Hyper-Calvinism, Rationalism, and Anti-Predestinarians

FreeOfferBy etymology, “hyper-Calvinism” is that doctrine which goes “beyond” (hyper) Calvin. Often, however, it is used incorrectly by critics of predestination to describe anyone who believes in reprobation. If teaching reprobation makes one “hyper-Calvinist” then Calvin would be “hyper-Calvinist” and that’s just silly.  Justin alerts us Phil Johnson’s response to the allegations about “hyper-Calvinism” emanating from the recent John 3:16 conference. Phil is right. The free offer of the gospel is at the center of the question. Let’s be clear here. Believing in predestination and reprobation does not make one a “hyper-Calvinist.” Denying the free-offer of the gospel does. John Murray wrote one of the best defenses of the free offer in recent times. I first posted Murray’s essay on the free offer about 8 years ago, so there is no reason why anyone at the John 3:16 conference could not know about that stout, exegetically rigorous defense of the free offer made by an equally stout confessor of absolute, double predestination and limited atonement.

Donald John MacLean has been writing about the free offer for some time and I’ve published an essay, in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine, attempting to explain why real, honest-to-goodness hyper-Calvinists don’t accept the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel and what the theological basis, within confessional Reformed theology, is for the free offer.

Those predestinarians who deny the free offer usually do so because of some form of rationalism, i.e. they’ve set up things so that, unless they can provide a comprehensive explanation of how something works, it can’t be. Thus, because they can’t see how God can both predestine the elect and the reprobate and freely offer salvation to all, they conclude that it cannot be. They reject mystery. In contrast, the mainstream of orthodox Calvinism, including Calvin, has always embraced the mystery and paradox of the free offer. The Synod of Dort (whence the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism”) embraced this mystery:

Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel (Canons of Dort, 2.5)

Indeed, in my essay, I show that there is a connection between the rationalism of the hyper-Calvinists and the rationalism of Arminius and the Remonstrants (with whom apparently at least some of the speakers at the John 3:16 conference identified).

Ironically, the “evangelical” universalists and the “hyper-Calvinists” (we should speak of “hyper-predestinarians”) deserve each other! The universalists can’t see how it is that God can freely and genuinely offer the gospel to all unless it is the case that Christ actually died for everyone who ever lived and unless it is that Christ’s death has made it possible for all to be saved if they will only do their part. Methodologically, in both cases, what their nets can’t catch aren’t butterflies. The limits of their intellects are the limits of what God can or cannot do.

Orthodox, confessional Calvinism doesn’t limit God by the limits of our comprehension. We understand that God transcends our ability to comprehend Him. We may be wrong, but we really do believe that we’re following God’s Word when we confess both that God has known his elect from all eternity and that He reprobates some by passing them by and that Christ died for those whom the Father gave to him from all eternity (pactum salutis) and that God has ordained that the gospel of free salvation through faith alone (sola fide), by grace alone (sola gratia), in Christ alone (solo Christo) should be preached and offered freely to all as a “well-meant” offer of the gospel.

Further, confessional Calvinism teaches what it does, not because of some rationalist a priori about the way things “must be” or on the basis that “we all know that….” Rather, we teach and hold what we do because we believe it is taught in God’s Word. I wasn’t raised a confessional Calvinist. My first religious training was as an Unitarian Universalist. I know this movement from the inside. Those folks are the rationalists. They are those who begin with the a priori about what can and can’t be about the way things work, and it is they who make deductions from their premise, and it is they who impute their way of thinking to us. This is nothing other than projection. We don’t operate like that. Our faith is full of mystery of paradoxes to wit, the holy Trinity, the two natures and one person of Christ, divine sovereignty and human responsibility (who has flattened out that one but the anti-predestinarians?), the free offer, the true presence of Christ in the Supper, and means of grace (the Spirit operates through the foolishness of Gospel preaching) and that’s the short list.

How can we do it? We do so because we distinguish between the way God knows things and the way we know things. As I’ve argued at length in Recovering the Reformed Confession, this “categorical distinction” is fundamental to Reformed theology. In fairness to the critics of Reformed theology at the John 3:16 conference, many contemporary Reformed folk seem to have forgotten this distinction (hence the book) so we understand a little why critics might not know about this distinction. Nevertheless, it has been basic to Reformed theology from the beginning. Calvin articulated it very clearly as did the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy.

I have not listened to the lectures from the John 3:16 conference, but I have seen some of the fallout on the web and I have had lots of discussions with anti-predestinarians. I must say that, in most cases, I am more than a little disappointed with the poor scholarship on the part of many of the critics. They do not seem to know even the basics of Reformed theology. Here’s what I think happens—I have good reason for thinking thus: a college or seminary student hears an uninformed lecture about Calvin and Calvinism. The lecturer has not done due diligence, and the old Socinian and Remonstrant caricatures of Calvin or Calvinism are repeated as fact, and that distorted picture becomes the basis for a lifetime of thinking about Calvin and Calvinism. I’ve heard such lectures, and I’ve read them.

