(One’s level of piety, whether devotional or practical, depends much on knowledge being either learned or misconceived. In these analyses we have made mention, occasionally, of books that either help or hinder the grand object of piety. It seems natural, consequently, to supplement the analyses, now and again, with correlating book reports.)
GABOURY'S CRITICAL BOOK REPORT
Arthur W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God (1918;
Baker Books, 2009), 269 pp. Grand Rapids, Michigan
For the most part, churchgoers and even preachers preferred ‘light and spicy’ literature to treatises on doctrine in 1918 (first Foreword) when The Sovereignty of God was first published. Now, nearly a century later, doctrine is not just less preferred, but tailored to taste. One publisher has reissued this treatise in an abridged form. Those who dismiss this book by referring to it as ‘Hyper-Calvinism’ ‘will not be worthy of notice,’ says Pink (first Foreword.) But he would certainly take notice, if he were alive, of a publisher selling an abbreviated edition of his book. Why was the book shortened? Was it not done to rid the book of what the publisher thinks are ‘Hyper-Calvinist’ ideas? I had this shortened version once. Too bad I don’t still have it, for I’d like to see how cut down it really is. Some other reviewers have a better idea of what the guilty publisher has done. On behalf of A. W. Pink, I intend to take notice of this publisher by scolding him for a few lines. And I use the word ‘him,’ not ‘it,’ to identify the guilty party, for the foul work was done by a person, not just an impersonal publishing house. Only a full edition of this treatise should be made available to read. Baker Books is considerate and courageous to give us that, and self-effacing enough to let us decide for ourselves whether or not to read a whole book. To self-efface is more Christian than to deface your brother’s work. Defacing an author’s book is exactly what this other publisher has done. I hate even mentioning that publisher’s brand here because I’ve benefited so greatly from the books that are sold under its banner. Romans 11.22 insists that we behold both ‘the goodness and severity of God’ (p. 230.) Who is at fault, then? The author who would help us behold the fullness of God? Or a publisher who truncates the fullness of God that the author has labored to help us behold? Is the severity of God not a factor for a publisher to behold while he cuts certain parts and aspects out of an author’s work? A publisher like that ‘knows not what spirit he is of.’ For certain, he is, while acting thus, ‘as carnal.’ A doctrine that ‘is the centre of gravity in the system of Christian truth’ (p. 214) deserves a full exposition and a full hearing or reading. No one has been given the right from inspired revelation to prevent God from being known as fully as he has disclosed himself. If a publisher disagrees with how an author has made God known, or thinks the author has misrepresented God, that publisher should hire an author to compose anew rather than meddle with a man’s intellectual property! It may be that the parts that are cut out of said book will cry up to God from the cutting room floor to draw a curse down on that publisher. To mess with a man’s work is to violate the man. And when the work that is meddled with is about the character and will of God, then is God’s name not desecrated in the violation? Some publishers must have little idea of the momentous implications of what they so casually do.
Broadly speaking, the doctrine so carefully exposited by Mr. Pink is “the key to history, the interpreter of Providence, the warp and woof of Scripture, and the foundation of Christian theology” (p. 19.) More particularly, sovereignty means that it is God who determines the destinies of men (p. 20.) It means that God has the right to deliver or not to deliver, like when he allowed Stephen to be stoned but rescued Peter (p. 22.) His sovereignty is displayed in announcing the Messiah to lower class shepherds and to heathen people instead of to the scribes, the lawyers, and the Sanhedrin (p. 27.) Sovereignty means that God may even work to carry out his secret decrees through men like Judas (p. 41.) “If then the arch-rebel was performing the counsel of God is it any greater tax upon our faith to believe the same of all rebels?” (p. 42.) It is because of the sovereignty of God that Moses was prevented from entering Canaan for uttering a hasty word, while the murmuring Elijah suffered only ‘a mild rebuke’ and was taken up into heaven instead of being allowed to die as other men (p. 45.) Sovereignty is what limits the atonement to those chosen beforehand to salvation (p. 61.) Some names have not been written in the Book of Life (Revelation 13.8); this is proof that sovereignty has limited the number (p. 99.) To such generalizations and particulars, A. W. Pink adds periodic summaries of what Scripture teaches concerning election and reprobation (pp. 58, 100, 104, 125), which decrees fall out from God’s overarching sovereignty.
