The Demoralizing Dogmas of Calvinism

In a letter that he wrote to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822, Thomas Jefferson offered a fabulous description of “Calvinism.” In contrast to the teachings of Jesus, which are “simple, and tend all to the happiness of man,” he offers the five “demoralizing dogmas of Calvinism.”

  1. That there are three Gods.
  2. That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing.
  3. That faith is every thing, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.
  4. That reason in religion is of unlawful use.
  5. That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save.

I strongly recommend emailing this to any Calvinists you know. They will really appreciate it.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on March 10, 2011, in Humor, Theology Proper. Bookmark the permalink. 50 Comments.

  1. I’ll just whistle past this post…

  2. so, what are you saying? Ya believe this or just looking for comments?

  3. Goodness no, I don’t believe it! I thought it was funny. I’m not sure that I could come up with a worse caricature of Calvinism if I tried. (Well, maybe if I tried really hard.) I particularly liked the bit about how the more absurd a proposition is, the more faith you demonstrate by believing it (#3). That’s classic.

  4. Apparently Jefferson didn’t have a TULIP in front of him when he wrote this ๐Ÿ˜‰ .

    Although, #1 could have some merit.

  5. What Calvinists have ever believed in three gods?

  6. Certainly a caricature! Anyone care to bite down on Mike Horton’s new Systematic? ๐Ÿ™‚ I am going to read my copy more deeply! (All 1052 pages, with index, etc.)

  7. @Jim – I definitely intend to. It looks like a great book.

    @Pat – That comment would actually be directed at any Trinitarian. As any good rationalist, Jefferson rejected any doctrine that did not cohere with his canons of rationality. So, trinitarianism is essentially tri-theism. He directed many of these same criticisms against orthodox Christianity in general, but he reserved a special venom for Calvinists.

  8. What’s really sad though is that I have personally heard some sprout point 2 & 5.

  9. @Pat – Oh, your comment was probably directed at Bobby. Good question.

    @Bobby – What do you mean that #1 could have some merit?

  10. @Craig – Do you mean that you’ve heard some Calvinists affirm 2 & 5? I know that I’ve heard Calvinism explained by Calvinists in such a way that it sure sounds like they’re affirming these. I think that’s particularly tragic with #2, because that one is so far from what Calvinism is all about.

  11. Yes that is it Marc.

    When I was networking with the churches in my local area a number of years back – regarding setting up a suicide awareness and prevention network… I was told by certain individuals that this was outside of the scope and calling of the church….some even went as far to say that if someone took their life it was because of God’s will.

    Sigh! Very sad. However I will say that this is not really representative of how I understand Calvinism; though I don’t hold to TULIP myself.

  12. Ugh. That’s five points that I certainly reject. ๐Ÿ˜ Oh, Thomas Jefferson. You and your hijinks.

  13. Hey Dr. Cortez,

    Hope you’re well brother.

    Would be safe to ask what/who were Jefferson’s historical referents (e.g., contemporaries through which he heard “Calvinistic” teaching, ecclesiastical/Reformed tradition to which he was exposed to or brought up in, influence of Reformed/Calvinistic tradition in that time)?

    Secondly, would it be reasonble to assume that there may have been something from his historical referents that would lead him draw those conclusions? While it is obvious Jefferson is speaking from a deistic, rationalist, and libertarian (as well as unregenerate) bias, it seems a bit unfair and maybe anachronistic to accuse him of presenting a charicature of Calvinism rather than a philosophical critique/judgment of its teaching based upon his own suppositions/perceptions (whether an accurate description or not).

    It seems he may be reacting to a form of hard determinism and strict fideism that often sounds unrealistic and inconsistent with the human situation (e.g., the presence of choice/will, consequences, the use of philosophical/metaphysical categories in theology). Reformed theology that strongly emphasizes sovereign grace, demphasizes human good works as meritorious (often rejecting the intrinsic as well as extrensic value of those works), and disparages human reason can often sound something like what Jefferson is saying (points 2-5)

    I guess what I am taking the risk of asking is whether there is anything within Jeffersons concern worth consideration? What I mean by “consideration” is not accepting his view of Calvinism as representative, but considering his referents, is there anything within the critique worth examining?

