Hypercalvinism arose out of Protestant Scholastic categories and exegetical conclusions. Stated another way, hypercalvinism could not have arisen directly out of the pre-Protestant Scholastic categories or theologies of such men as Bullinger, Calvin, Zwingli, or Luther.
The very categories and exegetical turns developed in 17th century Protestant Scholastics, even from the early half of that century, were the building blocks for later Husseyite and Gillite hypercalvinism. And as much as Gill grounded his theology in the categories of Owen, others, such as Toplady in the 18th century, based many of their exegetical conclusions in Gill’s exegesis. Specifically, I argue that the exegetical categories which underlie Gill’s exegesis are to be sourced and were derived from theologians such as John Owen himself.
Below is a specimen example of my argument. Included are some excerpts John Gill, the “head of hypercalvinism” as Spurgeon described him. These comments will demonstrate how Gill “explains” the various Ezekiel passages where God declares that he wills not the death of the sinner. After this, Owen is quoted for the purpose of comparison.
Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God; and not that he should return from his ways and live? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dies; wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye;" (Ezekiel 18:13.) all which cannot be said of an eternal death; dying in his iniquity, is the same with dying for his iniquity, as it is rendered in verse 26, and designs some severe temporal calamity or affliction; which is often in Scripture called a death, Exodus 10:17, 2 Corinthians 1:10, and 2 Corinthians 11:23; such as captivity, in which the Jews then were, of which they were complaining, what was owing to their sins, and from which they were capable of being recovered. “This answer, it is said, contradicts the express words of the prophet about twenty times;” though not one single instance of it is given. Gill, Cause of God and Truth, Eze 18:24.1
That these exhortations are not made to all men, but only to the house of Israel; and therefore do not contradict the preparation of saving grace for some few only, as the Israelites were. . . . The repentance here exhorted to, is not to be understood of an evangelical one, which is a repentance unto life, and unto salvation; but of a national one, for national iniquities, and to prevent national judgments, with which they are here threatened; seeing it is the whole house of Israel, the whole nation, and every one of them, who are exhorted unto it…. The ruin the house of Israel was in danger of through iniquity, and which they might escape by repentance and reformation, was not eternal but temporal; so iniquity shall not be your ruin,… This sense of the words may be confirmed from the advantages proposed to such who turned from their sins and transgressions, verses 27, 28, as that such an one should save his soul alive; not with an everlasting salvation, for no man can save his soul alive in that sense; but with a temporal one, as did the Ninevites, by their repentance and reformation: it is also said, that he shall surely live, not a spiritual and eternal life; for he is said (Ezekiel 33:19.) to live by his doing that which is lawful and right; whereas, no man can live spiritually and eternally by so doing; but it intends a civil life, in the comfortable enjoyment of outward mercies. It is moreover added, he shall not die, which is to be understood not of an eternal death, but of a temporal one, or of a death of afflictions, as has been observed under the preceding section. Gill, Cause of God and Truth, Eze 18:30.
[R]epent, and turn [yourselves] from all your transgressions;" this is to be understood of a national repentance for national sins, to prevent national judgments, being an address to the whole house of Israel; and not of evangelical repentance, which is the gift of God, and of an external reformation, as the fruit of it; and not of the first work of internal conversion, which is by the powerful and efficacious grace of God; though, were both exhorted to, it would not prove that these are in the power of men, only show the want and necessity of them, and so be the means of God’s bringing his chosen people to them. The phrase, “yourselves”, is not in the original; both words used signify “to turn”; and may be rendered and explained thus, “turn” yourselves, and “cause [others] to turn”; let every man turn himself from his evil courses, and do all he can to turn his brother, or his neighbor, from the same; so Jarchi, Kimchi, and Ben Melech interpret them. The Targum is, “turn you to my worship, and remove from you the worship of idols:” Gill, Commentary Eze 18:26.
[F]or why will ye die, O house of Israel?" which is to be understood, not of an eternal death; since the deaths here spoken of was now upon them, what they were complaining of, and from which they might be recovered, (Ezekiel 18:22,23); but temporal calamity and affliction, as in (2 Corinthians 1:10 11:23); and so in the following words. Gill, Commentary Eze 18:31.
For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, &c.] Which is not to be interpreted simply and absolutely, and with respect to all persons afflicted and punished by him; for he does take delight in the exercise of “judgment” and “righteousness”, and “laughs” at the “calamity” of wicked men, (Jeremiah 9:24 Proverbs 1:26); but comparatively, as in (Hosea 5:6). The sense is, that he takes no pleasure in the afflictions, calamities, and captivity of men, which are meant by death here; but rather that they would repent and reform, and live in their own land, and enjoy the good things of it; which shows the mercy and compassion of God to sinners. Gill, Commentary Eze 18:32.
For Gill, then, these exhortations are to be restricted:
1) To the House of Israel.
2) The judgements refer to temporal judgements only.
3) Gill also adds the idea of external and national repentance as opposed to internal and evangelical repentance.
