The Near Impossible Task of Understanding Calvinism

Posted on November 18, 2011 by


John (Jean) Calvin, a new thinker during the protestant reformation, and was the leader behind the religious belief called Calvinism. He believed and preached that all men, no matter what they do throughout their lives, are pre destined for either life or death. To most of us, this seems very strange, and it did to the people of Calvin’s time as well. Most other religious leaders, such as Martin Luther, believed that what one did during their life had a direct correlation to their fate in the afterlife. Weather the religion required that you go to church, or simple believe in god, our day to day actions were judged and decided what happened to you in the afterlife. Calvin’s teachings seem very strange and there are many arguments against Calvinism, but what I find fascinating is the amount of people who followed Calvin, and his success as a leader. How did John Calvin defend such crazy ideas, and how did he achieve such success as a leader while preaching them? To find the answer is best to look directly at John Calvin’s life, and his work, as well as the reformation as a whole

The reformation was a time very parallel to the renaissance, in which the people, specifically the people of the church, decided that they could come up with their own ideas around religion. Many of them went back to what they believed to be the core idea of their religion, and many had new radical ideas. These people were called Protestants (Protestant is defined as: An Adherent of any of those Christian bodies that separated from the Church of Rome during the Reformation It is good to remember that breaking out of the strict Roman Catholic Church was very exiting and big during the time. It was a new era in which people began to realize they could have their own ideas about religion, and did not have to be dependant on the monopoly that was the Roman Catholic Church.

John Calvin was a protestant, with his own ideas about Christianity, and as I mentioned before they were very different from other ideas of the time. Aside from simple preaching his ideas, he hoped to reform churches all around Europe. He was born in 1910 in France, and although he was originally trained as a humanist Lawyer, partway through his life, around 1520, he decided to follow a religious path. Around this time, he decided to break free form the original traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, and began to preach his beliefs. Sometime during the 1530’s a protest against all Protestants drove Calvin out of France. He took refuge in Switzerland; publishing his first work on is ideas. This work was called The Institutes of The Christian Religion.

John Calvin, looking for opportunities to reform churches in France, joined forces with William Farel to help reform the church of Geneva, Switzerland. The City rejected their radical ideas and had them both expelled from the church. Calvin sought other places to preach, and ended up becoming a minister in Strasbourg, Germany. A few years later, he was invited to return to Geneva and lead the church. Calvin Spent the Remaining years of his life Publishing other works and promoting reformation throughout Europe.

Coming back to my original question, I wondered why he might have been invited back to Geneva, the second largest city in Switzerland, and one of the most important places during the reformation. Why were his radical ideas accepted?

John Calvin wrote, letters, commentaries on almost the entire bible, and a book called The Institutes of the Christian Religion. His book seemed to be the most important and relevant, because it was addressed for the general public, not one person specifically, and through it he preached all of his beliefs and his explanations. (There are 3 volumes of this book, however, after researching about and reading each one, I found that the second volume had the most direct relevance to his beliefs. I also warn any readers that there is such a plethora of information in Calvin’s Institutes, that I have only picked the parts that I deem the most important, and the parts that help us understand Calvinism as an individual religion.

Link to book:

*** Before I go into quotations and such, it would be best to address a few terms:

Predestination: The Idea in which, before ones life, one is “pre-destined” for heaven or hell. Referred to by Calvin as “Life or death”.

The Elect: The group of individuals, chosen by God, who are predestined for heaven.

Regeneration: When a person, due to God’s will, is “Re-born” into another life on earth.

I found that in the Institutes, Calvin shows many of his beliefs that set him apart from other religious persons at the time. For one, he was against Idolatry to such a degree that he was even against The Virgin Mary Statues.

“They are destitute of the knowledge of God, and immerged in idolatry” (Calvin 249)

Calvin Institutes confirm that he believed in the idea of regeneration. (Defined above)

“God affirms, indeed, that he wills the conversion of all men, and directs his exhortations promiscuously to all; but the of these exhortations depends –on the Spirit of regeneration” (Calvin 88)

“Wherefore in this regeneration we are restored by the grace of Christ to the righteousness of God, from which we fell in Adam; in which manner the Lord is pleased completely to restore all those whom he adopts to the inheritance of life” (Calvin 73).

 Regeneration is an interesting idea expressed in this work, because it is a reward assigned by god, different from heaven.

One of Calvin’s most important and controversial beliefs is that of Predestination. The Institutes over and over show Calvin’s belief in Predestination to either heaven or hell. Calvin writes,

Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which he hath determined in himself, what he would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny: but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others. Every man therefore, being created for one or the other of these ends, we say, he is predestined either to life or to death” (Calvin 420). 

Calvin clearly has a belief in the idea of predestination, and preaches it, but how does he argue his case? Does it not seem strange to him that weather one is a perfect human being, or a murderer, the murderer might go to heaven and the other to hell?

He defends his reasoning rather indirectly. For one, he states that God, (being god) can do whatever he wants with us, and frankly we have to say in the matter as he states,

God saves whom he will of his mere good pleasure (Calvin 415).

Calvin also argues that it is bad to allow our curiosity to make us wonder if we will be admitted to heaven, or sent to hell.