    Thanks for your time. Look forward to talking more with you.


  14. @Pat & Marc,

    I mean that if the Thomism that is used to articulate the classical Calvinist God is “reduced;” that there is nothing necessary in that metaphysic to hold three eternally distinct, but inseparably related (perichoretically) persons together. This is one of the primary places I believe that classic Calvinism, flounders — their doctrine of God. How do you start with a substantialist metaphysic (God is Monadic or Actual Infinite etc.), and end up with the Christian God who is Triune and personalist in nature? I’m not persuaded. I’ve talked with plenty of serious self-conscious Thomists (Roman Catholics even) who have studied Thomas for post-grad, and all they are left with is ad hoc assertion on how Aristotle somehow can be appropriated and synthesized with the Christian doctrine of God (in my estimation).

    Surely this is not lost on you, Marc; the Barthian that you are ๐Ÿ˜‰ .

    • Oh. You mean that if you take a group’s stated position to its logical extreme, it can then become a caricature or distortion of what it intends to be? Okay. So all Baptists are Pelagians? All Barthians Universalists? Hmm….

      • @Pat,

        I don’t follow your line of thinking. Isn’t reductio ad absurdum an important tool in discerning the “soundness” of a position?

        You imply that I make a sweeping generalization, okay let me correct that; all classic Calvinists who are Thomists have the problems I suggest above.

      • @Pat,

        And intention is a key point. I don’t think classic Calvinists “intend” to be a tri-theist/modalist (and by assertion, they aren’t); but it seems to me that the logical conclusion of the metaphysics they choose to use to articulate who God is must lead this way.

        I know Thomas has said that the rules that apply to anthropology, in regards to using essence/accidents as definitive; don’t apply to God. Of course that brings me back to my point on the ad hoc nature of this.

  15. Bobby,

    Thomism has never been a negative for me at all! If you can find a copy? ‘He Who Is, A Study in Traditional Theism’ by the Anglican, Rev’d E.L. Mascall would be a good read. I have most of his works! (1905-1992)

    • @Robert,

      I know, you like Muller ๐Ÿ˜‰ . It seems to me, though, that Aristotle is not easily appropriated in a way that yields either way a kind of tri-theism, on one side; and/or some form of modalism on the other side.

      How do you go about using Thomism to talk about God’s oneness/threeness in meaningful Christian ways that honors the integrity of both? It seems to me that Thomism only provides finite categories — like essence/accidents — to be used to try and articulate God’s oneness/threeness. The essence being the necessary “substance” of God’s ingenerate being, and the threeness of the persons being relegated to the accidents (which by definition are non-necessary aspects of his composite essence). So we end up with a God “behind the back” of Jesus ๐Ÿ™‚ .

      PS. As you know, TFT’s onto-relations seeks to correct this imbalance in the Thomist (classic Calvinist) approach.

  16. Bobby,

    Strictly speaking I don’t really use Thomas for my own Trinitarian teaching. But like Augustine, he has his different logical approach, etc. I would certainly follow more of the Eastern and Orthodox ideas, but we cannot pit Augustine against the other, etc. And then we have the earlier people like Tertullian also. The point, and here we have Calvin, is the Trinity of God is always a divine mystery, Three in One, One in Three. We are pressed out to both Creed, but also always Scripture! So we need both the logical, and the final mystery of God Who is Triune. The methods and expressions are brought to God’s final revelation, the Logos Himself.. who is the Incarnate Son of God. Note, Col. 1:15…”He is the image of the invisible God..” Note too, Matt. 11:25-27. Christ is both the “image”, and the Father’s Only eternal Son, the revelation of God the Father. Calvin’s seeks a biblical Trinity of God.

    • Fr. Robert,

      I respect everything you’re saying, and to be clear; I’m not trying to say that classic Calvinists are tri-theists or modalists, in fact. But it seems, in principle, that Aristotle (or the various appropiations of Thomas that post-Reformed have engaged) is incompatible with trying to talk about our Triune God.

