A Primer on Calvinism

My primer on open theism has made me think that it’d be useful to write ones for other theological systems or topics, as I often receive questions about them as well.  A good one to do is Calvinism because it is so prevalent, yet many Christians (including a good number of self-proclaimed Calvinists) do not really understand it.  Now, this one is a bit more difficult to condense into one article because it is more of a full blown system than open theism, but I think it will help to stick to what can be considered “classical” Calvinism and largely ignore certain varieties such as “four-point” Calvinism (Amyraldism) and libertarian Calvinism.  Still, what follows will be heavily simplified, though I think it will still be largely accurate.

As usual, I’ll attempt to give a charitable portrayal of Calvinism despite being a pretty sharp critic of it (as readers of this blog know).  I’ll then give a brief critique, though I won’t say much and will just invite the reader to find other articles I’ve written on the topic.

Calvinism: Determinism, Sovereignty, and a Flower

If I were to summarize classical Calvinism (often called “Reformed” theology, though that can be misleading), I would probably zero-in on two pillars: A view of God’s sovereignty that is deterministic and all-causal, and the soteriological acronym of TULIP.  Calvinists often rightly say that Calvinism is more than just TULIP, but it is nonetheless a major aspect that makes it distinct.

Covenant Theology and Sovereign Determinism

Historically, Calvinism is tied to covenant theology.  There is such a thing as Reformed dispensationalism (dispensationalism is often seen as the major alternative to covenant theology) and not all covenantalists are Calvinists (classical Arminianism is actually a covenant theology), but there is nonetheless a reason why classical Calvinism and covenant theology are related.  Classical covenant theology views God’s relation to creation through a series of covenants: The covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace.  There is not space to distill covenant theology here, but it’ll help to focus on the covenant of redemption: This is the pre-creational covenant between the members of the Trinity where the Son agrees to fulfill the requirements of salvation for certain chosen individuals.

The reason this helps to understand classical Calvinism is because in “eternity past,” God ordained everything that will happen, including who will be his elect.  There is some debate between Calvinists as to the order of God’s election, whether election and reprobation (damnation) are decreed first before the decree of sin and the Fall (supralapsarianism) or if the Fall was decreed before election (infralapsarianism).  The reason the former makes even many Calvinists uncomfortable is because it teaches a strong “double predestination” that makes it sound like God caused man to sin while infralapsarianism allegedly avoids this problem, though both positions are well-represented throughout the history of Calvinism.  Regardless, there is a strong sense here of history playing out exactly as God desired, which leads Calvinists to conclude that God’s sovereignty entails that he determines and ultimately causes everything that comes to pass.

Contrary to some Calvinists, this is not a misrepresentation.  John Calvin himself held to this and sharply critiqued those who shrunk from saying that God ordained and caused everything to merely say that God “allows” certain things like evil.  R.C. Sproul, a prominent Calvinist, argued that if God did not directly control even one molecule, he could not guarantee his promises because that molecule could run amok and lay waste to creation.  For a Calvinist, God determines and causes everything (though he can use secondary causes) down to the last detail.  This all-causing view of God’s sovereignty is one of the most important and distinctive tenets of classical Calvinism.

This has at least one important ramification: Libertarian free will, the freedom to choose between options without being determined by prior causes, cannot exist.  God determines even people’s choices.  It stands to reason that if this is the case, then God must ultimately determine the choice of faith.

TULIP

This leads to Calvinist soteriology, which is aptly summarized by the acronym of TULIP:

  • Total Depravity: This is more than just a view that man has a sin nature; it’s the belief that man is completely unable to seek God or even respond to a gracious Gospel calling (which is why some call it “Total Inability”).  Man is viewed as “dead” in sin, based on Ephesians 2, and born hating God.  “Dead means dead,” as many Calvinists say, and corpses can’t respond to anything.  This is why classical Calvinism requires that regeneration precedes faith; God enacts the new birth in people prior to them even expressing faith.  Arminians believe that God deals with total depravity differently, but for Calvinists, nothing short of full regeneration is required to overcome this problem.
  • Unconditional Election: Because man is totally depraved, only a unilateral act of God can lead to salvation.  However, not everyone is saved; only those that God chose in eternity past (recall the covenant of redemption) will be born again.  Election here is individualistic and unconditional; remember, faith is the result of election and regeneration, so not even faith is a condition.
  • Limited Atonement: Only those that God elected are covered by the death of Jesus.  Or more explicitly: Jesus did not die for the sins of everyone.  There is some debate about whether Calvin himself believed this and Reformed theologians have disagreed on this point, but it’s fair to say that what is considered “classical” Calvinism includes it.  For Jesus to die for those who ultimately aren’t saved seems to waste the blood of Christ, and proponents of limited atonement will say that Jesus’ death “accomplishes” salvation and does not merely make it possible.  Why would Jesus die for those whom God never desired to save?
  • Irresistable Grace: This is where regeneration comes in.  For those that God elected and Jesus died for, the Holy Spirit will apply a grace that cannot be resisted because it brings corpses to life.  Such spiritually alive people then express faith.
  • Perseverance of the Saints: Those that are truly saved through the above process are guaranteed to persevere to the end due to God preserving them.

