The Bane of Neo-Gnostic Calvinism
Written by: Greg Fields
Who among us who have been illuminated by the Spirit of God to heartily embrace that exalted system of Pauline Theology commonly called “Calvinism” can forget the sublime joy experienced when these verities became manifest in our believing heart? For many of us grasping these truths or better, being gripped by these truths, was the real “second blessing” in our Christian pilgrimage. For me personally, sovereign grace teaching revivified my entire demeanor as a saint and delivered me from the morbid introspection engendered by Arminian, fundamentalist pietism. I have a passionate commitment to Calvinistic soteriology and am quite emphatic in my apologia for these truths that so exalt and glorify the grandeur of the Sovereign Triune Lord. Thus, it is with both sadness and reticence that I issue this urgent caveat regarding an extreme chimerical form of Calvinism that is spreading great mischief among the elect of God and dear souls seeking spiritual solace.
I have subsumed this subtle heresy under the rubric neo-gnostic Calvinism because the main tenets of this aberration of Calvinism involve primarily a comprehensive cognitive system of knowledge (gnosis) that must be firmly grasped and indoctrinated into before the professing Calvinist or seeking Arminian is truly considered “saved” by these ersatz-Calvinist “teachers”. The subtlety involved in this neo-gnostic Calvinistic soteriology is that they vigorously promote truths that any committed believer would commend. For example, they incessantly exhort all to focus on Christ’s imputation of Righteousness as being indispensable to one’s salvation. Of course this is true and this needs to be emphatically declared in our presentation of the gospel. Particular Redemption is stressed with great vigor. Again, a hearty amen to the vital importance of this great doctrine is in order. They clearly enumerate the “five points” with undiminished zeal. Again, I concur and wish we all would stress these great doctrines with the zeal demonstrated by these men.
If this was the focus and crux of what these men taught, I would be promoting their writings and encouraging all interested Calvinists to bookmark their websites and to participate in their e-group discussions. But, alas, these glorious doctrines are merely the frosting on the cake of their real agenda. After elucidating these verities they then go on to add to these truths a dogmatic unsubstantiated requirement for salvation that in effect nullifies all the peace and joy that should attend sovereign grace. They assert with bellicose intensity that unequivocally, all Arminians are lost because “Arminianism is a false gospel” and under the anathema of Gal. 1:8-9. They set the stage for this “leap of logic”, by describing the five points of Arminianism and showing how incompatible Arminianism is with the gospel of grace. Again, any thoroughgoing evaluation of Arminianism would demonstrate this to be true but they then use this evaluation to assert that all who have never yet grasped the doctrines of grace to be by default, Arminians, thereby validating their “lostness”. The insidious nature of their neo-gnosticism becomes manifestly transparent here. The major tenet of gnosticism was the acquisition of knowledge to achieve, N. B., salvation. Similarly they make the precise apprehension of soteriological doctrine the sine qua non of salvation. By utilizing a patina of superspirituality, they create a psychological ambiance that can easily intimidate a young believer who may be new to Calvinism or a seeking Arminian (although most folk, if we are honest are utterly oblivious to this historical-theological debacle) to capitulate to this cold, unrelenting dogmatism, creating a vituperative unloving demeanor and ironically robbing them of the comfort and joy these glorious doctrines should inculcate in their hearts. This, to my mind, is the most utterly insidious forms of “works-righteousness” that I have ever encountered. By cleverly demanding that for one to truly be saved they must achieve a solid understanding of Calvinistic soteriology is to “make the cross of Christ of none effect”. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling” as Toplady’s exquisitely penned words succinctly state is the essence of the gospel offer. To make mere cognition the predicate of entrance into the kingdom of God’s dear son is to despise God’s sovereignty, Christ’s finished work on the cross, and the blessed Holy Spirit’s sovereign application of the redemption accomplished to “the apple of his eye”, his beloved elect. It is vital beloved to discern the subtlety of their enticing words of wisdom. It is Christ who saves through faith, not our soteriological knowledge.
