A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism

Phil Johnson
As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die” ().
yper-Calvinism, simply stated, is a doctrine that emphasizes divine sovereignty to the exclusion of human responsibility. To call it “hyper-Calvinism” is something of a misnomer. It is actually a rejection of historic Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism entails a denial of what is taught in both Scripture and the major Calvinistic creeds, substituting instead an imbalanced and unbiblical notion of divine sovereignty.
Hyper-Calvinism comes in several flavors, so it admits no simple, pithy definition. Here are a few definitions to consider. I’ll comment briefly on these and then propose a more comprehensive definition:

From a popular theological dictionary:

1. [Hyper-Calvinism] is a system of theology framed to exalt the honour and glory of God and does so by acutely minimizing the moral and spiritual responsibility of sinners . . . It emphasizes irresistible grace to such an extent that there appears to be no real need to evangelize; furthermore, Christ may be offered only to the elect. . . .
2. It is that school of supralapsarian ‘five-point’ Calvinism [n.b.—a school of supralapsarianism, not supralapsarianism in general] which so stresses the sovereignty of God by over-emphasizing the secret over the revealed will of God and eternity over time, that it minimizes the responsibility of sinners, notably with respect to the denial of the use of the word “offer” in relation to the preaching of the gospel; thus it undermines the universal duty of sinners to believe savingly in the Lord Jesus with the assurance that Christ actually died for them; and it encourages introspection in the search to know whether or not one is elect. [Peter Toon, “Hyper-Calvinism,” New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1988), 324.]

Notice three very crucial points in that definition: First, it correctly points out that hyper-Calvinists tend to stress the secret (or decretive) will of God over His revealed (or preceptive) will. Indeed, in all their discussion of “the will of God,” hyper-Calvinists routinely obscure any distinction between God’s will as reflected in His commands and His will as reflected in his eternal decrees. Yet that distinction is an essential part of historic Reformed theology. (See John Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God? Divine Election and God’s Desire for All To Be Saved” in Thomas R. Schreiner, ed., The Grace of God and the Bondage of the Will, 2 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995, 1:107-131.)
Second, take note of the stress the above definition places on hyper-Calvinists’ “denial of the use of the word ‘offer’ in relation to the preaching of the gospel.” 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.
Third, mark the fact that hyper-Calvinism “encourages introspection in the search to know whether or not one is elect.” Assurance tends to be elusive for people under the influence of hyper-Calvinist teaching. Therefore, hyper-Calvinism soon degenerates into a cold, lifeless dogma. Hyper-Calvinist churches and denominations tend to become either barren and inert, or militant and elitist (or all of the above).

Some common (but not quite precise) definitions: Hyper-Calvinism is sometimes defined as the view that God will save the elect apart from any means. Some, but very few, modern hyper-Calvinists hold such an extreme view. Those who do hold this view oppose all forms of evangelism and preaching to the unsaved, because they believe God will save whomever He chooses, apart from human means.
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.”
Another common but incorrect definition equates hyper-Calvinism with fatalism. Fatalism is a mechanistic determinism, antithetical to the notion of a personal God. While it is true that the most extreme varieties of hyper-Calvinism tend to depersonalize God, it is not accurate to portray all hyper-Calvinists as fatalists.
Hyper-Calvinism is often equated with supralapsarianism and double-predestination. But it is possible to be a supralapsarian, and to hold to a kind of “double-predestination” without embracing hyper-Calvinism. (Virtually all hyper-Calvinists are supralapsarians, but not all supralapsarians are hyper-Calvinists. For more information about supralapsarianism, see my “Notes on Supralapsarianism & Infralapsarianism.”)
Finally, some critics unthinkingly slap the label “hyper” on any variety of Calvinism that is higher than the view they hold to. Arminians like to equate all five-point Calvinism with hyper-Calvinism (as Calvary-Chapel author George Bryson does in his horrible little book, The Five Points of Calvinism: “Weighed and Found Wanting” [Costa Mesa: Word for Today, 1996]). That approach lacks integrity and only serves to confuse people.

A fivefold definition: The definition I am proposing outlines five varieties of hyper-Calvinism, listed here in a declining order, from the worst kind to a less extreme variety (which some might prefer to class as “ultra-high Calvinism”):

A hyper-Calvinist is someone who either:

Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear, OR
Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner, OR
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
Denies that there is such a thing as “common grace,” OR
Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.

All five varieties of hyper-Calvinism undermine evangelism or twist the gospel message.
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.” Thus the good news about Christ’s death and resurrection is

11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? (ESV)

1 comment for “A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism

  1. November 25, 2016 at 10:55 pm

    Greetings!

    There is a response to this article, by Rev. Martyn McGeown – minister of the Limerick Reformed Fellowship in Ireland.

    The response is a set of editorials that appeared in the British Reformed Journal over the past 3-4 years/

    Here is the link:
    http://www.cprf.co.uk/articles/hypercalvinist.html#.WDiTOvmLTIU

    Every blessing,

    DH

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