Category Archives: World Religions

What Is Calvinism?

Calvinism is the main branch of the historic Reformed movement. The Reformed movement had numerous leaders, including Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), Martin Bucer (1491–1551), and Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575). The name Calvinism is derived from John Calvin (1509–1564), the theological giant whose thought came to dominate the Reformed movement, both through his writing and the influence of his adopted home town, Geneva, as an international hub of Reformed education and evangelism.

The Reformed movement held three foundational theological principles in common with other Protestants: Sola Scriptura (Scripture is the primary authority for the Christian), Sola Fide/Gratia (justification is entirely by faith, through grace), and the priesthood of the believer.

Each branch of the Protestant Reformation viewed Scripture through a distinctive philosophical and interpretative grid. Martin Luther’s influence made the primary focus of Lutheranism the justification of the believer by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Anabaptists were especially concerned with freedom of conscience, personal commitment to discipleship, and the essentially non-Christian nature of secular society. Calvinism’s organizing principle was the sovereignty and glory of God: Soli Deo Gloria.

Like many of the other Reformers, Calvin was deeply influenced by Augustine’s philosophical approach to the interpretation of Scripture. Calvin was one of the most systematic in developing the implications of predestination in the terms of the philosophy of his era. He also followed Augustine’s example in aspiring to develop a comprehensive Christian worldview that encompassed church and government within one rational system. At the young age of 28, he attempted to set up a government in Geneva involving unprecedented supervision of the private lives of its citizens. Although there was resistance at first, he eventually established a Reformed government that offered a civic example for Reformed leaders all over Europe.

Calvinists didn’t call for radical separation from the world and nonparticipation in government. Nor did they establish a spiritual hierarchy like that in Roman Catholicism. Unlike Lutherans, Calvinists were reluctant to cede princes and other secular rulers power over church officials. They placed a great priority on theological, intellectual, and moral training, and their church leaders tended to be the best educated and equipped of their membership. Calvin’s view of vocation and the sanctity of secular occupations was profoundly democratic, resisting the tendency to view clergy on a higher spiritual plane than those in secular roles. In addition, the Reformed movement had little tolerance for elaborate ceremony in worship and abhorred the use of images.

All Protestant denominations, as well as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, acknowledge human depravity, divine predestination, the need for prevenient grace, and the mysterious interaction of divine authority and human freedom. Calvinism places a radical emphasis on predestination and attempts to work out its implications to a much greater extent than other Christian groups consider biblically appropriate or justifiable.

The principles of Calvinism were officially established at the Synod of Dort in 1618–1619 in response to the Remonstrants, a group that followed the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacob Arminius. The basic principles of Calvinism have since become associated with the acronym TULIP:

Total Depravity: Humans are spiritually dead to the extent that they must be supernaturally regenerated through the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit before they can accept God’s gracious gift of salvation.

Unconditional election: In eternity past, God chose a distinct group of human individuals to be saved and consigned the rest to be objects of His wrath. His choices were not in any way based on His foreknowledge of human actions.

Limited atonement: Christ died only for the elect, not for those God has selected for condemnation.

Irresistible grace: Those God has chosen cannot reject the gospel or resist the Holy Spirit’s supernatural work of regeneration and sanctification.

Perseverance of the saints: Because the elect are chosen by God and their faith is irresistibly enabled, they cannot depart from the faith and lose their salvation.

Not everyone agrees that the “Five Points of Calvinism” can be reconciled with Scripture. Many Christians believe that by normal rules of biblical interpretation, the “Five Points” can’t be reconciled with many passages that affirm human freedom (Isaiah 6:8; Isaiah 53:5-6; Matthew 23:37; John 3:16; John 21:17;1 Timothy 2:1-6; 1 Timothy 4:9-10; Hebrews 12:14-15; 1 Peter 5:8; 2 Peter 1:10; 2 Peter 2:1; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 2:2; etc.).

From its original home in Switzerland and France, Calvinist (Reformed) theology spread throughout Europe, taking root in such disparate places as England, Scotland, The Netherlands, Germany (especially the Palatinate), Bohemia, Hungary, and Transylvania. Puritans and other English groups transported Calvinism to North America. Calvinism has profoundly influenced European and American cultural development.

Today, many influential denominations hold Calvinist doctrinal positions, including the Presbyterian, the Reformed, and the United Church of Christ. Other denominations, including Anglicans and Baptists, have been strongly influenced by Calvinist thought.

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Were Disagreements Over Christian Doctrine the Main Cause for European “Religious Wars” of the 16th and 17th Centuries?

Many people assume the separation of church and state established in the US Constitution resulted from 16th- and 17th-century “religious violence” and “religious wars” in Europe. The wars of this period included the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and the English Civil War (1642–1651).

These wars were foundational to the development of the political institutions of the West. They were part of a vast social/cultural/political process that ultimately replaced feudalism and the “divine right of kings” with the centralized, capital-based governments that dominate the world today.