      If there’s more precision available, that honors and works within/from the contours provided by Scripture’s ‘inner-logic’ and as articulated by the Tradition; then why not think from there, instead of feeling like we have to remain committed — in static ways — to the Tradition? Semper Reformanda! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  17. @Quincy – That’s a great question. We really do need to be careful when reading historical material like this that we understand terms and their referents within the scope of the author’s historical horizon. So, rather than just assuming that Jefferson has caricatured Calvinism because his description is so inadequate to how we understand that term today, we should definitely consider whether he had a point in his own time. So, your question is a timely reminder to make sure that we are practicing good historiography.

    The short answer to your question is no; I don’t think Jefferson is adequately describing the Calvinists of his own day either. Jefferson’s comments are very similar to others offered by the rationalists/deists of the 18th century. And, they were responding primarily to the Calvinism of the puritans. Jefferson in particular would probably have had in mind the writings of Jonathan Edwards’, which were very influential by the end of the 18th century. Regardless of what you think of the Puritans in general and Edwards in particular, Jefferson’s description seems hardly adequate.

    Again, though, that’s a great question to ask whenever you engage historical material like this.

  18. @Bobby – A couple of quick comments. First, I find it interesting that you keep referring to “classical Calvinism” as having an essentially Aristotelian framework. Can I assume that you’re actually referring to the Reformed orthodox (i.e. Protestant scholasticism) of the 17th century and later? If so, it would seem that “classical Calvinism” might be a bit misleading since many will think that you’re referring to Calvin himself (who was not terribly Aristotelian, though not opposed to using certain Aristotelian categories).

    Second, I think we should make a distinct between the inner “logic” of a person’s theology and the cultural/philosophical/linguistic categories through which they attempt to express it. Calvinism is clearly Trinitarian at its core. Some Calvinists have chosen to express this Trinitarian understanding using Aristotelian concepts/language. It’s entirely possible to argue that this language is inadequate to the task (or, more importantly, less adequate than some other language – e.g. “onto-relations,” which is itself a philosophical construct), or that the language may have the tendency to pull a person’s theology in some unfortunate directions, but that’s very different from saying that the logic of “classical Calvinism” presses toward tri-theism. At that point I would have to disagree. The inner logic of Calvinism is inherently theological and Trinitarian. Whether a particular philosophical construct is a good conduit for expressing that inner logic is something entirely different.

    • @Marc,

      1) Yes, post-Reformed orthodox; you know, After Calvin ๐Ÿ˜‰ . Both Partee and Webster make the same point on Calvin, the latter more succinctly; Calvin is of course, a scriptural rather than a speculative or systematic theologian, . . .(John Webster, “Holy Scripture,” 74). I’m just saying, I know ๐Ÿ™‚ . But I’m not trying to be misleading, I’m really referring to classical theism (of which “classical” Calvinism is a sub-set — I don’t think this is under dispute, Muller himself accepts and defends this).

      2) This point is the one Muller tries to hammer again and again in After Calvin; in re. to the post-Reformed orthodox, and the changing socio/politico winds they had to deal with. Namely, they had to move methodologically to ‘elenctic’ modes of discourse (polemic); and thus they engaged in a Ramist (Agricolan) locus method (of communication). Of course, as your suggesting, the story goes that this had no effect on the material content and theology of Calvinism’s core dogmatic commitments; or ‘inner-logic’. But I don’t buy that assertion. In what sense, meaningfully, can it be maintained that using Aristotelian modes of communication (whatever that really means) does not substantially impact the ‘inner logic’ of what is supposedly being communicated? I understand the reification, and the non-correlative/correlative matrix that obtains in Christian theological discourse (e.g. appropriating a particular grammar like neo-Platonism, Aristotelianism, etc.). But really, that only takes this full circle.

      But, respectfully, I don’t see how what you’re saying about inner-logic and communication of that logic don’t necessarily impinge upon each other.

