Calvinism, Modern American Evangelicalism, and Lutheranism: The Role of Reason in Calvinism, by Bethany Tanis

(Editor’s Note: Bethany Tanis has authored many great comments on the BJS website, particularly concerning Calvinism and so we asked her to do a little writing for us on the relationship between Calvinism and Evangelicalism. It is a good thing for the Brothers and all our readers to understand the teachings of various denominations, particularly Calvinism since it is the mother of Evangelicalism. This knowledge will help us uphold the Lutheran Confessions and distinguish them from false confessions. This is part one of a five part series.)

Several months ago, Pastor Rossow asked me if I would be interested in writing a short series of essays on the relationship between Calvinism and contemporary Evangelicalism, my credentials being that I attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Procrastination intervened, but now that I am sitting in an airport waiting to fly to Grand Rapids, Michigan, it occurred to me that I ought to start writing! Disclaimer: Although I attended Calvin College, I have always been a member of a Lutheran church and therefore am not speaking with any “insider” status. As I mull over the ways John (or Jean) Calvin’s (1509-64) teaching has influenced American Evangelicalism, the first thing that comes to mind is the role of reason in Calvinist theology.

Before getting to that, it would be good to discover if there is any common standard of comparing the beliefs of different church bodies? There are many ways, but one way that has gained wide acceptance within the LCMS is through determining a denomination’s formal and material principles. According to Lutheran scholar F.E. Mayer a denomination’s “formal principle” is the authoritative source from whence its theology is derived. Its material principle is its central or most important teaching.[1] Thus, the formal principle of the Lutheran church is the Holy Scripture (sola Scriptura), while its material principle is justification by grace through faith for Christ’s sake. What are the formal and material principles of Calvinism?

For Calvin and his followers, in theory, the formal principle of theology is the Bible alone. In practice, Calvinists add human reason as an authoritative source alongside Scripture. Why reason? Calvin, (like Philip Melanchthon) was a humanist scholar and highly valued human reason. Although Calvinists, like Luther, believe man is totally corrupted by the Fall and original sin, they nevertheless often attempt to force Scripture into the Procrustean bed of human reason. As we will see, for example, the Calvinist doctrine of the Lord’s Supper denies the Real Presence because of its alleged irrationality. Whereas Lutherans strictly allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, Calvinist theologians are more willing to allow reason to guide interpretation. The desire of Calvinists to make theology palatable to human reason led, for example, to their doctrine of Double Predestination. Lutherans confess that the Bible teaches that God wants all to be saved, people are saved solely through God’s action, and humans have the power to reject God’s offered salvation. These propositions seem incompatible. How can our acceptance of the gift of grace be solely God’s doing, but rejection be solely our own doing? Yet, because this is what the Bible tells us, Lutherans let God’s Word stand and do not attempt to create an artificial harmony among these truths. Calvinists, on the other hand, attempt to make sense of these teachings by arguing that both human rejection of grace and human acceptance are solely God’s doing.[2] In other words, “by the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.”[3]

Calvinist Jakob Arminius (1560-1609) realized that the Bible did not teach Double Predestination or that God directly caused some to reject His grace. Unfortunately, Arminius still wanted to make the Bible’s teachings fit within the confines of reason. Therefore, he argued that both humans’ rejection of salvation and their acceptance of it were grounded in free will. Ariminius reacted to Calvin’s error so strongly that he made the opposite error! Very few Evangelicals today are strict Calvinists who adhere to Double Predestination. The vast majority are Arminians who believe we have the free will to make a “decision” for Jesus. Nevertheless, Arminianism arose as a reaction against the un-Biblical Calvinist doctrine of Double Predestination. In this sense, the decision theology of Evangelicalism arose as an unintended consequence of Calvin’s struggle with predestination.

So it is that reason plays a strong role in Calvinism and its stepchild, Arminianism. Next time we will consider the material principle of Calvinism – God’s sovereignty.

[1] F. E. Mayer, The Religious Bodies of America, 4th ed. (Concordia College, 2003).

[2] See the Canons of the Synod of Dordt (1619), articles 7, 9-10, 15; Internet, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, available from; accessed 4 February 2009.

