A Theological History of Restoration Movement Thought, Part 0.5 (John Calvin)

john_calvin_-_best_likeness.jpgUntil I change my mind, this will be the last post of this series. John Calvin, of course, died centuries before the founding of the Restoration Movement. And in many respects the Restoration Movement was a reaction against his teachings. But we are nonetheless cultural heirs of Calvinism. Indeed, in a very real sense, the instrumental/ non-instrumental split of over 100 years ago was between those with a Calvinist mindset (the a cappella churches) and the rest.

My law partner had recently married. She had grown up Baptist, where she’d been baptized for the remission of sins (believe it or not), but her husband was Presbyterian and insisted that they attend the local Presbyterian Church. This meant my partner had to take confirmation classes and learn Presbyterian ways.

After a few weeks of study, she came to me upset. The Presbyterian preacher had explained that the Presbyterian view of worship was to be unemotional, that is, “reverent.” They considered the proper attitude to be somber and studious. Well, my partner was used to a much more upbeat worship service, and found this approach stifling. She was dreading the change. She asked me what I thought?

What I could I say? I mean, it sounded just like the Church of Christ where I’d grown up. The elders were insistent that no one speak in the auditorium before services. Quietness and serenity were required. But my current church home is loud with the sounds of friendships and encouragement before services. People visit and share. Visitors are greeted. I could only say, I know where you’re coming from. I’ve tried it both ways, and I wouldn’t change positions with her for the world.

When we talk about Calvinism today, we usually speak in terms of the 5 points of the Synod of Dort, famous for the 5-letter acronym TULIP–

  • Total depravity
  • Unconditional election
  • Limited atonement
  • Irresistible grace
  • Perseverance of the saints (once saved, always saved)

The first four points essentially teach that no one can choose to be saved. Rather, you must wait for God to reveal to you that you’ve been chosen. You must have some “saving experience” that demonstrates that you are among the elect.

Very few denominations are still strict Calvinists. The Baptists have pretty much rejected the first four points. The Presbyterians are about the same in practice. However, in the early 19th Century, the Calvinist churches were generally very rigid in teaching all these points. The Restoration Movement was indeed founded in large part to push the opposite agenda, known technically as Arminianism. Named for Jacob Arminius, Arminians reject all five points.

But there are many more elements of Calvinism. Some are theological and some are cultural. And the Churches of Christ inherited much of this. After all, Stone and the Campbells were trained as Presbyterian ministers. A large percentage of the early converts came from Baptist and other Calvinist denominations. They were glad to escape predestination and such, but they brought their religious culture with them. It’s not surprising. You can’t not have a culture.

Here are some examples:


I co-chaired our first building program. The plans called for cupola to be placed over our combination gym/auditorium. When the cupola was delivered, the architect called me to leave the office and take a look. He sounded worried. And so I drove to the building site, walked around the cupola, and asked him what he was so concerned about.

“It looks like the plans,” I said, quite sincerely.

“You don’t want any changes?” he inquired.

“No. Would you PLEASE tell me what this is about?”

“The cross,” he said. The cupola had a white cross on the top–just like in the drawings. “You don’t mind that?”

“We’re pretty big on the cross around here,” I laughed. “Why would we be ashamed of it?”

“I’ve had an awful lot of churches make me take a hacksaw and saw crosses off. I was just worried.”

“Leave your hacksaw in the truck,” I said. “We are very proud of the cross.”

The early Calvinists were iconoclasts. Taking the Ten Commandments quite seriously, they rejected all religious icons. When they gained control of a cathedral, they whitewashed the frescoes and tossed out the statues. They rejected the use of crosses and statues as sinful.

I’ve never heard a sermon against crosses, stained glass, murals, or other iconography, but except for the occasional Jordan River scene behind the baptistry, Churches of Christ have traditionally rejected all religious symbols and art–even steeples and Corinthian columns–but only in the building. We even preach against wearing religious jewelry, such as crosses or fish symbols, but we don’t mind paintings and symbols in other places. Just not in church!

Of course, there’s no Biblical reason to refuse to put a steeple on your building. But it’s the way the early Calvinist churches were, and we’ve diligently refused to change.

The only Christians

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia,

Calvin replies that in every age the elect constituted the flock of Christ, and all besides were strangers, though invested with dignity and offices in the visible communion. The reprobate have only apparent faith. Yet they may feel as do the elect, experience similar fervours, and to the best of their judgment be accounted saints. All that is mere delusion; they are hypocrites “into whose minds God insinuates Himself, so that, not having the adoption of sons, they may yet taste the goodness of the Spirit.”

