But what is Calvinism?

Ash Cunningham 16 Dec 19

Having a coffee with a theology student last week, they remarked that 'Calvinism' and 'Predestination' were things that people regularly brought up as a joke - as if it were a taboo, in much the same way as Flanders & Swann would naughtily mention 'sex, religion and politics' back in the 1950s. But, this student said, they had never been told what it really was. This is my attempt to correct that - I understand that my summary will not be recognisable to all Calvinists as their position, such is the diversity within that title. Regardless, this aims towards fairness, faithfulness and accuracy.

“Sometimes a man… finds a thing he really does mean. It may be only a half-truth, quarter-truth, tenth-truth, but then he says more than he means – from sheer force of meaning it.”

So says Gabriel Syme in 'The Man who was Thursday (a nightmare)' regarding the wannabe anarchist, Gregory.

There are plenty of young men under this description who claim Calvinism as their badge. The basic tenets of Calvinism are commonly summarised under the acronym TULIP, every aspect of which can be (and has been) cartoonised to the point of utter folly. Others have sought to retain the title of ‘Calvinist’ out of love more for the man than the theology: Karl Barth was one such man who was persuaded into the realm of what is now branded ‘post-Calvinism’:

"I would have preferred to follow Calvin's doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of departing from it so radically. I would have preferred, too, to keep to the beaten tracks when considering the basis of ethics. But I could not and cannot do so. As I let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters, as I meditated upon what I seemed to hear, I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction." Preface to Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of God II.2. Vol. 10

Don’t throw the baby out with the Barth-water


The following is an attempt to summarise Calvinism in a way that is fair but with limited tolerance for those who abuse it to further their own theological agendas by smuggling them through under a giant’s name. Once again, I caveat that it will contain, by necessity, some persuasive elements to it, and not everyone who calls themselves a Calvinist will recognise my description as their own.

So here we go: TULIP

Total Depravity.

a.k.a. Original sin – common misconception: original sin is not when you club someone to death with an armadillo – it is not a reference to the originality of your sin, but the origin of it. This is based upon the understanding that sin entered the world through Adam’s sin and remained in his line (Rom 5). All humans are born not only with the ‘propensity to f*** things up’ as the author Francis Spufford puts it, but we are inhabited by enmity toward God (Eph 2) and cannot of ourselves understand anything of him (1 Cor 2).

The instinct to reject this doctrine is most commonly manifested in two forms:

1) Don’t call my baby evil! – Pelagius
2) That’s unfair! – All millennials

Unconditional election.

a.k.a. Predestination. This is the belief that God has chosen those who will be saved entirely irrespective of their own deeds, but rather that he chose “before the foundations of the world… according to the purpose of his will.” (Eph 1). It is an essential doctrine for any consistent reformed theology:

To illustrate this point, I like to play the toddler’s game of asking the question 'Why?' until blood comes out of daddy's ears:

Why are you a Christian and your neighbour isn’t?
Because I believed and trusted Jesus and they didn't.
Why?
Because I understood that I was sinful and needed forgiveness and they didn't.
Why?
Because I saw that Jesus was perfect and my life was destructive and they didn't.
Why?
And so on, and so forth.

Eventually though, you will answer in one of two ways:

a) Because the Spirit opened my wicked heart and turned me t'ward my Saviour
or
b) Because I was humble enough / intelligent enough / good enough to see what I had to do...
...and they weren't.

Put frankly, there are only two options - predestination, or a gospel of works.

Some really keen-beans say that God avoids looking into the future to see who would choose him so as to avoid reacting to man’s choices. This, I think, is too clearly from the perspective of fallen humanity - God does not have to 'look away' in order to keep himself of the path of the wise!

Again, two major objections:
1 ‘But what about Free Will (which is definitely a thing*)!?’ Various people through history… most people since Hume & the enlightenment. Also Simon Wincer in 1993.
2 ‘That’s unfair!’ – Millennials again.
*It’s not a thing.

Limited atonement.

This is a misunderstood one, and far less controversial than it sounds. It is the belief that although Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient to pay for all sins, its efficacy is limited to those who are saved. To use a perversely trite analogy – if a man puts down his card for an open bar (no limit) then he is a) a wonderful host and b) only charged for the drinks that are drunk, not for every conceivable drink which could have been drunk.

This is based on the fact that Jesus died for all (full sufficiency) and yet is described as laying down his life for the sheep (not the goats) (John 10/Matt 25). Matthew records that ‘many’ received forgiveness for sins through the spilling of Christ’s blood. (Matt 28).

I believe that most objections to Limited Atonement are directed not toward this iteration, but toward the belief that Christ’s death was only sufficient for the elect, which is neither biblical nor Calvinistic.

Irresistible grace.

This is inextricably linked to the doctrine of election – if you didn’t like that one, then you don’t like this either. It is the belief that although the world declares God’s glory so that all men are without excuse, yet still men rebel, there is another declaration, or call which is internal. This internal call of the Spirit comes upon those who are elect and they are powerless to resist that call. This is not a doctrine of possession – the Spirit does not take over our bodies, but he renews our hearts and minds and turns us to God – this goes hand in hand with a reformed doctrine of Creation. This is famously put forward in the prologue of John which you heard read at Christmas: “…as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (Also check out John 6: This is the work of God…)

Same objections as with ‘U’.

William Blake, in the Proverbs of Hell declares: ‘The fox condemns the trap, not himself’ in order to vocalise his own objection to this doctrine.

Perseverance of the saints.

a.k.a. ‘Once saved always saved’/ ‘Once a King or Queen in Narnia…’

This is the belief that salvation cannot be lost once it is gained. Whilst it may seem like madness to some, it goes hand in hand with the doctrine of irresistible grace.

It is perhaps most sensibly explained by the reminder that we are made righteous by divine declaration, not human deed, and for God to speak is the same as for him to act: “Let there be light” (Gen 1) “Talitha cumi” (Mark 5)… or, indeed, ‘You are righteous’. Once God, the judge & saviour, has declared you righteous, who can ‘undeclare’ it!? This is supported by the fact that believers are encouraged that they will not be tempted beyond their capacity to resist (1 Cor 10) and the statement that God will ‘complete the good work’ he has begun (Phil 1).

The main objection to this is based upon Hebrews 10:26 – “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgement, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”

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