Arthur Pink is often tagged as a Hyper-Calvinist. Is that a fair description of the man? I wouldn’t be so sure. Does this treatise on sovereignty teach Hyper-Calvinism? Consider the main marks by which a Hyper-Calvinist may be identified. The first mark of Hyper-Calvinism is the assertion that the non-elect are not duty-bound, or responsible, to believe on Christ. No such mark can be found in the chapter called God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility, which is where it would be found if it existed. Though man lacks ability, yet he is accountable, teaches Pink (p. 154.) An irrevocably determined destiny relieves no one of responsibility (p. 162.) That sounds like an orthodox belief in responsibility to me. This chapter is the most poorly executed part of the book, but not because of any Hyper-Calvinist trend. The second mark by which Hyper-Calvinism may be identified is what naturally follows from the first: a curtailed form of evangelism. If certain sinners are not responsible, why bid them to believe or call them to repentance? Do you see the progression? But there is no sign of the second mark either. A. W. Pink is not for preaching to the elect alone. “Others [besides the elect] have the benefit of an external call” (p. 210.) These are his exact words. That perverted form of Calvinism which is designated by the prefix ‘hyper’ or ‘ultra’ and which may be identified by this mark cannot be found in this treatise, not even in the author’s notes on evangelism, which is where the second mark would be found if it existed (pp. 73, 141.) Arthur Pink believes that moral darkness will increase from his day until the end of the world (pp. 13, 14), that ‘guilty Christendom’ will be deluded and take part in it (p. 124), and that God is not seeking to convert the world, but only his chosen part of it (p. 237.) But none of this (and does it not all ring true?) is inconsistent with preaching the gospel to all. And none of it is inconsistent with believing that all sinners are responsible for a faith that they cannot produce and will never have except it be imparted by grace. But there is one more mark to inquire about. That God does not love the non-elect in any way, shape, or form is another Hyper-Calvinist mark. While Pink does clearly state (in the chapter called Difficulties and Objections) that God hates the non-elect and loves them not at all, he admits in chapter one (p. 25) that God is kind to those who are unthankful and evil, according to Luke 6.35. This kindness may be qualitatively different from the love that God has for his elect, but it is a kind of love, and therefore the man should not be accused of Hyper-Calvinism based on this point either. The mutant form of Calvinism, the perversion of the kind that is true and Scriptural, just doesn’t exist in this book. (And if not here, in this book on ‘Sovereignty,’ then probably not anywhere in this man’s writings.) The truth is, an author is usually labeled ‘hyper’ on no surer ground than that he teaches the doctrines of election and reprobation in all their concentrated strength. Both of these doctrines appear again and again from Scripture to Scripture, from one Testament to the Next, and from the Prophets to the Apostles, as the expositions that precede Pink’s many and useful summaries soundly prove. What is dismissed or shunned by those who scorn Pink is not eccentric Hyper-Calvinism, but the flowers of Calvinism that spring up from the root of Scripture. His tone is abrasive. But that is another matter. Might Calvinism be rejected by some on account of his tone?
No matter what its tone, this treatise on sovereignty will be rejected by any person who is determined to rest content with his present caricature of God. This obnoxious tone, though, is a needless, avoidable hindrance. It is impossible to ignore or not be aware of. I’m surprised that more reviewers don’t mention it. The tone, more than doctrinal content, is what repels more teachable readers, I think. At least once the attitude comes across in a funny, inoffensive way, as in the case where he shows that the lot is disposed, not by chance, but sovereignly. Two exclamations, not just one, follow upon the proof of that (p. 240.) Usually and regrettably, the attitude is offensive. From page 96: “Again; did Pharaoh fit himself for destruction, or did not God harden his heart before the plagues were sent upon
4:21!” People are already emotional and touchy about this subject. Teaching in
this manner will not go far toward winning them over. It hurts the cause of
truth more than it helps it. With Pink, the acerbic spirit is more pervasive
than isolated. It can be found with ease, twice just on one page, for example
(p. 104.) The biggest turnoff is when the attitude is found with error, as on
page 176: “We can only ask God for what
Christ would ask. To ask in the name of Christ, is therefore, to set aside our own wills, accepting
God’s!” (all emphasis his.) If we can ask God only for what Christ would ask,
as Pink teaches, then we can never ask God for grace to overcome a sin, can we?
I counted only one tender moment in this entire treatise, on page 49. The one
on page 191 doesn’t count, for what touches us there is the combined influence
of Madam Guyon’s poem and the vignette from her life. (I don’t approve nor
recommend her prayer methods.) It should not be a miserable experience to read
and learn about the wonderful decrees of God and the ultimate hinge of his
inscrutable will. This treatise full of beautiful truth is unpleasant to read.
