13 January 2016

Ugly Theology

facepalmThere’s good theology and bad theology. And then there’s ugly theology – it’s not just bad, it’s bad in a nasty way (a face-palm seems appropriate). Within the Reformed tradition, there’s nothing quite as ugly as Hyper-Calvinism (well, perhaps one or two other candidates). What is it? The New Dictionary of Theology passes on two definitions, which are a bit further down, but here’s my take…

Hyper-Calvinism takes the theological emphasis of John Calvin (and other Reformers) on God’s sovereignty and presses it so hard that it eclipses some very important scriptural truths, namely:

  • Human beings have agency (they make choices) and responsibility (their choices have consequences) in God’s cosmos. Hyper-Calvinism effectively denies this. It’s fatalistic.
  • The Scriptures teach us to look at God’s works and life in general from a human perspective (our true and proper perspective as finite creatures receiving grace from an infinite God, who reveals himself to us). Hyper-Calvinism trades solely in looking from God’s secret perspective. Very infrequently, the scriptures give us a glimpse of things from that perspective, but it’s rare.
  • God’s secret will is…well, secret. Hyper-Calvinism says it is our business to discern God’s secret will, as if it was revealed.

What’s particularly ugly is wrapped up in those last two points. Hyper-Calvinists forget their place as human beings in God’s cosmos, and the humility that goes hand in hand with that. They begin to believe that they can see wholly from God’s perspective. So, Hyper-Calvinism represents an immense pride (not just theologically, but often personally). Pastorally, where Hyper-Calvinism is at work in a person, or a community, immense damage is being done. Discouragement, despair, legalism, fatalism, repetitive and excused sin – all these are present. Friction, schism… I could go on. It all gets particularly ugly…

Here’s how it quite often comes out; the mantras of the Hyper-Calvinist:

  • “If you’re chosen, you’ll be saved. If not, you won’t. There’s nothing you can do to change it. So, there’s no point seeking God.”
  • “Don’t pray, God can’t hear you. Don’t worship, God’ll get cross. And definitely don’t take communion. Unless you’re chosen. Then it’s OK. But you probably will never know if you’re chosen.”
  • “There’s no point telling people about Jesus. If God has chosen them, they’ll be saved, and God doesn’t need any help from you.”
  • “You need to ask yourself: are you chosen? Are you born again? Only when you know for certain that you are/have, you’ll be safe.”
  • “If you disagree with my way of looking at things, you’re probably not chosen. So, I should have nothing to do with you.”

All of these are ugly distortions of the Bible. And, you’re thinking: surely nobody says that! Thankfully, Hyper-Calvinists are few and far between. But, where they’re present they can be hugely destructive. Hyper-Calvinism is bred in the incubators of dualistic Pietism, which is why it’s so important to emphasise the goodness of creation, the glory of humanity as the Image of God, and the reality of human choice – as well as the Goodness, Sovereignty and Glory of the Creator: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just like the Holy Scriptures do.

Anyway, here are the New Dictionary of Theology definitions of Hyper-Calvinism:

It 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 puts excessive emphasis on acts belonging to God’s immanent being —the immanent acts of God—eternal justification, eternal adoption and the eternal covenant of grace. It makes no meaningful distinction between the secret and revealed will of God, thereby deducing the duty of sinners from the secret decrees of God. 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 (from P. Toon, The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity, 1689–1765, London, 1967).

Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. I. (2000). In New dictionary of theology (electronic ed., p. 324). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

It is that school of supralapsarian ‘five-point’ Calvinism 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 (from the unpublished PhD thesis of C. D. Daniel, Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill, University of Edinburgh, 1983).

Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. I. (2000). In New dictionary of theology (electronic ed., p. 324). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.