Calvinism (also called the Reformed tradition, the Reformed faith, or Reformed theology) is a theological system and an approach to the Christian life. The Reformed tradition was advanced by several theologians such as Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Huldrych Zwingli, but it often bears the name of the French reformer John Calvin because of his prominent influence on it and because of his role in the confessional and ecclesiastical debates throughout the 16th century. Today, this term also refers to the doctrines and practices of the Reformed churches of which Calvin was an early leader. Less commonly, it can refer to the individual teaching of Calvin himself. The system is best known for its doctrines of predestination and total depravity, stressing the absolute sovereignty of God.
John Calvin's international influence on the development of the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation began in 1534 when Calvin was 25. That marks his start on the first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion (published 1536). He revised this work several times, and produced a French vernacular translation. The Institutes, together with Calvin's polemical and pastoral works, his contributions to confessional documents for use in churches, and his massive outpouring of commentary on the Bible, meant that Calvin had a direct personal influence on Protestantism. Along with Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Ulrich Zwingli, Calvin influenced the doctrines of the Reformed churches. He eventually became the most prominent of those reformers.
The rising importance of the Reformed churches and of Calvin belongs to the second phase of the Protestant Reformation. Evangelical churches began to form after Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Calvin was a French exile in Geneva. He had signed the Lutheran Augsburg Confession as it was revised by Melancthon in 1540. However, his influence was first felt in the Swiss Reformation whose leader was Ulrich Zwingli. It soon became evident that doctrine in the Reformed churches was developing in a direction independent of Martin Luther's, under the influence of numerous writers and reformers among whom Calvin eventually became preeminent. Much later, when his fame was attached to the Reformed churches, their whole body of doctrine came to be called "Calvinism".
Although much of Calvin's practice was in Geneva, his publications spread his ideas of a "correctly" reformed church to many parts of Europe. Calvinism became the theological system of the majority in England (The English Reformers and the Puritans), Scotland (see John Knox), the Netherlands, with men such as William Ames, T J Frelinghuysen and Wilhelmus a Brakel and parts of Germany (especially those adjacent to the Netherlands) with the likes of Olevianus and his colleague Zacharias Ursinus. It was influential in France, Hungary, then-independent Transylvania, Lithuania and Poland. Calvinism gained some popularity in Scandinavia, especially Sweden, but was rejected in favor of Lutheranism after the synod of Uppsala in 1593.
Most settlers in the American Mid-Atlantic and New England were Calvinists, including the English Puritans, the French Huguenot and Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (New York), and the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of the Appalachian back country. Dutch Calvinist settlers were also the first successful European colonizers of South Africa, beginning in the 17th century, who became known as Boers or Afrikaners.
Sierra Leone was largely colonized by Calvinist settlers from Nova Scotia, who were largely Black Loyalists, blacks who had fought for the British during the American War of Independence. John Marrant had organized a congregation there under the auspices of the Huntingdon Connection. Some of the largest Calvinist communions were started by 19th and 20th century missionaries. Especially large are those in Indonesia, Korea and Nigeria.
Calvinism in its present form has multiple main tributaries. This makes the name "Calvinism" somewhat misleading if taken to imply that present doctrines of "Calvinist churches" or all Calvinist movements teach every major feature of classical Calvinism. Others are often credited with as much of a final formative influence on what is now called "Calvinism" as is Calvin himself. These include Calvin's successor Theodore Beza, Dutch theologian Franciscus Gomarus, founder of the Presbyterian church John Knox, and later figures such as English Baptist John Bunyan and American preacher Jonathan Edwards.
A distinctive issue in Calvinist theology that often is used to represent the whole is the system's particular soteriology, its doctrine of salvation. This doctrine holds that humans are incapable of adding anything 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 Dort (1618-1619), which rejected an alternative system known as Arminianism. Calvinism is sometimes identified with "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 position advocated by Charles Finney and other dissenters, Calvinism places strong emphasis on both the abiding goodness of the original creation and the total ruin of human accomplishments and the frustration of the whole creation caused by sin. It therefore views salvation as a new work of creation by God, rather than an achievement of those who are saved from sin and death.
"Calvinism" is virtually synonymous with "Reformed Protestantism", encompassing the whole body of doctrine taught by Reformed churches. The Reformers did not dwell on predestination as if it were a central dogma, but advocated the preaching of "the whole counsel of the Word of God." In addition to maintaining a Calvinist soteriology, covenant theology is the architectural structure of the whole system incorporating all doctrinal topics. In piety and practice, a primary distinction is its regulative principle of worship, which rejects any form of worship not instituted for the church in the Bible. This principle sets Reformed theology apart from Lutheranism which holds to the normative principle of worship.
