Monday, October 10, 2005

I don't want to be a hyper-Calvinist

The latest issue of Ligonier Ministries' Tabletalk is devoted to the topic What Reformed Theology is Not. I was delighted to see that Michael S. Horton contributed an article on hyper-Calvinism. I am always interested in one flavor of hyper-Calvinism of which I have been accused: the denial that the gospel is a "sincere" offer of salvation made to all persons.

The tension here, for the Calvinist, is rather obvious. Only the elect will be regenerated by grace, come to faith in Christ, and receive the gift of salvation. Only the elect hear an inward call. Therefore, how can the offer be sincere?

Doesn't an offer, if it is to be called sincere, imply that the offer not only may be accepted (or rejected) but can be accepted (or rejected)?

And if that is correct, then how is the gospel offer sincere for anyone? For the elect it is like a Don Corleone offer—it cannot be refused—and for the non-elect it like offering salvation to a man, blind from birth, if he can describe the picture you are showing him.

I don't want to be a hyper-Calvinist. I want someone to demonstrate, from scripture, how the offer is sincere (in they way we use that word) for everyone. Or even for anyone.

Some background may be helpful. I first realized that I was a hyper-Calvinist (of this flavor when browsing Phil Johnson's (not that Phil Johnson) website. There, in an essay on hyper-Calvinism, Johnson wrote:
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.
Johnson, after describing hyper-Calvinsim, went on to give the first of several examples that don't seem to fit:
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."
Now I agree that there is something seriously wrong with this sentiment. But in my opinion, the flaw in Ryland's rebuke to Carey was not in the denial that there is a sincere offer for everyone, but in his blatant disregard for God's command to preach the gospel to the world, and most likely in his understanding of why we are to preach the gospel, which is to glorify God, not to make converts—although that is wonderful when it happens.

Phil Johnson goes on to give five ways one can be a Hyper-Calvinist, writing:
A hyper-Calvinist is someone who either:
  1. Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear, OR
  2. Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner, OR
  3. Denies that the gospel makes any "offer" of Christ, salvation, or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal), OR
  4. Denies that there is such a thing as "common grace," OR
  5. Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.

Notice that Johnson, when describing the hyper-Calvinist spirit (which I quoted above) used the adjective sincere. In giving his five ways by which one crosses the boundary into hyper-Calvinism, he omitted sincere in item three. I assume, however, that it is implied.

In my own scorecard, I am in big danger, I know, of being a Type-3 hyper-Calvinist.

Okay, I'm willing to be instructed. I don't want to be a hyper-Calvinist of any type. I want someone to explain exactly how the gospel offer is sincere, in the way we would use "sincere offer" (both may and can be accepted/rejected.)

So I continued reading Johnson's essay.
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."
Well, no, that doesn't apply to me. I never mention election when presenting the Gospel. I tell people that if they recognize that they are sinners they should repent, and that salvation is a free gift for those who come to faith in Jesus Christ. Johnson's example of someone who gives a corrupted gospel message does nothing to help me understand how the offer of salvation is "sincere" for all.

Johnson continues:
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."
No, not in my case. The way I witness—telling those that they must acknowledge their sinfulness and that God will forgive—is completely in line with 2 Corinthians 5:20. Now it is true that, in the back of my mind, I know that only the elect will be regenerated and acquire the ability to come to Christ. But of course I have no idea who is or is not elect. And it is also true that I view the purpose of witnessing more as glorifying God—by making his mercies known—than I view it as being beneficial to the hearer. However, I never alter the gospel in the way that Johnson suggests is the natural manifestation of my hyper-Calvinism.

Johnson then goes into detail on the five forms of hyper-Calvinism. So I anticipate some answers in his in-depth examination of Type 3 hyper-Calvinsism. But there is no substance in Johnson's essay at this point; he merely refers to additional sources. He says nothing other than the view is wrong, nothing to help me with my conundrum about how an offer for which the hearer has a moral inability to assent can, in any manner, be sincere. At this point I get it that Johnson views this as hyper-Calvinism—I would just like some scriptural proof that directly supports his assertion.

So on the basis of Johnson's essay, I stood accused of being a hyper-Calvinist. But his essay was ultimately unsatisfying; it merely defined hyper-Calvinism, gave examples that did not apply, and offered no scriptural proof.

