Calvinism (Reformed theology) wasn’t a very common viewpoint in my country. But when I began to interact with Christians from other countries online, I met a group of Christians who though were good at apologetics, adhered to a theology that ostensibly placed them on a higher pedestal than other Christians. They were Calvinists, as I later found out. It’s my understanding that if a doctrine or theological view makes a group of Christians feel “superior” to others outside that little circle, it should be scrutinised. This made me research Calvinism.
Calvinism is a theological system developed by the French Reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvin being an intelligent theologian, wrote Bible commentaries on many books of the Bible and expounded on some key Christian doctrines. His major four-volume work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion was the main source of the doctrines of Calvinism.
Though John Calvin has been unduly overrated by ardent Calvinists, the fact still remains that his work was influential on the Protestant movement, particularly in Geneva where he ruled. Calvinism is also called Reformed theology, which I argue, is a misnomer, because the Protestant Reformation started when Luther nailed his 95 thesis at the door of the church of Wittenburg. Calvin was 8 years old (and still a Catholic) then. Since there were also other Reformers who differed with Calvin on some issues, the term “Reformation” can’t be accurately reserved for Calvin’s theological system.
Calvinism emphasises God’s sovereignty – that God is providentially in control of all things that happens, including evil things. The “doctrines of Grace” (as they are called) can be summed up as 5 points with the acronyms: TULIP.
T – Total Depravity: that man’s fall has resulted in man’s total inability to choose God or do good.
U – Unconditional Election: that God has from eternity past chosen His elect whom He wants to save while leaving the rest (reprobates) to perish.
L – Limited Atonement: that Christ died for only the elect, not the whole world.
I – Irresistible Grace: that those whom God has called (i.e. the elect) cannot resist His grace, but must always respond.
P – Perseverance of the Saints: that the elect of God will always persevere and never fall away.
It’s not my intention to debate on the 5 points of Calvinism here. From experience, most Calvinists are quick to cut off contact with fellow Christians on that basis. The command to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is not familiar to many of them (Eph. 4:3). Really, such attitudes are unreasonable and immature. There is no harm in Believers discussing and laying out their disagreements. And the fact that one disagrees with Calvinism does not mean one is an “anti-Calvinist.”
I don’t have a problem with theological systems, but I question them when they are being used as criteria of true Christianity, such that adherents are more busy defending that theology than the Gospel of Christ. I have fine Calvinist friends and mentors, and I believe a number of them are true Christians. But there are some alarming claims leading Calvinist authors have made:
“Calvinism stands today as the great citadel of historic orthodoxy” (Singer G. John Calvin: His Roots and Fruits, 28)
“[Calvinism is] firmly based…upon the Word of God” (Seaton W. The Five Points of Calvinism, 17)
“[Calvinism] is the only system which is true to the Word of God.” (Kenneth and Crampton, Calvinism, Hyper Calvinism and Arminianism, iv)
If these claims are true, it means unless one is a Calvinist, one is outside the sphere of historic orthodoxy and opposed to God’s Word. Calvinists also assert that their system is not easy to understand. R. C. Sproul in his foreword to The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism wrote:
“Calvinism is certainly no easy system to master. But in addition to being difficult to understand, Calvinism is often the subject of grave misunderstanding…”
On one hand, we are told that Calvinism is “firmly based upon the Word of God” and on the other, it’s not an “easy system to master” and quite “difficult to understand.” This is a contradiction. The Word of God is not difficult to understand or learn. A “young man” can understand the Bible and thereby “cleanse his ways” (Ps. 119:9). The unfolding of God’s Word “gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (vs. 130). Timothy, as a child learnt the Scriptures at home from his mother and grandmother (2Tim. 1:5). So, if Calvinism is difficult to understand or master, the logical conclusion is that it’s not firmly based on God’s Word.
Charles Spurgeon in his Defense of Calvinism said: “Unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel and nothing else.”
Arthur Constance in The Sovereignty of Grace (p. 302) wrote: “Calvinism is the Gospel and to teach Calvinism is in fact to preach the Gospel.”
Allan Sell: “[Calvinism is] the sum and substance of what is represented in Scripture as done for the salvation of sinners by the three Persons of the Trinity” (The Great Debate, 1982, 4)
The implications of these assertions are:
1. Since Calvinism is the Gospel and it contains the sum and substance of what is represented in Scripture, that means for 1500 years until John Calvin came on the scene, there was no Gospel and no sinners saved. That’s tragic, except that Calvinism is a theological system and it’s biblically unacceptable to make a philosophical theological system an equivalent of the Biblical Gospel that saves.
2. If Calvinism is the Gospel and yet so “difficult to understand,” that implies that the Gospel is complicated and difficult such that only intellectuals can comprehend it and thereby become saved. A system that is so esoteric for ordinary Christians can’t be based on God’s Word. If the Gospel can only be grasped by the elites, where does that leave the common people?
