We Cannot Escape (or Ignore) the Ugly Truth of Calvin's Theology

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin proffers a reason why some trust in God and others refuse to trust in Him: the eternal decree and good pleasure of God. He immediately refers to Romans 9:17 -- "For the scripture says to Pharaoh, 'I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth'" -- and uses his interpretation of this verse, that God unconditionally saves some and damns the rest, as an interpretive key for viewing the rest of the scriptures.

He then uses the sons of Eli as an example, concluding that the reason why the two sons "were left to their stubbornness, when the Lord might have softened their hearts," was "because His immutable decree had once for all doomed them to destruction."1 He quotes Eli's question to his sons at 1 Samuel 2:25, and the author's conclusion, for his proof-text: "'If one person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the LORD; but if someone sins against the LORD, who can make intercession?' But they would not listen to the voice of their father; for it was the will of the LORD to kill them."

God had been tolerating the sins of the sons of Eli for quite some time. He was under no obligation to the softening of their hearts. Moreover, the sons seemed intent on continuing in their sins, with no interest at all in being reformed. (1 Sam. 2:12, 13) "Thus the sin of the young men [as priests unto the LORD] was very great in the sight of the LORD; for they treated the offerings of the LORD with contempt." (1 Sam. 2:17) As priests, they were taking the sacrifices of the LORD as meals for themselves, and fornicating "with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting." (1 Sam. 2:22) The sons maintained disregard for the LORD, and He set His holy and just will rightly against them for their own wickedness.

In this account, Calvin perpetuates an underlying, presuppositional stance: he assumes, by a faulty interpretation and presumption of the apostle Paul's words at Romans 9:17, that God monergistically and irresistibly opens the hearts of His unconditionally elect and hardens the hearts of those not unconditionally elected unto salvation. Hence, the sons of Eli, so admits Calvin, could have had their hearts monergistically softened; but, due to God's eternal decree, the sons of Eli were predestined to destruction. But the matter is actually worse than this in Calvinistic ideology.

Should one subscribe to the biblical notion of blaming the wickedness and stubbornness of depraved people as to why many refuse the grace of God, Calvin and Calvinists frame the matter in a much darker hue:
The refusal of the reprobate to obey the word of God when manifested to them will be properly ascribed to the malice and depravity of their hearts, provided it be at the same time added that they were adjudged to this depravity because they were raised up [cf. the language of Rom. 9:17] by the just but inscrutable judgment of God, to show forth His glory by their condemnation.2 (emphasis added)
In case the seriousness of this issue is veiled, carefully consider Calvin's words and ideas in this quote. Yes, he insists, as do all classical Arminians, that the depravity of fallen and sinful human beings contributes toward the reason why unbelievers refuse to obey God's commands, or fail to trust in Him for salvation. But, much more than that, and primarily so, at the same time we must insist that even the depravity of sinners is a means of God "raising up" such reprobates, according to His alleged inscrutable judgment, in order to "show forth His glory by their [eternal] condemnation."

This is supralapsarian language here, a philosophical theology condemned as heresy by the early Church fathers at the Council of Orange in 529 CE. What Calvin made implicit regarding supralapsarianism, his successor, Theodore Beza, rendered explicit. Still, traces of Calvin's supralapsarian philosophy is evident in other places of his Institutes, as well.

Elsewhere he argues: "All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death."3 (emphasis added) Again, note carefully Calvin's language. Any notion of a person being created for a particular purpose, and, of course, by decree, is supralapsarian philosophy.

This statement of Calvin's should not be shocking to any Calvinist, given his insistence that people do not perform any action except "at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on anything but what He has previously decreed with Himself, and brings to pass by His secret direction."4 (emphasis added) Consistent Calvinists agree with Calvin. In other words, Calvinists do not attempt to soften Calvin's theology on this point; albeit, infralapsarian Calvinists insist that God decreed to unconditionally elect some unto salvation after the fall and not prior, as do supralapsarians.

