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A Manichaean Rebuttal of Calvinism

Manichaeism, an ancient religious movement founded by the prophet Mani in the 3rd century, offered a dualistic interpretation of the world, positing the existence of opposing forces of good and evil. In this essay, we will explore a Manichaean rebuttal of Calvinism, a Protestant theological system that emphasizes the sovereignty of God, predestination, and the total depravity of humanity.


Mani’s mythography provided a relatively coherent picture of the universe and the human condition. Although the ideas share parallels with other religious systems, Manichaeism provides a distinctive worldview. The basic question Mani addressed was the origin of evil (Coyle, Manichaeism, xiv). In Manichean mythology, the universe consisted of two equal but opposite powers: Light and Darkness (or Good and Evil). According to Mani’s beliefs, the Darkness attacked the Light, and the Light called forth a champion, the Primal Man (or First Man), who sacrificed himself to defend the Light. Aspects of the Primal Man (made of Light) become intermingled with the Darkness, which led to the creation of the material realm (Baker-Brian, Manichaeism, 12–15). Mani believed the universe consisted of matter restraining those scattered fragments of light. Since Manicheans believed living beings of all sorts contain particles of light, the Manicheans abstained from violence toward all living things, especially animals.

A distinctive prophetology acted as the core of the belief system, allowing Manichaeism to incorporate aspects of Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian systems. In this, Mani was viewed by some as the successor to Jesus and prophets of other religions. For many, Mani stood as the final messenger, who revealed the true nature of the world—specifically, humanity—and how the universe can be made right again (van Oort, “Manichaeism,” 44). Most significantly, Mani’s teachings instructed humanity how to be righteous, which enabled the elect to release the light within them at death (Tardieu, Manichaeism, 87–88).

Communal Structure

Part of Manichaeism’s success derived from its efficient hierarchy (adapted from pre-existing forms tangentally related to Christianity). The community consisted of two basic classes:

1. the elect

2. the hearers

The elect devoted themselves to the greatest amount of purity, requiring a high level of moral commitment and religious energy. The mass of the elect were the monks, who stood on equal hierarchical footing with the hearers. Above the monks were deacons, 72 bishops, and 12 “masters”—roughly equivalent to the 12 apostles (Tardieu, Manichaeism, 59). One final office, the 13th master, functioned as the head of the entire community, maintaining the same authoritative role as Mani himself. All of the elect had a strict moral code, which included celibacy, strict vegetarianism, and poverty (Tardieu, Manichaeism, 63).

Hearers saw to the provision of the basic needs for the elect. In exchange for offering food and funds, the hearers received consideration from the elect in their prayers, and also gained the potential to be reincarnated as elect in the next life (Tardieu, Manichaeism, 60). While freed from some of the stricter demands that the elect faced (e.g., celibacy), hearers adhered to clear moral guidelines, such as speaking with honesty, avoiding violence to living beings, and giving alms.

Historical Development

Manicheaism spread rapidly throughout central and western Asia, reaching as far as Egypt and Rome by AD 300. The community had an exotic appeal to many within the Roman Empire. The Manichaeans emerged as competitors to Christianity in the late third to early fourth centuries.

With the accession of Constantine and the new political power in the hands of catholic bishops, Manichaean communities began to suffer persecution. The combination of persecution, and lack of political status caused Manichaean communities from Spain to China to disintegrate. Manichaeism had disappeared from most places in the world by the 10th or 11th centuries (BeDuhn, Manichaean Body, ix—x).

Impacts on Christianity

Manichaeism played an important role in spurring key ideas among its Christian counterparts, especially with Augustine. Augustine had extensive engagement with the Manicheans because of their strong presence in his native North Africa. He also had spent nearly a decade as a hearer among the sect (van Oort, “Augustine”). Teachings of Augustine that partly derive from his encounter with and fight against Manichaeism include his views on (van Oort, “Augustine,” 199):

• Scripture

• election

• the corporeal transmission of sin

• the metaphor of the two cities or kingdoms

• Christ-centered spirituality


One of the central tenets of Calvinism is the concept of predestination, which holds that God has already determined the fate of every individual, including whether they will be saved or damned. This deterministic view of salvation stands in stark contrast to the Manichaean belief in the eternal struggle between the forces of light and darkness. In the Manichaean world-view, salvation is not predetermined, but is the result of the individual's choice to align themselves with the forces of light and reject the forces of darkness. Manichaeism therefore rejects the Calvinist notion of predestination, as it deprives individuals of the ability to choose their own salvation, and instead emphasizes the importance of free will in the spiritual journey.

