Calvinism is the Protestant theological system designed by John Calvin (1509-1564). John Calvin (Jean Cauvin in French) was an important figure in the Protestant Reformation and created in the city of Geneva, Switzerland, a theocratic state ruled entirely by his own ideas of what a Christian state should be. One of the most influential of modern Calvinist theologians has been Karl Barth (1886-1968).
Calvinist theology is often labeled "federal" or "covenental." According to this perspective, God has made to agreements or covenants with humanity, both of which are important when it comes to understanding human history. The first was the coventant of works, made with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is called a covenant of works because it was based upon behavior - Adam and Eve adhered to the agreement so long as they refrained from on particular action: eating the fruit of a particular tree. Nothing else was forbidden.
Unfortunately for Adam and Eve, they didn't obey this one command and so "fell," being subject now to disease and death. God, however, took pity on them and so entered into a new covenant with humanity. This time it wasn't based upon obedience because that is simply beyond humans; instead, the new covenant is based upon confessing their faults and having faith in God through Jesus Christ.
Calvinist theology is translated into the following basic doctrines, expressed by the word TULIP:
T: Total Depravity (Inability) refers to the fact that human sin has affected every aspect of the human character - thought, emotions, will, etc. Calvinism teaches that an unsaved person is completely unable to find salvation on his or her own. Salvation is only possible if God wills it and causes it through the work of the Holy Spirit.
U: Unconditional Election is the doctrine which teaches that God chooses some to be saved and some to be damned. These choices are not, however, based upon any acts performed by those people or any merit which they have achieved (otherwise, there would be a violation of the principle of Total Depravity).
According to Calvinism, election and damnation are based solely upon God's will and nothing else. In fact, election and damnation were decided before the world was even created, which results in complete predestination for all humans. Somehow, though, humans are still responsible to believe in Christianity - not that this appears to do any good. Denying either is heresy, thus it is necessary to believe both, despite the fact that they contradict each other.
L: Limited Atonement is a concept which teaches that Christ died for the sins of some (those predestined to heaven), but not for others (those predestined to hell). Thus, Christ did not die for the sins of the entire world, because otherwise the entire world would go to heaven. Instead, Calvinists believe that Christ died to atone for the specific sins of specific sinners, and only God knows who they are.
I: Irresistible Grace refers to the fact that when God has bestowed his grace upon a person because they have been predestined for heaven, it is impossible for a person to "resist" this grace and not end up in heaven. No matter what they do and no matter what they think, they are saved. In Calvinism, this is the corollary of the principle of Total Depravity, which teaches that it doesn't matter what a person does or thinks, it is impossible for them to avoid hell unless that happens to be what God wills. Calvinists take comfort in the idea that God's love will overcome their sins, but only because they assume that they are among the elect.
P: Perseverance of the Saints is the doctrine which argues that the saints (i.e., those whom God has saved) will always remain under God's protection until they are brought to heaven. In other words: Once a Saint, Always a Saint. The difference between this and Irresistible Grace is more a matter of emphasis than content.
The above Calvinist doctrine puts believers in a moral dilemma: should they even bother trying to be good? There doesn't seem to be much point, and Catch-22 aspect to this situation was summed up in a popular ditty:
You can and you can't,
You shall and you shan't;
You will and you won't.
You're damned if you do,
And damned if you don't.
The last two lines are still popular today as an expression of the futility of some situations.
Calvinist theology has not been without its contradictions, problems and critics. One of the most important was the challenge posed by Jacob Arminius, a Calvinist who argued that sinful humans do indeed have an ability to choose between doing good and doing evil, thus denying the doctrine of predestination. His perspective came to be known as Arminianism and developed into a much more moderate form of Calvinism which became influential in the United States.
Another problem developed out of the fact that, if salvation came through God's Grace and without any influence of the human will, then it followed that no church and no religious authority could exert any control over human behavior. It didn't matter what the local minister thought of your actions - the salvation of your soul was up to God. This led to a reduction in the status and authority of local religious leaders, something very difficult for an organized church to accept. It also led people being influenced by the heresy of antinomianism, the belief that once a person has undergone conversion to Christianity, they are freed from the authority of any laws - not simply religious but also civil. This became known as the Antinomian Crisis in New England and led to a reassertion of authority on the part of church leaders.
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