[3] Westminster Confession of Faith (1643), chapter 3, article 3; Internet, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, available from, accessed 4 February 2009; see also Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 3, articles 1-7; and Belgic Confession of Faith (1561), article 16.

Part 1 of the series
Part 2 of the series

Posted in Calvinism permalink

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Calvinism, Modern American Evangelicalism, and Lutheranism: The Role of Reason in Calvinism, by Bethany Tanis — 26 Comments

  1. This article appears to paint Arminianism as semi-pelagianism. Am I mistaken? I thought Arminianism taught that we can’t choose God, but it was Pelagianism that taught free will to choose(for and against).

  2. Jen,

    No, Arminius taught that the will is free in spiritual matters and that individuals must use that freedom to make a choice for God. It is definetly a semi-pelagian sort of approach to salvation and it profoundly affected people like Billy Graham who falsely teach beleiver baptism (i. e. one must choose to be a believer before one is baptized) and the decision theology behind it.

    Pastor Rossow

  3. Dr. Phillip Carey’s paper, “Why Luther is not Quite Protestant: The Logic of Faith in a Sacramental Promise,” published in Pro Ecclesia (Fall 2005), is probably one of the most comprehensive and well written statements that further emphasizes this difference in support of Ms. Tanis’ thesis.

    As a former Calvinist now Lutheran, it is highly worth your time as it also helps build a solid Lutheran base. You can download in full from Scribd:

  4. Regarding the question: Aren’t Catholics “essentially arminians as well when it comes to predestination?” The most accurate answer would probably be to ask which Roman Catholics and when? I think it’s an interesting question and I’ll try to give my two cents later. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of others though.

  5. I think you hit the nail on the head in regards to modern day evangelicals being influenced by Arminian Theology (think Charles Finney, The Holiness Movement, Pentacostals, etc.) but it seems somewhat unfair to tie Calvinist to Jakob Arminius. As you pointed out, Jakob Arminius’ teachings are in direct opposition to Calvinist. Jakob Arminius was declared a heretic by the Calvanist of his day. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems akin to saying Luther’s theology is Roman Catholic?

  6. Wikipedia (the non-Lutheran one) explains it differently. That’s what I get for trusting the internet.

  7. Randy,

    Good point. Perhaps I should further clarify. Looking at things from an historical perspective (I’m an historian, not a theologian by trade), Reformed theology led to Arminian theology in the sense that Arminian theology wouldn’t exist in its presence form were it not for the prior existence of Calvinism. So I wouldn’t want to say that Arminianism is Calvinism, merely that Calvin’s ideas created the thought world that caused Arminius to develop his ideas in explicit reaction to Calvinism. In this sense, yes, I think it is fair to say that the abuses existing in Catholicism prior to the Reformation created the conditions that led Luther to develop his theology. Likewise, Lutheran theology led Roman Catholic theologians to develop what we today think of as “Roman Catholicism” at the Council of Trent. Intellectual history (my field) is full of ideas in one direction catalyzing new ideas that would go in a totally different direction. On an interesting side note though, Arminius was in fact trained by Calvinist theologians and always considered himself to be an heir of Calvin and therefore a Calvinist! In fact, I can think of contemporary Reformed thinkers who are Arminian in their theology and yet still want to consider themselves Calvinists in a broad sense. The analytical philosopher Alvin Plantinga springs to mind here (another Calvin College graduate and former professor!).

  8. Brian Thomas,

    Given that you have come out of the Calvinist or Reformed tradition, do be sure to let me know if you think I misrepresent any aspect of Calvinist theology. I have a great many friends of this theological persuasion and would not want to intentionally misrepresent their views! Also, as a result of my time at Calvin College I have a very deep appreciation for the Christian Reformed Church in particular.

  9. Hey folks,

    I’m a Calvinistic Anglican who frequents this blog, as well as many other Lutheran blogs. I have gleaned so much from the writings of Dr. Luther…he is truly a hero of mine. Other Lutheran theologians, such as Koehler and Kolb, have greatly enhanced my knowledge of the things of the Lord as well.

