Calvinism

This term comes out of the seventeenth century, largely in opposition to the teachings of Arminius* condemned by the Synod of Dort* in 1618. It had been used by Roman Catholics sometimes in the sixteenth century, but always in a pejorative sense. It is therefore a term that has been used in many different ways over the past three centuries, coming to have many different meanings, both good and bad. Consequently, one must understand its true meaning if one is to employ it properly.

The first problem involved in its interpretation is its relation to John Calvin* himself. He would not have accepted it as a good description of his doctrine and on one or two occasions made comments to this effect. He believed the doctrine he set forth was nothing more or less than the teaching of the Scriptures of the OT and NT. In his dedicatory epistle to Francis I of France with which he prefaced the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), he made this quite clear, insisting he was writing to show that the doctrines espoused by the Protestants were entirely biblical. This thought reappears repeatedly in his commentaries and other writings.

Yet Calvinism is largely derived from Calvin's own interpretation and exposition of Scripture. He was a prolific writer who set forth clearly a system of doctrine which he believed he found in the Bible. Employing the most up-to-date techniques of biblical exegesis developed by the humanists of his day, he wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, summing up his findings in succeeding editions of the Institutes, which grew from a small handbook of six chapters in 1536 to a large volume of seventy-nine chapters in the definitive edition of 1559. This work has been the textbook of Calvinism since that time, having been translated into many languages and expounded and explained by those calling themselves Calvinists.

What is the essence of Calvinism? Many have tried to answer this question in different ways, usually on the basis of their own particular theological or philosophical presuppositions. As Calvinism is a many-faceted structure of thought that seeks to interpret the whole of reality from a Christian perspective, to attempt to sum it up in a few words is extremely difficult. Nevertheless, in order to obtain something of an understanding of it, one must attempt some form of analysis and synthesis in order to reduce it to comprehensible size.

The formal principle of Calvinism is the Bible, the source of Calvin's doctrine. He and most of the other sixteenth-century Reformers held a very high view of the Bible, insisting it is the Word of God, bringing God's revelation to man in documents written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They did not, however, foresee all the controversies that were later to arise over this doctrine and so did not develop all the various theories of revelation and inspiration formulated by Calvinists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet they did hold very firmly to the view that the Bible is man's only infallible rule of faith and practice. In this all the leading Protestant Reformers were at one.

Because of this belief, Calvinism insists the Bible is the only source of man's knowledge of God and of His will and works. Although creation and providence do indeed reveal God's power and divinity, both nature and man have been so corrupted by sin that they cannot be an adequate means of God's self-manifestation. Furthermore, they do not reveal anything concerning God's redeeming love or action. Thus they are inadequate for the full knowledge of God which comes only through His direct revelation to man in the words and actions of the prophets, of the apostles, and above all others, of Jesus Christ, the Living Word Himself, as recorded in the Bible.

The Bible by revealing God also gives the true understanding and interpretation of man. It lays down first of all that man is God's creature, who is to fulfil the duties and responsibilities God has laid upon him. Thus the Bible simultaneously tells man what he is to believe concerning himself and what he is to believe concerning God. At the same time, it insists that because there is an absolute discontinuity between the being of God and man, as between Creator and creature, man's knowledge of God and His ways can never be more than partial, ultimately surrounded in mystery that even the Bible does not remove. Man, in seeking to understand the biblical revelation concerning himself and his relationship to God, must in the last analysis accept it in faith.

This, however, does not mean man then lapses into some form of Quietism or Mysticism. The Bible is the charter for Christian action or activism. First of all, in the matter of worship, the Scriptures are the final authority, for in them God tells man how he must approach Him. Furthermore, the Scriptures also inform man how he must live and conduct himself in this world, in relation both to its material resources and to other persons. Finally, the Bible is the inspired statement of man's ultimate purpose and aim in life as the creature of God. Thus in Calvinism the Bible holds an absolutely central position as the source of both Christian thought and action.

From the biblical teaching comes what we might call the material principle of Calvinism: the sovereignty of God. Some believe this is the real core of Calvinistic thinking, and to a certain extent it is. The Calvinist believes that the central thought in the Scriptures is that the Triune God, one God in three persons, is totally independent of all else and absolutely self-sufficient. Within the interrelation of the three persons of the Godhead, God is completely and fully expressed in every way. Man cannot by any means understand what this means, except that with regard to everything outside Himself, God is completely and fully sovereign. God has no correlates, but rather is completely and totally absolute.

