Friday, April 09, 2010

Calvin and Calvinism: What is the distinction?

Again this is a simplistic summary, given as a part of a request to discuss this issue by Eric Lundy.

John Calvin was one of the key leaders of the Reformation. In many things, Calvin and Luther agreed. In some, especially their theology of the Lord's Supper, they did not agree. Their contributions were different enough that they were each seen as Reformers in their own right, and each had different schools of thought that followed.

It is impossible to underestimate the rediscovery of Classical Language and Classical Writings on the development of the Reformation. Luther, although familiar with the philosophers, is more closely associated with language studies and his work with Scripture. Luther becomes more interested in development of the Protestant Churches in Germany than he does in governmental affairs. Protestants owe their passion for the word of God to Luther. However, Luther is not all that radical of a reformer in church practice.

John Calvin, on the other hand, was better schooled in the classical philosphers and scholars of ancient times. In fact, as one reads Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion it is easy to note not only the reference back to theologians like Augustine, but also philosophers like Cicero. Calvin eventually establishes a church and attempts a "Christian" government in Geneva, Switzerland.

Central to Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, which is Calvin's magnum opus, is the insistence on God's Soveriegnty. God is all powerful. God is all knowing. God is the source of everything. Any goodness in humanity was the result of the goodness of God working in human beings. God knows all that will happen. In short, as a theology professor of mine told me, all of creation is a theatre for the sovieriegnty of God for Calvin. This in turn, elevated the importance of God's grace toward humanity, because the root of evil in the world comes from the human propensity to sin, and the root of all God is from God's good gift.

In my opinion, Calvin states most of this in a positive way in the Institutes. And, the outgrowth of the Institutes was to translate the power of God, in my opinion well stated in the book, into political power. Calvin's Geneva was a city-state that attempted to be a theocracy. For many years it was successful. At times, Calvin's Geneva went overboard in its power and control. But that is another story.

What is known as Calvinism evolved from Calvin, and primarily from his Institutes. After a theologian named Armenius attempted to be both Reformed, and an advocate of free-will, the leaders of the Reformed theology met at the Synod of Dordt. At Dordt, the Reformed (read Calvinist) churches further defined what we know as Calvinist theology.

Specifically, these Dutch Reformers developed a summary of Calvinist belief that has come to be known by the best known of Dutch flowers. That flower is the tulip. TULIP is an acronym for the five Calvinist distinctives. Those distinctives are:

Total Depravity--There is not one person who has any part of their lives that are not somehow stained by sin and selfishness. Nobody on their own can choose God. We are too sin-sodden.

Unconditional Election--There is nothing one can do to earn God's favor. There is no quality that God looks for to choose one person over another. Anyone who is saved is saved by God's mercy alone. Not by any merit they have.

Limited Atonement--Christ did not die for all. Christ died for those he had chosen to save. Those who God has chosen are those who are believers. Those who never believe did not have Christ die for them. Christ's blood paid the price only for those who have been chosen by God before the foundation of the world to be saved.

Irresistable Grace--Because salvation is an act of God's grace, when God chooses us to be his followers we are powerless to resist his saving work in our lives.

Perseverance of the Saints--This is the doctrine of eternal security. Because we are chosen by God, no power in the world, even the power of our own choice, cannot keep us from following Christ and being saved. Those who are saved by God need not fear "losing" their salvation. God saved those who are believers, they did not save themselves. We do not choose God, he chooses us.

Although these beliefs are based loosely upon the Institutes, the Institutes did not delineate TULIP and Calvinism in general as a belief system. Calvinism, rather, is an outgrowth of John Calvin's teachings and belief system over generations.

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