About a decade ago, the learned Baptist historian William Estep published a remarkably ignorant, misleading, and even bigoted essay in the Baptist Standard of Texas.  In this essay Estep repeats some of the most tired anti-Calvin bromides. I was shocked not that Estep rejected Calvin and Calvinism. I’m used to that. We’re part of a tradition in which tens of thousands were killed in one week in 1572. If you’re not ready for rejection, don’t become a Calvinist! I was not prepared, however, to see such a public display of gross ignorance about historical matters that could be corrected by doing the most basic research. If a senior scholar such as Estep was willing to publish this stuff, what must he say to his students? The thought of the hundreds and perhaps thousands of students who had been seriously misled about the nature of Calvinism by ill-informed lectures, for whom that might be their only exposure to Calvinism, was truly disheartening. I was and remain thankful for Roger Nicole’s gracious response.

I don’t expect anti-predestinarians to like my theology. I don’t expect them to agree with me, but I do reasonably expect them to be able to represent my theology accurately and to understand how I read the Scriptures and what the history of Reformed theology actually is, and what I actually confess. The amazing thing is that it is now so easy to find out what we actually believe. Indeed, it’s never been very hard. How difficult is it to read the Heidelberg Catechism? How hard is it to find out what actually happened in the Servetus case? (check out the bizarre discussion in the comments to Tom Ascol’s post!)

The great irony in all this is that, in American religion and religious studies, the anti-predestinarians are the overwhelming majority. The SBC may “only” be 6 million souls but I guess the overwhelming majority of them are not predestinarian. At most, the NAPARC churches count only 600,000 souls and probably fewer. Of the 60 million evangelicals in the USA only a handful are predestinarian. We’re a tiny minority. Why on earth do the critics in the SBC such as Estep and others find a handful of predestinarians so threatening? Who is attempting to drown whom here? Who, metaphorically, is turning whom over to the authorities for punishment?  Is it the mean old predestinarians or the peace-loving universalists? On what basis? The reaction of the anti-predestinarians appears to be driven by fear and ignorance and that’s a shame because it is so easily remedied.

Update 10 Dec 08

To my hyper-Calvinist friends and correspondents (see the combox below), I was reminded by a post on Reformation Theology by John Samson, of this verse: “who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” The English verb “to desire” translates the Greek verb which is usually translated “to will” (θελειν). Against the free or well-meant offer, it has been argued that we cannot speak of God’s will in two aspects or in two ways, that we must speak univocally. Univocity, however, assumes an intersection between the divine and human intellects, and that is, of course, a form of rationalism. It’s not Reformed theology, which is premised on the Creator/creature distinction.

Further, if God’s will can only be spoken of in one sense then we would become universalists! Nevertheless, we must deal honestly with God’s Word and recognize that, given the hiddenness of the divine decree, there is a genuine and true sense in which God must be said to will the salvation of all. It is in light of this sort of biblical language that the Reformed faith has historically taught the substance of what has come to be called the “free” or “well-meant” offer of the gospel.

The real issue here, as I argued in the essay in the Strimple Festschrift, (do the opponents of the Free Offer ever read anything but their own in-house stuff?) is not really what God’s Word says. The real question is why opponents of the Free Offer reject out of hand exegetical arguments for the free or well-meant offer? The answer is because they reject the premise on which that exegetical work is done, and the framework within which historic Reformed orthodoxy has read Scripture, namely, that all divine revelation is accommodated to human finitude, and that we humans have only analogical knowledge of God. Because of that fact, we cannot go behind the revelation of God in Scripture to some other a priori truth by which to leverage Scripture, and that Scripture reveals God as not willing the death of sinners. So God has spoken and so we too must speak to sinners, knowing that Scripture also says that the same God works sovereignly and freely through the preaching of the gospel to call his elect to faith in Christ. Praise God for his mercy and for his means of grace!

This post first appeared on the HB in 2008.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Hi Scott. Just so you can avoid future crass generalizations and so you might stop acting like some Don Quixote defending some mythical “Reformed tradition” that never existed, predestinarians like me do not deny the “free offer due” to “some form of rationalism,” but rather because there are no passages in Scripture that support your claim that God desires the salvation of all men. This is why Bob Suden remarked on another of your blog posts:

    The Well Meant Offer? Murray’s take on his proof texts doesn’t seem to quite follow the historical reformed trajectory. 2 Pet. 3:9 has a universal referent instead of pointing to the elect? Are we sure about that?

