Calvinism is hard to define. You can begin by saying that it is the collected theology of John Calvin, but it isn't really. It's the collected theology of John Calvin plus the thought of many theologians and Christians that follow his ideas.

The core of his theology can be found in Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Institutes are a vast sprawling work that draws from much of Christian theology (up to that point). Despite the best efforts of Calvinists, it is hard to explain what Calvin believed in a way that was simple and understandable.

Calvin was a lawyer by training and that influence comes out in his theology. Rather than coming out with a bunch of new ideas, Calvin's achievement is taking many Christian ideas and putting them together in one systematic work. None of the ideas are particularly original. The combination is.

Because of this, the theology is complex and hard to explain simply. People try. T.U.L.I.P. (see the node next to this one) is a good example of this.

In the end though, T.U.L.I.P. merely explains Calvin's ideas about salvation with an emphasis on predestination and thus on how Calvin differs from most Christians--most Christians don't believe in predestination.

What does T.U.L.I.P. miss? A lot. The Institutes are two books. Two THICK books.

Beyond theology, Calvin uses the Institutes to address Christian's relationship to government. Should they follow it unquestioningly or rebel if it oversteps it's bounds? Calvin addresses the Sacrements (in Calvin's view there are two, Baptism and Communion). It addresses Calvin's view of the Trinity, of Christ's human/divine nature, and many other questions.

With all these views and opinions to choose from, people tend to focus on the most important ones (in their view) and call them "Calvinism."

It's because of things like that that you'll find that even many Calvinists do not in fact agree with Calvin.

For example, later Calvinists were strongly influenced by medieval theology, listing various qualities of God that Calvin didn't really consider in so many words--things like omnipresence, omniscience and so on.

These people's contributions are also Calvinism.

(note to those who read this: I'm not a calvinist, I'm not even fond of calvinism, it's just something I studied last year... just Noding what I know, not necessarily what I like :-) )

This is the intro I wrote in a (not-so) small paper on Calvinism last year for ENGL1302 (Argumentative Writing):
"In the first protestant reformation, many theologians sought to ‘purify’ Catholicism, the church of the day. John Calvin was one of these. His teachings not only reformed the beliefs of his followers and contemporaries, but also form the basis of many modern protestant faiths. The crux of his doctrine is predestination. The tenets of those who follow the teachings of Calvin can easily be remembered by the acronym ‘T.U.L.I.P.’. These tenets include total hereditary depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints."
ok.. to explain these...

Total Hereditary Depraviy

This doctrine teaches that man, in and of himself, is utterly incapable of pleasing God in any way. This is usually taken from Ephesians 4:18. The value of this doctrine, however, depends on how you define the word 'good'... From a secular standpoint, this doctrine holds little value, as society can (and historically will) change his/their definition of what's 'good'. The doctrine only works if you define 'good' by God's standards(meaning to follow God wholeheartedly and to keep his commands ('Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength' and 'Love your neighbor as yourself', among others.)

Unconditional Election

This doctrine teaches that men are called untosalvation, and that they do nothing to merit such a call. This is usually taken from Romans 9:11. This is the part that terrified people into trusting Calvin, it made them constantly question their election (see predestination, foreknowledge). hmmm. Makes you want to hear fom a calvinist who thinks he/she's predestined to go to hell!

Limited Atonement

This doctrine teaches that Christ's atoning blood counts only for those who were/are/will be elected unto salvation. I've searched the scriptures, and conversed with calvinists, and it seems that this point has little to no scriptural backing... in fact, I can think of two right off the top of my head that refute it (Romans 3:23, and Isaiah 52:5-6.) This doctrine is also reffered to in some circles as "Doctrines of the Elect".

Irresistable Grace

This doctrine teaches that once God elects you, poof! you're elected! There's nothing you can do about it. Once again, the only backing I've ever seen for this point has been references to other calvinists who believe it (and not scripture itself). On the surface, it seems logical enough, but when you apply a little xenoic philosophy (divisi ad ridiculo)to it, it crumbles... this is because it forgets to include free will, which God certainly has granted man (or else, how would Jonah have been able to flee to Tarshish?)

