Calvinism is a system of Christian theology advanced by John Calvin, a Protestant Reformer in the sixteenth century, and further developed by his followers, associates and admirers. The term also refers to the doctrines and practices of the Reformed churches, of which Calvin was an early leader. Calvinism is perhaps best known for its doctrine of double-predestination, which contends that some persons are predetermined by God to go to hell, while others are predetermined to go to heaven, regardless of the actions (good or bad) of these persons.
John Calvin’s international influence on the development of the doctrine of the Protestant Reformation began at the age of 25, when he started work on his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1534 (published 1536). This work underwent a number of revisions in his lifetime. Through it and together with his polemical and pastoral works, his contributions to confessional documents for use in churches, and a massive collection of commentaries on the Bible, Calvin continues to have a direct personal influence on Protestantism although he is only one of many prominent influences on the doctrine of the Reformed churches.
The rising importance of the Reformed churches, and of Calvin, belongs to the second phase of the Protestant Reformation, when evangelical churches began to form after Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin was a French exile in Geneva. He had signed the Lutheran Augsburg confession in 1540 but his influence was first felt in the Swiss Reformation, which was not Lutheran, but rather followed Huldrych Zwingli. It became evident early on that doctrine in the Reformed churches was developing in a direction independent of Luther’s, under the influence of numerous writers and reformers, among whom Calvin eventually became pre-eminent. Much later, when his fame was attached to the Reformed churches, their whole body of doctrine came to be called Calvinism.
The name “Calvinism” is somewhat misleading if taken to imply that every major feature of all Calvinist doctrine and movements can be found in the writings of Calvin. Others individuals are often credited with as much of a final formative influence on what is now called Calvinism as Calvin himself had. Thus, in a broad context, “Calvinism” is virtually synonymous with “Reformed Protestantism,” encompassing the whole body of doctrine taught by Reformed churches.
Nevertheless, a unifying strand within the world of Calvinism, which links these different groups is a particular soteriology (doctrine of Salvation) that emphasizes that man is incapable of adding anything from himself to obtain salvation, and that God alone is the initiator at every stage of salvation, including the formation of faith and every decision to follow Christ. This doctrine was definitively formulated and codified during the Synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619), which rejected the alternate system known as Arminianism. For the above reasons, Calvinism is sometimes known as “Augustinianism” because the central issues of Calvinistic soteriology were articulated by St. Augustine in his dispute with the British monk Pelagius. In contrast to the free-will decisionism advocated by Charles Finney and other dissenters, Calvinism places strong emphasis not only on the abiding goodness of the original creation, but also on the total ruin of man’s accomplishments and the frustration of the whole creation caused by sin, and therefore views salvation as a new creating work of God rather than an acheivement of those who are saved from sin and death.
In addition to maintaining a Calvinist soteriology, one of the more important features of this system is “the regulative principle of worship”—which in principle rejects any form of worship not explicitly instituted for the early church in the Holy Bible.
Summaries of Calvinist Theology
The Five Solas
The five solas are a summary of Calvinism, indeed of the Reformation, in the sense that they delineate the difference between the evangelical doctrine of salvation from the Roman Catholic doctrine. The substance of Calvinism with respect to the solas is total dependence on God, who created the universe, and now sustains it to fulfill his own purposes. Every good thing, according to Calvinism, exists only because of God’s unmerited grace, and salvation especially is entirely dependent on grace.
Calvinist theology is often identified in the popular mind as the so-called “five points of Calvinism,” which are a summation of the judgments (or canons) rendered by the Synod of Dordrecht and which were published as a point-by-point response to the five points of the Arminian Remonstrance (the Quinquarticular Controversy). They therefore function as a summary of the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism but not as a complete summation of Calvin’s writings or of the theology of the Reformed churches in general. The central assertion of these canons is that God is able to save every person upon whom he has mercy and that his efforts are not frustrated by the unrighteousness or the inability of men.
The five points of Calvinism, which can be remembered by the English acronym TULIP are:
- Total depravity (or total inability): As a consequence of the Fall of man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. According to the view, people are not by nature inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor and to reject the rule of God. Thus, all people by their own faculties are unable to choose to follow God and be saved.
- Unconditional election: God’s choice from eternity of those whom he will bring to himself is not based on foreseen virtue, merit, or faith in those people. Rather, it is unconditionally grounded in God’s mercy.
- Limited atonement (or particular redemption or definite atonement): The death of Christ actually takes away the penalty of sins of those on whom God has chosen to have mercy. It is “limited” to taking away the sins of the elect, not of all humanity, and it is “definite” and “particular” because atonement is certain for those particular persons.
- Irresistible grace (or efficacious grace): The saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save (the elect) and, in God’s timing, overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to a saving faith in Christ.