In other words, there may be people act like Christians, profess faith like Christians, be active in church like Christians, and believe themselves Christians, but this is not good enough. Their “faith” is only apparent and they aren’t really saved.


Calvin preserved many elements of the Law of Moses in order to have some Biblical guidance for his theocracy in Geneva. In particular, he insisted on strict Sabbath observance, considering Sunday the “Christian Sabbath.”

While this teaching is losing sway in the Churches of Christ, in my youth, work on Sunday was forbidden. I couldn’t cut grass on a Sunday (which was quite okay!), But I could play games, watch football, play golf, or just laze about, but nothing unpleasant was permitted. Some prohibited loud or boisterous activities. Certainly, no one could work at their jobs on a Sunday.

The Regulative Principle

Simply put, Calvin taught that worship was of particular concern to God, and so, any false worship would be idolatry. He cited Nadab and Abihu as proof.

As originally taught, worship was considered to be of particular concern, and the rule did not apply to other doctrinal error. After all, Calvin was otherwise a strong believer in salvation by grace–to the extreme. But over time, the Puritans, the Separate Baptists, and other Calvinist denominations added to the list of essential commands.

When the instrumental music issue arose in the Restoration Movement, it arose among a people largely trained by Calvin to deny that grace could possibly apply in the area of worship. And so the churches divided.

However, Calvin’s notion that worship is a special case was forgotten, and additional rules were added that were also outside grace: the name of the church, the organization of the churc, having the right “acts of worship”–the “marks of the church”; and then we added anything we felt strongly about–the age of the earth, the role of women, and so on. There are now Church of Christ preachers who in all seriousness teach that any doctrinal error damns–claiming, of course, that they have none at all.

(Some will deny this, but I have the emails to prove it.)

Simple architecture

“Daddy,” my son asked, “why are Churches of Christ always the ugliest buildings in town?”

A recently published book on Calvinist architect struggles to find a theme. After all, Calvinism had a “deep concern for simplicity of lifestyle, so that available resources can meet human needs. If the rich live extravagantly, the poor will go hungry.”

There is, frankly, not much Calvinist architecture to talk about. Just like Church of Christ buildings. And as the book points out, the church members were glad to spend lavishly on their own homes–just not on the church building!

Not only are our buildings plain and simple, they are rarely downtown. The Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians built on Main Street. The Church of Christ built two blocks away. I don’t know why.

Well, to be truthful, we sometimes try to save money, being true to our Calvinist heritage of simplicity, in order to better use the money for the poor. It’s just that we don’t spend that much on the poor, certainly not as much as we save by building on cheap land without steeples, stained glass, and the like. Sometimes I wonder if we’re just cheap.

Centrality of the sermon

Most members of the Church of Christ would say that the Sunday assembly should be centered on the Lord’s Supper. However, our assemblies are in fact centered on the sermon, a practice we inherited from Calvin. Before Calvin, services centered on the mass. However, Calvin restructured the assembly to center on his preaching.

Now, Calvin did not offer an invitation. That practice dates only back to the Second Great Awakening and the preaching of such men as Methodist evangelist Charles Finney. Before then, the service was was not seen as an evangelistic effort but as an encouragement and instruction for the saved.


Calvin can fairly be credited with the Protestant emphasis on education, as Calvin started schools for the training of ministers and missionaries. To the extent the Churches of Christ focus on Bible study, we can give some thanks to Calvin as well.

For that matter, Calvin is the father of modern Biblical exegesis and hermeneutics. Before him, Bible study was largely allegorical and very undisciplined. Calvin’s writings changed the way every Bible student studies the Bible. Our strong intellectualism and Bible-centered preaching trace straight back to Calvin.


Some of our better and some of our worse traits are traceable to our Calvinist antecedents. There’s no shame in this. We all come from somewhere. However, we owe it to ourselves and our children to self-consciously reflect on our history and consider our origins. Are we as we are because it’s God will? or because it just kind of happened?

Do we object to the cross hanging around our daughter’s neck because the Bible prohibits icons? Or because it violates the cultural norms we grew up in?

Does God want us to encourage and comfort one another at church? Or sit quietly alone in contemplation? Or is either okay?

When we argue for plain and simple (and inexpensive) architecture, are we really planning on giving the savings to the poor? Or, like Judas, are we going to keep it for ourselves?

Is the Regulative Principle really what the Bible teaches? Or does grace apply to doctrine other than the gospel? Who’s right–Calvin or Campbell?

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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