Baptist historians have been hard at work over the past several years trying to ferret out the precise relationship between John Gill and hyper-Calvinism in eighteenth-century Baptist life. This article addresses that question. Thus, it is incumbent upon me to offer the following disclaimers:
- This is not an attack upon Calvinism; it is a discussion about hyper-Calvinism.
- In the spirit of full disclosure, I disclose that am not a Calvinist (do not adhere to the five points of Dort), although neither am I an Arminian.
- I think that the number of actual hyper-Calvinists breathing today is pretty miniscule. I hope that the number of hyper-Sensitive is also small.
The Big QuestionIs John Gill the Father of Baptist hyper-Calvinism, or is he merely the Precursor of Baptist hyper-Calvinism? In other words, was John Gill himself a hyper-Calvinist in the same sense that his followers were? I will be the first to admit that I am years away from having plumbed the full depths of John Gill's writings and thought. So far, I believe that Gill was a hyper-Calvinist in his theology, but that his pastoral practice did not reflect the the most lethal effects of hyper-Calvinist thought (i.e. a lack of evangelistic passion and effort). He was, from all I can tell, a good pastor with an evangelistic zeal. The theological question involves such catchprases as eternal justification, duty-faith, the well-meant offer, the modern question, etc. I think that hyper-Calvinism boils down to the question of duty-faith: Is it the duty of all people to believe savingly upon Christ? I believe that it is the duty of all to do so. Those who believe upon Christ are saved. Those who do not believe upon Christ are condemned for that very failure to believe.
He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18)Those who reject duty-faith are theologically hyper-Calvinists. I believe that John Gill rejected duty-faith; therefore, I believe that he was a hyper-Calvinist.
The Big QuoteThose who do not believe that John Gill was a hyper-Calvinist have frequently offered as proof the following quote:
Souls sensible to sin and danger, and who are crying out, What shall we do to be saved? you are to observe, and point out Christ the tree to live to them; and say, as some of the cherubs did to one in such circumstances, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved, Acts 16:31. Your work is to lead men, under a sense of sin and guilt, to the blood of Christ, shed for many for the remission of sin, and this name you are to preach the forgiveness to them.Many who employ this quote misunderstand Gill, taking this as an espousal of duty faith ("Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved") and an endorsement of general appeals on behalf of the gospel ("Your work is to lead men...to the blood of Christ")
The Big ClarificationMost biographical treatments of Gill mention Robert Hall's comment. A Dutch pastor and admirer of Gill apparently approached Hall and mentioned how much he wished that Gill's writings had been written in Dutch. "So do I," replied Hall according to the story, "for then I should not have read them. They are a continent of mud." The problem is that Gill's commentaries and theologies are written neither in English nor in Dutch. They are written in Gill. Gill is a quaint dialect of Theologian. Theologian is not a dead language, but some of its more nefarious dialects can be lethal. In other words, the discipline of theology includes some "inside language." Likewise, each particular theologian develops his own key phrases that may reflect a specific aspect of his thought and acquire an idiosyncratic meaning for him. Thus, one might clarify, "Beauty for von Balthazar means...," or "By apokatastasis panton Origen usually signifies..." Likewise, Gill has a special use for the idea of "sensible sinners." People become sensible of sin, spiritual danger, Hell, etc., through the action of special grace imparted by the Holy Spirit solely to the elect. Look again at the Gill quote:
Souls sensible to sin and danger, and who are crying out, What shall we do to be saved? you are to observe, and point out Christ the tree to live to them; and say, as some of the cherubs did to one in such circumstances, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved, Acts 16:31. Your work is to lead men, under a sense of sin and guilt, to the blood of Christ, shed for many for the remission of sin, and this name you are to preach the forgiveness to them.Gill inserts the idea of sensibility toward sin and guilt and spiritual danger as restrictive adjectival and prepositional phrases telling which souls and which men in particular merit this kind of treatment. In this quote Gill does not endorse duty-faith; he only asserts that it is the duty of the elect to have faith. He does not endorse universal appeals; he only asserts the obligation to appeal to the elect. Gill's position on duty-faith appears clearly in Body of Practical Divinity, 1:535. He did not believe that saving faith was a duty.