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Hyper-Calvinism: A Brief Definition

The term hyper-Calvinist is often used as a pejorative. Almost any Calvinist who adheres to the doctrines of grace is likely to be considered a hyper-Calvinist by at least someone. Frankly speaking, a hyper-Calvinist can be any Calvinist to a person who doesn’t understand Calvinism. So today, just briefly, and because the term has come up a few times in recent weeks, I want to narrow in on a more accurate definition of it. First we’ll look at a few examples of what does not constitute hyper-Calvinism. Then we’ll actually define the term.

While most Calvinists hold to the five points of Calvinism as summarized by the acronym TULIP, there are some who refer to themselves as six or seven-point Calvinists. One person who is known to identify himself as a seven-point Calvinist is John Piper. He does so half-jokingly but does so to communicate a truth that the five points of Calvinism are not exhaustive in a consideration of God’s sovereign saving grace. The Desiring God web site says, “Piper isn’t seeking to add two more points, but is simply calling attention to his belief in the traditional five points (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints) in a way that also points toward two additional ‘Calvinistic’ truths that follow from them: double predestination and the best-of-all-possible worlds.” Double predestination is widely considered the sixth-point. It is simply the other side to predestination, that just as God sovereignly chooses those whom He will save, in the same way he chooses those whom He will not save. There are some Calvinists who reject this idea, saying that God chooses His elect while everyone else makes their own choice to be condemned. A six-point Calvinist though, believes that God chooses some for salvation and some for perdition and that He does so not on the basis that some people are better or worse than others, but simply through His sovereign choice.

The seventh-point of Calvinism, at least according to John Piper (and I’m uncertain whether others regard this as the seventh point) is the best-of-all-possible worlds, which “means that God governs the course of history so that, in the long run, His glory will be more fully displayed and His people more fully satisfied than would have been the case in any other world.” Yet even someone who is willing to extend Calvinism beyond the five points is not “hyper.” A seven-point Calvinist is not a hyper-Calvinist.

An Enthusiastic Calvinist, or a person who really, really likes to talk about these doctrines, is also not a hyper-Calvinist. Someone who is an ardent Calvinist, who believes in these doctrines and talks about nothing else is still not “hyper” according to the historic use of the word.

So what, then, is a hyper-Calvinist?

Part of the confusion about this term no doubt arises from the use of the prefix “hyper.” “Hyper” does not refer, as many might think, to enthusiasm or excitement. Rather its basic meaning is along the lines of “excessive or excessively.” You might think of the word hyperactive which means “excessively active.” Hyper- comes from the Greek prefix huper-, which comes from the preposition huper, meaning “over, beyond.” So a hyper-Calvinist is one who goes beyond and over the bounds of what Calvinism teaches (and thus over the bounds of what the Bible teaches). He is excessive in his application of the doctrines. This manifests itself in an over-emphasis of one aspect of God’s character at the expense of another. Hyper-Calvinists emphasize God’s sovereignty but de-emphasize God’s love. They tend to set God’s sovereignty at odds with the clear biblical call to human responsibility. We can see how these are worked out as we look at a concise definition of the term. Phil Johnson, who has done extensive research on this subject very helpfully defines hyper-Calvinists using a five-fold definition. A hyper-Calvinist is one who:

  1. Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear, OR
  2. Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner, OR
  3. 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
  4. Denies that there is such a thing as “common grace,” OR
  5. Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.

As Phil says, “All five varieties of hyper-Calvinism undermine evangelism or twist the gospel message.” So this is the key to understanding hyper-Calvinism: it undermines evangelism and/or somehow distorts the gospel message.

Probably the most distinguishing characteristic of a Hyper-Calvinist is an unwillingness to evangelize at all, or to evangelize without extending a call to accept and believe the gospel. An example of a hyper-Calvinistic confession makes this clear. Article 33 of Articles of Faith of the Gospel Standard Aid and Poor Relief Societies says, “Therefore, that for ministers in the present day to address unconverted persons, or indiscriminately all in a mixed congregation, calling upon them to savingly repent, believe, and receive Christ, or perform any other acts dependent upon the new creative power of the Holy Ghost, is, on the one hand, to imply creature power, and on the other, to deny the doctrine of special redemption.” In other words, they say, to command people to turn from their sin and to repent is to command them to do something they are unable to do for this would deny the doctrine of particular redemption. Yet this teaching is clearly at odds with the Bible’s call for all men to believe. The offer of the gospel is universal and God truly does command all men to heed it. Faith is a duty for all men. God’s common grace extends to all men and, while God does not love elect and non-elect in the same way, the Bible is clear that He does love all that He has created.

Keep that five-fold definition in mind and you’ll have a good idea of what it truly means to be a hyper-Calvinist. Of course I have little confidence that articles like this one will make any real difference. The term hyper-Calvinist is a convenient and baggage-filled one to lob into an argument or discussion. But at least now we know whether or not we truly fit that mold!