Doodle: Was Calvin a Calvinist?

Calvin's Institutes SpineI can still remember it as if it were yesterday, though it was something like 7 years ago. I had been a Christian for around a year and my growth had been nourished by the ongoing conversations with my youth leaders, as well as sitting at their feet as they discussed the higher, hallowed ground of my newly discovered faith. As an inquisitive 18 year old, I loved to sit within earshot of my leaders thrashing out – what I would later know as – theology. And a name mentioned in those discussions more often than others was that of John Calvin, the 16th century Reformer. Though, to be fair, I probably only knew him as Calvin; his (first name,) historical context and immense influence in the development of Protestantism was unknown to me. Yet I knew this: Calvin was the root of another word, ‘Calvinism.’ And Calvinism, which could simply be summed up with the acronym TULIP, was his major contribution to theology.

And now we are approaching the point (I use this word loosely) of my doodle. The moment which I remember so plainly was the first time I got hold of John Calvin’s Institutes. But turning up the contents page, to my dismay and sheer horror, I found that the book wasn’t structured into five headings, beginning with (1) Total depravity, (2) Unconditional election, and so forth. There weren’t even five, but only four, chapters! And to further my astonishment, these chapters were called ‘Books.’ What was going on? “How could this be?” Had I not stumbled onto the writings of another John Calvin, who happened to also written an Institutes? Because I knew that John Calvin’s theological system turned on 5 major points, “It does. Doesn’t it?” No. It doesn’t. The Synod of Dort might have had 5 points, in answer to Jacobus Arminius’ theology. Calvinism might be put plainly, simply stated under those 5 points. But let’s stop pigeon-holing John Calvin into every Reformed Protestant’s favourite acronym.

Allow me to make two points in conclusion. The first is that Calvin’s theology is much richer, diverse and more glorious than those tired headings. The Institutes present a more cohesive and grand theological system than TULIP ever did, or could. I am not suggesting that he does not develop and draw on aspects of what we would call Calvinism, but to argue that they are the touchstones of his theology is going too far. The second point, which is more of a challenge to both reader and myself, is that we should be reading Calvin instead of trading in overly simplified phrases that are becomingly increasingly embattled, just think of (3) Limited atonement. You might disagree with everything I have said. But if you’re going to do that then you need to first suspend the idea that TULIP does the best job of explaining Calvin’s theology (my first point) and dust off the Institutes to find out for yourself if I’m wrong (my second point). But whatever you do, please stop reducing John Calvin to Calvinism, simply for namesake.

Graham Heslop
I have an insatiable appetite for books, occasionaly dip into theology and am presently serving full time at Christ Church Umhlanga in Durban. Most often found on the beach, a soccer field, or my couch
  • Stephen Murray

    I’m not persuaded that thinking reformed folk necessarily equate Calvinism with John Calvin per se. It seem the term Calvinism has it’s own history (or histories) depending upon who you ask. In something like the Gospel Coalition, Calvinism = commitment to the sovereignty of God over all of life (and particularly salvation – bearing in mind that many baptists in the GC are four-pointer). If you ask a confessional Presbyterian or Reformed person, Calvinism = Sovereignty+Covenantal Theology+Ecclesiology+Some things I’m probably forgetting. If you ask a strict historical theologian, Calvinism = the direct teachings of John Calvin. I feel as if the term Calvinism (and it’s counterpart “Reformed”) is increasingly becoming a puppet of said group.

    • Thanks for the comment Stephen. You’re right, Calvinism is pretty multivalent, depending on who is employing it and there are a few aspects to its history, development. I guess I am just weary of the instinct to reduce Calvinism to TULIP; or, to put it in the positive, to promote study of Calvin before we suggest categorical points that summarise his theology. TULIP is one such summation that I was partial to before reading the Institutes.

      • I must say, I agree with Stephen. I think the colloquial use of Calvinism does not mean “Calvin’s theology” but that reformed people would be able to tell you that. I guess I don’t see the same tendency that you are seeing – if anything, I would say that the problem is that people reject “Calvinism” because “Calvin murdered Servetus didn’t he?”

  • The point is, the gospel, and the gospel is that we are sinners and that the only one who can save us from our sins and addiction to them is Christ through his suffering and death for every single one of them, not some, and our confession of our sins, shunning them with sorrow and regret, and having faith that Christ did that for us and that we are responsible to God for our behavior all eternity.

    • Hey Daniel, what you are saying is absolutely true – praise God!
      I think Graham’s point was more that people don’t actually read Calvin and they assume that they know what he’s on about because they know what TULIP stands for.
      Graham would probably say that Calvin is on about all of what you just said and it would be anachronistic to expect Calvin to subscribe to the five points.

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