*Delivered at the meeting of the League of Men’s Societies in Holland, Michigan.
The Board of the League of Men’s Societies in asking me to speak on this subject realized that already at first glance the answer to this question would be an unqualified ‘Yes.’ Without hesitation we are proud to classify ourselves as Calvinists. As such my subject is very simple, for on that point there can be no dispute.
Nevertheless your committee also felt that there is more to be said on the matter. The fact is, that Calvinism has become a very general and vague term in our day. Many who differ on very fundamental doctrines of Scripture nevertheless rally under the banner of Calvinism. Witness the attempts in the last years to call a Calvinistic Congress. Moreover, especially nearer to our own circles, the theory of Common Grace is regarded as one of the basic principles of Calvinism. Some would even go to the extent of calling John Calvin the acknowledged discoverer of the doctrine of common grace and quote him profusely to maintain their stand. Anyone who reads Dr. A. Kuyper’s stone lectures on “Calvinism” must repeatedly reach the conclusion that, if Dr. Kuyper is correct, no one can deny common grace and also be a Calvinist. While Dr. Herman Kuiper in his “Calvinism and Common Grace” finds so much “common grace” in the writings of Calvin that this theory must certainly be one of the fundamental principles of Calvinism. To deny it means that you are no Calvinists.
By this time anyone must begin to realize that the question is not so simple after all. We come face to face with a twofold question. The one question is: What is Calvinism? In order to do full justice to this question it might prove beneficial to make a thorough and comprehensive study of all that Calvin has written, and that especially in the light of his time. But even a thorough study of all the works of John Calvin would not be sufficient, for it soon becomes evident that, Calvinism is more than merely the views of one man. No one cares to be called a Calvinist in the sense that he is the blind follower of a man. In so far as the truth of the Word of God was brought to the foreground and developed into a doctrinal system by John Calvin the question still remains: what is the channel in which that truth is developed today? Only those who continue to build on the structure of Augustine and Calvin, or who continue in the channel of truth followed by Augustine and Calvin can be called Calvinists. Therefore we face a second question: What is the historical development of the Reformed Truth of Calvinism today?
Naturally I do not pretend to be able to give a conclusive answer to these weighty questions at this time. Nor do I deem it necessary in order to give a thought-provoking answer to the question before us. All that is necessary now is that we have some general conception of what is to be understood by Calvinism. And then it is well, in order not to wander too far from the subject, to ask, also in a general way, whether the theory of common grace is actually Calvinistic. In that way we can reach a conclusion whether we are Calvinists.
Accompany me as we ask the following questions:
I. What is Calvinism?
II. In what relation does the theory of Common Grace stand to Calvinism?
III. And in the light of these facts: Are we Calvinists?
I. Anyone who attempts to answer the question as to what is understood by Calvinism finds himself placed before various definitions. It must, first of all, not surprise us that we as Protestant Reformed Churches are sometimes called a sect. Possibly the earliest use of the term Calvinism was as a sectarian name. It was a nickname used by the Jesuits to designate the Reformed faith, so that the term means nothing more to the Catholics than the name of a sect. Over against Arminianism this has become a confessional name. By Arminians a Calvinist is represented exclusively as the outspoken subscriber to the dogma of predestinations. Avowed Arminians speak with repulsion in this sense of Calvinists. Strange to say, but this is sometimes also used as a denominational name. Calvin would certainly enter his protest if he were to know that his name was attached to a denomination, as all true Calvinists refuse to be called by the name of a man. And yet there are Churches that have borne the name of “Calvinistic Methodists” and “Calvinistic Baptists”. The well-known Spurgeon is said to have belonged to a group which called itself Calvinistic Baptists.
But Calvinism has taken on an even broader meaning. Historically it indicates the channel in which the Reformation moved in so far as it was neither Lutheran, nor Anabaptist, nor Socinian. Dr. Kuyper speaks of it in his stone lectures as a scientific name, designating an independent form of world and life view. (Stone Lectures, pages 8-121. The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge gives from that aspect the following definition: “Calvinism is the entire body of concoction, theological, ethical, philosophical, social, political, which under the master mind of John Calvin has left a permanent mark on thought and life history in protestant lands,” (Vol. II, page 359). Although I am not so interested in that definition as such there is something added which is very important. It goes on to say that the fundamental principle of Calvinism lies: “in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature. He who believes in God without reserve, and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling, willing—in the entire compass of his life activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual, throughout all his individual, social, religious relations—is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles in thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist” (Vol. II, page 359).
