I was recently asked to describe the main tenets of Calvinism. I referred the questioner to the following materials that I used as a hand-out when teaching a "Religion in American Life" course at a Florida college.
While I am not a Calvinist by persuasion, I think the following presentation is a fair and reliable description of the main themes of Calvinist thought and practice. This presentation does not seek to persuade, promote, or attack these ideas for which I maintain the greatest respect.
NOTE: These materials are a synopsis I developed from a longer piece in A History of Philosophy in America (Flower and Murphey) and a lengthy quote from the major professor of my doctoral program. I make no claim of originality for any of these materials.
John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion is perhaps the most significant literary expression of the sixteenth century Swiss Reformation. This work - and Calvin's teachings in general - gave birth to many later religious movements, among them Puritanism, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism.
For Calvin, God is above all the locus of power. He is the Almighty, the creator, the master of the universe. His sovereignty is unconditioned, His power is infinite, and His will is arbitrary and unconstrained by any outside force. He is constrained only by his own nature. It is God who completely determines all events - although lesser forces may appear to be causative agents, in fact, ultimate causality resides in God alone. He is omniscient - with absolute foreknowledge - and He is transcendent - so that human knowledge can never adequately depict him. Calvin's God is therefore always mysterious and inscrutable. His ways, the biblical writer tells us, are "past finding out." The vast distance between God and man - a fact rooted in both divine and human nature - is further compounded, Calvin tells us, by the fallen state of humanity.
Calvin argues that since God is all powerful and since he determines all to be, it is true that He, and He alone, decrees, elects, or predestines those who receive eternal salvation and those who receive eternal damnation. This divine choice is eternal and irrevocable: no human act, however noble or depraved, can affect it in the slightest.
Calvin further argues that those elected to salvation receive the grace of God as a free gift - unmerited and undeserved. Moreover, this grace is irresistible: God effectively redeems those he chooses and the chosen are merely passive recipients of this grace.
Upon receiving God's salvation, the elect must be cleansed of their moral depravity, that is, their "fallen" nature. But man, powerless before moral evil, is incapable of such a change and it is therefore God again who fuels the process of sanctification - the movement toward true holiness in the life and behavior of the elect. When the grace of God is given to man, the object of his affections is changed from himself to God, so that thereafter he loves God above all else and seeks to fully obey God's will. Calvin depicts receiving grace as falling in love with God. Again it is God who acts to sanctify; the human will remains passive.
One would think that such a position would weaken moral vigor - would deprive humans of moral challenge and strength. Such a doctrine might appear to offer an excuse for sin and a flight into ethical irresponsibility. But in fact, Calvin's doctrine proved to have just the opposite effect - individuals and communities were energized toward moral life. For Calvin, the state of the will was the crucial sign of grace. The sinner is a willful sinner - he loves his sinful ways and win not leave them. To be regenerate - to have receive grace - is to have a regenerated will, to be able to strive for the good (by God's empowering alone) and to turn away from sin. It is not by striving that one acquires grace; rather the fact that one can strive to do good is a sign that grace has been given.
But there was always a question mark about one's state of grace. Since sanctification is incomplete in this life and since all human wills are drawn toward evil, each moral failure, each breach of God's commandments however small, might well indicate that grace was never given at all. The state of the soul must be inferred from the signs of moral life. This doctrine of visibility means that there are external, moral signs by which a man can attain some assurance - though never complete certainty - of his election. Accordingly, the would-be Christian must constantly scrutinize his life and behavior. Since there is always some doubt, it is necessary to prove one's self daily. Thus, far from weakening moral vitality, Calvin's doctrine drove his followers to a ceaseless struggle to attain an unattainable goal and made every failure to reach the goal a fresh motive for renewed effort. (Sociologist Max Weber has pointed out that many of Calvin's early followers belonged to the rising business class in Europe and that their "work ethic" and thrift undoubtedly accelerated the pace of the expanding capitalist development.)
Leo Sandon, Professor Emeritus of Religion of Florida State University, points out that in Calvinism "the primary ethical focus is on the public good (commonweal) to which purely private interests are subordinated. Calvinism characteristically evidences a positive attitude toward the political order, favoring firm, stable, representative governance, but providing for revolutionary action in the extreme case in which rulers may require obedience to policy which is contrary to the clear will of God. The insistence that both governors and people are under God's rule leads Calvinists to a normative understanding that governance is to be by laws, not persons. Economically, the Calvinist bias is toward productive work, frugality, modest life style, and disciplined savings and reinvestment. Calvinism has tended to stress the subordination of the erotic dimension of human life to the rational dimension."
In summary, we can say that for Calvin, human freedom was always overshadowed by divine sovereignty. Humans were free only to live out their election. The possibility of rebellion against this divine choice meant the denial of God's full power. For Calvin, such a conclusion is unthinkable.