July 10, 2005

Radio Interview on Hyper-Calvinism

I recently did a radio interview with Gene Cook of Unchained Radio on the issue of Hyper-Calvinism.

For a couple of years now, I have been digging deeply into this issue and related theological subjects. In many ways, I feel like Andrew Fuller in his escape from higher forms of Calvinism that compromised the well-meant offer of the gospel. I was once a High Calvinist (particularly in my strictly limited and commercial view of the design of the atonement) on the verge of being Hyper on the issue of the offer. It's not that I was not interested in evangelism or preaching the gospel indiscriminately to all, but I was not thinking that God wanted anyone except the elect to be saved. In other words, there was a significant dichotomy in my thinking regarding my offers of the gospel and God's offer. God wanted me to share the gospel with everyone, but only with a view to saving the elect. There was no sense in which he wanted to save the non-elect. Anyone who seemed to teach such a thing was theologically suspect of Arminianism or Amyraldism. The well-meant aspect of the offer is what troubled me. As Curt Daniel notes in his lectures on The History and Theology of Calvinism, the rejection of offers was essential to Hyper-Calvinism.

However, Hyper-Calvinism, as Phil Johnson notes in his Primer, "comes in several flavors, so it admits no simple, pithy definition." Hyper-Calvinism not only has problems with offers (particularly the well-meant intention of God in the offer), but they have problems with the universal love of God evidenced in common grace, and also difficulties with what is called 'duty-faith'. Here are several definitions that capture some of the ingredients of Hyper-Calvinism:

Curt Daniel, in his doctoral dissertation on Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill, gives his definition as:
Hyper-Calvinism is that school of Supralapsarian "Five Point" Calvinism which so stresses the sovereignty of God by over-emphasizing the secret over the revealed will and eternity over time, that it minimizes the responsibility of Man, notably with respect to the denial of the word "offer" in relation to the preaching of the Gospel of a finished and limited atonement, thus undermining the universal duty of sinners to believe savingly with the assurance that the Lord Jesus Christ died for them, with the result that presumption is overly warned of, introspection is overly encouraged, and a view of sanctification akin to doctrinal Antinomianism is often approached. This (definition) could be summarized even further: it is the rejection of the word "offer" in connection with evangelism for supposedly Calvinistic reasons.
Curt Daniel, Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1983), 767.

Peter Toon describes it this way:
It is a system of theology framed to exalt the honour and glory of God and does so by acutely minimizing the moral and spiritual responsibility of sinners. It puts excessive emphasis on acts belonging to God’s immanent being – the immanent acts of God, eternal justification, eternal adoption, and the eternal covenant of grace. It makes no meaningful distinction between the secret and revealed will of God, thereby deducing the duty of sinners from the secret decrees of God. It emphasizes irresistible grace to such an extent that there appears to be no real need to evangelize; furthermore, Christ may be offered only to the elect.
Iain Murray gives something of a description in The Forgotten Spurgeon:
Hyper-Calvinism in its attempt to square all truth with God's purpose to save the elect, denies that there is a universal command to repent and believe, and asserts that we have only warrant to invite to Christ those who are conscious of a sense of sin and need. In other words, it is those who have been spiritually quickened to seek a Saviour and not those who are in the death of unbelief and indifference, to whom the exhortations of the Gospel must be addressed. In this way a scheme was devised for restricting the Gospel to those who there is reason to suppose are elect.
The Forgotten Spurgeon (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1998), 47.

Phil Johnson gives 5 things that describe it:
A hyper-Calvinist is someone who either:

1. Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear, OR
2. Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner, OR
3. Denies that the gospel makes any "offer" of Christ, salvation, or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal), OR
4. Denies that there is such a thing as "common grace," OR
5. Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.
My definition would be:
Hyper-Calvinism is that school of theology that so emphasizes the sovereign, decretal will of God to the exclusion of the preceptive will, that one or more of these points follows:

1) The universal love of God for all men, as taught by the doctrine of common grace, is denied.
2) The sincere desire of God that all men keep his commandment to believe on Christ (the well-meant offer) is denied.
3) The universal responsibility of men to savingly or evangelically believe the gospel and repent is denied (i.e. duty-faith).
4) The TULIP doctrines are elevated to an essential status, so that those denying any of the points are, on that basis, deemed to be lost or unregenerate sinners.
The fundamental problem, as stated by these definitions above, is an overemphasis on the sovereign, decretive will of God to the exclusion of other important and vital truths of scripture.

I would say the same thing about myself that Phil says of himself:
Lest anyone wonder where my own convictions lie, I am a Calvinist. I am a five-point Calvinist, affirming without reservation the Canons of the Synod of Dordt. And when I speak of hyper-Calvinism, I am not using the term as a careless pejorative. I'm not an Arminian who labels all Calvinism "hyper." When I employ the term, I am using it in its historical sense.
The definition of Hyper-Calvinism is not like a wax nose to be shaped and formed however one sees fit. An honest and historical investigation yields a fair and objective definition like Curt Daniel's above. While the definitions above point out different ingredients, the essence or core of what Hyperism is remains the same.