And I say this even though I agree, in the main, with what the treatise
teaches. I believe in double predestination. I believe that God loves the elect
especially and in a higher sense. I believe that God hated Esau and that Pharaoh
was ordained to damnation to the glory of God’s justice. Why, then, do I take
issue? This book is not part of a debate about truth. Pink assures us of this
when he states, in that first Foreword,
that he is not ‘entering the lists’ with anyone. If the treatise were a debate, the attitude would be
more tolerable. But this is supposed to be an exposition. And if this were a debate, even then there would be
something wrong with the tone. There is just something so bitter about the
communication that it renders the work repugnant. I like hard-hitting books.
But this one has a thorn in its side, and without enough grace to bear it.
There is a ‘root of bitterness springing up’ in it (Hebrews 12.15), and the
work is defiled thereby.
Which begs me to line up some of Pink’s other faults. (1) I won’t make much of this first point, nor am I saying that I am right for sure. I put the point in only because the author I’m critiquing is so sure that he is right. The truth of the matter may not be as simple as he thinks. He teaches that Christ could have healed the ‘great multitude’ (p. 24) when he healed the man mentioned in John 5.3-9. Can we be certain of this assertion? We know from other verses that sometimes power was with Jesus to heal (Luke 5.17) and that sometimes ‘he did not many mighty works’ (Matthew 13.58.) Focus in on that verse from Luke particularly; it would be needless to say that power was with him to heal if that was the case always. This fine detail may yield our answer (in subordination to the fact that Sovereignty from Above had decided the matter) as to why only one man was ‘made whole’ at the pool where so many among the disabled were gathered in search of a miracle. Sometimes virtue went out from Jesus to heal even before he perceived it (Mark 5.30.) Why? Because Jesus was subject to his Father in heaven. Jesus was divine and had supernatural power in himself and from on high. I’m not denying any of that. But the works that he did were those which were given to him by his Father to do, and no more (John 5.36.) (2) On page 39 Pink speaks of the ferocious panther and the polar bear at Genesis 6.19, 20, which time was before the Flood, before animals had become wild, and before the extreme seasons were introduced. It was after the waters had receded and after the ark had settled that the seasons began and the beasts became wild (Genesis 8.22, 9.1.) I’m not making too much of this point either. But why not mention it since those verses are so suggestive? (3) The mere fact (is it even a fact?) that the word ‘heart’ occurs ‘three times oftener’ in the Bible than does the word ‘will’ furnishes no further proof that the heart is ‘the dominating center of our being’ (p. 133.) The heart may indeed be the center. But its frequency of mention could not prove the point any more than that sin, on the strength of being mentioned more, is greater than grace. This is a juvenile ‘proof.’ I am surprised to catch a great scholar making use of it. Suppose that the city of
Toronto were mentioned more than the city of Ottawa in a travel magazine about Canada. Would
that mean that Toronto
is the capital? No, and neither does Pink’s proof hold water. (4) His main
fault is supposing that he’s going to untie ‘the gordian knot of theology’—that
he will harmonize, more than others have been able to do, the Sovereignty of
God and Man’s Responsibility (p. 143, 144), which, unsurprisingly, he sorely
fails to do. The problem to solve is: “If man is incapable of measuring up to
God’s standard, wherein lies his responsibility?” (p. 160.) Nothing new
is discovered, and so nothing new is introduced, for a solution to this
dilemma. In fact, waters are muddied more than they are cleared up. If man were
to ask God sincerely from the heart
for mercy to overcome enmity, then God would respond, Pink tells us (p. 160.)
This solves nothing toward finding wherein lies man’s responsibility; in the
heat of the moment Pink forgets that man cannot ask sincerely from a heart that is spiritually
dead. A heart of stone cannot be sincere toward God. The unregenerate heart
is unable and insincere; man is
responsible to God to repent and believe, not because of an ability to be
sincere, but in spite of a mortal disability that includes the inability to
plead sincerely. In Pink’s own words from page 140: “Alas, what can lifeless man do, and man by nature is ‘dead
in trespasses and sins’ (Eph. 2:1)!” (all
emphasis his, especially the obligatory exclamation mark!) Pink is so sure
(‘too clever by half’) of his ability to probe into a matter that the best
theologians have been unable to fathom that he fails to notice the very
noticeable blemishes that he has let fall into his propositions. The position
of Spurgeon on this knot is better than tripping all over the place for a
solution. An approximation of that position is summarized for us near the top
of page 144: the Scriptures affirm both Sovereignty and Responsibility, two
truths that remain irreconcilable to finite man. It does no good to Pink’s
reputation that he puts forward this failed attempt to untie what the likes of
Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards were unable to unknot. Sovereignty lies behind
all of God’s decrees. Attitude lies behind many of Pink’s faults.
