Reflections on the Calvinism Debate in the SBC

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It has been nearly a year since the release of SBC Calvinism Advisory Committee’s report. Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee president, Frank Page, appointed that committee, despite the fear and consternation of some, in hopes that such a document could be produced and might prove useful to SBC pastors and churches. It seems that the Lord has used Dr. Page’s leadership to do accomplish both of these goals. I have expressed my thoughts on the report elsewhere, but I don’t think I have written (or at least written much) about nature of the ongoing debate within the convention since the report was published last year.

debateI have been asked quite a bit about it by people both within and outside of the SBC. I also field such questions from believers far removed from the USA. Recently I read David Allen’s “Observations, Clarifications, and Suggestions” on this subject. Dr. Allen, who is Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, takes his cue from the “Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” which he signed after it was released in 2012 (I’ve written a critique of it available here). I greatly appreciate the exemplary spirit and tone of what Dr. Allen has written and agree with many of his observations, especially when he points out the common ground shared by most Southern Baptists who line up on opposite sides of the debate. Too often our agreements are overlooked in the rush to focus on our differences. That point needs to be remembered and emphasized as the discussions continue.

Without a doubt the debate over Calvinism within the SBC has moved progressively to higher ground over the last few years. Those who are alarmed by the intensity of the current debate, or even the occasional rancor that unfortunately attends it, most likely are new to it. As someone who has served more than thirty years as a Southern Baptist pastor who is convinced of the doctrines of grace, I regard the nature of the debate today to be, for the most part, far healthier and more in keeping with the kind of polemical theology that befits true Christians than at any time in recent history.

Take, for example, the following statements that have been made about Calvinism from recognized leaders within the SBC:

  • Calvinism kills churches.
  • There’s not a nickel’s worth of difference between a liberal and a Calvinist.
  • There is no evidence that Baptists in their confessions of faith ever truly to the five points of Calvinism.
  • Calvinism has always been a drag on missions and evangelism.
  • Calvinism is worse than Islam
  • Calvinism is harmful to the Great Commission
  • Calvinism is elitist, arrogant, perverted form theology, that slanders the very nature and character of God and is being aggressively taught in some of our seminaries.
  • “Evangelical Calvinism” is an oxymoron and a dagger in the heart of evangelism.
  • The doctrines related to Calvinism lead to a “dunghill.”

These are only a few—a very few—of the kinds of comments that dominated much of the Southern Baptist debate over Calvinism in years past. The sources for the above public (very public, and widely spread) assertions include seminary professors and presidents, executive committee chairman, convention presidents, and prominent evangelists. Such comments could be easily multiplied.

For a helpful collection of sources that documents some of the worst parts of the history of this debate during which these comments were made, see Timmy Brister’s helpful “Chronological Survey.”

Or consider the following sample of events that have taken place in the past regardng the SBC debate over Calvinism:

  • A seminary president calls a meeting with select (I almost wrote, “elect” :) ) faculty, distributes a brochure for a national Founders Conference, and asks, “What are we going to do about this?”
  • Denominational employees distribute documents to churches and pastor search committees designed to help them smoke out any  Calvinists on their staffs or in their pastoral candidate pool.
  • State Conventions (plural) distribute anti-Calvinistic materials to churches and pastors under the guise of “educating” their constituents about the issue.
  • A seminary provost formally identifies Founders Ministries with “hard hyper-Calvinism.”

Again, such examples could be easily multiplied. There was a time when the kind of rhetoric and actions like those just cited were commonplace in Southern Baptist life. All of this helped foster an unhelpful culture of suspicion, distrust and antagonism throughout the SBC. The impact was felt in hundreds of churches, often with the result that good, godly pastors were unceremoniously dismissed from their pulpits, sometimes following the direct counsel of denominational employees.

