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What does the Bible say about speaking in tongues?

The Scriptures only mention the miraculous gift of tongues-speaking in a handful of places — six, to be exact. But from these six passages, three in the book of Acts and three in the book of 1 Corinthians, it seems clear that tongues-speaking was a regular and important practice in the life of the early church.

In the first century, speaking in tongues often accompanied the initial giving of the Holy Spirit to a particular people group. We see this in Acts 2, where people from all over the world had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. This diverse and multilingual group was amazed when the apostles, all uneducated men from Galilee, began preaching the good news of Jesus. Instead of hearing the message in Aramaic (the common trade language of the day), each listener heard the gospel in their native language. The gift of tongues is also seen as confirmation that the Gentile (non-Jewish) believers in Caesarea[1] and the disciples of John the baptizer in Ephesus[2] had received the Holy Spirit.

In addition to these descriptive passages in Acts, we also know that the church in Corinth practiced speaking in tongues well into the last half of the first century.[3]

The passages in Acts are descriptive. They tell us what happened. The passages in 1 Corinthians are prescriptive — telling us how the gift should be practiced.

Here are just a few of the instructions the apostle Paul gives to the church at Corinth about the gift of tongues and its use:

  • The gift of tongues is one gift among many and not everyone will receive it.[4]
  • If the gift of tongues, or any other spiritual gift, is practiced apart from love it is worthless.[5]
  • It, along with the gifts of prophecy and knowledge, will eventually pass away.[6]
  • Possessing the gift of tongues should be a cause for humility, not pride.[7]
  • It should not be forbidden, but practiced in a way that draws the hearers toward Christ.[8]
  • There must be an interpreter present if the gift is used publicly; if not, then the speaker should remain quiet and speak to themselves and God.[9]
  • It must be practiced in an orderly and decent manner.[10]

Many things are unclear regarding the spiritual gift of tongues, and there is a great deal of disagreement among Christians regarding it as a legitimate practice for our day. But what seems abundantly clear from the Scriptures is that when God gave this good gift on the day of Pentecost, he gave it for a good purpose—to expand the gospel. It demonstrated his power to restore what was confused at Babel[11] and foreshadow the final restoration of all things.

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar, “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!”[12] (emphasis added)

[1] Acts 10:46

[2] Acts 19:1–6

[3] 1 Corinthians 12:1–14:40

[4] 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28 & 30

[5] 1 Corinthians 13:1 & 8; 14:1

[6] 1 Corinthians 13:8

[7] 1 Corinthians 14:1–5

[8] 1 Corinthians 14:6–25 & 39

[9] 1 Corinthians 14:26–28

[10] 1 Corinthians 14:40

[11] Genesis 11:1–9

[12] Revelation 7:9–10

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What Does the Bible Say About Witchcraft?

The Scriptures condemn all sorcery as opposed to a proper sense of dependence upon God. In Galatians 5:20, witchcraft is listed as being one of the acts of the sinful nature. The book of Revelation contains several passages that condemn sorcery in the strongest terms ( Revelation 9:21; 18:23; 21:8; 22:15 ).

The Bible asserts that only God has the right to understand the realm of the supernatural ( Genesis 40:8 ). Under Old Testament law, intrusion into the realm of the occult made one worthy of death ( Exodus 22:18 ). 1

Interestingly, several Greek words in the New Testament that are translated “witchcraft” and “sorcery” have the root pharm, from which our words pharmacy and pharmaceuticals are derived. This root refers to “drugs, potions, and poisons.” Those who are familiar with the practice of sorcery, both among primitive tribespeople and modern occultists, know that psychoactive drugs are often used by shamans and sorcerers 2 to induce dramatically altered states of consciousness that provide supernatural knowledge or contact with spirits.

1. Also see Leviticus 19:31 ; 2 Kings 21:6; 23:24 ; 1 Chronicles 10:13-14 ; Isaiah 8:19; 19:3 . Back To Article


2. Although the use of drugs as “potions” is common in sorcery and witchcraft, not all modern witches advocate the magical use of drugs. Ritual, meditation, and other magical techniques are often used in their place to produce similar effects. Back To Article

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What Does the Bible Teach About Predestination?

