Calvinism

General Information

Calvinism, the Protestant religious perspective associated with the work of John Calvin, includes both the teachings of Calvin and the later developments of his world view. Calvin's doctrine was catholic in its acceptance of the Trinity, human sinfulness, and the saving work of Jesus Christ. It was Protestant in its commitment to the final authority of the Bible, justification by Grace through faith alone, and the bondage of the will for Salvation. It was distinctly reformed in its stress on the omnipotent sovereignty of God, the need for discipline in the church, and the ethical seriousness of life.

The so - called Five Points of Calvinism were formulated by Dutch Reformed theologians at the Synod of Dort (1618 - 19) in response to the teachings of Arminianism. The five points teach that

  1. humankind is spiritually incapacitated by Sin
  2. God chooses (elects) unconditionally those who will be saved
  3. the saving work of Christ is limited to those elected ones
  4. God's grace cannot be turned aside
  5. those whom God elects in Christ are saved forever Predestination

Early in the 20th century, the German sociologist Max Weber and the English economist R H Tawney put forth the much debated thesis that Calvinism promoted the rise of capitalism. Whether this is true or not, it cannot be denied that Calvinists have been deeply involved in political, social, educational, and economic developments. Puritanism in England and America is a product, to one degree or another, of the Calvinistic spirit.

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Calvinism provides the basic doctrinal orientation of the Reformed Churches and Presbyterianism; branches of some other Protestant denominations, such as the Baptists, have also been influenced by Calvinism.

Mark A Noll

Bibliography
A Dakin, Calvinism (1940); J H Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition (1977); J T McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism, (1967); M Prestwich, ed., International Calvinism (1985); B B Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism (1931); M Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1950).


Calvinism

Advanced Information

John Calvin, often regarded as "the systematizer of the Reformation," was a second generation Protestant Reformer of the sixteenth century who brought together biblical doctrine systematically, in a way that no other Reformer before him had done. At the same time, he was not an ivory tower scholar but a pastor who thought and wrote his theological works always with an eye to the edification of the Christian church. Although his views have not always been popular and have at times been grossly misrepresented, his system of theology has had a very wide influence down to the present time, as indicated by the fact that all Reformed and Presbyterian churches look back to him as the founder of their biblical - theological doctrinal position.

Scripture

The formal principle and source of Calvin's theological system is embodied in the Latin phrase sola Scriptura (Scripture only). In a strict sense Calvin was primarily a biblical theologian. Trained in the techniques of historicogrammatical exegesis through his humanistic and legal studies, he went to the Scriptures to see what they clearly said. He rejected the medieval fourfold interpretation which allowed allegorizing, spiritualizing, and moralizing, insisting that the literal meaning of the words was to be taken in their historical context. On this basis he sought to develop a theology that would set forth in a systematic form the teaching of Scripture. He was, however, no rationalist, for he constantly stressed the fact that while the Bible reveals God and his purposes to us, yet there is always the mystery of the divine Being and counsel which no human thought can penetrate. Deut. 29:29 was a verse to which he referred many times.

The stress which he laid upon the Scriptures was the result of his belief that they were the Word of God and therefore were the final authority for Christian belief and action. He did not believe in a doctrine of dictation, although he did on occasion refer to the writers as God's amanuenses, but held that the Holy Spirit in different and often mysterious ways revealed God's will and work and guided the writers in their recording of them. Thus, the Bible is authoritative in all matters with which it deals, but it does not deal with everything, such as astronomy. The individual comes to recognize the Bible as the Word of God not primarily because of logical, historical, or other arguments but by the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit's "internal testimony."

God

This raises the question of how Calvin regarded the God who had so revealed himself. In this he accepted the historic doctrine of the trinity of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the same in substance and equal in power, and glory. Further, he laid great stress upon the fact that God is sovereign. This eternal and completely self sufficient. Therefore, he is not subject either to time or to any other beings, nor is he reducible to spaciotemporal categories for human understanding and analysis. To his creatures God must always be mysterious, except insofar as he reveals himself to them.

This sovereign God is the source of all that is. But he is not the source because everything which exists apart from him is an emanation of the divine Being; he is the source of all things because he is their creator. He has brought everything into existence, including the creation from nothing of both time and space. How he created everything neither Calvin nor his followers have attempted to explain, for that is in the realm of the mystery of God's action. Nor did God create because he was forced to do so by any necessity. He freely created according to his own plan and purpose, which resulted in a universe that was good.

To Calvin and his followers it is also important to realize that the triune God did not turn away from creation after it was formed, but continues to sustain and maintain its existence and operation. The physical laws which govern the material universe are the result of the continual work and action of the Holy Spirit. Such a doctrine had an important influence on the development of physical science in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, being influential in the thinking of Pierre de la Ramee, Bernard Palissy, and Ambroise Pare in France; Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton in England; and other early physical scientists.

As God sovereignly sustains all his creation, so in his providence he rules over and guides it to the accomplishment of his ultimate purposes that all things might be to the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria). This rule included even the free actions of man, so that history might achieve the end which God has determined from all eternity. Here again is a mystery which the Calvinist is prepared to accept, since he is prepared to accept the ultimate mystery of God's being and action.

Man

Human beings were created in the image of God, with true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. Man saw himself as God's creation, placed in creation as the steward of God's handiwork. Being in the image of God, he also had free will, which meant that he had the capacity freely to obey or disobey God's commands. In dealing with man God entered into a covenant relationship with him, promising his favor and blessing, in return for which man was to rule over and subdue nature, recognizing his office as the lord of creation under the sovereign authority of the triune God. This is known in Calvinistic theology as the covenant of works.

