McKnight vs. “Hyper-Calvinism”

Scot McKnight has posted a letter from one of his readers who is having problems with “hyper-Calvinists,” but the difficulties to which he refers include nothing of what hyper-Calvinists actually believe. Rather, the real difficulty with the ones that he labels “hyper-Calvinists” is that they are self-righteous and condescending in their eagerness about regular Calvinism. If the letter-writer’s description is accurate, then the problem is not Hyper-Calvinism or even regular Calvinism. The problem is sin—self-righteousness, condescension, and arrogance, to be specific.

My quibble with this anonymous letter is not so much that it mis-defines “hyper-Calvinism.” Nor am I disputing the fact that professed Calvinists often behave badly. They often do, and every instance is an occasion for repentance. My concern with the letter is that readers might come away with the idea that there is something wrong with the doctrines of grace simply because some of its supposed adherents are ungracious. I would simply point out that we should be careful not to conclude that the doctrines themselves are false simply because people with bad character believe them. On the contrary, is it not the case that defenders of Calvinism have not truly been gripped by the doctrine they profess when they behave self-righteously, condescendingly, and arrogantly? The sinful attitudes betray the very truths they claim as most precious.

The letter also links John Piper with the error of hyper-Calvinism: “we are getting killed by very vocal, self-righteous hyper-calvinists, especially those who are connected with Piper’s church.” Once again, according to the letter, the problem is not hyper-Calvinism per se, but unchristian attitudes. Is the letter implying that such attitudes are somehow the fruit of Piper’s ministry? If so, then I would suggest that the charge is unjustified (e.g., listen to the first 6 minutes of this, to the entire recording of this, or read this). John Piper is a flawed human just like the rest of us. But to imply that he advocates hyper-Calvinism or the sinful attitudes that go along with it is not accurate.

When I first embraced the doctrines of grace as a young man, I was very much like the malcontents described in the letter. I was caustic, arrogant, and condescending. I came to realize, however, that there was a problem inside of me, and it wasn’t Calvinism. It was me. My own sin was motivating me to behave in ways that run counter to the very humility that God’s sovereign grace should engender in sinners. Over the years, the Lord has used the ministry of John Piper perhaps more than any other to help drive out some of my sorry attitudes (but I am, alas, still a work in process).

My own experience of the doctrines of grace and of John Piper’s ministry is very different than the one portrayed in the letter on McKnight’s blog, and I hope that readers might consider another point of view as they test all things by the Scriptures.

Update: Be sure to read Abraham Piper’s “Be a Kinder Calvinist.” Also, check out McKnight’s response to the anonymous letter-writer in “My Response to ‘the Letter’.”

33 Responses to McKnight vs. “Hyper-Calvinism”

  1. Scot McKnight November 26, 2007 at 10:54 am #

    Denny,

    It is unfair to say this is McKnight vs. Hyper-Calvinism. It is a post of a letter by a pastor who is having trouble with some strong Calvinists in his church. I posted the letter, with my own words introducing it, asking for pastoral sensitivity. I’m asking for advice on his behalf. I have not stated my view, in this post, on this matter at all. So, to make it “McKnight vs Anything” is not completely fair.

    We’ve already communicated about this, but what is clear is that this person uses “hyper Calvinism” not in the dictionary sense you are mentioning but in the sense of “zealous” and “relentless.” And that is not an unusual, pop-level use of the term. Unfortunate since that term now has a more narrow and careful definition. Still, it is how the language is sometimes used. You are sensitive enough to language to know that “description” is often the case instead of “prescription.” The very first commenter discerned this and it is only fair of you to recognize that this person has used a term in an unusual way. Several comments have clarified that.

    And I said to you in private I don’t think the letter impugns Piper, even if the pastor knows that these folks see Piper as one of their guiding lights. He also mentions others and, to be fair, you’d have to defend them as well.

    I think many know enough about Piper to know that what he teaches is not always best represented by the many who listen to him.

  2. jeremy z November 26, 2007 at 11:38 am #

    Yeah Scot this is a low blow.

