Calvinism Was John Calvin's Idea: and 4 Other Common Misconceptions About Calvinism
All ideas and teachings have opposition. Wherever there are humans, there will be differences; one person sees the situation from one angle while another person sees it from another angle. So it is no surprise that Calvinism has had opposition throughout its entire tenure as a system of belief. With opposition comes misconceptions. Either side skews a point of disagreement to suit their cause, whether to compromise or to prove their point. What I wish to do, as someone on the inside, is point out the misconceptions those who oppose Calvinism, or those who are generally acquainted with it, may have.
Calvinism is John Calvin's Idea
Because Calvinism is so closely linked with the Genevan Reformer, many think that Calvinism was something John Calvin created. However, in all of his writings, there is no mention of him using his name to encapsulate his thoughts. I cannot find any place where he seeks to promote his name. Instead, what I find is a man who thinks very little of himself but highly of God. Speaking of those that called his teaching "Calvinist," Calvin said, "They could attach us no greater insult than this word, Calvinism."
In that time, heretics had their name attached to their teachings so that others would know to avoid it. So to use someone's name to describe their teaching was a great insult. That is the reason Calvin would never have used it to describe his teaching. However, the name caught on to define those who followed Calvin from the Lutherans. It became the widespread term for those who followed the doctrine taught by Calvin after the Synod of Dort took place.
Many are quick to point out that we ought not to follow man's teachings, and they are right. However, in the case of Calvin, we do not follow John Calvin. Calvin himself was a follower first and foremost of Christ, then of Paul, then of the early Church fathers - most notably Augustine. He was not an original thinker; he did not come up with new ideas, he only taught what they taught. Calvin was a systematician more than he was a theologian. We see, in his works, how brilliant he was in piecing together the ideas of Scripture to form a cohesive, coherent, system void of contradiction. Calvin took what Scripture said and placed it into a system of doctrines which made it easier for the common folk to gain a full understanding of Scripture at their level of understanding.
Today, the term Calvinism is more of a shorthand term for gospel-centered people. The prince of preachers, C.H. Spurgeon once wrote that Calvinism did not come from Calvin, but was derived from Augustine, who gathered his views from Paul, who received his teaching from Christ. Calvin was just stepping into the line of those faithful to Christ. Spurgeon wrote, "We would be just as willing to call [this teaching] 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."
Simplifying things makes them easier to understand, however, many times it comes with the cost of limited understanding. Since Calvinism became a solidified nickname for Reformed doctrine at the Synod of Dort, the Canons of Dort (TULIP) became the simplistic version of Calvinism. If you wanted to know what Calvinism was, just research TULIP and that was enough.
However, the acrostic TULIP fails to grasp all Calvinism is and has to offer. TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints) only deals with the fundamental doctrines of the gospel. They are incredibly important doctrines of the faith, but they aren't everything. Just like a foundation of a house is not the whole house, so is TULIP a foundation for the rest of Christian doctrine.
With this acronym, each letter is often simplified. This causes many misunderstandings about each doctrine and separates them from each other. What much of the misconceptions regarding TULIP boil down to is that most don't take the time to study each doctrine. Few who oppose Calvinism have actually read Calvin's works. Most often, the logical conclusions of those in opposition display a lack of understanding the entire premise of the doctrine. They miss out on critical points, causing them to come to differing conclusions than Calvin or any of the other Reformers.
TULIP, also called the doctrines of grace, are quite biblical. The Bible clearly states that God elects (or chooses) whom He wants to save. It explains that we are radical sinners, Christ does not save everyone, God's grace is much more powerful and efficient than we can grasp, and those whom God saves, He saves them forever. These are not the doctrines of demons as some would like to think; they are quite biblical.
We are often quick to interject our own opinion into someone else's argument before we have heard them out. The biblical principle is most helpful: slow to anger, slow to speak, and quick to listen. It is often in discussions and debates over these doctrines that words are forced into the mouths of both sides of the argument. It is important to define specific terms and ask what is meant by the use of certain words, yet that kind of questioning rarely occurs. It is wise, if you are unfamiliar with Calvinism’s teaching on each doctrine, to first find out what it has to say before coming up with your own idea of it.