The distinctives of Calvinist theology may be stated in a number of ways. Perhaps the best known summary is contained in the five points of Calvinism, though these points identify some differences with other Christians on the doctrines of salvation rather than summarizing the system as a whole. Broadly speaking, Calvinism stresses the sovereignty or rule of God in all things — in salvation but also in all of life.
Calvinism stresses the complete ruin of humanity's ethical nature against a backdrop of the sovereign grace of God in salvation. It teaches that fallen people are morally and spiritually unable to follow God or escape their condemnation before him. It is seen as the work of God (divine intervention) in which God changes their unwilling hearts 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 who has chosen to be merciful to some. One person is saved while another is condemned, not because of a foreseen willingness, faith, or any other virtue in the first person, but because God sovereignly chose to have mercy on them. Although the person must believe the gospel and respond to be saved, this obedience of faith is God's gift, and thus God completely and sovereignly accomplishes the salvation of sinners. Views of predestination to damnation (the doctrine of reprobation) are less uniform than is the view of predestination to salvation (the doctrine of election) among self-described Calvinists (see Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism).
In practice, Calvinists teach sovereign grace primarily for the encouragement of the church because they believe the doctrine demonstrates the extent of God's love in saving those who could not and would not follow him, as well as quashing pride and self-reliance and emphasizing the Christian's total dependence on the grace of God. In the same way, sanctification in the Calvinist view requires a continual reliance on God to purge the Christian's depraved heart from the power of sin and to further the Christian's joy.
Calvinist theology is sometimes identified with the five points of Calvinism, also called the doctrines of grace, which are a point-by-point response to the five points of the Arminian Remonstrance (see History of Calvinist-Arminian debate) and which serve as a summation of the judgments rendered by the Synod of Dort in 1619. Calvin himself never used such a model and never combated Arminianism directly.
The five points 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. In English, they are sometimes referred to by the acronym TULIP (see below), though this puts them in a different order than the Canons of Dort.
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 humans.
The doctrine of total depravity (also called "total inability") asserts that, as a consequence of the fall of man into sin, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. 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 neighbour and to reject the rule of God. Thus, all people by their own faculties are morally unable to choose to follow God and be saved because they are unwilling to do so out of the necessity of their own natures. (The term "total" in this context refers to sin affecting every part of a person, not that every person is as evil as possible.)
Jacob Arminius himself and some of his later followers, such as John Wesley, also claimed to affirm total depravity. However, they did not affirm it in the Calvinistic sense, for if they had, they could not logically hold to their views on election and the other four points of Calvinism.
The doctrine of unconditional election asserts that 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 alone.
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. 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.
Also called "particular redemption" or "definite atonement", the doctrine of limited atonement is the teaching that Jesus' substitutionary atonement was definite and certain in its design and accomplishment. The doctrine is driven by the Calvinistic concept of the sovereignty of God in salvation and their understanding of the nature of the atonement. Namely, Calvinists view the atonement as a penal substitution (that is, Jesus was punished in the place of sinners), and since, Calvinists argue, it would be unjust for God to pay the penalty for some people's sins and then still condemn them for those sins, all those whose sins were atoned for must necessarily be saved.
Moreover, since in this scheme God knows precisely who the elect are and since only the elect will be saved, there is no requirement that Christ atone for sins in general, only for those of the elect. Calvinists do not believe, however, that the atonement is limited in its value or power (in other words, God could have elected everyone and used it to atone for them all), but rather that the atonement is limited in the sense that it is designed for some and not all. Hence, Calvinists hold that the atonement is sufficient for all and efficient for the elect.
The doctrine of irresistible grace (also called "efficacious grace") asserts that the saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save (that is, the elect) and, in God's timing, overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to a saving faith.
The doctrine holds that every influence of God's Holy Spirit cannot be resisted, but that the Holy Spirit is able to overcome all resistance and make his influence irresistible and effective. Thus, when God sovereignly purposes to save someone, that individual certainly will be saved.
Perseverance (or preservation) of the saints. The word saints is used in the Biblical sense 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 (see Saint). The doctrine asserts that, since God is sovereign and his will cannot be frustrated by humans or anything else, those whom God has called into communion with himself will continue in faith until the end. Those who apparently fall away either never had true faith to begin with or will return.
This doctrine is slightly different from the Free Grace or "once saved, always saved" view advocated by some evangelicals in which, despite apostasy or unrepentant and habitual sin, the individual is truly saved if they accepted Christ at any point in the past; in traditional Calvinist teaching, apostasy by such a person may indicate that they were never saved.
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 and Calvin himself. 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 strong implications for each of the five points, and it has led Arminians to subscribe instead to the governmental theory of the atonement. Under that theory, no particular sins or sinners are in view, but all of humanity are included in those whose sins have been taken away. The atonement was not the penalty of the law, but a substitute for the penalty, which allows God to remit the penalty by his grace when any sinner repents and believes in Jesus as the Christ.
