John Calvin’s Theology: The Rest of the Story

Those who disagree with the Calvinist view of election and reprobation,calvin_back_sm.jpgcalvin_back_sm.jpgcalvin_back_sm.jpg and object to “Calvinism,” per se, usually seem to not realize just how much more there is to Calvinism than his systematization of the Augustinian (i.e., from the 4th century) doctrine of grace versus the Pelagian notion of free will (which comes complete with its own false gospel of works-righteousness). Baptists in particular, who deny the “doctrines of grace,” don’t realize just how much leftover Calvinism there is in their current theology. Those that do, recognize that they are technically categorized as “moderate Calvinists.” Chief among these is what is nowadays called “eternal security.”

Also, there’s the doctrine of original sin, the Biblical doctrine that Adam’s guilt was imputed to all of his descendants, which sinful condition manifests itself in outward sinful acts. Most Baptists today affirm original sin, and they do so because the Baptists who migrated to America were originally Calvinists. Those “General Baptists,” whom modern anti-Calvinistic Baptists sometimes erroneously look back to as their forefathers in the faith, collectively fell away from the faith, and their theological descendants can be found today among modern Unitarianism.

As a proof for this claim, consider the following words from the Wikipedia entry on the General Baptists, to which I linked above:  ” . . . traditionally non-creedal, many General Baptist congregations were becoming increasingly liberal in their doctrine, obliging the more orthodox and the more evangelical among them to reconsider their allegiance during this period of revival (Edward’s, Whitefield’s and Wesley’s 18th century First Great Awakening). Before this re-organisation, the English General Baptists had begun to decline numerically due to several factors linked to non-orthodox ‘Free Christianity’. Early Quaker converts were drawn from the General Baptists, and many other churches moved into Unitarianism. . . “

Those General Baptists denied original sin. For example, John Smyth, (first to pastor a church called “Baptist” shortly before he cast his lot with the Mennonites) wrote in his Confession of Faith in 1609 that, “there is no original sin (lit;, no sin of origin or descent), but all sin is actual and voluntary, viz., a word, a deed, or a design against the law of God; and therefore, infants are without sin.” Modern anti-Calvinistic Baptists generally (no pun intended) affirm original sin, and this is because the Baptists from which you descend were originally Calvinists.

Eternal security and original sin managed to stick around because they weren’t offensive enough to undermine the outward results of mass evangelism, the way the doctrines of grace seem to. We have “revivalism” to thank for that. Read Revival and Revivalism: The Making And Marring of American Evangelicalism, by Iain Murry of Banner of Truth Trust, and you’ll learn how the TULIP got plucked in the wake of the Second Great Awakening as otherwise orthodox Christians began to adopt the methods of arch-Pelagian Charles Finney’s “new measures” in order to maximize the effectiveness of their ginned-up revivals.

But enough introduction. What I wanted to point out was just how pervasive Calvinist theology defines modern Baptist and otherwise Evangelical theology. In my last post, I linked to an essay written by B. B. Warfield entitled “Calvin As A Theologian.” This essay was written to set the record straight about all the common misconceptions that have been fabricated by anti-Calvinists in order to not only disagree with the “five points of Calvinism” (aka, TULIP, the doctrines of grace, etc.) but make those under their spiritual care despise Calvin himself and just about everything he stood for. Read Warfield’s introductory remarks, and then go read the entire article:

I am afraid I shall have to ask you at the outset to disabuse your minds of a very common impression, namely, that Calvin’s chief characteristics as a theologian were on the one hand, audacity—perhaps I might even say effrontery—of speculation; and on the other hand, pitilessness of logical development, cold and heartless scholasticism. We have been told, for example, that he reasons on the attributes of God precisely as he would reason on the properties of a triangle. No misconception could be more gross. The speculative theologian of the Reformation was Zwingli, not Calvin. The scholastic theologian among the early Reformers was Peter Martyr, not Calvin. This was thoroughly understood by their contemporaries.