Now to turn to John Owen:
Proof 5. “God hath testified, both by his word and his oath, that he would that his Son should so far save as to work a redemption for all men, and likewise that he should bring all to the knowledge of the truth, that there-through redemption might be wrought in and upon them, 1 Timothy 2:4, with John 3:17. So he wills not, nor has any pleasure in, the death of him (even the wicked) that dies, but rather that he turn and live, Ezekiel 18:23,32, 33:11. And dare any of us say, the God of truth saith and swears that of which he hath no inward and serious meaning? O far be such blasphemy from us!”. . . Fourthly, To those are added that of Ezekiel 18:23, that God hath no “pleasure at all that the wicked should die;” and, verse 32, “no pleasure in the death of him that dies.” Now, though these texts are exceeding useless to the business in hand, and might probably have some color of universal vocation, but none possibly of universal redemption, there being no mention of Christ or his death in the place from whence they are cited; yet because our adversaries are frequently knitting knots from this place to inveigle and hamper the simple, I shall add some few observations upon it to clear the meaning of the text, and demonstrate how it belongs nothing at all to the business in hand. First, then, let us consider to whom and of whom these words are spoken. Is it to and of all men, or only to the house of Israel? Doubtless these last; they are only intended, they only are spoken to: “Hear now, O house of Israel,” verse 25. Now, will it follow that because God says he delights not in the death of the house of Israel, to whom he revealed his mind, and required their repentance and conversion, that therefore he says so of all, even those to whom he never revealed his will by such ways as to them, nor called to repentance, Psalm 147:19,20? So that the very ground-work of the whole conclusion is removed by this first observation. Secondly, “God wills not the death of a sinner,” is either, “God purposes and determines he shall not die,” or, “God commands that he shall do those things wherein he may live.” If the first, why are they not all saved? why do sinners die? for there is an immutability in the counsel of God, Hebrews 6:17; “His counsel shall stand, and he will do all his pleasure,” Isaiah 46:10. If the latter way, by commanding, then the sense is, that the Lord commands that those whom he calls should do their duty, that they may not die (although he knows that this they cannot do without his assistance); now, what this makes to general redemption, I know not. Thirdly, To add no more, this whole place, with the scope, aim, and intention of the prophet in it, is miserably mistaken by our adversaries, and wrested to that whereof there is not the least thought in the text. The words are a part of the answer which the Lord gives to the repining Jews, concerning their proverb, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Now, about what did they use this proverb? Why, “concerning the land of Israel,” verse 2, the land of their habitation, which was laid waste by the sword (as they affirmed) for the sins of their fathers, themselves being innocent. So that it is about God’s temporal judgments in overturning their land and nation that this dispute is; wherein the Lord justifies himself by declaring the equity of these judgments by reason of their sins, even those sins for which the land devoured them and spewed them out; telling them that his justice is, that for such things they should surely die, their blood should be upon them, verse 13,—they shall be slain with the sword, and cut off by those judgements which they had deserved: not that the shedding of their blood and casting out of their carcasses was a thing in itself so pleasurable or desirable to him as that he did it only for his own will, for let them leave their abominations, and try whether their lives were not prolonged in peace. This being the plain, genuine scope and meaning of this place, at the first view presenting itself to every unprejudiced man, I have often admired how so many strange conclusions for a general purpose of showing mercy to all, universal vocation and redemption, have been wrested from it; as also, how it came to be produced to give color to that heap of blasphemy which our author calls his fifth proof. Owen, Works 10:386-387.
Ken Stebbins nails the problem here when he says, “In expounding the Ezekiel passages, however, aberrations show up in Owen’s exposition–and these surely, are the result of the complete dichotomy he maintains between the revealed and secret will.”2
This strict dichotomy between the secret and revealed will of God is the cornerstone of all hypercalvinist categories and thoroughly shapes the contours of their theology. Unfortunately, this dichotomy is grounded in 17th century Protestant Scholastic theology and exegesis, specifically the theology of John Owen.
There is this implicit, sometimes explicit, assumption that everything Owen said in Death of Death is irrefutable. Sadly, Packer started us down that road. Unfortunately, such thinking has tacitly led to the assumption that we cannot critique our own tradition. However, we have to be able to get to the point where, even as we stand within our respective traditions, we can honestly and impartially critique it where necessary. And so, back to Owen, what he says here is distorted exegesis. And in so distorting the texts, he laid down the exegetical and theological foundation for theologians like Gill and the tragic theology of hypercalvinism. Gill was heavily influenced by Owen and by others such as Witsius. What Gill does is just logically extend the conceptual trajectory of “duty” laid out by Owen himself. If the judgement is temporal, how far is the next step to then assert that the repentance and heart-change, must be temporal also?
What is more, what Owen says here is a departure from Calvin and the first and second generation Reformed exegetes. Calvin is by far more generous and open in his exegesis of these passages. But here is the good news. Men like Turretin did not pick up Owen’s distorted reading (see Institutes 1:389, 408). Even though Turretin’s analysis is still quite sterile as compared to Calvin’s, Turretin did not try to restrict the import of these wonderful statements in Ezekiel regarding God’s character. And Ironically, Owen, himself, could not live by his own exegetical strictures. Later in his life, he would use these verses in his exhortations to believers in his preaching, thereby extending the import of these verses beyond the physical borders and people of Israel (see Works 9:41ff).
The lesson is, Death of Death was Owen’s second published work after Display of Arminianism. And in some respects, Death of Death does not reflect even Owen’s later more mature conclusions. But unfortunately, and almost blindly, the theology of Death of Death is just assumed to be normative for all today. There is a certain blindness to the fact that the man over-reached and over-stated certain key exegetical and theological points in his over-reaction to specific theological developments of his day. We should step back from the idolizing tendencies and seek to be more self-aware of the fact that these men were, just like us, shaped by a culture of their times, and, just like us, went through a maturation process.
Further, and importantly, it becomes clear that as one begins to undercut Owen’s critical exegetical claims, his overall theological assumptions about the nature of God and the person and work of Christ begin to unravel.
And so happily it is not the case that my hope is built on Owen’s reason and Death of Death
[Note: This updated and modified essay was originally posted on the now defunct Theologyonline.org site.]
1For all quotations, some spelling modernized and underlining mine.
2Ken W. Stebbins, Christ Freely Offered (Strathpine North, Australia: Covenanter Press, 1978), 28. It beyond the scope of this short essay to explore Stebbin’s point regarding he Protestant Scholastic dichotomy between the secret and revealed will.