Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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As a theological system and framework for church doctrine, Calvinism is above all a spiritual tradition. Tracing its roots to the writings and teachings of John Calvin (1509-1564), Calvinist tradition conceives itself as faithful to the Christian scriptures, always seeking to illuminate the manner in which the Divine God initiates and maintains a communal relationship with human creation.

Calvinism is essentially a theology of redemption. The fall of humanity has necessitated God's intervention; this is accomplished by the ongoing revelation of God's will through the mediating presence of the Holy Spirit. The bond between God and humanity, which was first made manifest in the birth, death, and resurrection of the Christ, continues to be revealed as the Holy Spirit works through the institutional church. Thus God is the initiator of creation; God has provided the means for ultimate redemption; the Holy Spirit reveals God's will through inspired church teaching.

Calvinism is often noted as the tradition that teaches the doctrine of (double) predestination. That is, God has preordained those who will inherit eternal life and, derivatively, those who will be eternally damned; hence human actions are of no soteriological consequence. However, Calvin himself articulated this principle not as a doctrine or even inspired scriptural interpretation; rather, understanding salvation to be God's work and God's work alone is a human response to a faithful understanding of God's providence and power.

Max Weber (1864-1920) appropriated the concept of predestination to explain the rise of capitalism as an economic system. Because no one knows exactly who will be saved, one can look only to temporal conditions as evidence of God's favor. Thus the most faithful response to the life one is given is to care prudently for one's resources and work diligently to show further evidence of humility and sobriety. If one accumulates wealth and property in the process of careful management of earthly resources, one can live more hopefully—and thus more faithfully. Randall Collins (1996) writes:

If one does this, turning one's life into a calling, restricting any impulse to frivolous pleasure, one comes to experience a feeling of assurance that one is a member of the Elect. The puritan, ascetic lifestyle thus emerges as a response to the doctrine of predestination. Its effects, in turn, are to bring worldly economic activity under religious control and to harness religious motivation to a new spirit of capitalism.

Weber argues, finally, that the Protestant ethic arises from a spiritual interpretation of the relationship between God and humanity. It then produces a cultural "spirit" that values, promotes, and ultimately reproduces rational capitalism.

In very general terms, the American Puritans were Calvinists, if only because they carried a Calvinist understanding of the relationship between God and humankind, and they adopted a worldview similar to Calvin's. However, by the early seventeenth century, Calvinist thought had undergone refinement and specification by Dutch and Scottish theologians. By the time Calvinist principles were appropriated into the Congregational Church, the human will and human behavior were injected into the process by which God decided who would be saved. The Puritan doctrine of salvation was God centered, but human good works made it happen.

The Calvinist tradition continues in the modern Presbyterian Church, the hallmarks of which are congregational "connectedness" and a rational, representative form of church government. In addition to the epic Institutes , setting forth Calvin's spirituality and doctrinal theology, his Ecclesiastical Ordinances set forth the organization of the church and are the roots from which the Presbyterian Book of Order has emerged.

See also Presbyterianism, Protestant Ethic Thesis, Max Weber

Jerry Koch


R. Collins, A New Introduction: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Los Angeles: Roxbury, 1996)

T. George (ed.), John Calvin and the Church (Louisville: Westminster/Knox, 1990)

P. Miller, Errand into Wilderness (New York: Harper, 1956).

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