The reason for quoting this last statement is that I feel that the fundamental principles of Calvinism itself can best tell us what it is. It certainly is more than a confessional name, more than just another world and life view. Its distinctive principles make it absolutely unique. To accept them simply makes one a Calvinist. To deny them deprives one of the right to bear the name.
Under the fundamental principles of Calvinism I would mention first of all, that the Scriptures are the infallible Word of God before which we bow unconditionally and which we accept as the only infallible rule for thought and life. A Calvinist makes himself strong by bowing before no other authority than that authority of the Word of God. It is repugnant to him to be a follower of any man, or to place any standard or confession on a par with Scripture. In the Scriptures God speaks and it behooves us to humbly and reverently listen as docile children. Anyone who does not proceed from that motivating principle is not worthy of the name of Calvinist.
On that basic principle Calvinism founds a second, namely: that God is God. Therefore it teaches a predestinating, electing, sovereign grace. That is the foundation stone in its bulwark against all Arminianism. The five points of Calvinism are certainly known to all of us, namely: Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Total Depravity, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of Saints. On that basis Calvin also taught that “by His free and unfettered counsel God rules all mankind, and all men and things, and also all parts and particles of the world by His infinite wisdom and incomprehensible justice.” (Calvin’s Calvinism, p. 261). From this also follows that God is not for man’s sake, nor is religion for man’s sake, but all are only for God’s glory. All creation exists for God. All life must be consecrated to Him in strict obedience. Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply himself, in every sphere of life, he is standing before God’s face and is an instrument in His hand, must obey God and live to His glory. For that reason our Catechism speaks very Calvinistic language when it answers in Lord’s Day 33 to the question, What are good works?: “Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.”
You realize, of course, that I make no attempt to outline all the fundamental principles of Calvinism, but merely speak in general.
This is, nevertheless, sufficient to answer our question.
Calvinism is not simply everything that is taught by John Calvin. No Calvinist can be content to remain staring at Calvin, admiring in worshipful reverence all that he wrote and resting content with that. From the basic principle that the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God and may be the only rule for life and thought follows that also Calvin himself must be judged in that light. All that he has written must be placed under the merciless knife of criticism on the basis of the Word of God. The question must needs be put: Was Calvin a Calvinist? And if so, in how far? This can and must be said with no lack of appreciation for all that Calvin was privileged to be for the Church.
What is more, maintaining that the development of truth under the guidance of the Holy Spirit ran through the channel of Augustine and Calvin we too must continue in that channel. The fundamental truths of Scripture must be maintained and developed into doctrinal standards. A Calvinist is never finished plying ever deeper into the truth of the revealed Word of God.
And certainly the principle of predestinating, electing, sovereign grace must be maintained and defended with tooth and nail. That truth with its accompanying truth of the antithesis is the heritage handed down to us from the fathers by the grace of God.
II. That brings us to the second question: In what relation does the theory of Common Grace stand to Calvinism?
In the light of the foregoing we already have an answer to that question. Anyone who makes an earnest study of the Word of God and is willing to abide by its truth must admit that common grace has no place in Scripture and therefore no place in Calvinism. To maintain that God is God, with all that this includes, already precludes a theory of common grace.
Nevertheless, it is repeatedly maintained in our day that this theory does have a place in that theological system. According to Dr. A. Kuyper, it is one of the fundamental principles in a Calvinistic world and life view. Dr. Herman Kuiper and others make Calvin the acknowledged discoverer of this doctrine, although it is evident that no serious effort has been made to search beyond Calvin.
Dr. A. Kuyper speaks of Calvinism as dealing with man’s relation to God, to his fellowman, and to the world. Man’s relation to God he calls a relation of fellowship. Man himself can only be honored for the sake of his likeness to the divine image. And the world can only be honored as a divine creation. Yet this, places to the fore, as he says, “the great principle that there is a particular grace which works salvation, and also a common grace by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammeled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator” (Calvinism, page 30).