Among the things that we have inherited from Calvinist theology include the following (as Warfield reports):

  • “In one word, he [Calvin] was distinctly a Biblical theologian, or, let us say it frankly, by way of eminence the Biblical theologian of his age. Whither the Bible took him, thither he went; where scriptural declarations failed him, there he stopped short.”
  • “Calvin marked an epoch in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity, but of all great theologians who have occupied themselves with this soaring topic, none has been more determined than he not to lose himself in the intellectual subtleties to which it invites the inquiring mind; and he marked an epoch i the development of the doctrine precisely because his interest in it was vital (that means “spiritual,” or “devout”) and not merely or mainly speculative.”
  • “The fundamental interest of Calvin as a theologian lay, it is clear, in the region broadly designated soteriological. Perhaps we may go further and add that, within this broad field, his interest was most intense in the application to the sinful soul of the salvation wrought out by Christ, — in a word, in what is technically known as the ordo salutis. . . Its [Calvin’s Institutes]effect, at all events, has been to constitute Calvin pre-eminently the theologian of the Holy Spirit.”
  • “He also marks an epoch in the mode of presenting the work of Christ. The presentation of Christ’s work under the rubrics of the three-fold office of Prophet, Priest and King was introduced by him: and from him it was taken over by the entirety of Christendom, not always, it is true, in his spirit or with his completeness of development, but yet with large advantage.”
  • “In Christian ethics, too, his impulse proved epoch-making, and this great science was for a generation cultivated only by his followers.”
  • “It is probable, however, that Calvin’s greatest contribution to theological science lies in the rich development which he gives–and which he was the first to give–to the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit. “
  • Finally, here’s Warfield’s summary of Calvin as a theologian: “It has been common (among academic theologians, not pastors and laity who love to hate Calvin) to say that Calvin’s entire theological work may be summed up in this–that he emancipated the soul from the tyranny of human authority and delivered it from the uncertainties of human intermediation in religious things:  that he brought the soul into the immediate presence of God and cast it for its spiritual health upon the free grace of God alone.”
  • And of Calvin’s masterpiece, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Warfield summarizes:  “The Institutes is, accordingly, just a treatise on the work of God the Holy Spirit in making God savingly known to sinful man, and bringing sinful man into holy communion with God.”

Far from being some cold, depressing, rigidly logical and academic murderer (we mustn’t forget Servetus!), Calvin was recognized by his peers and his entire generation as an eminently devout and spiritual biblicist whose development of Protestant theology built on the shoulders of Augustine, Anselm, Hus, Bradwardine, Wycliffe, and Luther and helped make Western Civilization what it became in its historical greatness. All by the grace of God, and for his glory alone!

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8 responses

  1. Awesome post, John. I’ll be linking. I totally agree, when you actually read Calvin — either his Institutes or commentaries, you are amazed at how spiritually minded and soft-hearted he is. No cold logician, that’s for sure.

    Thanks for this great post.

  2. […] could go on, but I would be writing the article I intend for you to read.  John Chitty recently highlighted several of Calvin’s positive contributions to today’s church and he also linked to a superb article by Benjamin Warfield on Calvin as a […]

  3. Your welcome, Bob. And thanks for the added exposure.

  4. […] Reformed posted an excellent piece on the Under-Appreciated Calvin. It is actually a commentary on John Calvin’s Theology at The Misadventures of Capt. Headknowledge.  Both are well worth […]

  5. Very few men of God have impacted me on a personal/spiritual level as well as an academic/theological level as John Calvin. If you’ve never read the Institutes, don’t criticize the man! At least give him the courtesy and fairness of reading what he has to say before blasting him out of the water for some grotesquely distorted, second-hand version you’ve heard of his theology [end rant].

    Anyway, thanks for the post, Captain. I hope my son, Mishael Calvin, someday finds him as compelling a witness for Christ alone in all aspects of life as I already have.

  6. Thanks for the testimony regarding Calvin’s influence on you. I have likewise benefitted greatly from reading the Institutes and some of his commentaries. I have by no means finished either of them, and look forward to a lifetime of learning from a master such as Calvin.

    I share the same desire that my own son will have a love for Reformed theology ignited in his heart one day as well. If only their lives would follow the dreams we have for them . . .

  7. Great post John!
    I think we have to remember the reason most people kick against Calvin, we are all by nature Pelagian. I was very proud of my commitment to Christ and the effort I put into bringing people to Jesus until God broke me and made me understand I had nothing to do with it. It is pride that makes people hate Calvin, if he is correct then one has nothing to boast about.

  8. Yes, we are all natural Pelagians. We are natural Arians. We are natural Gnostics. We are natural _________.

    It seems to me all the historical heresies are generally whatever we would naturally assume about spiritual things when we are ill- or misinformed about what the Bible teaches about those things. The Pelagian assumption that we ought to be able to do what God commands is one of them. What a mighty heresy a tiny rolling snowball becomes.

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