Granted, I have said nsbc-calvinismothing about inflammatory comments and actions from and by Calvinists. Do not take that to mean that there were none. Rather, I have limited my small sample to sources that had some recognized if not official status among Southern Baptists. Further, I have done so not to open old wounds or to start rehashing old arguments but rather to make what I think is a very important point that must be considered when evaluating the current climate in the SBC regarding the debate over Calvinism, namely, that we are in a much healthier place today and, by God’s grace, are able to continue the conversations with far less acrimony than was true just a decade ago.

Without doubt there are still a few “angry Calvinists” (as Ed Stetzer so famously likes to call them) around and there are still among us a few who think Calvinism is from the devil and prefer Islam over it. But their voices have by-and-large become increasingly muted. That is why the most vociferous blogs that insist on addressing the issue in strident language have turned into little more than echo chambers. The same small crowds (on both sides) keep preaching to each other in ways that evoke boisterous “Amens” from one another.

But beyond that, in the broadest sectors of the convention, the debate continues but with sincere, brotherly respect. I experienced this first-hand in the deliberations of the Calvinism Advisory Committee. Understandably, there was great concern for confidentiality during those deliberation. I confess, however, that I wish they had been carefully video and audio recorded. I believe that if Southern Baptists could witness the kind of plain-spoken, honest, forceful, humble, thoughtful and at times animated debate that took place in those meetings that it would be a great encouragement to them. There was no pretending that we all agreed on everything nor was there any attempt to downplay the importance of our differences. Rather, our conversations were guided by the kind of love and respect that becomes followers of a crucified Savior. There genuinely was more light than heat in our exchanges.

I see this same spirit taking root and spreading in the broader exchanges across the convention.Why this is happening is an interesting question. No doubt there are many secondary causes, but ultimately and most importantly, it is, I firmly believe, the manifestation of God’s grace and mercy on us.

Regardless of how and why we got here, I applaud and want to encourage the kind of civil, pointed exchanges that a growing number on each side of the Calvinism divide are having. If we can continue to discuss the things of Christ while pursuing the mission of Christ in the spirit of Christ I believe that much good will result. Further, we can all be assured that our Lord will continue to honor His Word, build His church and empower His people to do His will.

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27 Responses to “Reflections on the Calvinism Debate in the SBC”

  1. Reformed baptist churches in the SBC seem akin to Christians sending their children to the public school system… in other words, unequally yoking. Reformed baptists should have nothing to do with the goofy, bloated SBC and just withdraw from this, and leave it to the Rick Warren megachurches…

    Reply
    • Tom Ascol

      “Neo,”

      Your comment is both naive and uninformed. The mindset your comment betrays will not be helpful at all in pursuing biblical renewal and gospel advance within and through local churches. It is easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize those who are actually engaged in the effort. Those who do so contribute nothing to the outcome but at least they don’t get their uniform dirty. My reading of Revelation 2 and 3 prevents me from following your advice.

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    • Neo,

      With all due respect, friend, it sounds as though you have never experienced some of the rancor among Reformed Baptists and their own associations. It is not a pure breed I can assure you.

      Speaking as a Southern Baptist who just happens to be Reformed and who is very much involved in denominational service at the local and state level, your perspective is regrettable and aloof.

      Reply
    • dr. james willingham

      Now that the convention has moved away from a skeptical approach to Scripture, how can we who are not only the successors but even the descendants of the founders (note small letter, not to be confused with some of the leading fathers)(one of my ancestors might well have been a constituent member of Kiokee Baptist Church, while another was one of two executors appointed by the Court to execute the Will of Daniel Marshall, the founder of the longest continuing Baptist Church in Georgia. There is more, but I spare the reader). My pastor when I was a child in Arkansas preached the doctrines of grace, my ordaining pastor to the Gospel ministry was a supralapsarian hyper Calvinist, a soul winner par excellence, would plead with souls while weeping, won many souls to Christ and had many preacher boys called under his ministry, former associate to Dr. R.G.Lee and the only man listed in Dr. Lee’s will as the one to preach his funeral. There is more, but giving up the SBC to any other group is really unappealing and self-defeating. Think of destroying the largest mission force in Protestant history. That is what it would mean.