      In the end, though, I don’t think I ever really said that “classical Calvinism” isn’t intentionally Trinitarian; what I’m questioning (and maybe what Jefferson was seeing) is the capacity for Aristotelian/Thomist metaphysics to materially/dogmatically/inner-logically support Christian/Trinitarian theology. Of course “classical Calvinists” are “Trinitarians,” but do essences/accidents support that? And again, I just don’t buy the idea that its just about “how” things get communicated (Muller, Scott Clark, and others don’t seem to believe this — in other words they accept the premise that post-Reformed ortho. is “Thomist”, ironically, Muller also affirms that Calvin was actually Scotist [Muller, Christ and the Decree, pg. 37]).

      PS. When I used ‘inner-logic’ in an earlier comment, I was referring to the self-referencing “internal-logic” upon which, I believe, “classical” Calvinism pivots; so the non-correlative “guts” that Aristotelian metaphysics provides “classic” C.’s capacity to try and articulate (communicate) who God is. So they accept the ‘inner-Trinitarian-logic of Scripture, but my contention is that the ‘internal-logic’ of the metaphysics they use to try and communicate that remains non-correlative; and thus does not correlate, nor is adequately able to be reified in a way that materially or formally communicates the Trinitarian God.

      **Sorry, long ๐Ÿ™‚ .

    • Marc,

      Thanks to take the time for this little overview statement of the concepts and some history of Calvinism. It is a vast subject in reality! Myself having been Reformed most of my adult ministry, but also being in flux the last many months, in some fellowship and study of Eastern Orthodoxy. I have returned to I hope to a better balance in my Reformed and Reformational theology.

      But I do understand our friend Bobby Grow’s ideas in the main I think. But as you point out, the philosophical constructs in Reformed theology are both historical and deep. So we must move slowly and hopefully in balance. And it is here I think we need to read the American Michael Horton’s new Systematic: The Christian Faith, etc. As far as I can see it has gotten some good reviews, from some like Kevin Vanhoozer, whom most here know. I am looking forward myself to finishing this profound work and effort. And I hope too, to see what some of our European Reformed theologians think of it?

  19. Hmmm. Now that I look it, those clearly weren’t a couple of “quick” comments, were they?

  20. I’ve since changed my email address. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  21. @Bobby – I really didn’t mean to imply that the means by which you communicate your theology has no impact on your theology. Certainly cultural/philosophical form has an influence on theological content. The two are not easily separated. But, I would still maintain that they are distinct and that one cannot simply conclude that the apparently logical entailments of the former necessarily shape or constrain the inner logic of the latter. That may be the case, but it’s not easy to demonstrate. However, I would agree that we need to be sensitive to incompatibilities between the two that might suggest it’s time to change the cultural/philosophical constructs through which we’re trying to understand and communicate our theology.

    • @Marc,

      I see the distinction (it’s perichoretic-like), but it’s difficult to see how that’s meaningful in regards to the on-the-ground-theology that has been shaped by classical theistic suppositions. I think theology has real life consequences (as you, per your devotion at ETS ๐Ÿ˜‰ ), and I know that the theology of Federal Calvinism has had damaging consequences on people’s spirituality (those who care anyway).

      Anyway, I understand your point in principle/theory; but there are actual pastoral/pragmatic consequences that viewing God a certain way has on people “today!” I’ve heard from many of them via email (esp. when I was running my Evangelical Calvinist blog).


      • “I know that the theology of Federal Calvinism has had damaging consequences on peopleโ€™s spirituality (those who care anyway).”

        But of course it has also been a rich font of blessing and grace and Christian service for hundreds of millions of others for half a millenium, too (the ones who didn’t email you at your blog?:-).

        Painting with the large brush strokes you are using, you could say that about any theology and its effects on piety, e.g. Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, Wesleyans, etc. To use your logic, you’d probably want to abandon Barth and Torrance, e.g. the Church of Scotland is as close to being shaped by Torrance/Barth (finally someone got God right!) as any ecclesial body- but the COS is hemorrhaging folks. That counts as “spiritual damage,” too. But doesn’t it sound uncharitable and reckless when I turn it around like that – and a bit simplistic and reductionistic?

