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Washington State University
Donna M. Campbell New England Puritan Culture

Calvinism, Sermon Structure, and the Arminian Controversy

Calvinism, Sermon Structure, and the Arminian Controversy



The works of John Calvin (1509-1564), especially his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), were central to Puritan beliefs because they asked central questions: how do we acquire knowledge of God and of ourselves? According to Nicholas Wolterstorff in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Thomas Aquinas had taught that the theologian should start with God and then consider creatures insofar as they relate to God as their beginning and end. Calvin broke decisively with this approach in claiming that knowledge of God is so interrelated with knowledge of ourselves that the one cannot be had without the other. He taught that when we accurately reflect on ourselves, we realize the excellence of our natural gifts; but we also realize that our exercise of these gifts yields ‘miserable ruin’ and unhappiness, and that ‘our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God.’ Without this realization of our misery and dependence-especially of our misery-none of us comes, or even tries to come, to a knowledge of God. On the other hand, there is also no knowledge of self without a knowledge of God. Without a standard by which to measure ourselves, we invariably yield to pride, overestimating the worth of our natural gifts and overlooking the corruption that has resulted from the exercise of those gifts.  (II: 7)

Calvin believed that simply knowing truths about God did not, as the Scholastics would have it, mean the same thing as knowing God. Instead, individuals must cultivate this awareness of deity through examination of the seeds of divinity within each person as well as through contemplation of and reflection on the world. Sin, for Calvin, is the opposite of knowing God; and a corrupt reason and will can prevent this knowledge.Calvin’s social thought was also influential. He believed that human beings were creatures of fellowship and that Church and State satisfied a human need for this type of grouping. According to Wolterstorff,

The concern of the church is the spiritual realm, the life of the inner man; the concern of the state is the temporal realm, the regulation of external conduct. In regulating external conduct, the general aim of the state, in Calvin’s view, is to insure justice or equity in society at large. This equity has two facets. Obviously the state must enforce restrictive justice, but Calvin also believed that the state should secure distributive justice, doing its best to eliminate gross inequalities in the material status of its members. (9)

Like John Winthrop (see “A Model of Christian Charity”), Calvin believed that an ideal government would be a republic in which power is balanced among magistrates and in which a competent ruling aristocracy is elected by the citizens.


Calvinism is a system of theological thought found in the doctrinal expressions of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. The famous “Five Points” represent a somewhat narrow and debased definition of Calvinist thought, since they were formulated in opposition to the five articles of the Arminians. Since they are well known, however, they have been included here.

The Five Points of Calvinism (often remembered through the acronym T U L I P)1. Total depravity. Man is naturally unable to exercise free will, since through Adam’s fall he has suffered hereditary corruption. Evil was a palpable presence in the Puritans’ world, and it was often symbolized by the struggle between light and darkness. In this system, it was impossible to find disillusioned Puritans, for they believed that there was no horror that man could not commit.

2. Unconditional election. Election manifests itself through God’s wisdom to elect those to be saved, despite their inability to perform saving works. Only a chosen few are so elected, and simply being a church member did not necessarily signify election.

3. Limited atonement. Man’s hereditary corruption is partially atoned for by Christ, and this atonement is provided to the elect through the Holy Spirit. This limited atonement gives them the power to attempt to obey God’s will as revealed through the Bible.

4. Irresistible and prevenient grace, made only to the elect. Grace was a “motion of the heart” that was God’s gift to the elect-unconditional, irresistible, and inexorable. It came to each directly and could not be taken away. It promised “ecstatic intimacy with the divine” or “soul liberty.” When Winthrop talks about liberty, this is the sort that he counts on his audience recalling.

5. Perseverance of saints. Those who are predetermined as elect inevitably persevere in the path of holiness.

Sermon Structure: A Brief Outline Guide

For more information than is contained in this brief outline, see especially Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul:  Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England ( New York: Oxford UP, 1986), Sacvan Bercovitch,  The American Jeremiad  (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1978), and Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. See also the Selected Bibliography on Puritanism. To read Puritan sermons online, go to the Fire and Ice site.