Perseverance of the Saints

This doctrine teaches that once someone is saved, they can't do anything to lose it (aka: "once saved, always saved"). Those that support this doctrine quote 1 John 1:9. Those who don't quote Matthew 12:31. Taken in context, though, the latter quote is discovered not to apply to Christians, as Christ was speaking to Pharisees, who saw him, in his glory, and not only denied his divinity to his face, but went so far as to call him Beelzebub. (this is often referred to as "the unpardonable sin"... Christians can't commit this because, frankly, the only evidence we have of Christ is through (remarkably accurate) historical documents, and personal faith, not face-to-face contact, so any denial we could make of Christ would amount to more a denial of faith than a denial of divinity.

The effects of calvinism can still be seen today in modern churches (mostly Baptist, Presbyterian, and a few other Protestant faiths.) Nowadays, however, many churches choose to teach only the tenets of Calvinism that they agree with (usually the first and last points). The middle three have been all but abandoned in mainstream Christianity, and in some instances have been labeled 'blasphemous'.

For some interesting calvinist reading, see the Westminster Confession of Faith. It was heavily influenced by the teachings of Calvin.

I hope these few simple definitions and apologetics help anyone studying the issue...
As some small additions to dann's write up here are some points on Calvinist theology.

Through the doctrine of double predestination Calvin denies Martin Luther's doctrine of justification by faith. If you are saved or damned regardless of your life no matter how much you have faith you will not be saved by having greater faith.

However while faith does not lead to salvation, salvation leads to faith. This sort of logic is key to understanding why those who are saved, the elect, lead good lives. With all good deeds or moral choices it can be said that the elect will always make the right choice since they are elect, it is in their nature to do so.

Unfortunately this leads to some problems with free will. This argument would seemingly negate free will as if you are elect you will only make good moral choices. However Calvin contested this. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1537 he states:

Now when I assert that the will, being deprived of its liberty, is necessarily drawn or led into evil, I should wonder if anyone considered it as a harsh expression, since it has nothing in it absurd, nor is it unsanctioned by the custom of good men. It offends those who know not how to distinguish between necessity and compulsion. But if anyone should ask them whether God is not necessarily good, and whether the devil is not necessarily evil, what answer will they make? For there is such a close connection between the goodness of God and His divinity that His deity is not more necessary than His goodness. But the devil is by his fall so alienated from communion with all that is good that he can do nothing but what is evil. But if anyone should sacrilegiously object that little praise is due to God for His goodness, which He is constrained (forced) to preserve, shall we not readily reply that His inability to do evil arises from His infinite goodness and not from the impulse of violence? Therefore if a necessity of doing well impairs not the liberty of the divine will in doing well if the devil, who cannot but do evil, nevertheless sins voluntarily; who then will assert that man sins less voluntarily, because he is under a necessity of sinning? This necessity Augustine everywhere maintains, and even when he was pressed . . . he confidently expressed himself in these terms: "By means of liberty it came to pass that man fell into sin; but now the penal depravity consequent on it, instead of liberty, has introduced necessity." And whenever the mention of this subject occurs, he hesitates not to speak in this manner of the necessary servitude of sin. We must therefore observe this grand point of distinction, that man, having been corrupted by his fall, sins voluntarily, not with reluctance or constraint; with the strongest propensity of disposition, not with violent coercion; with the bias of his own passions, and not with external compulsion: yet such is the pravity (depravity) of his nature that he cannot be excited and biased to anything but what is evil. . . .
This was taken from www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_2/calvin.html, if anyone is able to paraphrase this elegantly I would be most appreciative. I had a go but could not come up with anything decent.

Another feature of election leading to good deeds enable Calvin to lay out some guide lines as to whether a person was elect based on their deeds and words. This is much more closely to related to the Catholic doctrine of good deeds and faith being needed for salvation rather than the sola fide approach of many protestant reformers.

