What is a Calvinist?

John Calvin (1509-1564) was a French theologian and pastor who spent most of his ministry in Geneva, Switzerland. Calvin was a major influencer during the Protestant Reformation, preaching and teaching with the fervor of a man who seemed wholly-devoted to Christ.

Calvin preached and taught expositionally through the Bible, leaving behind many commentaries on the biblical text and other insightful books on Christian belief and practice. However, Calvin’s most notable work is known as “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” which is a magnificent theological treatise. Systematic theology texts are quite numerous today, but before Calvin such a thing was rare indeed.

Calvin’s writings create a bit of difficulty for anyone to answer my main question here – What is a Calvinist? – since his Institutes alone clearly demonstrate that Calvin’s theological system and contributions were both much more expansive than many Christians suppose today. However, I am going to avoid the worthwhile debate about who is and isn’t a real Calvinist.

Rather, I am going to focus my answer to the main question – What is a Calvinist? – on the popular or common perspective. Most people who claim to be Calvinists today are merely announcing their affirmation of the so-called Five Points of Calvinism, and many modern-day Calvinists don’t even affirm all five.

Ironically, Calvin never arranged or articulated a mere five points of doctrine. The five points popularly known as Calvinism today were not even a bulleted theological structure until after the Remonstrance (followers of Jocobus Arminius) made these points the focus of their opposition – 50 years after Calvin died. Even then, however, they were not arranged as the popluar acronym TULIP. That didn’t happen until at least 200 years later.

At the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), the Remonstrance petitioned the government for an allowance to hold their theological view (throughout history religion and government have been joined more often than not). A similar doctrinal position (called Semi-Pelagiansism) had already been condemned one thousand years earlier (in AD 431 at the Council of Ephesus and again in AD 529 at the Council of Orange), and the Remonstrance wanted to avoid the same designation.

But, alas, the Remonstrance were condemned as well. The Synod of Dort ended with a judgment against Arminianism, declaring it a heresy alongside Semi-Pelagianism. The synod produces several canons (or doctrinal affirmations), some of which became the origins of the so-called Five Points of Calvinism.

The Five Points of Calvinism are:

1) Total Depravity: Fallen humans, since Adam, are thoroughly affected by sin – their bodies, minds, and wills/desires; and unregenerate people are incapable of naturally doing anything genuinely good (Rom. 3:10-18).

2) Unconditional Election: God elects some sinners unto salvation, whereby they become beneficiaries of God’s blessings, not because of any condition in them, but according to the riches of God’s gracious grace and according to the purposes of His divine will (Eph. 1:3-6).

3) Limited Atonement: Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross is priceless, sufficient to cover all sin and all sinners, but Christ’s atoning work was intended and effectual only for those who believe and not for anyone else (Jn. 10:14-16).

4) Irresistable Grace: God alone causes sinners to be born again (regeneration is a monergistic act), through the proclamation of the gospel and powerful work of His Holy Spirit (God normally uses means). All who are born again possess new hearts with which they respond in loving affection for God, believing and repenting by His grace (Eph. 2:1-10).

5) Perseverence of the Saints: All sinners whom God has elected unto Himself, those for whom Christ has died, those God has made spiritually alive, will pursue personal holiness in this life and will persevere to the end (Rom. 8:28-39).

Calvinism – as anemically articulated in the five points above – has been the majority view among Protestants. Historically, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Anglicans have all affirmed these doctrines. Notable 21st-century theologians and pastors who affirm these doctrines include R.C. Sproul, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, and Mark Dever.

This brief article is only intended as a very simple introduction to this theological system. I suggest much further investigation for the interested Christian, and there are numerous books and articles that might be a help.

In my estimation, Wayne Grudem’s book, Systematic Theology, does a good job of explaining the various views of biblical salvation. This would be a great starting point for further study.

Whether you embrace this view or not, it is vital that all believers look to the Bible as the ultimate authority. It is also important that we humbly and graciously investigate the Bible alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ.

What is an Arminian?

Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) was a Dutch theologian during the later period of the Protestant Reformation. Arminius and his followers opposed some points of Reformed theology, which developed more robustly out of the writings and teaching of some of the Reformers. One of the most (maybe the most?) influential and monumental Reformed works ever written is John Calvin‘s “Institutes of the Christian Religion.”

Though they never met (Calvin died when Arminius was 4 years old), Arminius had admiration for Calvin and his outstanding biblical hermeneutics. Arminius once said, “Next to the study of the Scriptures… I exhort my students to read Calvin’s Commentaries carefully and thoroughly… for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture.”

