Ergun Caner on "Predestined Not to Be a Hyper-Calvinist"

Dr. Ergun Caner has published an article by this title in the latest National Liberty Journal. I hesitate even calling attention to it because I know that what he says will provoke many who regularly read this blog. Provocation is so easy to come by these days that I hate to be another carrier. But, obviously, my hesitations were not enough to hold me back. They were overcome by other motivations.

First, the tone of this article is so much better than the comments that Dr. Caner left on my blog a few months ago, I am tempted to be encouraged that the prospect of a reasonable debate on the issues over which we disagree is actually possible. I realize that last sentence is a study in caution, but I am somewhat encouraged. Dr. Caner quotes a Director of Missions who fears that “the Reformed movement will not go away” but is “slowly taking over some major churches” (I guess this is in contrast to the “minor churches” that this DOM thinks we *should* be pastoring). Dr. Caner responds:

Is his concern justified? Is Calvinism slowly overtaking Baptist churches?
To be fair, I must admit I have been vocal on this issue.
Very vocal.
I could hardly be viewed as an “unbiased” source on the issue. I have preached it in the Thomas Road Baptist Church pulpit, and have stated emphatically in my classes.

Though those who have kept up with this blog or Caner’s ministry might think this disclaimer to be unnecessary, it is encouraging to see him concerned with fairness. In fact, he goes on to make this appropriate admission:

Also for the sake of fairness, I must add that one cannot solely blame our Reformed brothers, either. Baptists are notorious for “fighting and fussing” over such issues as the color of the carpet and the location of the water fountains. This is not the first scuffle into which we have walked and it certainly will not be the last.

And this:

Thirty years ago, however, we could not blame all Pentecostals for the discord in our churches, and neither can we blame every Calvinist for the growing discord today. Those who instigated the fights that ultimately led to splits did not represent every Pentecostal. Neither do the most strident of the Reformed-leaning Baptists represent all Calvinists today.

I welcome the tone that these admissions can set in discussing the issues of Reformed theology. And I would likewise admit that not every Fundamentalist is guilty of misrepresenting the doctrines of grace or spewing forth the kind of venom and deception that characterized the now defunct baptistfire website. Many of our Fundamentalist brethren are just as interested in accurately representing those with whom they disagree as most Reformed Baptists are.

A second reason that I have chosen to address this article despite my hesitations has to do with my genuine desire to understand what Dr. Caner and those who follow his line of reasoning actually hear when they listen to the doctrines of grace articulated. Often, after reading the descriptions of Calvinism by its critics I find myself recoiling in horror with the thought that such beliefs ought to be cast back into hell from which they originated. I hate what they describe as much as they do. But what they describe is not historic, evangelical Calvinism. It is not the Calvinism of the 293 delegates who met in Augusta, Georgia in 1845 to form the Southern Baptist Convention. It is not the Calvinism of Spurgeon, Edwards, Carey, Judson, Boyce, Mell or Dagg. And it is certainly not the Calvinism of Founders Ministries.

So a question lingers on in my mind, “Where do such descriptions come from?” Is there something that those of us who are unapologetically reformed in our understanding of the Bible’s teachings on salvation are doing to misrepresent our views? In our advocacy of the truth are we actually detracting from it in the way that we communicate it? I know that the truth is offensive and Jesus spoke plainly about it dividing even close relations. Paul said that the preaching of the cross is a scandal and an offense to many. Those are simple facts that all who are loyal to Christ must acknowledge and prepare to live with. But are we in the Reformed camp unwittingly giving unnecessary offense by our attitudes and actions when we uphold our convictions? No doubt that is true of some on many occasions and perhaps of many on some occasions. That still does not justify the misrepresentations because the 9th commandment doesn’t have an exception clause attached to it.

Here is an initial attempt at understanding all of this. I think Dr. Caner is alarmed by the worst that he has seen in Calvinism and Calvinists. Further, I believe that he is fully convinced by his reading of Scripture that those who are reformed are simply wrong about moral inability, unconditional election, definite atonement and effectual calling. What I am not certain about is this: does he think that the strident, repulsive image of Calvinism that some Fundamentalists construct is inherent to the actual doctrinal convictions of reformed theology or is it an aberration of it? At this point I genuinely don’t know the answer to that question, though the caricatures are so clear to me that the answer is obvious.

A third reason I call attention to this article is because confuses categories and definitions in ways that I find terribly unhelpful to honest diaologue. For example, Caner says this:

The real problem we face is a new form of Hyper Calvinism, that I call “Neo-Calvinism.” Neo-Calvinists are not just “hyper;” they are obsessed.

He goes on to make this point of “clarification:”

So I will not be misunderstood, let me define the term. A Neo-Calvinist is a Hyper Calvinist with a twist. He cannot discuss anything without referencing Calvinism. For the “Neo-Calvinist,” you are either Reformed, or you are teaching heresy. It is the prism through which every doctrine is filtered.

