Church History: A Biblical View
Part V - The Reformation: Lesson No. 31 - Calvinism
I. John Calvin
John Calvin was born July 10, 1509 in Noyon, France, fifty-eight miles northeast of Paris. Through the influence of his father, who was a secretary and attorney in the local bishopric, Calvin was introduced to the upper strata of French society and received income from ecclesiastical posts. Initially, he was directed to the study of theology, but after his father's quarrel with local church officials it was determined that he would study law. He studied at the Universities of Orleans and Bourges and eventually graduated in law. Following the death of his father, he studied Greek and Hebrew in the recently-founded College of France.
Though the scholarly atmosphere in which Calvin moved must have been thick with the questions and issues of a reformatory age, he had heretofore placed little importance on religious debates. However, at some point in the years 1532-33 Calvin's attitude underwent a sudden and dramatic change. He became convinced that God's will as revealed through the Scriptures had to be obeyed, and from then on religion occupied first place in his thoughts. Because of his sympathy with Reformation views, he was imprisoned briefly and eventually had to flee to Protestant Basel in Switzerland. There he completed and published in 1536 his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion as a defense against the slanderous charges made against French Protestants.
Not long after the publication of the Institutes Calvin traveled briefly to Italy and France and finally to Geneva, where the fiery Reformer, Guillaume Farel, induced him to remain and assist in the reformation of that city's religious institutions. Calvin and Farel made it their aim to mold Geneva into a model religious community. To that end they made three proposals to the city council. (1) They proposed that the Lord's Supper be administered every month and that certain persons from the various sections of the city be appointed to report the unworthy to the church for discipline. This was a means of enforcing church discipline and independence. (2) They proposed adoption of a catechism composed by Calvin. (3) They proposed imposition of a creed upon each citizen. These measures were adopted by the council with considerable modifications. However, the discipline and demands made by Calvin eventually aroused the opposition of many of the citizens, and the ensuing struggle for dominance finally resulted in the ouster of Farel and Calvin in April, 1538.
It seemed as though Calvin's work in Geneva had come to end. However, it was not long before the opposition party in Geneva committed a political mistake and were thrown out of power. In September, 1541 Calvin was invited back to Geneva to stay. He was now more powerful than ever and was able to secure many of the reforms he desired. A new ecclesiastical constitution, catechism, and liturgy were adopted. Citizens were under the constant and strict supervision of the Consistoire, a body charged with ecclesiastical discipline. The aim was to make Geneva the perfect spiritual community. Protestant refugees flocked to Geneva from many parts of Europe. Despite severe challenges to his government in the years 1548-55, Calvin was able to maintain his mastery of Geneva until his death on May 27, 1564. Through his pattern of church government, his academy, and his commentaries and other writings, he has wielded a lasting influence upon religious minds second only, perhaps, to that of Martin Luther in the Reformation. His disciples went everywhere to propagate his doctrines so that practically every Protestant denomination in existence is heavily permeated with them.
II. His Doctrines
A. Total hereditary depravity. Known also as "original sin," this doctrine asserts that all men, as a result of Adam's fall, are born with sinful, corrupted natures. Each person inherits Adam's guilt and sin and is absolutely incapable of goodness. The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that (1) children will not bear their parents' iniquities (Ezek. 18:20), (2) men are condemned for their own sins (Rom. 5:12), (3) it is possible for an unconverted person to have a good and honest heart (Lk. 8:15; Acts 10:1,2), and (4) children are not sinful (Matt. 19:14; Rom. 9:11; I Cor. 14:20).
B. Unconditional election. This doctrine is more commonly known as arbitrary, individual "predestination" or "foreordination." Calvin asserted that God arbitrarily elected, or chose, certain individuals to be saved before they were even born. This He did merely on the basis of "His good pleasure" - not because of anything they had done; hence, "unconditional election." This number of elect individuals is so fixed that it can be neither increased nor diminished. This doctrine (1) denies man's free will (Jn. 7:17), (2) denies man's role in his salvation (Phil. 2:12; Jas. 2:24), (3) makes God a respecter of persons (Acts 10:34,35), and (4) denies God's desire that all men be saved (I Tim. 2:4; II Pet. 3:9; Ezek. 18:23,32). God predestines the saved only in that he predestines them to meet certain conditions (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:4-6).
C. Limited atonement. Since only certain individuals were to be saved, there was no need for Christ to die for the non-elect. Hence, Calvin taught that Christ died to atone for the sins of the elect only. This is plainly contrary to what the Scriptures teach. Christ died for all men, including non-believers (I Tim. 4:10; Tit. 2:11; II Pet. 2:1; I Jn. 2:2).
D. Irresistible grace. According to Calvin, men are so depraved that they cannot do anything to effect their salvation. This is wholly the work of God. Man has no co-operant part in his salvation. God sends the Holy Spirit to work directly and supernaturally upon the heart of the sinner to work faith and repentance in him irresistibly. The elect, then, are literally forced to be saved. This doctrine is untrue because it (1) denies man's free will (Jn. 7:17), (2) the Holy Spirit can be resisted (Acts 7:51; I Thess. 5:19), (3) the word of God provokes men to repentance (Lk. 8:12; 16:27-31; Rom. 10:17), and (4) God employs human preachers to convert men's souls (Acts 8-10).
E. Perseverance of the saints. This doctrine is more commonly known by such names as "the impossibility of apostasy," "eternal security," and "once saved, always saved." Calvin taught that the elect (saints) who were irresistibly saved could not possibly be lost but would surely persevere to salvation. However, the Bible says a man can fall from grace (I Cor. 10: 12; Gal. 5:4; I Tim. 4:1; Heb. 6:4-6), warns against such (Matt. 13:41,42; Heb. 3:12; Lk. 8:13; II Pet. 2:20-22), and gives examples of such (Acts 5:1-11; 8:18-24; II Pet. 2:1,2).
III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)
(1) (T or F) Children inherit Adam's sinful nature (Psa. 51:5; 22:9,10; Job 31:18).
(2) (T or F) Christ died for all men, including sinners.
(3) (T or F) Angels or the Holy Spirit revealed the way of salvation directly to the eunuch, Saul, and Cornelius (Acts 8-10).
(4) (T or F) Saints can fall from God's grace by sinning and be eternally lost.
(5) Why is the doctrine of unconditional election wrong?
(6) Why is the doctrine of irresistible grace wrong?
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