Calvinism Defined

The following is drawn complete from an entry in “An Ecclesiastical Dictionary”.  I’ve posted it here because the Dictionary from which it drawn is no longer in print and I consider the entry worthy of being preserved.

“CALVINISTS.  A name given to those who embrace the system of doctrine taught by Calvin.  It was originally given to those who, in addition to the doctrinal views of this reformer, also held his opinions on the subject of church-government.  The doctrinal views of Calvin may be ascertained by a quotation from his ‘Institutes:’ – ‘In conformity with the clear doctrine of Scripture we assert, that by an eternal and immutable counsel, God hath once for all determined both whom He would admit to salvation, and whom He would condemn to destruction.  We affirm that this counsel, as far as it concerns the elect, is founded on His gratuitous mercy, totally irrespective of human merit; but that to those whom He devotes to condemnation, the gate of life is closed by a just and irreprehensible, but incomprehensible, judgment.  In the elect we consider calling as an evidence of election; and justification as another token of its manifestation, till they arrive in glory, which constitutes its completion.  As God seals the elect by vocation and justification, so by excluding the reprobate from the knowledge of His name and sanctification of His Spirit, He affords another indication of the judgment that awaits them.’

The main doctrines held by Calvinists are reduced to five, commonly called the five points, into which the whole scheme was digested by the synod of Dort.  These are, predestination, particular redemption, total depravity, effectual calling, and the preservation of the saints.

As to predestination, they maintain that God hath chosen a certain number of the fallen race of Adam in Christ, before the foundation of the world, unto eternal glory, according to His eternal purpose, and of his free grace and love, without the least foresight of faith, good works, or any conditions performed by the creature; and that the rest of mankind He was pleased to pass by, and ordain to dishonour and wrath, for their sins, to then praise of His vindictive justice.  In proof of this they allege, Ephes. i. 4; Rom. Ix. 1-6; viii. 29, 30; 2 Thess. Ii. 13; Acts. xii. 48.

As to the death of Christ, they maintain that thereby a most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sins, of infinite value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world, was made; and though, on this ground, the Gospel is to be preached to all men indiscriminately, yet it was the will of God, that Christ, by the blood of the cross, should efficaciously redeem all those, and those only, who were from eternity elected to salvation, and given to Him by the Father.  The proofs quoted are John xvii. 2; x.11, 15; xi. 52; Titus ii. 14; Eph. V. 25-27; Rev. v. 9.

As to total depravity, they maintain that mankind are totally depraved in consequence of the sin of the first man, who being their public head, his sin involved the corruption of all his posterity; and this corruption extends over the whole soul, and renders it unable to turn to God, or to do anything truly good, and exposes it to His righteous displeasure, both in this world, and in that which is to come.  They refer to Rom. V. 12-19; Psal. Li. 5; Gen, vi. 5; Psal. Liii. 2, 3; Rom. Iii.; Ephes. Ii. 1-3.

As to grace and free will, they maintain that all whom God hath predestinated to eternal life, He is pleased, in His appointed time, effectually to call, by His word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ.  In proof they allege, Rom. viii. 29; Ephes. i. 19, 20; ii. 9, 10: 2 Cor. Iv. 6; Ezek. Xxxvi. 26.

As to perseverance, they maintain that those whom God has effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, shall never finally fall from a state of grace.  They admit that true believers may fall partially, and would fall totally and finally, but for the mercy and faithfulness of God, who keepeth the feet of his saints; also, that He who bestoweth the grace of perseverance, bestoweth it by means of reading and hearing the word, mediation, exhortation, threatenings, and promises; but that none of these things imply the possibility of a believer’s falling from the state of justification.  They allege in vindication of these views, Jer. xxxii. 40; Mark xvi. 16; John iv. 14; vi. 40; xvii. 3; 1 John ii. 19; iii. 9; Jude 24, 25.

These are the opinions of the Calvinists as they appear to have been settled by the synod of Dort.  There are, however, considerable differences among them on these points of doctrine, and the distinctions of high Calvinists and moderate Calvinists subsist.  As to church-government, Calvin considered each church as a separate and independent body, invested with the power of self-government.  He acknowledged a real, though spiritual, presence in the eucharist; and he confined the privilege of communion to pious and regenerate persons”.


Farrar, John, 1878, “An Ecclesiastical Dictionary, Explanatory of the History, Antiquities, Heresies, Sects, and Religious Denominations of the Christian Church”, entry “Calvinists” p. 121-123, pub. Wesleyan Conference Office, London