- Perseverance of the saints (or preservation of the saints): Any person who has once been truly saved from damnation must necessarily persevere and cannot later be condemned. The word saints is used in the sense in which it is used in the Bible to refer to all who are set apart by God, not in the technical sense of one who is exceptionally holy, canonized, or in heaven (Saint).
Calvinism is often further reduced in the popular mind to one or another of the five points of TULIP. The doctrine of unconditional election is sometimes made to stand for all Reformed doctrine, sometimes even by its adherents, as the chief article of Reformed Christianity. However, according to the doctrinal statements of these churches, it is not a balanced view to single out this doctrine to stand on its own as representative of all that is taught. The doctrine of unconditional election, and its corollary in the doctrine of predestination are never properly taught, according to Calvinists, except as an assurance to those who seek forgiveness and salvation through Christ, that their faith is not in vain, because God is able to bring to completion all whom He intends to save. Nevertheless, non-Calvinists object that these doctrines discourage the world from seeking salvation.
An additional point of disagreement with Arminianism implicit in the five points is the Calvinist understanding of the doctrine of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement as a punishment for the sins of the elect, which was developed by St. Augustine and especially St. Anselm. Calvinists argue that if Christ takes the punishment in the place of a particular sinner, that person must be saved since it would be unjust for him then to be condemned for the same sins. The definitive and binding nature of this “satisfaction model” has led Arminians to subscribe instead to the governmental theory of the atonement in which no particular sins or sinners are in view.
Calvinism stresses the complete ruin of humanity’s ethical nature against a backdrop of the sovereign grace of God in salvation. It teaches that people are utterly unable to follow God or escape their condemnation before him and that only by drastic divine intervention in which God must overrule their unwilling hearts (which Jonathan Edwards infelicitously called “the holy rape of the soul”) can people be turned from rebellion to willing obedience.
In this view, all people are entirely at the mercy of God, who would be just in condemning all people for their sins but has chosen to be merciful to some in order to bring glory to his own name. One person is saved while another is condemned, not because of a willingness, a faith, or any other virtue in the particular person, but because God sovereignly chose to have mercy on him. Although the person must act in order to believe and to be saved, this obedience of faith is God’s gift according to Calvinism, and thus God accomplishes the salvation of sinners.
In practice, Calvinists teach these doctrines of grace primarily for the encouragement of the church because they believe the doctrines demonstrate the extent of God’s love in saving those who could not and would not follow him. Gratitude is the primary motivator for continuing sanctification.
“Life Is Religion”
The theological system and practical theories of church, family, and political life, all ambiguously called “Calvinism,” are the outgrowth of a fundamental religious consciousness that centers on “the sovereignty of God.” In principle, the doctrine of God has pre-eminent place in every category of theology, including the Calvinist understanding of how a person ought to live. Calvinism presupposes that the goodness and power of God have a free, unlimited range of activity, and this works out as a conviction that God is at work in all realms of existence, including the spiritual, physical, and intellectual realms, whether secular or sacred, public or private, on earth or in heaven.
According to this viewpoint, the plan of God is worked out in every event. God is seen as the creator, preserver, and governor of each and every thing. This produces an attitude of absolute dependence on God, which is not identified only with temporary acts of piety (for example, prayer); rather, it is an all-encompassing pattern of life that, in principle, applies to any mundane task just as it also applies to taking communion. For the Calvinist Christian, all of life is the Christian religion.
Attempts to Reform Calvinism
Many efforts have been undertaken to reform Calvinism and especially the doctrine of the Reformed churches. The most notable and earliest of these was the theological and political movement called Arminianism, already mentioned in connection with the Synod of Dordrecht. Arminianism was rejected by most Reformed churches, but ultimately prevailed in the Church of England, despite Calvinism being the formally adopted system of doctrine in that church.
Another revision of Calvinism is called Amyraldism, “hypothetical universalism,” or “four-point Calvinism,” which drops the point on Limited Atonement in favor of an unlimited atonement saying that God has provided Christ’s atonement for all alike, but seeing that none would believe on their own, he then elects those whom he will bring to faith in Christ, thereby preserving the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election.
This doctrine was most thoroughly systematized by the French Reformed theologian at the University of Saumur, Moses Amyraut, for whom it is named. His formulation was an attempt to bring Calvinism more nearly alongside the Lutheran view. It was popularized in England by the Reformed pastor Richard Baxter and gained strong adherence among the Congregationalists and some Presbyterians in the American colonies, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In the United States, Amyraldism can be found among various evangelical groups, but “five point” Calvinism is prevalent especially in conservative and moderate groups among the Reformed churches, Reformed Baptists, and some non-denominational churches.