First, it is if Calvinism is being judged along a continuum with “hyper” to the right and “neo” to the far right–like someone who is “really, really, serious about his Calvinism.” Of course, his use of “neo” notwithstanding, this is historically inaccurate. Hyper-Calvinism has a history. It can be defined. It is not Calvinism on steroids. As Spurgeon said, speaking of Calvinists, it is not that we believe any less than those who are hyper, we believe more. We believe in duty-faith and repentance. We believe in the absolute responsibility of unbelievers to trust Christ and be saved. When “hyper-Calvinism” is thrown around without distinguishing it from evangelical Calvinism, understanding is not advanced, confusion is.

Additionally, Dr. Caner’s 5-fold definition of what he calls “neo-Calvinism” (hyper-Calvinism) is unhelpful.

1. “Double Predesitination.” Calvin believed this. Are we to label him a hyper-Calvinist? John Bunyan believed this. Is he a “neo-Calvinist?”

2. “Not all babies who die go to heaven. They do not say outright that ‘non-elect babies who die go to hell.’ They simply say that they leave such issues to the sovereignty of God. This raises the issue of the very nature of God, doesn’t it?” Yes it does raise that issue, which is exactly the point, from my perspective. God is “too wise to be mistaken, too good to be unkind.” The cross proves this beyond all doubt. For the record, I have never heard anyone argue that any baby that died in infancy went to hell. What I and others have said is that God has not told us clearly in His Word how all that works. We bow in humility and leave what He has not chosen to reveal in His all-wise, all-loving hands. This, it seems to me, is far better than trying to equate theologically t
he nature of a child with the nature of a dog
(check the 6th bullet point)–neither of which are accountable to God for sin.

3. “God’s “love for mankind” must be redefined.” Not “redefined,” but simply defined. There is a reason D.A. Carson named his book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Passages that speak of God hating sinners were not surreptitiously edited into the Bible by “neo-Calvinists.” We must deal with those texts along side the ones that speak of God’s universal love and grace.

4. “Invitations are an insult to the sovereignty of God. Disturbing as this may sound, some ministers of this stripe have stopped giving invitations in their services.” Here Dr. Caner equates “altar call” with “invitation.” The Gospel cannot be preached without an invitation because the call to come to Christ is inherent in the message. The fact that some Calvinists do not want to use the altar call system, what we might call “neo-invitationalism,” should not be misconstrued to suggest that they are against inviting people to Christ. In addition, Rick Warren does not use an “invitation” and teaches against it. Should he also be labeled a hyper-Calvinist?

5. “Calvinism is the only Gospel.” Granted, Spurgeon did say that Calvinism is the Gospel. But anyone who has read his sermons or books knows that by that he did not mean that simply articulating the 5 points is proclaiming the Gospel. I think Dr. Caner has a point here. When Calvinists quote Spurgeon on this it tends to confuse as much as clarify. As my own concerns over the loss of the Gospel in our churches has grown in recent years I have become more careful not to speak like this, and here is the reason why. I know of Calvinists who preach careful doctrine but who do not preach Christ so well. And the Gospel is all about Jesus Christ, who He is, what He has done and why that matters.

Dr. Caner appeals uncritically to the Anabaptists as his spiritual forbears in distinction to the magisterial reformers. I will let that historical debate slide for the moment. But I found much with which to agree in this paragraph:

In our history, Free Church believers have never been adherents to one particular system or philosophy. We certainly have not been locked to a scholastic movement that was formed by men. We are Biblicists. We believe the Bible is inerrant, not because a particular creed forces us to do so, but because we see Scripture as plain on that issue. We are adamant that Jesus Christ — virgin-born, living a sinless life, crucified, buried, physically resurrected and soon returning — is the only Savior because the Bible states it, regardless of the whims and wishes of men.

Of course, the existence of both the Particular Baptists (Calvinists) and General Baptists (Arminian) betrays his first sentence, but his main point is well-taken. It is precisely because we are a people of the book that we should be willing to look honestly and rigorously at what that book says. And wherever and however we disagree on other points, we must all agree on the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners.

Near the beginning of the article Dr. Caner makes these statements:

I am not a Hyper Calvinist. I am not an Arminian.
I am a Baptist, ….

Though I am under no delusions that we mean the same things by these terms, I can also affirm those statements. I am not a hyper-Calvinist. I am not an Arminian. I am a Baptist, a historic Southern Baptist, which means I am committed to the reformed, Calvinistic understanding of salvation.

Final note: My treatment of this article is not an invitation to take shots at Dr. Caner in the comments. Engage his arguments, raise questions, objections or agreements, offer clarifications or support, but do not attack his person.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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