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  • Daniel Klassen

What is Calvinism?

It seems to me that the current cultural climate (both in the church and outside the church) has become increasingly hostile to anyone who claims something exclusive to their cause. So it is no wonder why Calvinism is widely regarded with disdain and even disgust. We will eventually journey through those claims, but for now, we will zoom out to gain a broad perspective of Calvinism. Because of the controversy Calvinism brings, I would not be surprised if you, the reader, are approaching this article with skepticism and reluctance.

For starters, Calvin never intended to join the movement of Reform headed by Martin Luther. He was on his way to Strasbourg, Germany to enjoy a quiet and undisturbed life of study and academics. Because he was an introvert, his desire, as he wrote in his introduction to his commentary on the Psalms, was to retreat to a corner of the world where no one knew him. Now, because of war blocking his path, the quickest way from Basel to Strasbourg was through Geneva. Intending only to spend a night there, he was intercepted by a pastor by the name of William Farel. Farel convinced Calvin to stay in Geneva to help with the reform of the Church. This was his entrance into the midst of the 16th Century Reformation that would impact the entire globe.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

If we were to sum up Calvinism with Scripture, it would have to be the passage found in Romans 11:33-36. Calvin's primary concern was the proper worship of God. In order to worship God correctly, one must understand God correctly. This may seem absurd to us in our inclusive culture that God is to be worshiped in a certain way, but when all is to be considered, worshipping God correctly is a matter of eternal life or death. As the gospel was being recovered from under the rubble of tradition, it became clear that the focal point of the Reformation was worship. Any observer of the Reformation can now see that the things believed about God translated directly into the worship of God. So the battle over the truth was a battle over worship. As Calvin taught the Word, the worship was reformed.

The Word of God sat central to Calvin's teaching. Scripture was his authority. He, like Paul, wished to know nothing except Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). The many caricatures of Calvinism fail to note this. What is displayed by those who stand against Calvinism is that Calvin was most concerned with predestination or some other kind of philosophy. He wasn't. His main concern throughout all his writings was the Christian's union with Christ. He wrote, taught, and preached so that believers would have the assurance of their salvation and hope from that. It was Christ alone that Calvin exalted. It was the Word of God that he submitted all his thoughts. There was nothing of himself. In fact, he wrote very little of his own experience.

Calvinism, simply put, is the recovery of the gospel according to the Word of God for the worship of God. Charles H. Spurgeon described Calvinism as a nickname for the gospel. He said, "I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else."

It was from 1618 to 1619 that a council (or synod), made up of scholars taught by Calvin’s teachings, met at Dordrecht to respond to the teachings of a Dutch theologian by the name of Jacob Arminius. At the time of this Arminius was himself brought up in Calvinistic teaching, but because of the influence of Aristotle and other philosophers, disagreed with some of the foundational teachings of Calvin regarding salvation. He produced five main points of disagreement called The Articles of Remonstrance. Some of which, at face value, seemed to vary in the minutest degree. However, those who were students of Calvin could see that these were an affront to the gospel. From this synod, the Canons of Dort were produced as a response to the followers of Arminius to refute his teaching.

Now known as TULIP, the Canons of Dort do not follow that pattern. TULIP stands for total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. According to the Canons, the order would be ULTIP. The only problem is that ULTIP doesn’t have the same ring to it as TULIP does, and so the order was changed. Another note one must make is that these titles for each head of doctrine are not necessarily the best. They are simple, but they do not convey the doctrine in its entirety. So to look only to these titles and their separated definitions does a disservice to the Canons of Dort which explain the doctrines extensively.

The response from the Synod of Dort has been most closely linked with Calvinism ever since. This is unfortunate because this Synod was held 54 years after the death of Calvin. Although the doctrine found in the Canons represents Calvin, it does not represent Calvin in his entirety. It does not teach everything Calvin taught, nor does it capture Calvin’s passion. I am referring to those who assume that the five points of Calvinism are all there is to know about Calvinism. To be sure, Calvinism is not less than the five points bearing the name. It is more. The teaching included in the rest of Calvinism is incredibly beneficial to the Christian faith.

As noted previously, Calvin was a systematician and was not an innovator of a new theology. To have a system of doctrine is incredibly important for the Christian faith. Systematic Theology is the term used to describe what Calvin produced. Simply put, it is a system into which the teachings of all the Scripture is placed. The benefit of Systematic Theology is to place boundaries on the Word of God to keep us from interpreting them incorrectly. It keeps us from extracting an idea from a certain passage which the rest of Scripture is not in agreement with. We turn to Systematic theology when we want to find out what the entire Bible says about a certain subject.

We call these certain doctrines “Calvinism” because a better name for it has not been found. It is not Calvin we glorify when we talk of Calvinism, but rather the gospel. It just happened to be that God saw fit for a man by the name of John Calvin to produce a system to help us navigate and understand the gospel with greatest clarity. Spurgeon put it this way: “We would be just as willing to call them by any other name, if we could find one which would be better understood, and which on the whole would be as consistent with facts.” Calvinism is merely a nickname, a shorthand slogan to indicate the gospel which we believe. Indeed, there are many ‘gospels’ in the world, which one is biblical?

While this article has been more of a defense of Calvinism, I hope you caught a glimpse of what Calvinism is. It is concerned about worship, and it is concerned about the Bible. To be a Calvinist is not to be a fatalistically cold, ivory tower theologian who is only concerned with pessimism. A Calvinist is one who submits to the authority of God’s Word so that a proper and passionate worship of God might flow from their hearts.

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