What is Calvinism?
It is very odd how difficult it seems for some persons to understand just what Calvinism is. And yet the matter itself presents no difficulty whatever. It is capable of being put into a single sentence; and that, on level to every religious man’s comprehension. For Calvinism is just religion in its purity. We have only, therefore, to conceive of religion in its purity, and that is Calvinism.
In what attitude of mind and heart does religion come most fully to its rights? Is it not in the attitude of prayer? When we kneel before God, not with the body merely, but with the mind and heart, we have assumed the attitude which above all others deserves the name of religious. And this religious attitude by way of eminence is obviously just the attitude of utter dependence and humble trust. He who comes to God in prayer, comes not in a spirit of self-assertion, but in a spirit of trustful dependence.
No one ever addressed God in prayer thus:
“O God, thou knowest that I am the architect of my own fortunes and the determiner of my own destiny. Thou mayest indeed do something to help me in the securing of my purposes after I have determined upon them. But my heart is my own, and thou canst not intrude into it; my will is my own, and thou canst not bend it. When I wish thy aid, I will call on thee for it. Meanwhile, thou must await my pleasure.”
Men may reason somewhat like this; but that is not the way they pray.
There did, indeed, once two men go up into the temple to pray. And one stood and prayed thus to himself (can it be that this “to himself” has a deeper significance than appears on the surface?), “God, I thank thee that I am not as the rest of men.” While the other smote his breast, and said, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Even the former acknowledged a certain dependence on God; for he thanked God for his virtues. But we are not left in doubt in which one the religious mood was most purely exhibited. There is One who has told us that with clearness and emphasis.
The Calvinist is the man who is determined that his intellect, and heart, and will shall remain on their knees continually, and only from this attitude think, and feel, and act. Calvinism is, therefore, that type of thought in which there comes to its rights the truly religious attitude of utter dependence on God and humble trust in his mercy alone for salvation.
There are at bottom but two types of religious thought in the world — if we may improperly use the term “religious” for both of them. There is the religion of faith; there is the “religion” of works. Calvinism is the pure embodiment of the former of these; what is known in Church History as Pelagianism is the pure embodiment of the latter of them. All other forms of “religious” teaching which have been known in Christendom are but unstable attempts at compromise between the two.
At the opening of the fifth century, the two fundamental types came into direct conflict in remarkably pure form as embodied in the two persons of Augustine and Pelagius. Both were expending themselves in seeking to better the lives of men. But Pelagius in his exhortations threw men back on themselves; they were able, he declared, to do all that God demanded of them — otherwise God would not have demanded it.
Augustine on the contrary pointed them in their weakness to God; “He himself,” he said, in his pregnant speech, “He himself is our power.” The one is the “religion” of proud self-dependence; the other is the religion of dependence on God. The one is the “religion” of works; the other is the religion of faith. The one is not “religion” at all — it is mere moralism; the other is all that is in the world that deserves to be called religion. Just in proportion as this attitude of faith is present in our thought, feeling, life, are we religious. When it becomes regnanti in our thought, feeling, life, then are we truly religious.
Calvinism is that type of thinking in which it has become regnant. This is why those who have caught a glimpse of these things, love with passion what men call “Calvinism,” sometimes with an air of contempt; and why they cling to it with enthusiasm. It is not merely the hope of true religion in the world: it is true religion in the world — as far as true religion is in the world at all.
For Calvinism, in this soteriological aspect of it, is just the perception and expression and defence of the utter dependence of the soul on the free grace of God for salvation. All its so-called hard features—its doctrine of original sin, yes, speak it right out, its doctrine of total depravity and the entire inability of the sinful will to good; its doctrine of election, or, to put it in the words everywhere spoken against, its doctrine of predestination and preterition, of reprobation itself—mean just this and nothing more.
Calvinism will not play fast and loose with the free grace of God. It is set upon giving to God, and to God alone, the glory and all the glory of salvation. There are others than Calvinists, no doubt, who would fain make the same great confession. But they make it with reserves, or they painfully justify the making of it by some tenuous theory which confuses nature and grace. They leave logical pitfalls on this side or that, and the difference between logical pitfalls and other pitfalls is that the wayfarer may fall into the others, but the plain man, just because his is a simple mind, must fall into those.
