By Ron F. Hale, Minister of Missions, West Jackson Baptist Church, Jackson, TN
My definition of hyper-Calvinism:
“The Hyper-Calvinist tends to lean so strongly toward the sovereignty of God (God’s eternal decree, predestination, and election) that he loses sight of man’s responsibility (repentance & faith) so that the Gospel’s free offer of grace is inhibited, withheld, or limited to the elect. Hyper-Calvinism shows up more as an anti-evangelistic spirit that throws a cold blanket of censure over means or methods to evangelize all sinners.”
A more formal definition by Curt Daniel:
“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 [Curt Daniel, Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1983), 767].
Taking the time to study history can save every generation headaches and heartbreaks due to the fact that certain lessons have already been learned based on battles that have already been fought. Can we trace the trail of theological struggles in Baptist history concerning doctrine “gone wild” in regards to divine sovereignty and man’s free will?
Peter Toon in his book (The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity, 1689-1765) speaks highly of Andrew Fuller and his key role as a catalyst in moving the English Particular Baptists away from hyper-Calvinism. Toon shares how Fuller struggled in the development of his own theology and how he eventually wrote a book with his newfound convictions (The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, 1785). This short and concise book helped ignite a firestorm for evangelism and missions in the hearts of many pastors and laymen and laid the foundation for the start of the Baptist Missionary Society.
The following is a brief excerpt where Toon shares some history and the personal theological pilgrimage of Fuller:
“Though the influence of Isaac Watts and Philip Doddridge, as well as of such societies as the King’s Head Society, kept the majority of Congregationalists in the paths of Moderated or High Calvinism, many Particular Baptists adopted Hyper-Calvinism through the influence of Gill and Brine. Indeed, Hyper-Calvinism reigned supreme in many Churches until Andrew Fuller, minister of the Baptist Church in Kettering, where Gill and Brine had been nurtured, printed in 1785 his little book which helped to change the course of Baptist history. Its title was, The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation: or the Obligation of Men fully to credit and cordially to approve whatever God makes known. Wherein is considered, the Nature of Faith in Christ, and the Duty of those where the Gospel comes in that Matter. In a letter to a friend in 1809, Fuller explained how he had come to the point where he had broken loose from the shackles of Hyper-Calvinism.
“The principal writings with which I was first acquainted, were those of Bunyan, Gill and Brine. I had read pretty much of Dr. Gill’s Body of Divinity, and from many parts of it had received considerable instruction. I perceived, however, that the system of Bunyan was not the same with his; for that while he maintained the doctrines of election and predestination, he nevertheless held with the free offer of salvation to sinners without distinction. These were things which I then could not reconcile, and therefore supposed that Bunyan, though a great and good man, was not so clear in his views of the doctrines of the Gospel as the writers who succeeded him. I found, indeed, the same things in all the old writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that came in my way. They all dealt, as Bunyan did, in free invitations to sinners to come to Christ and be saved; the consistency of which with personal election I could not understand. It is true, I perceived the Scriptures abounded with exhortations and invitations to sinners; but I supposed these must be two kinds of holiness, one of which was possessed by man in innocence, and was binding on all his posterity, the other derived from Christ, and binding only on his people. I had not yet learned that the same things which are required by the precepts of the law are bestowed by the grace of the gospel. Those exhortations to repentance and faith, therefore, which are addressed in the New Testament to the unconverted, I supposed refer only to such external repentance and faith, as were within their power, and might be complied with without the grace of God. The effect of these views was, that I had very little to say to the unconverted, at least nothing in a way of exhortation to things spiritually good, or certainly connected with salvation.
But in the autumn of 1775, being in London, I met with a pamphlet by Dr. Abraham Taylor, concerning what was called The Modern Question. I had never seen anything relative to this controversy before, although the subject, as I have stated, had occupied my thoughts. I was but little impressed by his reasonings, till he came to the addresses of John the Baptist, Christ, and the Apostles which he proved to be addressed to the ungodly, and to mean spiritual repentance and faith, inasmuch as they were connected with the remission of sins. This set me fast. I read and examined the scripture passages, and the more I read and thought, the more I doubted of the justice of my former views.”
