Calvinism is named after John Calvin, who exerted international influence on the development of the doctrine of the Protestant Reformation, beginning at the age of 25, when he started work on his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1534 (published 1536). This work, which underwent a number of revisions in his lifetime, plus a number of polemical and pastoral works and a massive collection of commentaries on the Bible are the source of Calvin's ongoing personal influence on Protestantism. Calvinism marks the second phase of the Protestant Reformation, when evangelical churches began to form following Luther's excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church. In this sense, Calvinism was originally a Lutheran movement. Calvin himself signed the Lutheran Augsburg confession in 1540. On the other hand, Calvin's influence first began to be felt in the Swiss Reformation, which was not Lutheran but rather, followed Huldrych Zwingli. It became evident that doctrine in the Reformed churches was developing in a direction independent of Luther's, under the influence of numerous writers and reformers, among whom John Calvin was pre-eminent, and thus became called Calvinism.

Given that it has multiple founders, the name "Calvinism" is somewhat misleading if taken to imply that every major feature of the doctrine of the "Calvinist churches", or of all Calvinist movements, can be found in the writings of Calvin. The name applies generally to the Protestant doctrines that were held in common among the non-Lutheran national churches of Protestant countries and various minority Protestant reform movements, known as the Reformed churches, which formed outside of the Catholic Church in the latter two thirds of the 16th century (and in England in the 17th century).

Table of contents
1 Calvinism: Life is religion
2 Popular summations of Calvinist theology
3 Various attempts to reform Calvinism
4 Hyper-Calvinism

Calvinism: Life is religion

The theological system and practical theories of church, family, and political life, all ambiguously called "Calvinism", are the outgrowth of a fundamental religious consciousness centered upon "the sovereignty of God". The doctrine of God is, in principle, given a pre-eminent place in every category of theology, including the Calvinist understanding of how a person ought to live. Calvinism presupposes that the goodness and power of God have a free, unlimited range of activity -- and, it works out as a conviction that God is at work in all realms of existence, including the spiritual, physical, intellectual realms, whether secular or sacred, public or private, in earth or in heaven. According to this viewpoint, the entire course of events is the outworking of the plan of God, who is the creator, preserver, and governor of all things without any exceptions, and whose will is consequently the ultimate cause of everything. This attitude of absolute dependence on God is not identified with temporary acts of piety, for example, or of prayer; it is a sustained and all-encompassing pattern of life that in principle applies to digging ditches as well as taking communion. For the Calvinist Christian, all of life is the Christian religion.

Popular summations of Calvinist theology

Calvinism is often identified in the popular mind, with the "five points of the doctrines of grace", remembered by the English acronym: TULIP.

All men are guilty in God's sight, and undeserving of life. [See Genesis 3, Romans 3:10-18] Election means "choice". God's choice from eternity, of who he will bring to himself, is not based on foreseen virtue, merit or faith in the persons he chooses but rather, is unconditionally grounded in his own mercy. [Romans 9, Ephesians 1:3-5]
  • Limited Atonement:
Also called "definite atonement" meaning that, Christ's death actually takes away the penalty of sins committed by those upon whom God has chosen to have mercy. It is "limited" then, to taking away the sins of the elect. [John 10:14-15 & 26-28]
  • Irresistible Grace:
The saving grace of God is not resistible. Those who obtain salvation do so because of the relentlessness of God's mercy. Men yield to grace, not finally because God found their consciences more tender or their faith more tenacious than other men. Rather, willingness and ability to do God's will, are evidence of God's faithfulness to save men from the power and the penalty of sin. [John 15:16]
  • Perseverance of the Saints:
Those whom God has called into communion with Himself through Christ, will continue in faith and will increase in faith and other gifts, until the end. [John 10:27-29]

These five points are a summation of the judgments or canons rendered by the Synod of Dort, which was published as a point-by-point refutation of the five points of the Arminian Remonstrance. They are not a summation of Calvin's writings, or of the theology of the Reformed churches. The central assertion of these canons is that, God is able to save from the tyranny of sin, from guilt and the fear of death, every one of those upon whom he is willing to have mercy. God is not frustrated by the unrighteousness or the inability of men because it is the unrighteous and the helpless that he intends to save.

Calvinism is often further reduced in the popular mind to one or another of the five points of TULIP. The doctrine of Unconditional election is sometimes made to stand for all Reformed doctrine, sometimes even by its adherents, as the chief article of Reformed Christianity. However, according to the doctrinal statements of these churches it is not a balanced view to single out this doctrine to stand on its own as representative of all that is taught. The doctrine of unconditional election, and its corollary in the doctrine of predestination are never properly taught, according to Calvinists, except as an assurance to those who seek forgiveness and salvation through Christ, that their faith is not in vain, because God is able to bring to completion all of His intentions to save. Nevertheless, non-Calvinist Christians strongly object that these doctrines are false and offensive, and that they discourage the world from seeking salvation.

Various attempts to reform Calvinism

Liberal reforms

Numerous efforts have been undertaken to reform Calvinism and especially the doctrine of the Reformed churches. The most notable and earliest of these was the theological and political movement, called Arminianism, already mentioned in connection with the Synod of Dort. Arminianism was rejected by most Reformed churches, but ultimately prevailed in the Church of England despite Calvinism being the formally adopted system of doctrine in that church.

