The Arminian Controversy
First of all, at the very beginning of his article, Hall writes, “Hyper-Calvinism is a sub-Christian doctrine. It is an enemy of Christ. If Hyper-Calvinism could be anthropomorphized into a person, he should be rounded up, hogtied and burned at the stake like Michael Servetus.” It seems clear enough that JD Hall thinks Hyper-Calvinism is heresy. To be clear, I think it is a pernicious error, a serious theological error, but I am not convinced it meets the biblical definition of heresy. It seems to me that some people actually believe that the biblical definition of heresy is: “if I don’t agree with a particular teaching, then it is heresy.” For the sake of Christian unity, I believe it is critically important that we exercise good reason coupled with biblical discernment so that we can recognize actual heresy when we see it and take the appropriate actions.
Hall initially goes through what Hyper-Calvinism is not. It is not a synonym for Calvinism, something that many Arminians claim. Hyper-Calvinism is not being really enthusiastic about the doctrines of grace. I call those who are Hyper-Intense regarding the doctrines of grace, extreme Calvinists. They seem to care more about the doctrines of grace than they do about any other aspect of Christian truth and praxis. Their mission is not to make Christians, it seems to be to make Calvinists. Where Jesus commanded his immediate disciples to make disciples from all nations, the extreme Calvinist reads, “make Calvinists.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a Calvinist. And I believe we should teach the truth and make disciples. And I believe it is impossible to responsibly disciple a man without attempting to help him understand the doctrines of grace. But there are many other issues that are just as important and, shockingly, more important for that man to know and do.
Hall continues by saying that a Hyper-Calvinist is not one who thinks that Calvinism is the gospel. I agree. But, at the same time, as much as I love the doctrines of grace, Calvinism is not the gospel. The gospel is outlined in clear and basic language in the pages of the New Testament and it isn’t the doctrines of grace. The doctrines of grace are at best inferences derived from the more detailed nuances of the gospel. How well one understands those inferences has nothing to do with how well they understand the gospel. One does not have to understand the doctrines of grace to have a basic understanding of the gospel. And one certainly does not have to have a sufficient understanding of the doctrines of grace in order to have a sufficient understanding of the gospel. Understanding the doctrines of grace is not the necessary condition for understanding the gospel. That said, does someone have a deeper understanding once they have an understanding of the doctrines of grace? I believe they absolutely do! And I believe that every Christian should work toward having a deeper understanding of the gospel and this will entail an understanding of the doctrines of grace. But to overemphasize the doctrines of grace at a minimum causes us to at least begin to look in the direction of the Hyper-Calvinist. Nothing can be emphasized more than the gospel, not even the doctrines of grace.
What is Hyper-Calvinism? Hyper-Calvinism has its roots in the early 18th century. Since he wrote the first publication rejecting the free offer of the gospel, John Hussey has the dubious honor of being the first official Hyper Calvinist. Hyper-Calvinism has its foundation in the order of divine decrees known as supralapsarianism. This is also known as high Calvinism. This version of the divine decree has God electing men to eternal life and reprobating others prior to sin and the fall. His version of the order of the decrees is problematic for a variety of reasons. One problem with this approach is that it can tend to overemphasize divine sovereignty and weaken human responsibility. And this is what we see when certain individuals push high Calvinism further than they should. It tends toward Hyper-Calvinism. This is why mainline Calvinists grow concerned when they see young men exhibiting an imbalanced enthusiasm concerning the doctrines of grace. This can easily lead to a high Calvinism and eventually to Hyper-Calvinism unless there is a healthy balance in place. This is why it is so critically important for young men to be part of a structured discipleship plan under the oversight of their elders and pastors. That cannot be overemphasized. Otherwise, they get their theology from the internet, and worse, they begin to mimic not only the beliefs of internet cowboys, they also begin to mimic their behavior. These things ought not to be. Get your theology, your ideas, and your spiritual food from your pastors, your local community, your brothers and sisters that you see week in and week out. Get involved in their life and let them get into your life.