  3. Denny Burk November 26, 2007 at 11:45 am #

    Scot,

    The title of the post is an allusion to a book by Iain Murray, Spurgeon vs. Hyper-Calvinism. By inserting your name in place of Spurgeon’s, I was only intending to say that you are taking on issues related to Hyper-Calvinism. But by putting “Hyper-Calvinism” in quotes, I was saying that ironically hyper-Calvinism isn’t in view at all. Maybe the allusion was too subtle and obscure.

    The reason I didn’t defend the others is because none of them has had the impact on me personally that Piper has. Also, some of the names that were listed I simply do not know.

    I understand that you would want the responses in your comments to be focused on the pastoral question, so I posted a response here to address what I thought was an implicit indictment of the doctrines of grace in general and of Piper’s teaching in particular.

    Thanks,
    Denny

  4. Bryan L November 26, 2007 at 11:55 am #

    So what would be your pastoral advice Denny if the shoe were on the other foot and it were hyperactive arminians in your church and you were the pastor?

  5. Andrew Walker November 26, 2007 at 12:27 pm #

    Denny,
    I like what have to say here. Often enough, all of Calvinism gets caricatured by the rare few who fit this stereotype. Though not a Reformed individual myself, I enthusiastically enjoyed reading this post and thought your level of humility was admirable. It’s nice that someone within the Reformed crowd vocalized their humility as you did regarding Calvinism.

  6. John Mark Inman November 26, 2007 at 12:39 pm #

    If/since this is a common pattern among Calvinists, isn’t at least possible that there is something defective in the Calvinist ideology that produces such behavior?

  7. Scot McKnight November 26, 2007 at 12:50 pm #

    Denny,

    Mark the day and time down… for I’ll defend Calvinism here.

    No, John Mark, I don’t think it is a defect in the system. That system has always taught humility and reverence and grace.

  8. MatthewS November 26, 2007 at 2:34 pm #

    Denny,

    I haven’t read the post on Scot’s blog yet, but did want to make a comment from personal experience. You greatly respect and appreciate John Piper and are sensitive to ad hominem attacks against him. I respect that. However, I have not been helped by Piper like you have. My life has been negatively impacted and I have been deeply hurt by some Piper followers. Is this Piper’s fault? Not necessarily.

    But it is true that Piper does present a war-time mentality and does attract many followers, including some who are quite militant and ungracious. Such anecdotes provide no argument against a well defined calvinist system (FWIW, I am no arminian), nor necessarily against Piper himself, but from personal painful experience, I sympathize with those being attacked by “very vocal, self-righteous hyper-calvinists, especially those who are connected with Piper’s church.” (Actually in my case, I would not use the hyper-calvinist adjective – I would stick with the problem you describe: sinful attitudes)

  9. MatthewS November 26, 2007 at 2:57 pm #

    Conflicts and splits seem to follow some people around.

    Galatians calls fits of rage and discord fruit of the flesh, and Colossians calls “anger, rage, malice, slander” part of our earthly nature.

    Instead of anger and divisions, we should see “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Col 3) in the way a believer interacts with others.

    Some people, and this is true all the way from Amish to emerging, including Piper followers, scoff at being kind and gentle with those who are “wrong”. They are interested in being right, not in being gentle. However, I think this reveals that they are operating from flesh, not from Spirit.

