by Joel R. Beeke
Calvinism is rooted in the sixteenth-century religious renewal in Europe that we refer to as the Protestant Reformation.2 But this great movement was not an isolated phenomenon. It did not simply begin with Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) act of posting his Ninety-five Theses on the church doors of Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517, even though those theses were soon translated into numerous languages and distributed to the masses. In one sense, the Reformation originated in Luther’s so-called “tower experience,” which probably predated his theses by a few years. Through this experience, Luther came to grasp the definitive doctrine of the Reformation: justification by gracious faith alone. But in another sense, the Reformation flowed out of earlier attempts for renewal, the most notable of which were led by Peter Waldo (ca. 1140-ca. 1217) and his followers in the Alpine regions,3 John Wycliffe (ca. 1324-1384) and the Lollards in England,4 and John Hus (ca. 1372-1415) and his followers in Bohemia.5 Lesser-known divines, such as Thomas Bradwardine (ca. 1300-1349)6 and Gregory of Rimini (ca. 1300-1358),7 came even closer to what would become known as Protestant theology. All these men are properly called forerunners of the Reformation rather than Reformers because, although they anticipated many of the emphases of the Reformation, they lacked a complete understanding of the critical doctrine of justification by gracious faith alone.8
These forerunners of the Reformation were morally, doctrinally, and practically united in their opposition to medieval Roman Catholic abuses. This opposition is critical to note, since the Reformation began primarily as a reaction to the abuses of Roman Catholicism. Luther did not set out to destroy the Roman Catholic Church and to establish a new church. His initial intent was to purge the Roman Catholic Church of abuses.
Reformed theology thus cannot be fully understood apart from its reaction to problems in the church, such as:
• Papal abuses. The medieval papacy was rife with abuses in theology and practice. Immoral conduct was lived out and condoned even by the popes, and grace became a cheap, commercialized religion throughout the church via a complex system of vows, fasts, pilgrimages, masses, relics, recitations, rosaries, and other works. The papal imperative was “do penance” (as translated in the Vulgate) rather than “be penitent,” or “repent,” as Jesus commanded.
• Papal pretentiousness. Biblical and historical study by the Protestant forerunners led them to question papal claims to apostolic authority as head of the church. For example, the Reformers concluded that the rock on which the church was built (Matt. 16:18) was the content of Peter’s faith rather than Peter himself, which meant that the bishop of Rome possessed no more than a position of honor. Though the Protestants initially were willing to accept a Reformed papacy that would honorably serve the church, the cruel opposition of the popes to reform eventually persuaded many of them to regard the pope of Rome as Antichrist (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.6).
• Captivity of the Word. Protestants taught that the Roman Catholic Church held Scripture captive, withholding it from the laypeople and thus keeping them in bondage to church councils, bishops, schoolmen, canonists, and allegorists for interpretation. The Protestants worked hard to deliver the Bible from this hierarchical captivity. As Malcolm Watts writes:
• Elevation of monasticism. Protestants opposed the Roman Catholic concept of the superiority of the so-called religious life. They did not believe that monasticism was the only way to spirituality or even the best way. By stressing the priesthood of all believers, they worked hard to eliminate the Roman Catholic distinction between the “inferior” life of the Christian involved in a secular calling and the “higher” religious world of monks and nuns.
• Usurped mediation. Protestants also rejected the Roman Catholic ideas of mediation by Mary and the intercession of saints, as well as the automatic transfusion of grace in the sacraments. They opposed all forms of mediation with God except through Christ. They reduced the sacraments to two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, thereby stripping priests and the church of mediating power and the sacramental dispensation of salvation.
• The role of good works. Protestants rejected the ideas of Semi-Pelagianism, which says that both grace and works are necessary for salvation. This theological difference was at the heart of Protestant opposition to Roman Catholicism, though it was largely through moral and practical corruption that the issue came to the fore.
The Protestant response to Roman Catholic abuses gradually settled into five Reformation watchwords or battle cries, centered on the Latin word solus, meaning “alone.” These battle cries, expounded in chapter 10, served to contrast Protestant teaching with Roman Catholic tenets as follows:
In early Protestantism, both Lutheran and Reformed believers embraced these five watchwords. Regrettably, Luther and Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), the early leader of the Swiss Reformation, parted ways in October 1529 during the infamous Marburg Colloquy, when they could not reach agreement on the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.10 From that time on, Protestantism divided into two traditions, Lutheranism and Calvinism—the latter being the Reformed tradition as understood and expressed in the writings of John Calvin and his fellow Reformers.