Arminius and his followers (originally called the Remonstrance at the Synod of Dort) did, however, disagree with some points of the Reformed teaching in the area of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). Forty-two ministers organized their opposition to some of Calvin’s Reformed teaching, focusing in on five particular disputed points. These points became the five-pointed dividing line between what later came to be called Arminianism and Calvinism.

Ironically, the five-pointed dividing line became known as “The Five Points of Calvinism,” though Calvin himself had never arranged them as such. The five points or doctrines were not even a bulleted theological structure until after the Remonstrance made them the focus of their opposition – 50 years after Calvin died. Even then, however, the five affirmative doctrinal points were not arranged as TULIP. That didn’t happen until at least 200 years later.

The Five Articles of the Remonstrance represent historic Arminianism. An Arminian, in the popular sense, is someone who affirms the Arminian articles or points over against the Calvinistic or Reformed points.

The Five Articles of the Remonstrance are:

1) Conditional Predestination: God predestines some sinners for salvation, and this predestination is conditionally based on God’s foreknowledge about each person’s anticipated faith or unbelief.

2) Universal Atonement: Christ died for all humans, and God intended His sacrifice for all humans, but only those sinners who accept this atoning work will be saved.

3) Saving Faith: Sinful and Fallen humanity is unable to attain saving faith, unless he is regenerated and renewed by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

4) Resistible Grace: The grace of God is effective, but it is resistible, so man must cooperate with God’s grace to bring about personal salvation.

5) Uncertainty of Perseverance: Although God’s grace is abundant, the sinner can lose that grace and become lost even after he has been saved.

It is important to note that some Arminians may not affirm all five of these articles, or they may not affirm each of them with the same fervor. In recent history, the Arminian system (or some variation of it) has been the most commonly held view among American Evangelicalism. Though, most Evangelicals are not aware of the historic grounding of their doctrinal views.

The Arminian view is widely embraced among many Southern Baptists, Methodists, Nazarenes, and Wesleyans today. C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tower, and Adrian Rogers are three notable men who affirmed (at least generally) an Arminian position. There are others, but these are significant voices, and each represents a distinct platform among culture and Christianity.

This brief article is only intended as a very simple introduction to this theological system. I suggest much further investigation for the interested Christian, and there are numerous books and articles that might be a help.

In my estimation, Wayne Grudem’s book, Systematic Theology, does a good job of explaining the various views of biblical salvation. This would be a great starting point for further study.

Whether you embrace this view or not, it is vital that all believers look to the Bible as the ultimate authority. It is also important that we humbly and graciously investigate the Bible alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Southern Baptists, Arminians, and Calvinists

Within Southern Baptist churches there exists a variety of people who claim to be Arminians or Calvinists. In my experience, many of these individuals do not actually affirm many of the propositions that are included in the historic theological systems represented by those names. Instead, the shorthand references seem to have been drained of some substantial theological cargo. More often than not, “Calvinist” and “Arminian” now simply float as hollow battleships representing differing views on the doctrine of salvation. This is unfortunate and less than helpful.

The rise in number and influence of those who might call themselves Calvinist has also caused no small amount of concern for many Southern Baptists. The reasons for all of this heartburn may be many, but I think that one major contributing factor is unfamiliarity. Anytime something is unfamiliar, it tends to make us uneasy – at least a little.

Ask the average Southern Baptist what he or she knows about Arminianism or Calvinism, and you are likely to get a puzzled look followed by a confused reply. Moreover, if some Southern Baptists do seem to know something about either or both of these camps, they will often have only a truncated or twisted perspective. If the Southern Baptists of today were as disinterested in theological investigation as the Southern Baptists of the 1950s-1990s (activity was their greater focus), then this misunderstanding would not be as much of a problem. However, there has been a dramatic rearrangement of the American cultural landscape, and the congregations who live and work on this new terrain have changed as well.

Since the Southern Baptist Convention was first formed in 1845, there have been both Calvinists and Arminians in the family. Particular Baptists (Calvinistic) and General Baptists (Arminian) both joined in cooperated efforts to proclaim the Gospel far and wide. Because of this diversity in the SBC, there have also been various times in which each theological camp has enjoyed the more prominent role in the convention. Of course, there have been vigorous debates and even family fights, but Southern Baptists have never shied away from a healthy debate or fight. The point is that the disagreeing sides of this particular theological debate have cooperated significantly in the past. I believe that we would be childish and foolish to think that this kind of cooperation cannot continue.

In order to work towards clarity and civility in the current situation, it will be helpful for everyone to investigate, think, and then speak (with patience and humility). By God’s grace, Southern Baptists (Arminians and Calvinists alike) can continue to unite under the banner of the Gospel, and we may continue to defend those Biblical distinctives that have made us Baptists.