  10. Steve Grose November 26, 2007 at 7:15 pm #

    G’day Denny

    I think that the radicalism and ungracious attitude depicted is somewhat of a “conversion syndrome” of any religious group (including Charismatics, various wings of the pentecostal movement, new christians, Old Brethrenism, Wesleyan perfectionism, Small group churches, renewal, SDAism and hinduism and islam!) I don’t think it has anything to do with the truth or non truthfulness of the positions espoused. It has to do with the way that conversion to new creeds (or old creeds) has of re-aligning our world views in life-changing ways. This results in an emotional bonding to the system, whatever the system may be. I don’t believe it has anything to do with real convevrsion that the Lord Jesus spoke of in Matthew’s gospel. (Matthew 18:33 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. ) which has to do with conversion to HIM.
    I would take a 5 point calvinistic position, but find myself avoiding many fellow 5 pointers who are more enthusiastic about the new system they have converted to, than the Saviour that John Calvin preached!
    I think the appropriate method of handling these problems is to preach up the Lord Jesus Christ, and the believer’s responsibility to have communion and fellowship with Him, and NOT directly attack the opposing world view. Be on the attack with the gospel. If we attack the opposing world view DIRECTLY and CONFRONTATIONALLY, thre is the tendency for the advocates of that world view to dig in, and draw out alliances. 2 timothy 2:24 24 And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, 25 In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; 26 And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.

    I pastored a charismatic church for 6 years, and saw many charismatics converted to following Christ, rather than a charismatic ideology. It was preaching Christ and Him crucified that became the priority as it always must be!
    Steve

  11. Carlito November 26, 2007 at 8:46 pm #

    Great post, Steve.. In the same vein, I’m also reminded of 1 Cor. 3:3-6:

    [CAPS MINE]

    “….for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul [INSERT ARMINIUS OR WESLEY ETC],” and another, “I am of Apollos [INSERT CALVIN OR SPURGEON ETC],” are you not mere men? What then is Apollos [INSERT THEOLOGY, THEOLOGIAN, WORLDVIEW OR AUTHOR ETC]? And what is Paul [INSERT SAME]? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.”

  12. Denny Burk November 27, 2007 at 12:41 am #

    Scot,

    The day is November 25, and I will never forget it! :)

    Thanks for the comment.

    Denny

  13. Denny Burk November 27, 2007 at 1:12 am #

    Dear Readers,

    You will notice that I have made substantial changes to the original post at the top of this page. I have been chastened by personal correspondence with Scot McKnight and by Abraham Piper’s post “Be a Kinder Calvinist.”

    My original post alleged an underlying polemical motive for McKnight’s post. That motive was not explicit in his writing, and it is one that he told me in private that he in fact did not intend. Thus mine was an unfair and inaccurate characterization (btw, it’s always dangerous to speculate about motives), so I am apologizing to him for that now. Please forgive me, Scot, for the allegation and for words like “ad hominem” in my original blog post. I taught from about 1pm-8pm this evening, so I apologize that I am just now getting back to this.

    Thanks to all for reading and participating in the conversation. With the Lord’s help, I shall try to do better in the future.

    Denny

  14. GLW Johnson November 27, 2007 at 7:52 am #

    This kind of accusation is frequently heard as well from people who resent the exclusive claims of Christianity, is it not? Are there ‘Calvinists’ among us who fit this individual’s description? Without question. I not only have run into them, but I have spent time with them! But then again, what theological species doesn’t have similar advocatives in their herd? There are over-zealous or ‘hyper’ Arminians,Baptists, Charismatics,Disciples of Christ,Episcopalians,Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans,Roman Catholics, et.al. all claiming to have cornered the market on the truth , each pounding the table and demanding that their own particular distinctives be acknowledged as axiomatic to any theological discussion.So please, don’t think that this is exclusively something that is innate to Calvinists. It is not.

  15. Jake November 27, 2007 at 8:37 am #

    Denny,

    The irony is that you displayed the very attitude you attempted to disprove. Nothing new under the sun.

  16. MatthewS November 27, 2007 at 10:25 am #

    Jake,

    In defense of Denny – he did question Scot and the letter author’s motives, but he also apologized. Personally, if the Piper followers who have hurt me would ever come back and apologize for questioning my motives, I would be shocked. I don’t agree with Denny but I don’t think he displyaed the same attitude as the relentless group decried in “the letter.”

  17. Jake November 27, 2007 at 10:59 am #

    Matthew,

    I suspect that if those who had treated us that way had just received a letter from one of the Pipers, the chances that they would have corrected their behavior would have been much higher. Given that these blogs are pretty good evidence of past behavior, it appears it would have helped in the past even more.

