Short History of Calvinism

The History of the Debate

This session installment will not be exegetical. The purpose is simply to provide a historical backdrop for understanding how the debate about the biblical exegesis has been conducted, and when. We will limit our discussion to the history of the Christian church, although it is important to recognize that this is one of those inescapable questions. Pharisees and Saducees debated it, Muslims have debated it, and so on.

The Early Fathers

As with many issues, the first three centuries of the Christian church do not give us great insight on this question. In the absence of any doctrinal controversy about it, the position of the early church is hard to pin down. There are many references to election, and to free will.

The Pelagian Controversy

The church was forced to define terms when she had to respond to a clear heresy on the subject. This was supplied by a British monk named Pelagius. Pelagius reacted to a form of fatalism in the church which sought to justify sin. He did so by teaching there is no original sin — each man sins each time entirely by choice.

He was challenged in this by Augustine, who provided the church with the first great systematic presentation of the biblical doctrine of grace.

Augustine won, and Pelagianism was condemned as heresy. But after Augustine died, the church drifted into something which is now called semi-Pelagianism. Augustinianism said that unregenerate man was dead. Pelagianism said he was alive and well. Semi-pelagianism says that man is sick and needs help, but that salvation is a cooperative effort between God and man.


In the 9th century, Gottschalk was imprisoned for maintaining these doctrines of grace.

Wyclif and Hus

Those who came before the Reformation can be included among those who affirm the total sovereignty of God. This would also include the Waldensians.

The Reformation

All the Reformers were united on this point. For example, Luther said this to Erasmus, “Moreover, I give you hearty praise and commendation on this further account — that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like — trifles, rather than issues . . . you, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.”

The Council of Trent

The Roman Catholic church responded with a series of anathemas to the Reformation. In their condemnation of the Reformers’ doctrine, it can be clearly seen that the Catholic church adopts the semi-Pelagian position, while condemning the Augustinianism of the Reformers.

The Remonstrance

A Reformed pastor in the Netherlands named Jacob Arminius came to reject the teaching of the Reformation on these points. At the same time, he did not return to the Catholic church. After his death, his followers presented a “remonstance” to the Dutch parliament. The result was the Synod of Dordt, which met for many months to respond to the “Arminian” position. They did so by condemning it, and by laying out five articles — “the five points of Calvinism.”

Theology That Bites Back



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