Several years ago I would have considered myself an anti-Calvinist with a bit of an attitude. I recall standing and cheering when Johnny Hunt dropped the bomb on the audience at the Southern Baptist Convention several years ago when it was held in Nashville. Through a series of events (former pastors who faithfully preached the Word, reading the Bible, pressures from critics, kind and solid counsel from friends, a deacon I served with in Tennessee, and expository preaching) I have moved to embrace all 5-points of what we may call – Calvinistic soteriology. That’s a fancy way of saying that I believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation (Monergism). Although that has not been a popular position to hold within the SBC over the last few years, I unapologetically hold to this position and have held it for a little under 3 years now. Prior to embracing all 5-points, I moved from a 3.5-position (I say this with a smile) to a 5-point position slowly as I became convinced of the doctrines of grace from Scripture.
During the last couple of years, many members of the SBC (Calvinist to Arminian to modified positions in between) have clashed through social media, blogs, and formal letters written in state convention newspapers and a formal doctrinal statement that has become known as A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation. In Tennessee, a paper was mailed out to churches in order to help “smoke out Calvinists” and prevent churches from hiring Calvinists during their search process. Neither side of the equation and controversy is free from taking some blame in this brewhaha that has encompassed almost everyone from the stay-at-home mom to the professional theologian within the SBC. Some Calvinists have been guilty of anger and name calling through this process. Other more Arminian types have been guilty of referring to gospel preaching and evangelizing 5-point Calvinists as heretics – or at best – in the words of Dr. Jerry Vines, “moving away from the gospel.” Dr. Gerald Harris muddied the water when he printed an article titled, The Calvinists are here in The Christian Index February 9th 2012. The entire article was printed with bold lettering when it used the words “Calvinism” or “Calvinist” and seemed to create more controversy than unity in Georgia. In the words of Dr. Harris in a recent article following the 2013 SBC, his article The Calvinists are here received “considerably more attention than I anticipated – or wanted.”
The point has been clear – the SBC is divided over this issue. Many Calvinists are concerned with the rhetoric and slanderous labels often used to describe them such as Hyper-Calvinist or heretic. Many of these same Calvinists are outraged that jobs are being lost at SBC colleges while at the same time limited invitations are being offered to Calvinists at the table of leadership within the SBC merely due to Calvinistic soteriology. These issues continue to provoke and anger Calvinists of all stripes within the SBC. Furthermore, the more Arminian types have been concerned with a perceived take-over in the SBC since the new numbers show a shift from 10% to closer to 30% of SBC pastors and churches are considered Calvinistic in their soteriological position. Many Arminians have likewise been concerned with the growth of the Acts 29 network within SBC life in part due to their Calvinistic soteriology.
As I left the SBC in Houston, I was greatly encouraged due to the report of the Calvinism advisory team that was formed by Dr. Frank Page at the conclusion of the 2012 SBC. Over the past 12 months, this team (made up of a diverse group) has worked together to address the divisiveness within the SBC. As a result, a document was released from the team to the SBC and it addressed many issues of tension, division, differences, and places of unity regarding the doctrine of salvation. However, a few things were stated openly during the SBC that were of great interest and encouragement to me.
First, the team highlighted the reality that Calvinism has been part of the SBC from the beginning. In fact, it’s easy to trace The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 back to the Second London Baptist Confession. The doctrine of election is clearly mentioned in the BF&M 2000 and it highlights the reality that God is the prime mover in salvation. The Calvinism advisory team’s report stated the following:
We affirm that Southern Baptists stand together in a commitment to cooperate in Great Commission ministries. We affirm that, from the very beginning of our denominational life, Calvinists and non-Calvinists have cooperated together. We affirm that these differences should not threaten our eager cooperation in Great Commission ministries.
The history of Calvinism within the SBC is a fact that can easily verified from history, past presidents, and the founders of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – the flagship seminary of the SBC. For the record, the history of the SBC is full of men like John L. Dagg, A. T. Robertson, W. A. Criswell, E. Y. Mullins, John A. Broadus, and Andrew Fuller to name just a few. These men were Calvinists. Yet, they were well respected and faithful soldiers of the gospel. The fact remains – the Calvinists have been here for a long time.