Special Note: Holding to supralapsarianism does not make one a Hyper-Calvinist. You can be supralapsarian and not a Hyper-Calvinist, but I know of no Hyper-Calvinist who did not embrace or does not embrace supralapsarianism.
Hyper-Calvinism has several traits associated with it and unlike Calvinism, which generally means you embrace all the doctrines of grace, if you embrace any of the following elements, it typically means it is safe to describe you as a Hyper-Calvinist.
- Hyper-Calvinism rejects the well-meant, free offer of the gospel to all sinners. The offer of the gospel is supposedly only for the elect.
- Hyper-Calvinism rejects a desire in God for the universal salvation of all men. The claim is that this is contrary to divine election.
- Hyper-Calvinism rejects the concept of duty-faith. Sinners do not have a duty to believe the gospel because, if they are not elect, they cannot believe it.
- Hyper-Calvinism denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.
- Hyper-Calvinism denies the doctrine of common grace.
As you read items 1-5, it is not the case that one has to subscribe to all of these points in order to meet the definition of Hyper-Calvinism. The affirmation of any one of these points would place a person in the Hyper-Calvinist camp. Now, Hall is right that the belief that Arminianism is heresy is not enough to classify someone as a Hyper-Calvinist. However, the reason that so many people think it does is that very often Hyper-Calvinists, for whatever reason, feel a need to emphasize their belief that Arminianism is heresy. From my perspective, the first thing that any thinking Christian has to do is provide an exegetically defensible definition for heresy before they start slapping that label on people or beliefs. From what I have read thus far about the subject of heresy is that few of these bloggers care to provide a biblical definition of the word.
Hall goes on to insert an answer from John MacArthur during one of his routine Q&A sessions at Grace Community Church. Not only did JD interpret MacArthur is the worst possible light, he also removed important content from the quote. Here is the content JD included:
“The question comes, ‘Can somebody who holds an Arminian view be a Christian?’ And I would hate to say they couldn’t be. I really believe that it is possible to be Arminian and to be a Christian…to misunderstand your human capability, to misunderstand the election, to misunderstand the extent of the atonement, even to misunderstand the irresistible nature of God’s saving grace, and even to think you could lose your salvation. But, at the same time–while being confused or ignorant of those things–to know that you’re a sinner and know that the only way of salvation is through Jesus Christ. I guess you could say that someone could be an Arminian and push those points far enough, where they could jeopardize my confidence that they really are a Christian. You could push the point of not being totally depraved far enough where you’re actually being saved by your own works, by your own belief, by your own ingenuity, by your own self-induced faith. And you could get to the point where you could really wonder whether someone understands that it’s all a work of God.”
Here is the rest of what MacArthur said:
But I think it would be going too far to say someone who holds an Arminian view or anyone who holds an Arminian view is by virtue of that view, not a Christian. I think there are people who just don’t understand rightly those things, but who know they’re sinners and who cry out in their sin for the Lord to save them. They don’t understand how what they’re doing works together with the great purposes and power of God, and, consequently, can’t give God fully the glory He deserves for all of that, but they could be genuinely saved by hoping in Christ and Christ alone.
Now, JD comments on MacArthur’s answer as follows:
Please note that MacArthur and Sproul recognize a hypothetical scenario in which a self-professed Arminian may be saved (but you can read their clear reluctance in saying such a thing without great caution and explanation), they seem to say that their profession of Arminianism must not be real in any tangible sense. It may be professed, as I read the Peter and Paul of our age, but to consider the Arminian saved they must presume upon them ignorance of the actual doctrines they’re professing. In other words, they must not truly be Arminians if they are to truly trust in Sola Gratia-given Sola Fide.
