Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting expanded extracts of a popular-level address I gave on “The Impact of Calvinism on Culture.” Here’s an introduction to the series. (You might also want to read a few previous posts There’s More to Calvinism Than the Five Points of Calvinism,  There’s More to The Doctrines of Grace than THE Doctrines of Grace, and The Five Distortions of Calvinism).

If there’s one thing that Calvinism’s friends and enemies agree about, it’s that Calvinism has had a huge impact upon culture. After narrating how much hostility to Calvinism he had found in various academic locations, Australian theolgian Peter Jensen observed, ”The enemies of Calvinism are right in seeing in Calvinism an extraordinarily powerful ideology, one which they do well to be alarmed about.” [1]

In Engaging with Calvin, Mark Thompson wrote: “[Calvin] can legitimately lay claim to being one of the most influential of all Western thinkers.”[2] Thomson also asserted that Calvinism “is a movement that has not only contributed to the origin of the modern world but has played a socially and ecclesiastically significant role on all continents down to the present day.”[3]

In Calvin and CultureRichard Tewning confirms this by demonstrating that “Calvinism carried Calvin’s teachings across Europe and into the New World—North America.”[4]

Despite this agreement about Calvinism’s impact on the culture, when we get down to details, there is much debate about three main words in the title of this series. First, what is “culture”? Second, what is “Calvinism”? Third, what is “impact”? So let’s briefly answer some of the questions about the question before we get to some of the answers about the question in future posts.

First, for the purposes of this series, we will limit the word “culture” to six particular areas: education, politics, economics, marriage/the family, the law, and the arts. As we shall see, Calvinism has had a significant impact on these central components of Western culture, and consequently on American culture.

But I want to finish the series with a focus on American culture in particular, noting seven historical phases in Calvinism’s impact on America, from the first immigrants all the way up to New Calvinism, which Time magazine (March 12, 2009) ranked as one of the ten most influential ideas of our generation.

Second, as the inclusion of “Calvinism” in the title suggests, we will be tracing how Calvin and his followers (not just Calvin) applied his thought to various areas of life in influential ways.

Third, when measuring “impact” we’re talking about positive impact. Professor of Apologetics, Robert Knudsen asked:

Why is it that Calvinism has had a positive attitude toward culture and has been able to make constructive cultural contributions? Why indeed is it that this positive attitude belongs to the very genius of Calvinism, so much so that Calvin had in view not only a reformation in doctrine, in individual life, and in the life of the church, but also a transformation of all of culture in the name of Christ? [5]

In terms of positive impact, we won’t just highlight what Calvinism introduced that was brand new, but also at how it tweaked existing ideas and influences, and how it built upon them in ways that made them better.

Next time, we’ll begin to look at Calvinism’s impact on education.

[1] Peter F. Jensen, Engaging with Calvin: Aspects of the Reformer’s Legacy for Todayed. Mark D. Thompson (Nottingham: Apollos, 2009), 255.

[2] Introduction, Engaging with Calvin, 11.

[3] Oliver D. Crisp, Engaging with Calvin, 145.

[4] Richard C. Chewning, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview, ed. David W. Hall and Marvin Padgett (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2010), 207.

[5] Robert Knudsen, John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World, ed. W Stanford Reid (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 14.