        Maybe the reasons “Federal Calvinism” has been spiritually corrosive on people is not simply because of the doctrine of God alone, but also because of the tendency to pride (“We have our theology all together!”) that so often accompanies those of us in that camp, and poisons Christian fellowship. Maybe it is because of the ways in which we have taken the concept of “world and life view” and used it to validate worldliness, etc. Maybe it is… I could go on. But it is more complex than the picture you are painting.

        If you are speaking from personal experience, that is one thing. I genuinely sympathize. And I agree that theology matters in shaping worship and practice. And I don’t think that Calvin or the Divines have said the last word (or even all the best words) about God – Torrance, Barth, et al ARE helpful. But connecting the dots between a supposed Thomistic-Reformed monad-izing of God and spiritual collapse is simply not convincing (much as Gunton’s critique of Augustine’s doctrine of God, and its insufficient Trinitarianism leading to modernity, etc. is also not convincing – but good company for you! ๐Ÿ™‚

      • @Pat,

        I know, it’s always easier to just relativize discussion by complexifying; that way we can avoid actually talking about the actual theology itself. The fact is, I haven’t generalized this point; I’ve been very specific and particular. I’ve focused on the impact that an inadequate doctrine of God (and yes as you’ve noted, Barth, TFT, Gunton, Webster, et al have done the same) can have on all other subsequent doctrine (most important being soteriology). My bone isn’t simply with classical Calvinism, in particular; but classical theism in general (but this thread was talking about Calvinism ๐Ÿ˜‰ ).

        Ultimately, my point isn’t grounded in the piety; but the dogma that produces the piety. I brought that up because it’s true from my experience. But I think it’s true, because I think that having a God who is metaphysically construed as “Law Giver” does not cohere with God who is ontologically, “Lover.”

        If we can’t attempt critique at beliefs within theology, then why do theology; or why be Protestant? Semper Reformanda! ๐Ÿ™‚

      • My last post on this thread, I’m happy for you to have the last word:

        Genius that he was, I don’t think Jefferson cared a whit about the Trinity – and whether Barth or Thomas explained it to him, I doubt he would have been convinced…or cared.

        And I’m surely not trying to circumvent critique of my received theology at all. If so, I wouldn’t be at a conservative Baptist seminary working on a degree if that were the case. Believe me, I am a fish out of water! But disagreeing with you – or at least saying that you haven’t traced out any of your large claims sufficiently for me to embrace them – doesn’t entail circumventing discussion, does it?

        You say I am “relativizing” the conversation by making it more “complex.” It is not some rhetorical strategy on my part, to avoid theologizing. That is PART of the work of doing theology. Doctrine has a context. And theology is not just solving spiritual math problems with no application outside of the conversation – a point you made in different words earlier, i.e. it cashes out in the “real life consequences,” etc. So, what are the “real life consequences” that have resulted from the Aristotelian theological method and (alleged) metaphysic in the Reformers doctrine of God? P&W music? Jefferson’s apostasy? The Tea Party? Show your work! Seriously – there is a dissertation there if you could cleanly make the connections you are (so far only) asserting.

        And Father Bob is on to something, that seems to be your habit (not to get too Aristotelian on you) in this conversation – broad generalizing. Classical Reformed folks worship and theologize a God who is “metaphysically construed as “Law Giver” but not a “Lover.” Where do I start? Assuming that chestnut is an apt description, how does it preclude God being an “ontological lover”? Law is another way of saying “speech.” God speaks his words of life and truth to His people. Jesus Himself is God’s Divine Word (Heb. 1:1-2) Why does He speak? Why does He tell them the way of life? He loves them. Why the bifurcation between the two? Love means something – has content, right? How are God’s words not the appropriate content?


      • @Pat,

        No doubt on Jefferson.

