“As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die” (Ezekiel 33:11).
1998 by Phillip R. Johnson.
I wrote and posted this article because 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.
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.
History teaches us that hyper-Calvinism is as much a threat to true Calvinism as Arminianism is. 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, simply stated, is a doctrine that emphasizes divine sovereignty to the exclusion of human responsibility. To call it “hyper-Calvinism” is something of a misnomer. It is actually a rejection of historic Calvinism. 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.
Hyper-Calvinism comes in several flavors, so it admits no simple, pithy definition. Here are a few definitions to consider. I’ll comment briefly on these and then propose a more comprehensive definition:
From a popular theological dictionary:
1. [Hyper-Calvinism] 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 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. It is that school of supralapsarian ‘five-point’ Calvinism [n.b.—aschool of supralapsarianism, not supralapsarianism in general] which so stresses the sovereignty of God by over-emphasizing the secret over the revealed will of God and eternity over time, that it minimizes the responsibility of sinners, notably with respect to the denial of the use of the word “offer” in relation to the preaching of the gospel; thus it undermines the universal duty of sinners to believe savingly in the Lord Jesus with the assurance that Christ actually died for them; and it encourages introspection in the search to know whether or not one is elect. [Peter Toon, “Hyper-Calvinism,” New Dictionary of Theology(Leicester: IVP, 1988), 324.]
Notice three very crucial points in that definition: First, it correctly points out that 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. (See John Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God? Divine Election and God’s Desire for All To Be Saved” in Thomas R. Schreiner, ed., The Grace of God and the Bondage of the Will, 2 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995, 1:107-131.)
Second, take note of the stress the above definition places on hyper-Calvinists’ “denial of the use of the word ‘offer’ in relation to the preaching of the gospel.” This is virtually the epitome of the hyper-Calvinist spirit: it is a denial that the gospel message includes any sincere proposal of divine mercy to sinners in general.
Third, mark the fact that hyper-Calvinism “encourages introspection in the search to know whether or not one is elect.” Assurance tends to be elusive for people under the influence of hyper-Calvinist teaching. Therefore, hyper-Calvinism soon degenerates into a cold, lifeless dogma. Hyper-Calvinist churches and denominations tend to become either barren and inert, or militant and elitist (or all of the above).
Some common (but not quite precise) definitions: Hyper-Calvinism is sometimes defined as the view that God will save the elect apart from any means. Some, but very few, modern hyper-Calvinists hold such an extreme view. Those who do hold this view oppose all forms of evangelism and preaching to the unsaved, because they believe God will save whomever He chooses, apart from human means.
The most famous example of this kind of hyper-Calvinism was when John Ryland heard William Carey talking about becoming a missionary to India, and told him, “Sit down, young man. When God decides to save the heathen, He will do it without your help.”
Another common but incorrect definition equates hyper-Calvinism with fatalism. Fatalism is a mechanistic determinism, antithetical to the notion of a personal God. While it is true that the most extreme varieties of hyper-Calvinism tend to depersonalize God, it is not accurate to portray all hyper-Calvinists as fatalists.
Hyper-Calvinism is often equated with supralapsarianism and double-predestination. But it is possible to be a supralapsarian, and to hold to a kind of “double-predestination” without embracing hyper-Calvinism. (Virtually all hyper-Calvinists are supralapsarians, but not all supralapsarians are hyper-Calvinists. For more information about supralapsarianism, see my “Notes on Supralapsarianism & Infralapsarianism.”)
Finally, some critics unthinkingly slap the label “hyper” on any variety of Calvinism that is higher than the view they hold to. Arminians like to equate allfive-point Calvinism with hyper-Calvinism (as Calvary-Chapel author George Bryson does in his horrible little book, The Five Points of Calvinism: “Weighed and Found Wanting” [Costa Mesa: Word for Today, 1996]). That approach lacks integrity and only serves to confuse people.
A fivefold definition: The definition I am proposing outlines five varieties of hyper-Calvinism, listed here in a declining order, from the worst kind to a less extreme variety (which some might prefer to class as “ultra-high Calvinism”):
|A hyper-Calvinist is someone who either:
All five varieties of hyper-Calvinism undermine evangelism or twist the gospel message.
