John Calvin on Calvinists

I remember the first time I fully explained the Doctrines of Grace to my parents I told them that I was a “Calvinist.” The response I got will always stick with me. One of my parents (I can’t remember which) then said, “Wait, so you’re not a Christian?” Their tone was one of deep concern and confusion, directed not at the doctrines I explained but at the title I gave myself. I was likewise thrown off by their response because what I had just explained, as I see it, is part of the very heart of the Christian gospel. At the time, and in my mind, what I had just explained to them was a glimpse of my heartfelt passion for my Christianity and nothing else. It’s all of this confusion (my parents and my own) that John Calvin himself likely wouldn’t have wanted surrounding his name. In his book, Institutes of the Christian Religion, he writes,

And that there might be no doubt as to their (the monks of his day) separation, they have given themselves various names of factions. They have not been ashamed to glory in that which Paul so execrates, that he is unable to express his detestation too strongly. Unless, indeed, we suppose that Christ was not divided by the Corinthians, when one teacher set himself above another (1 Cor 1:12, 13 ; 3:4); and that now no injury is done to Christ when, instead of Christians, we hear some called Benedictines, others Franciscans, others Dominicans, and so called, that while they affect to be distinguished from the common body of Christians, they proudly substitute these names for a religious procession. (4.13.14)

Calvin’s ultimate point here is to show that when we ascribe a name to our Christianity that isn’t Christ’s we’re risking dividing Christ’s Church (I think this also applies ever-so-slightly to those that would say they aren’t Christians but “followers of Jesus.” The intention is likely to cushion the blow of attaching oneself to a religion, but I would still, personally, caution against using it in most cases). To make his point, Calvin evokes Paul’s argument to the Corinthians. Remember, the Corinthians were caught up with whose teaching about Christ they were following, or who showed Christ to them. Some would say they were with Apollos, others with Cephas (Peter), others with Paul, and still others with Christ. Paul then reminds them that the important thing is that they’re all, and only, in Christ. Their teachers are of little importance as long as they have truly believed on Christ and are following him faithfully. Paul’s reminder is that while he may have shown Christ to some of them, all of the growth was produced by God himself. So the glory is ascribed to none other than God alone.

Calvin is using the argument similarly here. The monks of his day have so deviated from their Christianity that they are caught up in a name other than Christ’s. They’re happy to call themselves Benedictines, Franciscans, and Dominicans – because it makes them feel a bit more righteous than others – but aren’t satisfied to simply call themselves Christians (and if Calvin’s representation of their actions elsewhere is accurate, they may not have been!). This is the point that I feel Calvin wouldn’t have wanted ascribed to his name. He wouldn’t have wanted people running around calling themselves Calvinists and risking  divisions in the Church because they’re fanboys of his writing, contributions, and influence 500 before their time.

That being said, depending on how I expect it to be understood and at certain times, I don’t have a problem calling myself a Calvinist. By doing so I don’t intend to say that I believe Calvin has my heart, that he has provided a way for my salvation, that I have been baptized in his name, or that I take his word as unflinchingly authoritative. Instead, on the (now) rare occasion that I do call myself a Calvinist I simply mean to communicate that I affirm the Doctrines of Grace (or maybe you know them as the poorly named “Five Points of Calvin”). Further, the term ‘Calvinist/ism’ carries baggage with it for a lot of people I’ve talked to over the years and for that reason, outside of a small group of people, I will typically, and simply, refer to myself as a Christian. By God’s grace this is the best definition of who I am anyway, so I might as well just stick to it.