Despite this covenant relationship and God's manifest revelation of himself, man chose to think that he could declare his independence of the sovereign God. Tempted by Satan, man asserted himself as an independent being worshipping the creature rather than the Creator and thus fell under the judgment of God. The outcome was God's condemnation of man, resulting in man's rejection by God, his total corruption, and his bequeathing of this corruption to his descendants throughout history. Only by the general or common grace of God man's corruption did not, and does not, work itself out fully or completely in this life.

The sovereign God, however, did not allow his plans and purposes to be frustrated. Already in eternity as part of his secret counsel he had chosen a great number of his fallen creatures for himself, to be reconciled to him. Why he did so God never reveals, except to say that he chose to do this in his mercy, for he quite justly could have rejected the whole human race for its sins. In pursuance of this plan and purpose of redemption the Father sent the Son, the second person of the Trinity, into the world to pay the penalty for the sin of the elect and to fulfill completely the righteousness of God's law on their behalf. In the OT the prophets and patriarchs looked forward to the coming of Christ, trusting in his promised redemption, while in the NT church, which continues down to today, Christians look back to what Christ accomplished for them in history

To those who are God's chosen ones the Holy Spirit is sent, not only to enlighten them to understand the gospel set forth in the Scriptures but to enable them to accept God's promise of forgiveness. By this "effectual calling" they come to faith in Christ as the one who has redeemed them, trusting in him alone as the one who has met all God's requirements on their behalf. Thus it is by faith alone (sola fidei) that they are saved, through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. Thereafter, as God's people they are to live lives which, while never perfectly holy, should manifest the fact that they are his people, seeking always to glorify him in thought, word, and deed.

The Church

The life which God's people now live they live as those who are God's covenant people. From all eternity the sovereign God purposed to make a covenant with his elect in and through their representative, the Son, who in history redeemed them by his spotless life and sacrifice on Calvary's cross. Therefore, as citizens of his kingdom they are now called to serve him in the world, which they do as the church. This obligation is laid upon both adult believers and their children, for the covenant is made with parents and children, as it was with Abraham and his descendants in the OT and with believers and their descendants in the NT. Baptism signifies this entry into the membership of the visible body of Christ's people for both children and adults, although in both cases the baptismal vows taken by the adults may be later repudiated.

The Lord's Supper is the continuing sacrament of which Christ's people partake in remembrance of him and of his redemptive work for them. But again, it is only as the elements are received and partaken of in faith that the Holy Spirit blesses those who receive the bread and wine, by making them spiritual participants in the body and blood of the Lord.

In the matter of the organization of the church Calvinists have generally agreed on the view that the church is to be governed by elders, those who teach and those who rule or supervise, elected by the church. Some, however, believe that an episcopal form of church government is the proper, or at least the allowable, form of organization. But all agree that as far as possible the outward, visible unity of the church should be maintained, for all Christians are members of the one body of Christ. On the other hand, Calvinists have also allowed for the pluriformity of the church, recognizing that the church is not perfect, but have also insisted that there must be basic uniformity or congruence of doctrine.

Calvinism in History

Although Calvin was the systematizer of the Reformation theology, since his day those who have accepted his structure of theology have continued to develop many of his ideas. During his own lifetime he himself developed his thought in the successive editions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. With the writing of various Calvinistic confessions such as the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618), and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms (1647 - 48) additions to and further developments in theological thought have appeared. Various theologians also during the succeeding years have elaborated various points which Calvin had raised but had not fully examined.

The nineteenth century in particular saw a very considerable expansion of Calvinistic thought under the influence of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck in the Netherlands, Auguste Lecerf in France, and A A Hodge, Charles Hodge, and B B Warfield in the United States. The tradition established by these men has been carried on in the present century by John Murray, J Gresham Machen, and Cornelius Van Til in the United States; Herman Dooyeweerd and D H Th Vollenhoven in the Netherlands; and many others in various countries around the world.

Calvin's influence has by no means been limited to the theological sphere, however, for the implications of his beliefs even in his own day had a wide influence in other areas of thought. His view of the state and the right of the subjects and subordinate magistrates to remove an oppressive ruler helped to lay the foundation for the development of democracy. His views on art have also been important in giving a theological - philosophical foundation for the development of pictorial art in the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and France, to mention only a few countries. Much the same could be said of other fields of human endeavor such as science, economic activity, and social reform. Moreover his thought has spread beyond the confines of the Western world to exercise an influence in places such as Africa, where Calvinists have gone as missionaries. In all these ways Calvinism has wielded, and still does wield, an important influence in the world, seeking to set forth the biblical doctrine of God's sovereign grace.

W S Reid

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography
Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J T McNeill; J T McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism; J H Bratt, ed., The Heritage of John Calvin; D E Holwerda, ed., Exploring the Heritage of John Calvin; B B Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism; W Niesel, The Theology of Calvin; J T Hoogstra, ed., John Calvin, Contemporary Prophet; A Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism; A Lecerf, Etudes Calvinistes; H Clavier, Etudes sur Calvinisme; W H Neuser, ed., Calvinus Theologus; G E Duffield, ed., John Calvin.


