What Is Calvinism?

Since "Calvinism" is widespread and widely used, it should continue to be used, with a few caveats.

In addition to the Holy Scriptures as the most important norm, Calvinism serves, apart from Calvin’s own theology, as an independent continuation of the theological work of others including that of Augustine and Luther, as well as the works of Reformers such as Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, and Theodore Beza, all of whom are sources for what is called Calvinism.

 

“Calvinism” emerged as a term of insult from Lutherans addressing Reformed Protestants in order to separate themselves emphatically from the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Although John Calvin distanced himself from it, just as Luther protested the name “Lutherans,” this term has nevertheless been preserved, although it is problematic. Calvinism is considered a synonym for “Reformed” and thus is typically understood as referring to something broader than the theology of Calvin himself. In addition to the Holy Scriptures as the most important norm, Calvinism serves, apart from Calvin’s own theology, as an independent continuation of the theological work of others including that of Augustine and Luther, as well as the works of Reformers such as Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, and Theodore Beza, all of whom are sources for what is called Calvinism. The explanation for the fact that Calvin’s thinking is manifested not only in a multitude of Calvinist movements, but also in Lutheran Pietism, Methodism, Anglicanism, Baptist theology, and Puritanism, has to do with the fact that Calvin’s theology contains elements that made it interesting and attractive in the early modern period because it was easily transformed and adapted. The term Calvinism is too broad and too diverse to be exact and could be replaced by Reformed Protestantism. Since, however, Calvinism is widespread and widely used, it should continue to be used, with a few caveats.

The Spread of Calvinism

The spread of Calvinism in the sixteenth century may be called impressive in terms of time and scope. By 1554, there were about half a million Reformed Christians, but as early as 1600 there were approximately ten million. From the very beginning, Calvinism was strongly internationally oriented and has remained so since then. Factors relating to this rapid and extensive dissemination were, above all, Calvin’s Academy in Geneva, the universities of Heidelberg and Leiden, and other Reformed academic institutions where theologians and lawyers from all over Europe were trained. Calvinism has also had a great influence in Eastern Europe, especially in Hungary and parts of Romania. The initial spread in France could only be counteracted by force. In the German-speaking world, Calvinism gained the upper hand except in some Swiss cantons and in areas such as the Palatinate and East Frisia. In Scotland and the Netherlands, there were no Calvinist churches but national Reformed Churches, which in reality were connected to secular governments by law and as such were less “Reformed” in practice. Reformed theology has contributed to a worldview that has had a great impact on Western society and has also affected developments in church and theology in the Far East (Indonesia, Korea, Japan) and South Africa. That there is great diversity within the broad Reformed tradition is, for example, evident from the fact that both Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth belong to it. Although efforts have been made to create a contradiction between Calvin and the Calvinists in the sense that developments in Reformed orthodoxy had substituted rigid scholasticism for the dynamics of Calvin’s theology, more recent research has proven that there is no basis for such a contradiction. Also, the Synod of Dort (1618–19), which is seen as a highlight in the history of Calvinism, remained in Calvin’s line. Its decisions on double predestination, for example, were supported by delegates from Switzerland, Germany, and England, all representing various traditions within Calvinism.

The Theology of Calvinism

The authority of the Bible as the source and norm for all of life, the sovereignty of God, and the responsibility of man are essential elements of Calvinistic doctrine. The Reformed doctrine of the Scriptures is formulated emphatically in the Reformed confessions. There it is confessed that the Scripture has supreme authority (because it is theopneustos, “God-breathed”), and that it is perfect, reliable, and sufficient.

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