Was John Gill a Hyper-Calvinist? It seems that most scholarship has tended to classify him as such. However, there has been dissent from this majority position. I’ve recently finished writing a master’s thesis on Gill, and though the main interest of my thesis did not pertain to Hyper-Calvinism, I could not totally overlook the issue. I read nearly all of the secondary literature that directly pertains to Gill, and I did briefly discuss the issue in a section of my introduction. Because my thesis was not about Hyper-Calvinism, I chose to leave the question unresolved. I did not want to have to defend either position because it would have been a distraction from my intended purpose. However, I did gain some insight on the question, and I would like to share my view in the form of this informal essay.
Was John Gill a Hyper-Calvinist? It depends on if you approach the question as a Platonist or an Aristotelian. What do I mean? It seems to me that Gill is often labeled a Hyper-Calvinist by those who approach the question as an Aristotelian. If you want to know what a chair is, you study chairs and you determine the shared characteristics that makes a chair a chair. Therefore, we can know what a Hyper-Calvinist is because we have observed them and deduced what it is that they all have in common. If a theologian fits this description, then he must be a Hyper-Calvinist? This of course may seem a little circular. Who do you study to come up with your definition? Curt Daniel studied John Gill. That seems to be Tom Nettles’ criticism of Daniel’s dissertation on John Gill and Hyper-Calvinism. Nettles says that Daniel assumes that Gill was a Hyper-Calvinist, and then builds a definition for Hyper-Calvinism based on Gill.1
On the other hand, attempts at defending Gill of the charge seem to approach the question as a Platonist. Platonists can know what a chair is because a perfect chair exists in the realm of the forms. Somewhere, out there, in the realm of the forms, there lives the perfect Hyper-Calvinist. We here in the real world can know what a Hyper-Calvinist is because there is some kind of objectively defined basis in the realm of the forms. It seems that the problem is that by this definition, usually the Hyper-Calvinist that lives in the realm of the forms is the only one that really exists. No person in the real world actually matches up to the standard set by that guy, so all the charges against Gill, and others, are dismissed because for one reason or another no one really fits our preconceived definition of a Hyper-Calvinist.
As I saw this kind of tendency played out while reading the source materials, I decided I’d rather just reject the use of the term Hyper-Calvinist as an unhelpful pejorative term describing doctrines held by straw men alone. I guess this probably makes me a Platonist. I find the term High-Calvinist equally unhelpful. It doesn’t have quite the same negative connotation, but it’s just as elusive to define. Stanely Fowler says that it’s synonymous with Hyper-Calvinism, while James Leo Garrett claims that High Calvinism is not significantly different than the five points held to at the synod of Dort.
I think that it would be a lot more helpful if instead of throwing around two words to describe a system—assuming everyone understands those two words the same as you do—is not a good way to gain much understanding about the issue. It would be a lot more helpful if each troubling tenant of Hyper-Calvinism was taken point by point and judged on its basis rather than its contribution to the system. I think Gill was in error when it comes to his doctrine of justification from eternity; however, it appears from my reading of Gill that he preached the Gospel to sinners believing that it is God’s instrument of conversion. Gill was certainly not an antinomian. And I still don’t understand why the belief in an eternal covenant between the persons of the Trinity to save the elect should belong in a definition of Hyper-Calvinism—maybe it is a necessary component, but I don’t see how by itself that should be troubling.
I don’t know if these insights will be helpful for anyone else, but it is the conclusion that I have come to after all the research that I’ve done on Gill. Maybe my opinion would be different if I had studied other supposed Hyper-Calvinists as well, but I haven’t. I’ve only studied Gill, so I admit my knowledge about the subject is limited.
1. Thomas Nettles, By His Grace and for His Glory: A Historical, Theological and Practical Study of the Doctrines of Grace in Baptist Life, rev. ed. (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2006), 36.