Hyper-Calvinism, Rationalism, and Anti-Predestinarians

By definition, 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 one himself, and that is just silly. Justin Taylor alerts us to Phil Johnson’s response to the allegations about hyper-Calvinism emanating from the 2008 John 3:16 Conference. Phil is right. The free offer of the gospel is at the center of the question. Let us 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 eight years before the conference, 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. I have published an essay, in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine, attempting to explain why real, honest-to-goodness hyper-Calvinists do not accept the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel or what confessional Reformed theology considers the theological basis for the free offer.

Those predestinarians who deny the free offer usually do so because of some form of rationalism—that is, they have set up things so that, unless they can provide a comprehensive explanation of how something works, it cannot be. Thus, because they cannot 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 (CD, 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 cannot 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 cannot catch are not butterflies. The limits of their intellect are the limits of what God can or cannot do.

Orthodox, confessional Calvinism does not 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 are 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 was not raised a confessional Calvinist. I was raised a Unitarian Universalist. I know this movement from the inside. These folks are the rationalists. They are those who begin with the a priori about what can and cannot 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 do not 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 is 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 have 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, 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 is 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 have heard such lectures, and I have 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 not shocked that Estep rejected Calvin and Calvinism. I am used to that. We are part of a tradition in which tens of thousands were killed in one week in 1572. If you are not ready for rejection, do not 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 do not expect anti-predestinarians to like my theology. I do not 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 has 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 thirteen million souls, but I guess the overwhelming majority of them are not predestinarian. At most, the NAPARC churches count only five hundred thousand souls and probably fewer. Of the one hundred million evangelicals in the USA only a handful are predestinarian. We are 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 is a shame because it is so easily remedied.


To my hyper-Calvinist friends and correspondents, 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” (1 Tim 2:4). 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 intellect, and that is, of course, a form of rationalism. It is 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!

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2008.


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  1. I found Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism by Iain Murray (Banner of Truth press) to be very helpful. Spurgeon was adamant in defending the well-meant offer and in preaching the good news promiscuously.

  2. Very xlnt defense of Holy Scripture, Mr Clark! Thank you so much, and all Glory to our Most High God! I am a Reformed Baptist!✝️📖🛐😡😊❤️

  3. Look at John. John 20:31 as well as Jn. 3:16 seem clearly to be invitations to faith. Yet the same Gospel gives us 6:44, in which we are told that our faith is there because the Father who sent Jesus Christ has drawn us to him. So, there is a free offer of the Gospel. If it hooks someone, that redeemed sinner will happily confess that his new faith is a gift of divine grace. I suppose I see it as something like peeling back a series of curtains, and when the last one is pulled back, we see the eternal decrees of God.

    At the same time, I will not throw rocks at Gordon Clark and others who have been wary of Arminian preaching.

    • Peter,

      It is not about throwing rocks at him. He and others (whose views I described in the essay and also in Recovering the Reformed Confession) denied a crucial Reformed distinction between the Creator and the creature. As a consequence, they also denied the free offer of the gospel.

      The Synod of Dort Was very critical of the Remonstrants, but they did so without compromising the free offer.

  4. I do find myself agreeing with this article (it just gave me new categories for what I thought before), but how do we know when we are guilty of rationalism and when we are not? The Lutherans accuse us for rationalism when we insist on reprobation and particular attonement, and especially our denial of the corporal presence under bread and wine – which is one of the main reasons for our seperation and for the failiure at Marburg.

    • Sam,

      The Lutherans have alleged that we are rationalists but their claim rings hollow. They say that we place human reason over Scripture but what they mean is that we dare disagree with them. How is it placing reason over Scripture to say that God the Spirit feeds us on the “proper and natural” body and blood (Belgic Confession)? It isn’t. It’s an overtly mystical doctrine of the Supper. That is the antithesis of rationalism. We check ourselves for rationalism by 1) understanding what rationalism is; 2) making sure that what we believe is driven principally by Holy Scripture and the ecumenical creeds. Take a look at my book on Caspar Olevianus. There I contrast Olevianus’ Christology with that of his orthodox Lutherans contemporaries. Olevianus started with Philippians 2. The Lutherans? They started with an a priori. They knew that the properties deity must be communicated to the humanity. Olevianus et al. were exegeting Scripture not beginning with a priori assumptions.

      As to reprobation, well, if that’s rationalist then the Apostle Paul is a rationalist, so is Augustine, and so is Luther in The Bondage of the Will. In church-historical terms, it’s just Augustinian theology.

      In fact, the conviction that God allows some of the fallen to remain in their fallen state is hardly rationalist since it begins with divine revelation and not an a priori. It is a truth known by special revelation, not by nature.

    • I did not say I agree with the charges – I simply wondered (especially regarding the supper).

      I recently listened to an interview where Keith Fosky (a memorialist Particular Baptist) was interviewing 5 Lutherans (Hans Fiene and 4 whose names I forgot). Their’e main charge against both mere memorialism and the Reformed view (as well as the Roman view) basically boiled down to alledging neither view is in scripture, but is a rationalist addition. They then quote the words of institution as a proof for the elements physically being the body and blood of Christ (how they came to the conclusion those rule out all modes of non-physical presence – I do not know).
      So a slightly more sophisticated version of “is means is”.
      This was the charge I was asking about.

      Honestly, the whole question is also making me wonder about the nature of omnipresence, since God is Spirit, and not matter.

      • Sam,

        We can’t postulate the ubiquity/omnipresence of Christ’s humanity without transgressing the limits set by Chalcedon:

        to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ

        Thus, the Reformed churches are right to confess that, in the Supper, believers eat the “proper and natural” body and blood of Christ by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit. How the Spirit feeds us, through the mouth of faith, on Christ’s proper and natural body and blood is a great mystery but it doesn’t entail imputing the properties of the deity to the humanity.

    • Reading what they confess about “Capernaitic eating” is enlightening. It seems they have no problem confessing a contradiction, making Christ’s body present in a physical way, without having any property of a physical thing (“not rent by the teeth” ext).

      How seriously should we take the Christological error they hold? I assume you would take the errors of infamous ancient heretics as more serious. Am I right to assume that? What’s the diffrence?


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