To further exacerbate their dissimulation, they dare to go even further. They dogmatically and shockingly assert that any professing Calvinist that does not concur with their Calvinistic neo-gnostic pretensions and believes that Arminians can be saved has “spoke peace to Arminians” thereby abrogating their own salvation. As one gleans their writings on this matter, one amazingly discovers that according to this chimerical premise, the most eminent saints in church history are apparently “lost”! A. A. Hodge, Spurgeon, D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, Gordon Clark, Van Till ad infinitum, ad nauseum, are consigned to God’s wrath by the unmitigated temerity of these neo-gnostics. These men simply did not “measure up” to their conceptualization of what constitutes “the doctrines of grace” and furthermore, they had the audacity to be gentle and forbearing and tenderhearted (they even dared to offer them Christian equanimity) to those of non-reformed persuasion. The tragic, belligerent absurdity promoted by these neo-gnostics should be evident to the discerning saint. Again, this is why it is vital to “study to show thyself approved, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” to counter this ancient heresy in new garb. The emperor still has no clothes as gnosticism, Satan’s grand masquerade, nefariously continues to attempt to vex and thwart God’s saints in their earthly pilgrimage. It is admittedly difficult and requires God-given wisdom to sound forth these wonderfully God-centered, Christ-exalting truths in a bold yet loving manner that will in God’s providence engender interest in Calvinism while giving glory to our Sovereignly Majestic Thrice-Holy Lord. Worshipping our Majestic Lord in spirit and in truth is true Calvinism. May our Lord illuminate our hearts to this glorious truth thereby granting us the Spirit-wrought discernment to live righteously, soberly and godly in this present evil age and to keep us from the evil one’s subtleties, such as neo-gnosticist “Calvinism”.
Further Reflections On Neo-Gnostic Calvinism
Recent dialogue regarding the excesses of a certain group (s) of “Calvinist” zealots has prompted me to write this brief follow up to my essay The Bane Of Neo-gnostic Calvinism, that was disseminated via email and posted on a few websites. It is not my intention to exacerbate but to D. V. , illuminate the discourse regarding the neo-gnostic propensities of these sincere but heretical folk. I write this out of concern for those, who not yet grounded in the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), may become ensnared by the subtle, specious “logic” of the neo-gnostic “Calvinists”. The reason I persist in putting Calvinism in quotes when applied to the zealots, is because their “Calvinism” , when closely scrutinized, is a radical departure from historical biblical Calvinism. Calvinism, in the excellent words of Basil Manly, an eminent 19th century Southern Baptist theologian is “that exalted system of Pauline theology commonly called Calvinism”. It is indeed a thoroughgoing God-centered system of biblical/systematic/historical theology that displays the Majesty of the Triune Sovereign Lord, unfettered by the dictates of carnal human reason. It is ipso facto antithetical to the aspirations of the natural man who under the adamic curse would “be as gods”. This natural aspiration of the fallen intellect is, in point of fact, one of the major tenets of gnosticism.
The focus of gnostic redemption is not on God, but ultimately upon the individual’s self-understanding and the resulting freedom it provides. This accords accurately with the pretensions of the neo-gnostic Calvinists who a priori demand a comprehensively cognitive grasp of Calvinistic soteriology in order for potential converts to be saved. This cognitive grasp fails to take into account what is theologically dubbed “the noeticeffects of sin”. Simply stated, this means our minds are so affected by our native depravity that prior to regeneration, we are unable to spiritually apprehend any of God’s thoughts revealed in His word. (1 Cor. 2:14, Eph. 4:18, e. g. ) The “continental divide” between Arminian and Calvinistic soteriology is that in Calvinism, regeneration precedes faith. We must be born again to see the kingdom of God. It is quite possible for the unregenerate to give merely notional (“bare assent”) to Scripture, deceiving themselves into thinking what the Puritan divines called “fancy” is true faith. The eminent Puritan, Thomas Watson , wrote in regard to this: Some bless themselves that they have a stock of knowledge, but what is knowledge good for without repentance? It is better to mortify one sin than to understand all mysteries. Impure speculatists do but resemble Satan transformed into an angel of light. Learning and a bad heart is like a fair face with a cancer in the breast. Knowledge without repentance will be but a torch to light men to hell (Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance (Edinburgh: Banner, 1987), pp. 12-13, 59, 77). The neo-gnostic Calvinists in a similar vein exalt the bare mental assent to the doctrines of grace as being the sine qua non of entrance into the “kingdom of God’s dear Son”. The late Professor John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary has a most felicitous comment to refute this: “Saving faith is not simply assent to propositions of truth respecting Christ, and defining the person that he is, nor simply assent to a proposition respecting his sufficiency to meet and satisfy our deepest needs. Faith must rise to trust, and trust that consists in entrustment to him. In faith there is the engagement of person to person in the inner movement of the whole man to receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation. It means the abandonment of confidence in our own or any human resources in a totality act of self-commitment to Christ.