Calvinism

Catholic Information

No better account of this remarkable (though now largely obsolete) system has been drawn out than Möhler's in his "Symbolism or Doctrinal Differences." The "Institutes of the Christian Religion," in which Calvin depicted his own mind, were never superseded by creed or formulary, though the writer subscribed, in 1540, at Worms to the Confession of Augsburg, i.e. the second revised edition. To take his bearings in theology we must remember that he succeeded Luther in point of time and was committed to a struggle with Zwingli's disciples at Zurich and elsewhere, known as Sacramentarians, but who tended more and more towards a Christianity without mysteries. In 1549 he and Farel entered with Bullinger into a moderate view as regarded the Eucharist, the "Consensus Tigurinus," or compact of Zurich, which Bucer also accepted. Another compact, of the "pastors of Geneva" strengthened his hands, in 1552, on the subjects of predestination, against Jerome Bolsec, whom he refuted and cast into prison. Bolsec finally returned to the Catholic Church. In 1553 a controversy between the German Lutherans about the Lord's Supper led Calvin to declare his agreement with Melanchthon (the Philippists), but Melanchthon kept silence. Further complications ensued when Beza, softening the real doctrine of Geneva, drew nearer still to the Lutheran belief on this head. Bullinger and Peter Martyr cried down Beza's unauthorized glosses; but Calvin supported his favourite. Nevertheless, that "declaration" was dropped by Beza when, in company with Farel, he put together a "Confession of the French Church," and fell back on the creed of Augsburg issued in 1530, while not assenting to its 10th article. The Eucharist was to be more than a sign; Christ was truly present in it, and was received by Faith (compare the English Prayer Book, which reproduces his conception). Beyond these, on the whole, abortive efforts toward a common understanding, Calvin never went. His individual genius demanded its own expression; and he is always like himself, unlike any other. The many creeds fell into olivion; but the "Institutes" were recognized more and more as the sum of Reformed Theology. It was said after 1560, by the Jesuit St. Peter Canisius, that Calvin appeared to be taking Luther's place even among Germans. Three currents have ever since held their course in this development of Protestantism:

the mystic, derived from Wittenberg; the logical-orthodox, from Geneva; and the heterodox-rationalist, from Zurich (Zwingli), this last being greatly increased, thanks to the Unitarians of Italy, Ochino, Fausto, and Lelio

Socino.

To the modern world, however, Calvin stands peculiarly for the Reformation, his doctrine is supposed to contain the essence of the Gospel; and multitudes who reject Christianity mean merely the creed of Geneva.

Why does this happen? Because, we answer, Calvin gave himself out as following closely in the steps of St. Paul and St. Augustine. The Catholic teaching at Trent he judged to be Semi-Pelagian, a stigma which his disciples fix especially on the Jesuit schools, above all, on Molina. Hence the curious situation arises, that, while the Catholic consent of the East and West finds little or no acknowledgement as an historical fact among assailants of religion, the views which a single Reformer enunciated are taken as though representing the New Testament. In other words, a highly refined individual system, not traceable as a whole to any previous age, supplants the public teaching of centuries. Calvin, who hated Scholasticism, comes before us, as Luther had already done, in the shape of a Scholastic. His "pure doctrine" is gained by appealing, not to tradition, the "deposit" of faith, but to argument in abstract terms exercised upon Scripture. He is neither a critic nor a historian; he takes the Bible as something given; and he manipulates the Apostles' Creed in accordance with his own ideas. The "Institutes" are not a history of dogma, but a treatise, only not to be called an essay because of its peremptory tone. Calvin annihilates the entire space, with all its developments, which lies between the death of St. John and the sixteenth century. He does, indeed, quote St. Augustine, but he leaves out all that Catholic foundation on which the Doctor of Grace built. The "Institutes of the Christian Religion" are divided into four books and exhibit a commentary on the Apostles' Creed.

Book I considers God the Creator, the Trinity, revelation, man's first estate and original righteousness.

Book II describes the Fall of Adam, and treats of Christ the Redeemer.

Book III enlarges on justifying faith, election, and reprobation.

Book IV gives the Presbyterian idea of the Church.

In form the work differs from the "Summa" of St. Thomas Aquinas by using exposition where the Angelic Doctor syllogizes; but the style is close, the language good Latin of the Renaissance, and the tone elevated, though often bitter. Arguments employed are always ostensibly grounded on Scripture, the authority of which rests not upon fallible human reasoning, but on the internal persuasion of the Holy Spirit. Yet Calvin is embarrassed at the outset by "unsteady men" who declare themselves enlightened of the same spirit and in no want of Scripture. He endeavours to refute them by the instance of St. Paul and other "primitive believers," i.e. after all, by Catholic tradition. It will be obvious, moreover, that where the "Institutes" affirm orthodox tenets they follow the Councils and the Fathers, while professing reliance on the Bible alone. Thus we need not rehearse those chapters which deal with the Nicene and Chalcedonian formulas.

