In a blog post earlier this year in which I discussed the resurgence of Calvinism and what we might learn from Calvinism, it occurred to me that I never really defined Calvinism. So, for those who don’t know or simply need a reminder, perhaps a description of Calvinism is in order, followed by a brief summary of some of its more problematic implications.
What Is Calvinism?
Before launching into the description, two preliminary points are important to mention about presentation. They both have to do with accommodating popular ways of speaking about Calvinism, or Reformed theology, that are both anachronistic and reductionistic.
The first regards nomenclature. “Calvinist” (whence “Calvinism”) was a term originally used to deride those who followed the teachings of John Calvin. The term later evolved from an insult to a self-designation. (Such is the case with many Christian designations, including probably “Christian.”) Thus, for anyone with historical sensibilities, “Calvinism” is a misleading and problematic term, often used anachronistically to describe people who would not have recognized or owned the term.
There are several Protestant figures who would fall in as Calvinists but were not influenced by Calvin. For instance, Ulrich Zwingli, sometimes lumped in with “Calvinists,” lived and died before Calvin ever became a Protestant or wrote a single word about theology. It would be like calling King David or St. Stephen “Christians.” We know what you mean, but it’s not quite right.
Furthermore, although Calvin was certainly influential on his contemporaries and later generations, Calvin was only one among many important theologians in the Reformed tradition. It is improper to reduce early Reformed thought to Calvin or to imply that early Reformed believers slavishly followed Calvin. (Some do now, but not during its formative period.) For these reasons, historians prefer to speak of “Reformed” theology and theologians.
Second, there are similar anachronistic and reductionistic problems with the acronym “TULIP,” which, as the “five points of Calvinism,” is often used as a summary of Reformed theology. First of all, as for the anachronism, the acronym itself originated in the nineteenth century, obviously English with a Dutch flavor. In other words, that summary was not used by anyone during the formative period of Reformed thought (ca. 1525–1725) and it does not reflect the primary theological language that expressed Reformed thought (viz., Latin). For example, “atonement” is an English word that is not really equivalent to the word used by Reformed writers to refer to Christ’s redemptive work: satisfactio.
TULIP is also reductionistic. What if we summed up Churches of Christ with LAB—Lord’s Supper weekly, a cappella singing, and baptism essential? Talk about an incomplete, and in that sense, unfair, picture! And if the three concepts are seen as equally important and they are not explained with sufficient nuance, even what is true about the description becomes misleading. It is the same thing with TULIP.
TULIP is at best a summary of some distinctive aspects of Reformed soteriology, some of which were confirmed at the Reformed Synod of Dordt (1618–1619). But it is far from a complete statement of Reformed theology, since it is missing key distinctive themes such as covenant theology, as well as other primary themes that are common to all Christians.
For all these reasons, early in my career I would introduce students to “Reformed theology” without mentioning TULIP and the so-called five points of Calvinism. But it didn’t really work. It was like trying to talk to outsiders about Churches of Christ without mentioning a cappella singing. They ask anyway; it’s a way for people to begin with something they know. In this case, despite my efforts, I found myself always having to come back and answer questions about “Calvinism” and “TULIP.” So, for reasons related to common usage and convenience, I will here use “Calvinism” interchangeably with “Reformed thought” and explain TULIP, or, since I must add a point, TULIPS.
T: Total (Hereditary) Depravity
It is not that the image of God is completely lost or that there is no goodness in human nature. But the image of God was damaged by the fall into sin. It is total in the sense that every part of human nature has been damaged, rendering humans totally unable on our own to turn to God for salvation. Apart from Christ, people suppress the truth in unrighteousness and are permitted by God to wallow in their sin, which leads to more ignorance and sin. All sin and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). It is hereditary in the sense that it is passed on with original sin.
U: Unconditional Election (Unconditional Predestination)
There is no condition on the human side to effect being chosen or rejected by God. Faith is a means of an election that has already been decided, not the cause of election. The fundamental difference may be summed up thus: Do you believe because you’re elect (Reformed), or are you elect because you believe (Arminian/non-Calvinist)?
L: Limited Atonement
Christ died only for the elect; that is, his satisfaction is effective only for the elect.
I: Irresistible Grace
God’s grace is irresistible. In other words, God will get those whom he chooses. He will give them grace and faith, and the elect will invariably accept it. Cautious Calvinists will be careful to say that God’s grace does not force as much as it changes the human will to desire God. Either way, the change is irresistible. Let’s be clear: God can save all, but he simply does not will it. This irresistible grace is therefore selective grace and, as far as the reprobate are concerned, unavailable grace.
P: Perseverance of the Saints
Along with the irresistible grace of justification by grace through faith, ongoing sanctification and perseverance in the Christian life is a necessary and irresistible gift from God to the elect. The elect will of course live as such. God will not allow his elect to fall from his hand. As some have put it, “Once saved, always saved.”