It is this lead to some historians, such as Ozment, arguing that Calvin re-Catholicised the reformation. The physical idea of good deeds made Calvinism more tangible than other protestant faiths.

Calvin's position on the Eucharist was that there was a spiritual presence only. However by the second generation of reform this was no longer such a contentious issue among protestant theologians. The key issue in this second generation of reform was the structure of the church.

Calvin's background as a lawyer meant that his knowledge base and skills were naturally suited to drawing up a clear organisational model for church structure. In his Ecclesiastical Ordinances, 1541, Calvin laid out a clear structure for the Genevan Church.

A key feature of the structure was the consistory. The consistories met weekly to supervise ecclesiastical discipline and the moral life of their part of the city. They could issue a wide range of punishments varying from a friendly warning to excommunication. The powers of the consistory were to become a contentious issue between Calvin and the Town Council.

The consistory encourage informing on any member of society. It was an extremely strict society in which there was little or no definition between religious and criminal misdemeanours, they were considered one and the same. Comparisons have been made between Calvin's consistory and the system on informing on Nazi Germany.

The church and state would be organised into four orders in a horizontal, cellular structure. This was a revolutionary social structure. It also makes clear Calvin's intention to combine as much as possible to powers of church and state.


 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
|Order          | Pastors                   | Elders                | Doctors or Teachers       | Deacons                 |
|               | ('Venerable Company')     |                       |                           |                         |
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|               |                           |                       |                           |                         |
|Main Function  | Preach and administer     | Provide discipline    | Teach the faithful and    | Care for sick and needy |
|               | sacraments.               |                       | remove doctrinal errors   |                         |
 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
|               |                           |                       |                           |                         |
|Appointment    | Elected by pastors and    | 12 laymen chosen from | Chosen by pastors and     | Elected by councils.    |
|               | confirmed by council.     | councils.  Served for | confirmed by council.     |                         |
|               |                           | one year or more.     |                           |                         |
 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
|               |                           |                       |                           |                         |
|Duties         | Daily and Sunday services.| Discipline of church  | Professors of New and Old | Charity commissioners.  |
|               | Weekly meeting to study   |                       | testaments.               | Dispense relief to the  |
|               | the bible.                |                       | Schoolmasters for boys and| needy and hospital sick.|
|               | Weekly children's         |                       | girls schools.            |                         |
|               | catechism class.          |                       | Primary school in each    |                         |
|               | Oversee discipline in     |                       | parish.                   |                         |
|               | the community through     |                       |                           |                         |
|               | consistory.               |                       |                           |                         |
 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Calvin's time in Geneva can been seen in two distinct periods. His early influence during 1536-38 and his struggle for control 1541-1555.

When Calvin arrived in Geneva in 1536 he immediately began to preach and publicise his plans for reform. He presented his ideas to the town council and won support for his ideas. However the citizens of Geneva had recently won their freedom from their religious overlord, the Bishop of Geneva, and were not keen to gain a new set of religious obligations. There was extensive and well organised opposition to Calvin which came to a head in 1538 when he was forced into exile.

When Calvin was invited to return to Geneva in 1541 he was able to achieve more success. His Ecclesiastical Ordinances were made law only a few months after his return. For the next fourteen years numerous political battles ensued as Calvin attempted to gain control of Geneva. Originally the council made it clear that Calvin had no actual power in Geneva, especially as a foreigner who did have the vote. However they recognised Calvin's influence over the Venerable company of Pastors and the Consistory. He was allowed some freedom on the basis that he didn't interfere with the civil administration of the city.

The prominent political families of Geneva resented the great influence that Calvin, a French refugee, held over their city. They attempted to ensure that the consistories powers were limited and the main battle was over the consistory's right to excommunicate. However Calvin's skilful political manoeuvrings gained the consistory this right and helped him to avoid being pulled down.