We shall best apprehend Calvin's master-thought if we liken it to modern systems of the Unconscious, or of physical predetermination, wherein all effects lie folded up, as it were, in one First Cause, and their development in time is necessitated. Effects are thus mere manifestations, not fresh acts, or in any way due to free will choosing its own course. Nature, grace, revelation, Heaven, and Hell do but show us different aspects of the eternal energy which works in all things. There is no free will outside the Supreme. Zwingli argued that, since God was infinite being, He alone existed -- there could be no other being, and secondary or created causes were but instruments moved entirely by Divine power. Calvin did not go to this length. But he denies freedom to creatures, fallen or unfallen, except it be libertas a coactione; in other words, God does not compel man to act by brute force, yet he determines irresistibly all we do, whether good or evil. The Supreme is indeed self-conscious -- not a blind Fate or Stoic destiny; it is by "decree" of the sovereign Lawgiver that events come to pass. But for such decrees no reason can be rendered. There is not any cause of the Divine will save Itself. If we ask why has the Almighty acted thus and thus, we are told, "Quia ipse voluit" -- it is His good pleasure. Beyond this, an explanation would be impossible, and to demand one is impiety. From the human angle of sight, therefore God works as though without a reason. And here we come upon the primal mystery to which in his argument Calvin recurs again and again. This Supreme Will fixes an absolute order, physical, ethical, religious, never to be modified by anything we can attempt. For we cannot act upon God, else He would cease to be the First Cause. Holding this clue, it is comparatively simple to trace Calvin's footsteps along the paths of history and revelation. Luther had written that man's will is enslaved either to God or to Satan, but it is never free. Melanchthon declaimed against the "impious dogma of Free Will," adding that since all things happen by necessity according to Divine predestination, no room was left for it. This was truly the article by which the Reformation should stand or fall. God is sole agent. Therefore creation, redemption, election, reprobation are in such sense His acts that man becomes merely their vehicle and himself does nothing. Luther, contending with Erasmus, declares that "God by an unchangeable, eternal, infallible will, foresees purposes and effects all things. By this thunderbolt Free Will is utterly destroyed." Calvin shared Luther's doctrine of necessity to the full; but he embroiled the language by admitting in unfallen Adam a liberty of choice. He was likewise at pains to distinguish between his own teaching and the "nature bound fast in Fate" of the Stoics. He meant by liberty, however, the absence of constraint; and the Divine wisdom which he invoked could never be made intelligible to our understanding. What he rejected was the Catholic notion of the self-determining second cause. Neither would he allow the doctrine laid down by the Fathers of Trent (Sess. VI Canon 16), that God permits evil deeds, but is not their author. The condemnation struck expressly at Melanchthon, who asserted that the betrayal by Judas was not less properly God's act than the vocation of St. Paul. But by parity of reasoning it falls upon Calvinism. For the "Institutes" affirm that "man by the righteous impulsion of God does that which is unlawful," and that "man falls, the Providence of God so ordaining" (IV, 18, 2; III, 23, 8). Yet elsewhere Calvin denied this impulse as not in accordance with the known will of the Almighty. Both he and Luther found a way of escape from the moral dilemma inflicted on them by distinguishing two wills in the Divine Nature, one public or apparent, which commanded good and forbade evil as the Scripture teaches, the other just, but secret and unsearchable, predetermining that Adam and all the reprobate should fall into sin and perish. At no time did Calvin grant that Adam's transgression was due to his own free will. Beza traces it to a spontaneous, i.e. a natural and necessary, movement of the spirit, in which evil could not fail to spring up. He justifies the means -- sin and its consequences -- by the holy purpose of the Creator who, if there were no one to punish, would be incapable of showing that he is a righteously vindictive God. As, however, man's intent was evil, he becomes a sinner while his Creator remains holy. The Reformed confessions will not allow that God is the author of sin -- and Calvin shows deep indignation when charged with "this disgraceful falsehood." He distinguishes, like Beza, the various intentions concurring to the same act on the part of different agents- but the difficulty cannot well be got over, that, in his view, the First Cause alone is a real agent, and the rest mere instruments. It was objected to him that he gave no convincing reasons for the position thus taken up, and that his followers were swayed by their master's authority rather than by the force of his logic. Even an admirer, J. A. Froude, tells us:

To represent man as sent into the world under a curse, as incurably wicked-wicked by the constitution of his nature and wicked by eternal decree-as doomed, unless exempted by special grace which he cannot merit, or by any effort of his own obtain, to live in sin while he remains on earth, and to be eternally miserable when he leaves it-to represent him as born unable to keep the commandments, yet as justly liable to everlasting punishment for breaking them, is alike repugnant to reason and conscience, and turns existence into a hideous nightmare. (Short Studies, II, 3.)

Another way to define the Reformed theology would be to contrast its view of God's eternal decrees with that taken in the Catholic Church, notably by Jesuit authors such as Molina. To Calvin the ordinances of Deity seemed absolute, i.e. not in any way regardful of the creature's acts, which they predetermined either right or wrong; and thus reprobation -- the supreme issue between all parties -- followed upon God's unconditioned fiat, no account being had in the decree itself of man's merits or demerits. For God chose some to glory and others to shame everlasting as He willed, not upon foreknowledge how they would act. The Jesuit school made foreknowledge of "future contingencies" or of what creatures would do in any possible juncture, the term of Divine vision "scientia media" which was logically antecedent (as a condition not a cause) to the scheme of salvation. Grace, said Catholic dogma, was offered to all men; none were excluded from it. Adam need not have transgressed, neither was his fall pre-ordained. Christ died for the whole human race; and every one had such help from on high that the reprobate could never charge their ruin upon their Maker, since he permitted it only, without an absolute decree. Grace, then, was given freely; but eternal life came to the saints by merit, founded on correspondence to the Holy Spirit's impulse. All these statements Calvin rejected as Pelagian, except that he would maintain, though unable to justify, the- imputation of the sinner's lapse to human nature by itself.

To be consistent, this doctrine requires that no prevision of Adam's Fall should affect the eternal choice which discriminates between the elect and the lost. A genuine Calvinist ought to be a supralapsarian; in other terms, the Fall was decreed as means to an end; it did not first appear in God's sight to be the sufficient cause why, if He chose, He might select some from the "massa damnata," leaving others to their decreed doom. To this subject St. Augustine frequently returns in his anti-Pelagian treatises, and he lays great emphasis on the consequences to mankind as regards their final state, of God's dealing with them in fallen Adam. But his language, unlike that of Calvin, never implies absolute rejection divorced from foreknowledge of man's guilt. Thus even to the African Father, whose views in his latter works became increasingly severe (see "On the Predestination of the Saints" and "On Correction and Grace") there was always an element of scientia media, i.e. prevision in the relation of God with His creatures. But, to the Reformer who explained Redemption and its opposite by sheer omnipotence doing as it would, the idea that man could, even as a term of knowledge, by his free acts be considered in the Everlasting Will was not conceivable. As the Arian said, "How can the Eternal be begotten?" and straightway denied the generation of the Word, in like manner Calvin, "How can the contingent affect the First Cause on which it utterly depends?" In the old dilemma, "either God is not omnipotent or man is not self determined," the "Institutes" accept the conclusion adverse to liberty. But it was, said Catholics, equally adverse to morals; and the system has always been criticised on that ground. In a word, it seemed to be antinomian.