If the irritation caused by Pink’s raw attitude can be endured, there is much in this treatise that churches may be corrected on. That the love of God in Christ is limited in scope is widely shown to be the case from Scripture (pp. 200-203.) Its limitation is more than implied in well-known biblical sayings that are commonly read without attention. Hebrews 12.6: “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth” (p. 202.) What can this imply but that some receive no chastening love? Many more verses are offered in proof of this uncomfortable fact. But I give just a taste of how easy the point is to prove. It should be apparent that a false interpretation of God’s love is dangerous in the extreme when linked up with inadequate views of depravity and regeneration (pp. 114, 140, 141.) If God’s love is taken for granted by the depraved sinner who is told that he needs only to come forward, join a church, and sign a decision card, then his desperate plight is not conveyed, and the evangelist may get for his lack of trouble, not a sinner transformed by grace, but a falsely assured sinner on the road to self-reform, and still on the broad way leading to hell. The sinner must be told that in the matter of salvation it is not true that God helps those who help themselves. “God helps those who are unable to help themselves” (p. 218.) Total depravity requires regeneration for its fix; evangelical reformation follows regeneration, and some natural kind of reformation may be mistaken for the supernatural, regenerative act.
But I must return, before I close, to the subject of the spirit in which this treatise is written. The matter is so important that it must be the main thing and the last thing left ringing in the mind of the person who reads this report. I do not doubt, based on the good content in this treatise and an allusion that is made on page 230, that A. W. Pink subscribed, at least substantially, to the Westminster Confession of Faith, including the chapter Of God’s Eternal Decree (p. 84) which was drawn up by the Puritans to whom this author owed so much of his understanding. In that chapter, directed to ministers especially, if not exclusively, are these words of warning: “The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care….” The Puritan Assembly agreed to include this last clause in the interest of those who ought to ‘be assured of their eternal election’ through the teaching of this ‘high mystery.’ Surely this ‘special prudence and care’ must include a spirit befitting the conveyance of the ‘high mystery.’ Surely a sour spirit is the wrong spirit to imbue in the work. A sour spirit must be a wicked sister at least, to the careless and imprudent spirit that the Assembly forbade. A sour spirit is not fit to handle Imperial Truth, is it? If some Christians are assured of their eternal election by this treatise, this is good, and I am glad. But the reader of The Sovereignty of God is apt, I think, to carry away with him darker notions of God than can be justified from Scripture. And this unfortunate baggage is due, not to the doctrine of sovereignty exposited by the author, but to the Uzzah-like hand that reaches into the work. John Bunyan, in handling the most disagreeable subtext of all respecting the sovereignty of God: the reprobation of the non-elect, never betrays an embittered spirit, as firm and steadfast as he is throughout, and notwithstanding the irritating assaults on the doctrines of grace that might have flustered the man. His Reprobation Asserted is a far safer place to turn for lessons on sovereignty than The Sovereignty of God. And what James White has to say in Debating Calvinism contains many of the same repairs for false notions of verses connected to sovereignty that Pink’s treatise does, and they are communicated less offensively, even though the book containing them is polemical. The Force of Truth by Thomas Scott and Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism by Iain Murray are better depots to inquire at for the same reasons.
Let’s go on to dissect this rude tone some more. Let’s get into the very guts of this issue. I counted 194 exclamation marks in this treatise. They appear after each Roman Catholic anathema is quoted (p. 139.) They frequently appear after Scripture verses are quoted (pp. 85, 87, 104, 127, 142, etc.) To sum up, you might find one of these marks virtually anywhere. I would not edit even one of them out, though, out of respect for what a writer has written. Let’s just take Pink as he presents himself in his writings. And let the man be subjected to accurate criticism. He unwittingly invites criticism in one of his vituperative remarks: “True liberty is not the power to live as we please, but to live as we ought!” (all emphasis his, p. 149.) Did the author of this admonishment, during the composition of this treatise, live as he ‘ought’ to have lived? In spite of the ubiquity of his glaring anger (not just righteous indignation, but biting rage), he would have readers believe that he is not ‘entering the lists’ with anyone. He is totally entering the lists here; he enters the arena of combat from the get-go and he stays in it the whole way through! In case I have not sufficiently communicated the offensiveness of Pink’s tone earlier, take a look at this from page 255: “The vessels of wrath He endures ‘with much long-suffering’ (see Rom. 9:22). But ‘His own’ God ‘loves’!!” (all emphasis his.) Now take a look at a passage on the same subject by R. M. M’Cheyne: “Ah, brethren! I believe each of you will yet be a beacon or a monument—either a beacon of wrath or a monument of mercy” (Sermons, p. 186.) Do you feel the difference between these two passages? The first one (Pink’s) communicates no love, though the word ‘love’ is used with emphasis. The second one (M’Cheyne’s) communicates love even while warning sinners.
