The Faces of Semi-Arminianism

Sometimes when I read articles which enrage in unfounded criticism of our Protestant Reformed Churches and their doctrinal position, I am inclined both to laugh and to cry. One must be able, amid the pressures of conflict and controversy, to retain a healthy sense of humor. If he fails to do so and is unable to see the humor in and laugh at the ridiculousness of false charges and far-fetched and even desperate criticisms, he will not be able to endure the pressures and maintain his equilibrium. This was my first reaction to an article by Donald Dunkerley on “Hyper-Calvinism Today” (The Presbyterian Journal, Nov. 18, 1981, pp. 14, 15) in which he repeats the worn-out charge that our Protestant Reformed Churches are hyper-Calvinist. Writes he:

Hyper-Calvinism in this technical sense is the official theological position of certain denominations, such as the Gospel Standard Strict Baptists in England and the Protestant Reformed Church (of Dutch background) in our own country.

I thought to myself, “The poor man has made absolutely no progress since he made the identical unfounded statement about our churches in The Banner of Truth several years ago. He knows so little about our denomination that he does not even know we are ‘Churches,’ not ‘Church.’ And apparently he is unaware that our ‘official theological position’ is none other than the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordrecht, and that by implication he classifies as hyper-Calvinist all others who have the same confessions. He has apparently never taken any instruction from David Engelsma’s excellent treatise Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel. He knows nothing of the sharp difference between our position and that of the Gospel Standard Strict Baptists, also set forth clearly in the Rev. Engelsma’s book. And yet he holds himself forth as an expert on the subject, able to be a teacher of babes and an instructor of the simple.” What can one do, really, but laugh when such ignorance rushes into print? 

And yet it makes me cry. 

It makes me cry, first of all, because it is slander, and that, too, from the pen of one who is a minister of the gospel and who himself purports to be a Presbyterian and a Calvinist. And slander hurts! It hurts its target, the more so when it is perpetrated in a religious magazine and publicly. It also hurts its author—if not before men, then before God. It makes me cry, secondly, because it perpetuates a myth about our Protestant Reformed Churches in the minds of those who read thePresbyterian Journal but who will never see theStandard Bearer. Mr. Dunkerley’s statement will likely be accepted as gospel truth by many, though he offers—nor can offer—a scintilla of evidence for his charge. And thereby the myth that was begun years ago by Christian Reformed opponents is continued and spread abroad among many who do not and cannot know any better. 

But it makes me cry, most of all, because the Rev. Dunkerley offers as a proper and Calvinistic substitute for this alleged hyper-Calvinism something that is not Calvinism at all, something that is worse than Arminianism, something that ought to be utterly despicable to a Reformed believer—Semi-Arminianism.

From my earliest childhood I can remember that my father had on his study desk a tobacco humidor with four faces carved, or molded, on its sides. Especially some of those faces I did not, as a little boy, like to look at immediately before I went to bed or if I had to walk down the darkened hallway from his study. They tended to give one a fright. Today I still have that humidor as a memento on my library shelf. And when I look at those faces, I can well understand that they tended to give me nightmares when I was a lad. There is a smiling face; but there is also a cynical face, an angry and threatening face, and a snarling face. And the cover is a silly, half-witted face. The whole thing reminds me a bit of the idol of Roman mythology, Janus, the god of doorways. Janus was originally an idol with two bearded faces; looking in opposite directions. But a good encyclopedia will inform you that in the time of the Emperor Hadrian, Janus was represented as having four faces. 

And this reminds me of the Rev. Dunkerley’s monstrosity which he calls Calvinism.

Two of the faces are faces of the love of God. The one is the face of a special love of God for the elect. But wait a moment! God’s love has another face: it is the face of a general love of God for all. And as you might expect, some of the usual passages of Scripture (which true Calvinists have explained a thousand times over) are cited as proof, such as Ezekiel 18:23II Peter 3:9,Mark 10:21, and Matthew 23:37. Mr. ,Dunkerley writes: “As Reformed (Calvinistic) Christians see it, the Bible teaches that, while God has a special love for His elect, there is also a general love of God for all.’ And following this he goes on to assert that it is not ” ‘un-Reformed’ and wrong to say to an unbeliever, ‘God loves you’ or ‘Jesus loves you.’ ” And he claims that to say this is wrong is hyper-Calvinism.

