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“”The preacher was talking, there's a sermon he gave
He said, 'every man's conscience is vile and depraved.
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it's you who must keep it satisfied.'
|—Bob Dylan, "Man in the Long Black Coat"|
Calvinism (also Reformed Theology) is a Protestant Christian theological system that arose in Switzerland during the sixteenth century as a part of the Protestant Reformation. It is named after the reformer, lawyer and theologian John Calvin and was created after he was exiled from France. Calvin's thought was deeply inspired by earlier reformers such as Martin Luther's reformation in what is now Germany.
Reformed Theology most fundamentally differs from traditional Roman Catholic dogma in its soteriology. Calvinist thought teaches that fallen, post-Eden humanity is absolutely depraved and utterly incapable of personally ending its rebellion against God, and is thus doomed to be punished for eternity after death. The redemptive qualities of Jesus Christ's execution and the benevolent, predetermined will of God are the absolute and only interventions that provide happiness in the afterlife. This preordained gift of salvation from God is either impossible to refuse (if so chosen) or impossible to obtain (if not chosen). Catholics traditionally believe that the life you lead and the works you do while alive on Earth (along with adhering to the basic articles of the Christian faith) determine your soul's fate.
Reformed theology also differs from Catholicism in the same ways most other Protestant denominations differ: the practice of mass, the veneration of saints, soteriology, views on transubstantiation and church hierarchy.
Calvinism has been very influential in the development of many Protestant churches, including churches of the English Separatist and Dissenter movements (Pilgrims and Puritans). Many fundamentalist churches adhere to Calvinistic or Reformed Theologies. Among mainstream American denominations, Presbyterianism is most closely associated with Reformed Theology, although only smaller groups (like the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church) fully embrace Calvinism's strictest tenets on predestination.
Despite there being dozens of Calvinist denominations in the US alone, there are two basic groups within Calvinism and Reformed Theology.
Contemporary (or Liberal/Modernist/Progressive) churches adhere to the general principles of Reformed Theology, but have liberal aspects, such as the ordination of women or tolerance of evolution. This includes the older Presbyterian churches such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the Christian Reformed Churches, Congregationalists, and the United Church of Christ.
There are also much more conservative Calvinists. This includes most Reformed Baptists, such as some Southern Baptists, Congregationalists, various churches in the Continuing Anglican movement, the Presbyterian Church in America,[Note 1] and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Churches that follow Calvinism very closely usually follow set standards known as Confessions. Such churches are referred to as confessional, and will tend to believe, advocate, and teach everything taught in confessions.
Significant differences between early Protestant movements and Roman Catholicism included their respective views on free will and on original sin, and their soteriologies (theologies of salvation). Disputation reached a high point ca. 1525 when Luther published De servo arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will) in contrast to Desiderius Erasmus's arguments in favor of free will.
Luther's protest against the Catholic Church's practice of selling indulgences responded to what he viewed as the heresy of Pelagius (ca 360-418). The key heresy of Pelagianism, in Luther's view, lay in the idea that man could choose to become perfect through human works.
Calvin was heavily influenced by the works of the African philosopher Augustine (354-430) and of many other theologians before him, and had a good understanding of the Early Church Fathers in general.
Calvin was a highly prolific writer, who wrote many books, letters, commentaries, and sermons. Much of Calvin's original doctrine can best be described as a young earth creationist, Biblical literalist view of the bible. Most of his thought can be found in either a 1500-page book translated from Latin, known as the "Institutes of the Christian Religion." Also among his works include a 2000 page "Commentary of Genesis", and similar commentaries on most parts of the Bible.
Much of what Calvin believed lives on in various confessions, such as the The Westminster Confession of Faith.
Despite this fact, Calvin is best known for what is known as Predestination.
Put simply, predestination states that Christians were chosen by God, for no apparent reason, and cannot be un-chosen for any reason. This is based of off the idea that people are so sinful that they do not want anything to do with God, and that given a choice would not rationally choose to become christians in the first place. Predestination makes it pointless to be a Calvinist or even believe in predestination. If you're already saved, it doesn't matter what you believe, and if you're not already saved, it still doesn't matter what you believe. If you're saved, you can sin all you want, and if you're not saved, you can actually still sin all you want. That said, the majority of Calvinists reply that "a tree is known by its fruits": if a so-called Calvinist is still willingly and knowingly sinning, that means that their belief is merely hypocrisy and will only serve to damn them further. According to them, the truly saved might not be able to resist all temptation but they would never deliberately abuse the grace they have received.
Five Points of Calvinism
The Five Points of Calvinism refers to an mnemonic which describes parts of predestination. The acronym itself was not created by Calvin, but is based of a confession known in English as The Canons of Dort. The five points of the Arminian Remonstrance prompted what is known in English as The Canons of Dort as a response to their protest.
Being of Dutch origin, the mnemonic is called T.U.L.I.P.
- Total depravity: Every person is born tainted by original sin from the fall of man and without God's intervention is unable to serve God, but will serve only his own interests. One cannot voluntarily turn to God, let alone save oneself from sin.
- Unconditional election: God chose a few select people to whom he will give the gift of salvation purely on the basis of his own mercy. The rest are reprobate and will be left to act in accordance to their depraved wills and subsequently be damned. Supralapsarian Calvinists believe God decreed who would be among the elect before he decreed the fall of man; infralapsarians believe that God decreed who would be among the elect after he decreed the fall of man. In either case, neither the elect nor the reprobate have a say in the matter because they are all equally undeserving of their salvation through any of their own merits. This in turn ties into the concept of sovereign grace- that as ruler of the universe, God has the right to show or withhold mercy as he sees fit.