Curt Daniel says that the core is the rejection of "offers." He's right. However, it does not necessarily mean that one rejects offers to the extreme of not engaging in evangelism as some think. The Primitive Baptists were of this variety. Dr. Daniel rightly points out, in his audio lecture, that not every version of Hyper-Calvinism was of that variety, contrary to the false conclusions of David Engelsma of the Protestant Reformed Church. Most people only know about the rumored quotation of John Ryland Sr. to William Carey when he said, "Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine!" This is the extent of what many people know about Hyper-Calvinism. The anti-evangelistic strain of Hyperism was not the only variety of the error, but they just undermined human responsibility and God's use of significant secondary causes for the fulfillment of his decrees. They made man passive in conversion (downplayed the will of man in the act of believing) so that faith was a kind of inner illumination or awakening to your already privileged status as one of the elect. The doctrines of eternal justification and Calvinistic Antinomianism are related to this variety.

The more I reflect on the issue and the subterranean concepts at work, the more the doctrine of the will of God stands out as absolutely fundamental. As Dr. Daniel says in his lecture on the will of God, if one makes a mistake here, they are "bound to go astray." Phil Johnson observes the same thing when he says, "hyper-Calvinists tend to stress the secret (or decretive) will of God over His revealed (or preceptive) will. Indeed, in all their discussion of "the will of God," hyper-Calvinists routinely obscure any distinction between God's will as reflected in His commands and His will as reflected in his eternal decrees. Yet that distinction is an essential part of historic Reformed theology." This is crucial to notice since it undergirds all of the confusion. It's the reason why R. L. Dabney saw fit to write an excellent theological essay on God's offers and his sincerity.

The sincerity or well-meaning nature of the offer is tied to God's intentions or will. Would someone seem sincere to you if they commanded you to do something but really did not desire your compliance to the command? Wouldn't they seem hypocritical? Wouldn't they seem evil if they were merely wanting you to violate a good command? Would not a benevolent commander command something for the well-being of the one commanded? These questions should point out how the sincerity, goodness and well-meaning nature of God's intentions are at stake in the issue of gospel commands.

God commands all men everywhere to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ though preaching. Does he really mean it? Does he really want everyone to comply with those good commandments? Are the commands insincere with respect to those not decreed to obey (i.e. in the case of the non-elect)? If God commands everyone to repent and believe on Christ through preaching, then does that imply that there is something really available in the atonement for them? Or if they were to believe, would they be disappointed by the discovery that the atonement is strictly limited and not really available for them at all? Would they come to a feast only to discover that there really wasn't a sufficient amount of food for them to begin with? Does the sincerity of the call to the gospel feast imply a sufficient amount of food in Christ's flesh for all? A strictly limited atonement view entails a denial of this, at least in the sense of God's intentions. They would say that there is an intrinsic sufficiency in Christ's death due to the quality of his person, but the sufficiency is unrelated to any intentionality in God whereby he desires everyone to come to Christ and feed on him. In other words, the sufficiency is really hypothetical and not an ordained (intentional) sufficiency in the sense that John Davenant and Edmund Calamy thought. Most Calvinists admit that Christ's death is sufficient for all, but they don't all mean the same thing by saying that. Some hold to an ordained or intentional sufficiency for all (suffered for all sufficiently), while others see the sufficiency as incidental and unrelated to God's singular intention (the decretal will), design or motive behind the death he died. However, Calamy says:
I am far from universal redemption in the Arminian sense; but that that I hold is in the sense of our divines [e.g. Bishop Davenant] in the Synod of Dort, that Christ did pay a price for all. . . that Jesus Christ did not only die sufficiently for all, but God did intend, in giving Christ, and Christ in giving himself, did intend to put all men in a state of salvation in case they do believe. . .
Quoted in Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, eds. A. F. Mitchell and J. Struthers (London, 1874), 152.

At this point, one should be able to see how the issue of the design of the atonement is related to Hyper-Calvinism. They hold a strictly limited view because they hold a narrow, decretal view of God's will to the exclusion of the preceptive will. If one holds to a decretal/strictly limited view of the atonement, it is easy to see how one may restrict gospel offers to those who seem to evidence their election, i.e. to "sensible sinners." What some Hyper-Calvinists did historically was preach the gospel facts to everyone, but only offered Christ to sensible sinners. A sensible sinner was one showing genuine conviction of sin and a true desire for the things of God. This was evidence of their election. Preach to all, but offer Christ to the elect alone.

Some of them dismissed the idea of offers altogether because offers imply some sort of conditionality. They took "unconditional election" to mean no conditions in any sense whatsoever, and not merely an exclusion of meritorious conditions as the Reformers taught. It is true that God does not elect some on the basis of foreseen faith or any other evangelical virtue, but that does not mean that he will save us apart from our act of faith in Christ. Election unto justification is through the instrumental cause or condition of faith. This secondary causation or condition was virtually eliminated through a perverted conception of divine sovereignty. Once the role of human response was downplayed in favor of divine sovereignty, the idea of "offers" and/or conditionality left as well.