MacArthur is not saying, contrary to JD, that they do not understand Arminianism and that they are just ignorant of the issues. Clearly, MacArthur is saying that a person who actually holds an Arminian view is ipso facto lacking in their understanding of how the process of salvation actually works. I couldn’t agree more. What Hall seems to be attempting to do is get his pal Sonny Hernandez off the hook. Sonny has gone on record as saying that Arminians are not Christians. But then in his next breath, claiming that if they are Christians it is despite their Arminianism. When MacArthur says that it is going too far to say someone who holds an Arminian view or anyone who holds an Arminian view is by virtue of that view, not a Christian, he is saying something that directly and clearly contradicts Sonny Hernandez’s statements regarding the issue. Hernandez would even be at odds with Sproul’s position on the question. They aren’t barely Christian or barely saved. If they are Arminians, they aren’t Christians. A contradiction is a contradiction. Hernandez is clearly in disagreement with MacArthur, Sproul, and every mainline Calvinist theologian I know of today. In fact, the majority of reformed folks who would be in agreement with him are located squarely in the Hyper-Calvinist camp. The overwhelming mass of reformed Christians, pastors, and theologians would oppose Hernandez’s view that Arminians are not Christians.
Is Hyper-Calvinism heresy? If one defines heresy as any belief that so changes the Christian worldview that it essentially destroys that worldview, then I cannot see how Hyper-Calvinism is heresy. That does not rule out the possibility that some Hyper-Calvinists could be heretics. It also does not rule out the fact that some heresy could be the result of Hyper-Calvinist beliefs. That is a real possibility. I also reject the idea that Arminianism is ipso facto heresy.
Hall quotes Spurgeon as if he thinks that Spurgeon agrees or believes that Arminianism is heresy. But if one looks at the phrase in Spurgeon, there is a quest as to whether or not the expression heresy of Arminianism is intended to identify Arminianism as heresy or more specifically blame the rise of certain heresies on Arminianism, similar to the genitive of source. I say that because Spurgeon was clear in other places that he did not think Arminianism was heresy:
“The controversy which has been carried on between the Calvinist and the Arminian is exceedingly important, but it does not so involve the vital point of personal godliness as to make eternal life depend upon our holding either system of theology.” – C.H. Spurgeon [The Complete Works of C. H. Spurgeon, Volume 7: Sermons 348-426]
“But we always believe, and are ever ready to confess, that there are many doctrines which, though exceedingly precious, are not so essential but that a person may be in a state of grace and yet not receive them. For instance—God forbid that we should regard a belief in the doctrine of election as an absolute test of a man’s salvation, for no doubt there are many precious sons of God who have not been able to receive that precious truth; of course the doctrine is essential to the great scheme of grace, as the foundation of God’s eternal purpose, but it is not, therefore, necessarily the root of faith in the sinner’s reception of the gospel. And, perhaps, too, I may put down the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints in the same list. There be many who, no doubt, will persevere to the end, but who yet cannot accept the possibility of being assured thereof; they are so occupied with the thoughts of their probation that they come not to the mature knowledge of their full salvation.” [C. H. Spurgeon, “The Root of the Matter,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 9 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1863), 218.]
Another reformer who did not believe Arminianism to be heresy is Willam Ames:
The position of the Arminians, as held by most that favor it, is not properly a heresy but a dangerous error in the faith, tending to heresy. As maintained by some of them, however, it is the Pelagian heresy, because they deny that the effective operation of inward grace is necessary for conversion. [-Wiliam Ames, Conscience: Its Law or Cases, Five Books, IV, Question 4]
There is currently a movement among young reformed men to cluster together on the internet, in groups on Facebook, creating their own websites, developing their beliefs, convictions, and practices from men who are on the internet. While they rant against personality worship, it is fascinating to me to watch how the personality of the internet leader or internet cowboy Christian just so happens to mirror either their own personality or a psychological projection of who they wish they really were. The internet cowboy Christian can do nothing wrong. He cannot say anything that is wrong. He cannot possibly hold to any beliefs that are wrong. And what is very tragic is that the local pastors under which these young men ought to sit, and to whom they should be submitting, are little more than afterthoughts. And what usually ends up happening, is that the local elders, pastors, and leaders are usually judged by how they measure up to and agree with their internet cowboy Christian hero. And it should be just the opposite.
Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. 7 Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, 8 and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. [Titus 2:6-8]
Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” [1 Peter 5:5]