Calvinism: What does it mean?

Today, building upon Timmy’s previous post on SBF, I am starting a category to provide some direct responses to the group of articles by Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr. that appeared in the August 2, 2007 edition of The Alabama Baptist state paper.

The other two “direct responses” categories on SBF, those directed at BaptistFire.com and NelsonPrice.com, have been concerned with vitriolic attacks against “Calvinism”- attacks displaying no concern for accurately presenting the Calvinist position. This is not true of Dr. Garrett’s articles, which are much more scholarly in tone and which make a much better attempt to interact with “Calvinism”. However, I do believe that there are some basic, demonstrable factual errors in Dr. Garrett’s presentation that drive false conclusions and that merit some additional responses here at SBF.

The most basic factual errors made by Dr. Garrett come at the definitional level. How have such concepts as “Calvinism” and “Hyper-Calvinism” been historically defined?In the article “Calvinism: What does it mean?” Dr. Garrett defines “Hyper-Calvinism” as follows:

Five distinctive teachings of Hyper-Calvinism can be identified:

– God’s decree from eternity to elect some human beings for salvation and reprobate (or eternally damn) others as being logically the first of God’s decrees (a teaching known as supralapsarianism);

– an eternal covenant among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit for the redemption of elect humans through the Son (covenant of redemption);

– the eternal justification of the elect without the requisite faith on the part of the elect in history (eternal justification);

– the discouragement of the preacher’s “offering of grace” indiscriminately to his hearers (no offers of grace) and

– Christians as not obligated to obey the moral law of the Old Testament (antinomianism).

Are these “five distinctive teachings” truly definitional to “Hyper-Calvinism”? We at SBF would answer, “No,” as Gene M. Bridges has thoroughly explained:

Dr. Garrett says these are distinctives of hyper-Calvinism.

God’s decree from eternity to elect some human beings for salvation and reprobate (or eternally damn) others as being logically the first of God’s decrees (a teaching known as supralapsarianism);

This is actually irrelevant to hyper-Calvinism. Supras and infras believe in the doctrines of grace for the same reasons. On occasion, critics of Calvinism will accuse supralapsarians of being hyper-Calvinists. Historically, this is untrue. John Bunyan was a supralapsarian. The infra/supra debate is irrelevant to the error of hyper-Calvinism. Infralapsarians believe in reprobation, double predestination, special redemption and spiritual inability right along with the supralapsarians, so the logic of the hypers is the same under either the infra or supra view.

All hypers are supra, but not all supras are hypers. Therefore, supralapsarianism is NOT a hyperCalvinist distinctive any more than paedobaptism is a Roman Catholic distinctive.

– an eternal covenant among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit for the redemption of elect humans through the Son (covenant of redemption);

This is true of nearly all the covenantal theologies of that period within the Reformed tradition. Ergo, it is also irrelevant to hyper-Calvinism. It is not a hyper-Calvinist distinctive.

– the eternal justification of the elect without the requisite faith on the part of the elect in history (eternal justification);

– the discouragement of the preacher’s “offering of grace” indiscriminately to his hearers (no offers of grace) and

– Christians as not obligated to obey the moral law of the Old Testament (antinomianism).

I’ll take these in reverse order:

3. This is not unique to hyper-Calvinism today but it is part of that of the past; it can be leveled at classical dispenstionalism today. It can also be leveled at some sorts of Lutheranism in those centuries with its sharp law/grace division. It is true that many hypers used the lack of a “warrant to believe” to license antinominanism. Dr. Garrett is leaving all of this out.

2. This equivocates over the meaning of “offer of grace” and “offer of salvation.” Hypers varied over this terminology in that century. One has to sort this out.

In addition, Scripture calls the “offer” variously a command, a gift, and several other terms. While his historical details are correct, they are improperly nuanced. In fact, I see a tendency here to emphasize one label (offer) over and against others. We should not neglect the total witness of the text.

1. This is true of hyper-Calvinism, of this time, so really, he’s not given us any distinctives except for one, possibly a couple more. What he’s given us are some descriptions but not many distinctives.

What is missing here in his analysis is the collapsing of the decrees. (And this is precisely while talking about supralapsarianism is irrelevant, as is the covenant of redemption).

The Covenant of grace not the covenant of redemption is the issue here.

Hypers collapsed all the decrees into one, which led them to posit their doctrine of eternal justification. They collapsed ontology and teleology, a major category error.

Eternal justification says basically that since God is timeless, there is not a time in which we are not “justified” and that consequently, conversion is discovering that we are already justified. It attempts to deduce justification as conversion from the ontological order, but that’s a big problem.

