“Calvinism” is a popular term that has been coined to describe the Reformed theological tradition. The name of 16th century French theologian John Calvin has become closely identified with Reformed theology because of his classic presentation of the system in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536-1559). Reformed theologians typically point beyond Calvin to Pauline theology (particularly in Paul's Epistle to the Romans) and the later works of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) as the earliest roots of the formal system named after Calvin.
John Calvin played a crucial role in both restating the Augustinian theological tradition that had preceded him and contributing his own classical formulation of Reformed theology. Calvin's theo-logical and institutional contributions were the foundation for Reformed movements and denominations that spread across Europe and to North America in the 16th and early 17th centuries.
Supporters of the Reformed interpretation of Scripture and the theological system derived from it often prefer the term “Reformed” to “Calvinist” because the latter term is seen as drawing more attention to the person of Calvin himself in contradiction to the essence of Reformed theology, which emphasizes divine initiative over human agency. “Calvinism” has been adopted as a way to refer to the Reformed tradition by other Christian traditions and also many Reformed theologians in acknowledgment of the pivotal role John Calvin played in defining and establishing Reformed theology. The term also particularly describes the summary of Reformed theology encapsulated in the canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619).
One particularly troubling interpretive question rising from the New Testament, particularly in the writings of the apostle Paul, was the concept of “election” or “predestination.” Paul mentioned the concept in his Epistle to the Ephesians and treated it more extensively in the Epistle to the Romans (9-11). Paul argued that God chooses or elects whom he wills in accordance with the mystery of God's purpose. Citing the example of Jacob and Esau, Paul quoted Malachi's dictum, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” (Mal. 1:2-3; Rom. 9:10-13). Paul further expounded in chapter 10 of the Epistle on the necessity of sending a messenger so that people might hear of Christ and be saved (Rom. 10:14-15). The theo-logical tension between the sovereign decree of God on the one hand and human responsibility on the other has historically defined the debate between “Calvinism” and “Arminianism” in terms of soteriology. This theological tension caused a debate between St. Augustine of Hippo and the followers of the British monk Pelagius in the early 5th century. Augustine dealt more directly with Pelagius' disciple Celestius as Pelagius moved from North Africa to Palestine in 418 to be confronted by St. Jerome. In his writings Pelagius had emphasized human responsibility in contrast to Augustine's emphasis on the necessity of God's prompting the human will for salvation and obedience. He was particularly dismayed to read one statement in Augustine's Confessions, “Lord, command what you will and then give what you command.” In Pelagius' view, such language minimized the human capacity and responsibility to choose the good. In the midst of his debate with the Pelagians, Augustine sharpened his own views in regard to the theological issues of original sin, the human will, and election. Pelagius was posthumously condemned by the Council of Ephesus (431), but his ideas continued to influence the Roman Catholic Church in the West over the next few centuries. Medieval Roman Catholicism in many ways embraced a via media between the divine sovereignty emphasized by Augustine and human responsibility endorsed by Pelagius.
The Age of Reform brought simmering tensions within the Western Church to the fore, particularly concerning issues of soteriology and ecclesiology. Martin Luther's defense of justification by faith necessarily entailed a debate concerning the nature of sin. Luther, like Augustine, strongly endorsed the doctrine of original sin and championed the concept that God must intervene to bring salvation because the human will remains in bondage to the sinful nature. He debated the nature of the human will with the esteemed humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1519.
John Calvin (1509-1564) was the theologian who gave the Reformed theological tradition its classic exposition in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which first appeared in a much smaller version in 1536. The Institutes grew in size and scope over the course of six revisions and translations into French and German as well as Latin. Calvin was a former law student who had come to reject the Roman Catholicism of his youth and embrace Protestant doctrine in the early 1530s. His support for Protestant sympathizer Nicholas Cop had forced Calvin to flee France in 1532. Calvin's subsequent wanderings eventually brought him to Geneva and an encounter with William G. Farel, whose strong admonition convinced Calvin that it was God's will for him to remain as leader of the Protestant Reform movement in Geneva. After an initial period of tension that led to Calvin's exile from Geneva, the Reformer returned in 1541 to a more cooperative city. He continued to lead the Reformation in Geneva until his death in 1564.
