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 http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds3.iv.xvi.html; accessed 4 February 2009.

[3] Westminster Confession of Faith (1643), chapter 3, article 3; Internet, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, available from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds3.iv.xvii.ii.html, 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

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