      Reply
  2. Many brethren have worked very hard for many years to get to this current climate that you described Tom. Neo’s attitude may be shared by some, including myself in years past, but it would not have led us to the place we are today. There are many examples of the patience of love and biblical fellowship throughout the convention and I believe that God is being glorified by the way many are handling these difference. It is refreshing to observe a large number of Christians work through potentially divisive issues in such biblical and Spirit-filled ways. May the Lord continue to spread the spirit of patient hope toward one another. The world is watching. May they know that we are Christ’s disciples by our love for each other.

    Reply
    • Tom Ascol

      Russell,
      Thanks for your comments. I agree wholeheartedly! Too often we are tempted to engage in controversial debates as if our love for and defense of the truth justifies being unloving, harsh and deceitful. I appreciate your spirit!

      Blessings,
      tom

      Reply
  3. Sandra English

    My husband and I became convinced of the Doctrines of Grace through the plain reading of the Scriptures and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. There is no Reformed Baptist Church in our area, so for a few years, we traveled 45 minutes each Sunday to a PCA church. We are now members of a church in the next town over where the pastor is Reformed, but the church is not. We love our brothers and sisters in our church and we pray for ways to share what we believe in humble, kind ways knowing that is through God’s mercy that He opens eyes to the beauty of the whole counsel of His Word. I am thankful that my pastor is Reformed. I think it would be hard to attend a church where the pastor is not Reformed, but I think it is good for relationships to built where we can speak the truth in love and God can be glorified.

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  4. Could not agree more, Pastor Tom. As a church who is reformed flavored, we are seeing a strong move toward cooperation in our church and in our area as well.

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  5. Dr. Ascol,

    I certainly find the tone of your article as one that is very complimentary given the severity of some of the rhetoric of the past and the present in some circles. I see that you applaud Frank Page’s report and how things appear to be headed since that report.

    Here is a question I would like you to answer. Given your position and the stated goals of the Founder’s Ministry, would you say that the stated goals of the Founders are much closer to being a reality today than they were when you guys began your quest to return the SBC to “encourage the return to and promulgation of the biblical gospel that our Southern Baptist forefathers held dear.”

    I would say that the answer to my own question is “absolutely; the SBC has indeed come a long way in that direction.” Assuming you would agree, would it not be fair to say that your “giddiness” about the conversation and the perceived reduction in conflict concerning the reforming of the SBC one church at a time or one entity at a time would be expected?

    If the SBC were to in fact turn itself around and head in the opposite direction of reformation your comments might not be so “complimentary”?

    Just curious.

    Reply
    • Tom Ascol

      Bob,

      I find it interesting that you ask me a question, then answer it yourself the way that you think I should and then diagnose my attitude as “giddiness” due to what you perceive as the advance of an agenda that you ascribe to my “position and the stated goals of Founder’s [sic] Ministry [sic].” I am sorry, but admittedly not surprised, that you simply do not get my point. My hope is that others who are less suspicious and conspiratorial will. I hope you will understand this: I have neither time nor interest to engage you on the level of your self-proclaimed curiosity.

      Blessings,
      tom

      Reply
    • dr. james willingham

      Hello Bob: Been a while since I corresponded with you via the blogs. Reformed Baptists or Sovereign Grace Baptists were the progenitors of the SBC, and it is in the records. However, so was their determination to allow for differences, specifically, the preaching that Christ tasted death for every man (Hebs.2:9) in the union of Separate and Regular Baptists 1787-1800. Even with that allowance, they all held to unconditional election and effectual, efficacious or irresistible grace. The antimission movement had something to do with a change among some Southern Baptists, but not all as the leaders of the Convention were Calvinists from 1845-1920+. And the real problem with the antimissionary movement had more to do with methodology, an issue that Southern Baptist continued to debate even after the Primitive Baptists were long gone. Just consider the Landmark issue and the movement headed by David Herring, the missionary to China, the father of Dr. Ralph Herring. In other words, the issue was whether to do the mission work through the church or through mission societies and other extrachurch organizations. The South was settled by people inclined to the latter, whereas the North was settled by those inclined to the former.