  18. Benjamin A. November 27, 2007 at 11:42 am #

    Having read most of the post from the other sight (Scot McKnight) regarding ‘hyper-Calvinism’ and the anonymous letter from some struggling pastor, these are my initial thoughts.

    1. I almost thought I was reading transcript of a Dr. Phil show there were so many “poor little ME stories” told. “I was picked on by the bully Calvinist . . .”.

    One post went so far as to call Calvinist “the enemy”.

    That was laughable! Ha. Ha.

    2. What I truly find unbelievable, is that a man seasoned enough to become a pastor of a local church, reaches out for help on a blog sight on how to shepherd the church under his care. If he doesn’t have strong enough leadership in his church to support his position then he needs to resign from his position. I could say more here but . . .

    3. Maybe, this letter wasn’t from a concerned pastor but was generated by some neo-Armenian who wanted to bask in others bashing on Piper, MacArthur, Sproul, etc.,??? Jealousy is a cancer on the soul of all humanity . . .

    Benjamin A.

  19. Jake November 27, 2007 at 11:53 am #

    Dude, that is is first church, and it’s a new church plant. He used to be a youth pastor.

  20. MatthewS November 27, 2007 at 12:06 pm #

    When I was talking about fruit of the flesh vs. fruit of the Spirit in #9, I was thinking of those who talk like Benjamin in #18. Not sure whether he is a troll or not, but either way, the example works.

  21. Benjamin A. November 27, 2007 at 1:31 pm #

    Jake/Matthew-

    Relax. Humor is a spice of life. When we stop laughing (especially at ourselves) and sometimes others, we become killjoys.

    If you can’t sense the humor in my post then just maybe you’ve been smitten by that killjoy bug?!?

    Jake- Being a youth pastor is (my opinion only) probably the toughest ministry there is within a church. Since this guy was an x-youth guy he should be seasoned enough to weather some pesky Calvinist within the church. If you know this man take him to James 1 and have him start by “considering it all joy” that he has this wonderful opportunity to grow spiritually.

    Matthew- The deeds of the flesh from Galatians 5 are “immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outburst of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these . . .”.

    I will borrow a word here from Jake. DUDE how do you equate a blog post of ones opinion to Galatians 5? Killjoy bug must have smitten you as well. Lighten up. Stop taking things so personally. Enjoy life in Jesus some today. Laugh out loud sometime today-

    I’m laughing at you calling me a ‘troll’. I’m not stewing in some killjoy soup. I’m not taking it personally.

    Benjamin A.

  22. MatthewS November 27, 2007 at 2:32 pm #

    Benjamin,

    I am not angry and didn’t take anything you said personally. I was just pointing back to my earlier comment to provide a concrete example.

    Like I say, I am not sure how serious you are. The way I read it, your point number 1 seems dismissive of people’s pain, your point 2 seems to suggest that the pastor’s asking for advice from Scot (not an uncommon habit of Scot’s readers) shows that he is weak/inept/friendless/whatever and should resign, and your point 3 seems to accuse of duplicity and jealousy. Perhaps you are being sly and funny and I am too dense to get it – it wouldn’t be the first time I was dense. (BTW, just to be clear, I meant troll in the sense given here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_troll.)

    Perhaps I have you wrong. Perhaps you weren’t mocking those who had been hurt and you weren’t accusing the letter’s author of duplicity and/or jealousy. In that case, cool! I am glad to stand corrected.

    To your question. You asked how I could equate a blog post to fruit of the flesh (Gal 5, Col 3, others). Fruit of the flesh vs. fruit of the Spirit has a lot to do with relationships and attitudes and how we treat others – they aren’t just about moral sins and substance abuse. Gal 5, for example, has at least 6 traits related to strife: discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions (dividing up into groups and fighting each other). Therefore, those who mock and marginalize people they disagree with exemplify fruit of the flesh but those who are walking in the fruit of the Spirit will demonstrate kindness, compassion, gentleness.

    Does that help clarify how I could connect a blog post in general to fruit of the flesh?

