19 October 2012

What is Calvinism

The Early Reformation--Martin Luther

In the early 16th century, the political and religious hegemony that the Roman Catholic Church wielded over Europe began to crack. While it would not completely collapse, the hold the Catholic Church held over many people began to wane.
The generally accepted narrative of the Reformation holds that this movement began in Wittenburg (in what is today Germany--Germany did not exist as Germany in 1517) on October 31, 1517, with Martin Luther's nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the castle church.
Luther was a Catholic priest at the time, but began to question certain church teachings in public, especially the sale of indulgences, which promised shortened terms in purgatory for those who paid a fee or their designee. Needless to say, this went over like the proverbial led zeppelin (not the band). In other words, Luther got into quite a bit of hot water over his ideas that questioned the pope and the church. Regardless, his ideas and his questioning of authority spread.

John Calvin

John Calvin

John Calvin was born in the French town of Noyon in 1509. Like Luther, Calvin spent his early life as a Roman Catholic. He actually received most of his training in law, not theology. Ironically, his major theological work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, became the major theological text of many who followed the reformed tradition. People still study this early and very influential systematic theology.
Calvin is also well-known for his pastorate in Geneva. His teachings spread to the English-speaking world after some of the exiles from the reign of Mary I (AKA Bloody Mary) took refuge in Geneva and came under the influence of Calvin's doctrines. Incidentally, Calvin and Luther had serious disagreements over the significance of the Eucharist (or Lord's Supper, or communion, depending upon your denominational persuasion).

What is Calvinism?

What exactly was it that Calvin taught? While this description may be accused of being quite oversimplified, Calvinist thought is generally described by using the acronym of TULIP, with the letters standing for:
T--Total Depravity
U--Unconditional Election
L--Limited Atonement
I--Irresistible Grace
P--Perseverance of the Saints

Total Depravity

This part of Calvinist soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) is closely related to the general idea of original sin. Whereas some of those opposed to Calvinism would argue that there is still a spark of divinity that would allow men to search for God, Calvinists would disagree with this.
Calvinists take the effects of the fall of man further. They argue from scriptures discussing mankind as "dead in trespasses and sins" that the dead can do nothing. In other words, God first has to bring the depraved to life spiritually before they can come to him for salvation. Romans 1-3 is a passage that emphasizes extensively the depravity of man.
This depravity does not mean that all men are as bad as they can be. People do good deeds because they still experience common grace from God as made in God's image. However, while men and women are not as bad as they can be, they are as bad off as they can be because they are spiritually dead.

Unconditional Election

Since all people are spiritually dead without hope apart from God's grace, Calvin taught that God in his sovereignty chose to save certain people from their sins and the judgment that their sin entailed. This election was based upon God's choice, and in this way it was unconditional. Those predestined to salvation did nothing to earn it.
Calvinists refer to passages such as John 15, in which Jesus told the disciples that he had chosen them, and Acts 13 in which all who were appointed to eternal life believed. Romans 8 talks extensively of predestination and election.

Limited Atonement

In agreement with the teaching of just about all branches of Christianity, Calvinism holds that the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ provides the means of salvation. Those who are not Calvinists argue that the atonement applies to anyone who receives it.
Calvinists agree with the previous statement, but add another twist to the argument. They argue that Christ did not die for humanity in general, or all people without distinction, but only for those who were elected by God for salvation before the creation of the world. Those who hold to limited atonement point to passages such as Mark 10, in which it is said that Christ came to give his life a ransom for many (and, hence, not all).

Irresistible Grace

Salvation comes only to those whom God predestined to eternal life, and it is only because of God's grace. Therefore, according to Calvinist teaching, this grace cannot be resisted. Those who are elect will give in to God's grace.
To illustrate this point, Calvinists would point to the Damascus Road experience of Paul in Acts. One who hated Christians and sought their demise was struck down and then became the leading proponent of Jesus and his resurrection.

Perseverance of the Saints

Calvinists, also known as Reformed Christians, hold that those elected to eternal life by God's grace are then preserved by that grace. In other words, once God elected to save these individuals, they can never be lost. In other words, they will persevere to the end of their lives in a state of grace. Of course, their are false believers (tares) that appear to be elect, but never really were.
To support this teaching, passages such as Romans 8 that say no charges can be brought against the elect and that nothing can separate them from God's love or John 10 in which Christ said that those given to him cannot be plucked from his hand, or the father's hand.