Calvin also managed to dispose of a number of individual opponents:

1544 - Sebastian Castellio was forced out of Geneva for denying the divine inspiration of the song of songs.

1547 - Jacque Gruet accused of writing threats against Calvin. He was sentenced to death by the civil authorities.

1553 - Michael Servetus was arrested and prosecuted in the civil courts on four counts of heresy. He was found guilty and burnt, Calvin is alleged to have pled for leniency - beheading!

A more serious opposition movement was that of the Libertine group headed by Ami Perrin, leader of the city militia. In 1553 Perrin became a syndic, as he had done in 1538 when Calvin had been ejected. The faction deliberately committed acts to offend the consistory. Perrin was worried that the large number of refugees in the city would attract attention to Geneva, particularly from the Holy Roman Empire, and result in a loss of independence.

However in 1555 the council were aware of a growing financial crisis. They decided to explore new ways of raising capital. A large number of French merchants and aristocrats had sought refuge in Geneva and had been granted the status of habitant (the status with the least rights, they could not vote and most refugees were given this status). The council decided to raise money by charging these nobles a fee to become bourgeois. This would give them a higher status but the council appear to have overlooked that it would also give them the right to vote. The majority of these new bourgeois had fled to Geneva to be able to be at the centre of Calvinism and to practise their Calvinist faith.

When the next election took place the new synod was completely pro-Calvin and so Ami Perrin was forced out. With the election of the new synod Calvin had complete control over Geneva and could then concentrate on exporting his faith to his homeland, France.

Calvin began setting up schools to train French missionaries to sneak back into France and spread Calvinism or support already established congregations. His efforts were astonishingly successful and sewed the seeds for the French Wars of Religion. Eventually France was divided into separate Calvinist and Catholic areas. However in this settlement lay the eventual of Calvinism, no country could tolerate such a division for long and the larger Catholic areas won out.

In Switzerland other cantons were initially unwilling accept Calvinism for political reasons. However Calvin reached an agreement with Bullinger, Zwingli's successor in Zurich, and the result was the Zurich consensus, 1549. This showed how flexible Calvinism could be when God's cause required it. By the end of the 16th Century much of Switzerland had accepted the Consensus.

In Germany Calvinism failed to shake the supremacy of Lutheranism. However it did achieve one major success in 1541 when Frederick III elector Palatine adopted Calvinist principles. His city of Hiedelberg became a major centre of missionary work in Germany. Xenophobia played a key part in explaining the lack of enthusiasm for Calvinism in Germany.

In the Southern Netherlands much of the population spoke French and had been heavily influenced by German Protestantism. There had been persistent persecution of Protestantism since the 1520s with a Dutch Inquisition and anti-heresy laws (the Edict of Blood). Come nobility convert to Calvinism and the Spanish reaction threatens their freedoms. They revolt as a result.

Calvinism is still active today in the form the Christian Reformed Church, Reformed Church of America, Church of Scotland, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, Baptism. Although these faiths no dot adhere exactly to 16th Century Calvinism they are largely based on his doctrines.

The Calvinist conception of human nature deviates from that of Catholic theology in two critical respects. The first, fleshed out in the Calvinist doctrine of Irresistible Grace, concerns the role that free will plays in salvation. The second, embodied in the doctrine of Total Depravity, deals with the extent of humans’ natural inclinations toward sin. It will be shown herein that the Calvinist view of human nature is far more compatible with the discoveries of modern science than the Catholic view—so much so that it appears as if Calvinist doctrine was developed with modern science in mind.

Irresistible Grace

For He said to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy . . .

Thou will say then to me, Why does he yet find fault? For who has resisted his will? But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, 'Why have you made me thus?' Rom. 9:15-20.