  23. Scot McKnight November 27, 2007 at 10:24 pm #

    Denny,

    Sorry. I did not know you posted this letter to me on your blog. Since you have I want also to say to you in public, as I said in private, that I forgive you for the accusation. I’ve made the sign of the cross over you brother.

  24. Denny Burk November 27, 2007 at 10:32 pm #

    Oh, brother! No hexes, please. :)

  25. Jake November 28, 2007 at 12:09 am #

    Benjamin,

    I guess I’d have to disagree that a youth pastor is the most seasoned clergy around, as if their experience has prepared them such that they can deal with the situations described in the letter, without seeking help. I can tell you from experience that the situations he has encountered have not been easier for the youth pastor than the senior pastor at my church.

    Frankly, I don’t think these situations are material for humor. As someone who has had their career adversely affected by phone calls to my superior from another (I being one) conservative evangelical with a different theological point of view, I don’t find your comments funny. In my case the issues brought up were not what affected me, but the continual association with agitated people made me appear to be just as much a trouble maker. All I wanted to do was serve the Lord, and I avoided controversy at all cost, except, I was guilty of answering questions when asked.

    Regardless, God is good.

  26. bj November 28, 2007 at 3:46 am #

    This could have been avoided if McKnight would have offered a correction regarding the pastor’s misunderstanding of hyper-Calvinism; or even pointing out the error of assuming that correlation (Calvinists with bad behavior and teachings of those named) is the same thing as causation. The title on McKnight’s website over the pastor’s letter: “Letter about those pesky Calvinists.” (def. pesky: annoying; troublesome). Okay… but then McKnight cries fowl and is personally offended over Burk’s title and then admonishes Burk about fairness? I now ask a seemingly stupid question: what is McKnight mad about? Why is he offended? Read the pastors letter again, read Burk’s article again, and read McKnight’s response to Burk again. Carefully. Can anyone find any accusations against Scot McKnight? Even one? Does Burk take issue with anyone or anything other than the contents of the pastor’s letter? Find anything “unchristianlike” in Burk’s tone? One could argue that no apology was even necessary. Guys, we must have a little thicker skin that this. Really.

  27. Jake November 28, 2007 at 3:55 am #

    bj,

    You really missed the point, and the and the original post was modified, if you’ll keep reading. It’s hardly worth addressing now.

  28. Kevin J November 28, 2007 at 12:24 pm #

    Has anyone ever “Bible-bashed” others after they first got “saved”? What they are saying is…”Look, this is what I believe and it is clear as day to me, so WHY CAN’T YOU SEE IT??!!!”

    This is a response of immaturity and unfortunately many never grow out of their immaturity.

    Just because there are immature “Bible-bashers” out there preaching the gospel, does that mean we need to “throw out the baby with the bath water”? The same can be said about Calvinism.

    Have a great day!

  29. Kevin J November 28, 2007 at 12:27 pm #

    Denny,

    I just want to thank you personally for you blog site. It is a great help to me and I have also been greatly helped by John Piper’s ministry – especially the free MP3 downloads!

    Kevin

  30. Benjamin A. November 28, 2007 at 12:32 pm #

    Jake

    All of this is proof enough for me that blog sites are not to replace the work of Elders (leadership) within a local church. Your friend (sounds like he is your pastor?) should have gone to the leadership of that church (the Elders?) and settled his issues/differences there. These issues need to be settled in-house. And if there is an impasse between the elders and pastor, then the pastor needs to resign (my opinion). Instead he (or maybe Scot floated his letter without consent? Probably not but I don’t know the details- either way) he reaches out for ‘help’ or ‘counsel’ or ‘whatever you would like to call it’ to a source that has no active or functional authority within his local congregation, and as a result of his doing (or Scots) doing this, all Calvinist everywhere were broad brushed as being pesky, nasty, mean, evil, hurtful, arrogant, etc.,; and I ask for what purpose? To some how help your pastor? Will bashing on others somehow help your pastor feel better about his tough circumstances at church??? I don’t think so. What will give him comfort, strength, and vision for how to navigate through his circumstances is God’s word (Matthew 18:15-17; Phil. 1:12; James 1:2-4; 3:17-18; Romans 8:28; 12:1-2, 18; 1 Peter 3:8-11; Psalm 34:13-14;). Notice where seeking the opinions of man (generic) in the blog world have taken this.
    This is what I find amusing.
    When Piper, Sproul, MacArthur, and all other Calvinist were being berated and castigated and even called “the enemy” by some dear sweet saints on Scots site I didn’t see you chime in and call for a cease fire? Why weren’t you as concerned for all that hatred as you are about me finding humor in all of this? Why??? Did all that Calvinistic bashing some how make you feel better about yourself and my ‘humor’ on the other hand somehow has led to greater pain?
    Listen, to what ever degree my humor (or lack there of) has caused you real pain, I apologize. That was NOT my intent. I’m sorry if that happened.