Another great misconception is that Calvinism is most concerned with the teaching of predestination. Such is not the case. Calvinism, though it includes an understanding of predestination, is not controlled by it. Because of ignorance, many despise this teaching on predestination. Yet, Calvin was only teaching Scripture when he taught the doctrine of predestination.
For instance, Ephesians 1:3-14 uses the word twice. In the original language, that passage is one sentence, and the point of it is that God deserves all glory in salvation. In short, Paul teaches us that we are to glorify God because He predestines people for salvation. Clearly Calvin did not invent this doctrine as many assume.
Throughout Calvin's work, he spends more time dealing with issues such as prayer, union with Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit than he does on predestination. Yet, predestination is a controversial topic because it is a doctrine that suffocates pride. So it is no surprise that predestination dominates the discussion about Calvinism.
Ivory Tower Theology
One fact about John Calvin that surprises most people is that he was primarily a preacher. Because of his book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, most assume that Calvin spent most his time locked away in a tower producing theological exercises. However, he spent his time pastoring a small flock in Geneva. His focus was primarily on preaching.
Calvin's works, although extensive, were not meant only for the academy, but for the common people. The French version of the Institutes used the common French language, not the sophisticated academic language. In fact, this decision was so influential that it helped popularize the common French vocabulary even among the elites. Many of the phrases he used helped form the modern day French language.
Calvinism isn't difficult to understand. From an outsiders perspective, the task looks daunting because Calvinism is a system of belief. It touches on everything in the Christian life. However daunting the task to understanding Calvinism may seem, it is not difficult to do. Just as you have gained your own worldview over time, Calvinism is something that must be understood over time. You cannot switch worldviews overnight, nor do you typically become convicted of certain systems of belief overnight – there is often a period of time before a truth that has been thought becomes a truth that is believed. Likewise, with Calvinism, it is a system of belief which does not come naturally and must be taught.
Calvinism Stunts Evangelism
To think that Calvinism is not concerned with missions is to be historically inaccurate. The modern missions movement was spearheaded by Calvinists, and the majority of 'famous' missionaries are Calvinists. From William Carey, the pioneer of modern missions, to Hudson Taylor, founder of China Inland Mission, to Jim Elliot, missionary to the Huaorani people of Ecuador, these missionaries were grounded in the teachings of Calvinism.
John Calvin was himself a missions-minded pastor. When Protestant refugees, fleeing from the persecution in France, found refuge in Calvin's church, they were taught a Christ-centered teaching. They were engulfed by gospel preaching from the pulpit at St. Peter's Cathedral. Because the proclamation of the gospel creates missionaries, these refugees went back to France to plant Protestant churches in the face of persecution. The Scriptures lay hold of their consciences, compelling them to face death for the sake of Christ. There was also an attempt by Calvin to reach South America. He commissioned a handful of men to be missionaries to the peoples of that southern continent. The attempt proved unfruitful, yet the heart and passion for reaching the lost remained.
The messengers of this Reformed movement had flaws. Such is a given when we see that God is in the business of spreading His gospel through weak sinners. Truth is not dependent on the messenger, but if truth does not reform the messenger, the messenger proclaims it in vain. We must never condone the sins of anyone regardless of whether we agree with them or not, but we must not let their sins cloud their message. We must be focused on what is being said, not who is saying it. Remember, the devil comes in the form of an angel of light, yet his message is the message of darkness.
The focus of Calvinism is the glory of God. Since anything we do that falls short of that glory is sin, everything we do and are is connected to the glory of God. Whether we glorify God or fail to glorify Him, we never do anything that does not relate to the glory of God. Therefore, the goal of Calvinism is a goal that affects every aspect of life.
Calvinism is not just an idea to add onto our own; it is a comprehensive worldview. It is a biblical worldview. The name Calvinism is only to help us understand the perspective being taught. It is simply a nickname for a gospel-centered, biblical worldview. When we speak of Calvinism, we do not speak of Calvin’s teachings alone, we speak of the long line of people who have followed in the faithfulness of the Reformers. When we identify with Calvinism, we are stepping into that line that stretches from Christ to today.
For further reading, check out these articles on TULIP