Calvinism Is As Calvinism Does

Calvin Statue

There is an argument making the rounds (though not necessarily a new one) that Calvinism shouldn’t really be considered an “ism” since all that Jean Cauvin did was teach historically orthodox Christianity. Of course the first thing to consider in this regard is that it is suddenly and painfully obvious that those who make this claim are typically, err, Calvinists, and therefore the most immediate response is to suggest a mere blindness to their own frame of reference. Nonetheless, here are some of the key points of the argument as made by Donald Macleod:

“Calvin never saw himself as the founder of an -ism.  In his own lifetime, there is only one single instance of the word ‘Calvinism’ being used, and that was as an insult, as if we today were to call someone a Nazi.  In this respect things aren’t much better in 2013.”

This is true of pretty much everyone who isn’t a completely delusional megolomaniac. I mean did Thomas Aquinas ever respond to any queries about the content of his writings by saying “oh I’m writing about this thing called Thomism, yeah, I called it that. After me. Thomas. Get it?” The very term “Christian” was considered something of an insult in the first century, so Macleod’s assertions here strike me as particularly weak.

“The result is that it is hard to find in Calvin a single idea that had not been part of Christian tradition from time immemorial.  He shunned originality, and if his -ism has any one distinctive it is that it has no distinctives at all.  It is simply, as one great 19th century scholar put it, ‘Christianity come into its own.'”

Really? Usury. Done. Next:

“Nor did Calvin ever demand personal loyalty.  It never occurred to him, for example, that his ‘Institutes’ should become the creed of a church in the way that Wesley’s Sermons became the creed of Methodism, or a papal encyclical commands the loyalty of all the Catholic faithful.”

This is an awful lot of modesty being attributed to the man. I have to ask then, why go to the trouble of writing the Institutes and publishing if not to set up a way of organizing the church?

“But what bugs me even more is that whatever ‘Calvinism’ was, it wasn’t narrow.  The lazy modern mind, of course, reduces it to one thing: predestination, and I’m certainly  not going to disown that doctrine.  It affords gives us a magnificent view of a world which was carefully and lovingly planned, and which runs on schedule despite the fact that every sub-atomic particle behaves randomly and every human being makes her own free decisions; and it helps us understand why some people accept the Christian message even though it cuts across every prejudice with which they were born.

But in Calvin’s own teaching, predestination is but one subject among many, the sixty-seven pages he devotes to it in his ‘Institutes’ dwarfed by the five-hundred devoted to the doctrine of the church and by the many others devoted to the foundations of knowledge, the value of pagan writings, the humanity of Christ, self-denial, and the freedom of the individual Christian conscience.”

In this respect those who claim the name “Calvinist” or “Reformed” have been their own worst enemies. In addition to your garden-variety Presbyterians, there can be Anglican Calvinists, Baptist Calvinists, even Charismatic Calvinists. There can be episcopal government, eldership, congregational government, none of it seems to matter except one common theme: People claim Calvin’s name almost solely on their view of soteriology.