This fiducial character, consisting in entrustment to Christ for salvation, serves to correct misapprehensions. Faith is not belief that we have been saved, nor belief that Christ has saved us, nor even belief that Christ died for us. It is necessary to appreciate the point of distinction. Faith is in its essence commitment to Christ that we may be saved. The premise of that commitment is that we are unsaved and we believe on Christ in order that we may be saved. . . It is to lost sinners that Christ is offered, and the demand of that overture is simply and solely that we commit ourselves to him in order that we may be saved.
Faith is a whole-souled movement of intelligent, consenting, and confiding self-commitment, and all these elements or ingredients coalesce to make faith what it is. Intellect, feeling and will converge upon Christ in those exercises which belong properly to these distinct though inseparable aspects of psychial activity” (Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner, 1977), Volume 2, pp. 257-260).
It is utterly amazing and soul-vexing to see how folk who discover the wonderful doctrines of grace via excellent Christian literature like A. W. Pink’s The Sovereignty of God or Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination or the books of R. C. Sproul, Michael Horton, James Boice, et. al. , can so easily become infatuated with their own learning and misconstrue that learning (as vital as solid theological understanding is! ) as the alpha and omega of their relationship with Christ. He is the Alpha and the Omega. “Of Him, to Him, and through Him are all things,” not whether or not we have things right in our minds. Knowledge is indeed vital, brethren. Let us never discount this. Anti-intellectualism is indeed one of the terrible legacies of American fundamentalism, primarily derived from Arminian presuppositions. But, alas, new converts to Calvinism can so easily be seduced by their own incredible arrogance and so overemphasize one aspect of Calvinist soteriology, that they become blinded to other important areas of biblical revelation and lose all sense of proportion in their thinking. The neo-gnostic spirit is spawned by spiritual pride. The whole counsel of God, contained in Holy Writ, must be assiduously studied and obeyed (!) in the power of the Holy Spirit with a contrite heart to arrest this nefarious impulse before it takes root in the heart.