    Benjamin A.

  31. Jake November 28, 2007 at 8:15 pm #

    Ben,

    Dude, I don’t go to that guys church. I don’t know anything about it, its elders, its other leaders or pluming, for that matter. The poor guy has a right to ask advice from anyone he pleases, and that shouldn’t evoke a rant from anyone. The bible doesn’t restict what wise counsel we can seek. In fact, it uges us to seek “many.”

    As for what people are saying over on Scot’s site, I try to keep people on topic and keep on topic myself. The topic over there isn’t why people like their theology more than another, so why do I care? There’s one woman over there that thinks every comment is an attack on Piper, and there are others with clear agendas. That’s off topic, so I don’t care. I’m not the Internet police. As far as I’m concerned, those posting over there are proving what the pastor was concerned about. Who can deny it?

    And one more thing, Scot has removed a post of mine that was inappropriate, and I thank him for it. I was a goof. Thank you, Scot!

    Other than that, have a nice day.

  32. Dr. James Willingham July 26, 2009 at 9:27 pm #

    I have known one supralapsarian, hyper-calvinist (his words from the pulpit and person to person) in my life time. He was my ordaining pastor, Dr. Ernest R. Campbell (Ph.D., Bob Jones U). He served as Associate pastor to Dr. R. G. Lee at Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis,Tn.pastored many churches (Colonial Heights, Columbia, SC, FBC, Joplin, Mo., Calvary Baptist, St. Louis, FBC, Hialeigh, Fl., FBC, Boynton Beach,Fl., FBC, Apopka, Fla., Archer Baptist, Archer, Fl., Evergreen Baptist, Frankfort, Ky. He once preached a rvvl in Ga in a rural church and had 100 conversions. He was the founder and first President of the Amrican Race Trac chaplaincy (Cf.Who’s Who in Religion, 2nd edn. Chicago: Marquis, 1977). He was a gracious, cheerful, optimistic, outgoing, engagin personality, and, yes, he knew his theology backward and forward. While Dr. Lee had five preachers for his funeral, Dr. Campbell use to laugh and say, “The only one that was legal was me, because he put it in his will that I had to preach his funeral.” Dr. Campbell’s sermon on the great supper was a marvelous evangelistic sermon as was his message on the text, “Why sit ye here until ye die.” He was a far cry from those who use the Sovereignty of God as an excuse for not being evangelistic.

  33. Taylor July 18, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    Yes, this is way late. But I’ve just been browsing SMs blog and found this link. And have an observation from semi-neutral territory. I really appreciate many aspects of the the New Calvinists. Even though I’m not particularly Calvinist. The one thing that bugs me is that I don’t tend to see people I am growing in respect for going often outside their community in unity. Trevin Wax aside, most of the reformed guys I read only step outside their realm of influence to disagree. For all I know, and I imagine they do, they have many healthy friendships and areas of agreement with the non-reformed, vis-a-vis Whitefield and Wesley. The problem for their readership is that we never see that. I believe this unintentionally leads lay Calvinists if you will, to follow a perceived model of always circling their wagons when it comes to dealing with outsiders. While the behavior of the some does not condemn the many, could we lead in such a way that a gracious model of communication with the outside is more effectively modeled?

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