Although the doctrines of grace have generally received the greater focus in contemporary Calvinism, covenant theology is the historic superstructure that unifies the entire system of doctrine.
Calvinists take God's transcendence to mean that the relationship between God and his creation must be by voluntary condescension on God's part. This relationship he establishes is covenantal: the terms of the relationship are unchangeably decreed by God alone.
Reformed writings commonly refer to an intra-Trinitarian covenant of redemption. The greater focus is the relationship between God and man, which in historic Calvinism is seen as bi-covenantal, reflecting the early Reformation distinction between Law and Gospel. The covenant of works encompasses the moral and natural law, dictating the terms of creation. By its terms, man would enjoy eternal life and blessedness based on his continued personal and perfect righteousness. With the fall of man, this covenant continues to operate, but only to condemn sinful man. The covenant of grace is instituted at the fall, and administered through successive historic covenants seen in Scripture for the purpose of redemption. By its terms, salvation comes not by any personal performance, but by promise. Peace with God comes only through a mediator, the fulfillment of which is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christ is seen as the federal head of his elect people, and thus the covenant is the basis of the doctrines of the substitutionary atonement and the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.
The practical theories of church, family, and political life, all ambiguously called "Calvinism", are the outgrowth of a religious consciousness convinced of the sovereignty of God in both his creational and salvific covenants. Thus 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 as Creator sovereignly rules over all things, and as Redeemer over those he has saved. The utter dependence on Christ is not limited to the sacred (merely in the church or explicit acts of piety such as prayer), but also to every mundane task and secular vocation. For the Calvinist, while Christ's redemptive kingdom in the church remains distinct from areas of common activity with those who are not Christian, no part of life is truly autonomous from the lordship of Christ.
The regulative principle regarding worship, which distinguishes the Calvinist approach to the public worship of God from other views, is that only those elements that are instituted or appointed by command or example in the New Testament are permissible in worship. In other words, the regulative principle maintains that God institutes in the scriptures what he requires for worship in the church, and everything else is prohibited. As the regulative principle is reflected in Calvin's own thought, it is driven by his evident antipathy toward the Roman Catholic Church and her worship, and it associates musical instruments with icons, which he considered violations of the Ten Commandments' prohibition of graven images.
On this basis, many early Calvinists also eschewed musical instruments and advocated exclusive psalmody in worship, though Calvin himself allowed other scriptural songs as well as psalms, and this practice typified presbyterian worship and the worship of other Reformed churches for some time. While music is the central issue in worship debates, other matters have been contentious as well, including doxologies, benedictions, corporate confession of sin, prayer and the readings of creeds or portions of scripture. The presence of any one of these, their order and priority have ranged over various denominations.
Since the 1800s, however, most of the Reformed churches have modified their understanding of the regulative principle and make use of musical instruments, believing that Calvin and his early followers went beyond the biblical requirements and that such things are circumstances of worship requiring biblically rooted wisdom, rather than an explicit command. Despite the protestations of those few who hold to a strict view of the regulative principle, today hymns and musical instruments are in common use, as are contemporary worship music styles and worship bands.
Many efforts have been undertaken to reform or expand on Calvinism, and these variations appear to a greater or lesser degree throughout the history of Calvinism.
Within scholastic Calvinist theology, there are two schools of thought over when and whom God predestined: supralapsarianism (from the Latin: supra, "above", here meaning "before" + lapsus, "fall") and infralapsarianism (from the Latin: infra, "beneath", here meaning "after" + lapsus, "fall"). The former view, sometimes called "high Calvinism", argues that the Fall occurred partly to facilitate God's purpose to choose some individuals for salvation and some for damnation. Infralapsarianism, sometimes called "low Calvinism", is the position that, while the Fall was indeed planned, it was not planned with reference to who would be saved.
Supralapsarians believe that God chose which individuals to save before he decided to allow the race to fall and that the Fall serves as the means of realization of that prior decision to send some individuals to hell and others to heaven (that is, it provides the grounds of condemnation in the reprobate and the need for salvation in the elect). In contrast, infralapsarians hold that God planned the race to fall logically prior to the decision to save or damn any individuals because, it is argued, in order to be "saved", one must first need to be saved from something and therefore the decree of the Fall must precede predestination to salvation or damnation.
These two views vied with each other at the Synod of Dort (1618), an international body representing Calvinist Christian churches from around Europe, and the judgments that came out of that council sided with infralapsarianism (Canons of Dort, First Point of Doctrine, Article 7). The influential Westminster Confession of Faith also teaches the infralapsarian view, but is sensitive to those holding to supralapsarianism. The Lapsarian controversy has a few vocal proponents on each side today, but overall it does not receive much attention among modern Calvinists.
Another revision of Calvinism is called "Amyraldism", "hypothetical universalism", or "four-point Calvinism", which drops the 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 Academy 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 17th and 18th centuries.
