C. Michael Patton has a new post entitled, Calvinism and the Divine Decrees — Correcting a Misunderstanding. Unfortunately, Patton’s post actually promotes a misunderstanding and confuses a few categories.
First, the promotion of a misunderstanding. Patton states: “Supralapsarianism literally means “before or above the fall” (supra=”above”; lapse=”fall”). This is the form of Calvinism that is often called “hyper-Calvinism” (“hyper being an adj not a noun) because of its radical nature. It is held by very few Calvinists, and does not represent so-called “Evangelical Calvinism.””
While it is sometimes called hyper-calvinism, that description is inaccurate. It is also inaccurate to refer to supralapsarianism as having a “radical nature” and while Patton may have met few supralapsarian Calvinists, I have met many. One of the most prominent supralapsarian Calvinists was William Twisse, who served as the Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly.
While hyper-calvinism (properly defined) is contrary to evangelical Calvinism, supralapsarianism is perfectly consistent with the Gospel. Hyper-calvinism, properly defined, is a position that combines incompatibilism and divine sovereignty. In other words, like Arminians, hyper-Calvinists (properly defined) deny that it is possible for men to be responsible and for God to be fully sovereign. However, instead of denying that God is fully sovereign, hyper-Calvinists deny that man is responsible. Thus, they generally do not proclaim the gospel and do not preach that is the duty of sinners to repent of their sins and trust in Christ.
There are also a number of non-technical definitions of hyper-Calvinism, such as those set forth in Phil Johnson’s primer on hyper-calvinism (link to his primer). Phil Johnson there proposes a five-fold test of hyper-calvinism. Johnson’s five-fold test relates to forms of Calvinism that have particular scruples, such as scruples relating to using the expression “common grace” (opponents say we should use the term “grace” only of saving grace), “free offer” (opponents say we should not call the gospel an “offer”), or “love of God for the reprobate” (opponents say we should not refer to God’s dealings with the reprobate in terms of “love”). While I don’t think calling folks that have such scruples “hyper-calvinists” is very productive (in fact, it tends to generate lots of unnecessary strife among Christian brethren), none of those scruples is inherent in supralapsarianism.
Phil Johnson’s article also notes the following definition of hyper-calvinism (I provide his citation and his editorial note in brackets]:
1. [Hyper-Calvinism] is a system of theology framed to exalt the honour and glory of God and does so by acutely minimizing the moral and spiritual responsibility of sinners . . . It emphasizes irresistible grace to such an extent that there appears to be no real need to evangelize; furthermore, Christ may be offered only to the elect. . . .
2. It is that school of supralapsarian ‘five-point’ Calvinism [n.b.—a school of supralapsarianism, not supralapsarianism in general] which so stresses the sovereignty of God by over-emphasizing the secret over the revealed will of God and eternity over time, that it minimizes the responsibility of sinners, notably with respect to the denial of the use of the word “offer” in relation to the preaching of the gospel; thus it undermines the universal duty of sinners to believe savingly in the Lord Jesus with the assurance that Christ actually died for them; and it encourages introspection in the search to know whether or not one is elect. [Peter Toon, “Hyper-Calvinism,” New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1988), 324.]
This dictionary definition provides what I’ve termed the “proper” definition as the first definition. The second definition is like unto it, and its qualification is emphasized by Johnson. As the second definition indicates, hyper-calvinism (properly defined) is normally a subset of supralapsarianism. While there is nothing intrinsic to supralapsarianism that leads to hyper-calvinism, hyper-calvinism’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty and hyper-calvinism’s lack of consideration of man’s responsibility tends to lead to adopting a supralapsarian order of decrees.
Unfortunately, Patton seems incompletely familiar with the theological usage of the term hyper-calvinism. Thus, he has sadly mislabeled evangelical and confessional Calvinists like Twisse as “hyper-calvinists” without an adequate justification.
Second, the confusion of categories. Patton states:
Most Calvinists have a theology that makes it very clear that God is not responsible for the creation of evil and did not institute the fall in order to accomplish his purpose of reprobation. In other words, he did not create people for hell.
There are several category problems here.
First, “evil” is an idea, not a thing. In its primary sense, evil describes every moral action or omission that is contrary to the law of God. In its secondary sense, evil describes those creatures who do evil or who are inclined toward evil by their nature. Talking about God “creating evil” is to reify evil. God does not do evil, but some of his creation does. On this, all Calvinists (including Supralapsarians) agree.
Second, God is not morally accountable for the evil deeds of his creatures. On that, all Calvinists agree as well. If Patton means by “responsible” that God is morally accountable for the evil deeds of his creatures, all Calvinists (whether supralapsarian or not) agree that God is not. However, if Patton means by “responsible” that God ordained the evils deeds of his creatures (including the Fall), then all Calvinists (whether supralapsarian or not) agree that God has done so. He’s “responsible” in the sense of having ordained that it would occur, though not “responsible” in the sense of being culpable for the wrongdoing.
Third, the supralapsarian position may indeed make the decree of the fall a means to the end of the destruction of the reprobate. However, the supralapsarian position also makes the decree of the fall a means to the end of the glorification of the elect. Furthermore, most of all, the decree of the fall is a means to the end of the glory of God. After all, that is the purpose of the fall in every legitimate form of Calvinism: God’s decrees are all ultimately about God bringing on honor and glory to himself. They sometimes involve men but they are not anthropocentric. The primary end of the fall for supralapsarians is not to send folks to hell, but to bring glory to the Creator.
Fourth, God’s decrees should not be confused with the execution of those decrees. God’s decree of creation was for his own glory. The purpose of the decree within the order of decrees is perhaps disputed among the various -lapsarians, but as to the action itself, it was carried out with full knowledge and intention of what has and will transpire. One cannot be a Calvinist and an Open Theist. Instead, we declare that God created the wicked for the day of evil (whether that refers to temporal evil or eternal judgment makes a difference only on an emotional level). You don’t escape the universality of God’s providence by going infralapsarian.
Patton further states:
In the end, according to supralapsarians, God is glorified in his decree both to elect and to reprobate.
That’s the case for all Calvinists, not just supralapsarians. All of God’s decrees bring God glory. If an infralapsarian wishes to claim that in his position there is no specific decree of reprobation, we simply note that this is a matter of labeling. Even an infralapsarian election of men from among the mass of fallen humanity inherently involves the passing over of the others within that same mass.
In conclusion, I do appreciate Patton’s attempt to add clarity to the distinction between the infralapsarian order of decrees (held by the real Francis Turretin) and the supralapsarian order of decrees (held by William Twisse, among others). Both views are well within the bounds of Calvinism, and both are held by Evangelical Christians. While hypercalvinists may also accept the supralapsarian order of decrees, it is as unfair to refer to all supralapsarians as “hyper-Calvinists” as it is unfair to refer to all Calvinists as “hyper-Calvinists.”