With Truth and Grace: A Christmas Appreciation of Calvinism


by Dylan Pahman, ’12 M.T.S.

Introduction: Joy to the (Calvinist) World

 Outside of Reformed circles, Calvinism is often a dirty word. In popular theology it can connote a borderline fatalism and a privileged, exclusivist mentality. (Terms like “the frozen chosen” come to mind.) Furthermore, when one examines the history of Calvinism, outside of sympathetic accounts, horror stories of the trial of Servetus in Geneva, witch hunts in New England, and even South African Apartheid are often highlighted. While all of these, to a greater or lesser extent, are a part of the history of Calvinism, focusing on the worst aspects of a tradition to the near exclusion of its merits draws an uncharitable caricature. Every tradition, after all, has skeletons in the closet (sometimes in the living room), and as this is Christmas and not Halloween, I thought I would offer a gift rarely given to my Calvinist friends: the gift of appreciation. In particular it is the social and political outworking of several central Calvinist doctrines that I would like to briefly appreciate and explore.

The Savior Reigns

 Calvinism, among all Christian traditions, has perhaps placed the most emphasis on the doctrine of divine sovereignty, and Calvin appears to have one of the strongest views of his contemporaries. For example, he writes,

Now, since the arrangement of all things is in the hand of God, since to him belongs the disposal of life and death, he arranges all things by his sovereign counsel, in such a way that individuals are born, who are doomed from the womb to certain death, and are to glorify him by their destruction. (Institutes, 3.23.6)

For Calvin the statement, whether one agrees with him on this point or not, comes from an admirable conviction: that the King of Kings is fittingly sovereign over all things. This conviction had many practical outworkings. Philip Schaff, for example, described Geneva as follows in his History of Christian Church (8.103):

Calvin’s Church polity is usually styled a theocracy, by friends in praise, by foes in censure. This is true, but in a qualified sense. He aimed at the sole rule of Christ and his Word both in Church and State, but without mixture and interference. The two powers were almost equally balanced in Geneva.

While this summary may simplify the historical reality, there is certainly something to it. Here we see in Calvin’s Geneva, if it may be called that, the seeds of a clearer distinction between the political and ecclesial spheres, contributing to what would eventually become the modern principle of the separation of Church and state. Indeed, Schaff goes on to note, significantly, that “the early Puritan colonies in New England were an imitation of the Geneva model.”

 The Puritans themselves lent an enduring legacy to the United States. Their settlements, too, could be characterized as theocratic in a similar sense to Calvin’s Geneva. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed (Democracy in America 1.2),

Puritanism was not only a religious doctrine, but also at several points it was mingled with the most absolute democratic and republican theories. From that had come its most dangerous adversaries. The Puritans, persecuted by the government of the mother country and, in the strictness of their principles, offended by the daily course of the society in which they lived, sought a land so barbarous and so abandoned by the world that they would still be allowed to live there as they wished and to pray to God in liberty.

He goes on to quote and then describe Nathaniel Morton’s history of New England, writing,

The conviction that animates the writer elevates his language. In your eyes, as in his, it no longer concerns a small band of adventurers going to seek their fortune across the seas; it is the seed of a great people that God comes to set down with his own hands in a predestined land.

The Puritans’ conviction concerning divine sovereignty and election led them to conflict with the state church in England and to view themselves as founding more of a New Israel than a New England in America. As Lester DeKoster writes,

The Calvinist City [was] installed by the Calvinists in Europe and then across the ocean, a believing citizenry thus discovering themselves to be the New Israel elected to create the long-anticipated “city set on a hill,” (Matt. 5:14)—biblical description of the ancient secular expectation, civic entities substantiating the Institutes, and realizing in so doing something of Calvin’s idea of Christian community. (Light for the City, xix)

DeKoster even goes so far as to claim, “The ‘Declaration [of Independence]’ surely affirms what Puritans caught as the gleam in John Calvin’s eye.” Indeed, when legislating, Tocqueville notes, they “provide[d] laws for themselves as if they were answerable only to God alone.” Though theocratic, their society acknowledged that the powers of the state and of the church were to be limited and ordered by the sovereignty of God. Their contribution, while certainly not the whole story (Anabaptism surely deserves due credit as well, among others), was nonetheless a vital contribution to the principles of the American Republic. And far from fatalism, the nation to whose founding they contributed would raise its flag in the name of freedom.

No More Let Sins and Sorrows Grow

 Yet another equally unpopular and often criticized doctrine has proved to be one of surprising practical value to Calvinists as well: the total depravity of humanity. The Canons of Dordt describes it this way:

All people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin; without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform. (3/4, art. 3)

Many people, including many Christians, would recoil from, on the surface, such a pessimistic appraisal of the human condition. Far fewer still would see the great potential such a doctrine could have for intelligent societal engagement. However, it is precisely the conviction that all civilization, whether Christian or otherwise, requires the grace of God not to descend into utter chaos and evil upon which the Reformed doctrine of common grace rests.

 Common grace, as is happily well-known even to many non-Calvinists, forms the foundation for much of the social thought of Dutch theologian, statesman, pastor, and polymath Abraham Kuyper. In his exposition of common grace in science and art, Kuyper writes with regard to science, “Apart from common grace, the decline of science would have become absolute without that illumination by the Holy Spirit. Left to itself, sin progresses from bad to worse. Sin makes you slide down a slope on which no one can remain standing” (Wisdom & Wonder, 52). Science—and all human affairs, for that matter—has been subjected to corruption as a result of human sin and cannot stand on its own apart from the grace of God. That it does, in fact, stand and even flourish by divine grace is further evidence of the sovereign rule of Jesus Christ over all creation. As Kuyper famously said, “… there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” (Sphere Sovereignty)

 Every sphere of human society would degenerate if deprived of the presence of common grace, and each finds its fulfillment in ordering itself according to its own independent laws while submitting itself in solidarity with all others to the rule of Jesus Christ. This is an attractive perspective—creative, graceful, vibrant, and life-affirming—that, nevertheless, rests upon a doctrine seen as far too harsh by many. A myopic picture of Calvinism could only see this as an anomaly, but those who have taken the time—indeed, had the privilege—to listen with a more charitable ear can see how one cannot, from a Reformed perspective, have the former without the latter. And this distinctly Christian philosophy of culture, too, is a perspective for which, I believe, not only the Netherlands but the whole world has greatly benefited. Common grace has been a Calvinist gift for the common good.

He Rules the World with Truth and Grace

 If I may, albeit somewhat loosely, speak beyond appreciation to commendation, I would urge those Christians who bemoan Calvinism to take the time to read Calvinist writers in their own words, and to listen to them with more sympathetic ears. Would we all agree with their particular understandings of election or depravity? No, probably not. However, don’t we all agree that Jesus Christ is Lord over all creation, and that creation, though adversely affected by our sin, is upheld by God’s grace and finds its fulfillment under the rule of the risen King of Kings? The answer, of course, is yes. These are basic, biblical truths. And the Calvinist focus upon these truths has been, in my estimate, a gracious gift to all who are willing to receive it.

And here I end with the words of Isaac Watts, himself a Calvinist of sorts, who so artfully presents these convictions, common to all Christians, in his popular Christmas hymn “Joy to the World”:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Merry (belated) Christmas!

Dylan Pahman is a research associate at the Acton Institute and assistant editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He graduated from CTS in 2012. He attends Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.