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What is Calvinism?
While Calvinism bears the name of John Calvin as the system of theology he set forth during the Reformation, he was by no means the inventor of it, for its roots go back to the Bible and to the interpretations of such early church theologians as Chrysostom and Augustine and to medieval thinkers such as Bernard of Clairvaux. This is clear in Calvin’s theological works and commentaries.
Yet Calvin added much to the earlier tradition by his studies and Christian thought. So Calvinism is a summing up of the earlier tradition by an able and committed theologian of the sixteenth century.
To understand Calvin’s part in this development, it is necessary to know something of his background. He came from a Roman Catholic family and planned to become a lawyer. To this end he studied first at the University of Paris, then at Orléans and Bourges. During this latter period he was influenced by the Reformation movement. The result was his setting forth Protestant views. Trained in the current methods of humanism in reading ancient authors, he applied the same methods to his reading of OT and NT Scriptures, seeking a literal interpretation of the biblical text.
To Calvin, Scripture was God’s Word. Therefore it was to be taken literally in its presentation of God’s rule over history. Calvin was not, however, a literalist in his understanding of what today would be called natural science, as for instance in his view of the biblical account of creation. He viewed the Genesis statements as setting forth creation but in a way that even the “rude and ignorant” could understand. At the same time, he stressed that God was the creator of everything, though God has not revealed the methods by which creation occurred. Thus, to Calvin, the Bible as the Word of God is the final authority for the Christian’s view of the world and life in it.
How does one come to recognize the Bible as the Word of God and understand it? Calvin’s answer was by the work of the Holy Spirit the Third Person of the Trinity who opens humanity’s eyes so that many are able to recognize the Bible as divinely inspired. Further, one understands the message of the Scriptures by the enlightening action of the Spirit, who enables God’s people not only to understand but also to apply what the Scriptures teach. This meant to Calvin that the Bible must be interpreted historically and literally, with no place for the common practice of medieval exegesis in allegorizing biblical passages.
The Bible’s prime characteristic is as the self–revelation of God. God has been revealed in creation, nature, and history as God has providentially watched over and directed the physical and human aspects of creation. But because of human sinfulness, this is not enough. Humans need direct and specific revelation to enable them to know and understand their relationship to God. To this end, God has given specific and direct revelation in the Bible so that humanity has in Scripture an inspired record of God’s dealings with creation.
To Calvin the Bible, however, was not just a record of history and how God had dealt with creation in the past. It is a revelation of God today, as it tells much concerning God’s plans and purposes throughout history. It also provides humankind with a knowledge of God’s redeeming work in Christ which took place two millennia ago as well as God’s providential and redeeming work today.Therefore the Bible’s message is not only to be read as history but to be applied faithfully to one’s life now. At the same time, Calvin stressed the mystery of God’s own being and purpose, constantly quoting Deut. 29:29 that one might not reduce biblical teaching to some form of a purely human, rational system, for God can be known only as God is revealed to human creatures.
The God of whom Calvin wrote and spoke is the God of the Bible. God is the only God, but at the same time God is the God who is a Trinity of persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are the same in substance and equal in power and glory. Here Calvin followed biblical teaching as formulated and expressed in the early church confessions. But this doctrine was absolutely basic to his whole system of thought, and as a result he was sometimes more consistent in his theological exposition than others who, while professing a Trinitarian theology, were subordinationist in their application of the doctrine.
Equally important in Calvin’s thought was the belief that God is sovereign. God is eternal, without beginning or end; and God is also infinite, an attribute on which Calvin laid great stress. This in turn means that God is self–sufficient and does not depend upon either physical forces or human cooperation to accomplish the divine purposes. God works all things after the counsel of God’s own will. This brought Calvin into conflict with some other Protestant leaders and has been one of the main points of disagreement between Calvinists and other Christians since the Reformation. Because God is sovereign, God is the source of all in the universe.
