Are You An Extreme Calvinist?
Since joining the ranks of the blogosphere in March of this year, I’ve been involved in ‘chatting’on line with a number of Christians about the topic of Calvinism. I will confess some of it was edifying and then some was not. I quickly realized that Calvinism has several different camps. Some embrace TULIP from a ‘moderate’ view, others consider themselves Calvinists but embrace only some of TULIP’s doctrines, and then others hold to what I would describe as a hyper or extreme Calvinist position regarding TULIP. The purpose of this post, and perhaps more to follow, will be to explore the world of the extreme Calvinist. Most of my points are gleaned from Dr. Geisler’s excellent book Chosen But Free. I highly recommend it for those struggling with this topic.
What does the acronym TULIP stand for?
- T stands for Total Depravity
- U stands for Unconditional Election
- L stands for Limited Atonement
- I stands for Irresistible Grace
- P stands for Perseverance of the Saints
This theological framework came out of the later writings of St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) as a result of his controversy with the Pelagians who emphasized free will at the expense of grace. Augustine overreacted with an emphasis on grace at the expense of free will. [Chosen But Free; p. 168; Dr. Geisler] We discern from a careful study of early church history and theology that among the great Fathers of the church, with the lone exception of Augustine’s later writings; Irenaeus, the early writings of Augustine, St. Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas all affirmed the ability of fallen human beings to exercise free choice in their own salvation. They also rejected the doctrine of irresistible grace on the unwilling, as well as, limited atonement, unconditional election, and total depravity as conceived by extreme Calvinism.
What’s important about the early church’s theological position with the exception of Augustine’s later writings in response to the Pelagian’s emphasis on free will at the expense of grace is there would have been no notable extreme ‘Calvinists’ during the first 1500 years of the church. Much detail and documentation of these facts are available for those interested, but for brevity’s sake I will forge ahead into the distinctions between “moderate” Calvinism and “extreme” Calvinism.
How does the Moderate Calvinist view Total Depravity?
- Corruption of good
- Effects of sin are extensive
- Born with propensity to sin
- Human will is diminished
The moderate Calvinist embraces the concept of total depravity amply supported by Scripture. Basically, all the Scriptures used by extreme Calvinists are accepted by moderate Calvinists with the primary difference being that moderates insist that being “dead” in sin does not mean that unsaved people cannot understand and receive the truth of the gospel as the Spirit of God works on their hearts. That is, it does not in effect erase the image of God, rather it only effaces it.
Unconditional election is also held by moderate Calvinists. It is unconditional from the standpoint of the Giver, even though there is one condition for the receiver – faith. This does not mean the sinner must perform some work in order to become one of the elect. God alone does that on the basis of grace alone. It means only that the elect must believe in Christ to receive this gift of salvation.
Limited atonement is also affirmed by moderate Calvinists in the sense that it is limited in its application. That is, although redemption was purchased for all and is available to all, nonetheless, it will only be applied to those whom God chose from all eternity – the elect.
Moderate Calvinist believe irresistible grace is exercised on all who are willing. That is, anyone who is receptive to God’s work in his heart will be overwhelmed by His grace.
The perseverance of the saints is an essential part of moderate Calvinism. It affirms that all regenerate (justified) people eventually will be saved, in other words, once saved always saved.
[The above was adapted from p. 120-121, Chosen But Free]
How does the Extreme Calvinist view Total Depravity?
- Destruction of good
- Effects of sin are intensive
- Born with necessity to sin
- Human will is destroyed
[p. 57-58, from Chosen But Free]
Extreme Calvinism is marked by a particular understanding of the ‘Five points’, or TULIP, which must either stand together or they fall together as a result of their peculiar logic. For the extreme Calvinist, total depravity does not mean that humans are as depraved as they could be. They even believe that man is capable of social or domestic good as a result of God’s ‘common grace’ to all men. However, mankind is incapable of any spiritual good and, according to extreme Calvinism, they are totally incapable of initiating, attaining, or ever receiving the gift of salvation without the grace of God. They believe a person is ‘spiritually dead’ which eliminates all human ability to understand or respond to God. A fine point but arguably critical, they believe the effects of sin are intensive (destroying the ability to receive salvation), not just extensive (corrupting the ability to receive salvation). Extreme Calvinists obviously admit that fallen humans have biological life; however they deny they are alive in any sense in which they can respond to God. And whereas the faculty of will is present, the ability to choose to follow God is destroyed. [Chosen But Free; p. 58]
As a result of the extreme Calvinist’s position on total depravity, he must have regeneration occurring prior to faith. In other words, we are saved in order to believe; we do not believe in order to be saved. R.C. Sproul is a modern day extreme Calvinists that champions this view. Please note a quote from R.C. Sproul’s Chosen by God; p. 118. “In regeneration, God changes our hearts. He gives us a new disposition, a new inclination. He plants a desire for Christ in our hearts. We can never trust Christ for our salvation unless we first desire him. This is why we said earlier that regeneration precedes faith.
The Lord willing, I will continue to contrast the ‘U-L-I-P’ of extreme Calvinism versus moderate Calvinism in future posts. For now, I would like to ask those who consider that God must do a work so that man can believe (regeneration precedes faith) to give Scripture that supports that view. Of course, any other comment(s) are also welcome.