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Calvinism has been known at times for its simple, unadorned churches and lifestyles, as depicted in this painting by Emmanuel de Witte where the 17th century congregation stands to hear a sermon.

Calvinism is a Protestant Christian system of doctrine named after John Calvin.

The term Calvinism has two common uses:

  1. Calvinism as the system of understanding Christian salvation (or soteriology) set out by John Calvin, which was codified during the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), wherein the alternate system known as Arminianism was rejected.
  2. More broadly, Calvinism as virtually synonymous with "Reformed Protestantism", encompassing the whole body of doctrine taught by Reformed churches. In addition to maintaining a Calvinist soteriology, a key feature of this system is "the regulative principle of worship" — an aversion (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the particular practitioners) to any form of worship not explicitly instituted in the New Testament.

Calvinism is sometimes referred to by other names including "Augustinianism" because Calvin followed St. Augustine in soteriology; the "Doctrines of Grace," which is used especially by Calvinistic Baptists who differ with the Reformed churches primarily on Covenant theology; and Monergism, which comes from mono meaning one and ergon meaning work and refers to the idea that salvation is not a cooperative (or synergistic) effort between God and man but rather is wholly of God alone.



John Calvin had international influence on the development of the doctrine of the Protestant Reformation, beginning at the age of 25, when he started work on his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1534 (published 1536). This work, which underwent a number of revisions in his lifetime, plus his polemical and pastoral works and a massive collection of commentaries on the Bible are the source of Calvin's ongoing personal influence on Protestantism.

Calvinism marks the second phase of the Protestant Reformation, when evangelical churches began to form following Martin Luther's excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church. In this sense, Calvinism was originally a Lutheran movement. Calvin himself signed the Lutheran Augsburg confession in 1540. On the other hand, Calvin's influence first began to be felt in the Swiss Reformation, which was founded independently of Lutheranism by Huldrych Zwingli. It became evident that doctrine in the Reformed churches was developing in a direction independent of Luther's, under the influence of numerous writers and reformers, among whom John Calvin was pre-eminent, and thus this form of doctrine came to be called Calvinism.

Given that it has multiple founders, the name "Calvinism" is somewhat misleading if taken to imply that every major feature of the doctrine of the "Calvinist churches" or of all Calvinist movements can be found in the writings of Calvin. The name applies generally to the Protestant doctrines that were held in common among the non-Lutheran national churches of Protestant countries and various minority Protestant reform movements, known as the Reformed churches, which formed outside of the Catholic Church in the latter two thirds of the 16th century (and in England in the 17th century).

Summaries of Calvinist theology

The five solas

The five solas are a summary of Calvinism, indeed of the Reformation, in the sense that they delineate the difference between the evangelical doctrine of salvation from the Roman Catholic doctrine. The substance of Calvinism with respect to the solas is total dependence on God, who is sovereign and created and sustains the universe. Every good thing, according to Calvinism, is there because of God's unmerited grace, and salvation especially is entirely dependent on grace. Calvinism has been called "worm theology" because it insists that all credit for everything must go directly to God and that humans are but miserable sinners (or "worms"). By contrast, in Catholic theology, man plays a significant role in his own salvation (and that of others) by acting appropriately (cooperating) in response to God's grace.

"Life is religion"

The theological system and practical theories of church, family, and political life, all ambiguously called "Calvinism", are the outgrowth of a fundamental religious consciousness centered upon "the sovereignty of God". The doctrine of God is, in principle, given a pre-eminent place in every category of theology, including the Calvinist understanding of how a person ought to live. Calvinism presupposes that the goodness and power of God have a free, unlimited range of activity, and it works out as a conviction that God is at work in all realms of existence, including the spiritual, physical, intellectual realms, whether secular or sacred, public or private, on earth or in heaven.

According to this viewpoint the plan of God is worked out in every event. God is seen as the creator, preserver, and governor of each and every thing. This produces an attitude of absolute dependence on God, which is not identified only with temporary acts of piety (for example, prayer); rather, it is an all-encompassing pattern of life that, in principle, applies to any mundane task just as it also applies to taking communion. For the Calvinist Christian, all of life is the Christian religion.

The five points

Calvinist theology is often identified in the popular mind as the so-called "five points of Calvinism," which are a summation of the judgments (or canons) rendered by the Synod of Dort and which were published in the "quinquarticular controversy" as a point-by-point response to the five points of the Arminian Remonstrance. They therefore function only as a summary of the diffences between Calvinism and Arminianism and do not serve as a complete summation of Calvin's writings or of the theology of the Reformed churches in general. The central assertion of these canons is that God is able to save every person upon whom he has mercy and that his efforts are not frustrated by the unrighteousness or the inability of men.