On this basis, Calvin saw God as the creator and sustainer of all things. Throughout his writings, and especially in his Genesis commentary, Calvin was very insistent that nothing has come into existence by chance or accident but only in the plan and purpose of God. Further, he rejected any deistic view that God created all and then left creation to run by itself. Rather, he is equally insistent that God is the sustainer of everything, so all physical laws are expressions of God’s constant care and the result of God’s sovereignty. This applies not only to the physical universe. God also rules over humanity, guiding and directing history in God’s foreordained fashion. In this, Calvin laid the foundation for a Christian interpretation of science and history.
Calvin saw humans as the peak of creation, since they are made in God’s own image, an honor conferred on no other creature. To Calvin, the image of God in humanity was not physical but spiritual, intellectual, and volitional. Moreover, God made humans capable of free choice and decision, while placing them in the position of ruling over creation as God’s deputies. The deputy status comes through a covenant relationship in which humans are commissioned to rule over the creation while also required to serve God wholly in the world. Humans receive God’s blessing as long as they obey God’s commands.
Desiring to be independent of God, however, humans went their own ways and broke God’s command. To the question, How could they do this if God is sovereign? Calvin admitted this was a mystery. But he insisted that human responsibility and God’s sovereignty are always mysterious in their relationship. Yet both are set forth in Scripture. When humans broke their covenant relationship with God, they came under divine condemnation and rejection. The result is that they are now at enmity with God, going their own ways and doing as they please. For Adam’s rebellion has become characteristic of the whole human race. Humans themselves are unwilling to repent and return to their covenant relationship with God.
Though Satan through the serpent (Gen. 3) led humans astray, God’s purpose for humanity still remains. God, by God’s grace has from all eternity chosen a great multitude of the human race to be brought back into relationship with God. Yet atonement had to be made for humanity’s rebellion, and it was for this purpose that the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, came into the world to bear its sins. Whether Calvin would have accepted the later doctrine of “limited atonement” may be questioned, as he seems to have believed that Christ’s atonement was sufficient for all but efficient only for the elect. He did stress, however, that individuals came to accept Christ’s atonement in faith only as the result of the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit. They were then regenerated and placed their faith in Christ, to whom they gave their obedience as Lord and King. Thus salvation was entirely by the grace of God. Without divine grace, hell is the only human destiny.
In stressing that the sinner was justified by faith alone, Calvin agreed fully with Luther and other reformers. He held firmly that it was only as one placed one’s faith in Christ, trusting in Christ as the one who paid the penalty for sin and whose righteousness was imputed to the believer, that the individual would find forgiveness and acceptance by God. Throughout Calvin’s writings, one finds constant rejection of the Roman Catholic doctrine of merits through good works, In this, Calvin was very explicit.
Calvin did not, however, believe that the Christian was without moral standards and not required to perform good woks. Rather, the Christian is to manifest the grace of God in all of life. As the Christian had entered into a covenant relationship with God, one was to exhibit this in all aspects of human activity. This meant not only witnessing faithfully to God’s grace but manifesting the Christian faith and life in all actions and seeking to persuade others to do the same. If this were done, society as a whole would be influenced to seek to do God’s will and this would have an influence on the form of government, laws, economy, and every other element of daily life.
While the individual would seek to bring about such a revolution in human society, the body that was especially appointed to this office was the church. Composed of all who profess faith in Christ as Lord and Savior, along with their children, who were to be received into the visible church by the sign of Baptism the church, governed by elected elders was to proclaim the gospel to all people across the world. By this means it fulfills Christ’s commission to the apostles before his ascension On this, Calvin was very insistent and did much to forward missionary work in his own day. In this way he presented a very practical agenda for Christians to follow in this life.
Calvin’s influence has continued long after his death, as many accepted his teachings as being truly biblical. He gained a large following in many countries in Europe, and from there his teachings spread to America, Africa, and Asia. His theology influenced not only individuals but whole societies as well, and it continues to do so. Notable individuals in many fields of human endeavor—government, science, education, and the arts—testify to the influence of Calvin’s thought, and through their efforts Calvinism has had a significant impact on world history.
J. T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (1954); M. Prestwich, ed., International Calvinism, 1541–1715 (1985).
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