It is true that verses like John 6:44-45 , Acts 13:48 , and Ephesians 1:4-5 teach that we cannot come to God unless He first draws us to Himself. Such passages make it clear that those who choose Christ are people destined beforehand to be the eternal children of God. Other passages teach that the human will is so fallen and captured by sin that only the Spirit of God can give a person a desire to know God and be freed by Him.

This is a difficult claim, and not only for people of faith. The principle of determinism is one side of a greater paradox that has defied explanation not only by Christian theologians but by atheistic philosophers as well. Both sides have struggled with two seemingly irreconcilable aspects of human experience: freedom and determinism.

The Bible holds both sides in tension without trying to resolve the problem for us. While teaching that God is in control of His universe, the Scriptures make it equally clear that He offers salvation to all and holds all accountable for the real choice of accepting or rejecting His genuine offer.

This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-4).

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him (John 3:16-17).

He . . . is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (1 John 2:2).

The Bible isn’t fatalistic. From beginning to end it is a book of hope. God has given everyone the ability of choice. Yet in the midst of our choices is this truth: We do not rule God; He rules us. We are not sovereign; He is. We are responsible to choose Him, but we are so fallen in our own sin that when we do choose Him we sense that He has mercifully enabled us to do so.

Wise King Solomon wrote about this paradox when he penned:

In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps (Proverbs 16:9).

A man’s steps are directed by the Lord. How then can anyone understand his own way? (Proverbs 20:24).

Only the eternal, infinite Creator is capable of reconciling both sides of this mystery. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory for ever! Amen (Romans 11:33-36).

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What Does the Second Commandment Teach?

The early Christians used images such as a fish, a lamb, and a dove as symbols to decorate their places of meeting and to mark their places of burial.

The second commandment in Exodus 20:4-6 teaches that no representation of God or anything that He has made should be an object of worship:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (NIV).

The command “you shall not bow down to them or worship them” is the key expression in this commandment. Israel was guilty of breaking this commandment because the golden calf was made with the express intent of being an object of worship.

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered round Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:1-4).

On the other hand, the Israelites were instructed to make two cherubim of gold for the mercy seat in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:18-22). They were to have cherubim woven into the curtains that covered the tabernacle (Exodus 26:1) and in the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies (v.31). God also commanded Moses to make a “bronze snake.” In order to be healed, the people of Israel were to look at it if bitten by a venomous snake (see Numbers 21:5-9; John 3:14-15). These examples imply that the second commandment does not forbid making images that depict spiritual realities—as long as such visual representations are not worshiped.

The issue of images has been a great source of controversy within the Christian church. Some church fathers, including Tertullian, Eusebius, and Augustine, condemned the artistic representation of sacred persons. Many Protestant churches do not display pictures or statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or other Bible characters in prominent locations in their churches.

However, some denominations continue to use images. They insist that they do not worship the images but only venerate them as the symbolic representations of essential truths. They also believe that using physical images to represent spiritual truths is patterned after the mystery in which God Himself took physical human form.

Protestants question the veneration of images because of the practical difficulty of distinguishing between the worship of God by means of the veneration of an image and the actual worship of, or “magical” use of, the image. Many Protestants also believe that attempts to realistically portray Jesus Christ detract from His reality and glory.

Jesus told the woman of Samaria, “God is Spirit, and His worshipers must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Nearly all Christians today use some symbols and images in worship. Virtually none of them believe that the realistic portrayal of natural things is a violation of the second commandment. It is important that we are faithful to our own conscience and respectfully acknowledge our differences in the spirit of Christian liberty.

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What Happens to Infants and Young Children Who Die?

Although the concept of “the age of accountability” had its beginnings early in the history of the Christian church, the Scriptures do not use this terminology. Neither does the Bible contain substantial allusions to the eternal state of babies or young children who die before they are old enough to make a conscious decision for or against Christ.

People have always been concerned about the salvation of children who die before they are old enough to clearly understand the gospel. Unfortunately, the conclusion reached by many in the early church was that infants who die without the sacrament of baptism are destined for hell—or limbo. This belief was based upon a mistaken view of baptism.

