More from the archives. February, possibly 1977. This essay was graded A-.
The question of why Calvinism had such a tremendous appeal to the 16th century mind as to become the dominant form of Protestantism in Europe within little more than 50 years deserves examination from several angles. Its doctrinal positions were clear and logically coherent; its appeal cosmopolitan; and its implications for society far reaching, as we shall try to show.
Calvin and his followers emphasized above all the notion of the absolute sovereignty of Almighty God; man, being utterly corrupted and depraved, could no more achieve his own salvation then fly to the moon. However, for reasons known only to himself, God chose to extend his salvation to some (the “elect”) while leaving those not so chosen doomed to their justly deserved eternal torment. All those Christ died for must necessarily be saved (the doctrine of “irresistible grace“), but he did not die for all, but for the few. Luther’s emphasis therefore on a man’s personal search for salvation, and its achievement by faith, which was central to his theology, does not make much sense in a Calvinist context, as the result of any such search is a matter pre-determined by God.
The emphasis therefore shifts to the idea that the goal of a man’s personal life is not to attain salvation, but to glorify God. This can be done by the saved both outwardly and inwardly, but can also be done outwardly even by one who is not among the elect.
There arises then a strong emphasis on good works, not to achieve salvation, but as the duty of all men, and also perhaps (who can tell?) as an evidence that one was indeed among the saved. As a matter of fact, since good citizenship and industriousness were regarded as evidence of election, and since these things tended also to foster economic (and sometimes political) success, such success came to be regarded as an indication of God’s favor. It is not surprising to find that the Huguenots of France for instance, were more likely to be merchants, bankers, and the like than the average Catholic Frenchman.
The political ideal of Calvinism was the theocratic society, as seen in different manifestations in Geneva, in Scotland, and perhaps in colonial puritanism in America. That the Christian state should exercise control over public and private morals was accepted as necessary for the maintenance of good order. (Don’t we see he removed of this in the laws, still on the books in some states, governing sexual activity between even husband and wife?) The promotion of orderly society by the strong power of the magistrate is seen as contributing to the glory of God here on earth.
There remains a question, partly unanswered, in my mind concerning to what extent Calvinist ideas have shaped the world we have today – if the “work ethic“, in particular, would have found a strong basis without it. If not, there have surely been few forces as potent in shaping our society at least up to the close (maybe even) of the 19th century.
Some 41 years later, methinks I would revise and extend the final paragraph.