Founders Journal


Are Calvinists Hyper?

Tom J. Nettles

In recent years many Baptist newspapers have shown an encouraging trend. An unusual number of individual items have discussed the issue of Calvinism in Southern Baptist life. News articles, guest editorials, personal opinion articles, and letters to the editors have demonstrated great diversity in both heat and light. Sadly, there has usually been more of the former than the latter.

This is an encouraging trend from a couple of standpoints: first, that theology would receive any kind of hearing could have beneficial results. When one begins to think theologically the possibility of biblical doctrine having a positive effect on one's worship practices, preaching, personal life, and witness increases; second, when the doctrines of grace are the topic of conversation, ideas, thoughts, biblical passages which have never occurred to a person or have been repressed rush into one's consciousness and provide a platform for beneficial discussion. It may be that the process will bequeath to us visions of an infinitely wise God worthy of the worship attributed to Him in Scripture and commanded by it. In addition we might face the challenge of our age with a sense of confidence rather than sinking despair.

Some of the letters have shown that commitment to these historic evangelical, reformed, Baptist truths is intense in many individuals and extensive across the convention. It is undeniable that there is a growing theological renewal taking place among churches and church leaders.

Another matter, however, shows that a real challenge lies before us. It is clear that if a broader, more influential commitment to the doctrines of grace becomes a part of the convention picture, a purer knowledge of those marvelous truths is essential. If they ever become more than a just a newsworthy curiosity or a pesky polarity in Southern Baptist "faultiness" (to use the word of Jesse Fletcher), then much education is still needed. I say this because much of the attention given to "Calvinism" in these days shows that significant lack of awareness has created both misunderstandings and an easy path for misrepresentations. The confusion which reigns in discussing these issues could be multiplied to embarrassing dimensions. Two representations, however, will suffice to make this point. When one former seminary teacher was discussing the Abstract of Principles, he said,

Boyce and Manly received their theological training in Princeton Seminary, with Charles Hodge as mentor. Their modified Calvinism is embedded in the 1858 Abstract. A glaring example is Article V: "Election is God's eternal choice of some persons unto everlasting life." Predestination, limited atonement, and irresistible grace belong to this Calvinism.
This writer goes on the say that this is the kind of Calvinism that rebuked William Carey and with which Boyce himself must have been inconsistent since Boyce manifested a "zeal for missions."

Another writer, a former Southern Baptist seminary professor, said (contradicting the prior writer though similar in sentiment) that a Calvinistic interpretation of the Abstract is "something that the author did not intend, and something our Baptist forebears clearly renounced as an impediment to their evangelistic and missionary understanding of the gospel."

We see, therefore, in these two analyses a disagreement and an agreement. They disagree on the meaning of the Abstract, one propounding an interpretation that minimizes its Calvinism and the other portraying it as a five-point Calvinist document. They agree, however, that Calvinism is inconsistent with missions. In order for a Calvinist to pursue missions he must first renounce Calvinism or practice inconsistently with it. Digesting these two writers' opinions, salted down with several other pieces in various papers, one receives the distinct gastronomical sensation that the Calvinism du jour is simply microwaved hyper-Calvinism re-thawed and served from its eighteenth-century freezer.

There is little appreciation of the distinction between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism in spite of some recent writings, including Timothy George's biography of William Carey A Faithful Witness, which have carefully delineated the differences. Many continue to fail, even in the most appropriate historical context, to give a clear picture of the aggressive evangelical Calvinism that characterized the leaders of the mission movement among English Baptists, American Baptists, and Southern Baptists. Their missionary involvement becomes abstracted from a theological framework and seems to be purely the outcome of guts and zeal or of love for Christ unconnected to any clear views of doctrinal truth. That hyper-Calvinism really is a different theological system from Calvinism is rarely discussed. Hyper-Calvinism is seen as very serious Calvinism or "Five-point Calvinism" or the defense of "limited atonement" or "supralapsarianism." One letter to the editor in the Baptist Record indicates the belief of its writer that "sublapsarianism" is only "one step removed from evangelical Arminianism." P. H. Mell would be quite amused, but at the same time greatly alarmed, at this misunderstanding.

