Tag Archives: doctrine

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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Is the Old Testament “Less Inspired” Than the New?

Early in church history a powerful movement called Gnosticism denied that the Old Testament was authoritative or even relevant to Christians. (See the ATQ article, What Was Gnosticism?) This movement taught that the Old Testament was the product of an inferior deity, and refused to accept the Old Testament as part of the canon of Scripture. One of the most influential early second-century Gnostic leaders, Marcion, accepted only the gospel of Luke and the writings of Paul in his canon.

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There are remarkable differences between the New Testament and the Old Testament, but these differences don’t imply that the Old Testament is not inspired and authoritative. In fact, the New Testament clearly affirms the inspiration of the Old (Matthew 5:18; 26:56; Mark 12:24; Luke 16:17; Acts 13:14-48; 2 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 1:25).

Rather than describing the Old Testament as “less inspired” than the New Testament, it would be better to describe the relationship of the two Testaments in terms of progressive revelation. Just as human parents don’t reveal the same things to their toddlers that they reveal to teenagers, God taught basic truths to the ancients, and when the “fullness of time” had come (Galatians 4:4) He taught things that only later generations were prepared to receive. God’s revelation to the human race wasn’t given all at once in its fullest form to the earliest people who received it. Rather, it was revealed gradually through the course of history, with later truths completing and fulfilling earlier revelations without contradicting them (Hebrews 1:1-2; Romans 15:4). Humanity has been given as much truth as it has been able to understand within a timetable determined by the Creator (John 16:12; 1 Corinthians 3:1-2). The revelation of God in the Old Testament, including the establishment of a theocracy under the law, was necessary to prepare our race to see its need for redemption (Romans 3:19-20) and its inability to achieve it on its own (Hebrews 9-10).

The patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament did not have a full understanding of the redemption that the Lord Jesus Christ would provide. They didn’t have a clear understanding of individual survival after death or the manner in which the faith of Abraham would bring blessing to all the peoples of the world (Genesis 12:1-3; 28:14). Truths only implied by the earliest chapters of the Old Testament were defined much more clearly by the prophets (Psalm 110; Isaiah 11:10; 49:6) and brought to clarity in the New Testament (Matthew 8:10-12; 22:42-45; Acts 3:25; Galatians 3:8-16; Hebrews 1:13 ).

  1. Gnosticism was an immense peril for the church. It cut out the historic foundations of Christianity. Its God is not the God of the Old Testament, which is the work of an inferior or even evil being. Its Christ had no real incarnation, death, or resurrection. Its salvation is for the few capable of spiritual enlightenment. The peril was the greater because Gnosticism was represented by some of the keenest minds in the church of the second century. The age was syncretistic, and in some respects Gnosticism was but the fullest accomplishment of that amalgamation of Hellenic and Oriental philosophical speculation with primitive Christian beliefs, which was in greater or less degree in process in all Christian thinking. (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, Scribners, p. 53.) Back To Article
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Does the Bible Prescribe a Mode of Baptism?

The answer to this question is hinted at by the Greek word translated in the Bible as “baptize“: baptizo. This Greek term means “to dip or immerse.” Judging from the word pictures of Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12, the original mode of baptism in the apostolic church probably was immersion.

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. ( Romans 6:4-6 NKJV)

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. ( Colossians 2:11-12 NKJV)

Undeniably, the spiritual meaning of baptism as described in these passages is best illustrated by the symbolism of immersion. This is acknowledged by prominent, non-Baptist theologians 1 and church historians. 2

If I wasn’t baptized by immersion, do I need to be re-baptized?

We believe that the biblical standard is adult believer’s baptism by immersion. Adult believer’s baptism by immersion is an important symbolic act of identification with Christ. However, because salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, it is not absolutely necessary that you be baptized as an adult. Neither is it absolutely necessary that you be baptized by immersion. (See the ATQ article, Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?).

In the final analysis, you must follow your own conscience in this matter. Most couples living in a common-law marriage, after becoming followers of Christ, desire to profess their commitment to each other in a public ceremony in spite of the fact that they could be considered already “legally” married. Similarly, many people decide that they should willingly demonstrate their symbolic union with Christ through baptism by immersion ( Acts 9:18-19; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:1-11 ) even if they have already been baptized as a child or by another mode of baptism.

  1. Even though he was a Reformed theologian, in a tradition that practices infant baptism, Karl Barth wrote:

    “The Greek word baptizo and the German word Taufen (from Tiefe, “depth”) originally and properly describe the process by which a man or an object is completely immersed in water and then withdrawn from it again. Primitive baptism carried out in this manner had its mode, exactly like the circumcision of the Old Testament, the character of a direct threat to life, succeeded immediately by the corresponding deliverance and preservation, the raising from baptism. One can hardly deny that baptism carried out as immersion—as it was in the West until well on into the Middle Ages—showed what was represented in far more expressive fashion than did the affusion which later became customary, especially when this affusion was reduced from a real wetting to a sprinkling and eventually in practice to a mere moistening with as little water as possible . . . . Is the last word on the matter to be, that facility of administration , health, and propriety are important reasons for doing otherwise [i.e., for administering baptism in other than its original form]? Baptism vividly symbolizes our identification with Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection” (Teaching, pp. 9-10). Back To Article

