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Against Calvinism

Writing here at the Calvinist International gives me the opportunity to argue that the name of the website should be changed. Why? Because Calvinism is an unfortunate word. Scholars should try to avoid it in most instances. Churchmen and laypeople need to be aware of the pitfalls of the word. Nonetheless, the term is here to stay, with only the most rabid Post–millennials suggesting that it might be forgotten one day. Yet consider that today “Calvinism” has morphed into a brand of theology that would have been very unwelcome in Geneva during Calvin’s time. Some now entertain heretical views on the Trinity (i.e., the eternal subordination of the Son) and others (perhaps the same people just described) gladly call themselves “four–point Calvinists” who also refuse to baptize babies.

What is Calvinism?

At the outset I wish to suggest that “Calvinism” as a term of reference for a body of doctrine is, in the final analysis, meaningless today. In many “Calvinistic” churches they have a view of the Lord’s Table that would forbid most Presbyterians from enjoying communion in their church. The Presbyterian, who is baptized as an infant, is not really baptized and thus needs to be baptized (by immersion) before they can come to the Lord’s Table in these “Calvinistic” churches. When one considers the rather strong language Calvin uses towards antipaedobaptists, it seems rather odd to refer to a group of believers as “Calvinists” when Calvin would likely have had them kicked out of Geneva for their views. And, quite frankly, after being called a “frantic/fanatical/frenzied spirit” (“Quoniam autem hoc seculo phrenetici quida spiritus…”)1 who would want to be identified with Calvin? I am not making a statement that Baptists are wrong – though, as a Presbyterian, I differ with my brothers on whether the children of believers should be baptized – but rather that to be “Baptistic” (i.e., an anti–paedobaptist) and identify as a “Calvinist” is somewhat odd, in my mind. Credit to the “particular” and “general” Baptist distinction, or the phrase “Reformed Baptist” (which at least clarifies the 1677/89 confessional history of the term).

One has to ask, if you wish to be identified as a Calvinist, but you would not admit Calvin to the Table in your local church, what point is there in self–identifying as a Calvinist? Usually one is a “Calvinist” today because they hold to certain soteriological truths, especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone and God’s sovereign grace in salvation. After that, almost everything else seems pretty much up for grabs, so much so that types of antinomianism are viewed as pillars of orthodoxy in much present–day thinking on salvation and grace. Indeed, without wishing to go into detail proving this point, but let the reader take it is for what it is, Jacob Arminius (1559–1609) was likely closer to Calvin theologically than many so–called Calvinists today. He certainly read Calvin a lot more than most Calvinists today.2

Historically Rejected

There is also the matter of whether “Calvinism” is a helpful term even in its sixteenth–century context in which it emerged. Like the term “Puritanism,” “Calvinism” was originally a hostile epithet. As a matter of fact, “Lutheranism” was also used with hostility by the Roman Catholics towards Luther’s followers. Calvin certainly viewed the term “Calvinism” as a term of hostility, especially since “Calvinism” was viewed as more dangerous than Islam. As Bruce Gordon makes clear, “Terms like ‘Calvinist’…were not badges worn with pride so much as insults used by opponents to indicate that the people were not Christians.”3 Calvin wished to be known as a true Catholic, saying on one occasion about the Lutherans, “They can find no more horrific insult to attack your Highness [Frederick III]…than the term Calvinism.”4 Lutherans used the term in connection with their disagreement with the Reformed on the Lord’s Supper. In its original context, “Calvinism” is not a term denoting the emergence of a distinct theological tradition, but rather the unfortunate discord between Protestants. Hence “Calvinists” versus “Lutherans.” Had certain Reformers been able to persuade Luther and his followers to sort out their Christology, perhaps the “Calvinist” epithet would never have emerged. But, alas, Hoc est corpus meum, says Luther!

Opposition to the term came from the Reformed as early as 1555 where Reformed ministers in Lausanne protested against the term “Calvinists.” The French Reformed theologian, Daniel Tossanus (1541–1602) also clearly rejects the term. Herman Selderhuis gives the following account, “In his writings Tossanus speaks continually about the ‘so–called Calvinists.’ Others call us Calvinists, but we are the catholic evangelical church, said Tossanus. Moreover, we were not baptized in the name of Luther, nor in the name of Calvin, but in the name of Christ.”5 Again, the fear is clearly real, acute among Protestants, that God and Christ are jealous for their glory.

By the time of the Synod of Dort (1618), the Reformed were still sometimes referred to as “Calvinists.” At Dort, the preferred terms were, however, “Reformed” or “Contra–Remonstrants” – the latter a term coined in reference to the Remonstrant (Arminian) theologians who wrote up a Remonstrance that contained five theses that most likely came from Arminius’s Declaration of 1608. The five articles of the Remonstrants were debated at Dort, but these five articles may not do justice to the broader theological project of Arminius, even though he surely would not have disagreed with what was presented by his “followers.” As a point of fact, just as many “Calvinists” do not wish to be known by that name, so too many “Arminians” would prefer to be known as “Remonstrants.”