A Calvinist author bragged: “Among the past and present advocates of this doctrine are to be found some of the world’s greatest and wisest men.” (The Reformed Faith, 1).
Does this mean unless one is a Calvinist, one can’t be part of the greatest and wisest? Sounds like a magnetic system for arrogant minds to me. If God “has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise…and the weak things of the world to confound” the mighty, then we don’t have to be an intellectual to understand the Gospel (Rom. 1:27). The disciples of Jesus were simple men and women – fishermen, tax collectors and housewives – yet they understood the Gospel and could teach it clearly to others.
3. What is the Gospel? Apostle Paul defined it as: “how Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day” (1Cor. 15:3-4). Nowhere in the New Testament is TULIP taught as the Gospel.
At no point did the apostles present the Calvinist “doctrines of Grace” to unbelievers (Acts 2:6-11, 3:13-15, 18-21, 26, 4:8-12) When the Philippian jailer asked how he can be saved, Paul didn’t reply, “Do you believe in the five points of Calvinism?” No, he said “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:16).
Greek scholar, E. W. Vine defined the Gospel as: “The good tidings of the Kingdom of God and of salvation through Christ, to be received by faith, on the basis of His expiatory death, His burial, resurrection, and ascension e.g. Acts 15:17, 20:24, 1Peter 4:17” (An Expository Dictionary of N.T. Words “Gospel”).
The Gospel is based on Christ and Him alone – not Calvin’s schema of heavily philosophical theology. The Reformers stood for sola Christus (Christ alone). None of them ever cried “Sola TULIP!” We are saved by Christ alone, not by a 4-step law or a 5-point doctrine. It’s inconsistent for us to hold on to Sola Scriptura but then allow someone to redefine the Gospel which has been clearly defined by Scripture.
4. If Calvinism is the Gospel, it means the major segments of the church and whole denominations like the Methodists, Lutherans, majority of Anglicans, Free Will Baptists, most Pentecostals and many other Bible believers who are non-Calvinists are not Christians or vile heretics. Unfortunately, many Calvinists have this intolerable view.
A staunch Calvinist friend posted this on Facebook:
“Look we cannot have unity with everybody and denomination who claims to be Christians and claim to be the true church of our Lord and Savior. To do so means the body of Christ contains Mormons, Roman Catholics, Coptics, Eastern Orthodox and most who belong to the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, S[eventh] D[ay] A[dventists] as well as most Protestant, denominational and non-denominational churches.”
This is the typical “we vs them” mentality I observed in Calvinism. If everybody (and denominations) that believes in “our Lord and Saviour” as the only basis of salvation are Christians as we are, why can’t we have unity with them?
Of course, Mormons, Catholics, SDAs and Eastern Orthodoxy hold on to a false Christ and false gospel, but to read out most Pentecostals, Charismatics and most Protestants including denominational and non-denominational believers out of the body of Christ, is to me, the acme of bigotry. That is a fanatical, cult-like spirit. I wonder what his criteria of true Christianity really are. If most of the Bible believing Christians at all times and all through history are “out” by the Calvinist definition, where then are the real Christians?
During Christ’s earthly ministry. The apostles said to Him: “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he is not one of us” (Lk. 9:49). They asked him to shut up just because he wasn’t part of their “little group,” even though he was calling the same Jesus as they. Talk about a sectarian spirit! But Jesus corrected them: “Do not stop him… for whoever is not against you is for you” (v. 50).
It matters little to me what denomination (or theological system) a person adheres to, if he believes in salvation by Christ by grace and through faith alone; if he/she believes in the Bible as the final authority, he is my brother or sister in Christ. Paul asked: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1Cor. 1:13) I need to ask my Calvinist friends: Was Calvin crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Calvin? Is Christ divided? Then why do you regard other believers in Christ as “heretics” because they don’t hold to the 5 points of Calvinism?
5. Calvinism introduces a staggering complexity that undercuts the simplicity of the Christian faith. It has an affinity for labels. You can be a 5-point Calvinists or a 4-pointer. Then there are Neo-Calvinists, Crypto-Calvinists, Hyper-Calvinists or Moderate Calvinists. Under this sub-division, there are those who hold to infralapsarianism or supralapsarianism.
Then you have cessasionist Calvinists, continuationist Calvinists or dispensational Calvinists. Under this you still have the pre-millennial, post-tribulational or amillenial Calvinists (And these in-groups also point fingers at one another too!) Why all these labels? Can’t we just simply be Bible believing Christians?
Calvinism is not the Gospel. It never has been. Many Calvinists are going to be surprised when they get to heaven and find that there are many there who were outside their mould. The real issue is to be saved and have a real relationship with God.