    I just wanted to comment on the seemingly hostile approach many Lutherans take when it comes to dealing with Calvinism. I applaud your effort to retain your denominational distinctives in a day when many Christians are claiming we need to ignore all of our differences. But with that being said, Lutherans and Calvinists are truly fighting on the same team under one banner and for one captain – our risen Savior and King, the Lord Jesus Christ. When I read this blog sometimes, I feel as if I am being maligned as some sort of quasi-Christian because I am a Calvinist. I know that is not your intention at all, but that is definitely how it comes across. I just figured I’d let you folks know.

    Thank you, and may Christ richly bless you all.

  10. Heartbroken and Others,

    The definition of Arminianism in Wikipedia is misleading. Like you, I will often use Wikipedia for a quick reference but the entry on Arminianism stresses too much how Arminius grew out of Calvinism and does not even mention that in the matter conversion that Arminius falsely taught that man is free to choose Christ.

    Pastor Rossow

  11. Greg,

    There are many Calvinists like you that we traditional, liturgical Lutherans have much in common with (e.g. the whole White Horse Tavern thing). In many ways we are closer to you in thought word and deed than to a group like the ELCA. For that we are grateful.

    Both traditional Calvinists and traditional Lutherans, in a post-modern church environment find encouragement from each other in the things we agree on and it is good that we build one another up against the church culture that rejects propositional truth.

    The whole means of grace thing however, is a great divider and not only that, as Bethany is pointing out, in the hands of the post-modern Calvinist, it leads to American Evangelicalism.

    I know I am not saying anything new to you. Thank you for your participation in this web community and for taking the time to comment. We are strengthened by your support of us in the areas of agreement but as you know, we are also conscience bound to proclaim the scriptural truth about the use of reason, the sacraments, etc.

    Pastor Rossow

  12. Calvinism, put bluntly (apologies to our friend Greg), seems to lead to American evangelicalism in this way: It wants the gospel (salvation) in both ways–the action of Christ and the action of me.
    Even if the action I take is a thought process or an adjustment of my intellect or of my heart, and not a specific deed, without my input, the input of Christ leaves only pending results.
    In the end, I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Christ, and not simply on His shoulders.
    It appears to me that, as a Calvinist, I’d be duty-bound to absorb Him, as opposed to being absorbed by Him.
    Where is my assurance that, through the cross and resurrection, it is finished indeed?

  13. “Arminianism grew out of Calvinism, but was essentially the repudiation of Calvinism”

    “Pietism grew out of Lutheranism, but was essentially the repudiation of Luteranism”

    Is this a fair parallel from a historical and theological perspective?

  14. Greg,
    It’s lovely to have a Calvinistic Anglican on this site! A relatively rare breed these days, am I correct? Strangely enough, one of my specialty areas in British intellectual history is modern (late Victorian and Edwardian) Anglicanism. I fully agree that Lutherans and Calvinists have much in common! In fact, the last post in the series will end discussing just that. I apologize if I have seemed hostile toward Calvinism (or American Evangelicalism), as this is, of course, not my intent. Do let us know if you think I misrepresent anything. Nevertheless, I do think it is important not to gloss over the significant differences that do exist between our church bodies. I think the best ecumenicalism comes from an honest appraisal of our differences and the many important areas where we can find common ground in the Gospel.

  15. Matt,

    I’m not sure it’s a “parallel” of any kind, but I think it is historically fair. I do think it’s important to bear in mind that Neither Arminianism or Pietism saw themselves as repudiations of their source traditions. The first Arminians and the majority of Pietists saw themselves as the proper developments of Calvinism and Lutheranism. It’s not too unusual for an ideology to grow out of another ideology but differ from it in very crucial aspects. For example, the “new liberalism” of late-Victorian Britain grew out of Gladstonian Victorian liberalism. Nevertheless, whereas liberalism stressed individualism, the new liberalism came to stress collectivity. So they appear to be opposites, but really the new liberalism just picked up on an aspect of the old liberalism and developed it in a new direction.
    Or at least that’s my two cents on the matter.

