Some Clarity on Hyper-Calvinism: What it Is and What it Isn’t
Hyper-Calvinism is a sub-Christian doctrine. It is an enemy of Christ. If Hyper-Calvinism could be anthropomorphized into a person, he should be rounded up, hogtied and burned at the stake like Michael Servetus.
I wanted to start out with clarity, so there you go.
The questions are what is Hyper-Calvinism and who is guilty of it. I’ve often said that Hyper-Calvinists live in the same alternate universe as leprechauns and Sasquatch; if I saw one, I’d mount it and hang it from my mantle just to prove such a thing exists because I’ve never met one. But since I first started saying that, I’ve met them. They’re real. They exist. I do not know if they are responsible for the assassination of Anthony Scalia, buried Jimmy Hoffa in a hole, or shot JFK from the grassy knoll, but, I am now certain they exist. They’re just rare. Having their existence as mere conspiracy debunked, it leaves me room to hope that there may be a man-ape walking around in the woods somewhere in the Ozarks.
First, it would help us in this discussion to define what Hyper-Calvinism is not. Contrary to Arminian opinion, Hyper-Calvinism is not a synonym for Calvinism. Yes, I know they use the term “Hyper-Calvinist,” for anyone who holds to all five soteriological points of the TULIP, and we should all agree that they should stop doing that. Secondly, Hyper-Calvinism should not be a slur towards those who hold to the Doctrines of Grace more fervently or zealously than you do. How strongly someone holds to Calvinism does not determine whether or not that individual is a Hyper-Calvinist. Those using the term, Hyper-Calvinism, to describe anyone who is not apathetic or nonchalant about the sacred Doctrines of Grace is sub-intellectual as much as Hyper-Calvinism is sub-Christian. For example, a really zealous Modalist is not a Hyper-Modalist. They’re just a plain old, going-to-hell kind of Modalist who is really zealous about it. A Calvinist who is really enthused or really excitable about Calvinism is not a Hyper-Calvinist. Thirdly, a Hyper-Calvinist is not someone who thinks the Gospel is the same thing as Calvinism. Calvinism – like Arminianism – is a soteriological system. It is a doctrine that seeks to define salvation and how God saves sinners. One should hope that their understanding of soteriology is the same thing as the Gospel. That’s the entire point of professing a soteriological system. If everyone was honest about it – whether Calvinist, Arminian, or Pelagian – they would admit that they believe their understanding of the Gospel is the Gospel. If you find this thought detestable, call yourself a soteriological agnostic and have no opinion about the Gospel at all (I wouldn’t recommend it). Fourth and finally, Hyper-Calvinism should not be a random pejorative employed toward people with whom you’re in disagreement just because you’re in disagreement. Unless they are actually holding to historic “Hyper-Calvinism,” call them a scalawag. Call them a ne’er-do-well. Call them wrong, but do not misapply terms. Words have meanings. Don’t abuse words.
So what is Hyper-Calvinism? The term was first commonly employed in the 19th century, although one would be guilty of the Word Concept Fallacy to claim that the concept didn’t exist prior. It seems that the term itself was coined by George Croft in 1825 and employed synonymously with the term, “High Calvinist” (source link). The first time the term was added to any dictionary or encyclopedia to be more carefully defined – as best I can tell – was in the 1904 publication, “The Protestant Dictionary,” by Charles Neil (source link). The term has primarily been used as an accusatory insult that includes two characteristics (click the links above to see for yourself). These two characteristics include (1) a belief in limited atonement and (2) denying the existence of a general (not to be confused with an effectual call) call of salvation, denying the necessity of preaching the Gospel to all people and/or denying the responsibility and duty of all men to believe the Gospel. Because people are sometimes lazy or busy and don’t click links, I’ll provide a few excerpts from the term’s original (and rightful) definition below.
Hyper-Calvinism, previously known as High Calvinism, is a branch of Protestant theology that (1) denies a general design in the death of Jesus Christ, (2) the idea of an indiscriminate free offer of the gospel to all persons and a universal duty to believe the Lord Jesus Christ died for them. It is at times regarded as a variation of Calvinism, but critics emphasize its differences to traditional Calvinistic beliefs. – George Croft [numbers and bold-print were added by me].
Hyper-Calvinism is a form of Calvinist theology that (1) emphasizes the sovereignty of God and God‘s eternal decrees to the point that (2) it negates the necessity of any human action to achieve salvation, especially evangelism. To those whom God has elected, God‘s grace is irresistible; their acceptance of the Gospel is not related to any other activity. – The Encyplopedia of Protestantism [numbers and bold-print were added by me].