Many modern hyper-Calvinists salve themselves by thinking their view cannot really be hyper-Calvinism because, after all, they believe in proclaiming the gospel to all. However, the “gospel” they proclaim is a truncated soteriology with an undue emphasis on God’s decree as it pertains to the reprobate. One hyper-Calvinist, reacting to my comments about this subject on an e-mail list, declared, “The message of the Gospel is that God saves those who are His own and damns those who are not.” Thus the good news about Christ’s death and resurrection is supplanted by a message about election and reprobation—usually with an inordinate stress on reprobation. In practical terms, the hyper-Calvinist “gospel” often reduces to the message that God simply and single-mindedly hates those whom He has chosen to damn, and there is nothing whatsoever they can do about it.
Deliberately excluded from hyper-Calvinist “evangelism” is any pleading with the sinner to be reconciled with God. Sinners are not told that God offers them forgiveness or salvation. In fact, most hyper-Calvinists categorically deny that God makes any offer in the gospel whatsoever.
The hyper-Calvinist position at this point amounts to a repudiation of the very gist of 2 Corinthians 5:20: “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.” The whole thrust of the gospel, properly presented, is to convey an offer (in the sense of a tender, a proffer, or a proposal) of divine peace and mercy to all who come under its hearing. The apostle’s language is even stronger, suggesting the true gospel preacher begs sinners to be reconciled to God—or rather he stands “in Christ’s stead,” pleading thus with the sinner. Hyper-Calvinism in essence denies the concept of human responsibility, and so it must eliminate any such pleading, resulting in a skewed presentation of the gospel.
Let’s examine individually each of the five varieties of hyper-Calvinism.
1. The denial of the gospel call. This first and most extreme type of hyper-Calvinism denies that the gospel calls all sinners to repentance and faith. The gospel call (the invitation to come to Christ for salvation—Rev. 22:17; Matt. 11:28-29; Isa. 45:22; 55:1-7) is denied to all but the elect.
Historic Reformed theology notes that there are two different senses in which Scripture uses the word “call.” The apostle Paul usually employs the word to speak of the effectual call, whereby an elect sinner is sovereignly drawn by God unto salvation. Obviously this “call” applies only to the elect alone (Rom. 8:28-30).
But Scripture also describes a general call. In Matthew 22:14, Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Here, those who are “called” are clearly more in number than the elect. So our Lord is quite obviously using the word “call” in a different sense from how Paul used it in Romans 8:30.
The general call, sometimes known as the external call, is the call to faith and repentance inherent in the gospel message itself. When the gospel is preached, the general call goes out indiscriminately to all who come under the preaching of the gospel. This call is issued by the preacher as an ambassador of Christ.
The effectual call, sometimes known as the internal call, is the regenerating work of God in the hearts of His elect, whereby He draws them to Christ and opens their hearts unto faith. This call is for the elect alone and is issued by God alone.
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 otherbelievers, lest anyone accuse him of violating divine sovereignty.
English hyper-Calvinists (most happen to be Baptists), American “Gospel Standard” hypers, and Primitive Baptists have traditionally held to this form of hyper-Calvinism. They generally oppose evangelism of any kind. They would (usually) also embrace all five errors of hyper-Calvinism listed above. Their rhetoric tends to be extremely arrogant and elitist—the natural outgrowth of such theology. Normally they claim that they alone are consistent and true to the doctrines of divine sovereignty, and label every other view “Arminianism” or (lately) “hypo-Calvinism.”
An early 18th-century British independent (baptistic) pastor named William Huntington is the godfather of this position. This brand of hyper-Calvinism often also has strong antinomian tendencies, traceable back to Huntington, who denied that the moral law is binding as a rule of life on the Christian. Such antinomianism harmonizes well with hyper-Calvinism’s denial of human responsibility. (It is also an extension of the same wrong thinking that denies the preceptive will of God.)
