On September 23, 2017, we gathered at the Sequoia Yacht Club in Redwood City to conduct an interactive discussion on the impact of Calvinism in the modern world, especially on the United States. Part of the dialogue involved topics such as: 1) sovereignty of God, 2) predestination of humanity, 3) doctrine of hell and eternal damnation, 4) function of free will, 5) unlimited divine grace, 6) the Trinity, and 7) both atonement and redemption, as we inquired into the basic tenants of this theological worldview. It was presented under the auspices of the Centre for Early Christian Studies, and Brent Walters interacted with those present for over two hours. What follows are brief definitions of the two principal figures responsible for the original movement and the five basic points of Calvinism.
John Calvin (1509-1564) was a French theologian during the Protestant Reformation. His most important text was Institutes of the Christian Religion that became standard reading of his day for those who separated from the Catholic Church. He wrote the work in Latin in the year 1536 at the age of twenty-six; multiple editions and revisions followed until his death. Calvin’s publications spread throughout most of Europe; in fact, his theological system reached Scotland, Germany, and the Netherlands, and it became influential in France, Hungary, and Poland. He established a church government in Geneva, and it became the model of Puritan sobriety, for the lives of its citizens were closely policed and all offenses were severely punished. Most settlers in the American Mid-Atlantic and New England were Calvinists, including the Puritans and Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (New York). Their main theological principle was the sovereignty of God; however, a number of corollary doctrines were retained. One prominent issue they championed was predestination, a principle that determines the eternal destiny for all of humanity.
Some scholars, however, challenged his conclusions, such as the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). While his instructors were Calvinistic, his studies at Geneva ultimately led him to dispute much of what he was taught. A prolific writer, Arminius founded what resulted in an anti-Calvinistic school within Protestantism. He became a professor of theology at Leiden in 1603 and died there six years later; as a result, the system attached to his name was not fully developed during his lifetime. Nonetheless, it was formalized in five principal articles in which the doctrine of predestination was contested. The main assertion of the movement was that Calvinism made God the author of both good and evil. While he never abandoned the Reformed perspective, Arminius gave a much larger role to the faith of a believer and described a conditional, rather than absolute, predestination. After his death, supporters, widely called the Remonstrants, issued a document containing five distinctive points that summarized their differences with Calvinism and resulted in four centuries of rigorous debate and theological partisanship.
FIVE POINTS OF CALVINISM
1. Total Depravity
Humans are in absolute bondage to sin and to Satan and are unable to exercise their own will in order to trust in Jesus Christ without God’s assistance.
2. Unconditional Election
Foreknowledge is based on the plan and purpose of God, and election is not the result of human decision but of the divine will of the Creator alone.
3. Limited Atonement
Jesus Christ died to save those whom God selected in eternity. All those for whom he died are saved; those for whom he did not die are eternally lost.
4. Irresistible Grace
God’s grace is irresistible and cannot be altered. Humans are so removed from salvation that the Lord regenerated the elect before they expressed faith.
5. Perseverance of Saints
Salvation is God’s work, and humans are entirely removed from the process. Those saved persevere because the Lord always finishes the work he begins.