Calvinism is a significant branch of Protestant Christianity that took root during the contentious period of the Reformation. Yet, beyond this, Calvinism extends its reach, offering a holistic perspective that impacts a spectrum of subjects ranging from economic theory to the nature of human agency to relationships with the Judeo-Christian God Yahweh. Is Calvinism today a set of religious convictions, or is it more of a socio-economic philosophy?
The Complexity of Calvinism: A Religious and Philosophical System
A common misconception about Calvinism is its perception as mere economic philosophy. It is indeed a system that accepts the pursuit of economic gain and the charging of interest. However, Calvinism strongly denounces the exploitation of the poor and needy in the quest for wealth. Rooted deeply in Calvinism are the virtues of diligence, thrift, and self-discipline, as an act of gratitude and obedience to Yahweh. These values often pave the way for economic prosperity, but never at the cost of ethics or societal welfare.
John Calvin, the inspirational French figure behind Calvinism, and influential U.S. American Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards significantly emphasize this point. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is rooted in the Protestant Canon (the same as current Evangelical Bibles, with 66 books), which has abundant references about how to care for the poor, how to treat one’s employees, how to protect and maximize one’s private property, and how to share one’s gains communally. In Calvin’s Commentaries On The Four Last Books of Moses, he says:
“the common society of the human race demands that we should not seek to grow rich by the loss of others.”
Similarly, Edwards, in his sermon The Preciousness of Time and the Importance of Redeeming It, urged followers to utilize their resources, including time and money, for the glory of God and the benefit of their fellow men. He noted,
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“The direction of the apostle, in Eph. 4:28 is, that we should ‘labour, working with our hands the thing that is good, that we may have to give to him that needeth.’ But indolent men, instead of gaining anything to give to him that needeth, do but waste what they have already”.
In religious circles, some critics might reduce Calvinism to one word: Predestination. Sure, Calvinism acknowledges what some would call “double predestination” (that some humans are destined to live in eternal bliss with Yahweh in a new heavenly-earth, or under Yahweh’s wrath in hell). However, Calvinists also presuppose that every human being was already at risk of hell (the doctrine of total depravity). This doctrine echoes St. Paul’s view in his letter to the Romans that
“all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and that “by the sin of one man all have died”
(Romans 3:23 and 5:12).
Despite this, Calvinism does not disregard human agency or dismiss the existence of free will. Calvin himself endorsed a view today recognized as compatibilism. He rejected the idea of an absolutely free will due to humanity’s fallen nature, but he maintained that humans can make authentic choices and be held accountable for them — they are not mere marionettes manipulated by God.
Calvin was trying to hold together two ideas that he believed the Bible clearly taught: one is that humans are morally responsible for their sins; the other is that Yahweh is ultimately the first mover of anything that comes to pass, including human sin, as St. Paul wrote in Romans 9:18-21:
“God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?’ But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”
This is where theology meets moral philosophy, and where Calvin meets his limits. In his essay Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, John Calvin humbly writes:
“how it was ordained by the foreknowledge and decree of God what man’s future was without God being implicated as associate in the fault as the author and approver of transgression, is clearly a secret so much excelling the insight of the human mind, that I am not ashamed to confess ignorance.”
The Influence of Calvinism
Calvinists promote evangelism, Jesus-worship from the heart, and Biblical literacy in each person’s language (rather than in Latin). This contrasts with Roman Catholic rituals and the “authorized interpretations” of the Holy See. The Protestant trend of studying the Bible for oneself spread overseas and today Calvinism is growing in the American continent (especially in Brazil) and in Asia (especially in South Korea).
Back in 16th century France, despite fierce resistance, Calvinism formed the basis for the beliefs and practices of the Huguenots. In Geneva, under Calvin’s leadership, refugees from the Edict of Nantes transformed the city-state into a “Protestant Rome,” an emblem of Christian piety and moral discipline. In Brazil, French Huguenots wrote the first Protestant confessional document in the whole American continent, The Guanabara Confession of 1558, then they were killed for going against Roman Catholic doctrine; “a testimony to this day of the zeal Calvinism has had in seeing the free offer of the gospel spread to unreached territories”, according to Systematic Theologian Dr. Matthew Barrett.
In the first half of the 17th century, North-Eastern Brazil was colonized by Dutch Calvinists, who were later expelled by Portuguese Catholics. The Dutch fled to North America, founding the settlement that became New York City. In the 18th century United States, Calvinism played a substantial role during the Great Awakening, a period of religious revitalization and mass conversions. Calvinist preachers, including Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, were among the leading figures of the Great Awakening. They promoted a theology that underscored God’s sovereignty, human depravity, and the necessity of a personal, experiential faith. The Calvinistic theology they preached contributed significantly to shaping America’s religious, cultural, and even political landscapes today, as attested by modern Calvinist theologians like Francis Schaeffer, Tim Keller, and John Piper.
Calvinism emerged as a movement aimed at reforming the Roman Catholic faith, drawing inspiration from early Church Fathers like St. Augustine and Tertullian. Calvinism echoes Augustine’s views on soteriology (teachings about salvation). Tertullian’s commitment to Biblical orthodoxy and his defense of Christian truth can also be seen in Calvinism’s robust apologetics.
The theological depth of Calvinism stems from its internal consistency and the complex interplay of its doctrines. Responding to the perceived excesses and errors of the Roman Catholic Church, Calvinists affirmed the Five Solae: Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), Sola Fide (faith alone), Sola Gratia (grace alone), Solus Christus (Christ alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone).
Moreover, in response to neo-Pelagian sects within the Protestant churches and especially to the Five Points of Arminianism, theologians developed the Five Points of Calvinism. Each point was encapsulated in the acronym TULIP:
- Total Depravity (sin has entered all areas of life)
- Unconditional Election (God can choose someone regardless of their past and future sins)
- Limited Atonement (Jesus died only for the ones God chose to save)
- Irresistible Grace (God’s choice overpowers sin)
- Perseverance of the Saints (salvation can never be lost)
These doctrines, while frequently contentious and misunderstood, create a coherent theological system emphasizing God’s sovereignty, humanity’s radical dependence on divine grace, and the ultimate purpose of all things — giving praise to Yahweh.
Weber’s View of Calvinism
Renowned German sociologist Max Weber, in his groundbreaking work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, proposed that Calvinism, with its stress on diligence, thrift, and predestination, played a pivotal role in the rise of modern capitalism.
“The process of sanctifying life could thus almost take on the character of a business enterprise. A thoroughgoing Christianization of the whole of life was the consequence of this methodical quality of ethical conduct into which Calvinism as distinct from Lutheranism forced men. That this rationality was decisive in its influence on practical life must always be borne in mind in order rightly to understand the influence of Calvinism. … The Calvinistic doctrine of predestination … had not only a quite unique consistency, but that its psychological effect was extraordinarily powerful.”
Calvinism in Conclusion
Labeling Calvinism as merely a religious doctrine or a philosophical construct would be an oversimplification of its richness and diversity. As this exploration has shown, Calvinism operates as both — and more than that, it forms a comprehensive worldview. Its influence extends beyond the boundaries of the church and permeates various aspects of life: from how we understand human nature and divine intervention to our approach toward economic activities and social responsibilities. In its intricate nature, Calvinism underscores the deep connection between belief and practice, theology and philosophy, religion and life, reminding us that these spheres are interwoven and mutually influential.