  2. “As to the method of baptism, it is probably that the original form was by immersion, complete or partial. That is implied in Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12. Pictures in the catacombs would seem to indicate that the submersion was not always complete. The fullest early evidence is that of the Teaching:

    Baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living (running) water. But if thou hast not living water, then baptize in other water; and if thou art not able in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, then pour water upon the head thrice in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

    “Affusion was therefore a recognized form of baptism. Cyprian cordially upheld it. Immersion continued the prevailing practice till the late Middle Ages in the West; in the East it so remains. The Teaching and Justin show that fasting and an expression of belief, together with an agreement to live the Christian life, were necessary prerequisites.

    “By the time of Tertullian, an elaborate ritual had developed. The ceremony began with the formal renunciation by the candidate of the devil and all his works. Then followed the threefold immersion. On coming from the fount, the newly baptized tasted a mixture of milk and honey, in symbolism of his condition as a new-born babe in Christ. Too, that succeeded anointing with oil and the laying on of the hands of the baptizer in token of the reception of the Holy Spirit.” (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, p. 96). Back To Article

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Must A Person Have A Clear Understanding of Jesus’ Deity To Be Saved?

An accurate response to this question has to reconcile the importance of truth with the simplicity of faith. According to Jesus Christ, faith doesn’t require intellectual sophistication. He didn’t say that one must become a philosopher or a rabbi to enter the kingdom of God. He said that one must become like a child (Mark 10:15). He also compared His followers to sheep (John 10:3-4,16,27). Sheep aren’t known for their intelligence, but they survive by knowing their shepherd and following him. Similarly, saving faith can’t be based as much on theological abstractions as on the simple recognition that Jesus is the Shepherd-Savior and we must follow Him.

The implications of Jesus Christ’s deity weren’t defined until the counsels of Nicaea (ad 325), Constantinople (381), and Chalcedon (451), but millions of Christians had already declared their allegiance to Jesus Christ, and thousands had died as martyrs as testimony to their faith in Him.

What did Christians who lived before these great church councils know about the Trinity or Jesus Christ’s deity? The very earliest followers of Jesus Christ knew Him personally, saw His miracles, heard His teaching, and had either seen Him following His resurrection or heard about His resurrection from sources they considered utterly reliable. The next generation of Christians had the firsthand teaching of the witnesses to His life, death, and resurrection. Later generations had the canon of New Testament Scriptures, which had by then been assembled. All of these generations believed in His sinless life, His works of supernatural power, the supernatural authority of His teaching, and His supernatural resurrection from the dead. Nearly all of them would have had extensive access to either the verbal or written records of what Jesus had taught, including the way He described Himself as the “Son of Man” and the “Son of God,” and the things He spoke (and which were recorded by the Gospel writers) about His own authority and His relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit.

The first verses of the gospel of John declared, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1-3). When face-to-face with the risen Christ, the apostle Thomas said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). The apostle Paul clearly affirmed Jesus Christ’s divine power and authority when he wrote concerning Him:

“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:17-20).

The early Christians knew these things, accepted these things, and staked their lives and futures on these things, but they hadn’t yet worked out all of their theoretical implications.

Christian missionaries traveled far into the barbarian lands with the gospel at great risk. While they believed all the things about Jesus that are described in the paragraph above, the majority of them couldn’t explain exactly the philosophical and theological implications of biblical references to Jesus as the Son of Man (Matthew 9:6; 12:8,40), the Son of God (Matthew 4:6; 8:29; 14:33; 26:63), one with the Father (John 10:30), the Creator (John 1:14), and Lord (Matthew 7:21-22; 8:8; 12:8; John 20:28; Acts 7:59). In fact, the Germanic peoples to the north of the Roman Empire were evangelized by Arian missionaries who held a view of Christ’s deity that differed from the one established by the Council of Nicaea. 1 Tragically, long before the church could reach a peaceful consensus about these things, Constantine granted it government protection and patronage. Because he wanted a unified church to support a politically unified empire, he put pressure on the church leaders to resolve their differences quickly. Great church buildings were built with state funds, church leaders were subsidized by the government, and wealth flowed into church coffers. Theological differences became complicated by rivalry over worldly power and real estate. Riots, small-scale battles, kidnappings, and murders were spawned by the conflict between Arians and Catholics.2

Ironically, after the orthodox Catholic (Nicaean) perspective on the deity of Christ was generally adopted within the Roman Empire—largely due to the support of secular leaders—the empire was overthrown by the same Germanic tribes (Visigoths and Ostrogoths) that had already been converted to Christianity by Arian missionaries! Historian David L. Edwards notes in Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years:

“Church life seems to have been much the same under the two creeds and probably few on either side were seriously interested in the theological arguments. . . . However, just as those who lost in civil wars lost their lives or at least their eyesight, so bishops and other teachers defeated in theological battles should expect no mercy. When they had the opportunity, Arians could be as merciless as the Catholics who in the end prevailed.”