“Sin places us before a riddle, which in itself is insoluble. If you view sin as a deadly poison, as enmity against God, as leading to everlasting condemnation, and if you represent a sinner as being ‘wholly incapable of doing any good, and prone to all evil’, and on this account salvable only if God by regeneration changes his heart, then it seems as if of necessity all unbelievers and unregenerate persons ought to be wicked and repulsive men. But this is far from being our experience in actual life. (Notice the argument, C. H.) On the contrary the unbelieving world excels in many things. Precious treasures have come down to us from the old heathen civilization” (page 159). “In a similar manner God by His “common grace” restrains the operation of sin in man, partly by breaking its power, partly by taming his evil spirit, and partly by domesticating his nation or his family. Common grace has thus led to the result that an unregenerated sinner may captivate and attract us by much that is lovely and full of energy, just as our domestic animals do, but this, of course, after the manner of man. The nature of sin, however, remains as venomous as it was” (page 163).
This theory must certainly lead to dualism. In the midst of the world there can never be synthesis, only antithesis; the antithesis between the truth and the lie, wisdom and foolishness, God’s covenant and the world, light and darkness. The line of Calvinistic truth does not run along these views of Dr. A. Kuyper.
Nevertheless these views were made a dogma of the church by an extra-confessional addition to the confessions by the Synod of 1924.
Although we could quote the proofs for the three points which the Synod took from Calvin’s Institutes it is probably better to refer to Dr. Herman Kuiper’s work on “Calvinism and Common Grace”. He is supposed to have made an elaborate study of this subject, although it is evident that he merely quotes Calvin’s writings with the purpose to prove that he also taught the Kuyperian theory of common grace.
He finds in Calvin three classes of common grace, which he distinguishes as follows:
1. Universal common grace. “Common to all creatures who make up this sin-cursed world. A grace which touches creatures as creatures.”
2. General common grace. “Common to human beings in distinction from the rest of God’s creatures. This is a grace which pertains to men as men.”
3. Covenant common grace. “Common to those who live in the covenant sphere, to all who are members of the covenant in its widest significance, elect and non-elect covenant members.”
It is the second of these in which we are now interested. Under this class he finds his proof for the three points. Only in four instances does he find the word ‘common’ joined with ‘grace,’ and twice, he admits, that this refers to saving grace. But he does find many evidences of general goodness, mercy, kindness, etc. He says: “It strikes us how often and how emphatically Calvin assures us that there is a divine grace which touches mankind in general and every individual member of the human race in particular. Calvin never seems to grow weary of telling us that God is beneficent to mankind; that God manifests paternal clemency toward men in general and bestows many excellent blessings upon them; that God loves the human race and shows concern for its welfare” (page 182).
That sets our expectation rather high, but only to be disappointed if we take the effort to follow him in reading the various passages adduced as proof. To mention a few examples. If Calvin is to be in accord with the first point of the Synod of 1924 he must agree that God loves the wicked. The distinction is made between sin and the sinner, as if God hates the one and loves the other. Does Calvin say that God loves the sinner? A quotation is taken from the Institutes II, 16, 3: “For God who is perfect righteousness, cannot love the iniquity which He sees in all. All of us, therefore, have that within which deserves the hatred of God. Hence, in respect, first, of our corrupt nature, and secondly, of the depraved conduct following upon it, we are all offensive to God, guilty in His sight, and by nature the children of hell. But as the Lord wills not to destroy in us that which is His own, He still finds something in us which in kindness He can love. For though it is by our own fault that we are sinners, we are still creatures; though we have brought death upon ourselves, He had created us for life.” At best this can be used as proof that God loves His creation. As to the second point Synod also quotes the passage found in Calvin’s Institutes II, 3, 3. Here Calvin must say that God restrains sin in the heart of the wicked by His Spirit in order that good may come forth. This is what we read: “Here again, we are met with a question very much the same as that which was previously solved. In every age there have been some who, under the guidance of nature, were all their lives devoted to virtue. It is of no consequence, that many blots may be detected in their conduct; by the mere study of virtue, they evinced that there was somewhat of purity in their nature. Such examples, then, seem to warn us against supposing that the nature of man is utterly vicious, since, under its guidance, some have not only excelled in illustrious deeds, but conducted themselves most honorably through the whole course of their lives. But we ought to consider, that, notwithstanding of the corruption of our nature, there is some room for divine grace, such grace as, without purifying it, may lay it under internal restraint. In the elect, God cures these diseases in the mode which will shortly be explained; in others, he only lays them under such restraint as may prevent them from breaking forth to a degree incompatible with the preservation of the established order of things.” Thus far the Synod quoted Calvin. The rest was, for some unknown reason, left out. But listen: “Hence, how much soever men may disguise their impurity, some are restrained only by shame, others by a fear of the laws, from breaking out into many kinds of wickedness. Some aspire to an honest life, as deeming it most conducive to their interest, while others are raised above the vulgar lot, that, by the dignity of their station, they may keep inferiors to their duty. Thus God, by His providence, curbs the perverseness of nature, preventing it from breaking forth into action, yet without rendering it inwardly pure.” Does not this last overthrow what the first part was supposed to prove?