A Final Note

This article is not intended to be an exhaustive account of all the shades of Calvinist thought. Also, it should be pointed out that there are numerous arguments against the Calvinist emphasis on God's sovereignty, both from other strains of Christianity and those outside the faith. The Arminian view is probably the most common among Protestants.
The intent of this article was to provide a clear and concise overview of basic Calvinist beliefs. In that, I hope it was successful and that those who may read it may find it useful.

Calvinist Doctrine

Calvinist Doctrine is Simplified with the Acronym TULIP
Calvinist Doctrine is Simplified with the Acronym TULIP

09 October 2012

Thomas Paine and Christianity

I frequently choose Thomas Paine's Common Sense as a reading assignment in my US to 1877 classes. Well, actually, I've used it both times I've taught US History to 1877, so that would make it an always proposition. Isn't this an American Church History blog? What does Thomas Paine have to do with American church history? Wasn't Thomas Paine a Deist. Yes, he was. He was a leading infidel in the day, but that does not take away from his importance in American history.

The text of Common Sense also tells some important information regarding the world Paine lived in. Paine was a recent immigrant to America when he wrote the pamphlet read in thousands of taverns across the land. His work contributed heavily to the sentiment for Revolution and independence from England.

Title Page from Paine's The Age of Reason, via Wikimedia Commons

In writing Common Sense, Paine understood that he had to connect with his readers. This is one of the first tips that English teachers give: know your audience. The people in eighteenth-century British North America were very much a biblically literate group. They understood allusions to the Bible that most Americans today would have to look up via a Google or Yahoo search.

Paine used the story of Saul (the king, not the one that is AKA Paul) to illustrate the evil of kings. If the Americans were to revolt against the constituted authority of the king, they had to have a good reason. Paine pointed out that the Israelites were not to have a king, at least in the beginning. He then pointed out the bad track record that kings, including biblical kings, had had up to that point. The reason a king was bad was because it was sinful and tied to the heathen nations. Many people read this section of Paine's pamphlet and come out with the idea that he was a devout Christian. His other writings, such as The Age of Reason, make it clear that he was not in any way orthodox in his beliefs. However, he understood the importance of speaking the language of the people in Common Sense. That language was overwhelmingly biblical.

03 October 2012

The October 3 Edition of the Christian Blog Carnival

This month, I have the privilege of hosting the Christian Carnival, in which Christian bloggers around the world submit their best post. Blog carnivals are a great way to get your voice out to a wider variety of viewers. The posts this month are widely varied and have a Christian emphasis or Christian worldview. Although they are not related to American church history, I hope you enjoy some or all of them.

Financial Post

Jason Price answers the question of "Should You Tithe on Small Business Income" in the affirmative on the One Money Design blog. 

The rest of the blogs this month are into the category of:

Other Posts

 Romi from Japan  at In the Way Everlasting gives a reminder that we are Aliens and Strangers in this world and that our citizenship is in heaven.
Justin Gilpin shares how he has experienced God's power in his life in a post titled "God's Promises in the Bible Are for Those with Faith."

Caroline at Team Harries Beats Infertility discusses the case of Abraham's wife Sarah in the post "Sarah's Infertility."

Isabel Anders has an interesting entry titled "M Is for Meme" at her self-titled blog.

James Nakumara asks whether we are ready for what God is going to do on his Nakadude blog. His post argues that "Jabez Knew What He Was Talking about."

Sarah from Down Under in Australia at This is what Sed said has a thought-provoking post that she titled "My Prayer for My Church" that questions the expectations that many assemblies have for their newly-arrived pastors.

Shannon Christman recommended a couple of blog posts this month. The first is Rob Sisson's debate on engaging in "The Debate" at InFaith's Mission blog. The second points out that "Baptism" is actually funeral. The second post was written by Ridge Burns at Ridge's Blog.

I hope that you enjoyed the submissions this month. If you have a submission at your blog or want to recommend another post, check out the Christian Carnival's homepage and then make your submissions to the submission form.