With Augustine the Geneva author professed to be at one. "If they have all been taken from a corrupt mass," he argued, "no marvel that they are subject to condemnation." But, his critics replied, "were they not antecedently predestined to that corruption?" And "is not God unjust in treating His creatures with such cruel mystery?" To this Calvin answers, "I confess that all descendants of Adam fell by the Divine will," and that "we must return at last to God's sovereign determination, the cause of which is hidden" (Institutes, III, 23, 4).

"Therefore," he concludes, "some men are born devoted from the womb to certain death, that His name may be glorified in their destruction." And the reason why such necessity is laid upon them? "Because," says Calvin "life and death are acts of God's will rather than of his foreknowledge," and "He foresees further events only in consequence of his decree that they shall happen." Finally, "it is an awful decree, I confess [horribile decretum, fateor], but none can deny that God foreknew the future final fate of man before He created him -- and that He did foreknow it because it was appointed by His own ordinance." Calvin, then, is a supralapsarian; the Fall was necessary; and our first parents, like ourselves, could not have avoided sinning.

So far, the scheme presents a cast-iron logic at whatever expense to justice and morality. When it comes to consider human nature, its terms sound more uncertain, it veers to each extreme in succession of Pelagius and Luther. In St. Augustine, that nature is almost always viewed historically, not in the abstract hence as possessed by unfallen Adam it was endowed with supernatural gifts, while in his fallen children it bears the burden of concupiscence and sin. But the French Reformer, not conceding a possible state of pure nature, attributes to the first man, with Luther (in Genesis 3), such perfection as would render God's actual grace unnecessary, thus tending to make Adam self-sufficient, as the Pelagians held all men to be. On the other hand, when original sin took them once captive the image of God was entirety blotted out. This article of "total depravity" also came from Luther, who expressed it in language of appalling power. And so the "Institutes" announce that "in man all which bears reference to the blessed life of the soul is extinct." And if it was "natural" in Adam to love God and do justice, or a part of his very essence, then by lapsing from grace he would have been plunged into an abyss below nature, where his true moral and religious being was altogether dissolved. So, at any rate, the German Protestants believed in their earlier period, nor was Calvin reluctant to echo them.

Catholics distinguish two kinds of beatitude: one corresponding to our nature as a rational species and to be acquired by virtuous acts; the other beyond all that man may do or seek when left to his own faculties, and in such wise God's free gift that it is due only to acts performed under the influence of a strictly supernatural movement. The confusion of grace with nature in Adam's essence was common to all the Reformed schools; it is peculiarly manifest in Jansenius, who strove to deduce it from St. Augustine. And, granting the Fall, it leads by direct inference to man's utter corruption as the unregenerate child of Adam. He is evil in all that he thinks, or wills, or does. Yet Calvin allows him reason and choice, though not true liberty. The heart was poisoned by sin, but something remained of grace to hinder its worst excesses, or to justify God's vengeance on the reprobate (over and above their original fault inherited). On the whole, it must be said that the "Institutes" which now and then allow that God's image was not quite effaced in us, deny to mankind, so far as redemption has not touched them, any moral and religious powers whatsoever. With Calvin as with his predecessor of Wittenberg, heathen virtue is but apparent, and that of the non-Christian merely "political," or secular. Civilization, founded on our common nature, is in such a view external only, and its justice or benevolence may claim no intrinsic value. That it has no supernatural value Catholics have always asserted; but the Church condemns those who say, with Baius, "All the works of unbelievers are sinful and the virtues of the philosophers are vices." Propositions equivalent to these are as follows: "Free Will not aided by God's grace, avails only to commit sin," and "God could not have created man at the beginning such as he is now born" (Props. 25, 27, 55, censured by St. Pius V, Oct., 1567, and by Urban VIII, March, 1641). Catholic theology admits a twofold goodness and righteousness -- the one natural, as Aristotle defines it in his "Ethics," the other supernatural inspired by the Holy Ghost. Calvin throws aside every middle term between justifying faith and corrupt desire. The integrity of Adam's nature once violated, he falls under the dominion of lust, which reigns in him without hindrance, save by the external grace now and again preventing a deeper degradation. But whatever he is or does savours of the Evil One. Accordingly the system maintained that faith (which here signifies trust in the Lutheran sense) was the first interior grace given and source of all others, as likewise that outside the Church no grace is ever bestowed.

We come on these lines to the famous distinction which separates the true Church that of the predestined, from the seeming or visible, where all baptized persons meet. This falls in with Calvin's whole theory, but is never to be mistaken for the view held by Roman authorities, that some may pertain to the soul of the Church who are not members of its body. Always pursuing his idea, the absolute predestinarian finds among Christians, all of whom have heard the Gospel and received the sacraments, only a few entitled to life everlasting. These obtain the grace which is in words offered to every one; the rest fill up the measure of their condemnation. To the reprobate, Gospel ordinances serve as a means to compass the ruin intended for them. Hereby, also, an answer is made possible when Catholics demand where the Reformed Church was prior to the Reformation. Calvin replies that in every age the elect constituted the flock of Christ, and all besides were strangers, though invested with dignity and offices in the visible communion. The reprobate have only apparent faith. Yet they may feel as do the elect, experience similar fervours, and to the best of their judgment be accounted saints. All that is mere delusion; they are hypocrites "into whose minds God insinuates Himself, so that, not having the adoption of sons, they may yet taste the goodness of the Spirit." Thus Calvin explained how in the Gospel many are called believers who did not persevere; and so the visible Church is made up of saints that can never lose their crown, and sinners that by no effort could attain to salvation.

