Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 15, April 6 to April 12 2008

What is Hyper-Calvinism?



By Jim Ellis



Hyper-Calvinism is a term of derision that today is often used to negatively label anyone with a strong theological view of God's sovereignty in the affairs of men. A legitimate understanding of hyper-Calvinism, in its technical sense, appears to be lost today. It seems as if anyone to the right of one's own theological position is fair game to be labeled a hyper-Calvinist. For example, Arminians regard any who hold to unconditional election as hyper-Calvinists. The four-point Calvinist views the five-point Calvinist as "hyper" because he holds to a limited atonement. We also find five-point infralapsarians referring to five-point supralapsarians as hyper-Calvinists because of their view of the relationship between the fall of man and God's predestination of the elect. 1

There is indeed such a thing as hyper-Calvinism; but it may be shown both historically and theologically that it is not unconditional election, limited atonement, or supralapsarianism that make a hyper-Calvinist. All of these characteristics fall solidly within orthodox historic Calvinism. The disagreements and discussions regarding these particular theological points are not to be confused with the issue of "hyper-Calvinism." To label one who holds any or all of these views as a hyper-Calvinist is to display a serious case of theological and historical ignorance.

I recognize that the prefix "hyper" may be used generically to refer to anything that is considered "extreme" or which goes beyond the accepted norm. There is therefore a sense in which I may refer to a Calvinist whose views I regard as going beyond normal Calvinism as "hyper." However, the term "hyper-Calvinism" has a technical meaning. Now I should not be so hyper-sensitive about the use of the term hyper-Calvinism that it gives me hyper-tension, but it seems that theological discussions should reserve the term for its technical significance, since it has one, and refrain from indiscriminate use which often amounts to slander. The goal of this post (and the next) is hopefully to re-establish the technical meaning of the term "hyper-Calvinism" and, in doing so, to foster its proper use.

Problems in Definitions

There seems to be a problem in adequately defining what constitutes the fundamental error of hyper-Calvinism. Why is a clear definition so elusive? In part, the problem stems from scholarly definitions that either fail to specifically define the error of hyper-Calvinism or else blur the distinction between it and legitimate Calvinism. Let's look at some definitions in the literature to illustrate this point. The New Dictionary of Theology, defines hyper-Calvinism as:
An exaggerated or imbalanced type of Reformed theology associated with Strict and Particular Baptists of English origin and with Dutch-American Reformed groups. Originating in the 18th century, it has always been the theology of a minority, which today is extremely small. It is a system of theology framed to exalt the honor and glory of God and does so by acutely minimizing the moral and spiritual responsibility of sinners. . . 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. 2
While the above definition is generally true and helpful, it falls short of telling us specifically what is hyper-Calvinism. It seems to dance around the answer as if specifics would be too laborious to describe or too difficult for the layman to understand. Broad general definitions like the above only contribute to the problem tendency which obscures the distinction between legitimate Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism! Another example comes from R. T. Kendall, formerly of Westminster Chapel, who defines hyper-Calvinism in the appendix of his book, Stand Up and Be Counted as follows:
Hyper-Calvinism. This is a spirit that militates against evangelism and the free offer of the gospel. It has its roots in High-Calvinism but goes beyond it. Many High-Calvinists would still hold to the free offer of the gospel - that you should offer the gospel to everyone even though Christ did not die for everyone. Hyper-Calvinism holds that one must not say "Christ died for you" lest one should not be telling the truth. The most that the hyper-Calvinist feels that he can do is to say "Christ died for sinners" and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit. Hyper-Calvinism does not essentially differ from high-Calvinism except in actual practice, which is why I define Hyper-Calvinism as a spirit. 3
Here Kendall adds to the problem by suggesting that 5-point Calvinism is somehow the same in essence as hyper-Calvinism. To reduce the distinction merely to one of "spirit" and overlook any distinction in essence is a reflection of Kendall's personal opinion rather than historical or theological accuracy. Moreover, Kendall mistakenly identifies an unwillingness to tell the unregenerate man that Christ died for him as the central issue in hyper-Calvinism. This is an issue in the discussion of "for whom Christ died," i.e. limited versus universal atonement, within historic Calvinism; it's certainly not a defining feature of hyper-Calvinism.

