10 March, 2016

Was Herman Hoeksema a Hyper-Calvinist?

Prof. David J. Engelsma

[The following is taken from a book review by Prof. Engelsma, published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, April 2014, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 86-93]

Matthew Barrett, in his publication, Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration (Phillipsburg, New Jersey:  P&R, 2013), calls Herman Hoeksema and, by implication, the Protestant Reformed Churches “hyper-Calvinists.”  The ground and explanation of the (damning) charge are the denial by these Churches that the external call of the gospel, “Repent! Believe on Jesus for salvation! Come to the Savior!,” is a well-meant offer on God’s part to all to whom the call is made.  That is, Hoeksema and the Protestant Reformed Churches are “hyper-Calvinists” because they deny that in the preaching of the gospel, particularly the call of the gospel, God is gracious towards all to whom the call comes—willing, desiring, and intending their salvation, and, by implication, sincerely giving them the chance to be saved. 

Whether one agrees with Hoeksema or disagrees with Hoeksema, church historical accuracy and theological precision demand the recognition that it is not the denial that the call of the gospel is grace to all hearers that marks one as a “hyper-Calvinist.”  To charge a theologian with “hyper-Calvinism” on the ground that he denies that the call is grace to all hearers, therefore, is false on the very face of the charge. Denying that the gospel call is grace to all hearers may be sound doctrine or unsound doctrine. Whatever it is, it is not historical hyper-Calvinism. The charge is either inexcusable ignorance or willful malice.

Hyper-Calvinism is a distinct, theological error that has appeared in the history of the church, especially in Calvinistic circles. It is the error of denying that the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ is to be preached promiscuously to all sinners. It is the accompanying error that denies that God in the preaching calls, seriously calls, all who hear the gospel, reprobate as well as elect, Esau as well as Jacob, to repent and believe. It is the error that forbids the preacher to declare to all hearers of his preaching, regardless whether they are regenerate or unregenerate, elect or reprobate (which, of course, only God knows), that God promises to save every one who repents and believes. It is the error that denies that the gospel confronts every hearer with his or her duty to repent and believe.

Hyper-Calvinism denies these truths on the basis, it argues, of Calvinistic tenets. The (mistaken) argument of the hyper-Calvinist is that, because of double predestination, limited atonement, and particular grace for the elect alone, the gospel of grace ought not to be preached to all, all should not be called to believe, the promise of the gospel should not be declared to all, and it is not the duty of all to repent and believe.
Positively, hyper-Calvinism maintains that the preacher should preach the grace of God only to those whom he knows, or thinks he knows, are elect believers. To others, he preaches only the wrath of God. Likewise, the hyper-Calvinist preacher calls only believers to repent and believe and announces the promise of the gospel only to them.

Simply put, hyper-Calvinism is the error that supposes that particular grace forbids promiscuous preaching of grace. Canons of Dordt, 2.5 (and 2.6 as well) expose and refute the error of hyper-Calvinism.

Usually, this erroneous element of hyper-Calvinism is accompanied by another. This is the error of denying that faith in Jesus Christ is a duty of the reprobate, unregenerated sinner. This denial bases itself on the inability of the unsaved sinner to perform the duty. Because the unsaved sinner cannot believe, God does not require him to believe. The observant reader will recognize this error as the mirror opposite of the error of Arminianism. For Arminianism, the command to all to believe implies that all are able to believe. For hyper-Calvinism, the inability of the fallen, unsaved sinner to believe implies that God does not command him to believe (in the call of the gospel). 
For the orthodox Reformed faith, although the sinner is indeed incapable of repenting or believing, God, nevertheless, seriously calls him to repent and believe, and it is the solemn duty of the sinner to do so. The Heidelberg Catechism explains: 

Does not God, then, wrong man by requiring of him in his law that which he cannot perform?
No; for God so made man that he could perform it; but man, through the instigation of the devil, by willful disobedience deprived himself and all his posterity of this power (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 9, Schaff, Creeds, 310).

The Canons of Dordt confesses, as Reformed orthodoxy, both that the gospel calls the unregenerated unbeliever to come to Christ and be converted and that the stubborn unbeliever is blameworthy for disobeying the call, even though the unbeliever is incapable of obeying the call.