Reformed Catholics

In general, many Reformed theologians wished to be identified as Reformed Catholics. The brilliant Dutch theologian, Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676), addresses this issue in his Catechisation of the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 12, Question 82). Voetius notes that “Papists” wish to be called “Catholics,” but this is illegitimate; rather the Reformed are the true Catholics. In fact, he says:

1. Willen wy wel Calvinisten genoemt worden?
2. Neen.
3. Waerom niet?
4. Om dat Calvinus ons hooft niet en is.
5. Maer, seggem sy, ghy hebt uwe leere van Calvinus; ergo soo zijt ghy Calvinisten?
6. Wy hebben onse leere van Calvinus niet.
7. Van wien dan?
8. Uyt Godts Woort.
9. Maer, seggen sy, ghy gevoelt in de stucken der Religie als Calvinus?
10. Dat is soo, maer daerom en is hy ons hooft niet.6

Voetius and other Reformed theologians did not wish to be known as Calvinists because that was a “papist” error: the following of a man. Reformed Catholic (Reformato Catholici) has in view a tradition that is part of a tradition.

As Reformed Catholics, we may affirm that we are part of the Christian tradition that includes the impressive work of the Church Fathers (e.g., Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, Cyril), the Medieval theologians (e.g., Abelard, Anselm, Aquinas), and Reformation and Post–Reformation theologians (e.g., Calvin, Beza, Ursinus, Cocceius, Owen, Turretin). Not only that, by avoiding the term “Calvinism” we are recognizing that there were other important theologians during the Reformation period who made similar types of contributions as Calvin, such as Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Wolfgang Musculus. Plus, before Calvin, many Reformers were making their own significant contributions to the Protestant cause, such as Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), Martin Bucer (1491–1551), Wolfgang Capito (1478–1541), John Oecolampadius (1482–1531), and Guillame Farel (1489–1565). Bucer was a fatherly figure to Calvin, being hugely influential in Calvin’s rise to prominence; as for Farel, he was the sort of “naughty” uncle who seemed to be a bad influence on Calvin by firing him up when in fact Calvin needed a “Bucerian” irenicism. But he was still an impressive thinker and theologian, nonetheless.

The point cannot be emphasized strongly enough that Calvin, who did not receive formal theological training, which is sometimes obvious in his writings, was (like all of us) a dependent theologian: he depended upon the Church Fathers, Medievals, and his contemporaries in such a way that his theology was actually quite unoriginal. This is actually a compliment. His voluminous output during his life shows that he felt obliged to make his contributions to the ongoing search for truth, but he never did this in isolation from the wider Christian interpretive community. It was left to the heretics to abandon tradition in favor of their “new teachings.” The Papists claimed they had tradition on their side. In response, the Reformers did not cry, “to hell with tradition.” Rather, as it quite obviously the case in many of Calvin’s public disputations, they simply showed that tradition was very much on the side of the Protestants. But, even more so, the Scriptures were on the side of the Protestants.

Muller has also argued that the terms ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Calvinism’ are potentially misleading. After all, those who followed Calvin, and were sympathetic to his theology, did not simply echo Calvin’s theology without at the same time making unique contributions of their own. In addition, Muller adds: “if by ‘Calvinist’ one means a later exponent of a theology standing within the confessional boundaries described by such documents as the Gallican Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism, then one will have the problem of accounting for the many ways in which such thinkers – notably, Amandus Polanus…William Perkins, Franciscus Junius, and Gulielmus Bucanus, just to name a few – differ from Calvin both doctrinally and methodologically.”7

Carl Trueman echoes similar thoughts: “the term Calvinism is profoundly unhelpful. It was coined as a polemical tool for tarnishing the reputation of the Reformed, and it is of no real use to modern intellectual history. Far better are the terms ‘Reformed theology’ and ‘Reformed Orthodoxy’ as these actually reflect the fact that so–called Calvinists were not those who looked to Calvin as the major theological authority but rather those who looked to the tradition of Reformed confessions.”8

Conclusion

“Reformed” allows for its adherents to be identified with a tradition that was diverse enough to embrace several important confessional documents as well as a number of theologians who, while united for the most part in their theology, differed on certain points of doctrine. It also keeps us from the veneration of a single individual.

  1. Institutio, Lib. IIII, cap. 16.1
  2. See William den Boer, God’s Twofold Love: The Theology of Jacob Arminius (1559–1609) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010).
  3. Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 185.
  4. Bruce Gordon, Calvin, 330.
  5. “Calvinism as Reformed Protestantism: Clarification of a Term” in Church and School in Early Modern Protestantism: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Muller on the Maturation of a Theological Tradition. Edited by Jordan J. Ballor et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 724–25.
  6. Voetius’ Catechisatie over den Heidelbergschen Catechismus. 2 Vols. Ed. A. Kuyper (Rotterdam, 1891), 1:395–96.
  7. Post–Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 1:30. Hereafter cited PRRD.
  8. “Calvin and Calvinism” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Ed. Donald K. McKim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 226.

By Mark Jones

The Rev. Dr. Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden Universiteit) has been the Minister at Faith Vancouver since 2007. He is also Research Associate in the Faculty of Theology at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. Dr. Jones is the author of several books, including Knowing Christ, God Is, Living For God (2020 Crossway).

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