If you were asked which was worse, Arminianism or Hyper-Calvinism, how would you respond?
I’ll say straight out that my initial instinct was to say Hypercalvinism, but after discussing it with various people it seems that opinions are divided nearly half and half, and most of the time we end up saying it’s a case of six and half a dozen.
To be clear, I’m thinking of the brand of Arminianism which teaches that God loves everyone, and/or Jesus died for everyone, and that everyone has the power to repent and believe for themselves. The advice of my hypothetical Arminian to someone who wanted to be saved would be along the lines that they should just believe that God loves them, and accept Jesus into their heart.
On the other hand, I’m envisioning Hypercalvinism as the teaching that God only saves the elect, meaning that the gospel is only concerned with the elect. The advice of my hypothetical Hypercalvinist to someone who wanted to be saved would be along the lines that they should just wait for the Holy Spirit to regenerate them, knowing that he only regenerates the elect.
(If either of these descriptions are exaggerated or inaccurate, I’ll be glad to know, but this seems to be how the differing positions are conceptualised by the people I’ve been speaking to.)
The reasons why I suggested that Hypercalvinism was the worst of the two in the first place went something like this.
- Hypercalvinism doesn’t emphasise the duty to believe and a person’s personal culpability and sin for unbelief. There is a tendency to encourage people to “sit back with their arms folded” and simply wait to be regenerated. When a soul isn’t saved, it almost has the effect of putting the blame on God for not regenerating the sinner, since it provides no reason (or compulsion/obligation) for a sinner to take any pains at all about his or her own salvation. On the other hand, of course, Arminianism allows sinners to keep flattering themselves that their salvation is within their own power to achieve – that because the responsibility is all ours, therefore the ability must be ours too. (Does this make it worse than Hypercalvinism?)
- Hypercalvinism over-emphasises the doctrine of predestination, thrusting it to the forefront of the gospel, neglecting the advice of, say, the Westminster Confession that the doctrine of this high mystery is to be handled with special prudence and care. In perpetually proclaiming the truth that God only saves the elect, hypercalvinism fails to proclaim the truth that all the elect are sinners, and that God saves sinners. On the other hand of course, Arminianism fails to make use of the link between regeneration and predestination and glorification, ie that it’s all one golden unbreakable chain, providing salvation as a complete package, the purchase of eternal security in its entirety for definite persons. This, maybe, might make it worse than Hypercalvinism?
- Related to the previous point, Hypercalvinism tends to give an austere view of the Saviour, minimising the graciousness of his sovereign purposes, and discouraging sinners from applying to him for salvation by the teaching that the gospel is only for elect sinners (rather than for sinners as such). Arminianism gives an artificially encouraging view of the Saviour, making out that he has saving love for everyone, but if you take the view that a seeking soul needs to be constantly diverted towards God, it is hard not to think that a teaching which provides an appealing view of the Saviour is less potentially damaging than one which provides the sinner with a reluctance to approach him, even if the appeal is over-exaggerated and sometimes misleading.
- Finally, as a threat to the clear publishing of the gospel within reformed denominations, Hypercalvinism may be worse because in their haste to avoid Arminianism people may be less likely to notice the alternative errors of Hypercalvinism, and fail to recognise the seriousness of allowing the pendulum to swing too far away from the extremities of Arminianism into the extremities of Hypercalvinism.
Now let me hedge slightly here and say that I’m not wholeheartedly committed to any of these rose-tinted presentations of Arminianism. As someone pointed out when I discussed it with her, Arminianism is much more flattering to fallen human nature – it’s arguably much easier to be attracted to and appeased with a false view of God’s love than with a false view of God’s sovereignty.
I suppose that the errors of both sides can be classified as mistakes regarding human nature and mistakes regarding God the Saviour. Arminianism over-emphasises the love of God and the spiritual powers of fallen human beings, whereas Hypercalvinism over-emphasises the sovereignty of God and the inability of fallen human beings in spiritual matters. So that whereas Arminianism could be said to offer sinners a false hope, Hypercalvinism can be said to offer sinners no hope. Either way, a massive obstacle is presented to the sinner in need of salvation: neither of these are teachings which are healthy for sinners to be exposed to.
Now, to avoid straining your patience with an excessively long post, go here for my best stab at the middle way, avoiding the extremes of both sets of unhelpful teachings.