Faith, which means assurance of election, grace, and glory, is then the heritage of none but the predestined. But, since no real secondary cause exists man remains passive throughout the temporal series of events by which he is shown to be an adopted son of God. He neither acts nor, in the Catholic sense co-operates with his Redeemer. A difference in the method of conversion between Luther and Calvin may here be noted. The German mystic begins, as his own experience taught him, with the terrors of the law. The French divine who had never gone through that stage, gives the first place to the Gospel; and repentance, instead of preceding faith, comes after it. He argued that by so disposing of the process, faith appeared manifestly alone, unaccompanied by repentance, which, otherwise, might claim some share of merit. The Lutherans, moreover, did not allow absolute predestination. And their confidence in being themselves justified, i.e. saved, was unequal to Calvin's requirements. For he made assurance inevitable as was its object to the chosen soul. Nevertheless, he fancied that between himself and the sounder medieval scholastics no quarrel need arise touching the principle of justification -- namely, that "the sinner being delivered gratuitously from his doom becomes righteous." Calvin overlooked in these statements the vital difference which accounts for his aberration from the ancient system. Catholics held that fallen man kept in some degree his moral and religious faculties, though much impaired, and did not lose his free will. But the newer doctrine affirmed man's total incompetence, he could neither freely consent nor ever resist, when grace was given, if he happened to be predestinate. If not, justification lay beyond his grasp. However, the language of the "Institutes" is not so uncompromising as Luther's had been. God first heals the corrupt will, and the will follows His guidance; or, we may say, cooperates.

The one final position of Calvin is that omnipotent grace of itself substitutes a good for an evil will in the elect, who do nothing towards their own conversion but when converted are accounted just. In all the original theology of the Reformation righteousness is something imputed, not indwelling in the soul. It is a legal fiction when compared with what the Catholic Church believes, namely, that justice or sanctification involves a real gift, a quality bestowed on the spirit and inherent, whereby it becomes the thing it is called. Hence the Council of Trent declares (Sess. VI) that Christ died for all men, it condemns (Canon XVII) the main propositions of Geneva, that "the grace of justification comes only to the predestinate," and that "the others who are called receive an invitation but no grace, being doomed by the Divine power to evil." So Innocent X proscribed in Jansenius the statement: "It is Semipelagian to affirm that Christ died for all men, or shed His blood in their behalf." In like manner Trent rejected the definition of faith as "confidence in being justified without merit"; grace was not "the feeling of love," nor was justification the "forgiveness of sin," and apart from a special revelation no man could be infallibly sure that he was saved. According to Calvin the saint was made such by his faith, and the sinner by want of it stood condemned, but the Fathers of Trent distinguished a dead faith, which could never justify, from faith animated by charity -- and they attributed merit to all good works done through Divine inspiration. But in the Genevese doctrine faith itself is not holy. This appears very singular; and no explanation has ever been vouchsafed of the power ascribed to an act or mean, itself destitute of intrinsic qualities, neither morally good nor in any way meritorious, the presence or absence of which nevertheless fixes our eternal destiny.

But since Christ alone is our righteousness, Luther concluded that the just man is never just in himself; that concupiscence, though resisted, makes him sin damnably in all he does, and that he remains a sinner until his last breath. Thus even the "Solid Declaration" teaches, though in many respects toning down the Reformer's truculence. Such guilt, however, God overlooks where faith is found -- the one unpardonable sin is want of faith. "Pecca fortiter sed crede fortius" -- this Lutheran epigram, "Sin as you like provided you believe," expresses in a paradox the contrast between corrupt human nature, filthy still in the very highest saints, and the shadow of Christ, as, falling upon them, it hides their shame before God. Here again the Catholic refuses to consider man responsible except where his will consents; the Protestant regards impulse and enticement as constituting all the will that we have. These observations apply to Calvin -- but he avoids extravagant speech while not differing from Luther in fact. He grants that St. Augustine would not term involuntary desires sin; then he adds, "We, on the contrary, deem it to be sin whenever a man feels any desires forbidden by Divine law -- and we assert the depravity to be sin which produces them" (Institutes, III, 2, 10). On the hypothesis of determinism, held by every school of the Reformers, this logic is unimpeachable. But it leads to strange consequences. The sinner commits actions which the saint may also indulge in; but one is saved the other is lost; and so the entire moral contents of Christianity are emptied out. Luther denominated the saint's liberty freedom from the law. And Calvin, "The question is not how we can be righteous, but how, though unworthy and unrighteous, we may be considered righteous." The law may instruct and exhort, but "it has no place in the conscience before God's tribunal." And if Christians advert to the law, "they see that every work they attempt or meditate is accursed" (Institutes, III, 19, 2, 4). Leo X had condemned Luther's thesis, "In every good work the just man sins." Baius fell under censure for asserting (Props. 74, 75) that "concupiscence in the baptized is a sin, though not imputed." And, viewing the whole theory, Catholics have asked whether a sinfulness which exists quite independent of the will is not something substantial, like the darkness of the Manichæans, or essential to us who are finite beings.

At all events Calvin seems entangled in perplexities on the subject, for he declares expressly that the regenerate are "liable every moment at God's judgment-seat to sentence of death" (Instit., III, 2, 11); yet elsewhere he tempers his language with a "so to speak," and explains it as meaning that all human virtue is imperfect. He would certainly have subscribed to the "Solid Declaration," that the good works of the pious are not necessary to salvation. With Luther, he affirms the least transgression to be a mortal sin, even involuntary concupiscence -- and as this abides in every man while he lives, all that we do is worthy of punishment (Instit., II, 8, 68, 59). And again, "There never yet was any work of a religious man which, examined by God's severe standard would not be condemnable" (Ibid., III, 14,11). The Council of Trent had already censured these axioms by asserting that God does not command impossibilities, and that His children keep His word. Innocent X did the like when he proscribed as heretical the fifth proposition of Jansenius, "Some commandments of God are impossible to the just who will and endeavour; nor is the grace by which they should become possible given to them."