It can hardly be gainsaid that if someone wishes to accuse another of Hyper-Calvinism they should use the historic definitions of the term. Arminians – in case you were unaware – often accuse Calvinists of Hyper-Calvinism for believing in the limited scope of Christ’s atonement for the elect only. But, that accusation is fallacious unless the Calvinist believing in Limited Atonement also believes that Limited Atonement prevents us from preaching the Gospel to all and/or all men have the responsibility and duty to believe the Gospel. The classic polemic against Hyper-Calvinism among American Baptists is a book that I have bought 3 or 4 at a time (on several occasions), rests upon my office shelves, I’ve talked about many times on my podcast, and I give away regularly to the young men who I disciple who I fear my veer into the error, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, by Andrew Fuller. You can find a free pdf of that book here. Baptists – even of the staunch, 5-point variety (because that’s the best kind of Baptist) – have generally always believed in both Limited Atonement and an evangelism that calls all men to their duty to believe the Gospel.
Modern explanations of Hyper-Calvinism have generally followed these two characteristics of the error, but have begun to stretch out the definition by conflating the two characteristics into just one. Curt Daniel (in his 1983 doctoral thesis, in which he sought to prove that the esteemed John Gill was a Hyper-Calvinist) defined Hyper-Calvinism* as, “that school of (1) supralapsarian Five Point Calvinism which so stresses the sovereignty of God by overemphasizing the secret over the revealed will and eternity over time, that (2) 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” (source link). By the way, the numbers and bold print were added by me there as well. The emboldened type allows you to see the conflation happening in modern definitions of Hyper-Calvinism. Clearly, (from the historic Calvinist perspective) telling people Christ died for them – irrespective of their penitent faith – is not necessary to command all men to repent and iterate their duty to believe. Covenant Reformed Baptist Theological Seminary has thankfully made available Dr. Sam Waldron’s four-part interview with Daniel, which you can read here. If you would prefer a blogger-level diagnosis of the conflation in Daniel’s definition, consider this post from perhaps the most famous (and most anonymous) follower and supporter of James White, “Turretin Fan,” in which he discusses the problems with Daniel’s definition of Hyper-Calvinism (you can find the link here, and for a special bonus, my friend, Fred Butler, is mentioned in the first paragraph, which leaves me wondering if Fred is the theological blogging world’s version of Jesse Heiman).
Turretin Fan explains that using Daniel’s conflated definition of Hyper-Calvinism would by necessity impugn his own Protestant Reformed Church as Hyper-Calvinist, along with those holding to the Second London Baptist Confession (1689), the Westminster and other mainstream Reformed Confessions of Faith. Certainly, a definition of Hyper-Calvinism that would impugn virtually all Calvinists with the error and divorce the term from its original definitions would be spurious.
If we can reject the modern definitions of Hyper-Calvinism (and we can), then we had best understand the resistance to Hyper-Calvinism by historic Calvinism to glean our understanding of the error. Our beloved Spurgeon battled the Hyper-Calvinists and gave four characteristics (the following is an excerpt written about Spurgeon, not from Spurgeon himself, and the source is linked below):
1. The Hyper-Calvinist denies that gospel invitations are to be delivered to all people without exception. He limits the purpose of gospel preaching to bringing in the elect, and so only the elect are to be addressed with the commands, invitations and offers of the Word. There is to be no pleading with, exhorting and beseeching of an entire congregation of sinners. That attitude was totally rejected by Spurgeon, who on many occasions addressed every single hearer thus: “‘These are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” Look to him, blind eyes; look to him, dead souls; look to him. Say not that you cannot; he in whose power I speak will work a miracle while yet you hear the command, and blind eyes shall see, and dead hearts shall spring into eternal life by his Spirit’s effectual working’ (MTP, 40, 1894, p.502).
2. The Hyper-Calvinist declares that the warrant a sinner has to come to Jesus Christ is found in his own experience of conviction and assurance. That warrant, the hyper says, cannot be obtained until we are inwardly spiritually exercised. But, Spurgeon preached that all mankind has a warrant to believe extended to them, giving them the right to place their trust in the Lord Jesus. That warrant is the universal command found in the Word of God that all men should repent of their sins and should believe on the Lord Jesus. ‘Do not wait for your feelings to convince you that you can venture on Christ,’ urged Spurgeon, ‘you have the right to come just as you are today because God is sincerely beseeching you to come to his Son for pardon.’ In his 1863 sermon on the, “Warrant of Faith,” Spurgeon tells people that if the warrant were not in the Word of God but in the sinner’s own condition, the result has to be that people would be driven to look within themselves and ask, ‘Have I sufficiently broken my heart?’ rather than looking to a welcoming Saviour (MTP, Vol.9, p.529ff). And that exactly is the case today. Spurgeon pointed out pertinently that those whose hearts are most broken feel most the obdurate hardness of their hearts.