With that backdrop, you can imagine how happy I was to find the aforementioned essay by Michael S. Horton in the November, 2005 edition of Tabletalk.

In a paragraph under the heading Is the Gospel for Everyone Horton begins with:
Isn't it a bit of false advertising to say on one hand that God has already determined who will be saved and on the other hand to insist that the good news of the Gospel be sincerely and indiscriminately proclaimed to everyone?
Here I am a little nervous. I don't deny that God insists that, as evangelists, we must be sincere and indiscriminate in proclaiming the gospel. I want Horton to address whether God Himself makes a sincere offer of salvation to everyone. Horton diverted in midstream. Forget about us, tell me about God.

It really doesn't matter, because Horton doesn't answer his own (in my opinion ill-formed) question. He simply goes on to declare it a mystery, and then give the standard Calvinistic description of the outward and inward calls. I completely agree with his explanation of the calls, even as I lament that it offers no insight to the question at hand. It is a related but off-target point that Horton makes.

Horton then states that both Arminians and hyper-Calvinists ignore crucial passages, resolving the mystery in terms of either the free offer of the gospel or election. Like Johnson, Horton labels the pathology, describes inaccurate symptoms, and offers no substantive explanation.

I was very disappointed. I am left as always, with the feeling that nobody, from a Calvinistic perspective, can support the notion that God makes a sincere offer of salvation to all. And I am left, as always, with the impression that they simply cannot make such a statement (that God does not make a sincere offer to all), intuiting that it is insulting to the character of God. They label it as hyper-Calvinism, call it a mystery, offer anecdotal evidence that doesn't fit, or explanations for theological points not actually in dispute.

Or maybe, buried in Romans 9:
22What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory (Rom. 9:22-23)
they really can see a sincere offer for all.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, thanks for this blog post! It was really, really well written and CLEAR! I have been so fed up reading many different things about hyper-Calvinism, because the writers simply aren't CLEAR about what they mean.

    Well, as someone who used to be a Calvinist, after many years of deliberation, I am now willing to to say that I am NOT a Calvinist. I am not a Calvinist because Calvinism is too muddled. It is too arrogant. Its too illogical and it is too irrational. About a year ago, after reading Johnson's article, I would probably have accepted the title, "hyper-Calvinist". But no longer. Today I am neither a Calvinist nor a hyper-Calvinist. I have been to the hyper-Calvinists, heard them speak on the issue, read a little of what they have to say, but they too, like the Calvinists, seem to be confused and irrational, and, like the Calvinists, somewhat arrogant. Also, it seems that a great deal of, "Calvinists" throughout history, including such HUGE figures as William Perkins (who was basically the founding father of Puritanism in England), Jonathan Edwards, and of course Theodore Beza (who I think probably did interpret Calvin correctly, even though the arguments to suggest he didn't are initially fairly impressive) were all HYPER-Calvinists, or at least, semi-hyper-Calvinists. They were so, on account of the manner in which they presented the gospel. None of these men would do much more when preaching the gospel, than speak of the promises of God to his elect people, and tell those to whom they preached that if they wanted to know whether they were amongst God’s elect, they should enquire of God, and wait on him, and if they inquired sincerely, desiring earnestly to be amongst his beloved people, then the light would surely dawn in their hearts. But such men as Edwards never went beyond this. It was the Arminians who introduced the notion of faith being the act of sinseerly committing oneself to Jesus Christ. Before William Ames, Calvinists never taught this! At least, not in the English tradition. And if I'm right on Beza’s interpretation of his mentor, then it means Calvin was at least a bit of a Hyper-Calvinist by Johnson's definition too! So what IS a, "Calvinist" and a, "Hyper-Calvinist"?

    I am content to say that I am neither a Calvinist nor a hyper-Calvinist, since nobody can agree on the terms. What a, "Calvinist" is seems to vary from generation to generation, and many Presbyterians don't think that non-Presbyterians are, "proper Calvinists" anyway. And the use of such terms as, "Calvinist" and, "hyper-Calvinist" for Christians, is rather debatable on Biblical grounds regardless. The definition of hyper-Calvinist has been hugely disputed, with such Presbyterians as the PRC virulantly defending themselves against the charge, and the Johnson’s of this world virulently making the charge. The best definition of hyper-Calvinist I ever read was, "someone who is more Calvinist than you are". I think this definition speaks volumes.