This acronym is both easy to remember and efficient, and it often serves as a useful litmus test for where someone fits on the soteriological scale.  Some Calvinists have tried to come up with other acronyms, but nothing has truly replaced TULIP as the standard summary of Calvinism.

Calvinist Motivations

It is always easy to attribute bad motivations to advocates of rival beliefs, but while they are undoubtedly true of some (many Calvinists, unfortunately, have a well-earned reputation of being arrogant, sensitive, and tribalistic), they aren’t true of all.  It is more useful to try to see what sort of good motivations may be behind Calvinism, and I think we can hone in on three: The desire to be biblical, to protect grace, and to honor God’s sovereignty.

If there’s one thing you can’t say about Calvinists, it’s that they don’t care about the Bible.  This does not mean that their interpretations are right or even that their approach is helpful, but they ardently believe that what they teach is in Scripture and have a host of passages to point to such as Romans 9, Ephesians 1, John 6, John 10, etc.  This is why even though Calvin called double-predestination a difficult, if not terrible, thing to believe, he held to it because he felt it was in Scripture.

As for grace, Calvinists talk a lot about it and even call TULIP “the doctrines of grace,” sometimes to the annoyance of others because it implies that other systems are not about grace.  For them, to even say that man “accepts” the gospel or “receives” it is to attribute a work to salvation, thereby destroying grace.  Another word that’s thrown around by Calvinists is “monergism,” which points to the unilateral activity of God in salvation.  Anything that involves man at all is instead “synergism” and not fully grace.

We talked about sovereignty a bit above, and there’s not much more to add.  For God to be sovereign, Calvinists believe he must operate through causal determinism.  Libertarian free will elevates man too much because it means that he can thwart what God wants, which is a less honoring view of God as opposed to the God who always accomplishes his will and controls everything down to the last detail.

A Short Critique

I have written several critiques of Calvinism on this blog, and there is no need (and no space) to rehash them all.  I’ll just provide a few links and some general statements.

First, while I respect that Calvinists try to be biblical, I find their hermeneutic to be problematic.  They are often naive about how much philosophy and their prior commitment to the system colors their interpretation, and they are guilty of some pretty glaring instances of proof-texting without context.  Furthermore, limited atonement in particular is very weak biblically, and their attempts to escape certain verses are very stretched.  Even their stronger proof-texts, such as Romans 9, do not teach what they think they do when read carefully, in my estimation.

Second, their view of God’s sovereignty leads to a much greater problem of evil.  It jeopardizes God’s love and goodness, and Calvinists are often stuck with bare appeals to mystery to try to duck the issue (or with using language such as “permission,” which contradicts their theology).  More consistent Calvinists will flatly say that God does not love everyone and that he causes evil, but most Christians and even many Calvinists find such statements to be at odds with the Bible.  Relatedly, double-predestination is unavoidable even for infralapsarians, in my opinion, though they are right to recoil from the concept.

More could be said and linked to, but I’ll just tell the reader to read around this blog and other sources.  I consider Calvinists to be brothers in Christ and I respect many of them, but I think their system ultimately rests on shaky ground.

Conclusion

Calvinism is a very influential and prevalent theological system, and it has seen a resurgence over the past 20 years.  There are many reasons why it is attractive: It seems biblical, it seems tightly woven around an efficient acronym, and it has a heavy emphasis on grace.  Still, I think further analysis shows pretty serious cracks in what is often portrayed as a beautiful, interlocking system, and I think many Calvinists, particularly those who are not Calvinists due to serious study but because their favorite pastor/author and friends are, need to consider such critiques seriously and carefully.

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4 thoughts on “A Primer on Calvinism

  1. The fact that splits Calvinism’s head and all the rest of ‘christian’ faiths is this lone statement:
    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 The law Paul is referencing is not OT law.

    • With due respect, Theodore, I think that verse is taken out of context. Paul is addressing how Gentiles can be righteous, for God is impartial, and he is indeed using the OT Law as an illustration or proxy for moral obedience. His point is that even though the Law went to the Jews and not the Gentiles, if Gentiles obey the Law instinctively or by their hearts (referencing new covenant passages), they are righteous, while those who “heard” the Law, the Jews, are not necessarily righteous. This would be a pretty bold thing to say to Jews. And even though I critique Calvinism here, this verse does not contradict it, nor does it contradict Christianity in general. After all, those Gentiles who obey the Law that is written on their hearts presupposes their salvation. Now, how Calvinists and non-Calvinists view regeneration is different, but we would all agree that obedience to God’s law comes from a changed heart. I hope that helps.

  2. Leesomniac,

    I happened upon one of your blogs this morning and it led me to check out several of your other blogs. I love the way you give serious thought to things and was wondering if you’d be willing to discourse with me privately about God’s Word. I enjoy chatting with other christians who may not necessarily agree with me on everything but are honest in their pursuit of biblical truth. I think that’s one of the ways God sharpens us. You seem like such a person. If you’re willing, please reach out. Mhbox81@gmail.com

    Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.
    Prov 27:17

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