2. The denial of faith as a duty. This variety of hyper-Calvinism (“type-2 hyper-Calvinism”) suggests that since unbelievers are incapable of faith apart from enabling grace, believing in Christ must never be presented to them as a duty. (See Arthur Pink’s excellent article “Duty-Faith,” refuting this this erroneous notion.)
Those holding this position go to great lengths to deny that faith is ever presented in Scripture as the duty of the unregenerate. (Obviously, much Scripture-twisting is necessary to justify such an opinion. See, for example, Acts 17:30.) Instead, advocates of this position suggest that each sinner must seek a warrant for his faith before presuming to exercise faith in Christ. The sinner does this by looking for evidence that he is elect (an utterly absurd notion, since faith isthe only real evidence of election).
Understandably, this brand of hyper-Calvinism tends to make sinners obsessed with conviction of sin and self-examination. Those who hold this position rarely know true, settled assurance.
The denial that faith is the sinner’s duty illustrates how hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism arise from the same false notion. The one fallacy that lies at the heart of both Arminianism and hyper-Calvinism is the erroneous assumption that human inability nullifies responsibility.
The Arminian reasons, If sinners are incapable of faith apart from God’s enabling grace, then the gospel would not call them to believe. Therefore sinners must not really be in so helpless a state. And so the Arminian adjusts the message in a way that nullifies the doctrine of human inability.
The hyper-Calvinist, on the other hand, reasons thus: If sinners are incapable of faith apart from God’s enabling grace, then the gospel would not call them to faith. Therefore the gospel cannot really mean that faith is the sinner’s duty. And so the hyper-Calvinist adjusts the message in a way that nullifies the sinner’s responsibility.
Scottish church historian John Macleod also noticed that Arminians and hyper-Calvinists err on the same point. He wrote,
When we look into it, we find [in hyper-Calvinism] the common Arminian position that man’s responsibility is limited by his ability. . . . Each side takes up the principle from its own end. They fail together to recognise that the sinner is responsible for his spiritual impotence. It is the fruit of sin; and man’s sin does not destroy nor put out of court God’s right to ask for . . . [obedience and] service and repentance and faith [despite the fact that] that His sinful creatures have disabled themselves from yielding to Him. His title to make His demand is entirely and absolutely unimpaired. . . . There is a glorious superiority to man’s reasonings shown by Him who bids the deaf hear and the blind look that they may see. They cannot do what He bids them do. Yet He claims what is His own. . . . Do what we may, we cannot get away from the obligation that binds us to be all that God would have us to be, and to do all that He would have us to do. Such is our sin and not only our misery that we cannot yield the return of homage that our Maker and King calls for at our hand. [Scottish Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974 reprint), 141-42.]
In other words, the sinner’s inability to obey God does not nullify his duty to do so. This is a crucial point—perhaps the most crucial point of all—because it is the very point that ultimately distinguishes true Calvinism from both Arminianism and hyper-Calvinism. Both Arminians and hyper-Calvinists will protest that it is illogical or unjust to teach that God demands what sin renders us incapable of doing.
But it is neither illogical or unjust. Sin itself is a moral issue, and since sin is the cause of our inability, it is, as Jonathan Edwards said, a moral inability, not anatural one. The defect in man is his own fault, not God’s. Therefore man’s own inability is something he is guilty for, and that inability cannot therefore be seen as something that relieves the sinner of responsibility.
On this point, type-2 hyper-Calvinism is no better than Arminianism; in fact, the two spring from the same polluted source.
3. The denial of the gospel offer. Type-3 hyper-Calvinism is based on a denial that the gospel makes any “offer” of Christ, salvation, or mercy to the non-elect. An alternative of this view merely denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal. For an excellent discussion of this issue, see “The Free Offer of the Gospel,” by John Murray and Ned B. Stonehouse (also available at the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Web site).
If the hyper-Calvinists in England tend to be Baptists, in America the Presbyterian variety seems more common. The best-known American hyper-Calvinists are the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). They deny that there is any sort of “offer” (in the sense of a proffer or tender or proposal of mercy) in the gospel message. They also deny that they are hyper-Calvinists, because they insist that the only variety of hyper-Calvinism is that which denies the gospel call (Type-1 above).