S: Sovereignty of God
An overriding principle of Reformed theology, well deserving to be called the sixth point of Calvinism, is the emphasis on God’s sovereignty defined as control. God’s sovereign will cannot be thwarted in any way, especially with regard to salvation.
The six points (TULIPS) really can be boiled down to two: the “U” and the “I” and, if we want to throw in a third, the “S.” The other points flow from these two (or three).
What Are the Implications of Calvinism?
My prior blog post on Calvinism concluded by noting several positive things that can be learned from Reformed theology. It is time now for the rest of the story. Here are some of the implications of Reformed theology that would trouble most Christians. If Calvinist theology is right, if the whole package of TULIPS is correct, then:
1. Nothing can resist God’s will.
“Who can resist his will?” (Rom. 9:19). God is sovereign, and God is omnipotent, and nothing can happen outside of God’s will.
2. Humans have no free will in matters of salvation.
Calvinists claim that Arminians ascribe too little to God’s sovereignty and too much to human freedom. To the Calvinist, if the human has any say in salvation, even if it is simply to accept the gracious gift of faith, then it would imply that one person is somehow better than or more meritorious than someone who did not accept faith.
3. Evil is a direct result of God’s decree.
The question is one of theodicy, or the origin of evil and God’s relationship to it. Calvin’s answer is that Adam’s sin was decreed beforehand by God. Calvin: “They [Calvin’s opponents—KDS] deny that it is ever said in distinct terms, God decreed that Adam should perish by his revolt. As if the same God, who is declared in Scripture to do whatsoever he pleases, could have made the noblest of his creatures without any special purpose.” Adam’s “specific purpose,” apparently, was to sin and to be punished. Calvin then writes, “The decree, I admit, is, dreadful [horrible]; and yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknew what the end of man was to be before he made him, and foreknew, because he had so ordained by his decree” (Institutes of the Christian Religion III.xxiii.7).
If Adam or his descendants had no choice but to sin, and necessarily sinned in order to fulfill God’s decree, then the human is not responsible for sin under any standard definition of responsibility. If there was no alternative choice, then humans are not the real sinners here. The one who decreed, chose, and caused the sin (for someone else) is the real sinner. If God is the author of sin, then he is the real sinner, and the only sinner in this story.
Here is one area in which New Calvinism tends to be more extreme than classic Reformed theology. In classic Reformed theology, there was always a denial that God is the author of evil in their system. There was always an attempt to leave some room, however limited, for human free will. Arminians believed the attempts were unsuccessful, but at least the attempts were made. In New Calvinism, however, the philosophical subtlety is usually lost. There is a pan-determinism (by which I mean strict, metaphysical determinism) usually absent in older Reformed theology.
“So every spin of the roulette wheel ... every roll of the dice in your family board game,… is determined by God,” John Piper said. Back in 2009, regarding the “miracle on the Hudson,” Piper said, “The geese were God’s doing. The landing of Flight 1549 was God’s doing.” He also said, “God can take down [crash—KDS] a plane any time he pleases—and if he does, he wrongs no one.” Although he would still not call God the “author of sin,” John Piper says, “[E]verything that exists—including evil—is ordained by an infinitely holy and all-wise God to make the glory of Christ shine more brightly.”
Against such sentiments, David Bentley Hart says, “It is a strange thing indeed to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome” (Doors of the Sea, 99).
4. God does not want all to be saved.
Perhaps you have heard it said that God created us to enjoy eternal fellowship with him. Indeed it is so. I’ve also heard some Reformed thinkers say the same thing. But they cannot rightly say such a thing. Of course, God does not have to save anyone. All are justly condemned for their sin. So it is by grace that he saves anyone at all.
For the Reformed, God can save all, but he doesn’t. He created some people in order to save them, and he will; he created other people in order to destroy them, and he will. He demonstrates the glory of his grace in electing to salvation, and the glory of his justice in reprobating to damnation. Creation is not really for the creature; creation is for God, whose glory somehow benefits from this situation, and God seems to need it in order to be fully glorified. As Piper says, Christ’s glory in justly condemning the reprobate “shines more brightly.”
Calvinist Duane Edward Spencer is piercingly clear:
One of the most popular misrepresentations of God in modern evangelism, is that ‘God loves everyone, and wants to save everybody.’ The first obvious thing about this fallacy is that the Holy Scriptures very clearly teach there are many whom God hates! For example: ‘It is written: Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated’ (Rom. 9:13). All who have any real working knowledge of the Bible know that if the Lord loves everyone, and really wants to save all men, he (as the omnipotent God who cannot be resisted) will do just that. The fact is, as Scripture abundantly illustrates, God neither loves all men equally and alike, nor is he going to save all (TULIP, 70).
What about passages like 1 Tim. 2:4? The Augustinian interpretation of passages that indicate that God wants all to be saved is that it means “all kinds of people.” Some kings, some slaves. Some black, some white. Some males, some females. From every group of people, some. #somelivesmatter. To be fair, the reprobate may “matter” in the sense that they illustrate God’s justice. But “matter” as equal objects of God’s love? No. Only the elect “matter” like that.
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