A number of years ago I made a presentation on the impact of the Donatist Controversy and the Pelagian Controversy on the theology of Augustine. I have repeated the essence of that material a number of times in various venues. To encapsulate it, even the most brilliant of Christian theologians and leaders are impacted by the contexts in which they live and minister, and in particular, by the controversies that define their age. The reason Warfield could rightly say that the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the victory of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the church is that the one came from his controvery against the Pelagians and the other from his role in the Donatist controversy. From afar, modern readers can sometimes wonder how ancient writers could have been so “blind” to their internal self-contradictions, but distance and time are convenient aids that we do not get to have in looking at ourselves.
The same truths apply to our beloved Spurgeon. A five-pointer he most certainly was. However, his context was not our context. Oh, surely, his context is much more like our own than that of Augustine. But, as I learned when I spoke at his church at a ministerial fraternal earlier this year, the British context contains an element that only a small number of Reformed folks in the States have to deal with on a regular basis. Spurgeon was very, very sensitive to the charge of hyper-Calvinism, and he struggled long and hard against the movement, which persists, in fact, to this day in England. Surely his sharp arrows likewise dug deep into the heart of Arminianism many times in his sermons, but since he preached so clearly the doctrines of grace, including, no matter how often modern men prove themselves ignorant on the subject, limited atonement, he was particularly concerned to make sure to distance himself from those who did not call men to faith and repentance, and did not preach man’s duty to do so. This concern lies behind certain inconsistencies that we can detect on an exegetical and theological level in the Great Master’s explications.
Last week I made note of Ergun Caner’s citation of a couple of sentences from Spurgeon yet once again, and linked to his entire sermon on Jacob and Esau. Dr. Don Hartley, whose work I have noted and commended on his blog before, dropped me a note on Spurgeon’s sermon, and given his insights, I have asked if I could post it here on the blog, and he graciously gave me permission. The comments below on Romans 9:20-23 and the one who has been “fitted for destruction” parallel my own in The Potter’s Freedom and likewise my refutation of the same argument put forward by Lenski but often repeated today by those who deny the clear message of God’s sovereignty over the clay.
Hello James. I enjoyed the read of Spurgeon but I’m sure you noticed a few inconsistencies in his sermon. Yes, he rightly rejects the “love less” view and he also notes that divine hatred here is a statment of Esau’s non-elect status (Rom 9:13). He also notes rightly that this chapter deals with individual not national election. This is a profitable area of the sermon. But, I think Spurgeon gets off track on the Esau issue. Romans 9 says God hated [did not elect] Esau “even before they were born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose in election would stand, not by works but by his calling.)” (NET Bible). Thus we would hold Paul teaches that God elects eternally and unconditionally, that is, based on absolutely no merit actual or forseen in an individual but purely out of his own good pleasure where he arbitrarily chooses some and passes over others. That God chooses any for salvation is pure grace. The flip side of this act of choosing is not choosing others thereby guaranteeing that those unchosen will be damned. Thus by the one act of eternal and unconditional election, God predestines both the elect to salvation by positively securing their salvation in the atonement and the non-elect to damnation by negatively passing over them in election (reprobation) and not providing salvation for them. This is double-predestination. Those who say that double-predestination elects some to damnation seriously misrepresent the position. No one is elected to damnation; they are predestined to damnation by not being elected to salvation, and justly so.
But when Spurgeon goes into the life of Esau, he attempts to point out issues in the OT narrative that would bring God’s derserved hatred. See the problem? This is after Esau is born and based on works precisely the opposite of what Paul says. Finally, Spurgeon fails outright to understand (or at least appreciate) the issue of double-predestination. As a pastor, I can see why he avoids this but as an exegete this is inexcusable. He translates the Greek perfect participle as middle and not passive in Rom 9:22 (passive: “the objects of wrath prepared for destruction” [NET Bible].). Instead, he says, “But it does not say anything about fitting men for destruction; they fitted themselves. They did that: God had nothing to do with it. But when men are saved, God fits them for that. All the glory to God in salvation; all the blame to men in damnation.” Romans 9 says the very thing Spurgeon denies: the non-elect individual is “fitted [by God] for destruction.” The passive voice is divine and thus he is prepared by God. How God does this is via preterition (passing over the non-elect) unto reprobation. So double-predestination is asymmetrical for sure, that is, God does not elect to salvation and elect to damnation but rather he elects some to salvation and passes over the rest to certain damnation—hence asymmetrical double-predestination. But there is no doubt in Romans 9 of the double in double-predestination. Spurgeon’s middle voice interpretation (“they fitted themselves”) is easily refuted when given the context of the potter and the clay as well as upon examining the lexical issue. Does clay form itself? No. This sermon, however, is a good example of a five-point Calvinist that shys away from the harsher elements of biblical theology, exegetical precision, and consistent theism. But it is this kind of inconsistency that gives non-Calvinists a foot in the door in a manner of speaking.
One final matter. That hell was created for the devil and his angels supposedly rules out this double-predestination interpretation. But all that the text may be said to imply about preparing hell for angels and not man is that hell was created before man fell; not that certain men were not ordained to eternal punishment or as Paul says here, “destruction.” Again, one could wish Spurgeon was more consistent here given the fact that he is indeed a five-point Calvinist.
All the best,
Don Hartley, Ph.D.