Antinomian Hyper-Calvinism Versus The Law And The Gospel
A New Focus Interview With George M. Ella
Q. The 18th century controversy regarding Hyper-Calvinism and Antinomianism seems to have emerged again in recent years and, although your book William Huntington: Pastor of Providence has been welcomed by many, a few voices maintain that you have opened old wounds and should have let sleeping dogs lie.
A. Wounds caused by cries of Hyper-Calvinism have long been open and much salt has been rubbed in them in recent years. The once sleeping dogs of Antinomianism have been barking loudly for all to hear for some time. My aim in reviving Huntington’s teaching on the full Law and the full Gospel, as also my publications on Cowper, Gill and Hervey were intended as Gospel balm to heal these wounds and give the stray dogs of Antinomianism a training in rules of behaviour to make them fit guide dogs for the legally blind.
Q. Nevertheless, there are those who feel that in writing about men who they believe are tainted with Antinomian Hyper-Calvinism, you are laying yourself open to the same charges.
A. This is the way of all flesh. The more Huntington fought Antinomianism, the more he was given that name. Reversing the comparison, I suspect that the more people accused Huntington of Antinomianism, the greater was their own arrogance concerning the Law. It is no secret that those who called Huntington an Antinomian were Neonomians, Sabbath-breakers and adulterers. Recently a Sunday trader accused Huntington of being an Antinomian though he lost a good job through refusing to work on the Sabbath. When I pointed out the anomaly in his own behaviour, the Sabbath-breaker told me sanctimoniously that it was honouring the Lord of the Sabbath that constituted keeping the Sabbath which did not rule out Sunday trading as such. This is the kind of hypocritical Antinomianism that Huntington abhorred.
Q. What then is your attitude to the Moral Law?
A. I do not like the term Moral Law as it smacks of Greek Idealism and Humanism. The Bible speaks of the Law of Moses and I would like us to stick to that terminology. Modern evangelicals are emphasising man`s duty to keep the moral law irrespective of the spiritual and theological factors involved. The Mosaic Law is primarily theological showing that the law breaker is not only immoral, he is an enemy of God. This Law which shows us the will of God must be part and parcel of Gospel preaching. It is the Law that Christ has perfected, kept and established in Himself and is the Law that God will use on the Day of Judgement to separate the goats from Christ`s sheep. Not a jot or tittle of it will ever disappear.
Q. You believe then that the Law is the rule of life for a Christian?
A. The Mosaic Law is a very necessary rule but it can never be the sole rule of life for anyone. The Law is there to display the holiness of God and to show that man, left to himself, is a law-breaker by nature. If the Mosaic Law were his sole rule, man would be fully lost. But God has not left man to himself and his vain efforts to keep the law of works. He has supplied him with what the Bible calls the law of Christ and the law of faith (Rom. 3:27, Gal. 6:2). The rule of Law without the rule of Christ and the rule of faith is dead. It is a mere condemning codex on tablets of stone which kills and buries a man in his own sins without an offer of life and hope issuing from it. The rule of Christ and the rule of faith establish, continue, deepen and revitalise the Law and enable the dead sinner to live again in Christ, the Eternal Lawkeeper. As Peter says, all things pertaining to life and godliness are found in Christ. The believer no longer has an external law on tablets of stone as his guide but is caught up in Christ and his very heart and being is infused with Christ’s law-keeping nature, indeed Christ himself. He can thus testify that Christ his Righteousness lives in him and he is under the Law in the sense that he is under Christ. Without Christ`s rule and without faith in Christ to rule his life, the rule of Moses brings merely death and damnation. This death and damnation, however, is the way God has chosen to humble man and make him receptive to the law of Christ and the law of faith. Thus evangelists who do not first preach the terrors of the Law but merely appeal to the sinner’s sense of duty and preach ‘Come to Christ because He loves you’ and camouflage this by calling it ‘the free offer’ are not doing their duty. If such an evangelist, once the sinner is allegedly converted, tells him to go to Sinai to find his only rule of life, he is an outright Antinomian and abuses the Law. Cowper sums up the work of a true preacher succinctly:
“By him the violated law speaks out
Its thunders; and by him, in strains as sweet
As angels use, the Gospel whispers peace”
Thus, where Law alone rules, there is no Gospel; where the Gospel rules, Christ’s perfect law-abiding nature prevails. The duty-faith lobbyists, however, want peace without the storms of conscience so that they might be placed under a thunderless law after conversion. This is supererogatory Neonomianism, a subtle form of Antinomianism.
Q. What about Hyper-Calvinism? I must admit that a few critics, who have objected to your writing so warmly about John Gill, are associating you with that title.
A. There will always be people who feel they ought to go beyond Scripture in their legal zeal. Calvinists are in danger of hyping it as are Fullerites and Wesleyans. Incidentally, it is usually the Hyper-Fullerites who accuse Gill of being a Hyper-Calvinist. But seriously, how can people who deny limited atonement and the total fall of man accuse Gill of being more than a Calvinist when they, themselves, are far less? They are merely drawing attention to their own limits.
Q. Your answer may be seen as avoiding the question. Put directly, do you believe that there is no point in preaching repentance to sinners?