Amyraldism can be found among various evangelical groups in the United States and within the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. "Four point" Calvinism is prevalent in conservative and moderate groups among Presbyterian churches, Reformed churches, Reformed Baptists and some non-denominational churches, and is not uncommon among evangelical members of the Church of England.
Historically, Amyraldism has been called "moderate Calvinism", but Norman Geisler uses this term to describe his own views, which James R. White calls "merely a modified form of historic Arminianism."
R.C. Sproul believes there is confusion about what the doctrine of limited atonement actually teaches. While he considers it possible for a person to believe four points without believing the fifth, he claims that a person who really understands the other four points must believe in limited atonement because of what Martin Luther called a resistless logic.
Hyper-Calvinism first referred to an eccentric view that appeared among the early English Particular Baptists in the 1700s. Their system denied that the call of the gospel 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 theological determinism, predestination, or a version of Evangelical Christianity or Calvinism that is deemed by the critic to be unenlightened, harsh, or extreme.
In the mainline Reformed churches, Calvinism has undergone expansion and revision through the influence of Karl Barth and neo-orthodox theology. Barth was an important Swiss Reformed theologian who began writing early in the 20th century, whose chief accomplishment was to counter-act the influence of the Enlightenment in the churches. The Barmen declaration is an expression of the Barthian reform of Calvinism. 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 due to their differing theological views.
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 19th 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 religion 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 L'Abri, a Calvinist study center in Switzerland. This movement generated a reawakened social consciousness among Evangelicals.
A neo-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, father of presuppositionalism and professor at Westminster Theological Seminary (although Van Til himself did not hold to such a view). 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 UK.
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 aspects of the Christian Right that some critics have called "Dominionism." Reconstructionism assumes that God institutes in the Scriptures everything he requires for the ordering of self and society, extending the regulative principle of worship to all areas of life.
Calvinism has undergone a resurgence in North America in recent years, and its adherents are often Baptist and continuationist. TIME magazine described the New Calvinism as one of the "10 ideas changing the world" in 2009. Figures today which are associated with Calvinism include Mark Dever, Mark Driscoll, Ligon Duncan, Matt Chandler, Tim Keller, C.J. Mahaney, Al Mohler, John MacArthur, J.I. Packer, Steve Lawson, Brandon Smith, and John Piper.
One school of thought attributes Calvinism with setting the stage for the later development of capitalism in northern Europe. In this view, elements of Calvinism represented a revolt against the medieval condemnation of usury and, implicitly, of profit in general. Such a connection was advanced in influential works by R. H. Tawney (1880–1962) and by Max Weber (1864–1920).
Calvin expressed himself on usury in a 1545 letter to a friend, Claude de Sachin, in which he criticized the use of certain passages of scripture invoked by people opposed to the charging of interest. He reinterpreted some of these passages, and suggested that others of them had been rendered irrelevant by changed conditions. He also dismissed the argument (based upon the writings of Aristotle) that it is wrong to charge interest for money because money itself is barren. He said that the walls and the roof of a house are barren, too, but it is permissible to charge someone for allowing him to use them. In the same way, money can be made fruitful.
He qualified his view, however, by saying that money should be lent to people in dire need without hope of interest, while a modest interest rate of 5% should be permitted in relation to other borrowers.
A theological and political movement in opposition to Calvinism, (although it came first) now called "Arminianism", was founded by Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius and revised and pursued by the Remonstrants. Arminius rejected several tenets of the Calvinist doctrines of salvation — namely, the latter four of what would later be known as the five points of Calvinism. The term "Arminianism" today often serves as an umbrella term for both Arminius's doctrine and the Remonstrants', but Arminius's followers sometimes distinguish themselves as "Reformed Arminians."
The Remonstrants' doctrine was condemned at the Synod of Dort held in Dordrecht, Holland, in 1618/1619, and followers of either Arminius or the Remonstrants are not generally considered "Reformed" by most Calvinists. Many Evangelical Christians adopted the position advocated by the Remonstrants, and Arminius's system was revived by evangelist John Wesley and is common today, particularly in Methodism.
|Human will||Total Depravity without free will||Total Depravity without free will||Depravity does not preclude free will|
|Election||Unconditional election to salvation only||Unconditional election to salvation and damnation||Conditional election in view of foreseen faith or unbelief|
|Justification||Justification of all people completed at Christ's death.||Justification is limited to those elected to salvation, completed at Christ's death.||Justification possible for all, but only completed when one chooses faith.|
|Conversion||Through the means of grace, resistible||Without means, irresistible||Involves free will and is resistible|
|Preservation and apostasy||Falling away is possible, but God gives assurance of preservation.||Perseverance of the saints, once saved, always saved||Preservation upon the condition of persevering faith with the possibility of a total and final apostasy.|
The five points of Calvinism
Calvinist (plural Calvinists)