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The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity 1689-1765

July 14, 2011

Kevin DeYoung:

The title is not going to set the world on fire, but it’s nevertheless a very good book: The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity 1689-1765. The book was written by Peter Toon (1939-2009) and first published in 1967; it includes a preface by the ubiquitous J.I. Packer. This is a scholarly, densely footnoted, technical little tome. But it contains simple, valuable lessons. Packer says, “The story is a cautionary tale with timely lessons for those who seek a revival of Reformed Christianity to-day” (8).

I see three lessons, given in increasing order of importance.

1. Toon shows, as Ken Stewart has more recently, that the Reformed faith is not completely uniform. This isn’t to say there’s not a basic continuity from Calvin to Beza to the Puritans to Old Princeton to the present day. But at many points in Reformed history it’s not been neat or clear what the Reformed position is.

2. Toon gives a solid definition of Hyper-Calvinism and it’s not the same as being really, really Reformed. In common parlance, Hyper-Calvinist simply means “I think you are too much of a Calvinist.” But that’s not a fair use of the term. Historically, Hyper-Calvinism has referred to a set of theological conclusions and practices, none of which mark any of today’s leading Calvinists.

3. Most important, Toon explains how a healthy Calvinism became an unhealthy Hyper-Calvinism. His cites four reasons for the rise of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity.

First, after 1660 orthodox Calvinism was under siege. “The religious leadership of the nation was lodged firmly in the hands of men who were either Arminian or moderately Calvinistic in theology” (146). Given this opposition, many Calvinists adopted a bunker mentality. They saw themselves as the small remnant that still clung to the apostolic faith. As their faith became increasingly defensive, it became rigid and less attractive.

Second, the intellectual environment of the time was one that great emphasized the role of reason in religious faith. Consequently, the Hyper-Calvinists applied strict logic to biblical doctrines that led to unbiblical conclusions. If election is true and grace is really irresistible, why both with the free offer of the gospel? This was rational logic, but not biblical logic.

Third, many of the leading Hyper-Calvinists were “capable of making extreme changes in thought” (147). They had no patience for nuance or tension. They were prone to extremes. They latched onto one way of thinking and felt like the only safe course of action was to take that thinking all the way to the edge.

Fourth, they were not very intelligent. That may sound cruel, but listen to Toon:

The Hyper-Calvinists were sincere men of average intelligence, but they lacked a prophetical and discerning spirit. They keenly desired to glorify God and mistakenly believed that God was more glorified by the exaltation of free grace in the pulpit and the printed page, than in the evangelism and conversion of men. They became so obsessed with the defence of what they regarded as sound doctrine that the evangelistic note of Scripture as basically an overture by God towards sinners was muted. (148)

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