      Bob: the real issue is whether we use force or persuasion, and, being Baptists, who love freedom of conscience, I think you will find most Calvinists (unless they have taking leave of their senses) would rather persuade someone to their position by means of the word of God than to force a person to it even by one inch. I can’t speak for all, nor do I claim to do that, but I dare say they would. After all, Calvinistic Baptists as some call them were the folks who put religious liberty into law and practice, beginning with Rhode Island, and we salute our General Baptist friends who set it forth in pamphlets first in England. There is more, but I grow weary. We want to win, as I trust that you do, Bob, by persuasion, by the truth, by the facts of the case, not by deceitfulness or by manipulation or by any shenanigans that sleight the truth. I would not have it any other way. In the meantime you have the freedom to preach as you feel led, and so do we. So why think otherwise. We could just as easily argue that the Traditionalists are a conspiracy to change the theology of the Convention to Arminianism or some other ism. I could even offer as proof that I am no longer allowed to write on one blog, because I would not give up my positions or cease stating them when appropriate. It was not because I was hateful, vituperative, or evil speaking, but simply my view point and my citing of the historical facts that evidently led the editor to boot me off. Made me feel bad. After all, that was something I would not have done to any Traditionalists, if I were a blog editor. Selah!

      Reply
  6. Jim Mefford

    My perception of the entire debate suggests that we need more of Romans 14. None of us will have the total perspective until we stand before The Lord, and the intervening years have thus far presented a poor picture of “brotherly love” to the world.

    Reply
  7. Having grown up in the SBC and being an ordained SBC minister who has now served in a Reformed Evangelical Church for the past 14 years, I simply wonder “Do the Baptists do much of anything without rancor and vilification?” Moreso than any demomination, the SBC feels that they are the 1 True church, so of course when they battle, it ends up being those who represent the 1 True Church VS the “Anti-True” Church.
    I pray that kindness and mercy will color this future discussion and maybe even a graceful “Agree to disagree” heart can come out of it, instead of just another split and schism in the SBC.
    blessings to you!

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  8. Thanks for another well written, perceptive, article. Thankful for the spirit that seems to be rising in our SBC ranks on this issue.

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  9. As a Calvinist NAMB endorsed Army Chaplain, I find it easier to partner with my pure Arminian brothers in the Nazarene and like conservative Arminian traditions than fellow SBC Chaplains that are Arminian/ Anti-Calvinist. I think this is because the Nazarene Arminians at least have a consistent theology, though I may disagree it. SBC Arminians tend to borrow perseverance of the saints because they like “Once saved, always saved.” Unfortunately, this leads them to a difficult pragmatism that embraces no-Lordship salvation and any and all methods. I recently explained the majority SBC position that embraced Arminian theology as well as “Once saved always saved” to a Nazarene friend, to which he replied with the exact thought I had had: “Wow, it seems like you’d get the worst of both worlds- Antinomianism and legalism.” Pragmatism is what results from that theology. I’d rather partner with a consistent, biblical Nazarene Arminian than an inconsistent “Traditionalist” Southern Baptist pragmatist.