The Spread of the Reformed (Calvinistic) Faith
The Reformed tradition has its earliest roots in Switzerland with Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), who established and systematized it after Zwingli’s death.11 Calvin (1509-1564), its greatest representative and most influential exponent, established Geneva as a model Reformed city.12 In many respects, Geneva was the most important Protestant center in the sixteenth century. This was not only because of the presence of Calvin, but also because the seminary Calvin established sought to train and educate Reformers for all of Western Europe. Amazingly—somewhat to the chagrin of some of the Genevan populace—the town became the Protestant print capital of Europe, with more than thirty houses publishing literature in various languages. Because of Zwingli’s premature death on the battlefield, the fact that Bullinger’s works13 were not as easily accessible by the later Calvinist tradition, and Calvin’s able work in systematizing Reformed Protestantism through his Institutes of the Christian Religion, commentaries, sermons, and leadership, the terms Reformed and Calvinism became virtually synonymous. Calvin himself preferred Reformed because he was opposed to having the movement called by his name.
The Reformed movement then spread to Germany. The city of Heidelberg, where the Heidelberg Catechism originated, became an influential center of Reformed thinking. Nonetheless, much of Germany remained staunchly Lutheran. A minority of Lutherans in Germany were affected by Calvin’s thinking, most notably Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), a close associate of Luther who was unkindly referred to by his peers as a crypto-Calvinist.14 Eventually, a number of Melanchthon’s followers, estranged from the Lutherans after Luther’s death, joined the Reformed Church in Germany.15
Calvinism also took hold in Hungary,16 Poland , and the Low Countries, particularly the Netherlands, where it penetrated the southern regions about 1545 and the northern about 1560.17 From the start, the Calvinist movement in the Netherlands was more influential than its number of adherents might suggest. But Dutch Calvinism did not flower profusely until the seventeenth century, cultivated by the famous international Synod of Dort in 1618-1619 and fortified by the Dutch Further Reformation (De Nadere Reformatie), a primarily seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century movement paralleling English Puritanism.18 The Dutch Further Reformation dates from such early representatives as Jean Taffin (1528-1602) and Willem Teellinck (1579-1629), and extends to Alexander Comrie (1706-1774).19
The Reformed movement also made substantial inroads into France.20 By the time Calvin died in 1564, 20 percent of the French population—some two million people—confessed the Reformed faith. In fact, this 20 percent included half of the aristocracy and middle class in France. For a while, it seemed that France might officially embrace the Reformed faith. But Roman Catholic persecution and civil war halted the spread of Reformed teaching. In some ways, the French Reformed movement has never recovered from this blow of persecution and attack in the sixteenth century. On the other hand, God brought good out of evil—the Reformed believers who fled France, known as the Huguenots, injected fresh spiritual vitality and zeal into the Reformed movement everywhere they settled.21
The Reformation spread rapidly to Scotland, largely under the leadership of John Knox (1513-1572), who served nineteen months as a galley slave before he went to England and then to Geneva. Knox brought the Reformation’s principles from Geneva to Scotland and became its most notable spokesman there.22 In 1560, the Scottish Parliament rejected papal authority, and the following year, the Scottish Reformed “Kirk,” or church, was reorganized. In ensuing generations, many Scots became stalwart Calvinists, as did many of the Irish and the Welsh.
In England, Henry VIII (1491-1547) rebelled against papal rule so that he could legally divorce, remarry, and hopefully produce a male heir. He tolerated a mild reformation but established himself as the Church of England’s supreme head, even as he remained essentially Roman Catholic in his theology.23 During the short reign of his young son Edward VI (1547-1553), who, together with his council, had a great heart for true reformation, some gains were made, especially by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) through his book Homilies, his Book of Common Prayer, and his Forty-Two Articles of Religion. All of this seemed to be reversed during the bloody reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1558), who reinstated the Latin Mass and enforced papal allegiance at the cost of nearly three hundred Protestant lives. But the blood of those martyrs, including Cranmer, was to be the seed of the Protestant cause in England.
When Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth (1533-1603) succeeded her, many Protestants harbored fervent hopes that the reforms begun under Edward VI would grow exponentially. Elizabeth, however, was content with the climate of British Protestantism and strove to subdue dissident voices. Those who fought too much for reform in matters of worship, godliness, politics, and culture were persecuted and deprived of their livings. Elizabeth’s cautious, moderate type of reform disappointed many and eventually gave rise to a more thorough and robust Calvinism that was derogatorily called Puritanism.
