Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological tradition and forms of Christian practice of John Calvin and is characterized by the doctrine of predestination in the salvation of souls.
- Compare and contrast Calvinism with Lutheranism
- Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological tradition and forms of Christian practice of John Calvin and other Reformation-era theologians.
- Calvin’s theological critiques mostly broke with the Roman Catholic Church, but he differed from Luther on certain theological points, such as the idea that Christ died only for the elect instead of all humanity, like Luther believed.
- Calvin’s “Ordinances” of 1541 involved a collaboration of church affairs with the Geneva city council and consistory to bring morality to all areas of life. Geneva became the center of Protestantism.
- Protestantism also spread into France, where the Protestants were derisively nicknamed “Huguenots,” and this touched off decades of warfare in France.
- Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536–1559) was one of the most influential theologies of the era and was written as an introductory textbook on the Protestant faith.
- predestinationThe doctrine that all events have been willed by God, usually with reference to the eventual fate of the individual soul.
- Five Points of CalvinismThe basic theological tenets of Calvinism.
- HuguenotsA name for French Protestants, originally a derisive term.
Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological tradition and forms of Christian practice of John Calvin and other Reformation-era theologians.
Calvinists broke with the Roman Catholic Church but differed from Lutherans on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, theories of worship, and the use of God’s law for believers, among other things. Calvinism can be a misleading term because the religious tradition it denotes is and has always been diverse, with a wide range of influences rather than a single founder. The movement was first called Calvinism by Lutherans who opposed it, and many within the tradition would prefer to use the word Reformed. While the Reformed theological tradition addresses all of the traditional topics of Christian theology, the word Calvinism is sometimes used to refer to particular Calvinist views on soteriology (the saving of the soul from sin and death) and predestination, which are summarized in part by the Five Points of Calvinism. Some have also argued that Calvinism as a whole stresses the sovereignty or rule of God in all things, including salvation. An important tenet of Calvinism, which differs from Lutheranism, is that God only saves the “elect,” a predestined group of individuals, and that these elect are essentially guaranteed salvation, but everyone else is damned.
A portrait of John Calvin, one of the major figures in the Protestant Reformation, by Holbein.
Origins and Rise of Calvinism
First-generation Reformed theologians include Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), Martin Bucer (1491–1551), Wolfgang Capito (1478–1541), John Oecolampadius (1482–1531), and Guillaume Farel (1489–1565). These reformers came from diverse academic backgrounds, but later distinctions within Reformed theology can already be detected in their thought, especially the priority of scripture as a source of authority. Scripture was also viewed as a unified whole, which led to a covenantal theology of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as visible signs of the covenant of grace. Another Reformed distinctive present in these theologians was their denial of the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Each of these theologians also understood salvation to be by grace alone, and affirmed a doctrine of particular election (the teaching that some people are chosen by God for salvation). Martin Luther and his successor Philipp Melanchthon were undoubtedly significant influences on these theologians, and to a larger extent later Reformed theologians. The doctrine of justification by faith alone was a direct inheritance from Luther.
Following the excommunication of Luther and condemnation of the Reformation by the pope, the work and writings of John Calvin were influential in establishing a loose consensus among various groups in Switzerland, Scotland, Hungary, Germany, and elsewhere. After the expulsion of Geneva’s bishop in 1526, and the unsuccessful attempts of the Berne reformer Guillaume (William) Farel, Calvin was asked to use the organizational skill he had gathered as a student of law to discipline the “fallen city.” His “Ordinances” of 1541 involved a collaboration of church affairs with the city council and consistory to bring morality to all areas of life. After the establishment of the Geneva academy in 1559, Geneva became the unofficial capital of the Protestant movement, providing refuge for Protestant exiles from all over Europe and educating them as Calvinist missionaries. These missionaries dispersed Calvinism widely, and formed the French Huguenots in Calvin’s own lifetime, as well as caused the conversion of Scotland under the leadership of the cantankerous John Knox in 1560. The faith continued to spread after Calvin’s death in 1563, and had reached as far as Constantinople by the start of the 17th century.
Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536–1559) was one of the most influential theologies of the era. The book was written as an introductory textbook on the Protestant faith for those with some previous knowledge of theology, and covered a broad range of theological topics, from the doctrines of church and sacraments to justification by faith alone and Christian liberty. It vigorously attacked the teachings Calvin considered unorthodox, particularly Roman Catholicism, to which Calvin says he had been “strongly devoted” before his conversion to Protestantism.
Controversies in France
Protestantism spread into France, where the Protestants were derisively nicknamed “Huguenots,” and this touched off decades of warfare in France, after initial support by Henry of Navarre was lost due to the “Night of the Placards” affair. Many French Huguenots, however, still contributed to the Protestant movement, including many who emigrated to the English colonies.
Though he was not personally interested in religious reform, Francis I (1515–1547) initially maintained an attitude of tolerance arising from his interest in the humanist movement. This changed in 1534 with the Affair of the Placards. In this act, Protestants denounced the mass in placards that appeared across France, even reaching the royal apartments. The issue of religious faith having been thrown into the arena of politics, Francis was prompted to view the movement as a threat to the kingdom’s stability. This led to the first major phase of anti-Protestant persecution in France, in which the Chambre Ardente (“Burning Chamber”) was established within the Parliament of Paris to handle the rise in prosecutions for heresy. Several thousand French Protestants fled the country during this time, most notably John Calvin, who settled in Geneva.
Calvin continued to take an interest in the religious affairs of his native land and, from his base in Geneva, beyond the reach of the French king, regularly trained pastors to lead congregations in France. Despite heavy persecution by Henry II, the Reformed Church of France, largely Calvinist in direction, made steady progress across large sections of the nation, in the urban bourgeoisie and parts of the aristocracy, appealing to people alienated by the obduracy and the complacency of the Catholic establishment.
Interior of a Calvinist Church
Calvinism has been known at times for its simple, unadorned churches and lifestyles, as depicted in this painting by Emanuel de Witte c.1661.
The “Five Points of Calvinism” summarize the faith’s basic tenets, although some historians contend that it distorts the nuance of Calvin’s own theological positions.
The Five Points:
- “Total depravity” asserts that as a consequence of the fall of man into sin, every person is enslaved to sin. People are not by nature inclined to love God, but rather to serve their own interests and to reject the rule of God. Thus, all people by their own faculties are morally unable to choose to follow God and be saved because they are unwilling to do so out of the necessity of their own natures.
- “Unconditional election” asserts that God has chosen from eternity those whom he will bring to himself not based on foreseen virtue, merit, or faith in those people; rather, his choice is unconditionally grounded in his mercy alone. God has chosen from eternity to extend mercy to those he has chosen and to withhold mercy from those not chosen. Those chosen receive salvation through Christ alone. Those not chosen receive the just wrath that is warranted for their sins against God.
- “Limited atonement” asserts that Jesus’s substitutionary atonement was definite and certain in its purpose and in what it accomplished. This implies that only the sins of the elect were atoned for by Jesus’s death. Calvinists do not believe, however, that the atonement is limited in its value or power, but rather that the atonement is limited in the sense that it is intended for some and not all. All Calvinists would affirm that the blood of Christ was sufficient to pay for every single human being IF it were God’s intention to save every single human being.
- “Irresistible grace” asserts that the saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save (that is, the elect) and overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to a saving faith. This means that when God sovereignly purposes to save someone, that individual certainly will be saved. The doctrine holds that this purposeful influence of God’s Holy Spirit cannot be resisted.
- “Perseverance of the saints” asserts that since God is sovereign and his will cannot be frustrated by humans or anything else, those whom God has called into communion with himself will continue in faith until the end.
Source: Boundless. “Calvinism.” Boundless World History Boundless, 3 Nov. 2016. Retrieved 23 Jun. 2017 from https://www.boundless.com/world-history/textbooks/boundless-world-history-textbook/the-protestant-reformation-12/protestantism-56/calvinism-1035-17636/