Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Recent Southern Baptist Brouhaha over Calvinism: Reflections of a Chastened Calvinist

I have been following the most recent brouhaha racking the Southern Baptist Convention with no small interest. For those who are (blissfully) unaware of recent rends in this largest of American Protestant denominations, ever-growing numbers of Southern Baptists are embracing and propagating a certain brand of neo-Calvinism in Louisville, in all Kentucky, and to the uttermost parts of the American South and Southwest. Not surprisingly, this situation has not pleased many Southern Baptist leaders of differing theological stripes with vivid memories of when things were not so.

The current brouhaha was precipitated by the joint publication, on 31 May, of "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation," written primarily by Eric Hankins, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi. As of Monday of this week, more than 650 members of the denomination — including ministers, seminary professors, and even seminary presidents such as Paige Patterson of SWBTS in Fort Worth — have become signatories of the statement. Such a backlash is neither surprising nor new. As has been confirmed to me recently by a friend close to the situation, Dr. Patterson has already attempted to nip the growing influence of "Calvinism" (by which is meant classic, "five-point" Calvinism, not other Calvinistic teachings such as paedo-baptism or amillennialism) in the bud at his institution by summoning reported Calvinists to his office for a "chat."

What is interesting about this document is that it fails to provide a theological label for the position it is advocating. It is, by implication, non-Calvinistic, but it curiously avoids the expected label of "Arminian," opting for the surely emotionally-charged "traditional" label. I assume this avoidance is due to the common Baptist association of Arminianism with the ability to "lose one's salvation," an assumption confirmed by the discussion in article 9,"The Security of the Believer." [an aside: I remain befuddled over the persistence of the belief in the "Calvinistic" doctrine of the security of the believer among those who reject the Augustinian doctrines of grace; not only does the denial of Augustinianism cut off the branch on which they are sitting, it also fails to account for the real possibility of apostasy — which, to be fair, the statement baldly denies the possibility of — and the clear biblical statements about the ultimate fate of those who fall away.]

Even more curious is the claim that the statement reasserts the "traditional" Southern Baptist view. Southern Baptists, as Baptists, are not confessional like Presbyterians and Lutherans are. If I am not mistaken, however, they take their cue from the Baptist Faith and Message, different editions of which were promulgated in 1925, 1963, and 2000 (for each of these presented in parallel columns, see here). This document does not deal with the specific matters under debate. Hence, as Baptists, individual ministers and congregations are free to hold their own positions according to their own good-conscience interpretation of the Bible. No doubt it is true that the majority of Southern Baptists in times past were not Calvinistic. But it is demonstrable that Calvinists have always been a part of the mix.

Most significant, however, is the theological imprecision of the document itself, hardly what one should expect from highly educated clergy and seminary administrators. There are, as one might expect, caricatures of such "Calvinistic" teachings as election, "irresistible" grace, and "limited" atonement. More troubling, however, is Article Two, on "The Sinfulness of Man" (for the time being I will give them a pass for their persistent patriarchalism):
We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

Genesis 3:15-24; 6:5; Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 6:5, 7:15-16;53:6; Jeremiah 17:5,9, 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:19-20; Romans 1:18-32; 3:9-18, 5:12, 6:23; 7:9; Matthew 7:21-23; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 6:9-10;15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27-28; Revelation 20:11-15
For those not attuned to sophisticated theological discourse, the shocking thing about this statement, particularly its second paragraph, is how it drifts beyond the historic Arminianism of Arminius and Wesley to the treacherous waters of Semi-Pelagianism in its explicit denial of the bondage of the will and the necessity of prevenient grace for a saving response to the gospel message. This unacknowledged Semi-Pelagianism has been recognized by both Calvinist (SBTS president Al Mohler) and Arminian (Baylor professor Roger Olson) theologians who have weighed in on the statement. Olson, in fact, rightly describes it as cohering with the Semi-Pelagianism that, for all practical purposes, serves as the default American Christian "folk religion" [another aside: indeed, I would characterize the Christianity of most of the Baptists and "Independent Bible Church" Christians I know to be "Semi-Pelagian with an Augustinian ending," hardly a stable theological compound]. For the sake of both the framers and signatories of this statement — not to mention the spiritual health of my brothers and sisters in the convention itself — I hope that this is merely an oversight or imprecision caused by the desire for simplification, and that they will clarify their views in the near future.

I am not a Southern Baptist. Indeed, for various reasons I am not a Baptist at all (though I remain a somewhat reluctant "credo-baptist" by conviction). So I don't explicitly have a dog in this fight. Nonetheless, I am no stranger to the "Calvinist wars" that crop up every now and then in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. When I started graduate study at Dallas Seminary back in 1979, the school was still reeling over the recent departure of its two most learned biblical scholars, Bruce Waltke and S. Lewis Johnson, who had adopted historic Calvinism (and this at a historically Calvinistic, if Amyrauldian, institution).

Ten years ago, in the spring of 2002, I was a faculty member in the Biblical Division of a very conservative evangelical Bible college with a largely non-Calvinistic history (apart from the belief in "eternal security," of course). Because the school's doctrinal statement included the affirmation that Christ died "for the whole world," the accusation was made that I and other members of the division who self-identified as Calvinists were being disingenuous when we signed the doctrinal statement for our annual contract renewals. This led to a months-long series of meetings over the issue in which I — ever the one with no self-preservation instinct — almost singlehandedly labored to show how a Calvinist could both remain faithful to Scripture and, in clear conscience, sign the school's doctrinal statement. My attempt was, thankfully, successful, but I bear the scars from that battle to the present day. And from that battle I learned much about human nature and how people arrive at their theological positions [hint: it's a lot less "objective" than people might claim or think].