It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ offered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel…that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted. The fault lies in themselves…” (Canons, 3&4.9, in Schaff, Creeds, 589).

Historical theologians recognize, and usually more or less correctly analyze, the error of hyper-Calvinism. The English theologian, Peter Toon, although no friend of the Protestant Reformed rejection of the well-meant offer, and, therefore, unable to keep his criticism of Herman Hoeksema out of his description, has basically described hyper-Calvinism correctly in his book, The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity 1689-1765 (Eugene, OR: Wipt  and  Stock, 2011; the book was originally published in 1967) and in his treatment of the subject in the Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith (ed. Donald K. McKim, Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1992, 190), where Toon refers to Hoeksema.

In his book on hyper-Calvinism, Toon gives these defining characteristics of hyper-Calvinism: “minimizing the moral and spiritual responsibility of sinners to God”; obscuring the central message of the apostles, “Christ and Him crucified;” “made no distinction between the secret and the revealed will of God, and tried to deduce the duty of men from what it taught concerning the secret, eternal decrees of God”; “the tendency to state that an elect man is not only passive in regeneration but also in conversion as well”; “the notion that grace must only be offered to those for whom it was intended” (Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism, 144, 145). 

As is proved both from Hoeksema’s Reformed Dogmatics and from his published sermons, of which his devotional commentary on the book of Romans, consisting of his series of sermons on Romans (Righteous by Faith Alone, Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2002), is representative, Hoeksema not only was not marked by any of these fundamental characteristics of hyper-Calvinism, but also rejected them as contrary to the Reformed faith of Scripture and the creeds.

This rejection extended also to the hyper-Calvinistic “notion that grace must only be offered to those for whom it was intended.” For the hyper-Calvinist meant by this that the gospel of grace must not be presented, or preached, to the unconverted and that the preacher, on behalf of God, might not seriously call the unconverted to believe the gospel of grace, promising that every one who does believe will be saved. The hyper-Calvinist thought that the gospel of grace must be preached only to the elect and that only those who show themselves elect may be called to repent and believe.  Hoeksema rejected this hyper-Calvinistic notion. 

Hoeksema’s rejection of the “offer” was essentially different from hyper-Calvinism. Hoeksema rejected the teaching that God offers salvation to all humans, including those whom He reprobated, with a gracious attitude towards them all and a sincere desire, or will, to save them all. Hyper-Calvinism, in contrast, opposed preaching the gospel to all indiscriminately and calling all, whether elect believer or reprobate unbeliever, to repent and believe. 

Far and away the main proponents of hyper-Calvinism have been certain Baptists in England and in the United States, who wrongly deduced the characteristic hyper-Calvinistic notions from the truth of salvation by sovereign grace. They have done this in reaction to the corruption of the truth of grace by nominal Calvinists, especially the corruption consisting of the well-meant offer.

It is, therefore, a dodge, a theological tactic, by Toon and others to attribute hyper-Calvinism to an over-emphasis on sovereign grace by some Reformed theologians, as though hyper-Calvinism is the unavoidable product of a consistent, emphatic, non-compromising confession of salvation by particular, sovereign grace. 

Hyper-Calvinism is not the natural, virtually inevitable, but erroneous development of the sound Reformed faith. Hyper-Calvinism is not the extremist form of Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism is not a warning in the history of the church against an overly strong and thoroughly consistent confession of salvation by sovereign grace. Truth does not develop into error.  Doctrinal error is not a warning to truth to soften truth’s convictions and confession.

This is the impression that Peter Toon leaves in his description of hyper-Calvinism in the Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith. According to Toon, hyper-Calvinism is “an exaggerated…form of the Reformed faith…[which] emphasizes the absolute sovereignty of God and God’s eternal decrees.” Hyper Calvinism results from “excessive emphasis on the sovereign grace of God” (Encyclopedia, 190).

On the contrary, hyper-Calvinism is the reaction of some, few Calvinists against the corruption of the truth of sovereign, particular grace by nominal, compromising Calvinists. Hyper-Calvinism is a reaction to the well-meant offer—an understandable, though inexcusable, reaction. Because nominal Calvinists were explaining the call of the gospel as grace to all hearers, expressing God’s desire, will, and intention to save all hearers, though failing to accomplish God’s desire and will—a well-meant offer—the hyper-Calvinists, thinking that thus they were defending Calvinism, denied that God calls all humans to repent and believe and even denied that the gospel of grace is to be promiscuously preached.

