Calvinism, History, and Augustine
In spite of their eccentric differences, cults have many areas of commonality. The most over-arching, in my opinion, is in the area of authority. The leader/founder is not to be questioned under any circumstances, upon pain of rejection, excommunication, or death. Critics are labeled heretics and are thoroughly defamed. But most of these cults remain of little or marginal influence.
The danger is when a leader rises in popularity or influence to have a major impact on society in general or on religion in particular. The creation of the Catholic Church (RCC) by the Roman emperor Constantine is the most prominent and glaring example of the great doctrinal error that results from the rise to power of a charismatic individual, especially when the individual also has political power. But Catholicism is not the only cult-to-mainstream “success” story.
As much as its adherants would like to deny it, Calvinism bears many historical, structural, and doctrinal resemblances to the RCC, a system which it claims to oppose. One telling proof is the vehemence with which Calvinists will oppose any and all detractors. If you show them proof of the evil practices of and pagan influences on their founder, John Calvin, you will be accused of bias and slander, yet they do not hesitate to slander you, quoting volume after volume of very biased writings. They appeal to “great theologians and church fathers”, insisting that lowly individuals cannot possibly understand the scriptures without their “wisdom”. How is this claim distinguishable from the cultic or Catholic concept of the “infallible interpreter”? Is the faithfulness of any system of theology determined by the volume of sermons or studies put out by a few, or by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit as we read the scriptures for ourselves?
The Bible says this: “The brothers sent Paul and Silas off to Berea at once, during the night. When they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. These Jews were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they eagerly received the message, examining the scriptures carefully every day to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:1-11). If ordinary people could put the Apostle Paul under scrutiny and be commended for it, then there is no reason we “laymen” shouldn’t hold church leaders to account. This is not to say that theologians should not even be considered, but only that they should never be held above reproach or followed slavishly. All Christians must exercise great discernment, especially regarding “authorities”. Keep the wheat but let the chaff blow away. Let’s look specifically at John Calvin and see what we find.
John Calvin studied the voluminous writings of Saint Augustine, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hippo (354-430 AD), much more so than those of Martin Luther, his contemporary. Calvin is continually praising Augustine’s work with numerous references and quotations. Augustine was greatly influenced by the Gnostics, an early Christian sect, whose doctrine was heretical. Gnostics believed that mankind was wholly evil and some sects even renounced marriage and procreation. They also believed in two gods, one evil and one good. Their teachings are believed to have influenced Saint Augustine in the development of his theology of the “total depravity” of mankind and his concept of God. For nine years Saint Augustine adhered to Manichaeism, a Persian dualistic philosophy proclaimed by Mani (216-276? AD) in southern Babylonia (Iraq) that taught a doctrine of “total depravity” and the claim that they were the “elect”. Augustine then turned to skepticism and was attracted to the philosophy of Neoplatonism. He blended these beliefs with his later Gnostic and Christian teachings. Augustine’s prolific writings were more strongly biased by his previously obtained theology than on his detailed study of the Christian Scriptures. He used Christian Scripture out of context when words or phrases could be adapted to match his theology. Augustine’s teachings were in turn passed on to John Calvin through his extensive study of Augustine’s writings. It is very easy to follow the trail of John Calvin’s theology from the pagan religion of Mani in Babylonia to Saint Augustine and into his own writings in France and Geneva that distort the Word of God. Calvin’s false doctrine came directly from Augustine. (source)The Bible never whitewashes leaders, so neither should we. It is good to take samples from several views: friendly, hostile, and neutral. In the case of Calvin, all three views acknowledge a disturbing truth: Calvin executed his opponents. No one denies this. Predictably, the friendly sources ignore or gloss over this aspect of Calvin. They excuse him by appealing to “the time in which he lived”, but for a theologian to commit such an unmistakable sin, it is no excuse. But his supporters, then and now, would retort that his opponents, especially Michael Servetus, were heretics— as if heresy is justification for murder! Should we murder Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Catholics? Would anyone be able to justify such sin in any historical period, especially since the NT canon was completed?
Michael Servetus was not just killed; he was kept in a prison with no light or heat, little food, and no sanitary facilities. He was then burned at the stake with half-green wood to prolong his suffering, which took a full 30 minutes. Calvinists insist that this was not Calvin’s doing, but there is too much evidence to the contrary, including the fact that he had vowed that if Servetus ever returned to Geneva that he would never leave alive. We rightly condemn the RCC for such atrocities, but if a Reformer does it we look the other way. (Fox’s Book of Martyrs is a prime example of this.)
Another undisputed fact of history is Calvin’s rule over Geneva, earning him the title “the Pope of Geneva”. His supporters, then and now, called it “zeal”, but those who were subject to his rule realized that they had just exchanged one pope for another. This “zeal” was the fruit of Predestination, for if God could force people to “believe” then so should he. Such twisted thinking is the hallmark of any cult leader. There is good reason to question whether Calvin was even saved. Please refer to the articles linked below for more detail, keeping in mind that even Calvinism’s opponents must be scrutinized as well. For example, non-Calvinist writings frequently claim that the concept of Eternal Security (or Once Saved Always Saved) is dependent upon Predestination, yet I strongly disagree (along with the authors listed here).