Many of Scotland’s ills have been attributed to Calvinism. And as the influence of Calvinism has declined, the scope for misunderstanding it has increased. A book review in The Herald newspaper seems to use the term Calvinism in a context that has nothing whatever to do with religion, merely as a synonym for seriousness – indeed, a rather unattractive brand of seriousness.
But what actually is Calvinism? It is merely a convenient expression for pure Scriptural doctrine. B B Warfield commented, “It is very odd how difficult it seems for some persons to understand just what Calvinism is”. And he went on to sum up the idea with beautiful succinctness: “Calvinism is just religion in its purity”. (1) It is, he says, “the pure embodiment” of the religion of faith, in opposition to the religion of works.
The name, of course, acknowledges the great contribution of the French Reformer John Calvin (1509-64) who laboured mostly in Geneva. His Institutes of the Christian Religion were a significant advance on any previous attempt to present the doctrines of Scripture in systematic form. Originally published in 1535, when Calvin was only 27, he presented his Institutes to the French king as a defence of Protestantism. In his Prefatory Address to Francis I, he explained, “I toiled at the task [of writing the Institutes] chiefly for the sake of my countrymen the French, multitudes of whom I perceived to be hungering and thirsting after Christ, while very few seem to have been duly imbued with even a slender knowledge of Him. . . . But when I perceived that the fury of certain bad men had risen to such a height in your realm that there was no place in it for sound doctrine, I thought it might be of service if I were in the same work to give instruction to my countrymen, and also lay before your Majesty a Confession, from which you may learn what the doctrine is that so inflames the rage of those madmen who are this day, with fire and sword, troubling the kingdom.” (2)
Calvin’s work did not serve to bring persecution in France to an end but, no doubt beyond his greatest hopes, it has both instructed and edified many till this day, especially in its final form of 1559. William Cunningham has described it as “the most important work in the history of theological science”. He goes on to say that it “has exerted directly and indirectly the greatest and most beneficial influence upon the opinions of intelligent men on theological subjects, and this work he was enabled to accomplish in such a way as to confer the greatest and most lasting benefits upon the Church of Christ”. (3) Cunningham draws attention to the fact that, “for this work, God eminently qualified him by bestowing upon him the highest gifts both of nature and of grace”. It was not merely a work of the intellect; Calvin was not one who coldly believed the truths of Scripture. The Institutes was the work of one who could define faith as “a warm embracing of Christ”; Calvin did indeed trust and love the Saviour, and these graces were active as he laboured on the repeated editions of this, his greatest work.
But why not let Scripture speak for itself? Let Calvin himself explain why he wrote his Institutes: “Although the Holy Scriptures contain a perfect doctrine, to which nothing can be added . . . every person not intimately acquainted with them stands in need of some guidance and direction as to what he ought to look for in them.” (4) It was for the same reason that Christ sent out his disciples to preach the gospel. They were not merely to read the Scriptures; they were to explain and apply them. Christ, in His holy wisdom, saw fit that fallible men, not always those who had the greatest gifts of nature and of grace, but men with some measure of these gifts, should give some guidance and direction as to the meaning and use of the Scriptures. So Calvin, no mean preacher himself, felt led to put in writing his understanding of the doctrines of Scripture. And it is because his understanding of these doctrines was so thoroughly scriptural that his name has been so commonly used to represent the Reformed Faith.
Too often, Calvinism has been thought of merely in terms of the Five Points: total depravity, unconditional election, limited (or, definite) atonement, irresistible grace, and final perseverance. These five points, however, do no more than summarise the scriptural response to five points which were presented to the States of Holland by the followers of James Arminius in 1610. Calvinism is not merely the scriptural response to Arminian errors; it is the whole doctrine of Scripture presented in an organised form. Yet the response to Arminianism emphasises that Calvinism is the religion of faith in opposition to works. It is Calvinism alone that gives its proper place to the testimony of Scripture: “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8,9). Any concession to human ability or merit takes away from the glory of God, while Calvinism follows Scripture in maintaining the complete sovereignty of God.