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  10. Dr. Ascol,

    Excellent article. Things do seem to be slowly improving in this debate, but with still a long way to go. Would you agree that see Calvinism & ‘Traditionalism’ as an either/or proposition only serves to polarize—that seeing both as part of a spectrum of Southern Baptist beliefs that includes a substantial middle between them can have a beneficial effect? The polarized lens through which Calvinists and Traditionalists argue would leave us to believe that there is no middle ground—were it not for the fact that so many Southern Baptists are of neither side. A large, stable middle has—for a very long time—gotten along well with either end of the SBC spectrum, but is much less vocal and often overlooked. I’m speaking of those who are “non-Calvinists” but still hold that God ultimately determines the destinies of men—but He does so without impinging the “freedom to choose otherwise.” You can call them compatibilists, antinomists, centrists or middlers. In short, they are those who have found a place of theological reconciliation. They have no anaphylactic reaction to the claim that “men have the freedom to choose otherwise, and must of their own free will surrender in repentant faith in order to then be savingly regenerated and born again,” because they find that principle to be clearly affirmed in Scripture; and neither do they have an anaphylactic reaction to the claim that “God is the ultimate determiner of the destinies of men, having unconditionally chosen His elect in eternity past,” because they also find that principle clearly affirmed in Scripture. The centrality of the middle position is not due to a desire for compromise, but due to an unwillingness to compromise: neither principle of Biblical truth should be emphasized at the expense of the other. Every time that Traditionalists speak as if they hold all the ground between Calvinism and Arminianism, they err in portraying the size of their movement to be larger than it is. And further, they completely underestimate the size of those who disagree with them on their most adamantly held point, since it is not only Calvinists but also the large group of “non-Calvinists, non-Arminians—non-Traditionalists” who hold that God unconditionally elected us in eternity past.

    Reply
    • Tom Ascol

      Ken,

      Thanks for your comment. I think you make a valid point. There obviously are many Southern Baptists who would not declare an either/or position in this debate. I further think that the reasons would certainly include what you have articulated but probably extend beyond that, as well. We have come through a couple of generations where the Christian faith was not widely regarded as inherently (though not exclusively) doctrinal and confessional. The title of E.Y. Mullins’ magnum opus pretty well identifies that trajectory multi-generational SBC trajectory: The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression. Doctrine was long regarded as almost incidental to vital Christian religion. Consequently, we are still reaping the unhealthy fruit of that era, though things are changing and we are seeing more and more of the rising generations taking doctrine very seriously (that is true all along the theological spectrum). That fact (as least as I judge it) contributes significantly to two large groups within the current SBC: first, those who are doctrinally ignorant and spiritually sick or dead (witness the large percentage of non-attenders, non-contributors on our rolls); and second, those whose spiritual experience far exceeds their doctrinal understanding. I would place the folks you describe in this latter category.

      Along with the ones you describe, I think there are those who do hold to the priority of regeneration in salvation without any hesitation in affirming man’s genuine freedom and responsibility to repent and believe the gospel. As we both know, that view has been expressed in various ways throughout history. Having said this, I agree with you that the claim that that so-called Southern Baptist Traditionalism stands between Calvinism and Arminianism is an overreach and would not stand up to the critique that you have provided.

      All of which brings me back to the major point of my post, which is, that we are in far healthier days right now in the SBC when it comes to engaging theological discussions than we have been in decades. The fact that we are having this kind of discussion is a case-in-point. Thanks again for offering your insights here.

      Reply
      • Thanks for the response, Dr. Ascol. I disagree with Calvinism on 4 out of 5 points, but I have learned more from studying Calvinists than I could ever learn from studying “that other group.” The complete lack on the part of Traditionalists of any rigorous engagement of eminent Augustinian theologians of the past, while pressing for a wholesale abandonment of all things Augustinian and Calvinist, is nothing short of Bulverism. Adam Harwood wrote, in “Commentary on Article 2: The Sinfulness of Man,” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry, Fall 2012, Vol. 9. Number 2:

        …If it can be demonstrated from the words of the Bible that we have been wrong as a convention (failing to affirm inherited guilt since 1963), then we will revise Article 2. But we will not be persuaded by citations of systematic theology textbooks, even if they happen to have been written by Southern Baptists. Certain Southern Baptist theologians have been writing academic papers for several years attempting to argue that twisting a plain reading of the Bible to fit on a theological framework is precisely what has contributed to the present difficulties.15 We prefer to deal in a conversation about the words of the Bible alone. The Reformation cry was Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). We agree. Let the assertions and claims about this matter be drawn from an appeal to Scripture alone as we discuss this matter.

