Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching, by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth, 1995, 164 pp. $5.99.
Reviewed by Thomas Ascol
Among evangelicals, the last twenty-five years have witnessed a revival of what historically has been called “Calvinism.” This renewal transcends denominational boundaries and shows no sign of abating.
In Southern Baptist life this theological revival is nothing less than a homecoming to our doctrinal roots. All across the Southern Baptist Convention pastors, churches, denominational servants, and educators continue to rediscover that God-centered perspective on the gospel which the Bible teaches and which was prevalent when the denomination was founded one hundred-fifty years ago.
While this doctrinal renewal is a necessary corrective to the man-centered Arminianism which has decimated much of our contemporary faith and practice, it also comes with dangers of its own against which we must constantly guard. The greatest of these dangers is hyper-Calvinism.
The error of hyper-Calvinism can only emerge where true Calvinism has taken root. It is a perverting error. It distorts that which is good and true. It is a parasite which sucks the life out of its host.
There is no indication that the present renewal of Calvinism has begun to foster the error of hyper-Calvinism, but, as the old saying goes, forewarned is fore-armed.
Iain Murray’s newest book is a theological prophylactic for evangelical Calvinists. By drawing on the life and ministry of Spurgeon Murray makes clear distinctions between true or evangelical Calvinism and false or hyper-Calvinism. This is a great service for, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “The ignorant Arminian does not know the difference between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism.” This sad fact, which need not be taken caustically, is being repeatedly demonstrated in our day.
On one seminary campus students are currently taught that Spurgeon himself was not a real Calvinist. On that same campus one professor defines hyper-Calvinism as best represented by the Canons of Dort. Murray’s book gives the lie to both claims.
Spurgeon’s first major controversy was against hyper-Calvinism, particularly as expressed and defended by fellow Baptist pastor, James Wells. The debate which followed Wells’s attacks on Spurgeon displays clearly that Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism are different not simply in degree but in kind. The most serious difference is seen in that the latter denies that faith and repentance are duties which God requires of sinners as sinners.
The book consists of three significantly different parts The first is introductory and contains a heretofore unpublished “Impression of Spurgeon” in his early years by one who attended his ministry. The second part is the heart of the book in which Murray traces Spurgeon’s controversy with hyper-Calvinism and, thereby, shows the differences between it and true Calvinism. Ample excerpts of Spurgeon’s writings and sermons greatly add to the value of this section. Chapter 4, “Spurgeon’s Fourfold Appeal to Scripture,” is worth the price of the book and could well stand on its own. The last of these appeals deals with the love of God. Spurgeon has much to teach those who would doubt our Lord’s compassion for sinners.
The final part of the book contains a helpful hodgepodge of “Illustrative Material” drawn from various sources. Murray’s treatment of John Gill and William Huntington as prototypical hyper-Calvinists is sure to provoke response from those who read these two men differently. The author’s analysis, however, is lucid, amply illustrated, and not without merit.
This book ought to be read by every lover of Spurgeon, every pastor, every seminary and religion professor, and every ministerial student. If you are one of these, secure a copy without delay. If you know someone who fits one of those categories, do that person a great favor and make this little book a gift to encourage him in his calling.
Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern, by John MacArthur, Jr., Crossway Books, 1994, 256 pp. $17.99
Reviewed by Thomas Ascol
John MacArthur is exemplary in his ability to stay on the cutting edge of evangelical life. The problems and issues on which he sets his sights are always relevant to the health and vitality of modern believers. Reckless Faithis no exception.
While lacking a central focus that can be traced from beginning to end, MacArthur brings several critical issues into the light of his perceptive evaluation. He shows quite clearly how subjectivism, mysticism and existentialism have gained the upper hand in many sectors of evangelical life. The loss of belief in objective truth combined with the loss of ability to reason from the Scriptures has left many evangelicals intellectually paralyzed and therefore open to theological aberrations of every stripe.
Two of these, the so-called “laughing revival” of “Toronto Blessing” fame and the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” document, receive special attention. MacArthur does a much better job analyzing the former than he does the latter. With light from the writings of Jonathan Edwards, the Toronto Blessing is exposed as being significantly different from earlier, historical accounts of true revival. Some of the laughing revival’s chief defenders are allowed to speak for themselves to show the contrast between their understanding of awakening and that of Edwards. This chapter (six) is the best in the book.
MacArthur’s evaluation of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” is not as valuable. He issues proper warnings about the primacy of justification by faith alone and speaks for many evangelicals (this reviewer included) who lament the fact that some of our most loved and respected leaders signed the document. However, for several reasons his critique lacks the force which it could have had.
Not the least of these is an unfortunate mistake in research. MacArthur erroneously includes Timothy George as one of the signers of the document (p. 120) and therefore misconstrues some of George’s published comments about the issue. To his credit, MacArthur has acknowledged this mistake, apologized to George, and made significant changes in future editions of the book. His gracious manner of handling this mistake is exemplary of what Christian scholarship ought to be.
Overall, this is not a bad book. It simply is not one of the better books to come from an author whose writings have set an unusually high standard by which everything he publishes is judged. The book may prove helpful to someone who has uncritically imbibed the mysticism or subjectivism of our day. But much of what is found here has been treated by the author in a more balanced and careful way in previous books (especially in Charismatic Chaos and The Vanishing Conscience).