  16. One of the best explications of the Calvinist / Arminian development is an old LCMS booklet, now long out of print, called ‘Our Church and Others,’ by Lewis Spitz, PhD, who was then Professor of Systematic Theology at the St.Louis Seminary. It was first published by CPH in 1960. Obviously, its statements concerning denominational developments as of 1960 and following are out of date , but its discussion of early church history, the various branches of the Reformation, and their development up to about 1900 are very clear, and were most helpful to this convert from Anglicanism back 35 years ago. In my humble opinion, it should be updated and reprinted.
    — John M.

  17. Calvinists and the Temptation of Christ in view of the Calvinist Formal Principle: Human Reason

    The Calvinists with whom I have spoken (a relatively small sample) have a very difficult time believing that Satan was really tempting Christ if it was not possible for Christ to sin (which we maintain). In their minds, it can’t really be temptation if it has no potential to lead someone into sin.

    I wondered if this might be due in part to the fact that Calvinists imagine that sin can be overcome by will power. They might prefer to think that Jesus overcame the temptation of the devil because He had the will power to do so (but if it was impossible for Jesus to sin, then will power is not an issue).

    Sin, however, isn’t managed by the strength of one’s will. It is only dealt with when its wages have been paid by the death of Christ — subsequently bestowed through the Christ-instituted Means of Grace. Jesus didn’t die on the cross in order that we might have stronger wills. He died to atone for our guilt. Through forgiveness we have life and salvation. And that “life” is something more than just being alive; it’s that which comes with a new heart and a new mind.

    Another aspect of the question seems to be in distinguishing between the active and the passive: tempting and being tempted. While I am cautious about doing theology by analogy, I dared to make a comparison between tempting and tickling. A person may try to tickle another who isn’t ticklish. He really is tickling even though the person being tickled isn’t capable of feeling ticklish. The person being tickled can feel the fact that he is being tickled, but it does not make him squirm and wriggle.

    Jesus knows what it’s like to be tempted in every way as we are, but is without sin. Is that irrational? 🙂

    In any case, I look forward to seeing more of what Bethany has to write. It’s well done.

    P.S. — I think there is a book entitled “Popular Symbolics” which uses the formal and material principles to compare and contrast the various confessions (a term perhaps to be preferred over “denominations”).

  18. P.S. – I once had an editor from CPH lead a devotion from a book by Max Lucado in which she thought Lucado’s point was so wonderful: Jesus didn’t win the battle over sin on Golgotha; He won it in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus didn’t vanquish sin on the cross by His suffering and death . . . He vanquished it as He wrestled, sweat mingled with blood, as He prayed and resolved to go to the cross.

    I’m not certain which of Max’s books that is found — or if Max could be considered a Calvinist — but that is the sort of thing which can mislead people from truly preaching Christ crucified, diverting our attention to questions of will power with nods to the likes of Nietzsche, Feuerbach, and Schopenhauer.

  19. An excellent benchmark that I like to use when it comes to any debate concerning Calvinism is this one by Dr. Richard Muller that Pr. Kim Riddlebarger was kind enough to post on his blog site:

    As Dr. Muller points out (no pun intended), although there are many among American Evangelicals who like to think of themselves as “Calvinists” they are no more “confessional” Reformed than the ELCA is “confessional” Lutheran. Simply hammering off the five points in TULIP does not do the trick.

    What does do the trick for earnest, confessional Presbyterian/Reformed is the same thing that does it for confessional Lutherans – adherence to their unity in faith as described in their catechisms, confessions, and church canons. Reformed have theirs (e.g., Canons of Dort, Belgic Confession, Heidleberg Catechism, etc.) and we Lutherans have ours.

    American Evangelicals have none of the above. A few “Reformed” Baptists claim to adhere to the 1689 London Baptistic Confession, but they don’t really belong with the rest of the crowd and are rather an anomaly because of their insistence on credobaptism. The rest are those are the ones that Muller describes so well in the first couple of paragraphs in his essay – pick-and-choose protestants who are by and large pietists that bear little resemblance to any historical confessional chruch.