This view persisted into the Reformation. Catholics, Lutherans, and others continued to believe that infants who weren’t baptized would be condemned to hell. 1This is a tragic distortion of biblical teaching. It is a credit to the clear thinking of John Calvin that he found such a doctrine reprehensible:

“I do not doubt that the infants whom the Lord gathers together from this life are regenerated by a secret operation of the Holy Spirit.” (Amsterdam edition of Calvin’s works, 8:522).

“I everywhere teach that no one can be justly condemned and perish except on account of actual sin; and to say that the countless mortals taken from life while yet infants are precipitated from their mothers’ arms into eternal death is a blasphemy to be universally detested.” (Institutes, Book 4, p.335).

Although infants are not capable of conscious sin in the same way as someone older ( Isaiah 7:15-16; Matthew 18:3-4 ), they have inherited natures that are contaminated by sin and in need of transformation and salvation ( Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:3 ). Yet, because of their dependency, trust, and innocence, Jesus not only offers young children as models for the manner in which adult sinners need to be converted, He views them in a unique way:

“Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.”( Matthew 18:10 ).

“Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”( Matthew 18:14 ).

Further, the Scriptures clearly indicate that God does not punish children for the offenses of their fathers ( Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:20 ).

Therefore, we believe that those who die as infants or young children are given the gift of salvation. They aren’t given this gift because they are without sin; they, too, have inherited Adam’s curse. They are given salvation based solely on God’s grace, through the sacrificial atonement of Christ on their behalf.

“Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” ( Romans 5:18-19 ).

Infants had nothing to do with the fact that they were heirs of Adam’s sinful nature. Therefore, it stands to reason that they can be given the gift of salvation without having consciously accepted it. Only rejection of Christ’s love on their behalf—something that cannot occur until they reach the age that conscious sin is possible—can result in their loss of Christ’s gift.

  1. Norman Fox, The Unfolding of Baptist Doctrine, 24 “Not only the Roman Catholics believed in the damnation of infants. The Lutherans, in the Augsburg Confession, condemn the Baptists for affirming that children are saved without baptism; damnant Anabaptistas qui . . . affirmant pueros sine baptismo salvos fieri” [“they damn the Anabaptists who . . . affirm that children are saved without baptism”] and the favorite poet of Presbyterian Scotland [Robert Burns], in his Tam O Shanter, names among objects from hell, Twa spanlang, wee, unchristened bairns. The Westminster Confession, in declaring that elect infants dying in infancy are saved, implies that non elect infants dying in infancy are lost. This was certainly taught by some of the framers of that creed. (Christian Theology, Augustus Strong) Back To Article
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What If I Don’t Feel Love for My Stepchildren?

Many stepparents confess that they don’t have deep feelings for their stepchildren. Some assume that the love they feel for their new spouse will automatically create loving feelings for their spouse’s children. As many stepparents find out, however, feelings of love for stepchildren are usually not so easy or natural. As a result, some stepparents feel guilty for not “loving” their stepchildren as much as they think they should. 

1 They try harder, but often it’s met with more disappointment and guilt.

It’s comforting — even freeing — to know that stepparents aren’t obligated to feel strong attachment to their stepchildren. While affectionate feelings are ideal in relationships, they are not necessary to cultivating healthy relationships with stepchildren.

Our actions of love and service on behalf of another family member are more important than our feelings. Stepparents can make choices to love their stepchildren in tangible ways, even if they are not experiencing the warm feelings they wish they had. What matters most in a family are the acts of love demonstrated through serving one another, not the feelings of love ( 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ; 1 John 3:16-18 ).

It’s also important to treat stepchildren with grace. That includes those who are distant, angry, and difficult to live with. Extending grace doesn’t mean that we overlook problems. Instead, we treat our stepchildren the way we want to be treated, with respect and kindness ( Matthew 7:12 ; Philippians 2:3-4 ). We give them the discipline and guidance they need, remembering that we, too, were once their age. Even during the difficult times, stepparents should do what is right and fair for their stepchildren ( Proverbs 1:3, 21:3 ; 2 Thessalonians 3:13 ). An attitude of truth with grace fosters a healthy relationship between you and your stepchildren.

