It’s Complicated: A Brief History of Calvinism

About two years ago, I found Rachel Held Evan’s blog regarding her ongoing experience trying to live all the Biblical rules for women. I was hooked immediately and  astonished that someone else had been asking all the same questions about the Bible and Christian culture that I have been, but expressing them so much clearer and kinder than I could. Since then, I have followed her and many other Christian blogs, but one of the things that confused me was Rachel Held Evan’s strong disagreement with Calvinism and the connection of Calvinism to complementarianism and to Baptist leaders such as John Piper and Al Mohler and other churches such as Sovereign Grace Ministries and Mars Hill.

My father is a Calvinist in the Dutch Reformed tradition and I went to a Presbyterian affiliated college that had eventually convinced me of four point Calvinism but had also convinced me of Feminism. What I knew of Calvinists was summed up in the joke about Presbyterians, referring to them as the “frozen chosen”. Frozen due to their serious, orderly, non-emotive style of worship and church government and chosen due to their belief in predestination. The Presbyterian churches I had attended often had a female pastor and the denomination was considered mainline.

When I had mentioned to a friend a few years ago that I was Calvinist, the reaction was shock. “But Calvinists are crazy!” Crazy was never the word I had associated with Calvinism. Boring, logical, whitebread, but not crazy. When I asked what they were talking about, they talked about a Baptist Church that forbade birth control, bras, and thought women should stay at home. Somewhere in the back of my mind came the thought that Bob Jones University was Calvinist and Baptist and very strict regarding gender roles. Other than that, I had no experience with Calvinist Baptists or the idea that Calvinism was connected to a belief in complementarianism any more than Arminianism was.

I set out to discover what I was missing in church history and what this new movement in Calvinism was. In this blog I will summarize Calvinism’s history and recent trends and also to define a lot of terms that are not used much in everyday life, so that when I use them, readers will be familiar with the definition. Instead of writing a 200 page book, I will be using a lot of links so if you are interested, you will be able to explore more on your own.

John Calvin (1509-1564), a French lawyer, was a contemporary of Martin Luther and joined the Protestant Reformation around 1530. He became a prolific writer of theology.  His Institutes of the Christian Religion became a systematic theology. He also wrote about church government, creating an order of Councils, Consistories, Presbyteries, Provincial Synods, and National Synods.  He also stated that there were only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper and did not agree with Luther on Transubstantiation (that Christ is physically present in the bread and wine) or that the sacraments impart God’s grace. Instead, he believed they were an outward testimony for the believer of God’s grace that had already been imparted to them.

Calvinism, as a theology is usually defined by the Five Points of Calvinism as set out in the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619. Note that Calvin was not at the Synod due to he was dead. The five points are remembered by the pneumonic TULIP.

                1.  Total Depravity of Humans: Humans were created in the Image of God but since the fall we are enslaved to sin and cannot do any good or choose to seek or serve God unless God chooses the person first.

                2. Unconditional Election: God chooses people based on no merit in and of themselves

                3. Limited Atonement:  That Christ died only for the chosen (elect) not for everyone. This point is disputed by many Calvinists and some say that Calvin himself did not believe this.  Calvinists who do not agree with this point are called Four Point Calvinists.

                4. Irresistible Grace: Those who God chooses, he overcomes with grace and changes their heart and therefore they are able to follow after God. The first work is done by God, not by humans changing their own mind or heart.

                5. Perseverance of the Saints: The belief that those who are truly saved will persevere to the end and cannot lose their salvation.  This is somewhat different than Eternal Security in which one who has made a profession of faith can then continue a life of willful sin. Willful continual sin is seen as a sign that one is not truly saved in Calvinism.

Churches that followed Calvinism are often called Presbyterian or Reformed. As I said in my previous blog, historically they were characterized by emphasis on education, social justice, and organized church government.

Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) was a Dutch Theologian and contemporary of John Calvin. He respected Calvin’s teachings and encouraged seminary students to read his works, however he disagreed with his teachings regarding free will.  His calm and rational disagreement with Calvinism in the Leiden University setting actually precipitated the Synod of Dort due to adherents of Calvinism needing to outline their beliefs, their scriptural reasons for their beliefs and their arguments against Arminius’ teachings.  His teachings basically focused on free will. He taught that even though humans had fallen, God’s grace had given them free will so that they can choose or refuse salvation. He believed that Christ death was for all people, not just the elect and that God elects those who he foresees will believe in Jesus of their own free will. Humans can resist God’s grace due to God allowing them to because of the gift of free will. He also believed that it is possible for a believer to fall from grace and no longer be saved due to that person’s choice.

An eventual follower of Arminius teachings was John Wesley who is the founder of the Methodists, denominations, which in turn birthed the Holiness traditions, and Pentecostals (hence, why it is ironic that I am a Calvinist that attends a Wesleyan Church).

The Baptist connection to Calvinism came during its infancy.  In 1606, in Amsterdam, due to his own reading of scripture, John Smyth baptized himself and other adult believers. He was originally a Puritan, but with his baptism, became a Baptist (and later on became a Mennonite). Baptist Churches however are independent and though some affiliate with organizations, such as the Sothern Baptist Convention, they are autonomous. Therefore what they believe varies widely, though they all believe in adult baptism, and so a Baptist can be either a Calvinist or Arminian.

Two more recent movements have been important to Calvinism. One is Neocalvinism or Neo-Calvinism, a Dutch Calvinistic movement associated with the Dutch Prime Minister and theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). His main goal was to awaken the church. The emphasis of Neo-Calvinism is that Jesus is Lord over all and God should have sovereignty over every area of live and everyday life of believers.  Neo-Calvinism has an emphasis on order, logic, and the cultural mandate- the belief that we have a responsibility to cultivate and develop creation. 

The second movement, to complicated things, is the emerging movement of New Calvinism or neo-Calvinism. (Seriously, the lower case “n” makes a HUGE difference!) New Calvinism is a generally American movement within Evangelicalism. The list of its leaders reads like a “who’s who” of people I strongly disagree with including John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney and Joshua Harris. Some of the major organizations of New Calvinism have been the Gospel Coalition and Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. New Calvinists admire Puritans and John Edwards and believe that sanctification requires continual active effort.  They want to change and create culture.  New Calvinists are diverse except for two things: they agree to five or four points of Calvinism and they are strongly complementarian.  They are diverse regarding other theological points such as infant or adult baptism, church government, end times, and whether the gifts of the Holy Spirit continue today or not. Many are connected to the Baptist, especially the Southern Baptist convention, but definitely not all.

In the next few blogs I will be discussing what I believe about Calvinism and what I believe are some reasons New Calvinism is so focused on gender roles and the danger it presents as well huge current influence on Evangelicalism, overshadowing older trends such as the Holiness Tradition.


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