Posted by: Jerad File | September 14, 2010

Plato, Aristotle, and John Gill

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.

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Responses

  1. Gill is often misunderstood.

  2. Jerad,

    I agree with your assessment and your approach to evaluating an individual’s theology. My dissertation, which I will be defending in a couple of weeks, deals directly with the issue of whether or not Gill was a Hyper-Calvinist. I will hold off on sharing content until after I get the critique from the committee, but one of my assertions is that the label “Hyper-Calvinist” is not really helpful anymore (assuming it ever was) and should be jettisoned. Once I’m finished with the process, I will post some of my conclusions here.

  3. The Calvinism Chart by Rev Jonathan James Goundry is useful.

    http://feileadhmor.wordpress.com/2010/01/09/calvinism-chart/

    • Except Gill doesn’t fit into the ultra high Calvinism category. Lots of 17th century theologians believed in eternal justification and we’re still evangelistic. Also, duty faith is not “hyper-Calvinism.” It is reflective of “high” Calvinism like Fuller, Ryland, Carey, etc.

      In fact, this chart isn’t really helpful at all. It misunderstands a number of issues.

  4. Allen wrote, “Except Gill doesn’t fit into the ultra high Calvinism category. Lots of 17th century theologians believed in eternal justification and we’re still evangelistic.”

    Are you saying Gill was not evangelistic? Ella has articles about Gill’s evangelistic preaching efforts.

    On Acts 16:31 Gill comments, “There is a faith indeed which the law requires,” and “Souls sensible to sin and danger, and who are crying out, What shall we do to be saved? you are to observe, and point out Christ the tree to live to them; and say, as some of the cherubs did to one in such circumstances, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved, Acts 16:31. Your work is to lead men, under a sense of sin and guilt, to the blood of Christ, shed for many for the remission of sin, and this name you are to preach the forgiveness to them” but nothing that I know of that will answer your question.”

    I do not understand the point your trying to make, the Ultra High section didn’t have anything listed for evangelism.

    Allen wrote, “Also, duty faith is not “hyper-Calvinism.” It is reflective of “high” Calvinism like Fuller, Ryland, Carey, etc.”

    I believe you misunderstood the Hyper definition. It listed the denial of faith as the duty of all and the anti-missionary movement as elements of Hyper Calvinism. Yes, Fuller and Carey taught that faith was a duty.

    Allen wrote, “In fact, this chart isn’t really helpful at all. It misunderstands a number of issues.”

    Brother, I believe you are mistaken and have misunderstood the chart. It has floated around, on the Puritan Board as well, and it was understood.

    jm

    • Nope, of course I believe Gill was evangelistic. I’m arguing he doesn’t fit into the Ultra-High Calvinistic mold (and believe me, historically, there is great debate as to the difference between hyper and high Calvinism).

      As to your second point, it is unclear, it makes it sound like duty-faith, i.e., that all men are obligated to believe, is a characteistic of hyper-calvinism, which it would not be. Are you saying they deny duty-faith? That would make more sense. It’s unclear.

  5. Allen,

    The calvinism chart has been posted on the net without too much misunderstanding. I don’t see the problem and I can’t remember any others having any difficultly understanding the chart.

    Anyways, I enjoy the idea of a blog dedicated to Gill, keep up the good work.

  6. Gill and his followers are certainly Hyper Calvinist. Justification from eternity is certainly an odd doctrine when scripture says we are justified by faith. Apart from this consideration it seems to me after rubbing up against Hyper Calvinists for 5 years and more is that on the whole they display a meanness not found in true Christians. They are usually confrontational and unreasonable in their behaviour.

    One only has to read Brandon Kraft’s old blog and forum to see this is endemic in the Hyper Calvinist community.

    Hyper Calvinists today constantly claim that God hates the lost and that he gives no good gifts to the lost by way of grace (common or ordinary) forgetting that men retain the light of nature a residue from the fall of man. They deny temporal mercy from God. Some even go as far as to deny that Arminians are Christian, a foolish jest if it is a jest.

    It is my experience that Hyper Calvinists claim that God drags men to salvation and not by drawing, or as Augustine taught by irresistible grace (by attraction). God does not woo the sinner they insist forgetting the tenderness in which our Lord Jesus drew the woman at the well.

    Some Hyper Calvinist pastors have stood up openly on the Internet in chat rooms and boldly stated that our God is not a lovie-dovie God, whatever that mean. Scripture says that God is Love.

    Hyper Calvinists on Paltalk.com constantly show that they do not know or understand the creeds. Some even teach against creeds but Brandon Kraft supports the Goat-yard Confession of Gill. It is noticeable that this confession is never listed on reformed sites other than by Kraft’s.

  7. ioan,

    Thank you for your comment. Though as I read it, it seems to follow the logic of what I was arguing. You have experienced hyper-calvinists; therefore, you are classifying Gill as a hyper-calvinist on the basis of his corespondence to those who you have experienced. It is an Aristotelian way of classifying.

  8. I like the Goat Yard Confession and see no problem with saying God loved Jacob and hated Esau.

  9. I was glad to find your blog. Since the latest post was in September, my guess is that you might not see this for awhile.

    I am going to use the picture of Mr. Gill on you front page for a post I am writing about him and his works.

    If you deny me this, please email me at kimreimers@cablelynx.com.

    Or you can follow this to my blog and leave a note there.

    On the hyper-Calvinist question, since Mr. Spurgeon wrote poorly of them and highly of Dr. Gill, I would assume him not to have been one.

    God’s blessings…

  10. Whoever did, does this instant, or will ever, believe were justified from eternity; at an appointed time, in time, God makes those he justified from eternity spiritually alive who were formerly, in time, spiritually dead. The faith Jesus requires in John 3:16 is a product of being made alive; when made so, those justified while they were yet sinners, understand by that faith that they are justified. None are justified because of faith; they understand by faith that they have been justified.

    There is no such thing as “past eternity”, eternity has no past, present, or future.

    • I agree with removing the word ‘past’ from eternity. I am currently writing a short essay on this issue. There are a few things left out, but my overall point will be that the belief in ‘justification from eternity’ does not make you an antinomian.


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