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Calvinism in New England Puritan Culture

For more information than is contained in this brief summary, see the Selected Bibliography on Puritanism,
the page on Arminianism, or Calvinism and Arminianism.

See also information at the Jonathan Edwards Center
Definitions The works of John Calvin (1509-1564), especially his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), were central to Puritan beliefs because they asked central questions: how do we acquire knowledge of God and of ourselves? According to Nicholas Wolterstorff in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
Thomas Aquinas had taught that the theologian should start with God and then consider creatures insofar as they relate to God as their beginning and end. Calvin broke decisively with this approach in claiming that knowledge of God is so interrelated with knowledge of ourselves that the one cannot be had without the other. He taught that when we accurately reflect on ourselves, we realize the excellence of our natural gifts; but we also realize that our exercise of these gifts yields 'miserable ruin' and unhappiness, and that 'our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God.' Without this realization of our misery and dependence-especially of our misery-none of us comes, or even tries to come, to a knowledge of God. On the other hand, there is also no knowledge of self without a knowledge of God. Without a standard by which to measure ourselves, we invariably yield to pride, overestimating the worth of our natural gifts and overlooking the corruption that has resulted from the exercise of those gifts.  (II: 7)
Calvin believed that simply knowing truths about God did not, as the Scholastics would have it, mean the same thing as knowing God. Instead, individuals must cultivate this awareness of deity through examination of the seeds of divinity within each person as well as through contemplation of and reflection on the world. Sin, for Calvin, is the opposite of knowing God; and a corrupt reason and will can prevent this knowledge.

Calvin's social thought was also influential. He believed that human beings were creatures of fellowship and that Church and State satisfied a human need for this type of grouping. According to Wolterstorff,

The concern of the church is the spiritual realm, the life of the inner man; the concern of the state is the temporal realm, the regulation of external conduct. In regulating external conduct, the general aim of the state, in Calvin's view, is to insure justice or equity in society at large. This equity has two facets. Obviously the state must enforce restrictive justice, but Calvin also believed that the state should secure distributive justice, doing its best to eliminate gross inequalities in the material status of its members. (9)
Like John Winthrop (see "A Model of Christian Charity"), Calvin believed that an ideal government would be a republic in which power is balanced among magistrates and in which a competent ruling aristocracy is elected by the citizens.
Doctrine Calvinism is a system of theological thought found in the doctrinal expressions of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, from Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. The famous "Five Points" represent a somewhat narrow and debased definition of Calvinist thought, since they were formulated in opposition to the five articles of the Arminians. Since they are well known, however, they have been included here.
The Five Points of Calvinism (often remembered through the acronym T U L I P)

1. Total depravity. Man is naturally unable to exercise free will, since through Adam's fall he has suffered hereditary corruption. Evil was a palpable presence in the Puritans' world, and it was often symbolized by the struggle between light and darkness. In this system, it was impossible to find disillusioned Puritans, for they believed that there was no horror that man could not commit.

2. Unconditional election. Election manifests itself through God's wisdom to elect those to be saved, despite their inability to perform saving works. Only a chosen few are so elected, and simply being a church member did not necessarily signify election.

3. Limited atonement. Man's hereditary corruption is partially atoned for by Christ, and this atonement is provided to the elect through the Holy Spirit. This limited atonement gives them the power to attempt to obey God's will as revealed through the Bible.

4. Irresistible and prevenient grace, made only to the elect. Grace was a "motion of the heart" that was God's gift to the elect-unconditional, irresistible, and inexorable. It came to each directly and could not be taken away. It promised "ecstatic intimacy with the divine" or "soul liberty." When Winthrop talks about liberty, this is the sort that he counts on his audience recalling.

5. Perseverance of saints. Those who are predetermined as elect inevitably persevere in the path of holiness.

© 1997-2010. Donna M. Campbell. Some information adapted from Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997).
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Campbell, Donna M. "Calvinism in New England Puritan Culture." Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. Date of publication or most recent update (listed above as the "last modified" date; you don't need to indicate the time). Web. Date you accessed the page.


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