Wednesday, July 11, 2007

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

It seems to me that one of the reasons that folks may want to distance themselves from the term Calvinism, though they may be comfortable with its tenets, is that the term means so many different things to different people.

What does it mean to be a Calvinist?

To some it means a follower of John Calvin, the great theologian/reformer to whose credit may be laid the beginnings of Presbyterianism. To some it means a subscriber to the so-called "5 Points of Calvinism." To some it means an aloof or arrogant theologian who thinks that he/she is the only one who has figured God out. To some it means a fatalist who believes in God's predestination and human depravity in such a way that he/she not only doesn't do evangelism, but believes it is wrong to share the Gospel with those who may not be elect.

What does it mean to be a Calvinist?

To adequately answer that, we must determine what it is not. We must ask, what does it mean to be a Hyper-Calvinist?

Part of the problem in these discussions is either (a) labeling a Calvinist as a Hyper-Calvinist or (b) describing Hyper-Calvinism and labeling it as Calvinism.

These are rhetorical fallacies and dirty pool. But, such raises the question, what is Hyper-Calvinism and what is a Hyper-Calvinist?

1. Is a Hyper-Calvinist a lazy Calvinist? (i.e,. one who doesn't evangelize)

2. Is it a Calvinist who needs Ritalin? (i.e., a Calvinist who is hyper, and perhaps obnoxious in being obsessed with Calvinism)

3. Is it a "5-Point" Calvinist? (i.e., one who adheres to the tenets of the Synod of Dordt)

Contrary to popular opinion, it is none of these.

1. Arminians can be just as lazy as Calvinists when it comes to evangelism. The criticism is the allegation that Calvinism necessarily leads to diminished evangelism attempts because people will say, "Well, if God's already chosen, why do I need to evangelize?" However, the compelling hope of the Calvinist is the knowledge that those whom God has appointed to eternal life will believe (Acts 13:48). Of course, always overlooked are the facts that the greatest evangelist of all time, George Whitefield, was a Calvinist as was the father of the modern missions movement, William Carey.

I should add that in reality if this effect was true of Calvinism because of its doctrine of election & predestination, then it really should be true of Arminianism as well. You see, both believe in election. You have to, since "predestination" is in the Bible (e.g., Rom 8:29-30; Eph 1:3, 11). Both believe it's something that God does and something that He does before one's birth. The difference is the basis on which God chooses. Is it conditional or unconditional, is there something in the person that merits His choice? But an Arminian has to also know that God's choice has been made, but for some reason he/she think his/her actions make a difference, that God uses those efforts. But the Calvinist believes that as well.

In other words, any Christian should realize that God has ordained, or chosen, the end, but He has also ordained the means to that end, our participation in the process.

2. While I'll admit that Calvinists can be obnoxiously hyper-active, Arminians can be just as much so. They typically aren't painted with that brush, however, since the Calvinist does seem more prone to intellectual/theological conjecture/speculation.

3. A "5-Point" Calvinist is a "Calvinist," by definition. All other varieties of Calvinist have to modify themselves (e.g., "I'm a 4-point Calvinist"). Ergo, a "5-Point" Calvinist is not a Hyper-Calvinist.

One of the best attempts to distinguish between Hyper-Calvinism, Calvinism, and Arminianism is that of Fightin' Texas Aggie Tom Ascol in this excerpt of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist Convention: What Hath Geneva To Do with Nashville?
Calvinism, Hyper-Calvinism, & Arminianism: Issues Shaping Our Identity as Southern Baptists
It might be beneficial to distinguish Calvinism from hyper-Calvinism because the two are often confused. (Indeed some writers and teachers confuse them so often and so willingly that one must wonder if the practice is intentional.) In one sense, hyper-Calvinism, like Arminianism, is a rationalistic perversion of true Calvinism. Whereas Arminianism destroys the sovereignty of God, hyper-Calvinism destroys the responsibility of man. The irony is that both Arminianism and hyper-Calvinism start from the same, erroneous rationalistic presupposition: Man's ability and responsibility are coextensive. That is, they must match up exactly or else it is irrational. If a man is to be held responsible for something, then he must have the ability to do it. On the other hand, if a man does not have the ability to perform it, he cannot be obligated to do it.