        Doing a dissertation on this would almost amount to a waste of time, except for personal enrichment and earning a degree in the process. I’ve spent a lot of time with someone who already has done their PhD on this topic (at a respectable school in the UK, to boot), and all it’s gotten him is scorn (from most quarters). You could read his diss. if you’re interested — (email me and I’ll send it to you).

        But the thing is, every thing I assert in comboxes in the blogosphere has already been worked on by others; I’m not referring to the history as much as the theology itself. I think what’s frustrating to me with you, Pat; is that it almost seems like you think that I’ve made this stuff up (and I’m really not smart enough to invent such assertions, I’ve actually read this stuff from other sources [like Gunton, even Ayres]).

        And you keep saying that I’ve been generalizing; usually the knock against me is that I get too specific and nuanced, interesting. The funny thing is, I’ve been talking about something very specific; viz. how do essence/accidents work for articulating the Christian triune God? How am I supposed to get more specific than that? Since the idea of “Law Giver” is tied to that (the idea of a non-relational God), and that’s the form that it was expressed in, in English/American Puritanism (see Theodore Dwight Bozeman’s The Precisianist Strain Disciplinary Religion & Antinomian Backlash In Puritanism To 1638 here and Janice Knights Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism here); which gave us such things as the divine pactum the practical syllogism and experimental predestinarianism amongst other things. Law/Torah and speech might work for you constructively, today; but is that how it was framed back in the day (or even today, by some)? It doesn’t seem to be.

        Is it possible to nuance Federal Calvinism in more relational ways? Yes, I know that it is. But I don’t think classical theism provides the best apparatus for doing that; do you?

        PS. The guys I usually have in mind though, today, Pat; are guys associated with Westminster California, that style. Do you fit that style? You don’t seem to.


      • Amen Pat! Tom Jefferson was no theologian certainly, no matter how ya cut it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. Bobby,

    Luther was not a “Calvinist”, but he believed and taught ‘Law & Gospel’. We must beware I think of polarizing the Law of God! I don’t agree with every idea of Federal Calvinism (often seeing Federal Vision somewhat), but the Holy Scripture does have a full redemptive history.

    • I’m talking about Federal theology in particular. I’m not Anglican, yet; so I don’t have “all” traditions available to me yet ๐Ÿ˜‰ !

      • Bobby,

        I know, but we must also not caricature Federal Calvinism, though some of them caricature Federal Vision, sadly. Though I admit that the FV gets sloppy often. I am not really a Shephard fan. But, I do like both Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart. I am seeking some balance in the Federal Calvinism. I have also returned to the Active/Passive doctrine of the righteousness of Christ. Doug Wison though a FV holds it also. Just a point, etc. Have you seen Doug Wilson’s FV site? It is on my blogroll.

      • I don’t believe I have caricatured them. How have I done that?

      • Bobby,

        I did not say you had, but it is always a danger in heat of our desire I think. That was my point.

      • Bobby & Pat,

        I have always liked the Irish Articles 1615, basically by James Ussher. Note Article number 3. Of God’s Eternal Decree and Predestination…

        ‘God, from all eternity, did, by his unchangeable counsel, ordain whatsoever in time should come to pass; yet so as thereby no violence is offered to the wills of the resonable creatures, and neither the liberty nor the contingency of the second causes is taken away, but established rather.’

        Yes somewhat scholastic, but certainly a reasonable statement based upon the mystery but biblical nature of the Godhead.

      • That was also number 11, with the 3rd.

  23. This is what happens when a person makes his own Bible like Jefferson did…. there’s no end to stupidity

    • Jason,

      Perhaps the proper name of this thread should be: ‘the Humbling Dogmas of Calvinism’, rather than the “Demoralizing”? But certainly in the history of Calvinism, it has gotten out of round quite often, Hyper etc. And here the American Thomas Jefferson just cannot enter in! The Jefferson Bible is just an offensive itself! And we should all know the reality of deism. And perhaps we should note here too that Voltaire was himself a deist, and not an atheist really. But deism is very destructive to the Biblical doctrine of God! (As is Open Theism I might add.)

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