Everything in the space-time universe, including space and time, therefore, exists only by the creative decision and providential action of God. He has made all things, which means everything in existence is different from and subordinate to Him. The Calvinist can never accept any idea that the space-time universe is a divine emanation, or part of God. Nor does he believe that once created, the universe (as Deists maintain) runs automatically by innate natural laws. The continued existence and operation of the universe, including the free actions of man, are sustained and determined from moment to moment by the mysterious and all-powerful providence of God. For a proper and ultimately true understanding of both natural science and history, therefore, the sovereign God must always be the ultimate point of reference and of interpretation. As Calvin would put it, all things must be seen “sub specie aeternitatis” (in the perspective of eternity).

In pursuance of His ultimate purpose God allowed man to sin, although man did so according to his own will and desire, alienating himself from God. At the same time, God in His grace purposed to redeem men from their sin and bring them to glory. Therefore, from the beginning of history two opposing principles have existed in conflict: sin and redemption, alienation and reconciliation. These two principles are revealed very clearly in OT history and come to full fruition in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son, on Calvary. Since that time the conflict has continued through the ages as God the Holy Spirit has effectually called His people out of the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of God, to be His people upon earth.

These people are those whom God has chosen in Jesus Christ from all eternity, not with any prevision of their faith or righteousness, but solely of His own free grace and love. No man would of himself turn in repentance and faith to God, because of the corruption of his sinful nature, unless God by the Holy Spirit should regenerate him that he might do so. Christ, therefore, died and rose again that His elect should be reconciled to God, who bestows upon them the gift of the Spirit who infallibly brings them to faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. When they have so experienced conversion, He then works constantly within them that they may grow in grace and in the likeness of Jesus Christ, to be more and more conformed to His image in this life. To Calvinism, man's reconciliation to God is all of God and of His eternal and sovereign grace. Thus the elect can never be lost, but shall persevere until the very end.

For those who accept this position, the biblical principle of the sovereignty of God involves also a basic ethical principle. Because God is sovereign, the Lord and Creator of all, all men are responsible to serve Him in this life in all they do. It is God's sovereignty that makes man truly responsible. Moreover, God has from the beginning committed to man the responsibility of acting as the great prophet, priest, and king of creation. He is to interpret creation, as God's possession, to lead it in the praise and worship of God and to govern it for God. To this end God gave him the mandate to rule over, subdue, and replenish the earth. This involves both the development of its physical resources and the organization of man for this purpose and objective.

Because of his alienation from God, however, man has failed to meet his responsibilities, seeking to use the physical and human resources of creation for his own pleasure, ease, and glory. The result has been both the perversion and pollution of God's good creation. While man has compulsively developed creation and its riches, including his own abilities, he has usually tended to misuse them, even for the destruction of his fellowman. The Christian, on the other hand, recognizing his responsibility to God, should and often does see his duty as lying in the development and use of both the material creation and his own gifts for the benefit of society and for the glory of God. This is his vocation in life.

The final end or ultimate principle of Calvinism is, then, the glory of God. Creation and even redemption are not primarily for the satisfaction and pleasure of man. Evangelism, social service, and similar activities should not be thought of ultimately as being for man's benefit, but to glorify the sovereign Triune God. In the service of God upon this earth the Christian seeks to manifest God's majesty, power, and grace that he may glorify him in all things. He does not look upon the things that he is doing as something required of him merely as earthly activities, but as those which will redound to the praise of God through all eternity.

While this system of thought was made explicit by Calvin in his writings, it was further elaborated (often in a controversial setting) in the latter part of the sixteenth century, and partially summarized in the Canons of the Council of Dort (1618) in what are commonly known as the “Five Points of Calvinism”: (1) total depravity of man; (2) unconditional election; (3) limited [particular] atonement; (4) irresistible grace; (5) perseverance of the saints. The Reformed Confessions drawn up after 1618 also express these doctrines, although they set them in the much wider context of God's universal sovereignty. Nevertheless, many noted theologians (J. Ussher, J. Davenant, J. Cameron, etc.) taught a doctrine of general redemption.

Originating in Geneva and France, Calvinism gradually spread along the Rhine Valley to Germany and Holland, along the Danube River Valley to Hungary and Transylvania and across the Alps into France, shaping and forming the Reformation as it took place in those various countries. From France and from Holland Calvinism soon spread to England and to Scotland. It largely dominated the thinking of the Church of England into the seventeenth century, forming the core of Puritan thought which was transplanted to New England. In Scotland, Holland, and France it was the basic doctrine of the Reformed churches, who took it not only to America, but to many other parts of the world, with the result that today Calvinistic churches are a worldwide phenomenon. Because of its all-inclusive nature, Calvinism has wielded a powerful influence on every aspect of Western man's life for the past four hundred years, even although its impact may sometimes have been unrecognized.