Two important practical consequences may be drawn from this entire view: first, that conversion takes place in a moment -- and so all evangelical Protestants believe; and, second, that baptism ought not to be administered to infants, seeing they cannot have the faith which justifies. This latter inference produced the sect of Anabaptists against whom Calvin thunders as he does, against other "frenzied" persons, in vehement tones. Infant baptism was admitted, but its value, as that of every ordinance, varied with the predestination to life or to death of the recipient. To Calvinists the Church system was an outward life beneath which the Holy Spirit might be present or absent, not according to the dispositions brought by the faithful, but as grace was decreed. For good works could not prepare a man to receive the sacraments worthily any more than to be justified in the beginning. If so, the Quakers might well ask, what is the use of sacraments when we have the Spirit? And especially did this reasoning affect the Eucharist. Calvin employs the most painful terms in disowning the sacrifice of the Mass. No longer channels of grace, to Melanchthon the sacraments are "Memorials of the exercise of faith," or badges to be used by Christians. From this point of view, Christ's real presence was superfluous, and the acute mind of Zwingli leaped at once to that conclusion, which has ever since prevailed among ordinary Protestants. But Luther's adherence to the words of the Scripture forbade him to give up the reality, though he dealt with it in his peculiar fashion. Bucer held an obscure doctrine, which attempted the middle way between Rome and Wittenberg. To Luther the sacraments serve as tokens of God's love; Zwingli degrades them to covenants between the faithful. Calvin gives the old scholastic definition and agrees with Luther in commending their use, but he separates the visible element proffered to all from the grace which none save the elect may enjoy. He admits only two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Even these neither contain nor confer spiritual graces; they are signs, but not efficacious as regards that which is denoted by them. For inward gifts, we must remember, do not belong to the system, whereas Catholics believe in ordinances as acts of the Man-God, producing the effects within the soul which He has promised, "He that eateth Me shall live by Me."

When the Church's tradition was thrown aside, differences touching the Holy Eucharist sprang up immediately among the Reformers which have never found a reconciliation. To narrate their history would occupy a volume. It is notable, however, that Calvin succeeded where Bucer had failed, in a sort of compromise, and the agreement of Zurich which he inspired was taken up by the Swiss Protestants. Elsewhere it led to quarrels, particularly among the Lutherans, who charged him with yielding too much. He taught that the Body of Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, and that the believer partakes of it that the elements are unchanged, and that the Catholic Mass was idolatry. Yet his precise meaning is open to question. That he did not hold a real objective presence seems clear from his arguing against Luther, as the "black rubric" of the Common Prayer Book argues -- Christ's body, he says, is in heaven. Therefore, it cannot be on earth. The reception was a spiritual one; and this perfectly orthodox phrase might be interpreted as denying a true corporal presence. The Augsburg Confession, revised by its author Melanchthon, favoured ambiguous views -- at last he declared boldly for Calvin, which amounted to an acknowledgment that Luther's more decided language overshot the mark. The "Formula of Concord" was an attempt to rescue German Churches from this concession to the so-called Sacramentarians; it pronounced, as Calvin never would have done, that the unworthy communicant receives Our Lord's Body; and it met his objection by the strange device of "ubiquity" -- namely, that the glorified Christ was everywhere. But these quarrels lie outside our immediate scope.

As Calvin would not grant the Mass to be a sacrifice, nor the ministers of the Lord's Supper to be priests, that conception of the Church which history traces back to the earliest Apostolic times underwent a corresponding change. The clergy were now "Ministers of the Word," and the Word was not a tradition, comprising Scripture in its treasury, but the printed Bible, declared all-sufficient to the mind which the Spirit was guiding. Justification by faith alone, the Bible, and the Bible only, as the rule of faith -- such were the cardinal principles of the Reformation. They worked at first destructively, by abolishing the Mass and setting up private judgment in opposition to pope and bishops. Then the Anabaptists arose. If God's word sufficed, what need of a clergy? The Reformers felt that they must restore creeds and enforce the power of the Church over dissidents. Calvin, who possessed great constructive talent, built his presbytery on a democratic foundation -- the people were to choose, but the ministers chosen were to rule. Christian freedom consisted in throwing off the yoke of the Papacy, it did not allow the individual to stand aloof from the congregation. He must sign formulas, submit to discipline, be governed by a committee of elders. A new sort of Catholic Church came into view, professing that the Bible was its teacher and judge, but never letting its members think otherwise than the articles drawn up should enjoin. None were allowed in the pulpit who were not publicly called, and ordination, which Calvin regarded almost as a sacrament, was conferred by the presbytery.

In his Fourth Book the great iconoclast, to whom in good logic only the Church invisible should have signified anything, makes the visible Church supreme over Christians, assigns to it the prerogatives claimed by Rome, enlarges on the guilt of schism, and upholds the principle, Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. He will not allow that corrupt morals in the clergy, or a passing eclipse of doctrine by superstition, can excuse those who, on pretence of a purer Gospel, leave it. The Church is described in equivalent terms as indefectible and infallible. All are bound to hear and obey what it teaches. Luther had spoken of it with contempt almost everywhere in his first writings; to him the individual guided by the Holy Spirit was autonomous. But Calvin taught his followers so imposing a conception of the body in which they were united as to bring back a hierarchy in effect if not in name. "Where the ministry of Word and Sacraments is preserved," he concludes, "no moral delinquencies can take away the Church's title." He had nevertheless, broken with the communion in which he was born. The Anabaptists retorted that they did not owe to his new-fashioned presbytery the allegiance he had cast away -- the Quakers, who held with him by the Inward Light, more consistently refused all jurisdiction to the visible Church.