The ferocious wars of these centuries made a deep impression on the collective memory of European people. Estimates of Central European deaths in the Thirty Years’ War run from 3 to 7 million (many of these resulting from starvation and disease among the civilian population). Deaths from war, disease, and starvation during the English Civil War have been estimated at around 800,000, or 4 percent, 6 percent, and 40 percent of England, Scotland, and Ireland’s populations respectively. Because nearly all of the participants in these wars had religious loyalties and convictions, religious feelings were often exploited by rulers. But religion was not the underlying motivation.

Two well-known examples involved the establishment of Lutheranism and Anglicanism. In the 16th century, Martin Luther’s reasons for breaking with the Catholic Church were theological, but the Reformation would have been quickly crushed if it hadn’t been supported by powerful European rulers whose motivations were primarily political and economic. King Henry VIII of England separated from Rome and formed the Anglican Church for pragmatic, nonreligious reasons—largely due to the refusal of the pope to grant an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He believed the Catholic Church was interfering with the internal affairs of his kingdom. He also wanted to nationalize the vast holdings of the Catholic Church in England to consolidate his power.

In The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford Press), William Cavanaugh refers to recent scholarship to show that the underlying causes of the “religious wars” of the 16th and 17th centuries weren’t religious. Cavanaugh includes eight pages of examples, of which the following quotation is only the first:

If there truly were a war of all sects against all, one would expect that war would have broken out soon after Europe split into Catholic and Protestant factions. However, between the time that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517 and the outbreak of the first commonly cited religious war—the Schmalkaldic War of 1546–1547—almost thirty years would pass. The Catholic prosecutor of the Schmalkaldic War, Holy Roman emperor Charles V, spent much of the decade following Luther’s excommunication in 1520 at war not against Lutherans, but against the pope. As Richard Dunn points out, “Charles V’s soldiers sacked Rome, not Wittenberg, in 1527, and when the papacy belatedly sponsored a reform program, both the Habsburgs and the Valois refused to endorse much of it, rejecting especially those Trentine decrees which encroached on their sovereign authority.” The wars of the 1540s were part of the ongoing struggle between the pope and the emperor for control over Italy and over the church in German territories (The Myth of Religious Violence, 143-44).

Cavanaugh provides massive documentation showing that rather than the state being the peace-making force that eventually solved the problem of religiously motivated violence, the process of centralizing public authority in a secular state was itself the most significant cause of violence. “There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the transfer of power to the emergent state was a cause, not the solution, to the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (ibid., p. 162).

These wars replaced the religion of the church with the religion of the state.

The historical evidence renders . . . the idea that the modern state saved Europe from religious violence . . . unbelievable. State building . . . was a significant cause of the violence. An important aspect of state building was the absorption of the church by the state, which exacerbated and enforced ecclesial differences and therefore contributed to warfare between Catholics and Protestants. In the process, the state did not rein in and tame religion but became itself sacralized. The transfer of power from the church to the state was accompanied by a migration of the holy from church to state (ibid., p. 176).

(The reason many still consider religion the primary cause of war and violence is discussed in (Is Religion Evil?)

 

 

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Should Christians keep the Old Testament feasts?

We enjoy exploring the symbolism of the Old Testament feasts, but we don’t recommend that Christians observe them on a regular basis. The feasts of the Old Testament were intended to be an opportunity for the Israelite people to acknowledge the goodness of God as their provider and intercessor.

Although the Jewish religious festivals are celebrated by Jewish Messianic believers, they are not relevant to Gentile Christians. Paul told us in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 that Jesus is the Passover Lamb. The Lord’s Supper, therefore, has replaced the Passover. Hebrews 7:27 and other passages declare that man has been once and for all reconciled to God by the death of Christ. Other passages such as Colossians 2:16-17 and Romans 14:5-6 declare that the Old Testament feasts are no longer to be observed:

So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ (Col. 2:16-17 nkjv).

God’s moral law proceeds from the righteousness of God and can never be abolished. The Mosaic Law, as an expression of this moral law, is “passing away” in that it has been superseded by another law, that is, the standard of grace revealed in the New Testament. The believer is now under law to Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; cp. Rom. 8:2-4). Although the Christian is not under the Mosaic Law as a rule of life, some of the Law of Moses is restated in the New Testament—nine of the Ten Commandments are included. The Mosaic Law still constitutes a revelation of the righteousness of God and remains as a part of Scripture which “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17 nkjv; cp. Rom. 15:4).

Baruch Maoz, an Israeli pastor of Jewish extraction, doesn’t believe it is wrong for Christians of Jewish cultural background to keep the feasts. At the same time, he explains why Gentile Christians shouldn’t observe the Old Testament feasts or other aspects of Old Testament ritual—they have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. They are the “shadow”; He is the reality.

The Mosaic Law in its moral aspects has lost none of its commanding authority. The moral aspects of the covenant are now the rule of life for all those who live by grace. That is one of the reasons why the English Puritans and the Scottish Covenanters identified so warmly with our forefathers. While they longed and prayed for the salvation of our people and our restoration to grace, they knew themselves to be bound to our destiny by the common duties they shared with us as promulgated in the Mosaic Law.