In fact, one of the tragic effects of the violent, politically motivated division within the church over the Arian controversy and other theological issues may have been the loss of heart that led to a generally passive acceptance of the Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries.

This historical example illustrates the danger of seeing a direct correlation between salvation and the ability to give an accurate theological exposition of the deity of Christ and the Trinity.

Probably no more Christians today, on an average, are able to give a coherent explanation of the doctrines of the Trinity and Christ’s deity than could have done so at the beginning of the fourth century. If they can’t, is their faith less genuine than that of those who can theologically defend what they believe? Is mere verbal assent to something one doesn’t understand more important than childlike faith in the gospel and the authority of the Gospels? To say that there is a direct relationship between doctrinal accuracy and salvation would make salvation more dependent on intellect and IQ than the heart.

Today, theologically trained Christians know that the doctrine of Christ’s deity explains the basis for salvation. Athanasius’s insight is widely accepted: If Jesus were not God in the fullest sense, He could not be our Savior. Only God’s own sacrifice could atone our sins.3 But even though this is an essential doctrine, it took centuries for the best thinkers of the church to define it accurately.

Childlike faith in Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd of our souls must be considered sufficient to save us. While theological understanding will grow with the maturation of faith, the depth of any particular person’s faith may not be expressed in the ability to articulate theological truths.

  1. Both Arians (who were the majority in the Greek-speaking church) and Catholics (who dominated only the Latin-speaking West) had powerful philosophical and biblical arguments in support of their positions. Both Arians and Catholics agreed that the Son was the eternal logos (Word) become flesh. Catholics taught that the Father and Son were of the “same essence” (homo-ousios). The Arians were uneasy, however, about considering the Son to be of the exact same essence as the Father, because they feared such a belief could lead to a denial of any real difference between the Father and Son (Sabellianism). They insisted that the fact that the Son was “begotten” and the Father “unbegotten” implied that the Son was either “begotten” or “created” by the Father before the creation of the universe, Subsequently, according to this view, the Son (as logos) created the universe. They preferred to refer to the Father and Son as being of “different essence” or “similar essence” (hetero-ousios,homoi-ousios).
    Eventually, the Catholic position, as defined at Nicaea and further defined and confirmed at Chalcedon, was accepted by the whole Catholic Church. Kenneth Scott Latourette summarizes why the Catholic position came to be accepted:

    “As in the Apostles’ Creed, so in the Nicene Creed, painfully, slowly, and through controversies in which there was often lacking the love which is the major Christian virtue, Christians were working their way through to a clarification of what was presented to the world by the tremendous historical fact of Christ. At Nicaea it was more and more becoming apparent to them that the high God must also be the Redeemer and yet, by a seeming paradox, the Redeemer must also be man. The astounding central and distinguishing affirmation of Christianity, so they increasingly saw, and what made Christianity unique and compelling, was that Jesus Christ was ‘true God from true God,’ or, to put it in language more familiar to English readers, ‘very God of very God,’ who ‘was made man.’ Thus men could be reborn and become sons of God, but without losing their individual identity” (A History of Christianity, p. 156). Back To Article

  2. Historian Will Durant wrote that more Christians were killed by fellow Christians in strife between Catholics and Arians than were killed in the pagan persecutions of Christianity during the three previous centuries. Back To Article
  3. In his book, A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology, William Hordern offered a brilliantly simple explanation for the importance of the Nicene definition of the Trinity:

    “The problem of the Trinity arises from the Christian belief that God was acting in and through Jesus Christ. In the fourth century Arius put forward the theory that Christ was a lesser god created by God. This lesser god came to earth in the man Jesus who was not really a man at all, but a divine being freed from the normal limitations of humanity. If the Arian party could have got their iota into the creed, their point of view would have become orthodox Christianity. It would have meant that Christianity had degenerated to the polytheistic stage of paganism. It would have had two gods and a Jesus who was neither God nor man. It would have meant that God himself was unapproachable and apart from man. The result would have been to make of Christianity another pagan mystery religion” (p. 6). Back To Article

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Can We Know What Jesus Actually Taught?

The New Testament is the best documented literary work from ancient times. Over 5,000 manuscripts have survived. Fragments now available date back to the beginning of the second century. Even liberal scholars acknowledge the early dates of many New Testament books. Consequently, there is no reasonable basis for believing that Christ’s teachings were distorted by the apostolic church. To the contrary, it is only logical that the apostles would be the ones most likely to remain faithful to the teaching of their Lord, and that they, in turn, would select documents on the basis of their reliability.

It’s one thing to deny the authority of the New Testament, but quite another to be able to justify one’s denial. The following books offer a good overview of early church history:

  • A History Of Christianity by Kenneth Scott Latourette
  • A History Of The Christian Church by Williston Walker
  • New Testament History by F.F. Bruce

Each of these books is a “classic” in its own right, and can be ordered through most bookstores.

Also visit our 10 Reasons To Believe In The Bible site.

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