Puritanism lasted from the 1560s to the early 1700s. The Puritans believed the Church of England had not gone far enough in its reformation, because its worship and government did not agree fully with the pattern found in Scripture. They called for the pure preaching of God’s Word; for purity of worship as God commands in Scripture; and for purity of church government, replacing the rule of bishops with Presbyterianism. Above all, they called for greater purity or holiness of life among Christians. As J. I. Packer has said, “Puritanism was an evangelical holiness movement seeking to implement its vision of spiritual renewal, national and personal, in the church, the state, and the home; in education, evangelism, and economics; in individual discipleship and devotion, and in pastoral care and competence.”24 Doctrinally, Puritanism was a kind of vigorous Calvinism; experientially, it was warm and contagious; evangelistically, it was aggressive, yet tender; ecclesiastically, it was theocentric and worshipful; and politically, it sought to make the relations between king, Parliament, and subjects scriptural, balanced, and bound by conscience.25
Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists were all part of the Calvinist movement. Some Puritans seceded from the Church of England during the reign of King James I (1603-1625). They became known as separatists or dissenters and usually formed Congregationalist churches. Puritan conformists remained within the Anglican fold.
Eventually, Calvinism crossed the Atlantic to the British colonies in North America, where the New England Puritans took the lead in expounding Reformed theology and in founding ecclesiastical, educational, and political institutions.26 The Puritans who settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony continued to sanction the Church of England to some degree, whereas the Pilgrims who sailed to America in the Mayflower and settled in Plymouth (1620) were separatists.27 Despite these differences, all Puritans were zealous Calvinists. As John Gerstner observes, “ New England, from the founding of Plymouth in 1620 to the end of the 18th century, was predominantly Calvinistic.”28
Four more streams of immigrants brought Calvinism to America. Dutch Reformed believers, from the 1620s, were responsible for the settlement of New Netherlands, later called New York. The French Huguenots arrived by the thousands in New York, Virginia, and the Carolinas in the late seventeenth century. From 1690 to 1777, more than two hundred thousand Germans, many of whom were Reformed, settled mostly in the Middle Colonies. The final stream was the Scots and the Scotch-Irish, all Presbyterians. Some settled in New England, but many more poured into New York, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas. “As a consequence of this extensive immigration and internal growth it is estimated that of the total population of three million in this country in 1776, two-thirds of them were at least nominally Calvinistic,” John Bratt concludes. “At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the largest denominations were, in order: Congregationalists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, German Reformed, and Dutch Reformed. Roman Catholicism was tenth and Methodism was twelfth in size.”29
With the exception of the migrations to America, all of this spreading of the Reformed faith happened by the end of the sixteenth century.30 The most extensive and enduring strongholds of the Reformed movement became the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Great Britain, and North America.
It is noteworthy that all of these Reformed bodies shared the conviction that Christianity in many parts of Europe prior to the Reformation was little more than a veneer. As these Reformed believers surveyed Europe, they saw what they could regard only as large swaths of paganism. The planting of solidly biblical churches was desperately needed. This explains in large measure the Reformers’ missionary focus on Europe.
In time, the Reformed movement developed into two very similar systems of theology: the Continental Reformed, represented primarily in the Netherlands by its Three Forms of Unity—the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort; and British-American Presbyterianism, expressed in the Westminster standards—the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Larger Catechism, and the Shorter Catechism.31 These two systems were not opposed to or entirely separate from each other, however. For example, British Puritans profoundly influenced the Dutch Further Reformation in the seventeenth century. Likewise, the Italian-Swiss Francis Turretin (1623-1687) profoundly affected American Presbyterianism.32 Turretin’s systematic theology was taught at Princeton Seminary until the 1870s, when it was replaced by that of Charles Hodge.
Calvinism and the Lutherans
Both systems of Reformed theology parted ways with Lutheranism. By the end of the sixteenth century, Calvinism differed from Lutheranism in the following areas:
• Approach to the Lord’s Supper. Lutherans maintained the doctrine of consubstantiation, which holds that Christ is physically present in, with, and under the elements in the Lord’s Supper. They resisted any attempt to explain Jesus’ statement “this is my body” as a metaphor, saying that such efforts opened the door to allegorizing away the gospel itself. Furthermore, they said, if all that is offered in Communion is a spiritual Christ, the sacrament presents a truncated gospel that offers no comfort to believers whose bodies eventually will die. Lutherans would be satisfied only with a concrete, historical Christ.
The Reformed leaders said that the incarnate, historical Christ is now risen and ascended, and therefore is not present in the Supper in the way He was prior to His ascension. Furthermore, the concept of Christ’s spiritual presence does not mean something less than complete; rather, it refers to His ongoing work through His Spirit. The Reformed believed they were affirming all that the Lutherans wanted to protect, but in a clearer, more biblical manner.
• The primary function of the law. Luther generally regarded the law as something negative and closely allied with sin, death, or the Devil. He believed that the dominant function of the law is to abase the sinner by convicting him of sin and driving him to Christ for deliverance. Calvin regarded the law more as a guide for the believer, a tool to encourage him to cling to God and to obey Him more fervently. The believer must try to follow God’s law not as an act of compulsory duty, but as a response of grateful obedience. With the help of the Spirit, the law provides a way for a believer to express his gratitude.