“For the design of what it contains respecting predestination is, not that being excited to presumption we may attempt with nefarious temerity to scrutinize the inaccessible secrets of God, but rather that, being humbled and dejected, we may learn to tremble at his justice and admire his mercy.” At this object the faithful will aim.” (Calvin 455).

He is simply argues that we should not be worrying about Gods decision making in the first place, as it is much better just to live life in faith, and trust his judgment. Along this same argument he also writes,

The discussion of predestination, a subject of itself rather intricate, is made very perplexed, and therefore dangerous, by human curiosity, which no barriers can restrain from wandering into forbidden labyrinths, and soaring beyond its sphere, as if determined to leave none of the divine secrets unscrutinized or unexplored” (Calvin 416).

Calvin also argues that god ultimately knows what to do with us.

God knows what to do with us: if he has decreed our salvation, he will bring us to it in his own time; if he has destined us to death, it will be in vain for us to against it.” (Calvin 455).

Now, so far, Calvin’s arguments seem a little crazy, and still do not really explain his reasoning, but I continued looking deeper into the text. Calvin, for some reason, seams determined to show that what one does in ones life has nothing to do with their acceptance into heaven (or damnation in hell). However, I believe now, that the reason he stressed this idea was simply to pull peoples focus away from the, “If do good things, I will get into heaven” idea. Some of the quotations, which made me thing, this are as follows:

[God] does not dispense a reward to which there can be no claim” (Calvin 415)


“They profess to go on securely in their vices; because if they are of the number of The Elect, such conduct will not prevent their being finally brought into life. But Paul declares the end of our election to be, that we may lead a holy and blameless life. If the object of election be holiness of life, it should rather awaken and stimulate us to a cheerful practice of it, than be used as a pretext for slothfulness. But how inconsistent is it to cease from the practice of virtue, because election is to salvation, while the end proposed in election is our diligent performance of virtuous actions? Away than with such corrupt and sacrilegious perversions of the whole order of election.” (Calvin 455)

“Another argument often urged to overthrow predestination is, that its establishment would destroy all solicitude and exertion for rectitude of conduct. For who can hear, they say, that either life or death is appointed for him by God’s eternal and immutable decree, without immediately concluding that it is of no importance how he conducts himself; since no action of his can in any respect either impede: or promote the predestination of God? Thus all will abandon themselves to despair, and run into every excess to which their Licentious propensities may lead them. And truly this objection is not altogether destitute of truth; for there are many swine who bespatter the doctrine of predestination with these impure blasphemies, and with this pretext elude all admonitions and reproofs: God knows what to do with us…” (Calvin 455)

These quotations, each in their own way, suggest that it is possible for predestination to be true, and yet only good people are the chosen elect, while those that act badly are sent to hell. Based upon the quote,

Paul declares the end of our election to be, that we may lead a holy and blameless life. If the object of election be holiness of life, it should rather awaken and stimulate us to a cheerful practice of it, than be used as a pretext for slothfulness”

(Excerpt From Quotation 2), is seems that if one is predestined for heaven, they will tend to act like it. That during their life The Elect, because God has chosen them, are inherently good people, and that god knew this before they set foot upon this earth. This would make sense according to the previous ideas as well. In the third quotation, Calvin directly addresses a counter-argument to his theory. (In quotations 2 and 3) Calvin is essentially expressing, that one should not over interpret his ideas. He is not trying to say that one need not worry about what they do during life, and that it does not matter, simply that God already knows what kind of person you are and what you have been Predestined for. Simply put, what you do in life does not determine what your fate is after life, but vice versa in a way, as what you are predestined for determines how you will act. This theory in itself has some essential problems, and it is simply my interpretation of his confusing teachings, but I believe that this is what John Calvin was trying to express.

Overall, John Calvin’s ideas are very difficult to understand, as they are a little strange, but they do help us understand the world of the 16th century, and the reformation as a whole. For example, the fact that Calvinism is so difficult to understand, yet it gained so many followers, shows us that the reformation was a time of people ripe with excitement to follow any new religion other than Roman Catholicism. People were hungry for new ideas and excited to break free from the Roman Catholic Church. Calvinism, and The Institutes also teach us the power of words, for John Calvin’s ideas are and were considered very strange, but he explains them with such skill (albeit in a roundabout way), that it is difficult not to want to agree with him. His rhetoric draws people in even when his logic doesn’t, (Dangerously enough). Calvin’s Institutes also teach us, that the reformation was a time when people, could come out with ideas which were very on the edge and new, and there was a high possibility of a general public acceptance of these ideas. Calvin himself even suggests that his ideas are difficult to understand and easily refutable, but he simply believed in them and therefore choose to share them, and succeeded. That in itself is amazing to me.

A side note to anyone who is interested in my personal opinions on John Calvin:

I found that Calvin bothered my very much, and although I found his ideas interesting, I truthfully think that they annoyed me more than not. It bothers me that he just decided to try to change Europe’s belief system drastically, and then writes that it actually should not make anyone act differently. Without reasoning or proof, he argues about his ideas in thousands of pages without ever actually explaining them, and leaving almost nothing for any interpreter to go on, even someone from his own time. Calvin’s ideas do not make sense, and although I can sort of understand them in my own way, it frankly it seems like Calvin simply got a kick out of making people believe complicated things.

Comment With your own Ideas or questions about Calvinism!



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