Calvin did not, of course, build his system unaided; not to speak of earlier Reformers such as Luther, he was conscious of standing on the shoulders of Augustine (395-430). Augustine, who wrote voluminously, was involved in a particularly significant controversy with Pelagius, a British monk, who denied original sin. One might say that, while Arminians accept that man is seriously sick and needs divine help if he is to recover, Pelagians claim that man is able in his own strength to do all that God requires of him. Calvinists, on the other hand, following Augustine, proclaim on the basis of Scripture that man is spiritually dead and unable to do anything pleasing to God until God by the Holy Spirit gives him new life. For the Calvinist, as for Augustine, salvation is all of grace. It is altogether the result of God’s kindness, not for the sake of any good works – not even the good works that God foresees will take place in the future.
Yet good works are very much part of every Calvinist creed. To define, as Warfield does, Calvinism as “religion in its purity” implies that it is not merely a system of sound, scriptural knowledge. So genuine Calvinists – those whose religion has touched their hearts, not merely their heads – live a holy life. Both emphases, those of doctrine and life, appeared clearly in Calvin’s last address to his fellow pastors in Geneva: “As to my doctrine, I have taught faithfully – and God has granted me the grace of being able to write – which I have done as faithfully as I have been able, and I have not corrupted one single passage of Scripture nor twisted it as far as I know, and when I might well have brought in subtle meanings . . . I have trampled the whole lot under foot, and I have always studied to be simple. I have written nothing out of hatred against anyone, but I have always set before me faithfully what I considered was for the glory of God.” (5) This is the spirit of true Calvinism: to consider what is for the glory of God, in doctrine and in daily living, whether in health or at death. Good works are a necessary result of salvation, not a means of earning it.
Calvinism has often been depicted as gloomy, promoting an atmosphere so serious that there is no room for joy. This is, of course, a caricature. In the Scriptures the believer is called to rejoice. But his rejoicing must be consistent with a godly seriousness. We are directed: “The end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer” (1 Pet 4:7). Life is short; eternity is long; we need to step back and consider seriously where we are going. If our minds were not so biased by sin, common sense itself would teach us that we need to be prepared to pass beyond this life. We should see the call to be sober and watchful as totally appropriate to our vulnerable position as sinners who may be called to face death at any moment. Sobriety has to do not only with restraint in the use of alcohol; we are to exercise self-control in everything. So Paul directs: “And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away” (1 Cor 7:31). There is indeed a seriousness which is appropriate to true religion, and it should be commonplace among Calvinists. The trick of the world is to assert that, when the Church objects to particular sins, it is objecting to happiness. It is not. The Church’s real objective is to redirect sinners from the empty, temporary happiness of this world to the satisfying, lasting happiness that flows from communion with God, which is central to true religion. Believers experience a measure of this happiness here, but they will enjoy it in perfection in a better world.
Calvin crystallised the doctrines of Scripture, in the final form of his Institutes, in over 1000 pages. In much shorter compass the Westminster divines crystallised Calvinism in their Confession of Faith. Without a doubt it was in this latter form that Calvinism exerted most influence in Scotland, if we leave aside the effects of sound, scriptural preaching. From the late 1640s, the Confession has been the subordinate standard of the Presbyterian Churches in Scotland. Nowadays, Calvinism exerts but little influence. Few sit regularly under the preaching of the Word, and very little of that preaching is a faithful representation of Scripture doctrine. As ministers and other members of the Churches distanced themselves from the Word of God, these Churches attempted to regularise their positions by distancing themselves from the Confession of Faith. They did so by adopting Declaratory Acts. That of 1892 within the Free Church of Scotland resulted, the following year, in the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church as a separate body, so that it might be free to bear witness for religion in its purity.
Scotland’s departure from Calvinism has left her spiritually weak, for it was fundamentally a departure from the Word of God. Is there any hope for the future? Indeed there is. It lies in the Holy Spirit coming to bless His Word. What reason then to pray for His coming! What reason also to pray the Lord of the harvest to send out those who would proclaim religion in its purity! When the Lord will revive His Church, His Word will be restored to its rightful place. That Word will then exert its proper authority on the doctrine and life of the Church. Religion in its purity – Calvinism, that is – will then show its fair face throughout Scotland and the entire world. People everywhere will then acknowledge that it is indeed attractive.
1. Selected Shorter Writings, vol 1, p 389.
2. Vol 1, p 3, 1962 James Clarke ed.
3. The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p 295.
4. Institutes, page 22.
5. Quoted by Jean Cadier, The Man God Mastered, p 175.