Calvinism: How Did Anyone Think this was a Good Idea?

January 15, 2007

I’ve been walking around a lot lately, and a lot of that walking around has me looking dreamy and thoughtful and that is because I’m listening to a series of 48 lectures on the history of western civilization (up to 1600) on my iPod. Lots of stuff has struck me, but today I nearly fell in front of a bus during one of the lectures on the Protestant Reformations of the 16th century. That is, when Professor Noble started talking about Calvinism, I actually said, out loud: “This is a horrible idea.” I mean, I have never seen a religious outlook that is so bleak and damning of human nature, so futile and so joyless.

The following is stolen from Wikipedia and is an outline of “TULIP” (my comments are additional), a mnemonic device used to remember Calvinism’s main tenets.

Total depravity (or total inability): As a consequence of the Fall of man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. According to the view, people are not by nature inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor and to reject the rule of God. Thus, all people by their own faculties are morally unable to choose to follow God and be saved because they are unwilling to do so out of the necessity of their own natures. Editor’s Translation: Everyone is evil. Great.

Unconditional election: God’s choice from eternity of those whom he will bring to himself is not based on foreseen virtue, merit, or faith in those people. Rather, it is unconditionally grounded in God’s mercy. Translation: Nothing you do in your life means anything because God has already decided whether you get saved or not. So don’t bother to live a good life or help folks out because if you’re meant to go to hell, you’re screwed.

Limited atonement (or particular redemption or definite atonement): The death of Christ actually takes away the penalty of sins of those on whom God has chosen to have mercy. It is “limited” to taking away the sins of the elect, not of all humanity, and it is “definite” and “particular” because atonement is certain for those particular persons. Translation: Christ’s whole cross thing wasn’t good enough to save everyone, so God picks and chooses those folks in advance for whom it applies.

Irresistible grace (or efficacious grace): The saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save (the elect) and, in God’s timing, overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to a saving faith in Christ. Translation: If you’re special and chosen and whatever, you’ll eventually come over to God’s side.

Perseverance of the saints (or preservation of the saints): Any person who has once been truly saved from damnation must necessarily persevere and cannot later be condemned. The word saints is used in the sense in which it is used in the Bible to refer to all who are set apart by God, not in the technical sense of one who is exceptionally holy, canonized, or in heaven (see Saint).Translation: Again, nothing you do matters. If you’re awesome and predestined to be one of the lucky guys, you’re a shoo-in.

Other neat things were that Calvin imposed this shit on the entirety of Geneva, wherein you could be arrested for not going to church or for, I dunno, enjoying life and singing or dancing. Glad I didn’t live there then. Sheesh. Fun times.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Unfortunately I think you will find that many of the components of TULIP are actually adopted by modern Protestants in America today, at least on the far right. Even worse, I don’t think many of them don’t realize the outcome of what it means to believe in these things.

    What’s interesting is that I’ve thought for a long time something similar to the “U” component of your acronym, not knowing that it was a tenet of Calvinism. Of course an all-knowing, all-powerful god is going to know how you will end up the moment it created you. After all, He designed and “wound up” the machine that is his universe. He would know how it ends before it begins.

    Modern protestants which dominate religion in America today have adopted the paradoxical notion of “free will” to get around this problem. But I don’t see how this concept is compatible with the all-knowing, all-powerful properties of God. In the end, no one can actually do anything that will alter the state of the “universal machine” in a way that God wouldn’t have known.

    It is definitely a bleak and depressing idea not only about human beings, but about the nature of an all knowing god. Unfortunately for many people, they believe it.

  2. Mendingo says:

    It sounds exactly like every other religion… a reason to not feel responsible for your own actions. “If God wanted it, there’s nothing we could do” etc.

  3. White Badger says:

    Sadly, your thoughts fall short.
    It is not a “cop-out” for our sinfulness.
    Calvinism shows us our own depravity, and then encourages us to rely on God, for He alone can supply us with grace and Salvation.
    This thought warms my heart!
    When once I was lost, now He has found me!
    When once I was blind, now I see!
    Ever noticed how everything you do seems to fall through? How all your “excuses are weak?”
    It’s true for all of us.
    In our own strength…we’ll never make it very far. Not like we should, or could, if His strength was doing all the work.
    So when I think of this encouraging doctrine, I am motivated to praise Him, to exalt His name. To proclaim His goodness to all. There is nothing which He does not design. Nothing escapes His control!

  4. Anonymous says:

    White Badger is copping out.

    To ascribe the metaphors of strength, excuse, and will, all of which are embodied human characteristics to a supernatural being (that which can not be explained by any metaphor at all) is fundamentally contradictory.

    The weakness is not in those that choose to believe in what can be explained (and the pursuit of better explanations) but in those that choose NOT to.

    Make the hard choice and try to understand where our predispositions and metaphors come from, and then try to explain the world we live in. When you start with a religious doctrine, you close yourself to the possibility of so much more, and end up walking a bloody, futile and well-trodden path.


  5. mike (yes, the one and only) says:

    Damn..what is Badger trying to say? He’s supposed to be some kind of theology expert, yet he’s defending strict Calvinism in a modern context? Believe whatever you want, and I know Presbyterianism and other religions trace their roots back Calvin’s doctrines, but we need to separate these issues. I feel White Badger is trying to defend religion, or more specifically, Christianity. We’re talking about Calvinism, specifically, not God in general. Does he support every tenet of every religious doctrine so vigorously, or what, and this is always the question, what does he NOT believe in? None of it seems like a very elegant theory to me, if it even qualifies as a theory, since there’s no way to test it empirically.

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