Q128 : What is Calvinism?

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Q128 : What is Calvinism?

I need to purchase a new Bible because my old Bible is quite worn. My old Bible was a KJV, however I am considering purchasing either a NKJV or ESV Bible this time around.

Here is my question: In my internet research of these two translations, I have run across some terms and/or theologies that I am not familiar with. For instance, I have seen several websites that say that the ESV Bible is for “Calvinists” and/or “reformed.” What do these two terms mean? I have been a born-again Christian for about 21 years and I have never ever heard those terms used in my church.

Secondly, I was thinking of purchasing the MacArthur Study Bible in either the NKJV or the ESV translation (because I understand that his study Bible comes in both translations), but again - I saw several websites that stated that MacArthur is a “Calvinist” and that his study Bibles should be avoided because of this. What is a “Calvinist”? I'm just trying to understand what all the fuss is about concerning “Calvinism” and “reformed”. Can you please explain these terms and/or theologies.

Before I spend $80.00 on a study Bible, I just want to make sure everything is on the up-and-up with the Bible and its author.

A128 : by Tony Garland

The term “Calvinism” is derived from the last name of one of the great theologians of the 16th century, a French reformer by the name of John Calvin (as it would be translated into English). He was a prolific writer and influential teacher at the time of the Protestant Reformation and spent many years teaching and preaching in Geneva, Switzerland. He is perhaps best known for his great work, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion,” which is a comprehensive summary of his views concerning what the Bible teaches.

Five of the major points associated with Calvin's teaching are often summarized through the use of the acronym “TULIP” which stands for:

  1. Total depravity - teaches that the fall of mankind into sin has affected every aspect of our nature rendering us both unable and unwilling to respond to God by our own initiative.

  2. Unconditional election - teaches that no one would be saved except for God's choosing (electing) some for salvation. Those whom God has chosen, and only those, will avail themselves of salvation.

  3. Limited atonement - teaches that although Christ's atoning sacrifice was sufficient to redeem all mankind, it is only efficacious for (and intended for) the elect.

  4. Irresistible grace - the elect of God are guaranteed to be saved, being called and irresistibly drawn by the Holy Spirit.

  5. Perseverance of the saints - those who are truly redeemed, being chosen and called by God, are kept by the power of God and will never lose their salvation.

I must offer a disclaimer here: there are many subtleties to these 5 points and a simple list such as this always runs the risk of oversimplifying them. But “TULIP” can be a helpful way to keep the main aspects in mind.

Calvinism is often contrasted with another view, “Arminianism,” which is associated with a Dutch Reformed theologian of the name Jacobus Arminius.

All this to say that the two systems represent different interpretations of what the Scriptures actually teach. (Note, however, that there remains some uncertainty concerning how closely the modern representation of each system reflects the actual views of each of the men prominently attached to it.)

Calvinists see mankind as completely lost in sin and unable to be saved except by the sovereign initiative of God through the election, predestination, and calling of God (Rom. 8:29-30).

The Arminian view places the ultimate determining factor regarding who gets saved in the hands of man: some will respond and others will not, but all are called of God and equally able to respond. In this view, the drawing of the Holy Spirit is upon all men, but some resist His call and remain unsaved.

It is my view that the Scriptures teach moderate Calvinism (I would quibble with some of the more subtle aspects of limited atonement as set forth within Calvinism) and that individual salvation is completely initiated by God involving the predestination and election of individuals according to His sovereign will. I hold this view because there are simply too many clear passages in the Bible indicating such to conclude otherwise.

It must be noted, however, that some people find Calvinism troubling because it violates their sense of fair play. It has been my observation that many who oppose Calvinism in favor of Arminianism due so primarily by appealing to human logic rather than from careful study of what the Bible itself teaches. Thus, if a person considers these topics when having spent less time in the Scriptures, he is likely to have more of an Arminian slant. (After all, didn’t most of us think that “we chose God” when we first came to faith?) But, with more time in the Scriptures, it becomes increasingly difficult to side-step the clear passages which indicate that God is the ultimate Agent in determining who is saved (e.g., John 6:65; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:29-30; 9:10-24).

The other term you asked about, “reformed,” refers to the theology of the Protestant Reformers and is often used in a similar way as “Calvinism.”

I would summarize these two views this way:

  • Calvinism sees man as unable to respond to God except that God predestined some to salvation, elected and called them, and drew them to Himself. Calvinism is God-centered: it is God who determines who is saved.

  • Arminianism sees the locus of salvation within man himself. God draws all men equally and some respond while others don't. Those that refuse God are able to overcome the wooing of the Holy Spirit and frustrate His desire that they be saved. Arminianism is ultimately man-centered. It is man who determines who is saved.

Those who are warning you about “Calvinism” and “Reformed” theology are probably Arminian in their views and would not appreciate that you have asked me this question—since I myself am in the Calvinistic camp. For more on my views concerning what the Bible teaches concerning Calvinism and Arminianism, see Who Chooses Whom in Salvationa.

With regard to the influence of such theologies on translations, this is relatively minor. Most word-for-word translations such as the KJV, NKJV, NASB, and ESV follow the underlying Hebrew and Greek manuscripts so closely that there isn't a large amount of “wiggle room” for pouring the theology of the interpreters into the text itself. There can be minor exceptions to this in areas where subtleties of interpretation related to the original language are involved (for example, Daniel 9:24-27 in the ESV).

Where you do want to be more careful is in relation to study Bibles. This is where you'll see the influence of differences in theology come through much more strongly. So the ESV Study Bible, for example, is not going to embrace a futuristic, dispensational understanding of prophecy and will oversimplify the Biblical teaching on covenants in favor of the Reformed “covenants” of works and grace, along with denying differences between Israel and the Church in the plan of God. These issues have less to do with Calvinism vs. Arminianism and much more to do with other factors related to interpretation.

Regarding the warnings about John MacArthur being a Calvinist—MacArthur is a Calvinist for the same reasons as John Calvin: that’s what the Scriptures teach! Although no study Bible is without some minor points one might disagree with, I consider his study Bible to be one of the best available on the market today.

You may also find a recent answer concerning the topic of Recommended Study Biblesb useful to read. In that post, I discuss other factors—such as usability—which are also important to consider when purchasing a Bible. The conclusion makes specific recommendations based on my understanding of Scripture and what I've come to find as important in a Study Bible.

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