• Approach to salvation. Both Lutherans and Calvinists answered the question “What must I do to be saved?” by saying that Spirit-worked repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His substitutionary work of atonement are necessary. But Lutherans had a tendency to remain focused on the doctrine of justification, whereas Calvinists, without minimizing justification, pressed more than Lutherans toward sanctification, which asks, “Having been justified by God’s grace, how shall I live to the glory of God?” Calvinism thus became more comprehensive than Lutheranism in explaining how salvation works itself out in the life of a believer.
• Understanding of predestination. In the late sixteenth century, most Lutherans moved away from Luther and the Calvinists, who asserted the predestination of both the elect and the reprobate rather than the predestination of the elect only. Reformed theologians believed this shift in thinking was at odds with the content of Romans 9 and similar passages, as well as with the comprehensive sovereignty of God.
The Calvinists were convinced that election is sovereign and gracious, and that reprobation is sovereign and just. No one who enters heaven deserves to be there; no one who enters hell deserves anything different. As Calvin said, “The praise of salvation is claimed for God, whereas the blame of perdition is thrown upon those who of their own accord bring it upon themselves.”33
• Understanding of worship. Luther’s reform was more moderate than Calvin’s, retaining more medieval liturgy. Following their leaders, the Lutherans and Calvinists differed in their views of how Scripture regulates worship. The Lutherans taught that we may include in worship what is not forbidden in Scripture; the Calvinists maintained that we may not include in worship what the New Testament does not command.
Calvinism has stood the test of time. Most Protestant denominations that originated in the Reformation were founded on Calvinistic confessions of faith, such as the Thirty-nine Articles (Anglicanism), the Canons of Dort (Reformed), the Westminster Standards (Presbyterianism), the Savoy Declaration (Congregationalism), and the Baptist Confession of 1689 (Baptist). All of these confessions essentially agree, with the major point of disagreement being the doctrine of infant baptism.
Reformation theology prevailed, for the most part, in Protestant evangelicalism for many decades, but was diluted in the nineteenth century because of several influences, such as the Enlightenment in Europe and Finneyism in America. By the mid-twentieth century, Calvinistic theology had declined dramatically in the Western world, having been assaulted by nineteenth-century liberal theology and revived Arminianism.
About two centuries ago, William Ellery Channing, the father of American Unitarianism, wrote: “Calvinism, we are persuaded, is giving place to better views. It has passed its meridian, and is sinking to rise no more. It has to contend with foes more powerful than theologians; with foes from whom it cannot shield itself in mystery and metaphysical subtleties—we mean the progress of the human mind, and the progress of the spirit of the gospel. Society is going forward in intelligence and charity, and of course is leaving the theology of the sixteenth century behind it.”34
Channing was a false prophet. Today, even though the world in general is becoming more anti-God and wicked than ever, Calvinism is being revived, although, sadly, it is still a minority position. A fresh hunger for Calvinism’s biblical doctrine and spirituality is causing the roots of Reformed theology to spread throughout the entire world. In recent decades, a significant number of Calvinistic churches and denominations have been birthed around the world. Today, Reformed churches exist in the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy, the United Kingdom, North America, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, China, the Philippines, Russia, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Israel, and various additional African and Asian countries. Also, since the 1960s, there has been a resurgence of interest in Calvinistic literature. Calvinistic conferences are being offered in numerous countries; in many of these nations, the number of Calvinists is steadily growing in our new millennium.
Calvinism has a bright future, for it offers much to people who seek to believe and practice the whole counsel of God. Calvinism aims to do so with both clearheaded faith and warm-hearted spirituality, which, when conjoined, produce vibrant living in the home, the church, and the marketplace to the glory of God. It confesses with Paul, “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever” (Rom. 11:36). That, after all, is what Scripture, Calvinism, and life itself are all about.
1. What are the historical roots of Calvinism?
2. What are the main geographical areas where Calvinism spread in the first two centuries after the Reformation?
3. How does Calvinism differ from Lutheranism?
Dr. Joel R. Beeke serves as President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Church History, and Homiletics. He has been in the ministry since 1978 and has served as a pastor of his current church since 1986. He is also editor of the Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, editorial director of Reformation Heritage Books, president of Inheritance Publishers, and vice-president of the Dutch Reformed Translation Society. He has written, co-authored, or edited fifty books and contributed over fifteen hundred articles to Reformed books, journals, periodicals, and encyclopedias. His Ph.D. (1988) from Westminster Theological Seminary is in Reformation and Post-Reformation Theology. He is frequently called upon to lecture at Reformed seminaries and to speak at conferences around the world. He and his wife, Mary, have three children: Calvin, Esther, and Lydia.
Chapter One from Living for God's Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism by Joel Beeke. Used by Permission.
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