The Institutes have often been identified as the first systematic treatment of Protestant theology to emerge. Calvin advanced insights regarding the nature of sin, salvation, and election that have been closely associated with the “Calvinist” theological system. Though some apologists and critics of Reformed theology have attempted to disassociate the later Canons of Dort from the direct influence of Calvin, it is clear that Calvin defined the distinctive elements of Calvinist theology enshrined in them. There are strong indications that this was true even in Calvin's original 1536 edition of the Institutes. In the final 1559 edition, Calvin had clearly come to understand justification by faith in light of God's absolute sovereignty. He was forced to acknowledge the logical negative as well as positive implications of his belief in individual election. Calvin referred to reprobation, the negative aspect of predestination, as a “horrible decree” in the third book of the Institutes. Calvin did seem somewhat vague on the question of whether reprobation is due to the direct choice of God to damn some or simply the logical consequence of God's choice to save only the elect. While the nuance seems slight, the question of God's intention in reprobation later developed into a conflict between various Reformed theologians who emphasized differing degrees of God's conscious decision to damn the lost.
Theodore Beza (1519-1605) was Calvin's close associate at Geneva and his successor after Calvin's death. Beza continued the emphasis of Calvin on predestination and reprobation in Reformed theology. He tended to endorse the “supralapsarian” position, which accepted God's conscious decision to condemn the reprobate. Beza continued Calvin's work in Geneva until his death in 1605. Ironically, it was one of the faithful Beza's students who provided the most formidable challenge to Beza's conception of Reformed orthodoxy.
Dissenting views arose in the early 17th century to challenge the Reformed doctrines of Calvin and Beza. Jacobus Arminius (or Jacob Harmenszoon) was a Dutch theologian and pastor who began to question various aspects of the Reformed theology propagated by the Calvin/Beza school. Arminius actually studied with Beza at Geneva in 1582. He was ordained as a teaching pastor in 1588 and became a professor at the University of Leiden in 1603. In his position as a professor of theology, Arminius began to influence students and colleagues who formed the core of the Remonstrant movement built on Arminius' name and ideas. The Remonstrant party within the Dutch Reformed Church received its name from a document entitled the “Remonstrance” or “Five Articles of Remonstrance” released by supporters of Arminius in 1610. Arminius died in 1609, but his views were adopted and amplified by the Remonstrants.
Arminius allegedly came to doubt some tenets of Reformed theology while he was defending the Heidelberg Catechism against the attacks of Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert. Coornhert, an able politician and skilled polemicist, criticized those elements of the catechism that diminished human freedom and responsibility. While his doubts may have begun as early as his own education at Leiden from 1576 to 1582, Arminius' encounter with Coornhert's thought intensified his previous struggles. Arminius questioned the doctrines that would later be labeled by Reformed theologians as limited atonement, unconditional election, and irresistible grace. Arminius essentially struggled with the Reformed view that human beings are incapable of responding to God of their own accord. He believed that salvation was not only potentially, but actually available to all through Christ's atonement. Arminius also argued that God's elective decree was more akin to foreknowledge than to unconditional election. While some critics also contended that Arminius rejected the idea of original sin, Arminius' writings reveal only doubts about the extent to which humanity's individual will was crippled by original sin. Arminius himself did not seem to reject the doctrine of original sin as such.
Arminius was a popular professor at Leiden, and his views gained a favorable reception by many students and faculty. His death in 1609 came too soon for the Dutch Reformed Church to take decisive action against him. They later declared his views heretical and anathematized him at the Synod of Dort. The issuance of the Remonstrance of 1610 by Arminius' followers and the Canons of Dort ultimately defined and stratified the two sides of the debate.