3. The Hyper-Calvinist declares that human inability means man cannot be urged to come at that moment to Christ. A universal command must presuppose a modicum of ability, he says. Spurgeon replied that he would not tone down man’s depravity and helplessness one whit. The gospel is one of grace and therefore rests upon despair of human resources and potency. It is only on the presupposition of total depravity and complete human impotence that the full glory and power of the gospel can be declared. Spurgeon then would exalt God’s power to save. There are two lines found in Scripture, one that declares man’s helplessness through being dead in sin and yet that he is responsible to turn to God, and the other, that the Lord is sovereign to save. As John Duncan said, ‘the idea that God did half and man did half is utterly false. God doing all and man also doing all is the teaching of the Bible.’
4. The Hyper-Calvinist denies the universal love of God. He has a fearful caricature of the real nature of God which would present him as fierce, and not easily induced to love. ‘If we fellowshipped more with Christ,’ said Iain Murray, ‘we would know and love him more. Then there would be no uncertainty that God desired the salvation of sinners. ‘How oft would I have gathered you,’ says the Saviour to recalcitrant Jerusalem. – From Spurgeons Battles with the Hyper-Calvinists (source link) [Emboldened type is my addition].
I have my own concerns about the fourth observation from Spurgeon’s preaching, and I am uncertain of the author’s proper rendering of the Prince’s words. I don’t believe God is “induced” to anything due to his impassibility, and limitations certainly have to be understood upon God’s salvation of sinners (Spurgeon clearly believed in a Limited Atonement). Nonetheless, Spurgeon’s own treatment of the error that would be known as Hyper-Calvinism should be studied.
If we can agree (and we should) that Spurgeon, Gill, the Particular Baptist confessors, the Westminster divines, and other Calvinist patriarchs were the baseline for ordinary or regular (as opposed to hyper) Calvinism, then we should be clear that the term must be applied to those who deny or forbid indiscriminate evangelism. Who then remains to be called a Hyper-Calvinist? The answer has historically been employed toward the Strict Baptists in England and the Particular Baptists in America (on the latter, it is my experience that many of the “Primitive Baptists” or “Black Rock Baptists” don’t forbid evangelism, so much as they deny the Biblical validity for mission societies usurping the evangelistic role of local churches – so be careful with your characterizations; my polemical expertise does not extend to the Strict Baptists of Britain, so I cannot speak to the veracity of that claim). There is a fantastic account of the influence of Hyper-Calvinists in the missional calling of William Carey, who was forbidden by his church association to be a missionary, with a pastor saying, “Sit down! When God is pleased to convert the heathen world, He will do it without your help or mine.”(source link) While any Calvinist would agree with the sentiment that God would save anyone he wants, whenever he wants, we would reject the notion that God should have us despise missionary zeal. It is this attitude that Carey faced in 1786 that fostered such a hot hatred toward the real Hyper-Calvinists (even before the term was coined) that would lead to such strong denunciations by men like Andrew Fuller and Charles Spurgeon.
In recent years, it seems that a third characteristic has been thrust upon the definition of Hyper-Calvinism, and quite independent of historic validity. The notion, which has been popularized in recent decades, is that a Hyper-Calvinist has yet a third characteristic heretofore undefined; believing that Arminianism is heresy.
The ecumenical trend of the 20th century in America and Western Europe has not been without its influence even in conservative or Calvinist circles. Calvinists have softened their enunciations of Arminianism’s errors, and so, those willing to refer to Arminianism as heresy or damnable error seem extraordinarily harsh. Because of this, in my estimation, the term “Hyper-Calvinism” has been falsely applied to them. If such strict standards of orthodoxy lead to what is perceived as uncharitability to Arminians is wrong – indeed if it is sinful – then those in disagreement with those strict standards should employ a different term to their opponents than Hyper-Calvinism. That term has already been defined, and it should not be redefined to better accommodate the sensitivities of our age.
The fact is, Calvinism – as best we understand it in historic terms – calls Arminianism heresy (in both explicit and in varying but similar terms).
The Canons of Dort explicitly reject Arminianism as a false teaching, says it, “smacks of Pelagius,” (Article 18, Chapter 4) and a “gross error” (Article 18, Chapter 6). Spurgeon said that justification – as taught by an Arminian – is nothing but salvation by works (source link). That is a damning accusation. What could be more damning than accusing someone of propagating a salvation by works? The most famous quotation from our beloved Spurgeon is below.
