By 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.