    I mean, really, Murray’s handling of this passage is atrocious and flies in the face the historic Reformed exegetical position. The point is, for many of us who you call “rationalists” we reject the so-called “well-meant-offer” not primarily because it is contradictory and imputes irrationality to God (and it does), but because of consistent historic Reformed exegesis of critical passages like 2 Peter 3:9.

    For example, concerning this passage, and after an extended and detailed argument, John Owen in his The Death of Death concludes: “The text is clear, that it is all and only the elect whom he would not have to perish.”

    Go back and read his argument and you’ll see how badly Murray and Stonehouse mishandled this verse.

    Gordon Clark argues similarly when he writes:

    Since God has made and appointed the wicked for the day of evil, as in 2:3,4 have already said, as 2:9 virtually implies, and as is distinctly stated in Romans 9:17-22, 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12, or as Proverbs 16:4 says, ” The Lord has made everything for its own end, yea even the wicked for the day of evil,” it follows that God does not will the salvation of every member of the human race. It is not his will that every man without exception should repent. Repentance is a gift of God, and if God willed to, he would give everyone repentance. But obviously he does not. So much for the Scripture in general.

    The verse 3:9 would make no sense otherwise. Peter is telling us that Christ’s return awaits the repentance of certain people. Now, if Christ’s return awaited the repentance of every individual without exception, Christ would never return. Already many have died unrepentant, and their number grows larger every day. The only time when every individual had come to repentance was when Adam and Eve repented and were clothed with skins. The Arminians, unwittingly to be sure, imply that Christ should have returned them — his second advent antedating his first.

    This is no new interpretation. The Similitudes viii,xi, 1 in the Shepherd of Hermas ( c. A.D. 130-150 ), which because of the date serves as evidence for the epistle’s authenticity, says” “But the Lord, being long-suffering, wishes [ thelei] those who were called [ ten klesin ten genomenen ] through his Son to be saved.” This quotation shows how the verse was understood in the second century. It is the called or elect whom God wills to save.

    Peter therefore is saying simply that Christ will not return until everyone of the elect has come to repentance. Or, as the hymn writer said:

    Ten thousand times ten thousand
    In sparkling raiment bright,
    The armies of the ransomed saints
    Throng up the steeps of light.
    Bring near thy great salvation,
    Thou Lamb for sinners slain;
    Fill up the roll of thine elect.
    Then take thy power and reign.

    Besides not being very Christian in the way you deal with brothers who disagree with you on this point, even attacking them as “hyper-Calvinists,” there is nothing in any of the Reformed confessions that support your view of the offer.

    For example, you cite Dort 2.5, but there is nothing there that I, nor any predestinarian like me, couldn’t confess wholeheartedly and without the slightest reservation. The Gospel should be preached to all men promiscuously and without distinction. God does command all who hear the Gospel to repent and believe. The problem is your conclusion (God desires the salvation of all men) doesn’t follow from this premise (God commands all who hear the Gospel to repent and believe) and the reason is simple; you cannot infer anything in the indicative from something written in the imperative.

    Luther, whom I suppose you think is a rationalist too, excoriated Erasmus for making this juvenile error in Bondage of the Will, writing:

    Even grammarians and schoolboy at street corners know that nothing more is signified by verbs in the imperative mood that what ought to be done, and that what is done or can be done should be expressed by verbs in the indicative. How is it that you theologians are twice as stupid as schoolboys, in that as soon as you get hold of a single imperative verb you infer an indicative meaning?

    I understand you’re unhappiness with Baptist historian William Estep, but what about the the hundreds and perhaps thousands of students you have misled about the true nature of Calvinism.

    So, Scott, why don’t you man up and stop with all the name calling and vitriol and defend your “free offer” exegetically? Why don’t you go toe to toe with the great Reformed exegetes in the past who have rejected the lazy (mis)handling of verses like 2 Peter 3:9 and stop acting like a theocratic bully.

    • Sean,

      You’re entitled to criticize Murray’s exegesis but you’re not entitled to your own history, facts, and logic.

      The historical evidence for the doctrine of the “free offer” is overwhelming. I’m surprised that you would make such a claim. Have you actually read what I’ve written? I guess not. You’ve certainly removed any incentive I might have to take you seriously.

  2. From the OPC

    The argument that the longsuffering of God that delays judgment could not concern the reprobate, “for they will never repent” is to be met exactly as Calvin met similar arguments. Following his exegesis of II Peter 3:9, Calvin says: “But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many perish? To this my answer is, that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches out his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them unto himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world.”

    • Thanks Jack. That’s helpful.

      Donald John Maclean has been writing on this for about 6 years at his blog. He finished his PhD thesis/diss. on the topic of the Free/Well-Meant Offer in the Reformed tradition last February.

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