There is an inability to make careful distinctions among the Hyper-Calvinists, therefore false either/or dilemma fallacies abound. It's either meritorious conditions or no sense of conditionality. It's either a strictly limited atonement, or an Arminian view of the atonement. It's either God's decretive will or a frustrated deity in the Arminian sense. It's either divine sovereignty or human responsibility. The gospel call is either well-meant only toward the elect, or the gospel call has no special reference to anyone in particular. It's either a God who loves only the elect, or he has the same kind of love for all men. As I said in my Paradox and Mystery post:
Bad theology is rash theology because it is unwilling to wait on God to illuminate the totality of what he has revealed. Bad theology clings to one truth at the expense of another, and thus warps the biblical picture of God in the name of "logic" that is really unsound logic. Arminianism, Neo-Socinianism (Open Theism) and Hyper-Calvinism are all examples of this. This perverse use of "logic" is what should be associated with rationalism, but not what it means to be rational. There is an inability to distinguish between senses in their case. They seem at times to think that the Law of Noncontradiction is that A cannot be non-A at the same time. That is NOT the law. The law says that A cannot be non-A at the same time and in the same sense. That is a crucial qualification.
God has been teaching me about these issues through gifted teachers and theologians in recent years, hence my many posts and discussions about it. The "Calvinism" that is prevalent today is actually the High Calvinism of John Owen. It's then imposed on John Calvin as if he believed the same way. Once this Owenic theology is thoroughly mixed with a further decretal bent of mind, commercialistic categories, an emphasis of the eternal over time, and an adherence to divine simplicity to the exclusion of any sense of complexity in God, then Hyperism will flourish again. The jump from High Calvinism into Hyper-Calvinism through theoretical antinomianism is not that far. Put a few more ingredients listed above into the mix of High Calvinism, and the product is Hyper-Calvinism.

Update on 12-10-14: I also did this radio interview with Gene Cook (The Narrow Mind on June 22, 2013) on the subject of Phil Johnson's Primer on Hyper-Calvinism.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

Great post. As one who was delivered from a loveless, antinomian hyper-calvinism I can relate to much of what you say.

The lack of teaching showing me that there was a third way and the application of decretal will emphasizing aristotelian logic very quickly led me into hyper-calvinism after I came to understand the doctrines of grace. Along with a critical spirit in which I wanted to criticize the slightest doctrinal error it also brought apathy and a feeling of dejection.

KP said...

Excellent post, Tony. Thanks for this. Your focused study of this important issue has definitely been profitable and others (and I count myself among them) are reaping the fruit of your labor. I'm so glad you yielded to the temptation to blog. ;-)

Mark Ritchie said...


Just discovered your blog through Phil Johnson's link. Thanks for this careful discussion. I hope you're not too down on Owen, though. When you read Andrew Fuller's classic Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, which demolished the Hypers of his day, it's clear that it was the theologies of Owen and Edwards that helped deliver Fuller from the error.

Tony Byrne said...

Hi Mark,

Well, I do respect Owen as a deep Christian thinker. I wouldn't want to smear him or be unfair by implying that he was hyper. I recall reading somewhere that he was an infralapsarian as well, like Turretin.

What bothers me is his strictly limited atonement view based on commercialistic categories and other problematic assumptions. I am also bothered by the prevailing Owenic paradigm today among "Calvinists." His system is imposed on Calvin as if Owen agreed with Calvin. It's assumed that there is more continuity than discontinuity between them. It strikes me as sheer propaganda.

I am glad that men like Fuller escaped Gillism through reading Owen and Edwards. I especially like Edwards' insights on the nature of God and the offer. These two men did not go to the extreme of Gill, and for that I am thankful.

I may write an entry on some of my concerns about Owenism in the future, but I need to study alot more before I do so. In the meantime, thanks for your comments about Fuller etc.

Grace to you,

Tony Byrne said...

For those interested in a critical analysis of John Owen's atonement views, read A. C. Clifford's Atonement and Justification, Oxford 1990.

Also, go to TREN and download the $15 e-doc version of Neil Chambers' A Critical Examination Of John Owen's Argument For Limited Atonement In "The Death of Death In The Death of Christ."

Steve Costley said...

Good job, Tony. This is what the blogosphere is for.

Tony Byrne said...

A. C. Clifford, in his book Atonement and Justification, says this in a footnote:

"Andrew Fuller opposed Gill's hypercalvinism and, in a letter to Jonathan Edwards' pupil Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803) dated 17 Mar. 1798, he lamented the continuing influence of Owen. (see Fuller's letter in the Angus Library, Regent's Park College, Oxford).

footnote #13, page 122 in Clifford.

Tony Byrne said...

Phil Johnson's comment on this post is HERE