Messiah and the Law

Of course, the ritual aspects of the Law, its symbols, hopes and expectations, all find fulfillment in Jesus. Having been fulfilled, they no longer have the religious value they had in the past yet, for us Jewish Christians, they form part of our national culture. The shadows have passed to give room for the reality, and it is not right for us to insist upon those shadows as if they were still in force. The Mosaic religious institutions, including the sacrifices; the feasts; the specific form of the Sabbath duties; and the restrictions and requirements in terms of dress codes, beards and the such like, are no longer binding. Nor may we exercise our liberty by living as if they were binding. It is our glad and happy duty to demonstrate by our lives, our worship and our communal behaviour that Messiah has come.

The ritual aspects of the Law, particularly the sacrifices, intimated God’s method of salvation, but salvation itself was never provided by it except as it reflected the sacrifice of Messiah. It was not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats could provide a sufficient sacrifice (Heb. 10:4). The promise of forgiveness made in the Torah was dependent on the sacrifice of Messiah and derived its strength from that ultimate sacrifice.

To act now as if Messiah came but did not affect our relation to the Law is—as I said before—to deny with our lives what our mouths profess. To think that the coming of Messiah did not alter the Mosaic Law’s relation to us is to ignore the biblical message, which declares that the Law was given through Moses, grace and truth were realized through Jesus the Messiah (John 1:17). Whatever else we may want to say about this passage, there is no doubt that it contrasts two periods—that of the Mosaic Law with that of Jesus, the Messiah (Judaism Is Not Jewish, pp.127-28).

If a Christian congregation occasionally reenacts aspects of an Old Testament feast day for the sake of better understanding their old covenant heritage, it would be within the bounds of Christian liberty. However, such reenactments should be done with a clear, conscious awareness that they are not required of Christians, convey no special spiritual benefits, and are strictly of educational value.

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Why don’t Protestant Christians pray to Mary and other saints, seeking their help and intercession?

Christians who pray to Mary and saints in heaven to intercede for them sometimes say that praying to Mary and the saints is no different than asking living fellow believers to pray for them. They say that the Scriptures tell us to uphold each other and intercede for each other in prayer (Matthew 5:44; Ephesians 6:18; James 5:16).

Though Scripture doesn’t affirm it, it is conceivable that friends and loved ones who have preceded us to heaven are able to pray for us. But when Christians ask living friends and loved ones to pray for them, they don’t worship or attribute godlike qualities to them. They don’t assume they have unique intercessory abilities and special influence with the Savior. They don’t approach particular strangers and ask for their prayer support. Above all, they don’t “pray” to living friends. They ask them to share the burden of their prayer concerns with the Lord.

Christians who pray to Mary and the saints are assuming much more, believing that Mary and the saints are in a position to help in unique and specific ways: St. Anthony helps locate lost objects; St. Anne combats infertility; St. James the Greater heals arthritis; St. Jude offers hope to “lost causes”; St. Sebastian protects athletes; and many other “saints” are reputed to do specific things for many other categories of needy people.

The pagans of the Roman Empire once prayed to specific gods for help relating to the problems and challenges of life; and when Theodosius I officially outlawed pagan worship in ad 380, many people transferred their devotion from pagan gods to the saints. Thus, prayer to saints came to parallel devotion to the pagan gods of popular Roman religion.

Scripture doesn’t support the idea that “specialist” saints in heaven share with God the ability to hear thousands of prayers simultaneously. Nor does Scripture imply that particular people in heaven are able to intercede with God in a unique way in the case of particular kinds of needs. By attributing such abilities to these saints, we detract from the centrality of Jesus Christ as our divine and human mediator. We project the Savior’s unique qualities (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 7:26-28; Hebrews 9:24; 1 John 2:1-2) on fellow believers who share our own sinful tendencies and frailties. Instead of honoring the Son of God who gave His life for us, we glorify the needy creatures He came to save. (See the ATQ article Why don’t Protestant Christians worship Mary and the Saints?)

 


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Should astrology or horoscopes be taken seriously?

Astrology at one time was looked upon with great seriousness by the educated classes. For many centuries people believed that the earth was the center of the universe, and this mistaken cosmology led to the conviction that the personality and character of people could be influenced by the position of the heavenly spheres at their time of birth.

Since the introduction of modern astronomy, it became impossible for any serious-minded scientist to accept the original principles of astrology. Besides the fact that the heavenly bodies are at a much greater distance than our ancestors believed them to be, their positions in the sky have drastically changed with the passage of time.

After the scientific discoveries of the Enlightenment made the original basis for astrology untenable, there have been numerous attempts by occultists to maintain confidence in it by mystical and occult means.

Though there is no genuinely scientific basis for astrology, millions of people resort to daily horoscopes for guidance in their lives. If nothing else, this behavior shows how deeply religious people are, and how strongly they long for a basis for hope and faith. It may not harm someone to read horoscopes, but anyone taking them seriously will be endangered.

At the very least, astrology is a crutch to avoid the effort of seeking out an informed basis for our decisions. At its worse, it becomes compulsive, a false god gripping us with demonic power. This is probably why the Old Testament warns against it (Isaiah 47:13).

(For more information about the occult, see the Discovery Series booklet What’s The Appeal Of The New Age Movement?)

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