Peter Toon shows better insight, suggesting that hyper-Calvinism . . . "made no distinction between the secret and revealed will of God, and tried to deduce the duty of men from what it taught concerning the secret, eternal decrees of God. This led to the notion that grace must only be offered to those for whom it was intended . . . So hyper-Calvinism led its adherents to hold that evangelism was unnecessary." 4

Toon's summary definition here is valid as far as it goes, but it stops short of clarifying the root problems in hyper-Calvinism and unduly focuses on its effect upon evangelism in terms of the free offer of grace. However, Toon's overall work is an excellent treatment of the development of hyper-Calvinism with its root causes and resultant theological expressions. The hyper-Calvinist did not aim to undermine evangelism and then work to justify that end. The negative influence on evangelism was the result of some faulty theology aimed at guarding against the encroachment of Arminianism. This faulty theology is the root problem and also what defines hyper-Calvinism, yet that's what is still unclear in these definitions.

A final example comes from Curt Daniel, in his massive dissertation entitled Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill. He defined the phenomenon as: . . . "that school of supralapsarian Five Point Calvinism which so stresses the sovereignty of God by overemphasizing 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 assurance that the Lord Jesus Christ died for them." 5

This definition contains some valid aspects, but Daniel goes on to finally reduce it to one factor: "it is the rejection of the word offer in connection with evangelism for supposedly Calvinistic reasons . . . the only real and tangible thing which differentiates the Hyper from the High-Calvinist is the word offer." 6 Daniel may have gone a little far by defining hyper-Calvinism in terms of its use of a single word although a connection is there. Also, it seems to me the historical data indeed does show "real and tangible things" which distinguish the hyper from the high-Calvinist.

There appears to be a prejudice in most definitions of hyper-Calvinism. It is not only a prejudice against the error of hyper-Calvinism but includes an apparent bias against 5-point or high Calvinism. Most authors quoted as sources in defining hyper-Calvinism are not 5-point Calvinists and many are not Calvinists at all. They see 5-point Calvinists as in error to begin with, so it is no wonder they fail to properly discern the errors of the hyper-Calvinist in distinction to legitimate Calvinism. In spite of any shortcomings of the previous definitions, however, they are helpful to some extent. Considered together we see within them the common threads that are germane to a clear definition of hyper-Calvinism. Namely, it has an adverse effect on evangelism based on certain views regarding the indiscriminate preaching (or free offer) of the Gospel and the responsibility man. Now we are getting somewhere. But we're not there yet.

Let's Get Specific

It is quite true that archetypal hyper-Calvinism first appeared among the early English Strict and Particular Baptists. It can be seen, for example, in the teachings of men like Joseph Hussey (d. 1726), Lewis Wayman (d. 1764), John Brine (d. 1765), and to some extent in John Gill (d. 1771). 7 However, the theological extreme held by these men, properly denoted as hyper-Calvinism and properly denoted as error, is rather distinct and certainly deserves a more explicit definition than merely an "over-emphasis of irresistible grace which undermines evangelism." And it certainly deserves to be defined in a way that does not confuse it with legitimate 5-point Calvinism. David Engelsma does just that in the following.
Hyper-Calvinism is the denial that God in the preaching of the gospel calls everyone who hears the preaching to repent and believe. It is the denial that the church should call everyone in the preaching. It is the denial that the unregenerated have a duty to repent and believe. It manifests itself in the practice of the preacher's addressing the call of the gospel, "repent and believe on Christ crucified," only to those in his audience who show signs of regeneration and, thereby, of election, namely, some conviction of sin and some interest in salvation. 8
This definition is much more helpful in that it tells us the specific characteristics of hyper-Calvinism: (1) a denial that the call of the gospel to repent and believe is universal, i.e. for all alike, and (2) a denial that the unregenerate man has a duty to believe. It also illustrates how this misguided view adversely affects evangelism. With this definition it is easier to see exactly where hyper-Calvinists have strayed from orthodoxy. It should also be noted here that these particular characteristics are not true of classic 5-point or high-Calvinism.