The blame for the evil of hyper-Calvinism, now and in the day of judgment, therefore, does not, and will not, fall on Herman Hoeksema, the Protestant Reformed Churches, or the Synod of Dordt. 

The blame falls, and will fall, rather, on Louis Berkhof, Anthony Hoekema, Matthew Barrett, and all others who in the name of Calvinism extend the saving grace of God, His gracious desire and intention to save, and His gracious effort to save in the preaching of the gospel, to all humans without exception, thus contradicting predestination and sovereign grace. 

That is, the blame for hyper-Calvinism falls on the proponents and defenders of the well-meant offer of the gospel.
By the well-meant offer, they make themselves guilty both of the Arminian heresy and of the (reactionary) error of hyper-Calvinism.

This charge is not theological slander, but sober truth, as I have demonstrated from church history, the Reformed confessions, and Holy Scripture. And this is the reason why the proponents of the well-meant offer in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches refuse to defend themselves against this charge and decline to prove it false.
According to the generally recognized, scholarly, and church historical judgment as to what constitutes hyper-Calvinism, Herman Hoeksema was no hyper-Calvinist. He certainly was no hyper-Calvinist according to the standard of the Canons of Dordt. He did not advocate preaching, or trying to preach, the gospel only to the elect; he did not object to calling every member of his large congregation or every person on the mission field to repent and believe on Jesus Christ for salvation; he had no quarrel with declaring to all and sundry the promise of the gospel that every one who repents and believes shall be saved. On the contrary, he taught all of these truths as part and parcel of the Reformed faith. In addition, he practiced these truths both in his own congregation and denomination and in his significant work of missions and evangelism. 
In his treatment of the “calling” in his Reformed Dogmatics, having insisted that “grace is never general, but always particular,” Hoeksema wrote:

But this does not alter the fact that the Lord God…causes men to be under the preaching of the gospel without changing their heart through regenerating and illuminating grace.  Also through this calling the responsibility of man and his ethical character are maintained. God speaks to him through that gospel. In that gospel He calls him to repentance, to conversion and faith. And in a way that is very clear, and not to be denied, He presents to him the way of sin as a way that displeases God and that makes the sinner the object of God’s wrath… Moreover, in that gospel He opens for him that repents a way to be reconciled to God and to return to the heart of the Father, and assures him that he will never be cast out, and promises him eternal life…All this is being preached in the gospel, and is preached without distinction to all that are under the gospel, also to the reprobate (Reformed Dogmatics, Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966, 470, 471).

The Declaration of Principles, which the Protestant Reformed Churches adopted in 1951 at the strong urging of Herman Hoeksema and of which he was the principal author, confesses that “the preaching comes to all; and that God seriously commands to faith and repentance; and that to all those who come and believe He promises life and peace” (The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005, 426). 

Why then do nominal Calvinists, of whom Matthew Barrett is only the latest offender, persist in slandering Hoeksema, as well as the Protestant Reformed Churches (usually behind their back), as hyper-Calvinistic?

There are several possibilities, all of them ignoble.

One is that ignorant men simply repeat what they have heard from or read in others, or find popular in their circles. 

Another is that wicked men deliberately smear Hoeksema because they hate the truth of salvation by particular, sovereign grace that he boldly and uncompromisingly taught, and, therefore, hate him also.

A third possibility is that professing Calvinists today are so infected with the Arminian heresy of a love—a saving love—of God for all humans without exception, which expresses itself in a gracious will or desire or intention to save all humans without exception, that they do really regard a faithful, uncompromising, genuine confession of God’s particular, sovereign grace, which necessarily implies reprobation, as extremism, as hyper-Calvinism. 

It is an indication of the deplorable spiritual condition of nominally Reformed churches and theologians today that this third possibility is the most likely.

It is also an indication of the huge and exceedingly important calling that God has for the Protestant Reformed Churches today. May they have the zeal and courage to carry out their calling.

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