Wanted: My Definition of Calvinism

I recently received an email which stated:

From time to time I lurk on your blog.  Interesting thoughts.  From what I read, however, I think there might be some weaknesses in your arguments.  It’s not that your logic is off, but I question some of your starting assumptions.

So here’s a challenge for you:  Define what you think Calvinism is.

Two ground rules:

  1. Make it short rather than long.  When you write things in your blog you’re using your stream-of-consciousness definition of Calvinism 90% of the time.  Not the nuanced points, just the primary points.  I realize something like this has plenty of nuance, but making it short forces you to stick to your fundamental ideas.
  2. Don’t look anything up or say what others think.  Once again, when you are writing for your blog you’ve got your definition in mind, not someone else’s.

Based on what I’ve read, my suspicion is that some of what you call Calvinism is not what most Calvinists would call Calvinism.  And thinking through that might help sort through some of the questions you raise.

Looking forward to your response.

Dear Lurker,

Thank-you for your interest in this blog. Your criticism is, I believe, a fair one. I do tend to write in a stream-of consciousness manner. I don’t know that I intend to, per se – and I don’t know that it’s bad, either. However, when I read or hear things, for better or worse the way I “process” through and come to some understanding of thoughts, ideas or concepts is doing what I do.

Nevertheless, I appreciate your suggestion to provide a definition. And so, here in a nutshell is my definition of Calvinism:

  • God predestines and controls everything for His glory

There’s a strong temptation to dig up a bunch of information that I believe would support that definition and also to provide examples of statements of other people. But following your suggestion – I won’t. However, I would like to simply state that there are numerous manifestations of Calvinism that (to me, at least) naturally come about from this definition including salvation only for “the elect” and an inability of God’s creation to exercise free will. In my own mind and experience, these manifestations have led to a perception that God intentionally limits His love to only a very select few and God ‘wills’ evil. Lastly, I’ve experienced terrible frustrations pertaining to assurance of salvation. Am I saved? Or, am I simply going through “Christian motions” on my own? Or worse, is God intentionally deceiving me?

I welcome your reply.



Author: Bob

I’m an upper Midwestern guy who has recently entered the "Buick stage" of life and decided to migrate to Florida. This blog is an attempt to rectify discordant aspects within my Christian faith ... or what often feels like my lack of Christian faith. Things which make life more enjoyable include strong black coffee, charcoal grilling anytime of the year, putz'ing at a table saw, playing chess, a good orthopedic surgeon and an occasional IPA. Please feel free to poke around and comment as you wish. I welcome discussion and the insights of others.

9 thoughts on “Wanted: My Definition of Calvinism”

  1. Hi, Bob,

    Glad to have a post from you again. And an interesting one at that (naturally).

    As you might expect, I have a couple of comments. I won’t limit myself to Lurker’s Tweet-style brevity, but I will try to be succinct, and thank you in advance for again having a discussion like this.

    First, I think you kind of got suckered into responding to Lurker here, at least by agreeing to his terms. On the one hand, it is helpful to know what you mean by “Calvinism” when you’re addressing it in your posts. On the other hand, though, such a request for a Tweet-style definition of something as broad and colorful as Calvinism is really unfair. Calvin himself couldn’t comply with Lurker’s request: it took his “Institutes” plus a life-time of sermons, commentaries, and evangelism to “define” what he meant. I doubt Lurker can do a better job of defining Calvinism in fewer words than it took Calvin himself. And Calvin wasn’t really defining “Calvinism” as much as simply teaching/preaching what he saw as the plain teachings of Scripture.

    Second, I’m not surprised at your summary definition, although I am saddened by it. I know full well how these breathtakingly beautiful doctrines have been reduced to bite-size bits that when tasted are more sour than sweet, and leave one unsatisfied rather than feeling like they’ve feasted at God’s table. If this is what you understand the sum-total of Calvinistic thought to be, then we — I — have failed to declare God’s Gospel Goodness properly to you and others, and for that I am ashamed and sad.

    Third, some historical reading of the sources themselves (such as Ichabod Spencer’s “A Pastor’s Sketches”, and my friend David Ponter’s blog “Calvin & Calvinism” (http://calvinandcalvinism.com/)) are really enlightening. The sweetness and Gospel-centeredness of most historic (and even contemporary) true Calvinistic preachers is undeniable. Did you know Calvin trained missionaries & church planters, and they went on to establish what we would call “mega-churches” today (http://rq.rts.edu/fall01/james.html)? (As a Calvinist, I’m embarrassed to admit I did not know this myself until last year. Methinks many of my other Calvinistic friends do not know this either.) And this from the man who supposedly held to such stingy views of God’s grace & mercy in salvation?! Either this training was a sham to cover what he really believed, or his understanding of biblical doctrines have been misrepresented — by us so-called friends of his — for a long time.