But why not let the "Hypers" speak for themselves. The essential error is most clearly and succinctly stated in their own words from Article 26 in the confessional articles of the Gospel Standard (Baptist) Churches:

We deny duty faith and duty repentance - these terms suggesting that it is every man's duty spiritually and savingly to repent and believe. We deny also that there is any capability in man by nature to any spiritual good whatever. So that we reject the doctrine that man in a state of nature should be exhorted to believe in or turn to God. 9
There you have the essence of hyper-Calvinism stated bluntly and emphatically - it is a denial of the duty of fallen man to repent and believe the gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ coupled with the denial that we should beseech all men indiscriminately to believe the gospel. This eccentric view was labeled hyper-Calvinism in the mid 1700's as the issue was argued and debated among English Baptists and others. It should be noted that, while hyper-Calvinism became fairly widespread among the English Particular Baptists of that day, not all Particular Baptists agreed with the extremes of Wayman and Brine. There were some of course who detected something gone awry in understanding the plain sense of the Scriptures at this point and stayed their course in biblical Calvinism.

We now have what I believe is a more precise description of hyper-Calvinism in its technical sense. Simply stated, hyper-Calvinism consists of two fundamental errors: a denial of duty-faith and a denial of the universal offer of the gospel. However, rather than stop here with this definition, we will look a little further into the issues that are raised and see how the "Hypers" could come to such a disturbing conclusion in their theology.

Duty-Faith

Tom Nettles sees the essence of hyper-Calvinism as the denial of duty-faith. 10 I tend to agree. Regarding the two defining elements, a denial of duty-faith and a denial of the universal call of the gospel, it seems that once you establish the first, namely to deny that it is the duty of unregenerate man to believe the gospel, then the second point naturally follows, i.e. that the gospel is not for all men indiscriminately and therefore should be proclaimed only to those who show signs of being regenerate. Therefore the critical issue is the denial of duty-faith. If this tenet falls, then I would suggest so does the basis for denying the universal call of the gospel.

Therefore we ought to look a little closer into the reasoning of the Hypers on this point. One might well ask, How can the hyper-Calvinists rationally deny duty-faith? It stems from a desire to protect the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity (or the moral inability) of the natural man. It seems that men fell into hyper-Calvinism in reaction to the rising Arminianism of their time. Those who repudiated duty-faith and the universal call (or free offer, as it was termed) certainly supposed that they were defending Calvinism. This is why their error may be called hyper-Calvinism. This is plain especially in article 33 of the Gospel Standard articles:

Therefore, that for ministers in the present day to address unconverted persons, or indiscriminately all in a mixed congregation, calling upon them to savingly repent, believe, and receive Christ, or perform any other acts dependent upon the new creative power of the Holy Ghost, is, on the one hand, to imply creature power, and on the other, to deny the doctrine of special redemption. 11
They, like the Arminians, mistakenly assume that if it is the duty (responsibility) of fallen man to believe and God indeed calls him to believe, then he must have the natural ability to do so. The Arminian conclusion is that man has a free will and Christ has made an atonement for all alike. The hyper-Calvinist, based on the same assumption, concludes that it is not the duty of fallen man and that God in the gospel does not indiscriminately offer Christ to all men alike; that is in reference to the "outward call" of the Gospel. Thus, in trying to protect the Calvinist doctrines of total depravity and particular redemption (a noble endeavor), the hyper-Calvinist has thrown out the baby with the bath water; namely, the universal call to faith to all who hear the gospel, reprobate and elect alike.

Allow me to illustrate some of the "hyper" rationale: Wayman, for example, contends that saving faith was not in the power of man at his best before the fall and therefore makes the following deduction:

What Adam had, we all had in him; and what Adam lost, we all lost in him, and are debtors to God on both accounts; but Adam had not the faith of God's elect before the fall, and did not lose it for his posterity; therefore they are not debtors to God for it while in unregeneracy. 12
John Brine gives a little more insight into Wayman's statement. Brine taught that every duty incumbent on Adam in his unfallen state he also had the ability to perform, and this duty extends to all men in their fallen state regardless of their lack of ability. Brine maintained that a lack of ability does not release a man from duty (with which we would agree). Yet, somehow he sees salvation in a different category; for "with respect to special faith in Christ, it seems to me," says Brine, "that the powers of man in his perfected state were not fitted and disposed to that act." 13 Accordingly, saving faith lay not within the powers of man in his unfallen state, because there was no necessity for it. Since, therefore, it was not part of his powers in his unfallen state, it could not now be required of him in his fallen state. On this basis, duty faith and duty repentance are denied.