As we might expect, Calvinism's contribution has been most obvious in the fields of theology and Christian life and action. One could give a long list of theologians, preachers, and reformers over the past four centuries: John Owen, Thomas Boston, George Whitefield, William Wilberforce, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, Abraham Kuyper, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and many others who have held to a strongly Calvinistic position. Yet none of them have adopted the point of view that their religion was something separate from their life in the world. They saw Calvinism as something that overarched all of life, influencing every sphere of thought and action.

Calvinism has also from the beginning had a very considerable influence upon the development of natural science. Pierre de la Ramée, Ambroise Paré, Bernard Pallissy, Francis Bacon, John Napier of Merchiston, and others in the earliest days of the Scientific Revolution were Calvinists, and many scientists since the seventeenth century have held this theological position, believing that God by His providence upholds all nature according to its created law-structures, so that man may be able both to understand and to use it in this world.

From the time of John Knox in Scotland and Admiral Coligny in France through the Puritan Revolution in England in the seventeenth century, to Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd of the Netherlands and Emile Doumergue of France in the nineteenth and twentieth, Calvinists have also played a major part in seeking to develop and apply a Christian view of politics and the state. Believing that Christ is “Lord of Lords and King of Kings,” they have sought to bring both subjects and rulers to recognize Him as the one to whom they are responsible. At the same time, they have insisted, as did Calvin, that despotism or oligarchy, because of man's sinful nature, leads only to oppression, but that democracy under law provides the only true political organization for freedom and liberty. Because of this point of view, Calvinism has provided much of the basis for modern constitutionalism.

In the arts also, Calvinism has had its effect. Not only did Calvin by use of French do much to establish that language on a firm foundation, but also his employment of Clement Marot, Theodore Beza, and others to prepare vernacular psalms for singing in the church service stimulated Protestant poetic interest. Under this influence vernacular psalms soon appeared in Dutch, English, and Magyar, and, significantly, the writing of poetry in general was encouraged. Milton's early works reflect this stimulus, as do the writings of men such as William Cowper, Willem Bilderdijk, and many others. In the visual arts, the so- called Little Calvinistic Masters of Holland in the seventeenth century and many others who followed them in France, England, and America were also strongly influenced by the Calvinistic viewpoint.

Usually Calvinism has been accused of originating modern exploitive capitalism because of its doctrine of vocation and its insistence upon hard work and moderation in all things. Max Weber, the German sociologist, followed by R.H. Tawney and Ernst Troeltsch and many others, has set forth this particular interpretation. Undoubtedly, there is a certain amount of truth in some of the contentions, i.e., that the Calvinist felt it was his duty to work hard and to live moderately to the glory of God. But the insistence that Calvinist acceptance of the propriety of the taking of interest on a business loan and of the rational approach to economic activity eventually led to exploitation of the worker, and so laid the basis for modern soulless capitalism, lacks historical evidence for its verification. So writers have pointed out that the opponents of Calvinism rather than the Calvinists favored and developed capitalism.

Over the past four hundred years Calvinism has known its ups and downs. Although weakened considerably by the influence of Enlightenment* rationalism, it experienced a considerable revival under the aegis of the evangelical revival in England and the Great Awakening in America in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, however, it was attacked on two fronts. Not only did higher criticism* and scientism from one side oppose it most vigorously, but so too did Wesleyan and Quietistic evangelicalism from the other. As a result, Calvinists tended to become ingrown and frequently defensive. In the past two or three decades, however, they have regained some of their former confidence. With the founding of organizations such as the International Association for Reformed Faith and Action, the founding of journals holding a Calvinistic point of view, and the publication of an increasing number of books written from this perspective, it would seem Calvinism is perhaps experiencing a revival in a world that has lost most of its moorings.

Calvin's writings have been published in many editions and languages. Some of the most useful in English are: Commentaries on the Bible (44 vols., 1948); Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. J.T. McNeill, F.L. Battles, 2 vols., 1960); Calvin: Theological Treatises (ed. J.K.S. Reid, 1954); Tracts and Treatises on the Reformation (tr. H. Beveridge, add. by T.F. Torrance, 1959).

On descriptions and history of Calvinism, see: A. Dakin, Calvinism (1940); A. Ganoczy, Calvin, Théologien de l'église et du Ministère (1964); S. Kistemaker, Calvinism, Its History, Principles and Perspectives (1966); J.T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (1954); H.H. Meeter, Calvinism, n.d.; D. Nauta, Het Calvinisme in Nederland (1949); A.A. Van Schelven, Het Calvinisme Gedurende zijn Bloeitijd (2 vols., 1943); C. Van Til, The Case for Calvinism (1964); A. Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (1931).