It is most often identified with Calvin's teaching on the question of salvation. His view was summed up by five points, often referred to by the acronym TULIP:
- Total Depravity - every person is born with a sinful nature since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden.
- Unconditional Election - God chose every person whom He would save. This is also referred to as Predestination.
- Limited Atonement - Jesus only died for those whom God chose for salvation.
- Irresistible Grace - Man has no free will over his eternal fate, and anybody whom God chooses for salvation cannot resist His call.
- Perseverance of the Saints - Once one is saved, they cannot lose their salvation and will persevere throughout their lives.
Some persons do not hold to all five points, and refer to themselves by the number of "points" to which they adhere. For example, a number of people agree with all points except for Limited Atonement, and thus refer to themselves as "Four Point Calvinists".
The basic distinction of Calvinism is that it teaches that the purpose of all creation is to glorify God. That is therefore the central theme of Calvinism. It also emphasizes God's supremacy over all spheres of life, holding firmly to the doctrine of divine providence.
Calvin himself published his Institutes of the Chrstian Religion in 1559. This comprehensive work is characterized by his motto of Sola Sacra Scriptura, because he believed the Bible to be the absolute authority in all matters of faith and containing all that is necessary for salvation.
The opposite of Calvinism is considered to be Arminianism, which was named after Jacobus Arminius. It should be noted here that neither John Calvin nor Jacobus Arminius truly came up with the theologies named after them, as the ideas contained within the respective beliefs have been debated upon even as far back as Paul in Romans 5.
Calvinists observe two sacraments, and see the bread and wine used during the Lord's Supper as symbolic but also that Christ is really present with the worshippers. They are not, therefore, strict representationalists, as many other Protestants are. They reject baptismal regeneration, but teach that baptism is a sign of God's covenanted love and election.
While the sovereignty of God, the supremacy of the Bible, and the process by which men are saved are the most famous elements in Reformed theology, certain social standards, the church's form of government, and the style in which the worship services are conducted are also part of what amounts to "Calvinism." Calvinist worship is much less ceremonial than that associated with Lutherans and Anglicans (the two other leading branches of the Reformation). The governance of the local congregation is in the hands of a number of ministers, not just the pastor; and regional assemblies are the highest unit of administration.
The purpose of the Calvinist Reformation was to reform the church back to the Bible in the time of the New Testament. Calvinists thus hold to the three historic creeds of the Church: the Creed of Athanasius, the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed. Calvin spent most of his time working in Geneva, Switzerland. From there, Calvinism spread to the Netherlands, Germany, England, Scotland and Hungary.
In the different countries, Calvinism developed into different traditions. Although all share the same beliefs, they drew up different confessions. The Dutch Reformed tradition holds to the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Cathegism and the Canons of Dordt, the Swiss hold to the Helvetic Confession and the Scots to the Westminster Standards (Confession and two Cathechisms).
Calvinism spread to different parts of the world, most notably the USA and South Africa The English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians, as well as smaller numbers of German and Dutch immigrants brought Calvinism to the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries. Large numbers of Dutch, Germans and French Huguenots also brought their Calvinist faith to South Africa in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.