It seems obvious to most of us that this conclusion doesn't square with Scripture. In one sense this ought to settle the question. But what is the logical argument, based on scriptural principles, against such reasoning? I think it may be summarized this way:

Historic Calvinists (I believe) regard repentance and faith as the means by which the great commandment to love God and love our neighbor finds fulfillment. This duty to love God and neighbor existed before the fall and Adam certainly enjoyed the ability to do so. Our love of God is therefore still obligatory, and the means through which it is to be realized, namely repentance and faith, are likewise obligatory. We owe God our love and trust by the very fact that we are His rational creatures. Adam had the ability to love and trust God before the Fall. We are still responsible to love and trust God even though, because of the Fall and while in our unregenerate state, we have lost the moral ability to do so. Therefore, contrary to hyper-Calvinism, fallen man is indeed duty-bound to repent and believe in Christ for salvation.

Conclusion

In my opinion, we have successfully closed on a clear technical definition of hyper-Calvinism. Simply stated, it consists of two fundamental errors: a denial of duty-faith and a resultant denial of the universal call of the gospel. These fundamental errors are a departure from the teaching of Scripture as well as historic Calvinism. These errors were responsible for unbiblical teaching on evangelism and the proclamation of the gospel among 18th century English Baptists. However, as we have seen, the sad effect on evangelism is not the defining error, but a symptom.

On the other hand, in my understanding, historic Calvinism has always maintained that it is the duty of unregenerate men to repent and believe. Calvinism also acknowledges that the gospel is to be preached to all men indiscriminately and that we are to beseech all to individually trust in Jesus Christ and Him alone for salvation.

Finally, I hope it is clear that hyper-Calvinism is not to be considered a legitimate form of Calvinism, for it is not. By the same token, however, it should also be clear that honest theological discussion should refrain from labeling legitimate variations within orthodox Calvinism as "Hyper-Calvinism."

Notes:

1. As an example, see Steven B. Cowen, Common Misconceptions of Evangelicals Regarding Calvinism, JETS 33/2 (June 1990). Cowen refers to R. C. Sproul as arguing that John Calvin was not supralapsarian, then proceeds to label supralapsarianism as "unadulterated hyper-Calvinism." While virtually all hyper-Calvinists hold a supralapsarian perspective, this is not what makes them hyper-Calvinists.

2. Sinclair Ferguson, et. al., editors, The New Dictionary of Theology (InterVarsity Press, 1988), s.v. Hyper-Calvinism, p. 324.

3. R. T. Kendall, Stand Up and Be Counted (London: Hodder and Sloughton, 1984), p. 120.

4. Peter Toon, The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Non-Conformity, 1689-1765 (London: The Olive Tree, 1967), p. 145.

5. Curt Daniel, Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1983), p. 767.

6. Daniel, p. 767.

7. For this history, see Peter Toon, op. cit. This is a valuable and oft quoted resource on the subject.

8. David J. Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism & the Call of the Gospel, (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1994), pp. 15-16. It should be noted that Engelsma is often regarded as a variety of hyper-Calvinist because of his views on common grace and the "well-meant offer," and I don't necessarily agree with him on those matters. Nevertheless, I feel here he appropriately pinpoints the crux of the classic hyper-Calvinist error.

9. Articles of Faith of the Gospel Standard Aid and Poor Relief Societies, (Leicester, England: Oldham & Manton Ltd., n.d.). These articles may be seen in total online at http://www.5solas.org/media.php?id=574

10. Thomas J. Nettles, By His Grace and for His Glory, A Historical, Theological, and Practical Study of the Doctrines of Grace in Baptist Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1986), p. 391.

11. Articles of Faith of the Gospel Standard Aid and Poor Relief Societies. op. cit.

12. Lewis Wayman, A Further Enquiry after Truth, (London: J & J. Marshall, 1738), p. 51. As quoted by Nettles, p. 390.

13. John Brine, A Refutation of Arminian Principles (London, 1743), p. 5. As quoted by Nettles, p. 390.



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