A ‘simple’ introduction to Calvinism

  • Question 180, from Iwan

    Would you possibly be able to explain as simply as possible what Calvinism is! Somebody asked me about it and to be honest I haven’t the first clue about it so would appreciate your help.

    Calvinism is a theology based on key principles developed by John Calvin (1509-64), a noted protestant preacher and church leader during the Reformation. Churches that followed his theology are often referred to as ‘Reformed’, as distinct from ‘Lutheran’ churches that follow Martin Luther’s teaching instead.

    Although Calvin’s theology had a number of interesting theological ideas at the heart of it, the doctrine for which he was most famous was what is now known as ‘double predestination’. At its most basic level, this is the idea that if God has predestined some members of the human race to salvation, then God has also predestined other members of the human race to eternal punishment.

    Predestination dominated Calvin’s major written work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, that he revised five times in his lifetime. It is also a key theme in his commentaries on the Bible, with many texts used – often very creatively – to reinforce his position.

    Partly, his prioritisation of predestination as a doctrine was because he was roundly criticised for it by other theologians. There is very little scope for free will in his theology, as ultimately the salvation of humans rests in God’s choice of whom to save. Calvin went so far as to say that it was necessary for some humans to be predestined for perdition in order for God’s righteousness to be fully shown[1].

    Later ‘reformed’ thinkers developed what is known as ‘five point Calvinism’ or ‘TULIP’, from the acronym developed from the five key concepts that underpin the reformed doctrine of election and predestination. These are:

    1)      T = Total depravity of sinful human nature, meaning that humans are unable to secure their own salvation;

    2)      U = Unconditional election, in that humans are not predestined on the basis of any foreseen merit, quality, or achievement;

    3)      L = Limited atonement, in that Christ only died for the elect (i.e. those who have been predestined to be saved)

    4)      I = Irresistible grace, by which the elect are infallibly called and redeemed;

    5)      P = Perseverance of the saints, in that those who are truly predestined by God cannot in any way fall away         [2]

    Several of these points have been hotly contested. Christians who do not hold to the concept of original sin would reject the very first point of TULIP. Meanwhile, the idea that Christ’s atoning death is only limited to the ‘few’ is also a keen focus of debate.

    The final two points have often been phrased as ‘once saved, always saved’, which sounds like the Calvinist position is that election has no relation to how a person behaves, or even whether they reject Christianity. However, careful reading of Calvin shows that he believed the elect should live in such a way that proves they are elect, because a mere profession of faith was not the same as being chosen by God for salvation. Calvin was tough on those who backslid in the faith, saying these people were never truly part of the elect [3].

    As a final point, it is worth noting that although ‘Calvinist’ is generally used to describe a theological viewpoint that centres on predestination, Calvin’s theology was notable in other respects as well. Most of the denominations that follow a Calvinist structure will be Bible-centred. Calvin’s emphasis on the church as a community of the elect had a notable impact on protestant churches struggling to find an identity after the break with the Roman church. Calvin followed the earlier Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli in rejecting the idea that the elements of the eucharist contain the body and blood of Christ, or that it is a sacrifice made by a priest. The idea that the ‘Lord’s Supper’ or ‘communion’ is a ‘memorial’ is now common in protestant churches, including many that would not consider themselves Calvinist.


    [1] Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 23, Section 11 (p.623 in the edition published by Hendrickson, 2008)

    [2] Based on the description in Alister E. Mcgrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, Blackwell, 1994, p.398

    [3] Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 24, Section 7. (p.642)

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