So in 1785 he wrote The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation. The simple truths of this book soon penetrated the hearts and minds of many ministers and laymen, and alerted them to the need for the evangelisation of the world. At Kettering on the 2nd October, 1792, in the home of Mrs. Beeby Wallis, the widow of the great-grandson of the first minister of the Little Meeting, William Wallis, the Baptist Missionary Society was formed. Soon after William Carey sailed to India. From this time the greater part of the Particular Baptist denomination turned its back on Hyper-Calvinism.” [See Toon, The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity, Part III: The Propagation of Hyper-Calvinism.”
Every generation has to guard against doctrines, attitudes, and revived teachings that hinder the spread of the Gospel. In 1998, Phil Johnson published A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism and by way of introduction said, “I am concerned about some subtle trends that seem to signal a rising tide of hyper-Calvinism, especially within the ranks of young Calvinists and the newly Reformed. I have seen these trends in numerous Reformed theological forums on the internet, including mailing lists, Web sites, and Usenet forums.”
Speaking as a self-described five-point Calvinist, Johnson serves up several guiding concerns toward the future:
- “Virtually every revival of true Calvinism since the Puritan era has been hijacked, crippled, or ultimately killed by hyper-Calvinist influences. Modern Calvinists would do well to be on guard against the influence of these deadly trends.”
- “Hyper-Calvinism entails a denial of what is taught in both Scripture and the major Calvinistic creeds, substituting instead an imbalanced and unbiblical notion of divine sovereignty.”
Phil Johnson shares a five-fold definition of hyper-Calvinism or five varieties of hyper-Calvinism. His assessment is a listing of the worst variety first and in declining order.
Johnson says that a hyper-Calvinist is someone who either:
1. Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear,
2. OR Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner,
3. OR 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),
4. OR Denies that there is such a thing as “common grace,”
5. OR Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.
Later in the Primer, Johnson says of point one:
“This first variety of hyper-Calvinism denies the general, external call, and insists that the gospel should be preached in a way that proclaims the facts about Christ’s work and God’s electing grace – without calling for any kind of response …
This is the worst form of hyper-Calvinism in vogue today. I’d class it as an extremely serious error, more dangerous than the worst variety of Arminianism. At least the Arminian preaches enough of the gospel for the elect to hear it and be saved. The hyper-Calvinist who denies the gospel call doesn’t even believe in calling sinners to Christ. He almost fears to whisper the gospel summons to other believers, lest anyone accuse him of violating divine sovereignty.”
In a very interesting dialogue with Tony Byrne, the author of the research blog (theologicalmeditations.blogspot.com), shared with me his assessment of the (5) five core problems of modern-day hyper-Calvinism (particularly #1 and the second half of #3):
A Hyper-Calvinist is one who either:
(1) Denies that God has any *love* for the non-elect, OR
(2) Denies God's common *grace* (the concept), OR
(3) Denies that God is giving an indiscriminate *offer* in His gospel call through preachers and/or that it is *sincere,* *well-meant,* or a *good-will* offer toward the non-elect, OR
(4) Denies that all sinners are *responsible* to evangelically believe the gospel (i.e. duty-faith), OR
(5) Elevates the TULIP doctrines to an essential status, such that anyone denying one or more of the points should be viewed as unregenerate on that basis."
[Note that Tony puts ** symbols around the important words within each point. For example, some Hyper-Calvinists may speak of a general mercy or kindness in God displayed to all through the common bounties of providence, but they still refuse to say that it is a common *love* or common *grace*, hence the asterisks around those words.]
Personally, I like how Tony Byrne begins with the question of God’s love. This, of course, has to deal with God’s character and I feel is a better theological starting point on the subject of hyper-Calvinism.
M.R. DeHann illustrates God’s election as a train traveling down a track with two rails. One rail is sovereign grace; the other is man’s responsibility. These rails never meet, they never come together, but they are both necessary to keep the train on the track. Remove the rail of man’s free will and try to run on only the rail of election and you will land in the ditch of fatalism and hyper-Calvinism. Reverse it and remove the rail of sovereign election and grace, and you wreck yourself in the ditch of a religion of human works and hyper-Arminianism. DeHaan encouages a healthy theological balance as he says “Keep your wheels on both tracks.” See Our Daily Bread: 366 Devotional Meditations (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959, 1966), April 20
- Do you have a better (clearer & more concise) definition of hyper-Calvinism?
- In the SBC, do you see attitudes or tendencies that point to a spirit of hyper-Calvinism? Examples?
- Using DeHann’s illustration of two rails, do you tend to lean more toward the sovereignty of God or the responsibility of man? Share the names of theologians/writers that have helped you keep a healthy balance between these two?