What is the definition of Calvinism? Information about the doctrine and the history of Calvinism. What are the basic beliefs of Calvinism?
Calvinism is a term used mainly in two senses. In its more limited sense it refers to beliefs derived from John Calvin and held by the Calvinistic churches. In a broader sense, Calvinism applies to a set of ethical and social attitudes that have influenced world culture since Calvin’s day.
Doctrine and Practice of the Calvinistic Churches
The system of doctrine, church polity, discipline, and worship derived from the teachings of John Calvin as professed in the Calvinistic (Reformed and Presbyterian) churches throughout their history. The word is commonly applied in a restricted sense to the body of Calvinist doctrine centering in the sovereignty of God and the divine predestination of every human being either by election to an eternal state of bliss in God’s presence or by reprobation or preterition to a state of misery in alienation from Him. Calvin taught this double predestination, while urging “that we ought to be humble and modest in the treatment of this profound mystery,” learning from it “reverence for the majesty of God.” He was, however, engaged in animated controversy over this doctrine with the Dutch Pelagian Albert Pighius (1543) and others. His position on the ordo salutis, the sequence of decrees in predestination, is sometimes described as “sublapsarian”; that is, election is regarded as decreed in view of the fact of the fall of man through Adam’s sin. But there are passages in which he speaks of election before the fall. Awed by the mystery involved, he does not pursue the issue systematically as did succeeding theologians.
Theodoras Beza put forth the “supralapsarian” doctrine that the decree of election is prior to that of man’s creation and to that of die permission of the fall; the fall thus becomes necessary to give effect to the prior decree of election. Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) recoiled from this teaching and made election conditional on foreknowledge of faith. The Synod of Dort ( 1618—1619), in accord with Augustine, declared that election is the unchangeable purpose of God whereby He chose some to salvation “before the foundation of the world,” but it avoided an explicit statement of supralapsarianism. The Westminster Confession ( 1647 ) uses similar language.
The prevailing view of the 17th century Cal-vinist theologians was “sub-“, or “infralapsarian-ism.” As expounded by François Turretin ( Insti-tutio tlieologiae elencticae, 1680-1683), it placed the decrees in this order: creation; permission of the fall; election of some and passing over of others; the work of Christ as mediator; effectual calling of the elect. Controversy over these points tended to discredit Calvinism by suggesting arbitrariness in God. The revival of Calvinism in 20th century Swiss, German, and French Reformed theology has been in part a recovery of Calvin’s own teaching, stressing the vivifying power of the Word of God and the witness of the Holy Spirit as against the rationalism of scholastic Calvinism.
Calvinism as a Social and Political Force
The term “Calvinism” is also used in the historical and sociological sense of the entire complex of Calvinistic churches and their impact on society during the last four centuries. Calvin has been described by E. Choisy as “educator of consciences” and by E. G. Léonard as “founder of a civilization.” His works have been read and are being read today in many languages, and in this century have been industriously reinterpreted by scholars. The Reformed and Pres-byterially organized churches of Switzerland, France, Scotland, the Netherlands, various German states, and other parts of Europe and their Congregational and Baptist collateral branches have had a profound influence upon the course of Western cultural history including that of die British dominions and of the United States. They produced a distinctive type of life, marked by family piety, conscientious diligence in one’s vocation, business integrity and enterprise, political and social meliorism and activism, and a concern for education at all levels.
Typical Calvinism cultivates a somewhat austere morality and recoils from ostentation, waste, and all undisciplined behavior. In some puritans this characteristic has reached extreme expression, to the loss of moral freedom. In general it means the control of personal, social, and economic behavior by considerations of conscience and with the intention of service to God and man. The Calvinist economic philosophy is not one of profit but of service—in Calvin’s words, “to serve our neighbor with a good conscience,” both by the work we do and by what we earn in doing it. If through thrift and restricted expenditures Calvinists have acquired wealth and yielded to the temptation to use it for profit or wasteful pleasure rather than service, this is a secularization, indeed a reversal, of Calvinist teaching. Even where this tendency is strong it is usually limited by a willingness to use a generous portion of surplus wealth in the support of religious and philanthropic enterprises. Calvinism prizes the church not only as the fellowship of the saints but also as the generating center of community service and regards all human activity and enterprise as answerable to God.
Politically, Calvinism has played a role of some importance. International in its early propagation, it has never been narrowly nationalistic, and many of its political figures and writers have been deeply concerned with international law and peace. In Scotland a new religious dimension was given to the advocacy of limited monarchy, and the reformed church waged a long fight against the absolutist pretensions of the Stuart kings. A similar attitude prevailed in colonial New England and formed a preparation for the Revolution in which monarchy itself was swept away. After the Cromwellian revolution and the Stuart restoration in England came the era of limited monarchy introduced under a Calvinist king and marked by widening liberty in the modern era. In many instances Calvinism has supplied leadership to movements of resistance to despotic governments and worked for the establishment of representative institutions.
Calvinist piety involves no detachment from the political scene but rather requires responsible participation in public affairs. A religiously motivated critical restraint has governed the attitude of Calvinism to pictorial art, music, the theater, and the whole field of belles-lettres. Yet it has nourished a few first-rank geniuses in these fields. Calvinists have been particularly active in the promotion of schools and have esteemed the teacher’s calling as closely allied to that of the ministry. Believing with Calvin that truth wherever it appears is given by God, they have usually been appreciative of scientific studies and have given them due place in academic institutions. They have supplied much of the leadership in Christian missions and in the ecumenical movement. A recognized social and cultural dynamism is characteristic of historic Calvinism.