        Has there ever been a time in Church history when there was such a call for the complete restructuring of the presuppositional framework while simultaneously demanding a free pass regarding rigorous engagement of eminent theologians of the past? I do not believe it is accurate to point to the Reformers and “Sola Scripture” as an excuse for declaring out-of-bounds all “citations of systematic theology textbooks.”

        On the positive side, I see a lot of solid theology in the centrism between the two more vocal sides, and I welcome substantive engagement with theologians of either end be they living or long dead. For Cals and Trads, the area in between is mostly unknown and often assumed to be inhabited only by the theologically incompetent; but I do not find it to be so. So I press to inform people that there is a middle, and you need not check your brain at the door. Reconciliation between the Calvinism side and the Traditionalism side need not be limited to agreeing to disagree. Some (dare I hope for many?) may find a true reconciliation by moving toward the theological middle. And it seems to me that this latter kind of reconciliation may prove to be much more sustainable.

        Be blessed!

        Reply
  11. James Hammack

    Thanks so much for this post. I believe that your take is spot on and am grateful for such progression in unity. It saddens me to remember some of my own misplaced gusto for Calvinism that really just came from a prideful heart. But God is good, and He is continuing to work on me and, as your post demonstrates, the SBC. To God be the glory forevermore!

    Reply
  12. Doug Sayers

    Tom, I am glad to hear that the overall tone is improving in the debate over irresistible salvation. I like what Vance Havner used to say about Christians needing to maintain the heart of a child… and the hide of a rhinoceros.

    When I was a young wannabe Calvinist, Ernie Reisinger gave me a copy of James P Boyce’s Systematic Theology. Ernie was deeply committed to advancing his Calvinism but was always respectful of those on the other side. If it took a spike in Calvinism to get the SBC away from the liberals then it was worth it.

    Having said all that, and in light of the quote in Ken’s post, it is my heartfelt prayer that the SBC never adopts the imputation of Adams’ guilt to his posterity into their statements of faith. It is biblically impossible that the guilt of Adam’s sin could be inherited/imputed to his posterity. Sin is not imputed where there is no law. (Rom 4:15; 5:13) Sin is not imputed by arbitrary decree. Please take it to heart as you weigh in on these issues.

    Thanks for all you do.

    Reply
    • Tom Ascol

      Doug,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately (for you) your heartfelt prayer has already been denied because the 1925 BF&M as well as the Abstract of Principles are both statements of faith adopted by Southern Baptists that affirm the biblical doctrine of imputed sin.

      Blessings,
      tom

      Reply
    • Just to clarify, I do not hold to imputed Adamic guilt in the Reformed sense. But I do strongly affirm the Biblical realism of the Augustinian theology. Augustine went too far with inherited condemnation, but we can abandon that without abandoning Augustinianism as a whole. Returning to Augustinian realism offers the most hope for bringing Southern Baptists closer together (and closer to the Biblical truth) on this issue. Currently, the standard Calvinist position is that all are born with the imputed sin of Adam, and the only alternative they see is a denial of the union of the race in Adam. As well, the Traditionalists’ position is to deny imputed guilt by denying the union in Adam as a basis for that imputed guilt. If both sides could agree with the older Augustinian principle that the moral nature of all men was located in Adam and participated in his sin, then their disagreement would be raised to the closer question of whether or not God personally condemns individuals for a sin that was only corporate (the race as a whole in Adam) and not individually committed. Both sides could then agree that all men have an ownership in Adam’s sin, and that all the consequences that fall on us for that sin are deserved and just; and further, that God does indeed cause just consequences to fall on the race as a whole, because all men had a real participation in Adam’s sin. Both sides could agree that if a covenant was involved between God and Adam, it was emblematic of the greater moral framework (established by God’s nature) of what is right and wrong, just and unjust, and its penalty passed through natural propagation.

      Reply

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