- Limited atonement: Jesus Christ's substitutionary atonement by crucifixion was only to save the elect, not everybody. They clarify that it has the power to save all but it was God's intent that the atonement would only work itself out in the elect.
- Irresistible grace. Those few God chose to receive salvation will be unable to resist God's grace. As man's depraved will rules out his willingly coming to God, God draws the elect towards Him instead through the Holy Spirit.
- Perseverance of the saints. Those few who are converted to Christ will remain saved. They cannot lose their salvation because they were predestined by God to be saved and God's sovereignty cannot be denied. Thus, there is no notion of true apostasy within Calvinism. This doctrine raises a number of problems, not the least of which is that it's impossible to identify someone who's been saved from someone who has not. As mentioned above, the common explanation is that the saved can be inferred by how their faith motivates their actions; if a Calvinist sins, either he never had true faith to begin with or he will ultimately be divinely chastened and repent.
The fringe of the fringe
There are also some believers in Calvinism who take these five points to their logical conclusion. They are often called "Hyper-Calvinists". Hyper-Calvinists who are also Baptist are known as "Primitive Baptists" or "Hardshell Baptists". Hyper-Calvinists will typically refrain from any evangelistic attempts at converting "sinners", believing that only God will do the converting. More "moderate" Calvinists do believe in personal evangelism, believing that they can be God's instrument in reaching those he has chosen to be saved.
What this means in practical terms is all us filthy pagans, heathens, atheists, Jews, non-Calvinist christians, and other unrepentant sinners were predestined by God to be this way, and can never be saved.
Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church was known to subscribe to a particularly whacked variant of the Hyper-Calvinist belief system. Phelps not only believed that filthy reprobates are predestined for hell, but also that God actively hates them and brings about their untimely deaths. He identified as a Primitive Baptist, but other Primitive Baptists rejected any association with him.
Another Calvinist that has risen to more recent prominence among this loon squad is Harold Camping, the mastermind behind the (horribly failed) May 21, 2011 Doomsday date phenomenon. His "predictions" instigated fringe Calvinists with little knowledge to go on a mad conversion spree, trying desperately to find God's "elect" before the Judgement Day that never came. The Christian churches in his surroundings generally reject him as a heretic for violation of the no-future-predictions-please rule, that relies on some sayings attributed to Jesus himself.
There is another type of "hyper" Calvinism, in the sense of going beyond Calvinism, and that is the view represented by the Primitive Baptist Universalists, also known as "No-Hellers". They believe (like other Calvinists) that man has no ability to resist grace, but they also teach that God is also all-loving, and therefore all will be saved no matter what they do. Like other Hyper-Calvinists, they refrain from personal evangelism. The bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley was a "No-Heller" and their unique hymn style influenced his music. British historian, Simon Schama described in his experience of an Appalachian No-Heller service in The American Future: A History.
On the Internet
Calvinism has a presence on the internet, mostly found in the form of online forums and Youtube. One such site is aptly called the Puritanboard, and is devoted to people studying and becoming Puritans. It is choked full of people posting under the avatar of their favorite Puritan, and often features dainty writing and neo-Confederate sentiment.
There are literally hundreds of videos on YouTube where Calvinists debate Arminians (a similar sect to Calvinism that differs in a few key points, chiefly on the role that free will plays in salvation and whether or not the elect can become apostates—the Wesleyan branch of Methodism is one of its modern forms), carrying on a tradition that has existed as long as Calvinism and Arminianism themselves. Debates of this variety will eventually turn emotional, and result in hour long rants.
- Betsy DeVos, Amway heiress who is currently on a mission to destroy all public schools
- Mark Driscoll, the notoriously potty-mouthed former pastor of Mars Hill Church, a megachurch in Washington State.
- Michael Jeshurun
- R.J. Rushdoony
- Ian Paisley
- Fred Phelps and the monster he created, Westboro Baptist Church.
- Francis Schaeffer
- Kevin Swanson, a wingnut preacher with a tendency to say outrageous things
- Cornelius Van Til, one of the founding minister's of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and made presuppositionalism into an apologetic argument.[Note 3]
- Rick Warren
- James White
- Jon Niednagel, founder of the Brain Type Institute
- Thirty Years War
- Double predestination
- Unitarian Universalist Church, the complete and total opposite end of the spectrum.
- The Presbyterian Church in America is not the same as the Presbyterian Church (USA) listed above. Yes, it is confusing.
- Despite the fact that Calvin opened one of the first public schools in Geneva, and the fact that the Puritans in New England had mandatory public schooling.
- Not to be confused with Howard Van Till who is typically categorized as a liberal theologian.
- Reformed and Presbyterian Denominations: A Primer. 20 July 2012. Archived from the original at tateville.com.
- The Westminster Confession of Faith at files.puritanboard.com.
- The Canons of Dordt, Article 7.
Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, he chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin. Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than the others, but lay with them in the common misery.
- The Canons of Dordt, Article 11.
- The Theology of Westboro: The “World's Meanest Church” Is More Than Just Picket Signs Religion Dispatches
- Simon Schama, The American Future: A History (2009), pp. 149-152
- The Puritan Board, "a forum dedicated to the discussion of Christian theology in a Confessionally Reformed context."
- For example, see Which is central, the Sun or the Earth? at puritanboard.com.
- Hitler & Calvinism, RefutingCalvinism at YouTube, 23 December 2011.
- Brain Type Institute.