The five points of Calvinism, which can be remembered by the English acronym TULIP, with supporting passages from the Bible, are:

Total Depravity

People in their natural, unregenerate state do not have the ability to turn to God. Rather it is the grace and will of God through the Holy Spirit that causes men who are dead in sin to be reborn through the Word. This concept is summarized by the aphorism "Regeneration precedes faith," since in the Calvinist view, apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit for the individual, there would never be any faith.
  • Romans 3:10-11 "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God."
  • John 6:44 "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day."
  • 1 Corinthians 2:14 "But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them."

Unconditional Election

Election means "choice". God's choice from eternity, of whom He will bring to Himself, is not based on foreseen virtue, merit or faith in the persons He chooses but rather, is unconditionally grounded in His own mercy.
  • Romans 9:16 "So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy."
  • Ephesians 1:4 "Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him."
  • John 1:13 "born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God."
  • Exodus 33:19 "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion."

Limited Atonement

Also called "particular redemption" or "definite atonement," meaning that Christ's death actually takes away the penalty of sins committed by those upon whom God has chosen to have mercy (as opposed to Christ's death making redemption merely a possibility that we can perform). It is "limited" then, to taking away the sins of the elect, not of humanity.
  • John 10:14-15 "I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep."
  • John 10:27-28 "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand."
  • Acts 20:28 "shepherd the church of God that He obtained with the blood of His own Son."
  • Ephesians 5:25 "love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her."

Irresistible grace

The saving grace of God is not resistible. Those who obtain salvation do so because of the relentlessness of God's mercy. Men yield to grace, not finally because God found their consciences more tender or their faith more tenacious than other men. Rather, willingness and ability to do God's will are evidence of God's faithfulness to save men from the power and the penalty of sin.
  • John 15:16 "You did not choose me, but I chose you."
  • Ephesians 1:11 "In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will."
  • 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5 "For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit."
  • Romans 9:11 "though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad- in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call."
  • Colossians 2:13 "When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him."

Perseverance of the saints

Also called the "Preservation of the Saints". Those whom God has called into communion with Himself through Christ, will continue in faith and will increase in faith and other gifts, until the end. Those who apparently fall away either never had true faith to begin with, or else will return. Thus Calvinists subscribe to the "once saved, always saved" concept popular among many Christian denominations.
  • John 10:27-28 "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish."
  • 1 John 2:19 "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us."
  • Philippians 1:6 "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."

Calvinism is often further reduced in the popular mind to one or another of the five points of TULIP. The doctrine of unconditional election is sometimes made to stand for all Reformed doctrine, sometimes even by its adherents, as the chief article of Reformed Christianity. However, according to the doctrinal statements of these churches, it is not a balanced view to single out this doctrine to stand on its own as representative of all that is taught. The doctrine of unconditional election, and its corollary in the doctrine of predestination are never properly taught, according to Calvinists, except as an assurance to those who seek forgiveness and salvation through Christ, that their faith is not in vain, because God is able to bring to completion all whom He intends to save. Nevertheless, non-Calvinists object that these doctrines discourage the world from seeking salvation.

An additional point of disagreement with Arminianism implicit in the five points is the doctrine of Jesus' substitutionary atonement as a punishment for the sins of the elect, which was developed by St. Augustine and especially St. Anselm. Calvinists argue that if Christ takes the punishment in the place of a particular sinner, that person must be saved since it would be unjust for him then to be condemned for the same sins. The definitive and binding nature of this "satisfaction model" has led Arminians to subscribe instead to the governmental theory of the atonement in which no particular sins or sinners are in view.

Attempts to reform Calvinism

Many efforts have been undertaken to reform Calvinism and especially the doctrine of the Reformed churches. The most notable and earliest of these was the theological and political movement called Arminianism, already mentioned in connection with the Synod of Dort. Arminianism was rejected by most Reformed churches, but ultimately prevailed in the Church of England, despite Calvinism being the formally adopted system of doctrine in that church.

Another revision of Calvinism is called Amyraldianism, "hypothetical universalism", or "four-point Calvinism", which asserts that Christ's death atones for the sins of all men, but only those who repent and believe are elect and receive forgiveness. This doctrine was most thoroughly systematized by the French Reformed theologian at the University of Saumur, Moses Amyraut, for whom it is named. It was popularized in England by the Reformed pastor Richard Baxter and gained strong adherence in the Presbyterian church in American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries. Baxter himself differentiated his proposals from those of Amyrauldianism on several, rather subtle points. Baxter's influential form of hypothetical universalism is often called neonomianism, and is generally considered a milder proposal of reform than Amyraut's version. In the United States, Amyrauldianism is the most common form of Calvinism current among evangelical churches.