Another revision of Calvinism is called Amyrauldianism, "hypothetical universalism", or "four-point Calvinism", which asserts that Christ's death atones for the sins of all men, but only those who repent and believe are elect and receive forgiveness. This doctrine was most thoroughly systematized by the French Reformed theologian at the University of Saumur, Moses Amyraut, for whom it is named. It was popularized in England by the Reformed pastor Richard Baxter, and gained strong adherence in the Presbyterian church in American colonies, during the 17th and 18th centuries. In the United States, Amyrauldianism is the most common form of Calvinism current among evangelical churches. Baxter himself differentiated his proposals from those of Amyrauldianism, on several rather subtle points. Baxter's influential form of hypothetical universalism is often called neonomianism, and is generally considered a milder proposal of reform than Amyraut's version.

In the mainline Reformed churches, Calvinism has undergone significant revision through the influence of Karl Barth and neo-orthodox theology. Barth was an important Swiss Reformed theologian who began writing early in the 20th century, whose chief accomplishment was to counter-act the influence of the Enlightenment in the churches, especially as this had led to the toleration of Nazism in the Germanic countries of Western Europe. The Barmen declaration is an expression of the Barthian reform of Calvinism. The revisions Barth proposed are radical and impossible to concisely discuss in comparison to classical Calvinism but generally involve the complete rejection of natural theology. Conservative Calvinists (as well as some liberal reformers) regard it as confusing to use the name "Calvinism" to refer to neo-orthodoxy or the other liberal revisions mentioned above.

Conservative reforms

A more conservative revision of Calvinism gained influence in the Dutch Reformed churches, late in the 19th century, which has been dubbed "neo-Calvinism", and developed along lines of the theories of Dutch theologian, statesman and journalist, Abraham Kuyper. This revision was a response to the influences of the Enlightenment, but generally speaking did not touch directly on the articles of salvation. Neo-Calvinism is a revision of the Calvinist world-and-life view, which is an extension of the Calvinist understanding of salvation to scientific, social and political issues. In the United States, Kuyperian neo-Calvinism is represented among others, by the Center for Public Justice, a faith-based political think-tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Neo-Calvinism branched off in more conservative movements in the United States. The first of these to rise to prominence became apparent through the writings of Francis Schaeffer, and a group of scholars associated with a Calvinist study center in Switzerland, called L'abri. This movement generated a reawakened social consciousness among Evangelicals, especially in response to abortion, and was one of the formative influences which brought about the "Moral Majority" phenomenon in the United States, in the early 1980s.

A more radical Calvinist movement that has been influential in American family and political life is called Christian Reconstructionism. Reconstructionism is a separate revision of Kuyper's approach under the leadership of the late Rousas J Rushdoony, son of Armenian immigrants, Reformed scholar and essayist. The movement has marginal influence in some of the conservative Reformed churches in which it was born, and in Calvinistic Baptist and charismatic churches mostly in the United States. Not a political movement, strictly speaking, Reconstructionism has been influential in the development of the so-called "religious right"; it aims toward the complete reconstruction of the structures of society on Christian and Biblical presuppositions.


Calvinism has frequently appeared in variously corrupted forms, called hyper-Calvinism. Hyper-calvinism is not necessarily believed by anyone (indeed, it can't be believed in all of its varieties); it is a label applied to any extrapolation of a point of calvinism which undermines the theological system, sometimes mistakenly attributed to Calvinism by critics. The name "hyper-Calvinism" is also applied to beyond-orthodox reform movements, which attempt to improve Calvinism by removing perceived inconsistencies. Most Calvinists reject as deplorable and hyper-Calvinistic, and destructive to the Christian faith, such beliefs as:

Of course, there are Calvinists who not only believe that these are not caricatures of Calvinism and who actually hold to some of them in the belief that these are a logical outworking of their faith. Such Calvinists vigorously object to being called "hyper-Calvinist".

The substance of Calvinism is total dependence on God. Every good thing any person has is there because of God's unmerited grace, and salvation is particularly dependent on grace. Calvinism is intentionally such that all credit, for everything, must go directly to God; humans are but miserable sinners. The "solas" exist to keep all the credit where it belongs, and to exclude any illicit additions such as those the Reformers claimed Catholics had made. They were the summary of Calvinism, indeed of the Reformation, before the Framing of TULIP. The Solas are:

Sola Gratia-- By Grace only, not through any merit on the part of the sinner. Thus salvation is an unearned gift.

Sola Fide-- Through faith only, not works. This is the means of grace; the doctrine is that salvation comes, as Ephesians 2:8-9 puts it, by grace through faith, and that faith is not of ourselves, but is itself the result of grace. This saving faith, however, will always be accompanied by good works (see James 2).

Solus Christus-- The exclusivity of Christ; Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and there is no other name by which men can be saved. Neither a false god nor the sinner himself can bring salvation.

Sola Scriptura-- The Bible is the only authoritative Word of God, not traditions.

Soli Deo Gloria-- All the glory is God's, since He did all the work, not only the atonement on the Cross, but even granting the faith which allows men to be saved by that atonement. Each aspect of Salvation is a gift from God, and thus all praise is His, not man's.