is clearly implied through the pictorial language the Bible uses to illustrate this change: resurrection, new birth, a new creation, and workmanship (63-64). This view of grace should not promote passivity. Man must obey the command of God to believe, and when he does he will know that God was working in him to cause that very response (66).
Perseverance is described as “only saved, always saved,” “preservation of the saints,” “perseverance of God,” and “eternal security.” This doctrine makes it “possible to get [one’s] eternal destiny settled once for all so that [he] never [has] to worry about it” (68). This emphasis seems to depart slightly from the historic Reformed emphasis on perseverance toward what has been called “decisionism.” This security is based on all the previous points of the TULIP. The nature of eternal life proves it as well (72).
The sovereign working of God is ultimately a mystery, especially the relationship between God both foreordaining sin and holding men accountable for that same sin. While Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism have each sought to resolve the tension by minimizing one of these biblical teachings, Calvinism strives to be the biblically balanced position, holding both in what seems to be an “illogical, ridiculous, nonsensical, and foolish” contradiction (85). But God’s ways are higher than man’s, and His wisdom far exceeds the creature’s. Finite man must rest content to simply accept His word and trust Him.
The final chapter on reprobation really does not deal with reprobation specifically, but the broader issue of God’s sovereign ordination and effectuation of evil. The Word is the sole authority in these matters (96). God is absolutely holy, even though He has ordained all sin (97). While reprobation is unconditional, condemnation is not (104). Reprobation must be accepted in some sense, seeing that it is the necessary twin of election (104). There is an asymmetry between God’s attitude toward and involvement in election and reprobation (106). Since this is a biblical doctrine, it must be preached, while admitting that it is impossible to fully understand it all (110-11).
The author has a unique style that at times seems awkward, especially his use of weird or outrageous illustrations (e.g., 11 [the Red Cross], 18 [the Empire State Building and the dead man in the ocean], and 56 [the college student]). At times the more advanced reader may get the impression that the discussion of the five points is somewhat biased due to the author’s Calvinistic presuppositions. For example, the first argument of each chapter for the doctrine under discussion is based on the conclusions from the previous chapters (i.e., systematic theology) rather than dealing with the Scripture first.
There is also a general sense of imprecision concerning some of the issues. For example, he defines “foreknow” as equivalent to “love beforehand” without giving any support for his claim, and then, on that basis, argues later that God has particular love for His people (31, 44). Apparently, if one “accepts one of the points” of Calvinism, he “will accept the other points” too-a claim which is obviously inconsistent with reality (27).
Some caricaturing takes place in the suggestion that the Arminian believes “some of [Christ’s] blood was wasted: it was spilled” (41). After having defined the Arminian’s view of election as being conditional (i.e., based on prescience of human faith), the reader finds later that the Arminian denies election, and later, that he believes in “unlimited election (God elects everybody)” (44). So which is it? Nevertheless, the Arminian is counted as a Christian, and Calvinists are encouraged to “find real Christian fellowship with Arminians” because “they are one in Christ” (26).
One interesting position worth noting concerns those in hell. Supposedly they are “glad they are in hell,” though “they do not like hell.” They are in agony, but worse than that is the thought of being with “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Consequently, heaven is “the last place they want to be,” and “they would much rather stay in hell” (36-37). He offers no Scriptural basis for these speculative claims.
In addition to the critiques offered above, the book is not as exegetically based in certain places as one would hope. There is a sufficient amount of Scripture used, but not often enough does the author interact with it. In spite of these problems, the book is still of value and has some good insight into these soteriological issues. The last three chapters are the most valuable and are worth reading.