26 July 2010

Johnson's Primer: Discussion, Expansion, and Solution

This article has three sub-points:

Johnson's Hyper-Calvinism Primer, it's strengths and weaknesses.
The Core Principle of Hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism.
The benefit of Dialectical Theology

Anyone who has examined the contents of this site know more than once I have mentioned the problem of Hyper-Calvinism. Phil Johnson has done a great service in his very succinct Primer on Hyper-Calvinism which has been read by many and we can be thankful for that.

He outlines several key doctrinal points which are helpful in identifying the Hyper-Calvinist position. Of course not all hold to all the points, but all hold to at least some of them.

Here's Johnson's list:



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 true. But there's something missing in the Johnson article. Something terribly important. He hints at an imbalanced and un-Biblical notion of Divine Sovereignty, and comes very close when he says, "Both Arminians and hyper-Calvinists will protest that it is illogical or unjust to teach that God demands what sin renders us incapable of doing."
But Johnson is largely dealing with the symptoms of the main problem that creates both Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism, and that is Rationalism. He hints at it when he says both camps have a logic issue, and that's just it. That's the very issue which leads to all of these points listed above.

The Arminian says it's not logical that God would command something of us we cannot do. Or the Arminian says it doesn't make sense that God could predestine and not make us into some kind of robots.

The Hyper-Calvinist says it's not logical that the gospel can really be termed a 'call' when God does not really intend to save. It can't really be a 'duty' when the reprobate were made for hell etc....

The Arminian starts with the necessity of freewill grounded in logical necessity, and reads all theology through that lens. Starting with this presupposition, everything is subjected to the rationalist test.

The Hyper-Calvinist grasps election from the pages of Scripture. A Rationalist systematic method demands chronological and deductive development. This framework will always put Election at the top of the flow-chart as it were, it will always be the lens by which all other Biblical data has to be filtered. And just like the Arminian system everything is subjected to the rationalist test.

The problem is the Scriptures clearly speak in BOTH terms. We see a myriad of examples where man is certainly responsible and God is sovereign. We see passages that clearly teach predestination and others that seem to make salvation dependent on man's response. We see passages where God has commanded and man is certainly unable to respond because of sin, and others where it seems he can respond.

We have to submit to the Scriptures and acknowledge whatever God has given us true and if it's not fitting our system, than we're doing something wrong. We need a different system.

I'm not arguing for a mysticism that embraces contradiction. I argue there is a Biblical way of understanding these passages, that is a 'system,' but it is one which allows for three-dimensional or supra-logic. Far from being irrational in the temporal realm it is quite systemic and coherent, but also allows for an interaction with Eschatological, the eternal, but does not engage in metaphysical speculation when it comes to this category. The seemingly under-developed eternal axis must be accepted not subjected to rationalist scrutiny. When God tells us about Election, we need to accept it unlike the Arminian who subjects it to a rationalist critique. Likewise we must not then like the Hyper-Calvinist use our rationalistic system as a filter to sift Election, nor use our system like a microscope to probe inward beyond what we are given. Questions concerning the decrees and the will of God are invalid. He's given us His will. It's called the Bible. We do err to climb onto the throne and say God would be illogical or insincere to say this or that...when indeed He has said it. How dare you call Him insincere.

A key goal of this project is to develop the principles of this theology and also to show that everyone more or less already employs the methodology when it comes to certain doctrines. However, the failure comes when we fail to see this methodological principle as a general overarching concept throughout the entirety of Scripture, something that touches virtually every area of doctrine.

I call it Dialectical Theology. Don't be confused by the term. I'm not using Dialectic in the old sense of logical discussion to investigate truth. I'm using it in the sense of tension between seemingly conflicting or interacting forces. I'm arguing the Bible itself teaches us a theological structure which allows the truths of Scripture to be held in tension. The contradiction is resolved not by synthesis (the Rationalist method) but by an understanding of a dimensional tension or Age-dynamic.

For those who have heard of the Hegelian Dialectic, don't be dismayed. Hegel's dialectic is a philosophical construct applied to nature and history. It is using the term as I described in the 'old sense' of a back-and-forth way of arguing. Or, going between A and B to arrive at C.

Borrowing the variables, I'm saying theologically we are often given A and B and we need to just leave it alone. We're not looking for C.

Both Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism place a Rationalist system over the Scriptures and in the end becomes their authority. They have the same problem, they just start from different points.

