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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