For the latter, God first decreed to unconditionally elect unto salvation some people, the unconditional reprobation of the rest, and then decreed to create human beings in order to fulfill that decree. Again, this philosophical notion was condemned by the early Church fathers at the Council of Orange in 529 CE. Therefore modern supralapsarian Calvinists, deriving their philosophical theology from Calvin and Beza, have adopted a teaching that has been deemed unbiblical and heretical by the Church.

Calvin also approves of the notion that fallen mortals, and even Satan himself, are merely pawns in the hands of God: "we infer that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and wicked robbers were merely the instruments."5 This view of God Calvinists call "good," "just," and "righteous;" a God who directs people by decree not only to sin, but actually brings it about allegedly for His glory, and creates people for eternal destruction. This view of God Calvinists deem as biblical and glorious -- a strange glory, indeed.

Reading Calvin with one hand over one's mouth, stunned at the audacity that a professing lover of God could make some of the most heinous statements about a holy God as known through Jesus Christ, is quite natural. Five centuries before Wayne Grudem insisted that God influences our desires and decisions,6 Calvin argued, "whatever we conceive in our minds is directed to its end by the secret inspiration of God."7 Not by mere permission, but by the direct and explicit will and decree of God, He "blinds the minds of men, and smites them with giddiness, intoxicates them with a spirit of stupor, renders them infatuated, and hardens their hearts."8 Mind you, if you disagree with Calvin, you actually disagree with the Holy Spirit.9 That, friends, is called spiritual manipulation and is tantamount to a method of brainwashing.

Calvin attempts to rescue his God from actually being the Author of sin and evil by sharply distinguishing between God's supposed will and His precept.10 He concludes: "Thus we must hold that while by means of the wicked God performs what He had secretly decreed, they are not excusable as if they were obeying His precept, which of set purpose they violate according to their lust."11 The precept of God demands that sinners not sin or disobey His commandments; while the will or decree of God renders certain that sinners will sin or disobey His commandments.

This philosophical war of semantics is irrelevant and, actually, quite the red herring. We cannot escape (or ignore) the ugly truth of Calvin's theology: the reason why any of us think, say, or do anything is because Calvin's God has decreed we think, say, or do anything. He and those who follow his teachings may not appreciate the implications of such a theology, but that is their problem, not ours. We do not advocate as being biblical any notion of God decreeing what we think, say, or do.

Moreover, not only do we think that this conception is a philosophical and theological error, but we also think that such a conception violates the holy, just, and righteous character of God. To form a biblical theology with integrity, we must reject Calvin's theology, as it contradicts the nature and character of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is "the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being." (Heb. 1:3) The image of God, as seen through the lens of the Person of Jesus Christ Himself, is marred and distorted in Calvinism, such that the erroneous philosophical system must be challenged for the glory of God, and for the benefit of the creatures created in His image.


1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), III.24.14.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., III.21.5. Thomas Aquinas, regarding the heresy of decretal determinism, states: "But this is a heretical opinion, for it takes away the very notion of merit and demerit from human acts. For what someone does necessarily and cannot avoid doing, seems to be neither meritorious nor the opposite. Therefore this should be numbered among the opinions alien to philosophy, since not only is it contrary to faith but it subverts all the principles of moral philosophy as well. If there is nothing free in us, but we are moved to will necessarily, deliberation, exhortation, precept and punishment, praise and blame, in which moral philosophy consists, are swept away." See Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Ralph McInerny (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 556-57 (4.22).

4 Ibid., I.18.1.

5 Ibid.

6 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319-30; Wayne A. Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143.

7 Calvin, Institutes, I.18.2.

8 Ibid. One would imagine that, if total depravity be true, then God would not have to expend so much energy in all that "blinding" activity. In other words, depraved sinners are already inherently blind spiritually; they are already smitten with giddiness and intoxicated with a spirit of stupor, rendered infatuated with sin, and have hard hearts. They are self-condemned (John 3:18, 19). To suggest that God must proactively work in such a fashion is nonsensical and entirely gratuitous if total depravity is true.

9 Ibid., I:18.3.

10 Ibid., I.18.4.

11 Ibid., I.18.4.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.