Relationships are complex and for a range of reasons, some stepparents and stepchildren don’t grow close. Even so, you can be the kind of stepparent who loves his or her stepchildren through acts of service with an attitude of grace. Your loving actions, with or without the loving feelings, honor your stepchildren, encourage warmhearted rapport and model the tender heart of Jesus Christ.

  1. To be expected, many stepchildren don’t instinctively have warm feelings of love for their stepparents. Because of strong loyalty ties to their biological parents, feelings of loss, a lack of history together, as well as other reasons, feelings of love for their stepparents don’t come automatically for many stepchildren. Back To Article
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What Is a Godly Response to Domestic Abuse for an Abused Wife?

Domestic abuse is a one-sided relationship where a spouse regularly seeks to control and punish his or her partner. The most common sort of spousal abuse is that of the husband toward the wife. The abuse can take many forms: verbal, physical, psychological, sexual, and financial. These are the primary methods a man uses to dominate his spouse.

Regardless of the form of abuse, there are no easy answers for a wife whose husband regularly abuses her. Financial concerns, intimidating threats, personal doubts, and a husband’s ability to hide the abuse or make her feel responsibile (when she most certainly is not) are just some of the factors that leave hurting and scared wives feeling cornered with few, if any, options.

As trapped as a wife may feel, she is always free to choose the option of love. Sadly, however, too many have been taught that showing love means that a wife should passively tolerate her husband’s abuse. Love is misunderstood as getting along and not upsetting one’s husband. But a weak, fearful, compliant response usually enables her husband in his abusive patterns. Meek compliance on her part is not best for either of them. Nor does it serve the larger good of a godly marriage. Therefore, it’s not loving.

The Bible says that showing genuine love is to “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” ( Romans 12:9 NIV). In other words, a loving reaction is both compassionate and strong. Although her husband may not see it this way, an abused wife can show that she cares for her husband by sending the strong and consistent message that she will give him consequences for his abusive words and behavior.

A consequence is something that a wife decides to do. It’s not something that she tries to make her husband do. Consequences vary depending on the seriousness of the situation. For instance, a verbally abusive episode (although still serious) often calls for her to simply end the conversation after informing her husband that she won’t continue to talk with him as long as he remains controlling or disrespectful. Situations involving physical abuse may require calling the police and pressing charges. In other cases where there is a longstanding and oppressive pattern of emotional/verbal abuse, legal separation and even divorce are legitimate options to consider, but only as a last resort.

An abused wife shouldn’t expect the situation to turn around quickly. Many abusive husbands apologize and act remorseful, but a wife shouldn’t be misled. An abusive husband’s quick remorse is often just another ploy to regain control. Other men don’t apologize at all and resist admitting the harm they are causing. They continue to minimize their sin and put the blame on others. It frequently requires an abusive husband to undergo an extended time of his own personal suffering before he will come to his senses and begin the long and difficult process of understanding and owning the damage he’s caused. Therefore, a wife committed to loving her husband should be prepared to stand her ground for a long period of time while her husband learns necessary lessons from the consequences he is suffering for his sinful behavior.

An abused wife shouldn’t try to give consequences without help. Confronting her husband without a plan or physical protection can be a grave mistake. It will likely cause her husband to feel threatened. He is used to being in control and giving him negative consequences takes that control away. Therefore, a wife should prepare for the possibility that her husband could resort to physical intimidation and violence to regain control. She needs a plan that would help ensure her safety For example, having several friends present at a point of confrontation, having an escape plan or an alternate place for her and her children to go stay, notifying the police, obtaining a restraining order.

A wife has no assurances that his suffering the consequences will wake up her husband, end the abuse, or resolve their marital problems. She can, however, begin to love as Christ loved as she gradually begins to rest in the fact that God desires what is best for her. It may take a fairly long time to really believe this, but God is there to empower her to show love, to comfort her with love, and enliven her with a purpose for her own life no matter what happens ( Psalm 23:4 ). Her heart can begin to gain a growing confidence and peace that says, “I’m not totally powerless. I’m free to love. And although it may not work out between my husband and me, I am confident that it will work out between God and me.”

