Calvinism is basic to nearly all the religious questions that the Christian will answer when talking to those who are in denominations because it permeates almost all denominations. Whenever someone contends that faith is a gift from God; affirms that he has been saved by faith only; embraces false teachings about the direct operation of the Holy Spirit in the conviction and conversion of sinners; or believes it is impossible for a child of God to sin and be eternally lost; he has fallen victim to the Calvinist system of doctrine.
Calvinism is also found in most cults, even those which claim to avoid denominational doctrines. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, embrace the doctrine of inherited sin, the foundation doctrine of Calvinism.
Calvinism has also become a danger and threat to the church of the Lord. Decades ago, preachers used to preach upon it frequently but now it is rare to hear an entire sermon on it. Many members of the church think it is wrong because it "sounds" wrong or because Mom, Dad or the preacher said it was wrong. They cannot begin to tell anyone why it is wrong.
In this article, we will develop the historical background of Calvinism and then examine its fundamental tenets by comparing them to the standard of plain, Biblical teaching.
Many of the fundamental concepts of Calvinism existed before John Calvin. The fundamental tenet of total hereditary depravity was not original to Calvin.
The Roman Catholic philosopher Augustine taught it in the fifth century A.D. The Reformation had already begun and the leading reformers taught doctrines similar to those of Calvin.
Martin Luther, the first great reformer, was born in Eisliben, Germany, in 1483. He entered a monastery at age 22 in the year 1505. Two years later he was ordained a priest. During the winter of 1512-13 he began to see some errors in the Catholic Church. In 1517 he nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the church building in Wittenburg, Germany, in which he proclaimed the errors of the Catholic Church.
Luther's three greatest objections to Catholicism were the selling of indulgences, the authority of the Pope and the doctrine of transubstantiation. After much criticism and church trials, he was excommunicated from the church but he continued to preach against the errors which he had found.
The greatest error in his teachings was justification by "faith only." This doctrine teaches that men are saved at the point of faith in Christ without further acts of obedience. This doctrine stands as one of the basic tenets of Calvinism.
John Calvin was born in Noyon, France, July 10, 1509. He began the study of the classics in Paris in 1523 at the age of fourteen. Because of his skill at disputation, his father sent him to study law at the University of Orleans in 1528 and later in Bourges. After his father's death in 1531, he returned to Paris to study the classics and Hebrew. It was at that time he became interested in the principles of the Reformation.
After experiencing what he later termed a "sudden conversion," variously dated from 1529 to 1534, he began preaching Reformation doctrines in Paris. To avoid government persecution, he traveled from place to place. In 1536 he settled in Switzerland.
In Basel, Switzerland in 1536 he completed the first version of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He intended it to be only a brief manual stating the doctrines of the Protestants. In reality it contained a complete outline of his system of theology. This work was based on the principle that the Scriptures are the sole source of truth in religion. It was later revised and enlarged.
In 1536, at the request of religious reformer Guillaume Farel (1489-1565), he settled in Geneva, Switzerland. He acquired a large following and was elected preacher by the city magistrates. He compiled a systematic Protestant confession of faith of 21 articles which the citizens were required to profess under oath. He wrote the first Geneva Catechism (1536) for use in religious instruction. The reforms he advocated were so extreme that he alienated many of his adherents and provoked strong political opposition.
Exiled from Geneva in 1538, he went to Strasbourg, France, and became a pastor and professor of theology. In Geneva, irreligion and disorder became prevalent during his absence. He was persuaded to return to Geneva in 1541.
After returning to Geneva, he revised the laws of the city. He organized a theocratic form of government for the control of both the social and religious life of its citizens. His second Geneva Catechism (1542) became the standard of doctrines for most of the Reformed churches in Europe.
His rigid dogmatism and severe discipline led to more controversies. Not only were they with Roman Catholicism but also with other religious reformers. His differences with Martin Luther about the nature of the Lord's Supper resulted in the splitting of the evangelical churches into the Lutheran and Reformed groups. One of the most acrimonious disputes of this period was with Spanish theologian Michael Servetus on the nature of the Godhead. Through Calvin's influence, Servetus was burned at the stake in 1553. His strictness gave rise to discontent even among his followers in Geneva.
His political foes, known as the "Libertines," were expelled from Geneva in 1555. For the next six years he deepened and extended his influence and that of Protestantism throughout Europe. He systemized the doctrines of Protestantism and organized its ecclesiastical discipline. He constructed and made a new church organization that consolidated the scattered forces of the Reformation
The central idea of Calvinism is the sovereignty of God. "The one rock upon which Calvinism builds is that of the absolute and unlimited sovereignty of the eternal and self-existent Jehovah." (Ben A. Warburton, Calvinism, p. 169) Calvin did not discover the sovereignty of God. He isolated it as idea. His isolation of it is the problem. He exalted the sovereignty of God to the exclusion of other truths of Scripture.
All of the five points of Calvinism flow from this basic premise. "These other doctrines are an expression of this one central theme. Thus if God is absolutely sovereign -- the Alpha and Omega -- then it follows that salvation depends entirely on him and not on man." (Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, p. 74)
This basis is set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Written by the Westminster Association from July, 1643 to February, 1649, it is the doctrinal foundation of English and American Presbyterianism. It states, "God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass." (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter III) It also says, "By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others fore-ordained to everlasting death, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished."
The five basic doctrines of Calvinism are represented by the acronym T-U-L-I-P. These doctrines are:
Calvinism presents a false chain of reasoning. Instead of supporting the Truth of Scripture, it stands opposed to it. A further analysis of each tenet will show how far this system of doctrine is from the inspired word of God.
Calvinism Analyzed and Answered. This is a six lesson study which considers the doctrines of Calvinism then compares and contrasts them with Scripture to see whether or not they stand or fall in light of God's word. It can be used in a class study or presented from the pulpit. (PDF file size 430k)