The Arminian looks at this premise and says, "Agreed! We know that all men are held responsible to repent and believe [which is true, according to the Bible]; therefore we must conclude that all men have the ability in themselves to repent and believe [which is false, according to the Bible]." Thus, Arminians teach that unconverted people have within themselves the spiritual ability to repent and believe.

The hyper-Calvinist takes the same premise (that man's ability and responsibility are coextensive) and says, "Agreed! We know that, in and of themselves, all men are without spiritual ability to repent and believe [which is true, according to the Bible]; therefore we must conclude that unconverted people are not under obligation to repent and believe the gospel [which is false, according to the Bible]."

In contrast to both of these, the Calvinist looks at the premise and says, "Wrong! While it looks reasonable, it is not biblical. The Bible teaches both that fallen man is without spiritual ability and that he is obligated to repent and believe. Only by the powerful, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is man given the ability to fulfill his duty to repent and believe." And though this may seem unreasonable to rationalistic minds, there is no contradiction, and it is precisely the position the Bible teaches.
Calvinism is today the minority theological report, though that has not always been the case. This country was, for the most part, colonized by Calvinist Puritans who sought to create a better world, one in subjection to the Sovereign God.

So many of our Baptist forefathers were Calvinists (e.g., John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon). Our beloved Southern Baptist forefathers were predominantly Calvinistic.

Historically, Baptists have been a group where both the Reformed and the Revivalistic (more Arminian) have co-existed and worked together in biblical love to glorify God through the evangelization of the world.

However, now that Calvinism is rising in popularity, there are a lot of folks out there who are seemingly intent on attacking it, including the use of libel and slander. I'm all for good, honest theological debate, which I think is edifying for the saints. Yet, using words you either (a) don't know the meanings of or (b) intentionally misrepresenting the theological views of others only edifies ignorance and arrogance.

I'd love to see more of what we had last year at the SBC annual meeting, a scholarly and friendly discussion of these matters by Drs. Paige Patterson and Al Mohler, presidents of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, respectively.

Sure, there are legitimate differences between the two schools of thought, but the goal of the Calvinist should not be to merely recruit for his/her party, nor for the Arminians to eliminate the Calvinists from their midst.

In that article, Ascol continues ...
Why are these things so important to our discussion? Baptists have been confronted with these theological issues throughout their history. The Arminianism-Calvinism-Hyper-Calvinism debate has played a decisive role in shaping our identity as Baptists, and particularly our identity as Southern Baptists.
The way the SBC is organized, it seems to me that there will always be Calvinists & Arminians, so there needs to be some methodology for working together for the glory of God, while honestly dealing with one another with regard to what the Scriptures teach. That includes intellectual honesty and not labeling as "hyper"anyone more Calvinistic than yourself.

So, to sum up, a Hyper-Calvinist is one who denies the necessity of the non-elect to respond to the gospel, because they cannot. And a Hyper-Calvinist, subsequently, would deny any responsibility on the part of a Christian to sow the gospel broadly. In short, a Hyper-Calvinist is the real-life caricature often maliciously painted of the Calvinist, one who sees no point in doing evangelism since God's already determined who He's going to save.

Tomorrow I aim to answer the oft asked question, "Are you a Calvinist?" But before you label myself or another, be sure you know what the words mean.



At 11 July, 2007 10:04, Blogger Michael J. Svigel said...

This is an excellent post. I agree with the content (and the motivation for writing it). I have written a bit on this very issue, too, as it comes up so often. See my short essay, "Calvinist Confusion," I actually published this in my church's newsletter and got a very positive response. I had people come up to me and say, "My husband and I read your article and realized we're Calvinists."

Thanks for your articles. Always engaging.


At 11 July, 2007 10:43, Blogger GUNNY said...

Good slooge, Mike, though the link wasn't easily accessible, so I've reposted your post's link Calvinist Confusion so folks could get some.

