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Monday, 8 December 2008

Is Calvinism a Religion?

In the previous post we explored the allegation that Calvinism is a cult, and found wanting sufficient evidence that it does now, or ever has, fit into that definition. I don't consider the question yet closed, however, just because historian Ruth A. Tucker has weighed in on the negative side of the question. Although Church History is her specialty, and there's no reason to doubt her sincerity, there are a couple factors bringing down the weight of her testimony, as so far presented:

1) She apparently lacks an adequate proficiency in Latin, so some of the earliest history of Calvinism is probably a closed book to her;
2) She's a Calvinist of some standing (however tenuous) in the Christian Reformed Church, so it's in her best interests not to dig up anything that may turn out to be embarrassing.

So, we leave it to the side in affirmation of the question to make the next move, and proceed to the next question, in which long-forgotten history does not play a crucial role: Is Calvinism a Religion?

A Religion can be defined as a broad system of belief that makes exclusive claims. Religions by nature are quite diverse within themselves, containing a wide variety of denominations. For example, within the Muslim religion we find the main trunks of Sunnism and Shi`aism, and within these the branches respectively called Salafists, Wahabists, Barelwists, and Deobandists; the Imamis, Isma'ilis, Alawites, and Zaidists; along with the Kharijite and Sufic side trunks with their various minor branches. Some of these various denominations would just as soon kill each other as greet each other, but stick any mix of them together in a mosque at prayer time and they will all bow toward Mecca and intone on cue that Mohammad is the prophet of God. They all belong to the same religion, and all recognize each other as fellow Muslims. Should any branch wander so far from the center as to refuse to do so, it is in danger of losing its identity as a Muslim sect and being branded an infidel religion, as happened to the Druze and Baha'i religions, which started out as syncretistic sects of Shi`a Islam.

Initially, Calvinism started out as a sect of the Protestant movement away from Catholicism. As such it had much in common with Lutheranism, which held sway in the Teutonic nations, and Anglicanism, which ruled England. Ironically, it was the only one of the three main branches of Protestantism that didn't result in a denomination named after its founding theology. The Calvinist churches took names such as Reformed and Presbyterian, with much Calvinist influence also being found in Free and Baptist churches. But this influence all worked one way; members of Reformed or Presbyterian churches who found themselves at odds with Calvinism were put out of the church, either by expulsion (as in Castellio) or execution (as in Servetus). Calvin himself supported this practice, even going so far as to say that anyone who did not join with him in denouncing a non-Calvinist as a heretic was a heretic himself.

Calvin's disciples today would not hold to so strict a view as to condemn their opponents to the flames, but their basic belief system, being the same as Calvin's, requires them to admit that anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic and not a true believer in actual Christianity. This can be traced from the very earliest days, when the Geneva Council declared Calvin's Institutes to be "holy doctrine which no man might speak against," down to the present day, when his disciples label their own sectarian doctrines as, not "The Five Points of Calvinism," but "The Five Doctrines of Grace." And everywhere in between, we see the same. In "A History of the New School, and the Questions Involved in the Disruption of the Presbyterian Church in 1838," Calvinist historian Samuel J. Baird contends that “the doctrines, all of them, of the connected system set forth in the [Westminster] Confession, are the very and infallible truth of God, and gospel of salvation.” In other words, the Westminster Confession, that unchangeable and infallible Manifesto of Calvinism, is equated with the truth of the Gospel, which no one can question without being condemned as a heretic. The Bible itself must bow to this supreme authority, or not speak at all.

Such is the conclusion to which any disciple of John Calvin is eventually driven. In their minds, Calvinism is identical with Christian Orthodoxy, and many go so far as to say that no one who rejects their doctrines can be truly saved. By their exclusive claim to truth, and condemnation of all competing views of Scripture and those who hold to them, the disciples of Calvin themselves have defined Calvinism as not just a, but the, only true Religion.

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