For starters, God does have a concept of cause and effect in that logic is an attribute of God’s mind. He does understand that in order for x to occur as a concrete instance of what is in his mind, y must come to pass. It’s an ends-means relation. We understand cause and effect and the antecedence of x to y; ergo God does too, or else we have no ground for the logical process. God also grounds the passage of time in His creation. His own Word recognizes that we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. The very terms “in the beginning” and “before the foundaton of the world,” are about a cause-effect relation and a temporal relation. God does exist outside of time, but that also means He orders and grounds time.

Likewise, you’re conflating ontology and teleology. The timeless of God does not mean there is no teleological order to His attributes or the working of His mind. Ontologically, God is unaffected by relational sequence as to His person, but He is conscious of sequential duration, because sequential duration is a part of the ordering of his decree. We know this because we have a sense of past, present, and future that, because it exists and will exist, is grounded by His mind. For God, all of these are internally intuited and not arrived at chronologically through a process, but the concept or idea of durational sequence or succession is a distinct epistemological, not ontological category. God knows all our thoughts and actions in the past, present, and future,and at the same time knows His own thoughts and actions in relation to each other and to our own and in what order. Thus, He can inspire Paul to say, “He chose before He created.” He knows that He created the sea and dry land before He created birds and fish and animals and man. Likewise, He (and we) can differentiate the sequential difference between the time we were under God’s wrath and the time we were justified.

I might add that this is also an argument that non-Calvinists sometimes trot out themselves, as in the case of Dr. Norman Geisler, which, if you ask me tell us something about the internal logic of hyper-Calvinism and the functional Arminian theology.

This is a problem.

Further, when applied to the covenant of grace, they used this to question what it meant to say that grace in the covenant (and thus the covenant of grace itself) is unconditional. They failed to draw a distinction between unconditionality with respect to merit, and unconditionality with respect to instrumentality. Turretin answered this soundly. We affirm the former, but not the latter with respect to justification and thus the covenant. Dr. Garrett did not draw this distinction either.

By failing to accurately define “Hyper-Calvinism” and, more specifically, in defining “Hyper-Calvinism” by “distinctives” that many (non-“Hyper”) Calvinists have historically held (such as “supralapsarianism” and a belief in the “covenant of redemption”), Dr. Garrett establishes a basis for confusing “Calvinism” with “Hyper-Calvinism,” thus making it possible to charge Calvinists with the errors of Hyper-Calvinists.

This confusion is furthered when Dr. Garrett attempts to define the difference between Calvinists (referred to as “the men of Dort” in the following quote) and Arminians (“the Remonstrates”), writing:

Total depravity may not have been a key difference between the men of Dort and the Remonstrates. The interpretation of faith and repentance by Dort as gifts from God and by the Remonstrates as human duties may have been a leading difference, for the third article in the Remonstrant confession of faith refers to “saving faith.”

This statement establishes a misunderstanding of Calvinism that is prevalent throughout Dr. Garrett’s articles; namely, Dr. Garrett has somehow come to the conclusion that Calvinism, which does indeed understand that faith and repentance are gifts from God, does not also recognize faith and repentance as “human duties.” In this, Dr. Garrett is again confusing “Calvinism” with “Hyper-Calvinism”- this time, by defining “Calvinism” with a distinctive that is truly Hyper-Calvinistic.

That “Calvinism” has always recognized faith and repentance as “human duties,” is obvious from reading the Calvinistic Canons of Dort, quoted from below [emphases added]:

The cause or blame for this unbelief, as well as for all other sins, is not at all in God, but in man” (1.5).

“However, that many who have been called through the gospel do not repent or believe in Christ but perish in unbelief is not because the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross is deficient or insufficient, but because they themselves are at fault” (2.6).

“The fact that many who are called through the ministry of the gospel do not come and are not brought to conversion must not be blamed on the gospel, nor on Christ, who is offered through the gospel, nor on God, who calls them through the gospel and even bestows various gifts on them, but on the people themselves who are called.” (3/4.9)

[I am indebted to a recent blogpost from Tom Ascol for the above quotes.]

In subsequent articles, Dr. Garrett will carry our this misunderstanding by repeatedly inferring that any Calvinist theologian who has taught that faith is a duty is actually modifying Calvinism at this point. But this is simply not the case.

In my next article on this topic, I hope to address the crucial issue: “Does Dortian Calvinism have weight of Scripture in its favor?

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2 Comments on “Calvinism: What does it mean?”

  1. Pat McGee Says:

    In my limited experience with this topic, I have found that people like to accuse Calvinists of things they do not believe and to caricaturize what Calvinists actually do believe.


  2. Totally agreed. In fact, I recently started a point-by-point series on my own blog about this subject.

    http://cajoneador.blogspot.com/

    My main purpose is not to give lots of verses – I point to other pages which do that – but to record my own thoughts through my own process of going from a squishy synergist to a (hopefully) not-so-squishy monergist. And what I am seeing repeatedly is misunderstandings about what monergism is about.


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