Calvinism will leave no logical pitfalls and will make no reserves. It will have nothing to do with theories whose function it is to explain away facts. It confesses, with a heart full of adoring gratitude, that to God, and to God alone, belongs salvation and the whole of salvation; that He it is, and He alone, who works salvation in its whole reach. Any falling away in the slightest measure from this great confession is to fall away from Calvinism. Any intrusion of any human merit, or act, or disposition, or power, as ground or cause or occasion, into the process of divine salvation,—whether in the way of power to resist or of ability to improve grace, of the opening of the soul to the reception of grace, or of the employment of grace already received—is a breach with Calvinism.
Is it strange that in this world, in this particular age of this world, it should prove difficult to preserve not only active, but vivid and dominant, the perception of the everywhere determining hand of God, the sense of absolute dependence on Him, the conviction of utter inability to do even the least thing to rescue ourselves from sin—at the height of their conceptions?
Is it not enough to account for whatever depression Calvinism may be suffering in the world today, to point to the natural difficulty—in this materialistic age, conscious of its newly realized powers over against the forces of nature and filled with the pride of achievement and of material well-being—of guarding our perception of the governing hand of God in all things, in its perfection; of maintaining our sense of dependence on a higher power in full force; of preserving our feeling of sin, unworthiness, and helplessness in its profundity?
Is not the depression of Calvinism, so far as it is real, significant merely of this, that to our age the vision of God has become somewhat obscured in the midst of abounding material triumphs, that the religious emotion has in some measure ceased to be the determining force in life, and that the evangelical attitude of complete dependence on God for salvation does not readily commend itself to men who are accustomed to lay forceful hands on everything else they wish, and who do not quite see why they may not take heaven also by storm?
Let us observe then, that Calvinism is only another name for consistent supernaturalism in religion. The central fact of Calvinism is the vision of God. Its determining principle is zeal for the divine honour. What it sets itself to do is to render to God His rights in every sphere of life-activity. In this it begins, and centres, and ends. It is this that is said, when it is said that it is Theism come to its rights, since in that case everything that comes to pass is viewed as the direct outworking of the divine purpose—when it is said that it is religion at the height of its conception, since in that case God is consciously felt as Him in whom we live and move and have our being—when it is said that it is evangelicalism in its purity, since in that case we cast ourselves as sinners, without reserve, wholly on the mercy of the divine grace.
It is this sense of God, of God’s presence, of God’s power, of God’s all-pervading activity—most of all in the process of salvation—which constitutes Calvinism.
When the Calvinist gazes into the mirror of the world, whether the world of nature or the, world of events, his attention is held not by the mirror itself (with the cunning construction of which scientific investigations may no doubt very properly busy themselves), but by the Face of God which he sees reflected therein.
When the Calvinist contemplates the religious life, he is less concerned with the psychological nature and relations of the emotions which surge through the soul (with which the votaries of the new science of the psychology of religion are perhaps not quite unfruitfully engaging themselves), than with the divine Source from which they spring, the divine Object on which they take hold.
When the Calvinist considers the state of his soul and the possibility of its rescue from death and sin, he may not indeed be blind to the responses which it may by the grace of God be enabled to make to the divine grace, but he absorbs himself not in them but in it, and sees in every step of his recovery to good and to God the almighty working of God’s grace.
The Calvinist, in a word, is the man who sees God.
He has caught sight of the ineffable Vision, and he will not let it fade for a moment from his eyes—God in nature, God in history, God in grace.
Everywhere he sees God in His mighty stepping, everywhere he feels the working of His mighty arm, the throbbing of His mighty heart.
The Calvinist is therefore, by way of eminence, the supernaturalist in the world of thought. The world itself is to him a supernatural product; not merely in the sense that somewhere, away back before all time, God made it, but that God is making it now, and in every event that falls out. In every modification of what is, that takes place, His hand is visible, as through all occurrences His “one increasing purpose runs”.
Man himself is His— created for His glory, and having as the one supreme end of his existence to glorify his Maker, and haply also to enjoy Him for ever.
And salvation, in every step and stage of it, is of God. Conceived in God’s love, wrought out by God’s own Son in a supernatural life and death in this world of sin, and applied by God’s Spirit in a series of acts as supernatural as the virgin birth and the resurrection of the Son of God themselves—it is a supernatural work through and through.
To the Calvinist, thus, the Church of God is as direct a creation of God as the first creation itself. In this supernaturalism, the whole thought and feeling and life of the Calvinist is steeped. Without it there can be no Calvinism, for it is just this that is Calvinism.