    Fourth, as you know Bob, election is a doctrine clearly taught in Scripture. Both sides of the election coin (Arminian & Calvinist) agree on election. We differ on who (or what) does the “electing” and how it happens technically. But election is a biblical doctrine that I think we all agree is there (just think back to all the electing God did in the Old Testament: Abraham, Isaac (vs. Ishmael), Jacob (instead of Esau), the nation of Israel, David (not his other brothers), etc.).

    Fifth, Calvin himself never taught man lost his moral ability or responsibility for his actions (choices). No one today who holds this view is rightly labeled a “Calvinist.” Historically this view has been put into the “High-” or “Ultra-” or “Hyper-” Calvinist corner. Today it is usually held by those who want to claim the system (e.g. the 5 Points) but don’t really understand the full theological implications of what it all means.

    (On a side note, the T.U.L.I.P. acronym was given to us just in the 20th century by Lorraine Boettner in his book “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.” In fact, in it he states, “Let it be borne in mind that in this book we do not propose to discuss in detail those other doctrines of the Scriptures which are accepted by evangelical Christendom, but to set forth and defend those which are peculiar to the Calvinistic system. Unless this be kept in mind much of the real strength and beauty of generic Calvinism will be lost and the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism,” – which historically and in reality are the obverse of what might be called the “Five Points of Arminianism,” – will assume undue prominence in the system. Let the reader, then, guard against a too close identification of the Five Points and the Calvinistic system. While these are essential elements, the system really includes much more. As stated in the Introduction, the Westminster Confession is a balanced statement of the Reformed Faith or Calvinism, and it gives due prominence to the other Christian doctrines.” (http://www.full-proof.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Boettner-Reformed-Doctrine-of-Predestination.pdf, p. 46). We have unwisely ignored Boettner’s wise counsel to our own detriment.)

    Finally, as you’ve “…experienced terrible frustrations pertaining to assurance of salvation. Am I saved? Or, am I simply going through “Christian motions” on my own? Or worse, is God intentionally deceiving me?” let me say first that I’m sorry for your frustrations. Having experienced a bit of this myself within the past year, I know the anguish it can cause. Second, don’t be deceived; God is not the great deceiver: Satan is. He is a liar from the beginning and there is no truth in him. God cannot lie nor deceive. And, we deceive ourselves. Third, I can recommend a great book on the subject that may help – the book of James. Read it; relish in it. Rest in Christ.

    Thanks for opening this up, Bob. Hope some of my comments have been helpful.



    1. It’s always good to see a reply/comment from you, Scott. Thank-you. Anything from you should automatically be ‘approved’ and I can only think that perhaps there’s some limit as to hyperlinks allowed. I’ll check. Anyway, I do have some immediate thoughts to toss back your way. However, I’d like to see if ‘Mr. Lurker’ might respond first.

      Be well // Bob

  2. Thanks for the response, and sorry I’ve been slow to get back to you.

    “Lurker?” Haha. My name is pretty common and ordinary. Pretty dull.  Kind of like your name, Bob. On the other hand, Lurker sounds mysterious and exotic and interesting. I’ve never been accused of being those things before – so for now, continue to call me Lurker.

    The comment about you writing in a stream-of-consciousness style wasn’t a criticism. Most of us write that way. Rather, it was a recognition that, in our stream of consciousness, we mainly have only a few big-picture thoughts, assumptions, etc. in mind. It was that big picture set of assumptions I was after.

    Thanks for the definition you gave. It’s both a great answer and a bad answer. It’s bad because it’s not what I was asking for. That’s not your fault – you can blame it on Lurker’s poor choice of words. I asked for a “short” answer. You read that as “one sentence.” Scott, the commenter, read it as “Tweet-style.” Scott also said his seven paragraphs was “succinct.” We obviously have different thoughts about what short and long are, and my request wasn’t as clear as it could be. By short, I had in mind a paragraph. Maybe two. More than a sentence; less than a page. 

    But I was also looking for your layman’s definition. I’d call your answer a theologian’s answer (a bit more big-picture than I was looking for), with a hint of the layman coming through. God does everything for His glory. Not a bad definition. But it can be (and has been) taken a lot of different ways, so it doesn’t really narrow down your thoughts very clearly. Instead of “God does everything…” you said, “God predestines and controls everything…” Now there you’re starting to hint at your thoughts and what I was really after. Something along the lines of the “numerous manifestations of Calvinism that naturally come about.”   

    Lastly, it was a great answer because the responses illustrate exactly why I asked the question in the first place. To me, “short” was a paragraph, maybe two. To you it was a sentence. To Scott it was a Tweet. Same word, different interpretations. “Calvinism” is a lot more complex than “short” and until it’s defined clearly there are going to be (and have been) people using the same word but meaning different things and, therefore, not really communicating. 