According to Calvin, God ordains some to everlasting life, others to everlasting punishment. God does not choose the elect for any good he sees in them, or which he sees they will do; nor does he select some for eternal reprobation because of their evil deeds foreseen by him. Indeed, as the whole nature of fallen man, in Calvin’s view, is “utterly devoid of goodness; is a seed-bed of sin,” which “cannot but be odious and abominable to God;” as man has no freewill, and as God’s grace is absolutely irresistible; it follows that there can be no question of merits foreseen, on account of which God chooses the elect, or of demerits, because of which the reprobate are rejected. Calvin’s words are explicit on this point. “If,” he writes, “we cannot assign any reason for his [God’s] bestowing mercy on his people, but just that it pleases him, neither can he have any reason for reprobating others but his will.” Here, of course, Calvinist heresy is in sharp antagonism to Catholic doctrine, according to which God by his eternal decree condemns none, except for their sins foreseen by Him and of course freely committed.

As to the means by which the elect actually enter into a state of salvation, Calvin was at one with the rest of the Reformers. He taught that justification is effected by faith and by faith alone. Calvin’s doctrine on the sacraments—of which he only recognised Baptism and the Eucharist—stands mid-way between that of Luther and Zwingli. He considered the doctrine of the latter (which made the sacraments mere signs of Christian profession, tokens by which a man is known as such among his fellow-Christians) to be erroneous and even profane. He speaks of the sacraments as mystical signs instituted by God, who through them, not only reminds men of past benefits, but also renews these benefits, seals his promises, strengthens and increases the faith of the recipient by the operation of the Holy Ghost. Thus, to Calvin, the sacraments were not bare signs, but real channels of grace. But it was to the elect only that they conveyed this grace. To others, they were bare and inoperative symbols.

Manichaean's teachings on the nature of good and evil conflict with Calvinist interpretations of divine will and human destiny in several ways.

First, Manichaean teachings emphasize a dualistic understanding of good and evil, positing that these forces are in constant conflict with each other. In contrast, Calvinist interpretations emphasize the sovereignty of God and his control over all aspects of existence, including the existence of evil. This leads to a more monistic understanding of the relationship between good and evil, where evil is ultimately a part of God's plan and serves a greater purpose.

Second, Manichaean teachings suggest that human beings have a role to play in the eternal struggle between good and evil, and that they must actively choose to align themselves with the forces of good to achieve salvation. In contrast, Calvinist interpretations emphasize the concept of predestination, asserting that God has already determined the fate of each individual and that their salvation or damnation is already predetermined, regardless of their actions.

Lastly, Manichaean teachings emphasize the importance of asceticism and self-discipline in order to combat the influence of evil in the world, while Calvinist interpretations emphasize the concept of grace and the inability of human beings to earn their own salvation through their actions.

Overall, the Manichaean teachings on the nature of good and evil conflict with Calvinist interpretations of divine will and human destiny in their understanding of the relationship between God, humanity, and the forces of good and evil.

Calvinism teaches the doctrine of total depravity, which asserts that all humans are born into sin and are incapable of choosing good apart from the grace of God. This belief runs counter to the Manichaean understanding of the innate duality within each individual, in which the divine spark of light is constantly at war with the forces of darkness. Manichaeism places a strong emphasis on the individual's responsibility to discern and choose the path of righteousness, rather than being inherently depraved and unable to make moral choices. The Manichaean rebuttal therefore challenges the Calvinist notion of total depravity, asserting that humans are capable of choosing good and aligning themselves with the forces of light.

Finally, Calvinism emphasizes the sovereignty of God, asserting that all events, including human decisions, are ultimately under the control of a divine and omnipotent God. This deterministic view of divine sovereignty contradicts the Manichaean belief in the constant struggle between the forces of light and darkness, in which neither side has absolute power over the other.

In the Manichaean world-view, the struggle between good and evil is ongoing and individuals can contribute to the forces of light through their choices and actions. Manichaeism therefore rejects the Calvinist understanding of divine sovereignty, as it diminishes the agency of individuals in the cosmic battle between good and evil.

In conclusion, Manichaeism offers a compelling rebuttal to Calvinism on several key theological points.

The rejection of predestination and total depravity in favour of the emphasis on free will and the individual's ability to choose good aligns with the Manichaean understanding of the eternal struggle between the forces of light and darkness. Furthermore, the Manichaean emphasis on the ongoing cosmic battle between good and evil challenges the Calvinist notion of divine sovereignty and the deterministic view of God's control over all events. Ultimately, the Manichaean rebuttal presents a theological perspective that places a strong emphasis on the individual's agency and responsibility in the spiritual journey, in contrast to the deterministic and depraved view of humanity presented in Calvinism.

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