It is my earnest plea to all who read this, whether seasoned saints or new converts, to take heed to the admonition of the great apostle Paul (whose great epistles contain the richest truths of sovereign grace): “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in Him: rooted and built up in Him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving. Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in Him, which is the Head of all principality and power. ” (Colossians 2:6-10)
True Calvinism versus Neo-gnostic “Calvinism”: The importance of comprehensively studying Calvinism, biblically, systematically, and historically to preserve true
orthodoxy and to protect the church and individual believer from neo-gnostic sectarianism
As I have further reflected on the bane of neo-gnostic “calvinism” and its concomitant sectarianism, there is a vital issue to address. When understandably recoiling from the baneful theological pontificating of the neo-gnostics, we need to stress that there is an urgent need in the present theological malaise of modern evangelicalism to comprehensively study and teach the salient features of Calvinism biblically, systematically, and historically. Many of the “grass roots” Sovereign Grace fellowshipsemerging from this malaise have seriously truncated the sweeping grandeur of God’s Redemptive Plan by focusing almost exclusively on the “Five Points Of Calvinism”. This emphasis can very quickly lead to incredible arrogance. Each fresh discovery of Sovereign Grace (as exhilarating as this is!) can easily obviate other equally vital truths, such as “pursuing holiness in the Fear of God”, “mortifying our members which are upon the earth”, “Setting our minds on things above”, and many other exhortations to greater conformity to Christ. The primary impetus of our professed Calvinism in the evocative words of the Puritan Robert Bolton is that ” (by) a sincere endeavor, punctually and precisely, to manage, conduct, and dispose all our thoughts, words, and deeds, all our behavior and conversation, in reverence and fear, with humility and singleness of heart, as in the sight of an invisible GOD, under the perpetual presence of His all-seeing, glorious, pure eye, and by a comfortable consequence, to enjoy, by the assistance and exercise of faith, an unutterable sweet communion and humble familiarity with His Holy Majesty; in a word, to live in heaven upon earth”. This attitude is as far as the east is from the west from the theological hubris of many believers indoctrinated in these nascent fellowships. As John Armstrong has keenly observed :”And if these same individuals read several books and study a bit further they will often be filled with incredible arrogance regarding what they have now learned. It has always amazed me that men who insist the knowledge of the truth is given by a gracious God act as if they somehow had so much to do with getting things right in their minds. In contrast to the above approach, truly sound learning will always humble us and make us aware of how much we still do not know!”(VIEWPOINT July-September 1998, pg. 3, emphasis added) .
“We believe that it is impossible to bring out accurately, fully, and definitely, the sum and substance of what is taught in Scripture concerning the place which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost hold in the salvation of sinners, without taking up Calvinistic ground, without being in a manner, necessitated to assert the fundamental principles of the Calvinistic system of theology. ” (William Cunningham) These stirring words should constrain us to thoroughly study under the illumination of the Holy Spirit these “fundamental principles”, to “gird up the loins of our minds”, to think clearly and objectively, having our knowledge formed by grace. This is no small task. It requires diligence, longsuffering, and a humble teachable spirit. Amid the bewildering welter of ephemeral ideologies that we will inevitably confront in this pursuit of learning true Calvinism, we need to meditate upon the memorable words of Thomas Goodwin: “God is the most glorious object that our minds could ever fasten upon, the most alluring. Thoughts of Him should therefore swallow up all other thoughts. . . . “. “But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth Me, that I am the Lord. . . . . . ” (Jer. 9:24a) .
As Charnock observed, “a man may be theologically knowing but spiritually ignorant”. A thoroughgoing Scriptural knowledge of Biblical soteriology is only truly engendered by a fervent love for “The Lord Christ” (as Owen affectionately and reverently addressed our Regal Lord and Saviour) . The proper attitude of a Calvinist imbued with this fervent love for our Lord, and possessing a comprehensive knowledge of Biblical, Systematic, and Historical Calvinism, was wonderfully exemplified by a stalwart of the nineteenth century, Mr. Alexander Carson. His remarks form a fitting conclusion to this essay: ” If there is a progress in the Christian’s knowledge of the Gospel itself, every step in that progress, he must get rid of a proportional degree of ignorance and error. This proves, then , that perfect uniformity of view, much less of language, even with respect to the gospel itself; is not to be expected among Christians. According to their respective progress, there will be a difference, whether expressed or not. As far as Christians are taught of God they will agree. But even in the Gospel they are not all equally taught of God. