A Caricature Of Calvinism

Mark Dever sent me a note the other day about Edward Taylor (1642–1729). Mea culpa but I’m not familiar with his work so I did did an online search and, of course, the first result was Wikipedia. On my way to the references to edited, published works I ran across this gem:

“To modern eyes,” noted Donald E. Stanford, the editor of Taylor’s major writings, “Calvinism is a grim theology, and partly because of its grimness, partly because of its internal inconsistencies (man cannot save himself yet should exert every effort to lead a good life and achieve saving faith), the kind of Calvinism in which Taylor believed gradually broke down.” ( Donald E. Stanford, The Poems of Edward Taylor (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1960), p. l.)

The caricature is the claim Calvinism teaches “man cannot save himself yet should exert every effort to lead a good life and achieve saving faith.” The first problem is how this writer is defining “Calvinism.” Like “puritan” and “evangelical” the definition sometimes seems remarkably elastic. If, however, we define “Calvinism” to mean “the system of theology taught by John Calvin and his orthodox successors” then the picture is a little clearer. Let’s assume that is what Stanford meant by Calvinism. Which Calvinist writer taught that the elect must “achieve saving faith”? Now, it is true that Calvinism has always taught that man cannot save himself. It has always taught that God is sovereign and elects and reprobates in eternity. Most of the time it has taught that election is considered with the fall in view (infralapsarianism) and that, in reprobation, God leaves the reprobate in their freely chosen, fallen state. In infralapsarianism the decrees of election and reprobation are not strictly parallel. Election is unconditional and reprobation is conditioned by the fall. Calvinism teaches that fallen sinners are quite unable to save themselves and that, apart from the unconditional, sovereign grace of God, they would remain dead in sin. It teaches that God freely gives new life (regenerates) those who are unable to raise themselves from the dead. It also teaches that faith is a free gift bestowed in or as a consequence of regeneration (awakening from spiritual death to spiritual life). In every version of Calvinism with which I am familiar, faith is said to be a gift, a grace not an achievement, not the result of human effort.

There were two ways for Stanford to have learned what Calvinism in the 16th and 17th centuries taught about faith as a gift. He might have surveyed the leading Continental and British Reformed (Calvinist) writers, those who would have influenced Taylor beginning with Calvin himself. Further, had he consulted Theodore Beza, William Perkins, William Ames, and John Owen, four likely sources of influence, he would have found in them essentially the same doctrine that faith is a free gift of God’s grace to his elect. He might also have consulted the confessions of the Calvinist churches, beginning with the French Confession, the Belgic, Calvin’s catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, the Anglican Articles, the Westminster Standards, and the Savoy Declaration. In every single of these ecclesiastically sanctioned documents over a period of almost a century one would have found repeated the same definition of saving faith as the free gift of God helpless sinners.

“Internal inconsistencies”? It is certainly true that there is mystery in Calvinism. We understand Scripture to teach both that God is sovereign and that humans are morally culpable for their acts and choices. We confess that catholic doctrine of the Trinity, that God is one in three persons and the catholic doctrine of Christ, that he is one person with two distinct yet inseparable natures. We confess that, in the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit mysteriously feeds believers and the “proper and natural” body and blood of Christ (Belgic Confession). We believe in the ongoing work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. We believe in the mystical (spiritual) union and communion between the believer and Christ. We say that it is but we cannot say how it is so. This quick list certain refutes the claim that Calvinism is arid, rationalist, sterile, and cold.

Calvinism does teach that sinners, redeemed by God’s grace, living in mystical union and communion with the risen Christ, in the communion of the saints in the church militant do “work out” their “salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). This process of “working out” salvation is not in order to achieve faith or acceptance with God. That is the Roman view. We understand Paul to be describing how we are to live in light of the grace we have received. We seek to order our lives in conformity with God’s moral law because of God’s grace, and in God’s grace, and through God’s grace.

Perhaps Stanford is a scholar of literature and not of the history of theology? In any event that he wrote this way reflects a widely held notion, that Calvinism must have been a decline from the basic doctrines of the Reformation: justification by grace alone, through faith alone. It was not. If we consider the two types of sources that I sketched above the evidence clearly contradicts the assumption. Put another way, Richard Baxter’s soteriology was not Calvinist. It was not the norm. It was the exception to the rule, nevertheless, his moralism and that of other nomists is, ironically, often taken as if it represented the entire Reformed tradition and confession. It doesn’t. It’s a caricature.

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  1. Taylor’s “The Joy of Church Fellowship Rightly Attended” has an unforgettable line: “. . . in Christs Coach they sweetly sing, As they to Glory ride therein.”

  2. Thank you for writing this response to Stanford’s modern speculations, Dr Clark. I thought the good of a public intellectual was to shed helpful insights on historically confused subjects. And the message of “in Christ’s Coach…they ride……” is a decidedly different message than Mayfield’s “People get ready there’s a train a comin'” whose faith was manifest by joining the “righteous” band of folks practicing particular unmeritorious civic virtues. Not that doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly doesn’t or shouldn’t follow from a converted heart, and necessarily, I hasten.

  3. It doesn’t surprise me at all that this diagnosis was published. My history prof. and history book taught that Calvin’s doctrine of election caused people to wonder whether or not they could ever be saved so they began saying that if you did good works and worked to achieve earthly goods, this could be a sign of God’s favor on you. I simply asserted to my Prof. that Calvin taught the doctrine of justification by faith alone, he stammered, affirmed what I said, and was clearly caught. I actually thought about going into supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism but I figured it would waste our time.

  4. I’m no expert in the area, but back when I was trying to be, I remember this sort of caricature coming up an awful lot in Perry Miller’s important rehabilitation of the Puritans in 1930s — that the Puritans made conditional what God made unconditional — for the individual as well, not just society. George Marsden made this part of his critique of Miller’s work. It likewise rings a bit of Weber’s Protestant work ethic thesis. I cannot tell you how many people have told me that Calvinists believe that they have to earn their election by working hard and getting rich. Weird, but very common.

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