The controversial views of the Remonstrant party eventually prompted a meeting of Reformed theologians and ministers to consider a counterstatement. This convocation gathered in the Dutch city of Dordrecht or Dort for its first session on November 13, 1618. Eighty-six delegates representing five countries attended. French Huguenot delegates had been invited, but were unable to attend owing to pressure from their government. The French were represented by empty chairs left open in their honor. Countries represented at the Synod included Holland (the Dutch Republic), Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. Delegates from the Belgic churches of the southern Netherlands were also present. The Synod met for a total of 154 formal sessions. Deliberations were also held in informal meetings and smaller formal conferences. The final session of the Synod was held on May 9, 1619.
The primary task set before the delegates at Dort was to craft a Reformed response to the Remonstrant petition of 1610. The Remonstrant petition or Remonstrance specifically addressed five areas of doctrinal concern. Article one of the Remonstrance stated that God had determined to save those who would believe in Christ and persevere in faith. The second article set forth the Remonstrant view that Christ had died for the sins of the whole world, not just the elect. Article three of the Remonstrance unequivocally stated that the new birth was an absolute necessity to liberate the will of humanity. Without the grace of God, neither salvation nor righteous living could occur. This third article was a strong refutation of the misunderstanding propagated by some critics that the Remonstrants were willing to dispense with Christ. Article four of the Remonstrance advanced a controversial challenge to conventional Reformed theology. While grace was absolutely necessary for salvation and sanctification, the Remonstrants did not believe that God's grace was irresistible. God's creatures had the option to say no when prompted by the Spirit. The fifth and final article of the Remonstrance argued that while God does indeed promise that he will not take salvation from his children, they can themselves choose to step away. The Remonstrants actually stated that the issue of the saint's perseverance “must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it out of the full persuasion of our mind.” The assertion was more a proposition of doubt than an absolute declaration that perseverance was not true.
Many people who are familiar with the five points of Calvinism today are not aware that they were first proposed as an answer to the Remonstrance. The “Five Points” were not intended to be a comprehensive statement of Reformed theology such as the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith. They were a summary of Reformed theology crafted to answer specific objections raised by the Remonstrants. This purpose shaped the manner in which the Canons of Dort were drafted as well as the issues they addressed.
The Canons of Dort were the articles released by the Synod to present their conclusions regarding the Remonstrant statement. Like the Remonstrance, the Canons of Dort are fivefold. The first canon or theological statement dealt with the question of “Divine Election and Reprobation.” Eighteen articles included under this first point explain in detail the Reformed perspective that salvation occurs only through the agency of God's eternal decree or election. This eternal decree is dictated only by the grace of God, totally independent of human will or merit. The second canon agreed with the Remonstrants that Christ's death was absolutely necessary for salvation, but countered the idea that Christ's death can be applied to all. However, Christ's sacrifice could only be efficacious for the elect or chosen. Per the first canon, the elect are determined by the good pleasure of God alone. One interesting point of canon two was article four, which stated, “it (the death of God's Son) is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” Critics of Reformed theology often fail to recognize that this canon does concede the theoretical sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice to absolve the whole world of guilt. The term “limited atonement,” which was coined to describe this canon, denoted the application of atonement only to the elect. It was not a statement of the potential power of Christ's atoning sacrifice.
The third and fourth canons were stated together. They concerned the corruption of human nature and the manner in which salvation occurs. Hearkening back to Augustine's view of the will, the Canons of Dort support the utter helplessness of the human will apart from the enabling grace of God. Humanity's will is so darkened that even the faith to cry out to Christ for salvation is a gift of God's grace. The final canon and 15 articles that accompany it assert the Reformed belief that the elect will persevere in their salvation. In contrast to the Remonstrant view that people can choose the way of apostasy, thereby losing their salvation, the Reformed position declared that the truly elect can never lose their salvation. The irresistible power of God's grace necessitates the perseverance of the elect. Grace must be irresistible because God is infallible. From the Reformed perspective, grace that can be resisted denoted a grace that is deficient. A perfect God could not be the author of such a grace.
