Is Calvinism “Rigid”?

In an introductory essay on the life and work of Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875), the writer contrasts his approach to evangelism with that of the Calvinists in the same period. The essay is attributed to the editors of Christian History magazine. They write about Finney:

Hired by the Female Missionary Society of the Western District, he began his missionary labors in the frontier communities of upper New York. A rigid Calvinism dominated the theological landscape, but Finney urged his listeners to accept Christ openly and publicly.

Near the end of the essay they use the same language again:

Such rigid Calvinism, he said, “had not been born again, was insufficient, and altogether an abomination to God.”

Indeed, Google the phrase “rigid Calvinism” and one finds no small number of results. One of the most fascinating of which is a 1752 article, “Calvinisme” in The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert where Calvinism is not only said to be “rigid” but said to be characterized by the six points:

1. That Jesus Christ is not really present in the sacrament of the Eucharist but is there only as a sign or figure;

2. That predestination and reprobation are anterior to the divine prescience of good or bad works;

3. That predestination and reprobation depend on the pure will of God, without regard to the merits or demerits of men;

4. That God gives to those he has predestined faith and justice that cannot be removed; he does not impute to them any sins;

5. That the just are incapable of doing any good works as a consequence of original sin;

6. That men are justified by faith alone, which makes good works and the sacraments useless.

With the exception of the first article that they have constantly retained, modern Calvinists either reject or soften all the others.

This article is an artifact of French Enlightenment and the rise of the “encyclopedists.” Clearly the author of this piece was prejudiced against Reformed theology, most likely by Romanism. Of course, for the Reformed (Calvinists) Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit. In Belgic Confession (1561) art. 35, the Reformed Churches confess:

In the meantime we err not, when we say, that what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body, and the proper blood of Christ. But the manner of our partaking of the same, is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith.

Numbers 2–5 are standard Augustinian, anti-Pelagian theology not unique to Calvinism. Number 5 is slightly ambiguous but I take it to mean that because of sin, people are unable to do good works unto justification. The first half of number 6 is accurate but the second half is a non sequitur. That the list begins and ends with this caricature suggests the author’s Romanist sympathies.

In the following paragraphs this relic of eighteenth-century the Enlightenment universalism (e.g., the universal fatherhood of God, the universal brotherhood of man) and optimism about human nature and progress describes Calvinism as “rigid.”

The unitiated person, knowing only what he read online about Calvinism could be forgiven for concluding that Calvinism must be “rigid.” Just about everyone seems to think and say it is, so it must be.

As it turns out, fifty-million Frenchman can be wrong.

What people typically mean when they say that Calvinism is “rigid” is that the Calvinists teach that God is sovereign in creation and salvation, that just as he spoke into nothing and created all that is, so too he freely, sovereignly, and graciously saves his elect, those whom he determined from all eternity to save. The opposite view is that God is somehow dependent upon his creatures in providence and in salvation. Sometimes it is said that God voluntarily limited himself, that he willed to make himself dependent (contingent) upon humans either in providence or in salvation (or both). Sometimes, however, God is said to be limited and dependent upon humans by nature.

If it is not too rigid, at the risk of fulfilling the stereotype, let us consider some evidence. Is there any evidence in Scripture that the God who spoke into nothing (whatever that is) “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1) and said “let there be” (Gen 1:3) is either voluntarily or naturally contingent (dependent upon) human beings in providence or salvation?

Sometimes people appeal to Genesis 6:6 where God is said to “repent.” They take infer from this verb that God literally thought one thing and then changed his mind. The traditional and vastly superior interpretation of this verb is to understand it as a figure of speech. When one comes home from work and declares, “I am bone tired” that is a figure of speech. Bones are not energetic in the morning and fatigued at night. When we say, “he is a bear about those issues” we are not saying that a man is literally a bear. So it is in Scripture. When Exodus 31:18 attributes to God a “finger” or Exodus 15:26 says that God has “eyes,” these are figures of speech. He does not have “toes” or “feet” or an “arm” nor does his nose, as it were, get hot (in Hebrew) in anger. These are all figures of speech.

Rather, what we see in Scripture is an unequivocal declaration that God raised up Pharaoh to show him his glory (Ex 9:16). In Romans 9:16 Paul declares that God sovereignly raised up Pharaoh to show through his glory. Indeed, in that same chapter, Paul recognized the doctrine that God is sovereign and humans are morally accountable raises a great problem, one that he refuses to try to resolve.

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy (Rom (:14–16; ESV).

According to Paul God is free, unconditioned by his creatures. He freely saves those whom he has elected in Christ from all eternity (See Ephesians chapters 1–2). When pressed (by an imaginary discussion partner) he replies:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

It turns out that it is the critics of divine sovereignty who are rigid. They have a picture of the world to which they think God must conform but he will not. Further, according to Paul, the critics lack standing to complain against God since he is the Creator and they are but clay. When pressed, Paul rebukes the critics by reminding them that God owes them nothing, least of all an answer. Those of us who are recipient of his unconditional, sovereign, electing grace should only shudder in holy silence.

It is not Calvinists who are “rigid.” It is those who, apparently oblivious to the great mainstream of Augustinian theology that runs from St Augustine in the 5th century to Gottschalk et al in the 9th century to Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, through the neo-Augustinians in the late-medieval period (e.g., Gregory of Rimini, Thomas Bradwardine) to all the magisterial Protestants in the 16th century—it was not Calvin who wrote Bondage of the Will in 1525 but Martin Luther—to their orthodox successors after until today, seem literary sensibilities or any genuine sense of mystery.

Calvinism is not “rigid.” It is, in fact, quite supple. It seeks to follow the contours of holy Scripture rather than the steel I-Beam of rationalism, the futile attempt to make God adhere to our man-made picture of the world.

—R. Scott Clark, Escondido


  1. Indeed the rebuttal to “rigid Calvinism” is well written, and brings me to “holy silence,” that I, a sinner, should ever be the recipient of God’s great mercy. The only quibble I make, from my study of the Enlightenment in a class at Brown University 50 years ago, is that while Voltaire did not like being called an atheist, Diderot was more comfortable with that label.

  2. It is one thing to reject the faith altogether, but to identify as Christian and think you are saved because you have made God your debtor by choosing Him is a self delusion and an insult to God’s sovereignty. But that is what much of Protestant evangelicalism has come to. “Those of us who are recipient of his unconditional, sovereign, electing grace should only shudder in holy silence.”

Comments are closed.