Let us assume for a moment that the interpretation of our two former professors is correct: one indeed must not hold to any distinctive of Calvinism with clarity and certainly not with uncompromising conviction if he is to be effective in the encouragement of a missionary program. Let us then imagine that we are faced with the task of electing a corresponding secretary for the purpose of communicating instructions and encouragement to the missionaries on the field and mobilizing the convention to call out its likely candidates for missionary service. We receive a letter of recommendation with the following theological profile. The information is volunteered that our potential candidate believes that "election . . . is God's free, sovereign, eternal and unchangeable purpose to glorify the perfections of His character in the salvation of a definite number of the human family by Jesus Christ, without regard to any foreseen merit or good works on their part as the ground or condition of this choice." Further, our candidate states, "God's will of sovereign purpose is not suspended upon the volitions of his creatures; the universe combined could not frustrate one jot or tittle; and in accordance with this will does he carry forward all his divine and glorious operations." Incredulous at such boldness of statement in asserting the unchallenged, unilateral sovereignty of God, we ask the recommender if this candidate understands anything about the doctrine of free will. "Oh," comes the response, "He believes that the will is in bondage to the inordinate corruption of the human heart and `that such is the unrelenting depravity of sinful man, [that] he will assuredly wander on in unbelief and rebellion, unless arrested by the special exercise of efficacious, almighty grace'," (The Christian Index, Jan 20, 1843, pp. 42, 43). The recommender then goes further in riveting this point in our consciousness. He quotes this possible candidate for our foreign mission position as insisting that "God does not suspend his efficacious grace until men exercise repentance and faith: the existence of these graces in the heart proves that the work of salvation is already begun. They do not precede regeneration, but are the fruits of it," (Ibid., 1-27-1843. p. 59).

We respond with exasperation, "Well, if we are so bad and so utterly at the arbitrary disposal of God, then God help us!" Not put off at all by our mental turmoil or by the growing recognition that we are agitated and somewhat offended that such a candidate has been set forth the recommender continues to read a statement from this candidate he so clearly admires. "If the Lord saves any individual, then he intended from eternity to save him. We are driven," he says, "by the doctrine of human depravity into the doctrine of sovereign, particular, unconditional and eternal election" (Ibid., p. 44).

Even if he believes in eternal, unconditional, particular election, bondage of the will, and efficacious, irresistible grace, surely our candidate believes that Christ has died for all men without exception. "Hardly," comes the response. "For if he had our Lord would not receive the full portion of his reward for all his sufferings." Shall the Savior "quit the bosom of his Father to sojourn in this region of sin and death, here to become a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, here to make bare his back to the smiter, and his soul to the envenomed curse of sin, a curse that called for blood and agonies and death" (Ibid., p. 58) if his reward were contingent on the uncertain obedience of his enemies? Would the Father so treat his Son? Such simply cannot be the case.

We are more nervous and offended now, but our recommender continues. "This candidate is a very clear thinker on this issue and from his engagement with a large number of Scriptures and his discernment of the cohering center of them, sees the atoning work of Christ was done in light of an eternal covenant, for a certain number of the human race." We are very confused and not able to listen well now but our recommender continues with words to the effect that all of these would certainly come to salvation and these alone would come; some persons have absolutely been given to Christ as his inheritance; the Savior regarded "a certain portion of mankind as his;" the Father promised the Son an "ample recompense for his sufferings" and "a portion of mankind are included in this inheritance;" and God has "promised to his Son a definite number of mankind" and that a definite reward for his "stupendous work of magnifying the law and making it honorable, of making reconciliation for iniquity" was arranged in the "purpose of God before the foundation of the world" (Ibid., p. 58).

We are so unaccustomed to thinking in these terms that it seems like a foreign language to us; it seems like so much jargon and flies past us at a pace which makes us embarrassed that we are having this conversation. Why, this is that Protestant scholasticism that many of our mentors have warned us against! The recommmender continues to explain his candidate's position but we have now been overloaded with theological ideas. When we think about missions we are theological minimalists anyway, and now, . . . such detail, . . . such narrow, exclusive . . . such DIABOLICAL ideas. We tune in in time to hear the phrase "A certain definite number are saved-no more, no less" (Ibid., p. 59).

