2007April5, Thursday

Gill’s Calvinism Alive and Well in Reformedom

Posted in Theology at 22:34 by Trey Austin

My very good friend David (he’s Australian, but we won’t hold that against him) has lots to say about the free offer, universal intent of the atonement of Christ, and the will of God. He’s been working with all of these issues (similar to what i’ve said here on the interpretation of 2 Peter 3:9) for quite a while; he and i and other friends of ours have pretty regular discussions on these and like issues on a Yahoo! email group (are we the last people other than the Warfield list who use those?) called “Calvin and Calvinism.”

Really, the issue we are trying to bring to the fore in our own feeble ways is that the Calvinism that is in vogue today is not classical Calvinism, but is the “High Calvinism” that was introduced through the Puritan Scholastics. One of those extremist influences on Reformed Theology was John Gill (who was simply perpetuating John Owen’s High Calvinist views, only taking them to an even higher extreme). David has said alot about Gill and High Calvinism, but he has posted an article today on a blog to which he contributes showing how John Gill clearly denied the straight-forward doctrine of duty-faith. Basically, Gill said that God only desires the elect to trust in Christ and repent and that he only actually holds the elect responsible to savingly trust in Christ. In other words, for Gill, all of theology is done from the divine, decretal perspective, and everything—soteriology, sacramentology, ecclesiology, &c.—was filtered through that grid (which is why he was a Baptist; i could go on here about how viewing everything through the decretal perspective and not the historical perspective that is so prevalent in Scripture inevitably leads one to hold a very baptistic view of the Christian life and experience, but i’ll save that for later). Check out the article and see what i’m talking about.

Now, i’m no longer a Baptist, and so i don’t have any dog in the fight with what Dr. Nettles says about who is and who isn’t a faithful witness in the history of Baptist theology. But what i will say is that the PCA and other “Reformed” Presbyterian denominations aren’t far away from that kind of thinking that Gill exhibits as a legacy from Owen. I know it doesn’t directly bear on this subject (though i’m convinced it is not completely unrelated), but the Federal Vision controversy in conservative Reformed life has all the marks of the later Puritans and their very rationalistic understanding of Christianity that was propounded by men like Owen and Gill.

Here are the hallmarks of this kind of High Calvinism that the Puritans produced that has been passed down even to today:

1. A much lower understanding of the sacraments than the first generation of Reformers. That is, understanding them simply as man’s acts—a kind of Zwinglianism—, or understanding them as real sacraments and means of grace only to the extent that they are administered to the elect, but even then not as instruments, and not that the sign and the thing signified are always linked together objectively, but only external markers or symbols that, through contemplation and remembrance, strengthen grace already present.

2. An understanding of the Church that has only the elect as “real” members of the Church. That is, while the “visible” Church may include reprobates among its number, the “visible” Church isn’t the “real” Church; that distinction belongs to the “invisible” Church—because that’s the Church as God sees it, and we all know that we have to do theology from God’s decretal perspective—, and only those who are members of the invisible Church are “really” part of the Church; all others are just interlopers we unwittingly welcome.

3. A view of God’s Covenant that matches Gill’s view of all men at large analogously. That is,  just as when Gill says that only the elect are bound to repent and believe savingly, many say that only the elect are really members of the Covenant of Grace and hence, any others “externally” associated with the Covenant—whether under the sphere of the Covenant, under the umbrella of the Covenant, or whatever other language that is used—cannot be duty-bound to fulfill the terms of the Covenant that God has given to his people to give them eternal life (which terms are and always have been in every administration true faith and repentance) because they aren’t really members of the Covenant to begin with, and of course, making someone duty-bound to do something to be saved would simply mean that he’s saved by what he does and not by grace. This is almost exactly the kind of thinking Gill used to deny saving faith and evangelical repentance as duties of all men alike, only in this case, it is applied to the Covenant.

I grant you that most Calvinists in our Reformed denominations don’t go the Gill route (e.g., denying duty-faith for all men, or trying to bifurcate several kinds of faith and/or repentance), but most of them do have a much greater affinity with Owen and other Puritans than they do with Bucer, Bullinger, Cranmer, Calvin, Oecolampadius (who?), and other first-generation Reformers. No wonder their theology is closer to Particular Baptists than it is to Churchly Calvinists. Gill’s views were what they were because of the influence of John Owen. How far away could his modern pupils be from his former pupils like Gill?  

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2 Comments »

  1. David Gray said,

    Why do you refer to Gill’s Calvinism as “High Calvinism”? Generally high in reference to a church body or theology is used to reference a high/strong ecclesiology, liturgy, or view of the sacraments, at least in my experience.

  2. Trey Austin said,

    Well, David, when the word “high” is used to reference something, it doesn’t have some inherent meaning about sacraments or ecclesiology or liturgy; the only way to know what it means is to understand what it is describing. So, “high church” (speaking specifically of worship) is different than being a “High Calvinist.” In fact, historically, just between those two positions, the higher the Calvinist, the lower and more simple his ecclesiology he has. That’s particularly the case with the Puritans, as i’m sure you know. The reason for that is that, in High Calvinism, the historical took a backseat to the decretal. When we use the term “Calvinism” we don’t usually mean the whole Reformed faith (including infant baptism, a certain understanding of the sacraments, a certain view of civil government, &c.), we usually simply mean the Calvinistic understanding of soteriology, and the reason that is comes from High Calvinism. It as Calvinism that became single-mindedly concerned with soteriology in the decretal sense (meaning that election and reprobation were at the fore of their minds, and all other things in the Christian life were seen through that grid).


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