From John Ray's shorter notes

July 15, 2004

Calvinism, Servetus and predestination

I must admit to being a bit surprised at this post. A blogger is boasting of being a Calvinist. Although a born-and-bred Presbyterian myself, I thought that nobody these days identified as a Calvinist. The fact that Calvin burnt the brilliant scientist Servetus at the stake would make most people hesitant about mentioning Calvin these days, I would think. The Calvinists actually denounced Servetus to the Spanish Inquisition but when he escaped the Spaniards, the Calvinists burnt him themselves. Amazing. He was arrested while attending church in Geneva, convicted of heresy and blasphemy against Christianity, and burned at the stake on October 27, 1553.

And what was Servetus's great sin? He reported the circulation of the blood in 1553, among other things -- long before William Harvey reported it in 1628. Servetus's biggest blunder, however, was to point to what a lot of gobbledegook that great theological compromise known as the doctrine of the Trinity is. Although the doctrine originated as a solution to battles among the Christian fanatics of old Byzantium around the year 300 A.D., Calvinists still believe it (or try to) to this day.

The most distinctive doctrine of Calvinism is predestination. Keith Burgess-Jackson had a post recently which questioned why people say "It was meant to be" or "It happened for a reason". Such expressions appear to be versions of the original Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which was a founding doctrine of the Presbyterian Church and which is also given guarded approval in the 39 "Articles of Religion" of the Church of England (See article 17). The puzzle, then, is not that Christians believe it but that others do. "It was meant to be" was certainly a common expression in my generally irreligious but nominally Protestant family as I was growing up and, on occasions when it was particularly heartfelt, it would be expanded to: "It was all laid down long before we were ever thought of". And I know many other people of Protestant background but only the vaguest of personal religious convictions who make similar utterances with some regularity. Why? Does it really indicate religious belief? I don't think that it always does. When I ask people "who laid it down?" or "who meant it to be?", I not infrequently get a denial that it was the doing of God. What I think happens among unbelievers is that they perceive a non-random patterning of events in their lives and instinctively feel that there are unknown forces or influences at work (generally beneficial ones) which have brought that patterning about. It reflects a sense that something was inevitable for some reason or at least part of a larger whole. I myself have never had the slightest twitch of predestinarian thinking or feeling but many good and wise people certainly see such patterning in their lives all the time.

The Biblical origin of the doctrine of predestination is Ephesians chapter 1

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