People today don’t like ‘tags’. ‘Calvinism’ is seen to be one such tag that can be jettisoned for, it is said, we are not to follow men but only God. There is of course plausibility in such an argument. We do not follow men. Yet, in writing to the Thessalonian Christians, Paul says ‘you became followers of us…’ (1 Thessalonians 1:6). Of course, he adds, ‘and of the Lord’.
It may be said, ‘Yes, but he was an inspired apostle’. True, but then the Thessalonians in their turn ‘became examples to all in Macedonia and Achia who believe’ (v. 7). They gave an example, which these other churches would do well to follow. Why? Because they were themselves following the Lord.
The touchstone is: ‘Are these people really followers of the Lord?’ By the same token, we will measure the teaching and example of John Calvin (or anyone else) by such a criterion, and the fact is that to this man, under God, the church is indebted for a rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of sovereign grace. He is not to be followed blindly or slavishly (nor is anyone else), but he is to be followed in his expositions of the precious truths of biblical Christianity. It is in that connection that his name has come down to us in that system of truth described as Calvinism. And Calvinism, as B. B. Warfield reminds us, is simply ‘Theism come to its rights, religion at the height of its conception, and evangelicalism in its pure and only stable expression.’1
Our concern in this series of articles is to examine what is regarded as a summary of Calvinism, and has become a distinctive feature of the doctrine, namely, ‘the Five Points of Calvinism’. We shall consider this first of all historically, and then, in later articles and rather more detail, doctrinally.
To speak of the ‘Five Points’ of Calvinism can be misleading. It may give the impression of a restrictiveness in an understanding of Calvinism. For Calvinism cannot be limited to five points – there are thousands of points in Calvinism for, properly understood, Calvinism is as wide as biblical Christianity. Nor can it be limited merely to the notion of predestination. Calvinism is not primarily concerned with five points, though these are clearly of great importance as a summary of Calvinistic doctrine. Calvinism is nothing apart from an adherence to the truths of Scripture. But it is not just a ‘doctrinal system’. It is also a ‘world-view’.
Although the name of John Calvin (1509-1564) is associated with the ‘five points’, these ‘points’ are neither new teaching nor a sort of fossil. They represent teaching squarely based on the Word of God. The church is indebted to this great sixteenth-century Reformer for a rediscovery, especially, of the biblical truths of the sovereignty of grace in salvation.
But what are the ‘Five Points’, and how did Calvinism come to be summarised in that form? This particular statement of Calvinistic doctrine was not exactly set out as such by John Calvin. It was not formulated in such terms until the seventeenth century in the context of a controversy within the Dutch Reformed churches. In 1610 the followers of a certain Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) presented a Remonstrance in five points to the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church. This Remonstrance wished acceptance of certain propositions, which have been helpfully summarised as follows:
‘1. God elects or reproves on the basis of foreseen faith or unbelief.
2. Christ died for all men and for every man, although only believers are saved.
3. Man is so depraved that divine grace is necessary unto faith or any good deed.
4. This grace may be resisted.
5. Whether all who are truly regenerate will certainly persevere in the faith is a point which needs further investigation.’2
Now, these were propositions held then by the Remonstrants, but equally they are propositions held in whole or in part by many evangelicals today.
Synod of Dort
In response to this Remonstrance, the Dutch Church, meeting in a Synod at Dortdrecht (or Dort) in 1618-19, formulated doctrinal ‘Canons’ framed in terms of ‘Five Points’.
These subsequently gave rise to the description of distinctive Calvinistic doctrine as the ‘Five Points of Calvinism’ and have become best known by the mnemonic form T-U-L-I-P, representing:
1. Total Depravity;
2. Unconditional Election;
3. Limited Atonement;
4. Irresistible Grace;
5. Perseverance of the Saints.
It is clear to any who follow the seventeenth-century debate at Dort that this is no esoteric matter. Because it concerns on the one hand the nature of God himself, and on the other, the nature of salvation, it is obviously of central importance for the church. It is not just some ancient historical argument, but is relevant for every age.
In an age of theological confusion and looseness, it is the teaching known as Calvinism that is iron for the bones and fire for the belly. This is at the heart of biblical Christianity. As C. H. Spurgeon put it in his day: ‘It is no novelty, then, that I am preaching; no new doctrine. I love to proclaim those strong old doctrines that are nicknamed Calvinism,but which are surely and verily the revealed truth of God as it is in Christ Jesus’.3
In the articles which will follow, I shall take advantage of the fact that these distinctive doctrines of Calvinism have been summarised by the acrostic, TULIP. Next month, therefore, we will begin our doctrinal study by considering, in the light of Scripture, what is meant by ‘total depravity’.
1.B.B. Warfield, Calvin as a Theologian & Calvinism Today, London, 1969, 20ff
2. Roger Nicole, ‘Arminianism’, in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, Grand Rapids, 1960, 64
3. Quoted by W.J. Seaton, The Five Points of Calvinism, London, 1970, 5