What is the heresy of Rome, but the addition of something to the perfect merits of Jesus Christ, – the bringing in of the works of the flesh, to assist in our justification? And what is the heresy of Arminianism but the addition of something to the work of the Redeemer? Every heresy, if brought to the touchstone, will discover itself here. I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor (source link ) [bold type added by me].
Who wants to call Spurgeon – who fought so fiercely against the Hyper-Calvinists – a Hyper-Calvinist himself, for calling Arminianism heresy? Why then, when a 21st Century Calvinist calls Arminianism heresy are so many so quick to accuse them of Hyper-Calvinism?
The Prince of Preachers was simply agreeing with the “Prince of Divines,” the “John Calvin of England,” John Owen, who said, “Who would have thought that our church would ever have given entertainment to these Belgic semi-Pelagians, who have cast dirt upon the faces and raked up the ashes of all those great and pious souls whom God magnified, in using as his instruments to reform his church; to the least of which the whole troop of Arminians shall never make themselves equal, though they swell till they break?” (source link)
A short historical survey would reveal that these citations of the Reformed leaders of years past called Arminianism heresy repeatedly. The citations are not anomalies. There is also zero doubt that 21st Century Calvinist leaders have softened their words regarding Arminianism, while yet showing the gravest of concern for the souls of Arminians. In recent weeks, Dr. Sproul has been cited saying the following:
I agree with Packer and Johnston that Arminianism contains un-Christian elements in it and that their view of the relationship between faith and regeneration is fundamentally un-Christian. Is this error so egregious that it is fatal to salvation? People often ask if I believe Arminians are Christians? I usually answer, “Yes, barely.” They are Christians by what we call a felicitous inconsistency (source link).
As celebrated as Dr. Sproul is in our contemporary age (as well he should be), I would not pit his opinion against that of Owen or Spurgeon, or against those who wrote Sproul’s own Confession. Neither am I impressed with the notion that being saved by, “felicitious inconsistency,” is even a valid concept, not yet having spent the time considering it more fully. From its first reading, it seems to me to be a self-contradictory idea. Neither am I comfortable that anyone is saved “barely.” How is one barely saved? I understand 1 Peter 4:18, but the concept of being barely saved applies to justification-giving faith over the atrociousness of our sin. Without understanding Sola Fide as a result of Sola Gratia (which Arminians dispute), how can they be, “barely saved” at all?
Dr. MacArthur, who is to be rightly respected with utmost appreciation, said the following…
“The question comes, ‘Can somebody who holds an Arminian view be a Christian?’ And I would hate to say they couldn’t be. I really believe that it is possible to be Arminian and to be a Christian…to misunderstand your human capability, to misunderstand the election, to misunderstand the extent of the atonement, even to misunderstand the irresistible nature of God’s saving grace, and even to think you could lose your salvation. But, at the same time–while being confused or ignorant of those things–to know that you’re a sinner and know that the only way of salvation is through Jesus Christ. I guess you could say that someone could be an Arminian and push those points far enough, where they could jeopardize my confidence that they really are a Christian. You could push the point of not being totally depraved far enough where you’re actually being saved by your own works, by your own belief, by your own ingenuity, by your own self-induced faith. And you could get to the point where you could really wonder whether someone understands that it’s all a work of God.” (source)
Please note that MacArthur and Sproul recognize a hypothetical scenario in which a self-professed Arminian may be saved (but you can read their clear reluctance in saying such a thing without great caution and explanation), they seem to say that their profession of Arminianism must not be real in any tangible sense. It may be professed, as I read the Peter and Paul of our age, but to consider the Arminian saved they must presume upon them ignorance of the actual doctrines they’re professing. In other words, they must not truly be Arminians if they are to truly trust in Sola Gratia-given Sola Fide. I would suspect that the Owens, Gills, and Spurgeons of centuries past would have agreed with the concept, but not have felt necessary to make such concessions into hypothetical thought.
But, this article is not really about whether or not Arminians can be saved. That would be missing the point. This article is about how Hyper-Calvinism is defined. If the Calvinists like those at Dort, the Divines, the Reformers, and the NonConformists could not rationally be accused of Hyper-Calvinism, then neither can modern Calvinists who continue to indiscriminately evangelize the lost, whether or not they believe Arminianism is heresy or whether or not Arminians can go to Heaven without shedding their error.
Factually and historically, it would be incorrect to apply the term Hyper-Calvinist to anyone who preaches essentially the same thing about Arminians as the Reformers before us, so long as they continue to preach the Gospel and command all men to repent and believe it.
*[Editor’s Note: Daniel is using the definition of Peter Toon, and read more on pages 144-145 about it here].
[Contributed by JD Hall]