It's kind of like Arminianism is saying A is true, and B is equal to non-A. Therefore since A is true, B cannot be true. A cannot be A and non-A(B) at the same time. So it just stops with A and all B statements have to be dealt with in light of A.

Hyper-Calvinism says B is true, A is equal to non-B. Therefore since B is true, A cannot be true. B cannot be B and non-B(A) at the same time. For those who don't know, this is an example of the law of non-contradiction. Perhaps you get the idea? Is this applicable to all theology? Some theology? For those who say all...I argue you violate your own rule when you embrace the Incarnation or the Trinity. Some theology then? What's the criteria?

If I'm losing you, let me give an example. I just heard this other day on the radio and have heard it many times.

RC Sproul was talking about 2 Peter 3, specifically this well known passage:


The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance

And he said, like all Hyper-Calvinists do.......it's not willing that any (of the elect) should perish.

His system demands that he interpolate 'of the elect' after the word any. Because for a Hyper-Calvinist he knows Election is true....B is true.

B says God Elects specific people....

therefore they are the only people He 'wants' to be saved.

A says God wants everyone to be saved......

So the Hyper-Calvinist says, well the Bible uses universal words(A) like 'everyone,' 'any,' 'all,' or 'world,' and yet since election is true (B) we have a problem. What's the solution?

Well he doesn't want to change the Bible or remove words from it. So what's the answer? There's only one solution.

Change the definition of the words. That's all you can do.

So 'any' doesn't really mean 'any'.

All doesn't mean all. World doesn't mean world.

I'll say it until I'm blue in the face. But you've just abandoned Sola Scriptura and subjected it to a system. I've been to several Reformed churches where pastors are doing 'word' series, explaining the 'problem texts' and teaching the congregation these very points, that any doesn't mean any and so forth.

The Arminian does the same thing. He says elect, doesn't mean individual. Predestine means foresight etc....

I hope you will see the answer to these theological problems is not to seek a middle ground. That's like using Hegel's method and applying it to theology. We're not looking for the C solution to the A and B problem. We're saying A and B are both true, and the problem is not between A and B, but the problem is employing systems that won't allow A and B to dwell in peaceful tension. The problem is us. We embrace systems which make us ask questions...we shouldn't even be asking.

Now this is just the dynamic or dialectical tension we find between the Sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. I'm saying these tensions exists all throughout the Bible's teaching regarding salvation, church, eschatology etc....

As I mentioned before, all camps employ this type of method when it comes to certain areas like the Trinity and the Incarnation. Many see it in eschatology. Some see it when it comes to certain areas of doctrine pertaining to salvation, but then refuse to acknowledge it in others. Some see it when it comes to the doctrine of the church, while others refuse. This one-sidedness founded in rationalism is the core of many of the problems and debates within the church. Johnson in dealing with symptoms focuses on a few points concerning the way the gospel is framed. But these are just peripheral consequences to deep fundamental problems. And I would argue against Johnson it's not just Presbyterians or the Protestant Reformed, this problem is deeply rooted in Baptistic circles as well, both Arminian and Reformed.

One final point concerning Johnson's excellent primer. He discusses Hyper-Calvinism's wrestling with assurance. It's true there are some who making Election the gospel seek through subjective means to find assurance.....not in the person and work of Jesus Christ, but in their election. The focus shifts from Christ and on to themselves. It's not very solid ground and they flounder always questioning as to whether they are truly elect. It's very sad. They've looking in the wrong place.

But there is another Hyper-Calvinistic strain or tendency that refuses to allow any subjectivism into the Christian experience. They would argue subjectivism is irrational, and saving faith being dependent on election can in no way be defined using subjective terms. Adding the element of fiducia or trust to the definition of saving faith is not permitted, because trust is something man does and thus we would be contributing to salvation which is not logically compatible with election.

Saving faith is reduced to mere assent, to a formula. It is about formulating the words of the gospel in the correct way and understanding and agreeing to them. This agreement or acknowledgment is a sign of one's election. It's a rather bare-boned, cold, mathematical formulation of saving faith.

Some have rightly called this Neo-Gnostic Calvinism. For saving faith is almost like an initiation into a secret knowledge, a complicated code by which a person is saved.

As I always point out, this definition of saving faith is mentioned by James in chapter 2, verse 19:

You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!


And with this variety of Hyper-Calvinism, there is no reason at all to wrestle with assurance. Once you've got the formula, you've arrived.

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