Origins in Cicero’s dicta that oratory should instruct, convince, and excite the listener.
Parts of an Oration (based on Cicero)

A. Exordium, or introduction.  Wilhelm Zepper (1598) compared this to the opening bars of a piece of music that renders the audience attentive.  Puritan writers, however, “condemned the exordium because it was first of all unnecessary to true believers, who should be sufficiently regardful of the preacher without any artificial capturing of their attention” (Miller, New England Mind 340).B. Narration, or Statement of the Case. Causes and circumstances of the text.
C. Proposition or Partition of the Case.   Statement of the doctrine or theological position.
D. Confirmation or Proof. Demonstration of the truth of the position to the intellect.
E. Refutation. Rebuttal of objections and heresies.
F. Peroration. Recapitulation and amplification of the argument designed to arouse emotion in the listener.


Parts of a Sermon
A.Laying open the text

1. Grammatical meaning
2. Logical meaning
3. Figurative meaning

B. Doctrine

1. Partition and division of the topic
2. Collects profitable points of Scripture

C. Reasons

1. Demonstration of the truth of the doctrine
2. Leads to rational conviction

D. Application
E. Epilogue

1. Magnifies arguments
2. Leaves listener well-disposed, refreshed, and stimulated to further action

Puritan and Anglican Sermons

Perry Miller, The New England Mind: “The Anglican sermon is constructed on a symphonic scheme of progressively widening vision; it moves from point to point by verbal analysis, weaving larger and larger embroideries about the words of the text.  The Puritan sermon quotes the text and “opens” it as briefly as possible, expounding circumstances and context, explaining its grammatical meanings, reducing its tropes and schemata to prose, and setting forth its logical implications; the sermon then proclaims in a flat, indicative sentence the “doctrine” contained in the text or logically deduced from it, and proceeds to the first reason or proof.   Reason follows reason, with no other transition than a period and a number; after the last proof is stated there follow the uses or applications, also in numbered sequence, and the sermon ends when there is nothing more to be said. The Anglican sermon opens with a pianissimo exordium, gathers momentum through a rising and quickening tempo, comes generally to a rolling, organ-toned peroration; the Puritan begins with a reading of the text, states the reason in an order determined by logic, and the uses in an enumeration determined by the kinds of person in the throng who need to be exhorted or reproved, and it stops without flourish or resounding climax” (332-3).
For more information than is contained in this brief outline, see especially Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul:  Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England ( New York: Oxford UP, 1986), Sacvan Bercovitch,  The American Jeremiad  (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1978), and Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. See also the Selected Bibliography on Puritanism. To read Puritan sermons online, go to the Fire and Ice site.<

The Arminian Controversy


For a more extended discussion of this controversy, see the works listed in the
Selected Bibliography on Puritanism and also the Jonathan Edwards Center.
DefinitionsThe beliefs of Jacobus Arminius (Jacob Harmanszoon, 1560-1609), a Dutch theologian, reflected dissatisfaction with the principal tenets of Calvinism. According to R. L Colie in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Arminius “came to doubt the deterministic doctrine of damnation, and believed that election, dependent in part on man’s free will, was not arbitrary but arose from God’s pity for fallen men” (I:164). As a professor of theology at Leiden from 1603 until his death, Arminius had a great influence on the doctrinal debates of his time, and Dutch Arminianism was closely linked to secular intellectual life.


The Great Remonstrance published in 1610 by the Arminian clergy codified Arminius’s beliefs into five major points:

    1. Rejection of the doctrine of election
    2. Rejection of predestination
    3. Rejection of the belief that Christ died for the elect alone
    4. Rejection of the belief in irresistible grace
    5. Assertion of the belief that saints could fall from grace.

In 1618, at the Synod of Dort (Dordrecht), these tenets were declared heretical, and orthodox Calvinism was upheld. (See the “Five Points” of refutation.) Arminians (Remonstrants) were arrested on charges of treason and given the choice of recantation or exile, although some later returned to Holland.As Perry Miller comments in The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, “Arminianism was heresy [to the Puritans], not because it tried to make God just, but because it secured His justice at the expense of His essential power, forcing Him to solicit the help of man, holding Him powerless to change a man who chooses to be evil.  It was wrong to say that God expects anything from man in the sense of leaving any decree uncertain or dependent upon man’s doing, as though God has to wait before He can tell whether the creature will fulfill the expectation, but it was correct to say that in the Covenant He expects a return from those whom he foreknows will give it” (404).

For a different view of Arminianism, read the argument of John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism.