Calvinism and Arminianism: History of the Debate History of John Calvin

History of John Calvin and Calvinism

John Calvin was a sixteenth century second generation Protestant reformer, due to his responsibility in systematizing its thoughts. He wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion. His final 1559 version is an exhaustive, systematized defense of the Reformed faith.[1] The theological grid of “Calvinism” is not exactly “of Calvin.”[2] John Calvin never heard of the T.U.L.I.P. acronym. While Calvin certainly taught on predestination theology, it was not his bread and butter. There is so much more to Calvin’s theology, much which centered on grace and justification through Jesus Christ, not predestination, especially not double predestination. Predestination plays quite minor role and it fits in a proper place behind Jesus and grace.[3] Alister McGrath points out that “to understand Calvin it is necessary to read Calvin.”[4] Unfortunately the debate of Calvinism has gone beyond what Calvin actually had to say.

As pointed out earlier Calvin’s conception of predestination is not original to him. Unlike Luther, Calvin was in a situation where he could be far more comprehensive and systematic. Calvin’s theology is built upon a firm trust in the holiness and complete authority of Scripture over and above human tradition and teachings of “The Church.” Thus Calvin’s theology can be said to be a thoroughly biblical theology. Calvin’s massive commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible reveal a heart that was focused on the Word, and saw the Word as the only true source for discerning divine

Also as pointed out earlier, most people assume that Calvin dogmatically hammered on “T.U.L.I.P.” Calvin did not. “T.UL.I.P”. better represents the further expositions of his followers such as Theodore de Beze. In particular, the concept of “limited atonement” is particularly difficult to find in Calvin’s actual writings. This expansion from Calvin’s theology was made by de Beze who took Calvin’s thinking to a logical extreme that Calvin himself was not willing to go. For Beze, nothing falls outside of the will of God.[5] Nevertheless, all of Calvin’s theological teachings are held together by a strong conviction of the sovereignty of God—that is, God has complete and supreme authority over the universe, the earth, the unfolding of history, and especially the salvation of mankind. God alone gives salvation as a gift; it cannot be earned in any way.

Most of Calvin’s influence derives from his ministry in Geneva, a city that was both influenced by Calvin, and also influenced the Reformer. Although Calvin had a lot of influence in France, history seems to forget. Calvin came to Geneva quite by accident as he had intended to go to Strasbourg but was derailed by certain military action. After he stayed in Geneva for two years, making some pastoral blunders due to his inexperience in the ministry, he and Farel (another influential reformer) were expelled from the city due to conflict with the City Council which attempted to control nearly every aspect of civic life. Subsequently, both he and Farel were recalled to Geneva and asked to reclaim their positions of theological influence after a pro-Farel majority seems to have achieved power in the City Council. Though Farel’s influence waned and Calvin’s grew exponentially, history does not verify the dictatorial fashion of authoritarian leadership that Calvin is often assumed to have possessed. He was always held in check by the Council, even as his authority held the Council in balance. Though Calvin has a reputation for ‘eliminating’ opponents, only one execution was performed under his leadership in Geneva. Thus his bad reputation as a ‘dictator’ is quite undeserved.

[1] Alister E McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture. (Malden, Ma: Blackwell Publishing, 1990), 139.

[2] Alister E McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Cultur., 169

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, 145