The Canons of Dort were described in shorthand form as the “Five Points of Calvinism.” In honor of their Dutch origins, the Canons of Dort have been rendered more memorable by the application of the acrostic TULIP. The T of the acrostic represents the term “Total Depravity.” Total depravity is human bondage to original sin and the human will's total inability to choose God unaided by grace. The “U” denotes “Unconditional Election.” Election is unconditional because God made his eternal decree concerning who would be among the elect with no reference to human works. His choice is based on his decree, not human act or will. The theological concept of unconditional election rejected the Remonstrant proposition that God's election was dictated by his foreknowledge of who would respond to his offer of salvation. “Limited Atonement,” as stated above, referred to the limitation of God's application of Christ's sacrifice only to the elect. The Reformed belief in “Irresistible Grace” asserted that God's word would not return to him void. Those God had chosen would respond inevitably to his grace. Those who responded would “Persevere” until their final entrance into the kingdom of God after death. Therefore, the “P” petal of the TULIP advanced the doctrine of the “Perseverance of the Saints.”
In addition to the Canons of Dort, the Synod of Dort also adopted two other Reformed statements to create the “Three Forms of Unity” as a further definition of Reformed orthodoxy. The “Three Forms” include the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Canons of Dort (1619). Later confessions and catechisms would expand on these statements to further expound basic Reformed principles and address new areas of concern as well. The most popular of these later statements were the English Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) with its accompanying larger and shorter catechisms (1646-1647). A Reformed Baptist movement often referred to as the “Particular” Baptists crafted their own London Confession of 1644 as an expression of their own identity. A Second London Confession crafted in 1689 restated and reemphasized the emphases of 1644. With the exception of their baptismal views, these Baptist confessions shared affinities with the Reformed confessions of the Westminster Assembly.
While Reformed perspectives were on the ascendancy in the 16th and 17th centuries, Remonstrant views began to gain ground as well in the late 17th century. Arminius' endorsement of human responsibility and freedom of the will were particularly congenial to the atmosphere created by the 18th century Enlightenment and Lutheran pietism. The debate between the Reformed and Remonstrant positions has become more popularly known as the Calvinist/Arminian debate in honor of the two theologians whose writings framed the controversy. The Reformed or Calvinist tradition continues today in the Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, Congregational, and some Baptist traditions. The Arminian position has also continued in the Wesleyan, Holiness, independent Charismatic, and some Baptist traditions.
Calvinism was strongly embraced by the Puritan and Congregational settlers of colonial Massachusetts. Calvinist theology also featured prominently in the preaching of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards during the First Great Awakening. With the advent of the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century and the revivalistic techniques of Charles Finney, Calvinist theology began to lose ground to Arminianism in America. The rise of modernist theology in New England, a traditional bastion of American Calvinism, also weakened popular support for Calvinism. While there were strong areas of Calvinist endeavor in 19th century America, such as Princeton Theological Seminary, Calvinism was being challenged by a variety of theological and societal forces in the early 20th century.
The last decade of the 20th century witnessed a decisive, and for some surprising, revival of interest in Reformed theology among American evangelicals. This revival of interest included some Baptist congregations. Baptists had been increasingly hostile to Reformed theology for most of the 20th century, but began to embrace Reformed views again under the leadership of pastors such as John Piper and organizations like the Southern Baptist Founders Conference.
Denominations such as the various Presbyterian communions and the Dutch Reformed Church have continued to uphold at least formal conformity to the traditional Reformed creeds and confessions. Popular outlets such as the radio program “White Horse Inn” and its affiliated Modern Reformation magazine have also encouraged the resurgence of Reformed thought in the United States. Reformed churches and denominations across the world testify to the enduring presence of Reformed or “Calvinistic” thought in the 21st century.
SEE ALSO: Arminianism; Augustine, Saint; Congregationalism; Edwards, Jonathan; Eternal Security; Kuyper, Abraham; Luther, Martin; Lutheranism; Predestination; Protestant Ethic
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