What is Calvinism?

The Protestant Reformation was a movement in the 1500s where churches across Europe rejected the authority of the Pope and went back to Scripture. It wasn’t actually a single movement – there were lots of movements and groups across Europe doing different things in response to different local circumstances.

John Calvin was one of the key figures in the Reformation. He was a second-generation Reformer – Martin Luther published the 95 Theses in 1517, but Calvin started his ministry in the 1530s, and died in 1564. He started out as a lawyer in Paris, but was exiled from France, and ended up settling in Geneva – a French-speaking city just over the Swiss border.

Calvin was first and foremost a Bible teacher and theologian. He wasn’t the leader of a movement, but his preaching and teaching were enormously influential, especially because of his book Institutes of the Christian Religion, which is one of the most important theology books of all time.

His influence on the English-speaking world was particularly strong because during the reign of “Bloody” Mary Tudor (1553-1558), many British church leaders took refuge in Geneva. One example would be John Knox, the Scottish founder of Presbyterianism.

Calvinism as it’s now understood doesn’t actually come from Calvin and isn’t a fair summary of his teaching. For example, in the Institutes, Calvin doesn’t mention predestination until about halfway through, whereas Calvinist Louis Berkhof puts it right at the start of his Systematic Theology. Calvinisim really comes from the Synod of Dort, which took place in 1618/9 (50 years after Calvin’s death), where people who liked Calvin’s teaching met to discuss how to respond to a movement called Arminianism. They came up with a five point summary of Calvinism, which is still well known.

A major problem with the five points is that they describe the reaction against Arminianism. They were never meant to be the basis of a systematic theology in their own right. Another problem is that they aren’t especially clear – because the summaries are so well known and each of them can be understood in several different ways. In general, Calvin himself was closer to the “soft” end of the understanding, but people who don’t like Calvinism tend to react to the “hard” version. Of course, it’s fairly easy to find people who believe any combination of these!

The five points, complete with hard and soft versions are as follows (they have the acronym TULIP).

1. Total Depravity

Hard version: Everything we do is only evil all the time.
Soft version: Everything we do is tainted by sin, so that nothing we do is ever completely pure.

2. Unconditional Election

Soft version: God doesn’t choose us because we do good things; he chooses us because he loves us.
Hard version: We don’t need to worry too much about evangelism because some people are just called and others aren’t.

3. Limited Atonement

Soft version: Jesus’ death doesn’t lead to forgiveness for everyone, but only for some people.
Hard version: There are some people who are not called – reprobates. They don’t really matter much, and Jesus’ death certainly didn’t do them any good.

4. Irresistible Grace

Soft version: When God calls us, he does so in such a way that we choose to go along with him.
Hard version: We don’t have free will in this at all.

5. Perseverance of the Saints

Soft version: If we really trust in Jesus, God will give us grace so that we will keep trusting him to the end.
Hard version: If you’re really a Christian, you don’t need to worry about what you do because you’re safe.

And yes, the cartoon character from Calvin & Hobbes was named after John Calvin.