    So let me try again. I’ll accept your first answer, although I would replace “predestines and controls” with “does”. Now I’d like to see your description of what you see as Calvinism’s primary manifestations.  There are many, and once again, different people will have different views of what “primary” means.  So let me ask it more specifically. I’d like you to describe what you think the “Calvinist’s position” is on the following four things: God’s sovereignty, man’s free will, man’s sinfulness, and predestination/election. I’ll let you have 4 paragraphs to do that.   

    Looking forward to your answer.

    The Lurker

  3. Hi Bob,
    I enjoyed reading through a few of your posts and a couple of correspondents (Lurker, Ferguson…). Allow me to venture an opinion. I think you are, for the most part, handling these issues very well. I appreciate your lack of animosity toward those on any particular side, and the apparent sincerity of your inquiry. I say ‘apparent’ for the benefit of your readers. Since I know you fairly well, I can say the sincerity is genuine.

    I am a Calvinist of a sort, as you know. But I don’t really care about Calvin, per se. I don’t base my doctrinal beliefs on people. But it happens to be Calvin who articulated his biblical points sufficiently at a point in history to have his topical views christened as “Calvinism” so we can talk about it a little more conveniently. But as you and others have noted, Calvinism comes in many flavors — some sweet and some sour. That’s why I welcome your exchanges and challenges here, in black and white. I tend to accept some things after analyzing them to my satisfaction…but without the intense “vetting” that you give them. An unresisting acceptance of many biblical concepts can be liberating. But not always. Your role here is a necessary one. You exercise your own little gray cells, yes — but you also challenge all of us to do the same, whether we are defending or rethinking. Keep it up. Reason and examination are biblical principles, too.

    – Dagwood

    1. Thanks, Daren. I appreciate your kind words and also that reason and examination are biblical principles. Coming to an understanding of faith later in life, perhaps I simply missed the ability to develop a childlike faith. Or, perhaps it’s just my nature to not necessarily accept something without exercising, as you say, the gray cells. I only wish I had more of them!

  4. I would like to weigh in on what I believe is a simple definition of calvinism. Calvinism is the belief system that basically says that conversion takes place because God regenerates a totally depraved individual who otherwise has no ability to respond positively to God. Once this regeneration takes place at God’s initiative, the individual will repent and by faith trust God as his or her Savior. To me this is the most simplistic view of calvinism. Everything else forms itself around this position.

    For the record, I do not believe the Bible teaches total depravity or inability as posited by calvinism. As far as I can see, it is nowhere in the OT nor are there any Jewish scholars who hold a concept of total depravity. The doctrine itself is a development to support the notion of limited atonement that attempts to answer the question that universalism presents. Since all are NOT saved, then Jesus could not have died on the cross for everyone and walla we have the first turns toward a doctrine called calvinism.

    Of course there are nuances and differences of opinion as to the issue of the atonement and how it is effected and to whom it is offered etc, etc etc. Then there are statements that have traditionally been made that soften the implications that calvinism actually makes that are linguistically correct given certain underlying presuppositions, but clearly are made knowing the hearer will think one thing and the speaker another. If anyone were to preach calvinism as it really is, it would die a quick death because no one would accept it. Sometimes I believe many who tout calvinism themselves fail to recognize the full ramifications of what it actually says.

    For example. calvinists adamantly declare salvation is of the Lord; of course that is true. Period. However, to say God and God alone chooses who will and will not come to Him in repentance and saving faith is a stretch. But, even that statement can be made to sound appealing and assuring because the calvinist does not know who is and is not “the elect.” While this is actually true, the problems come in when the tenets of calvinism are taken to their logical conclusions and that is where many calvinists want to cry foul and point to the “hyper-calvinist” or whatever… that is not WHAT I BELIEVE! Well. yes it is, if you believe in the Doctrines of Grace.

    It is impossible to believe in irresistible grace and limited atonement and predestination without accepting the full implications of double predestination or reprobation. It is impossible. I have seen explanations try to side step the issue by declaring all men to be sinners and as such all get what is coming to them; God’s grace is offered to those that He has chosen to extend it too as because He is just in everything He does and it is senseless for the clay to argue against the potter, God is completely just in everything He does including saving whom He chooses to save. Let me say, I actually agree with this statement. God is 100% just in anything and everything He chooses to do. Period. However, the fact that this statement is true does not mean He is in complete control of who is and who is not saved! It is an illogical argument.