A. What a strange thought? The Lord came to call sinners to repentance and there are a lot of unrepentant sinners out there to whom we have a duty to urge both to repent and to believe. This task is a world-wide one and a permanent one until Kingdom come. Nobody realised this as much as John Gill who was the most successful Baptist in the first half of the 18th century in putting the great commission into practice. Even in his burial services to ‘insiders’, Gill emphasised the world-wide scope of the Gospel beginning at the individual church member`s place of work.
Q. The mark of a Hyper-Calvinist is that he does not believe in commanding and calling the sinner to come to Christ. If God wants a soul, he believes, He will convert him without human aid. Is this your view?
A. Obviously not, as must be clear by now. I would, however, question your definition. Surely Arminians and the like call Calvinists ‘Hyper-Calvinists’ because they do not believe in indiscriminate invitations, commands, offers etc. to persuade the ungodly to believe. This view was never part of Reformed teaching and is certainly less Calvinistic than Calvin. The Holy Spirit calls whom He will and when He will and it is obvious that His work is discriminating. This is why He transports Philip into the desert and William Carey to Serampore. Calvin explains this in Book II, Chap 21 of his Institutes:
“The covenant of life is not preached equally to all, and among those to whom it is preached, does not always meet with the same reception. This diversity displays the unsearchable depth of the divine judgement, and is without doubt subordinate to God`s purpose of eternal election.” He argues that God, “does not adopt promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what He denies to others. It is plain how greatly ignorance of this principle detracts from the glory of God, and impairs true humility.”
Q. Forgive me for digging deeper but someone wrote recently that the Hyper-Calvinist believes “the dogma that fallen humanity is beset by an inability to turn from sin and turn to God. So what men cannot do in their own strength, they need not do.” What do you say to that?
A. This is typical of the confusion of ideas prevalent in modern Fullerism, going back to Fuller himself who built a school of rational thought on his misunderstanding of Gill’s clear Gospel. Obviously all fallen men are dead in trespasses and sin. This includes, says Calvin, man’s body and soul including his rational powers. Fuller will not accept this. He says a dead man cannot be held responsible for not believing so man must have enough life in him to respond to the Gospel. This is the ‘natural light’ philosophy that Fuller obtained by reading the Cambridge Platonist John Edwards whom he mistook for Jonathan Edwards, the New England revivalist. Fuller’s logic, however, is built on his high view of man and his low view of the Fall; two very unscriptural positions. He sees the total fall as a rejection of Christ. Up to then, there is an Esau and a Jacob in all men, one or the other waiting to come out. The Bible teaches that man is doomed to death for disobeying the Law for which he is held responsible by God even though he may not have encountered Christ one way or the other. Thus what men in their own strength cannot do, they are entirely responsible for not doing. This was so much a part of Gill’s conviction that he had it anchored in his church`s Declaration of Faith in 1729. I agree with Gill because he agrees with Scripture.
Q. If you will bear with me, I have one more question. Do you believe that it is the duty of all men to love the Lord? It has been suggested recently that Hyper-Calvinists must answer the question negatively, whereas Calvinists are bound to say ‘yes’.
A. Allow me to answer in words from Gill’s The Cause of God and Truth.
“Is it the duty of all men to love the Lord? Absolutely! Because they are the creatures of his making, enjoy the care of his providence, and are supplied by him with the blessings of life; therefore all men must joyfully love the Lord (p. 170).”
Gill and Huntington could not have been more different as men. What united them was a clear calling to the ministry and the simple, highly effective message to sinners which they preached. Repentance and faith in Christ. Antinomians cannot talk about repentance, and Hyper-Calvinists do not believe in preaching repentance and faith to sinners. This is, however, our high calling in Christ Jesus. I am not a preacher and have not the privilege of proclaiming this Gospel from the pulpit. I do, however, feel very much called to spread the good news by retelling the stories of men of God such as Cowper, Gill and Huntington, who were masters at their evangelistic craft. Heaven is fuller because of their work in the Lord.
George M. Ella is a historian, author and biographer. His writings may be accessed at the online archived, ”Biographia Evangelica”.
George M. Ella, born February 1939 in Yorkshire, England, has lived most of his life on the European Continent. He is a retired Senior Civil Servant formerly employed in teaching, post-graduate teacher-training, chairing examination boards and curricula work. He holds degrees from London, Hull, Uppsala, Essen, Duisburg and Marburg universities with doctorates in English Literature and Theology. Dr. Ella has written regularly since the seventies for a number of magazines and newspapers and published numerous books on Church History, including biographies of William Cowper, William Huntington, James Hervey, John Gill, Augustus Montague Toplady, Isaac McCoy and Henry Bullinger besides works on doctrine and education. He is currently finishing the third volume of his series 'Mountain Movers'; a biography of John Durie; a work on Law and Gospel and further study material for the Martin Bucer Seminar. Dr. Ella is still internationally active as a lecturer and is a Vice-President of the Protestant Reformation Society. He is keenly interested in missionary work and has written on the spread of the Gospel amongst the Same people of Lapland, the people of India and the Native Americans. This present volume follows Dr. Ella's 'The Covenant of Grace and Christian Baptism', also published by the Martin Bucer Seminar. George Ella is married to Erika Ella, nee Fleischman, a former government administrator, and they have two sons Mark (41), Director of a Polytechnic College in Bremerhaven and Robin (39), Leading Senior Physician in a newly-built Geriatric and Psychiatric clinic in Dessau.