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Nothing, then, is farther from my wish then to be understood as dooming to damnation all who are not prepared to adopt the whole of my views. . . . . . . . . . . that arrogance that makes a god and saviour of its clear views, that confines salvation to a mode of expressing faith, that looks with contempt on the body of Christians, as a sort of pious infidels, that seems to delight in the fewness of the saved, finds no sanction from the Scriptures, and originates in the pride of human nature, not in godly zeal for the truth. When a man seems anxious to find out something in the faith of professing Christians at which to cavil, when he strains their language to condemn them, there is no ground to suppose that he is influenced by love. Keeping clear, therefore, of a censorious spirit, I would wish to impress Christians with the importance of my views of the subject. They have no sectarian tendency, but address themselves to the candor. . . . . of all Christians. The strength, the beauty, the glory of Christianity will appear in proportion as it is viewed in this light. ” (My emphasis)
“To Humble Ourselves Under The Mighty Hand of God”: John Owen Our Guide:
The Proper Attitude of The Calvinist
This essay is an attempt, using the great Puritan theologian John Owen as a guide, to present what I have observed to be sadly lacking from professing calvinists in this so called post-modern era of church history. What is urgently needed among brethern who have been gripped by grace, who have (at least) intellectually embraced Reformed theology and Calvinistic soteriology, is a Spirit-Wrought, God-centered, Scripturally grounded, and Theologically articulate apprehension of the Fear of God. After writing two previous essays of a polemical nature against the egregious arrogance of some professing “calvinists”, I have earnestly desired to write a third essay that would didactically promulgate the essence of authentic Biblical Calvinism. Recently, I have been reading and meditating upon two striking passages from Owen’s magisterial seven volume An Exposition of the Epistle to The Hebrews that majestically encapsulate this essence. I will defer to that “mighty Apollo among the Puritans” as commentary on this vital matter. I will use ellipses to endeavor to capture the kernel of Owen’s exposition. The passages are contained in Volume III of The Banner of Truth Trust Edition of 1991. It is my earnest prayer that these sublime words will humble your heart, illumine your mind, and ignite your will to live Soli Deo Gloria. To wit:
“First, let us exercise ourselves unto holy thoughts of God’s infinite excellencies. Meditation, accompanied with holy admiration is the fountain of this duty. Some men have over busily and curiously inquired into the nature and properties of God, and have foolishly endeavoured to measure infinite things by the miserable short line of their own reason, and to suit the deep things of God unto their own narrow apprehensions. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Our duty lies in what God hath revealed of Himself in His Word. . . . . . . . . . with holy admiration, reverence, and fear. . . . . . . . . . . . . Heb. xii. 28, 29. In this way serious thoughts of God’s excellencies and properties, His greatness, immensity, self-sufficiency, power, and wisdom, are exceedingly useful unto our souls. When these have filled us with wonder, when they have prostrated our spirits before Him, and laid our mouths in the dust and our persons on the ground, and when the glory of them shines round about us, and our whole souls are filled with astonishment, then, – Secondly, let us take a view of ourselves, our extract, our fraility, our vileness on every account. How poor, how undeserving are we!What a little sinful dust and ashes, before or in the sight of this God of Glory?What is there in us, what is there belonging unto us, that is not suited to abase us;-alive one day, dead another;quiet one moment, troubled another;fearing caring, rejoicing causelessly, sinning always;in our best condition “altogether vanity?”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . in ourselves we are inexpressibly miserable, and, . . . . . . . . . . . . . “less than vanity and nothing. “. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Thirdly, let the result of these thoughts be a holy admiration of God’s infinite love, care, grace, and condescension, in having any regard unto us. . . . . . . . . Hence will praise, hence will thankfulness, hence will self-abasement ensue. ” (pages 352-353, emphasis added)
“Now, . . . . . . . . . . . . . , we may learn, -. . . to admire the riches of the grace of God, which hath provided so great salvation for poor sinners. . . . . . . . . Nothing could be abated without our eternal ruin. But when divine wisdom, goodness, love, grace, and mercy, shall set themselves at work, what will they not accomplish?. . . . . . . . . . . . In this will God be glorified and amired unto all eternity. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The eternal counsel of God, the person of Christ, His mediation and grace, the promises of the gospel, the evil and wrath we are freed from, the glory and redemption purchased for us, the privileges we are admitted unto a participation of, the consolations and joys of the Spirit, the communion with God that we are called unto, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Here lies our treasure, here lies our inheritance;. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Were our minds fixed on these things as they ought, how would the glory of them cast out our cares, subdue our fears, sweeten our afflictions and persecutions, and take off our affections from the fading, perishing things of this world, and make us in every condition rejoice in hope of the glory that shall be revealed!” (page 313, emphasis added)