    If God is the One who chooses to save some, that means He is the One who has chosen NOT to save others. This means the gospel is only good news to “the elect” it is not good news to the rest of the world. For those God has chosen NOT to regenerate, there is NO HOPE, there is NO CHANCE for them to be saved. Forgiveness is not for all who would call upon the Name of the Lord; it is for those that God chooses to elect. With this in mind, salvation is “by election”. For the calvinist, salvation is by grace through election.

    For the calvinist, those who go to heaven do so because God chose them to live with Him in heaven for eternity. All He did not choose, go to hell. The calvinist response, that is what they deserved in the first place. Notice something in this response, it is ALWAYS “they”. Every calvinist I have ever read is headed for heaven. They are redemmed. They are chosen. Here is an interesting caveat to that concept that is equally interesting. The calvinist believes HIS or HER children are the elect as well. I cannot imagine a parent of a child saying, I have 4 children and I know the odds of all of them being the elect is not good but I know God is just and He is good and which one He chooses to be His elect is ok with me. What if God does not choose any of your 4 children, is that good with you?

    God is completely just in EVERYTHING HE DOES and I am good with that.

    Thank you but no thank you. God sent His Son to pay the penalty for all of our sin. His remedy for our sin is available to ANYONE who would by faith believe that He is everything He says He is and that He will do everything He says He will do and come in repentance and saving faith to Him and call on Him to be saved. My son has done that; your children can do that and anyone, regardless of how good they may believe they are or how bad they may know they are can do the same. That is realy good news to a lost and dying world and that is the gospel that I will continue to proclaim until He calls me my eternal home He has prepared for me and for all who will call upon His Name and be saved!

    That is the real message of Easter that we will be procaiming tomorrow, on Easter Sunday, 2012.


    1. Bob (not the “Lurker Bob”)

      Yikes – now there just might be three of us “Bobs” commenting here.

      I appreciate your weighing in and providing, what I believe, is a simple explanation and definition of Calvinism. Perhaps “Lurker Bob” is still hanging around somewhere and can response as I’d be interested in his take of your thoughts – especially those pertaining to Calvinist parents being “Okay” should not all of their children be part of the elect. From my own perspective as a father of three, I can’t imagine intentionally “not choosing” one of my kids thereby, in essence, damning them.

      From a logical perspective, Calvinism seems to make sense – one tenant of TULIP seems to easily follow another. However, from a practical application, Calvinism makes no sense to me – unless, as you say, one is willing to accept the full implications of double predestination or reprobation and otherwise ascribe evil to God. And I’m not there.

  5. Lurker here. I guess it’s been quite awhile since I checked in to see if you had responded. Unless I’m missing it, I don’t see a response, but I see there are a few other good comments. So instead of waiting longer, I’ll throw two things into the fray.

    First, would a parent be okay saying one of their children is not part of the elect? I’ve never met a parent who would say it was “okay.” They love their children more than that. But I have heard plenty of parents recognize the possibility that one of their children is not. They pray fervently and teach and nurture and do all they can, but in the end they understand and accept that their child (or parent or sibling or…) is in the hands of a just God. And their trust in that God is big enough to handle it. That’s not an easy answer but it is a truthful one.

    Second, I’ll answer a couple of my original questions. The people that I’ve read and listened to on the Reformed or Calvinist side would say that the Bible teaches both the total sovereignty of God and the free will of man. I find that the emphasis is on sovereignty and they say less about free will. But you will find clear statements from them saying they believe both. How can that be, you might ask? Two things. Number 1, the Bible teaches both. As you noted in another post, there are plenty of verses on both sides. Instead of saying you have to choose one side or the other, it seems the Biblical solution is to choose both. Number 2. But isn’t that impossible? Aren’t they mutually exclusive? Well, to you and I, yes they are. But then again, so is three-in-one and one-in-three. So is the idea of an infinite God become a finite baby that grows up to die. So is a God who has always existed. So is a universe that was created from nothing. So are a thousand other things. Just because we finite humans can’t understand something doesn’t mean God doesn’t. So going back to my original challenge, I think one of the things that creates your uncertainty is that you are insisting on either-or. If you let the Bible tell you it’s both-and, I think a lot of your struggle goes away.

    Now let’s try something that brings those two questions together. Is it OK if my child is not among the elect? We can perhaps turn the question around a bit to see this in another way. I am the child of my parents. If I went to my grave as an unbeliever, it would not be my parents’ fault, as much as it would pain them. And I could not in any way blame God. It is very clear to me that, before I came to faith, I was choosing my own way and deserved hell. And I can also say without a doubt that if it weren’t for God’s intervention (i.e., his calling and election) I would still be there. I think it was Spurgeon who said something like: I believe in election because I know that if God had not chosen me, I would never have chosen Him. So did God choose me? Thankfully yes. Did I choose my own way? Also yes. Both things, though I cannot fully understand it, are true.

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