One thing I learned is that the problems non-Calvinists have with Calvinism have less to do with Calvinist exegesis and theology — though they have innate problems with those, to be sure — than with Calvinists themselves. As I have often said, the only person more obnoxious than an ex-smoker is an ex-Arminian. "Calvinism" is counterintuitive and offensive to people for whom absolute freedom is viewed as the summum bonum. Hence, when a Christian discovers for the first time the truth that God, in his sovereign grace, monergistically saves guilty, enslaved sinners, this truth produces a zealotry for God's honor and glory that often backfires in praxis. Not only do they begin to caricature the nuanced position of their theological adversaries (caricature occurs in both directions, after all), but they also tend to look down condescendingly on the benighted Christian masses who have failed thus far to learn what they have learned about sovereign grace. Worst of all, many in my acquaintance have developed a perverse pride in their theology that would have shocked Calvin as much as it would have grieved the Paul who wrote 1 Corinthians 4:7. And when they compound this with an apparent lack of emphasis on evangelism, they have only provided more grist for their opponents' mill.

I am a Calvinist, however, and I am struck here, as always, with the inability of many non-Calvinists to take seriously the powerful exegetical arguments undergirding the Calvinist position, and the reliance on a bushel of proof-texts (of course, in my experience the use of proof-texts is not restricted to non-Calvinists) that, at best, point to Arminianism as a possible implication. Of course, I am not naive. To me it is obvious that the offensiveness and counterintuitive nature of Calvinism, especially to those brought up with American cultural assumptions, will continue to render it unacceptable to the majority of Christians. On the other hand, the "toughness" — indeed, the apparent harshness — of some Calvinistic teachings only serve to make it more attractive to people with a different temperament. None of us, after all, can entirely escape the biologically- and culturally-inherited grid of predispositions, presuppositions and preunderstandings that inevitably inform our thought processes and influence our conclusions. The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner it will be that we can at least understand and dialogue with those who disagree with us.

One further thing: theological confessions and statements such as these are never politically neutral, dispassionate documents. They are always tethered with the strings of power and control. To the non-Calvinists, I am sure that the almost evangelistic spread of Calvinist doctrine in the SBC appears as the intended consequence of a concerted effort by the Calvinist wing to wrest control of the denomination away from them. I am in no position to attribute motives to any of the involved parties. But one wonders. In my old Bible college, I always got the impression that my view was tolerated so long as it remained, and was understood as being, a minority position. It only became a problem when too many faculty and students started espousing the position. The same seems to be the case in the SBC. The signatories affirming the "traditional" position obviously feel their ideological hegemony to be slipping away, and they intend to alter the course of the denomination before it becomes too late by means of restating, in confessional form, what they claim to have been the tried-and-true position of their forebears.

Is this not, then, simply a less-than-subtle attempt to wrest power and control of the denomination back from the Calvinist usurpers? It sure looks that way to me. If both positions are allowable under conditions agreed to by both sides, both by definition have a place at the table and neither should attempt to trump the other by dubious and irrelevant claims to be the "traditional" position. One thing, unfortunately, is clear to those of us who have been around for a while: the one thing conservative Southern Baptists have a good track record at accomplishing is a well-orchestrated power grab. Let's hope this is not, in fact, another of them.


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  2. Roger Olson says "But 'semi-Pelagianism' is the view that the initiative in salvation is on the human side."

    OH NO!!! But it actually isn't. This is just silly Calvinist spin. The initiative in salvation in Christianity is always on God's part -- its the CROSS. What we do NOW is not the initiative since the initiative (the CROSS) took place 2000 years ago. To say, then, that people have the ability to believe in Jesus' sacrifice without having to wait for God to give them a magic shot in the arm in the now (which is all that this semi-Pelagian boogeyman is saying) is certainly NOT to deny that the initiative in salvation is on God's part -- its just that God took that initiative already 2000 years ago. So what's the problem, do you Calvinists NOT believe in the cross or something? Why do you NOT recognize THAT as the initiative in salvation? Huh? Huh? Huh? Infinite more number of huhs?

    1. Roger Olson is one of the most strident defenders of Arminianism in the world today, and has even written a recent book called "Against Calvinism." Semi-Pelagianism denies that people take their own initiative and earn salvation by works. Semi-Pelagianism sees God taking the initiative to create a framework whereby a person can be saved by using his or her own will to "accept" what God has done in Christ. The key is that Semi-Pelagians do not believe the will is in bondage to sin as a result of the sin of Adam. That (along with the notional distinction between justification and regeneration) is what united the major branches of the Reformation (Luthran, Calvinist, Anglican) against medieval Roman Catholicism. Both Arminians and Calvinists agree that the will is in bondage due to sin and hence needs prevenient grace to enable saving faith. Arminians believe this is given to all through the proclamation of the gospel, but it is not efficacious/irresistible. Calvinists believe this prevenient grace is given by the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel and is efficacious, being tied to God's sovereign plan for his elect (i.e., they identify this operation of the Spirit with the "effective call" spoken of so often by St. Paul (e.g., Rom 8:29). The belief in total inability and a limited scope to salvific prevenient grace is not peculiarly Calvinist (Luther was just as "Calvinistic" in his doctrine of salvation as was the Genevan), but is common to the Augustinian tradition of theology and based mostly on Pauline and Johannine thought.

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