The most articulate advocate of the PRC position is David Engelsma, whose book Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel is an interesting but in my view terribly misleading study of the question of whether PRC theology properly qualifies as hyper-Calvinism. Engelsma does some selective quoting and interpretive gymnastics in order to argue that his view is mainstream Reformed theology. But a careful reading of his sources shows that he often quotes out of context, or ends a quote just before a qualifying statement that would totally negate the point he thinks he has made. Still, for those interested in these issues, I recommend his book, with a caution to read it very critically and with careful discernment.
4. The denial of common grace. The Protestant Reformed Churches (see #3 above) grew out of a controversy between Herman Hoeksema and the Christian Reformed Churches over the issue of common grace. Hoeksema denied that there is any such thing as common grace, and in the midst of the controversy, the PRC was founded.
The idea of common grace is implicit throughout Scripture. “The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works” (Ps. 145:9). “He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18-19). “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45).
The distinction between common grace and special grace closely parallels the distinction between the general call and the effectual call. Common grace is extended to everyone. It is God’s goodness to humanity in general whereby God graciously restrains the full expression of sin and mitigates sin’s destructive effects in human society. Common grace imposes moral constraints on people’s behavior, maintains a semblance of order in human affairs, enforces a sense of right and wrong through conscience and civil government, enables men and women to appreciate beauty and goodness, and imparts blessings of all kinds to elect and non-elect alike. God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). That is common grace.
The doctrine of common grace has a long history that goes all the way back to Calvin and even Augustine. But type-4 hyper-Calvinism denies the concept, insisting that God has no true goodwill toward the non-elect and therefore shows them no favor or “grace” of any kind.
5. The denial of God’s love toward the reprobate. Type-5 hyper-Calvinism is closely related to type-4. To deny that God in any sense loves the reprobate is to suggest that God holds us to a higher standard than He himself follows, for he instructs us to love our enemies—and Scripture teaches that when we love our enemies, we are behaving like God, who shows lovingkindness even to the reprobate (Deut. 10:18; Matt. 5:44-45).
Furthermore, to insist that God’s demeanor toward the non-elect is always and only hatred is a de facto denial of common grace—the same error of type-4 hyper-Calvinism.
There are some who hold this view, yet manage (by being inconsistent) to avoid other hyper-Calvinist opinions. The most influential advocate of the type-5 position was Arthur Pink. I hesitate to label him a hyper-Calvinist, frankly, because he fought the stronger varieties of hyper-Calvinism in his later years. A few other Puritan and mainstream Reformed theologians have also denied the love of God to the reprobate. They are a distinct minority, but they nonetheless have held this view. It’s a hyper-Calvinistic tendency, but not all who hold the view are hyper-Calvinists in any other respect.
This error stems from a failure to differentiate between God’s redemptive love, which is reserved for the elect alone, and His love of compassion, which is expressed in the goodness He shows to all His creatures (cf. Matt. 5:44-45; Acts 14:17). For an excellent antidote to the notion that God loves no one but the elect, see R. L. Dabney’s superb article, “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy.”
Our friends at monergism.com (Threshold) have posted an excellent collection of articles dealing with hyper-Calvinism. See Also:
- All House and no Doors: A Brief Critique of Hyper-Calvinism, by C. Matthew McMahon
- A review of David J. Engelsma’s Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel, by C. Matthew McMahon
- Hyper-Calvinism in the Light of Calvin, by Jeffrey Khoo
- A Reply to Baptist Hypercalvinism from Vindiciæ Legis et Fœderis, by John Flavel
- Calvinism, by A. Allison Lewis
- John Calvin and the Free Offer of the Gospel
- Calvinists and the Free Offer of the Gospel
- The Free Offer Of The Gospel: Is It Biblical And Reformed?
- Articles on the Doctrines of Grace from The Westminster Presbyterian.(This is an excellent collection of historic sermons and treatises on gospel themes, demonstrating the classic Reformed views of God’s love, common grace, the free offer of the gospel, and the sinner’s duty).