  20. Luther could be identified as the catalyst for lots of errant Lutheranism today, not necessarily leading straight to American Evangelicalism, except that, well, once you depart from ‘the real Luther’, where else do you go, and still remain within Christianity, but to something as bright and shiny as American Evangelicalism?
    Who hasn’t heard Lutherans use the phrase ‘Christian freedom’ as if quoting Luther himself–in context, even!– to justify all sorts of behaviors, practices and beliefs, and claiming not to reject historic Lutheranism at all, but indeed to be edifying, glorifying, vivifying an obsolete brand?
    Their aim (or rather, the aim for which they find themselve being used; ultimately, it’s not their own aim or that of their own hearts; they’re only tools) is not to re-direct or reconstruct the church at all, but to destroy it, and to destroy it in not the most efficient way, but in the most complete way: from within.
    So, American Evangelicalism isn’t the enemy; it’s like terrorism: it’s just the means.
    Stop fighting the means; fight the enemy.
    It’s crucial (not a word chosen lightly) that we retain our Geod-given means of guarding *and disseminating* the truth: through liturgical, confessional practice, regardless of numbers drawn into it or not. In that practice are the words that matter; that save. Without them, we merely speak other words and practice other things; things other than what belief says we must say, do, and believe.
    It’s like visiting the glitzy, busy streets of DisneyWorld, and wanting to live there: lots to see and do and experience, like nowhere else on earth. But no one really lives there. And going there doesn’t change your life; just your day.
    If your pastor isn’t telling you what your liturgy tells you, then thank God you at least have the liturgy to tell you.
    But, if you haven’t got the liturgy and you haven’t got the pastor, then you have something besides that which God wants you to have. You have something all right, but it’s not a church, and it isn’t Christ.
    But, oh boy, do you ever have your freedom (minus the ‘Christian’ qualifier).
    Just as Calvinists confuse the workings of reason and faith, Lutherans confuse the freedom of being Christ’s with the freedom to do whatever-the-heck we want. We make license out of our baptisms, and we end up in the same sunken ship: American Evangelicalism.
    We end up being not only what we’d rather be, but being entirely *not* what we’ve been called to be. We only seek to glorify ourselves–yet still as ‘Lutherans’!–rather than to merely be saved.
    If you don’t practice according to American Evangelical practice–if you don’t adopt the Enemy’s methods–then you won’t adopt his creed, which is simply your destruction.
    If you worship freedom, you’re its slave.
    Satan’s best soldiers are in church. Every Sunday. Shouting ‘Freedom’ instead of ‘Thanks be to God thru Christ, I’m free.’

  21. Frankly, I just don’t see the point in arguing one ism against another; particularly in arguing against the use of reason, when we have our mis-use of freedom sending us to the same place: American Evangelicalism.
    But even that–the ‘where’ we go–doesn’t matter. If we went to outright hedonism, we couldn’t go any more astray. Wherever we go, we take not only souls with us, but The Church.
    After its flirtation with Amer.Ev flames out, it’ll become something else (and probably something more outright hedonistic than sexy praise band singers and sermon series on sex already are). It can only get worse, until it gets damned.
    It’s not ism’s we fight but the devil. He patiently lets the isms creep over us, whether thru reason or liturgical ignorance, but he hates when we stand together and confess and repent. He’s not scared off by 20,000 hands in the air and 10,000 voices singing how awesome our god is. Probably not even offended by it.
    But the Kyrie or the Sanctus–or the Credo!–meekly sung by 70 gathered cowards, or a household of 4, turns him off completely.
    I’m glad Bethany can contribute what she knows about Calvinism and reason. We need to know that. It’s the basis of a big difference between ‘us and them’.
    Now how about us Lutherans remembering what we know about the abuses of the cry of Free-ee-dom-m-m-m! in our own midst. The devil is fashioning tools out of weak-kneed but big-mouthed Christians.
    Don’t let him get lost in the details.
    Liturgy. Lutheran liturgy. Not historic merely because it’s grounded in history, but because in history is where the real battle began, and where it continues.
    I’m sorry. I know this is not the topic at hand. But I see quibbling started, and quibbling ahead, and maybe a little triumpalism about our tradition not lending itself to the fall into evangelicalism. But we have our own route–a purely Lutheran route–to that bad destination: church growth and departure from the liturgy, and all under the banner of Luther’s ‘Christian freedom.’

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