And now I am going to qualify the statement I made earlier about Pink not being a Hyper-Calvinist. Technically, he may be innocent of the charge, for he admits that God is kind to unthankful, evil persons, which is an admission that God has a sort of love for the non-elect. But he admits this divine kindness in such a grudging spirit, and so lightly and infrequently (probably just once) that I would not begrudge anyone calling the man a Hyper-Calvinist practically in this one book. On the subject of God’s love, A. W. Pink is not as well read as he thinks he is, and not as much in the tradition of his theological heroes as he asserts. He says the following on page 200: “That God loves everybody, is, we may say, quite a modern belief. The writings of the church-fathers, the Reformers or the Puritans will (we believe) be searched in vain for any such concept.” It did not take me more than the turning of a few pages in just one book to prove Pink wrong: “God hath universal love, and particular love; general love, and distinguishing love; and so accordingly doth decree, purpose, and determine: from general love, the extension of general grace and mercy: but from that love that is distinguishing, peculiar grace and mercy” (The Works of John Bunyan, Volume 2, Reprobation Asserted, p. 340.) Bunyan goes on to explain that it was because of God’s universal, or general love, that Ishmael, the rejected son of Abraham, was blessed. That God loved Isaac ‘with a better love’ is obvious, for he was chosen by God over against his half-brother. That Ishmael was blessed by God no one can deny, though, for the thing is written in Scripture. And what do we call a divine blessing but an exhibition of God’s love? Bunyan is no obscure Puritan, but the best-known Puritan of all. His belief that God loves everyone is no ‘modern’ belief, for he lived in the 17th century, which century is closer to the medieval age than it is to Pink’s. Pink quotes Bunyan’s treatise on reprobation approvingly on pages 106, 107. How closely did Pink study this brilliant treatment of eternal election? He had done well not only to study it, but to imitate its appropriate tone. How strange that Pink could write a chapter called Our Attitude Toward God’s Sovereignty and at the same time be so blind to his own hyper-frequent attitude abuses!
If it seems too extreme to label The Sovereignty of God Hyper-Calvinistic even practically speaking, then can it not be said without slander that the book is hyper in some fashion? If it is not hyper based on its position on God’s love, can we not say that it is hyper based on its hateful tone? It is hyper, or excessive, in the stridency of its tone. There is nothing more conspicuous than this in the whole book. The tone of the book is the book’s signature, if there is one. Thousands of persons must have read the treatise since its first publication; would even one honest person among them dare to say that its tone is not bleak and curt, even consistently so? This nasty excess is distasteful, shameful, and intolerable. The Picture of Dorian Gray is the most depressing novel that I have ever read. The Sovereignty of God is the most depressing orthodox theology that I have ever had the displeasure of reading. How lovely that these two depressing books just happen to sit together on the shelf in a dark corner behind my shoulder! A. W. Pink is not a necessary man to turn to for learning your Bible doctrines. Any Puritan of note (and there are many to choose from) will teach you more, will teach you better, and will do you more good.
An air of unsociability blows through this treatise. And it makes for a sad reflection when you think of how much readier the same message might be received through kinder communication. To read the Puritans and to emulate their content is commendable. But to be as approachable as they were, one must copy their character. The flowers of Calvinism should never look and smell (as they do here on account of gruffness added to gravity) like Beaudelere’s Fleurs du Mal. To be specific, the mood of Pink’s treatise on sovereignty is like the feeling conveyed by this couplet from Beaudelere’s poem, Owls: “And darkness settles everywhere;/The last sad rays of daylight die.” That might seem like severe criticism. And I suppose that it is. But this book had that impression on me. The cause of this negative effect is the tone, the voice, or the expression, which I have been careful both to show and to explicate.
Too many readers smear A. W. Pink because they misunderstand Calvinism, its implications and deductions, and Christianity generally. From the other extreme, he is read uncritically; some even follow him cult-like. Balanced criticism of this author’s writings, and of this book most particularly, is extremely lacking. From what I have read of him, he is most times a great expositor. The Sovereignty of God is his most controversial book. If I ever review other books of his that I have read (which is unlikely), I can guarantee less negativity in my criticism.
Content: A- (A sacred subject seriously studied.)
Style: A- (Direct communication.)
Tone: C (Constancy that slips into sourness.)
Grading Table: A: a keeper: reread it; promote it; share it.
B: an average book: let it go.
C: read only if you have to.