In the mainline Reformed churches, Calvinism has undergone significant revision through the influence of Karl Barth and neo-orthodox theology. Barth was an important Swiss Reformed theologian who began writing early in the twentieth century, whose chief accomplishment was to counter-act the influence of the Enlightenment in the churches, especially as this had led to the toleration of Nazism in the Germanic countries of Western Europe. The Barmen declaration is an expression of the Barthian reform of Calvinism. The revisions Barth proposed are radical and impossible to concisely discuss in comparison to classical Calvinism but generally involve the complete rejection of natural theology. Conservative Calvinists (as well as some liberal reformers) regard it as confusing to use the name “Calvinism” to refer to neo-orthodoxy or other liberal revisions stemming from Calvinist churches.
Other Calvinism Movements
Besides the traditional movements within the conservative Reformed churches, several trends have arisen through the attempt to provide a contemporary, but theologically conservative approach to the world.
A version of Calvinism that has been adopted by both, theological conservatives and liberals, gained influence in the Dutch Reformed churches, late in the nineteenth century, dubbed “neo-Calvinism,” which developed along lines of the theories of Dutch theologian, statesman and journalist, Abraham Kuyper. More traditional Calvinist critics of the movement characterize it as a revision of Calvinism, although a conservative one in comparison to modernist Christianity or neo-orthodoxy. Neo-calvinism, “calvinianism,” or the “reformational movement,” is a response to the influences of the Enlightenment, but generally speaking it does not touch directly on the articles of salvation. Neo-Calvinists intend their work to be understood as an update of the Calvinist worldview in response to modern circumstances, which is an extension of the Calvinist understanding of salvation to scientific, social, and political issues. To show their consistency with the historic Reformed movement, supporters may cite Calvin’s Institutes, book 1, chapters 1-3, and other works. In the United States, Kuyperian neo-Calvinism is represented among others, by the Center for Public Justice, a faith-based political think-tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.
Neo-Calvinism branched off in more theologically conservative movements in the United States. The first of these to rise to prominence became apparent through the writings of Francis Schaeffer, who had gathered around himself a group of scholars, and propagated their ideas in writing and through a Calvinist study center in Switzerland, called L’Abri. This movement generated a reawakened social consciousness among Evangelicals, especially in response to abortion, and was one of the formative influences which brought about the “Moral Majority” phenomenon in the United States, in the early 1980s.
Another Calvinist movement called Christian Reconstructionism is much smaller, more radical, and theocratic, but by some believed to be widely influential in American family and political life. Reconstructionism is a distinct revision of Kuyper’s approach, which sharply departs from that root influence through the complete rejection of pluralism, and by formulating suggested applications of the sanctions of Biblical Law for modern civil governments. These distinctives are the least influential aspects of the movement. Its intellectual founder, the late Rousas J. Rushdoony, based much of his understanding on the apologetical insights of Cornelius Van Til, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary. It has some influence in the conservative Reformed churches in which it was born, and in Calvinistic Baptist and Charismatic churches mostly in the United States, Canada, and to a lesser extent in the U.K.
Reconstructionism aims toward the complete rebuilding of the structures of society on Christian and Biblical presuppositions, not, according to its promoters, in terms of “top down” structural changes, but through the steady advance of the Gospel of Christ as men and women are converted, who then live out their obedience to God in the areas for which they are responsible. In keeping with the Theonomic Principle, it seeks to establish laws and structures that will best instantiate the ethical principles of the Bible, including the Old Testament as expounded in the case laws and summarized in the Decalogue. Not a political movement, strictly speaking, Reconstructionism has nonetheless been influential in the development of the Christian Right and what some critics have called, “Dominionism.”
Hyper-Calvinism refers to a view that first appeared among the early English Particular Baptists in the 1700s, which denied that the gospel’s call to “repent and believe” is directed to every single person, and that it is the duty of every person to trust in Christ for salvation. While this doctrine has always been a minority view, it has not been relegated to the past and may still be found in some small denominations and church communities today.
The term also occasionally appears in both theological and secular controversial contexts, where it usually connotes a negative opinion about some variety of determinism, predestination, or a version of Evangelical Christianity or Calvinism that is deemed by the critic to be unenlightened, harsh, or extreme.
- These figures include Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, the Dutch theologian Franciscus Gomarus, the founder of the Presbyterian church, John Knox, and later writers such as the English Baptist John Bunyan, the American Jonathan Edwards, or neo-orthodox theologians like Karl Barth.
- Battles, Ford Lewis, and John Walchenbach. 2001. Analysis of the “Institutes of the Christian Religion” of John Calvin. P & R Publishing.
- Calvin, John. 1960. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Hendrickson Publishers.
- McNeill, John Thomas. 1954. The History and Character of Calvinism. Oxford University Press.
- Purves, Andrew, and Charles Partee (2000). Encountering God: Christian Faith in Turbulent Times. Westminster.
- Wesley, John . 2001. Calvinism Calmly Considered. Schmul Publishing Co.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 08.20.2001, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.