A more conservative revision of Calvinism gained influence in the Dutch Reformed churches, late in the 19th century, which has been dubbed "neo-Calvinism", and developed along lines of the theories of Dutch theologian, statesman and journalist, Abraham Kuyper. This revision was a response to the influences of the Enlightenment, but generally speaking did not touch directly on the articles of salvation. Neo-Calvinism is a revision of the Calvinist worldview, which is an extension of the Calvinist understanding of salvation to scientific, social and political issues (though some Calvinists would argue that it is not so much a matter of revision as a matter of emphasis, citing Calvin's Institutes, book 1, chapters 1-3, and other works). In the United States, Kuyperian neo-Calvinism is represented among others, by the Center for Public Justice, a faith-based political think-tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Neo-Calvinism branched off in more conservative movements in the United States. The first of these to rise to prominence became apparent through the writings of Francis Schaeffer, and a group of scholars associated with a Calvinist study center in Switzerland, called L'abri. This movement generated a reawakened social consciousness among Evangelicals, especially in response to abortion, and was one of the formative influences which brought about the "Moral Majority" phenomenon in the United States, in the early 1980s.

Christian Reconstructionism

Another Calvinist movement, more radical and theocratic in the eyes of some, has been influential in American family and political life. This movement is called Christian Reconstructionism. Reconstructionism is a separate revision of Kuyper's approach under the leadership of the late Rousas J. Rushdoony, son of Armenian immigrants, Reformed scholar and essayist, who based much of his understanding on the apologetical insights of Cornelius Van Til. The movement has some influence in the conservative Reformed churches in which it was born, and in Calvinistic Baptist and Charismatic churches mostly in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the U.K. It aims toward the complete reconstruction of the structures of society on Christian and Biblical presuppositions, although not necessarily in terms of "top down" structural changes, but through the steady advance of the Gospel of Christ as men and women are converted. In keeping with the Theonomic Principle, it seeks to establish laws and structures that will best instantiate the ethical principles of the Old Testament, as expounded in the case laws and summarized in the Decalogue. Not a political movement, strictly speaking, Reconstructionism has been influential in the development of the Christian Right and Dominonism.


In the mainline Reformed churches, Calvinism has undergone significant revision through the influence of Karl Barth and neo-orthodox theology. Barth was an important Swiss Reformed theologian who began writing early in the 20th century, whose chief accomplishment was to counter-act the influence of the Enlightenment in the churches, especially as this had led to the toleration of Nazism in the Germanic countries of Western Europe. The Barmen declaration is an expression of the Barthian reform of Calvinism. The revisions Barth proposed are radical and impossible to concisely discuss in comparison to classical Calvinism but generally involve the complete rejection of natural theology. Conservative Calvinists (as well as some liberal reformers) regard it as confusing to use the name "Calvinism" to refer to neo-orthodoxy or the other liberal revisions mentioned above.


Main article: Hyper-Calvinism

Hyper-Calvinism first referred to a view that appeared among the early English Particular Baptists in the 1700s. Their system denied that the call of the gospel to "repent and believe" is directed to every single person and that it is the duty of every person to trust in Christ for salvation. While this doctrine has always been a minority view, it has not been relegated to the past and may still be found in some small denominations and church communities today.

Since that time, "hyper-Calvinism" has become a more general pejorative term that has been variously applied to additional views outside the mainstream of Calvinism, such as:

  • that God is the source of sin and of evil
  • that men have no will of their own, and secondary causes are of no effect
  • that the number of the elect at any time may be known by men
  • that there is no such thing as common grace
  • that no government is to be obeyed which does not acknowledge that Jesus is the Lord over it, or that Biblical Law is its source of authority
  • that only Calvinists are Christians

The term also occasionally appears in secular contexts where it usually connotes some variety of determinism.

See also




Educational institutions


  • John Calvin (1960). Institutes of the Christian Religion. ISBN 0664220282 (also available online ( in an older translation)
  • Ford Lewis Battles and John Walchenbach (2001). Analysis of the Institutes of the Christian Religion of John Calvin. ISBN 0875521827
  • John Thomas McNeill (1954). The History and Character of Calvinism. ISBN 0195007433
  • Andrew Purves and Charles Partee (2000). Encountering God: Christian Faith in the Turbulent Times. ISBN 0664222420

External links

  • ( - classic articles and resources; claims to have the largest collection of Reformed/Calvinist resources on the Internet.
  • Desiring God ( - God-centered resources from the ministry of John Piper
  • The Highway ( - over 1,000 articles from the Reformed perspective, and a discussion forum.
  • Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics ( - offers many materials of the Calvinist persuasion.
  • Reformed Perspectives ( - an online magazine from a Calvinist perspective.
  • "Why Calvinism is Cool" ( - an article on Calvinism by a Southern Baptist.
  • Calvinism & Arminianism ( - a side-by-side comparison of Calvinism and Arminianism
  • "Unconditional Election" ( - Arminian objections to the Calvinist view
  • "The Perseverance of the Saints" ( - an article from Affirmation and Critique: A Journal of Christian Thought, published by Living Stream Ministry, showing the differences and similarities between Arminian and Calvinist viewpoints on the perseverance of the saints while arguing for assurance of salvation.
  • Calvinism ( from the Catholic Encyclopediaaf:Calvinisme

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