At this we lose our Southern charm, interrupt the recommender, and say, "That is hyper Calvinism! You have described a position antithetical to missions and one which our forebears clearly renounced as an impediment to their evangelistic and missionary understanding of the gospel."

The recommender now smiles mysteriously; he seems amused; we can't tell if it is what we said or how we said it that charms him most. He then confesses the ruse. The person he seemed so enthusiastic about died in 1864. We are relieved. He certainly was no Southern Baptist; probably a Presbyterian. "You really had me going," we say. "That kind of person would never even be interested in foreign missions."

"On the contrary," the recommender says. "In fact, he was elected as the first corresponding secretary of the Foreign Mission Board by his peers who knew him well and knew that he held all of these theological positions. In fact, they shared these positions with him."

"But he was a hyper-Calvinist!" we object.

"Not at all." We begin to think that our recommender has an acquaintance with these issues more expansive than our own knowledge of them. "He believed, in fact he preached, `Do not for a moment suppose my friend, that the inability to which the Saviour refers, involves in it any thing which furnishes a just excuse for rejecting him'." He went on to say that this person taught that unbelief was inexcusable; moreover, the "sinner's inability, is the sinner's crime-and the greater the inability, the greater his crime." We are again becoming very confused because the recommender is saying something like all persons have the natural faculties which would enable them to walk uprightly if they desired to do so out of a love to the creator and lawgiver. Nothing hinders a compliance with the requisitions of the gospel but the sinner's rebellious will. Universal obligation to repent and believe justifies the promiscuous preaching of the gospel. Sovereign grace does not discourage efforts for the conversion of the ungodly but gives confidence and joy to the spiritual husbandman to thrust his plowshare into the soil and sow his seed. The recommender then reads this remarkable passage from a sermon.

With what immovable confidence may the missionary of the cross, in obedience to his ascended Saviour, fly to distant land, and proclaim in every valley and on every hill, "O ye dry bones hear ye the word of the Lord." Victory he knows will sooner or later come; and the assurance of victory nerves his arm and gladdens his heart amidst all the terrors of the battle field. It is not for God's ambassador to know who will repent and believe the Gospel: duty is his; the issue is with heaven. He is not to preach to men as elect or non-elect, but as needy, guilty, perishing sinners; he is to warn, rebuke and exhort them with ceaseless importunity and affection, and having sowed his seed in love, and watered it with his tears and prayers, he is to commend his prayers, his message and his hearers to that God who alone can give the increase, and who will have mercy on whom he will have mercy.
We find that we are moved by the passion and sincerity of the narrative. "Who was this?" we ask. "It was Charles Dutton Mallary," comes the answer. "He served as pastor of the church in Augusta for four years in the 1830's and then at Milledgeville before he raised money for Mercer for three years. When he was elected to the Foreign mission position, the brethren earnestly solicited his compliance and even offered him a salary of $1,200 per year. He eventually refused to take the position because of frail health and his desire to devote himself to evangelistic and pastoral labors in Georgia."

Now we think we understand. Mallary was evangelistic; therefore, he obviously didn't preach these doctrines. Suddenly, however, we realize that there is more to this issue than we have before considered and that the recommender is ready with more instruction. He points to a biographical sketch which describes Mallary's preaching this way: "He loved to preach Christ crucified as the only foundation of a sinner's hope, and to exhibit a sovereign God, working all things after the counsel of his own will. These high themes he discussed with a clear head and a warm heart, and rendered them eminently practical by the manner in which he pressed them on the consciences of his hearers." Further we learned that Mallary was aware of the abuses some committed against the doctrine of grace by tearing it "from its proper connections," mixing it with "much of their own imaginings," and holding it up to a distorted light. He believed this antinomian spell had been broken but saw another possible evil. "Happy indeed shall we be, if in disengaging ourselves from this dangerous extreme, we do not hurry on to its opposite, fritter down the doctrines of grace, and give countenance, by our faith and teaching, to self-righteous presumption." The last statement we heard before becoming lost in deep contemplation was "If I do not mistake, there is a tendency in some portion of our brethren to this very evil."

With all of that we had to bring our conversation to a close. Walking away we felt that we had much more to do than just to develop a method for the procurement of personnel. We began to think that we could use more instruction in history and theology; and we could even take a closer look at the gospel with a clearer understanding of the purity and power of its grace.