One sweeping consequence of the Reformation is yet to be noticed. As it denied the merit of good works even in the regenerate, all those Catholic beliefs and ordinances which implied a Communion of Saints actively helping each other by prayer and self-sacrifice were flung aside. Thus Purgatory, Masses for the dead, invocation of the blessed in Heaven, and their intercession for us are scouted by Calvin as "Satan's devices." A single argument gets rid of them all: do they not make void the Cross of Christ our only Redeemer? (Instit., III, 5, 6). Beza declared that "prayer to the saints destroys the unity of God." The Dutch Calvinists affirmed of them, as the Epicureans of their deities, that they knew nothing about what passes on earth. Wherever the Reformers triumphed, a wholesale destruction of shrines and relics took place. Monasticism, being an ordered system of mortification on Catholic principles, offended all who thought such works needless or even dangerous -- it fell, and great was the fall thereof, in Protestant Europe. The Calendar had been framed as a yearly ritual, commemorating Our Lord's life and sufferings, with saints' days filling it up. Calvin would tolerate the Swiss of Berne who desired to keep the Gospel festivals; but his Puritan followers left the year blank, observing only the Sabbath, in a spirit of Jewish legalism. After such a fashion the Church was divorced from the political order -- the living Christian ceased to have any distinct relation with his departed friends; the saints became mere memories, or were suspected of Popery; the churches served as houses of preaching, where the pulpit had abolished the altar; and Christian art was a thing of the past. The Reformers, including Calvin, appealed so confidently to St. Augustine's volumes that it seems only fair to note the real difference which exists between his doctrine and theirs. Cardinal Newman sums it up as follows:

The main point is whether the Moral Law can in its substance be obeyed and kept by the regenerate. Augustine says, that whereas we are by nature condemned by the Law, we are enabled by the grace of God to perform it unto our justification; Luther [and Calvin equally] that, whereas we are condemned by the law, Christ has Himself performed it unto our justification -- Augustine, that our righteousness is active; Luther, that it is passive; Augustine, that it is imparted, Luther that it is only imputed; Augustine, that it consists in a change of heart; Luther, in a change of state. Luther maintains that God's commandments are impossible to man Augustine adds, impossible without His grace; Luther that the Gospel consists of promises only Augustine, that it is also a law, Luther, that our highest wisdom is not to know the Law, Augustine says instead, to know and keep it -- Luther says, that the Law and Christ cannot dwell together in the heart. Augustine says that the Law is Christ; Luther denies and Augustine maintains that obedience is a matter of conscience. Luther says that a man is made a Christian not by working but by hearing; Augustine excludes those works only which are done before grace is given; Luther, that our best deeds are sins; Augustine, that they are really pleasing to God (Lectures on Justification, ch. ii, 58).

As, unlike the Lutheran, those Churches which looked up to Calvin as their teacher did not accept one uniform standard, they fell into particular groups and had each their formulary. The three Helvetic Confessions, the Tetrapolitan, that of Basle, and that composed by Bullinger belong respectively to 1530, 1532, 1536. The Anglican 42 Articles of 1553, composed by Cranmer and Ridley, were reduced to 39 under Elizabeth in 1562. They bear evident tokens of their Calvinistic origin, but are designedly ambiguous in terms and meaning. The French Protestants, in a Synod at Paris, 1559, framed their own articles. In 1562 those of the Netherlands accepted a profession drawn up by Guy de Bres and Saravia in French, which the Synod of Dort (1574) approved. A much more celebrated meeting was held at this place 1618-19, to adjudicate between the High Calvinists, or Supralapsarians, who held unflinchingly to the doctrine of the "Institutes" touching predestination and the Remonstrants who opposed them. Gomar led the former party; Arminius, though he died before the synod, in 1609, had communicated his milder views to Uytenbogart and Episcopius, hence called Arminians. They objected to the doctrine of election before merit, that it made the work of Christ superfluous and inexplicable. The Five Articles which contained their theology turned on election, adoption, justification, sanctification, and sealing by the Spirit, all which Divine acts presuppose that man has been called, has obeyed, and is converted. Redemption is universal, reprobation due to the sinner's fault and not to God's absolute decree. In these and the like particulars, we find the Arminians coming close to Tridentine formulas. The "Remonstrance" of 1610 embodied their protest against the Manichaean errors, as they said, which Calvin had taken under his patronage. But the Gomarists renewed his dogmas; and their belief met a favourable reception among the Dutch, French, and Swiss. In England the dispute underwent many vicissitudes. The Puritans, as afterwards their Nonconformist descendants, generally sided with Gomar; the High Church party became Arminian. Wesley abandoned the severe views of Calvin; Whitefield adopted them as a revelation. The Westminster Assembly (1643-47) made an attempt to unite the Churches of Great Britain on a basis of Calvinism, but in vain. Their Catechism -- the Larger and the Smaller -- enjoyed authority by Act of Parliament. John Knox had, in 1560 edited the "First Book of Discipline," which follows Geneva, but includes a permissive ritual. The "Second Book of Discipline" was sent out by a congregation under Andrew Melville's influence in 1572, and in 1592 the whole system received Parliamentary sanction. But James I rejected the doctrines of Dort. In Germany the strange idea was prevalent that civil rulers ought to fix the creed of their subjects, Cujus regio, ejus religio. Hence an alternation and confusion of formulas ensued down to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Frederick III, Count Palatine, put forward, in 1562, the Heidelberg Catechism, which is of Calvin's inspiration. John George of Anhalt-Dessau laid down the same doctrine in 20 Articles (1597). Maurice of Hesse-Cassel patronized the Synod of Dort; and John Sigismund of Brandenburg, exchanging the Lutheran tenets for the Genevese, imposed on his Prussians the "Confession of the Marches." In general, the reformed Protestants allowed dogmatic force to the revised Confession of Augsburg (1540) which Calvin himself had signed.

Publication information Written by William Barry. Transcribed by Tomas Hancil. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III. Published 1908. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


Also, see:
John Calvin

Canons of Dort
Heidelberg Catechism

Westminster Confession of Faith


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