Let this be sufficient to show that Calvin does not always say what he is made to say. Judged in the light of our time we might wish him, especially at times, more definite and more emphatic on this issue, but judged in the light of his own times we can draw no other conclusion from all his writings that he certainly was not addicted to the Kuyperian theory of common grace as defended by the Synod of 1924.
Taken all in all, Calvin was thoroughly Calvinistic as a staunch defender of the Sovereignty of God and a sovereign, elective grace. Common grace as taught today has no place either in the writings of Calvin or in true Calvinism as such.
III. To finally be somewhat more positive and come to a definite answer to the question before us, it is not out of place to go to Calvin with certain questions and listen to his reply in some of his works, which may be considered the maturest products from his hand and which we find in “Calvin’s Calvinism”. Here we need not search long for the passages lie in ready reach.
I would ask of him: Did God will the fall and sin? To this question he answers: “Taking, then an honest and sober review of the whole of this high and divine matter, the plain and indubitable conclusion will be that the will of God is the one principle and all-high cause of all things in heaven and earth!” (page 246). “Meanwhile, I freely acknowledge my doctrine to be this: that Adam fell, not only by the permission of God, but by His very secret counsel and decree” (page 267). “The Scripture is replete with examples of the same nature and tendency. Shall we, then, on that account either impute the cause or fault of sin to God, or represent Him as having a double or twofold will, and thus make Him inconsistent with Himself?” (page 255). Notice from this last statement that Calvin considers it inconsistent with God to will and at the same time to will, as the matter is sometimes presented in the “two-track” tendency.
We could also ask Calvin: what is God’s attitude to the wicked? To which he answers: “Most true is that which the Psalm affirms, ‘Thou hatest all workers of iniquity’ (Ps. 5:5). Nor, indeed, does God there testify by the mouth of David anything else than that which He exemplifies in reality every day when He punishes men for their transgressions. Nor would He punish their sins if He did not hate those sins. You see here, then, that God is an avenger, from which we are fully assured that He is not an approver. But many are deceived in these sacred matters, not rightly considering that God willeth righteously those things which men do wickedly” (page 255).
To the question whether the preaching of the Gospel is a general, well-meant offer of salvation Calvin answers to the contrary. The fact that the gospel of mercy is set forth, presented to the unbelieving as well as to the believing is with the purpose that they may be without excuse. “The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth, then, what can it be to others but the savor of death unto death?” (pages 95, 96).
As to the restraint of sin and civic righteousness notice the following: “But with reference to His hardening men’s hearts, that is a different way of God’s working, as I have just observed. Because God does not govern the reprobate by His regenerating Spirit; but gives them over to the devil, and leaves them to be his slaves; and He so overrules their depraved wills by His secret judgment and counsel, that they can do nothing but that which He has decreed, (page 319). “The reprobate, however, made, as they are, vessels unto dishonor, never cease to provoke the vengeance of God upon themselves; thereby manifestly proving, as in written characters, that they are ordained to destruction. The Scripture plainly teaches that none but the elect of God are ever ruled or “led” by His Spirit. What rectitude or right-doing then can there be in man without the “leading” of the Holy Spirit? . . . .What marvel, then, if the reprobate, who are destitute of the righteousness of God should do nothing, nor know to do anything, but sin?” (pages 142-143).
These are but snatches taken at random which can be multiplied many times. Yet I deem them sufficient evidence that Calvin stood firm in his contention for the Sovereign Grace of God, especially over against all semi-Pelagianism.
Across the centuries he flings to us his weapon, the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, that we may carry on in the conflict against all heresy repugnant to that Word. The battle centers especially about the truth of God’s sovereign grace. It is our calling to maintain and develop that truth in Reformed channels, following in the footsteps of the fathers, who went before us, and only thus are we worthy of the name of Calvinists. Then: Calvinists we are!