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What Is Buddhism?

What does Buddhism teach, and how does it differ from Christianity?

Legend tells us that Buddha was a powerful young prince who gave up his earthly position and possessions in order to seek enlightenment and salvation. Buddha lived in India approximately 600 years before Christ. He was concerned with the terrible things that were being done within the Hindu tradition, so he developed his own religious system.

Buddha taught that the question of God’s existence is meaningless. His conception of salvation is radically different than that taught by Christianity.

Buddha believed in reincarnation. He taught that every evil thing we do ties us more tightly to the cycle of rebirth. Buddha taught that a person can escape the cycle of reincarnation and enter nirvana only by following the “Noble Eight-fold Path,” a strict ethical system.

Buddhist teachings include dedication to meditation. Meditation involves emptying one’s mind of all content and learning to drift away from a consciousness of this world. Thus, it is part of the process by which a Buddhist frees himself from his attachments to this world and the cycle of reincarnation.

We should not confuse nirvana with heaven, however. For the Buddhist, nirvana is simply an escape from the world of suffering. It is like a candle that had been burning with a hot flame (representing our suffering in the cycle of reincarnation) being suddenly extinguished. Once a flame is out, there is no point in questioning where it went. To the classical Buddhist, to attain nirvana is simply to be out of existence.

Buddhism is clearly a very different religion from Christianity. It offers no personal salvation. It stands against sin and immorality, but it ignores the issue of God’s existence and our need for redemption. At its root, Buddhism is a form of agnosticism or at least practical atheism. It provides no answers about the ultimate meaning of existence. By denying the ultimate meaningfulness of life, Buddhism provides its followers with little motivation to conquer evil or to work for justice. Jesus Christ, in contrast, confronts us with the need to become right with God and to introduce a new order into the world, an order He called “the kingdom of God.”

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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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What is Religion?

When asked this question, most people think of traditional faith systems like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Shinto.

The answer is more complicated.

Traditional faith systems have less in common than one would think. Some are atheistic or indifferent to the possibility of God’s existence. Some are unconcerned with personal immortality. What they do have in common is concern with ultimate values, connection with a system of ritual, and the power to command reverence, admiration, and personal commitment. These characteristics set them apart as “sacred.”

Defining “religion” is complicated by the fact that newer faith systems with no direct relationship to traditional faith systems have the same “sacred” characteristics. Secular humanism, free-market capitalism, Marxism, nationalism,1 and ethnic “tribalism” are just as religious in their practical effects as traditional faith systems. Millions of people look to nationalism, political ideology, or tribal loyalty for their spiritual values, and a large percentage are willing to die for them.

This is why it is unrealistic to apply the term “religion” only to traditional faith systems. Any institution or belief system that has “sacred” characteristics should be considered a religion.

  1. Scholars have shown how all of the “secular” institutions and belief systems in this list function as religions, but this quotation on nationalism provides a good example: “Scholars have long noted the way that nationalism has supplanted Christianity as the predominant public religion of the West. Hayes’s 1926 essay, ‘Nationalism as a Religion,’ puts forth this idea, which in 1960 he developed into a book entitled Nationalism: A Religion. For Hayes, humans are naturally endowed with a ‘religious sense,’ a faith in a power higher than humanity that requires a sense of reverence, usually expressed in external ceremony. Hayes argues that the decline in public Christianity with the advent of the modern state left a vacuum for the religious sense that was filled by the sacralization of the nation, the ‘enthronement of the national state—la Patrie—as the central object of worship.’ According to Hayes, political religion enjoyed the double advantage of being more tangible than supernatural religion and having the physical means of violence necessary to enforce mandatory worship. Benedict Anderson similarly argues that the nation has replaced the church in its role as the primary cultural institution that deals with death. According to Anderson, Christianity’s decline in the West necessitated another way of dealing with the arbitrariness of death. Nations provide a new kind of salvation; my death is not in vain if it is for the nation, which lives on into a limitless future” (William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence [Oxford Press, 2009], 114) Back To Article
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