But there are two more faces on this four-faced sculpture of the Rev. Dunkerley. They are the faces of Christ’s atonement. The one is the face of particular atonement; the other is the face of general atonement. Writes he:

Again, the orthodox Reformed faith teaches that, while the death of Christ was offered with special reference to the elect, it looks beyond, for it effects a free offer of the Gospel to all, it is sufficient for the sins of all and it removes all legal obstacles against anyone’s coming to God.

If I may mix my metaphors for a moment, notice the linguistic sleight of hand that is necessary seemingly to get the doctrine of definite atonement and that of general atonement into one sentence. And notice how contrary this is both to Canons of Dordrecht II, 8 and to the Westminster Confession, Ch. III/IV and Ch. VIII. But notice, too, that in Dunkerley’s view of evangelism it is the face of general atonement that is displayed: “Yet there are those who tell us it is ‘un-Reformed’ and wrong to say to an unbeliever, ‘Christ died for you.’ Is this not Hyper-Calvinism?” 

Now how does the Rev. Dunkerley achieve this monstrosity, this four-faced Janus-head, with two Reformed faces and two Arminian faces? 

There is more than one explanation possible. 

One element of explanation, as you might expect, is that he completely ignores and is silent about sovereign reprobation. This is, of course, telling. For no genuinely Reformed man will do this. But, of course, a reprobation-face would not fit on this monstrous head at all. 

Another element of explanation is the fact that Mr. Dunkerley does not proceed from the Reformed creeds—neither his Westminster Confession nor our Canons of Dordrecht. True, he makes some reference to the Westminster standards; but he yanks this reference out of context and uses it for his own end, but meanwhile does not proceed from the crucial teachings of the creeds concerning particular love and particular atonement. He cannot find in the creeds the materials to sculpt his four-faced Janus-head. 

But let us get Mr. Dunkerley’s own explanation. 

He arrives at this position, basically, because—without any evidence—he first re-defines hyper-Calvinism. He writes:

Hyper-Calvinism, then, refers to such an exaggerated emphasis on God’s sovereignty that the effect is to cripple evangelism. 

Strictly speaking, this is the view that, because God has an elect people He will infallibly save, therefore He does not love all, there is no offer of salvation to all and so there is also no obligation on us to proclaim an offer of salvation to all.

A little later he writes:

On the other hand, to say we are not Hyper-Calvinists in the formal sense because it is rejected by our creeds, does not mean that we have altogether escaped its influence. The spirit of Hyper-Calvinism is infectious. A person may still exaggerate God’s sovereignty so that his evangelism is crippled, even though he knows better than to say there is no free offer of the Gospel.

Now if the above paragraphs furnish a true description of hyper-Calvinism, then I plead guilty. This is not even hyper-Calvinism as described in the limited quotations by Dunkerley from John MacLeod’s Scottish Theology. But it is plain that the Rev. Dunkerley finds these elements in hyper-calvinism: 

1. An exaggeration of the sovereignty of God. 

2. A denial of the general, well-meant offer of salvation.

3. A denial of the obligation to proclaim such an offer. 

4. A resultant crippling of evangelism. 

Just a few remarks about this. 

In the first place, I do not understand how it is possible to exaggerate God’s sovereignty. To exaggerate is to present something as greater than it really is. How is this possible? God’s sovereignty is infinite and absolute. How can one ever present that sovereignty as greater than it really is? 

In the second place, what folly! It is true, of course, that in the course of church history there has been, and still is, a phenomenon that is genuine hyper-Calvinism. The Rev. Engelsma makes this plain, too, in his book on this subject. But, in the mainstream of church history, has the battle been about that? Has the great and ever-threatening danger from the time of Paul to Augustine to Calvin to the fathers of Dordt to today been that of hyper- Calvinism? Has the danger ever been that men, so to speak, make God too sovereign? Anyone who knows anything at all about the history of doctrine knows that the contrary is true: the battle has always been to leave God GOD, absolutely sovereign! 

In the third place, the corollary of Dunkerley’s position would seem obvious: to do evangelism one must make God a little less sovereign. To mention this to a Reformed man is to condemn it. 

But, you see, this is Semi-Arminianism. And when something is “semi-“, it is always more deceptive. The reason is that one never knows what one really has in such an inconsistent mixture. 

This reminds me of a little ditty I remember from my childhood, one line of which ran: “Half swan, half goose; Alexander was a swoose.” 

Thus it is with Semi-Arminianism. Is it Calvinism? Is it Arminianism? 

Or is it Calminianism? 

Or is it Malcinianism? 

It all depends which faces you look at! 

But they give a Reformed man nightmares!