Catholic salvation doctrine focuses on our ability to choose to cooperate with God’s grace and to accept Jesus as our savior. Under Catholicism, we are enabled with the free will to choose between God and sin, and between salvation and damnation. Calvinist salvation doctrine, on the other hand, rejects the notion that God endowed us with this power. According to Calvinism, our ability to accept God’s grace arises not from free will, but rather from the faithfulness that God instilled into us to save us from sin. To those God ordained to be saved, God’s grace is irresistible. Calvinists have claimed support for their theology from several Biblical passages, including the poignant passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that begins this section. The apostle Paul, in Ephesians 1:11, proclaimed that “in Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose.” And as described in John 6:44, Christ told his disciples, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.”

The Calvinist view of humans’ limited power of choice, as exemplified by the salvation doctrine, is far more compatible with the modern science of human nature than that of Catholic theology. The concept of a ghost in the machine is rejected by modern science, which insists that all human cognition is rooted in the physical brain controlled by biochemistry and, more fundamentally, the laws of physics. Humans have no free will at all according to scientists of human nature; rather, what we call “free will” is merely the computational results of the complex decision-making circuitry of the brain. From the modern scientific perspective, then, we certainly lack the ability to accept or resist God’s grace. Indeed, as Martin Luther wrote in Bondage of the Will, “‘Free will’ cannot be applied to any one but to God only.” If we accept that the God of Christianity purposefully created our world, then we are, as Paul declared, predestined according to His purpose.

Total Depravity

The carnal mind is enmity against God. Rom. 8:7.

Catholic tradition interprets the Bible, especially the book of Genesis, to declare that all God’s creations are good. Under Catholic doctrine, God endowed us with choice, a fundamental benevolent power, and we sometimes choose to sin. Adherents to Calvinism, on the other hand, believe that we are innately sinful, selfish and, as Saint Augustine propounded, predisposed to concupiscence. In his Institutes, John Calvin wrote that “everything in man, the understanding and will, the soul and body, is polluted and engrossed by this concupiscence.” Calvinist thinkers cite several passages in the Bible as evidence of our total depravity. For instance, 1 Corinthians 2:14 declares that “the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” And 2 Timothy 3:2-7 laments that “men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, . . . without natural affection, . . . ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” We act, according to Calvinist doctrine, in response to our ineluctable sinful drives; good results are the accidental results of selfish motives. We are “all under sin; . . . there is none righteous, . . . none that understands, . . . none that does good, no, not one.”

The Calvinist view of humankind’s inherent depravity is consistent with modern scientific knowledge concerning human nature. We evolved particular drives, and their underlying genes, solely because they increased our reproductive fitness. Human beings are thus naturally concupiscent, self-interested, and covetous. Our moral sensibilities can often be understood as innate empathy for others with similar genes that, in effect, acted to proliferate our genes. Further, we are naturally predisposed to certain altruistic activities, Robert Trivers explains, not out of an innate desire to do good, but because we evolved to expect reciprocation from others. The Catholic view of a natural inclination toward unselfishness and morality, on the other hand, is incompatible with modern science. Not only does it presume that humans are born with a moral sense that simply does not and should not exist in our genetic code, according to the theory of natural selection, but the Catholic conception of human nature also depends on the scientifically disavowed notion of a ghost in the machine to explain sin.

Summation

Modern science’s rejection of free will and its view that human nature arose solely through natural selection, a process controlled by reproductive success without regard for morality, contradict the tenets of most religious systems. Catholicism in particular, based on the premises that man is innately good and that sin results from free choice, is incompatible with the scientific conception of human nature. It is thus remarkable that the Calvinist vision of human nature, expounded centuries before Darwin, finds facile support from our modern scientific understanding of ourselves.

Cal"vin*ism (?), n. [Cf. F. Calvinisme.]

The theological tenets or doctrines of John Calvin (a French theologian and reformer of the 16th century) and his followers, or of the so-called calvinistic churches.

The distinguishing doctrines of this system, usually termed the five points of Calvinism, are original sin or total depravity, election or predestination, particular redemption, effectual calling, and the perseverance of the saints. It has been subject to many variations and modifications in different churches and at various times.

 

© Webster 1913.

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