By the way, that's a funny AND encouraging story about the response.

At 11 July, 2007 12:19, Blogger Tom said...


This is timely and helpful. With all the talk about Baptist identity these days the term "Calvinism" will inevitably come up more and more. My friend, Timothy George, recommends a moratorium on using it and, while I understand and am sympathetic to his concerns, I don't think that is possible and probably won't even be helpful. What is helpful is careful definitions and distinctions that are historically informed. Thanks for contributing to that!

BTW--one of the best covers ever to appear on the Founders Journal is related to this topic. You can see it here.

At 11 July, 2007 13:19, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification of terms Gunny. I had thought that a Hyper-Calvinist was such a hard core Calvinist that he, in addition to rabidly affirming the 5-points of Calvinism, was unsatisifed with merely 5-points and longed for even more points, such that he gets into trouble by making up some more points and radically believing in these and lording it over the mere 5-point Calvinists who have not transcended yet to the full understanding of his super-Calvinism; looking down on mere 5-point Calvinists, how much more lower must he look down on the Arminian?!

-Oilcan "gnaw my arm off 5-point Calvinist"

At 11 July, 2007 14:40, Blogger GUNNY said...

Amen, Tom, and Gig 'em!

It's such a catch 22 for so many of these would-be pastors.

Do they candidate and say, "By the way, I'm a Calvinist," knowing that many don't really know what the term means and will likely form erroneous notions about the candidate? Also, they will be accused of "always" talking about Calvinism and "always" making that an issue.

Yet, if they don't use the term and they just describe what they believe to a search committee and how they approach Scripture, they will be accused of deceptively trying to sneak in and "steal" the church to make it an offering to the deity of John Calvin.

But, now that we've rooted out the non-inerrantists in the SBC, questions of identity fall on tongues and Calvinism, at least as of late.

Thanks so much for stopping by and for being such an encouragement to so many of us who just want to love Jesus and proclaim the truths of Scripture as they lie on the page, at least as we recognize and articulate them.

FYI ... if folks have never checked out the Founders Journal (click "Founders Journal" in the left sidebar), that thing is good. I wanna be friends with it.

- - - - - -


Interstingly enough, John Piper might have one-upped (or two-upped) you, as he's been known to label himself a 7-Point Calvinist!

"Piper isn't seeking to add two more points, but is simply calling attention to his belief in the traditional five points (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints) in a way that also points toward two additional "Calvinistic" truths that follow from them: double predestination and the best-of-all-possible worlds."

At 11 July, 2007 15:01, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well since one is not a Hyper-Calvinist by simply supporting extra points, then I'll consider signing up with The Pipe.

However, adding points for double predestination and best of all possible worlds really makes for a tough acronym: TULIP-DP-BOAPW

At 11 July, 2007 15:08, Blogger Rev. said...

As you know, I AM NOT A FOLLOWER OF JOHN CALVIN. I appreciate your efforts in this post, but wonder if even our attempts at clarification will be null and void if others are unwilling to actually listen to what we have to say. I think much depends upon the individual / group with which we are attempting to have the dialogue.

P.S. (I saw that original picture while a seminary student. One of my fellows, David Prince, had the Mrs. take that picture while his son was sitting on his lap. It is pure greatness).

P.P.S. ("Those non-Calvinists, they can fuss. I think they like to scream at us. Probably they mean no harm. They're really very short on charm.")

At 12 July, 2007 14:09, Blogger M. Jay Bennett said...

Why don't you guys juct convert to Presbyterianism and get it over with?


Being a Calvinist really isn't so bad.

At 17 July, 2007 21:51, Blogger AJF said...

to tag on to Brother Bennett- to be a Calvinist, in the truest sense, is to be covenantal. I have no problem with baptist brothers labeling themselves "Calvinists"...I know wha they mean. But reading Calvin on the sacraments sometimes makes this Calvinist quiver a bit when I hear Calvinism reduced to the "five points" and not include his unified view of the people of God and the sacraments.

Great post though. Great couple of posts Gunny.


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