Therefore, rather than marginalizing Calvinists as heretics on a take-over mission within the SBC, the Calvinism team has pointed out that both streams, the Charleston and the Sandy Creek traditions, have fed the SBC pool from the beginning. This is important for the SBC to understand as it pertains to leadership positions, teaching positions, and general unity with brothers and sisters in Christ that we may not agree with in totality.
Secondly, the team pointed out the fact that the rhetoric must be toned down to a point of respect from both sides of the fence. It was stated openly that we within the SBC must learn to talk to one another as opposed to talking about one another. This is essential as it relates to social media, blogs, and newspaper articles. Certain blogs exist within the SBC for the sole purpose of slander and misrepresentation of certain doctrinal positions. If a person is using slanderous remarks such as Hyper-Calvinism, extreme Calvinism, heresy, and other similar labels in order to smear people who embrace 5-point Calvinism – it’s probably best to stop visiting their site until it dies a slow death. This same policy should be in place for all publications within the SBC. Their report stated the following:
We affirm the responsibility of all Southern Baptists to guard our conversation so that we do not speak untruthfully, irresponsibly, harshly, or unkindly to or about any other Southern Baptist. This negativity is especially prevalent in the use of social media, and we encourage the exercise of much greater care in that context.
We deny that our cooperation can be long sustained if our conversation becomes untruthful, uncharitable, or irresponsible.
Thirdly, the team led by Dr. Frank Page insisted that he did not want people to sign the document. He stated openly that by signing documents like this one it creates unnecessary division. That was quite evident by what occurred leading up to the 2012 meeting when people and entire churches were being led on a campaign to sign the document penned by Dr. Eric Hankins – A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.
Fourthly, it was good to see the SBC gathered to discuss important issues – including a doctrinal issue regarding soteriology. That proves that the SBC remains a people of the Book who are not disinterested in what the Bible actually says. While tensions and disagreements may exist on this issue, it’s much better to be talking about this than debating whether or not homosexual pastors should lead our churches.
Last of all, I was encouraged to see Dr. Albert Mohler and Dr. Paige Patterson working together on the same team to bring a report before the SBC regarding Calvinism. Once again, as has been demonstrated throughout the history of the SBC that Calvinists and non-Calvinists can work together. Dr. Albert Mohler once worked closely with Dr. Adrian Rogers as the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 was being drafted for the SBC. Dr. Tom Ascol can work with a Dr. Paige Patterson and Dr. Mohler can work with a Dr. Eric Hankins within the SBC to further the gospel witness to the nations. This has been the history of the SBC and must continue as we move ahead under the banner of the gospel.
Where we must divide is regarding heresy. Where we must divide is when ax-grinding Arminians are unwilling to engage a lost culture with Calvinists under the same banner of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Where we must divide is when Calvinists are more interested in pulling a sword on a non-Calvinist in the SBC rather than marching to the nations with the gospel. Where division comes is when we as members of the SBC look to fight each other rather than keeping our eyes fixed on the real enemy of the gospel in the religion of Islam, Mormonism, and other pagan religions that are growing rapidly within America. There is no question that we as Southern Baptists face a massive challenge in reaching America and other nations with the gospel. The baptism rates and decline cannot in the SBC cannot be blamed on the Calvinists. We need a healthy SBC that is theologically grounded, unified in the gospel, and has a radical passion to run to the nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We can all agree that both camps have crazy uncles that don’t represent the entire group. Calvinists do evangelize lost people and plead with them to be saved and there are many non-Calvinists who are intellectual and capable theologians within the SBC. The question remains – can we serve alongside one another for the sake of the gospel? We can learn much from faithful men of history who understood that Calvinism is a “family debate” that shouldn’t prevent unity on the gospel. Can we put our hands to the plough and work alongside one another to reach our communities with the gospel? We celebrate men like John Bunyan the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. He was a Calvinist. We love to talk about Lottie Moon, a sacrificial SBC missionary who died while reaching the people of China. She was Calvinistic in her soteriology. We sing hymns such as Amazing Grace written by John Newton – a Calvinist. God forbid that the SBC reach a point where Calvinists are thrown under a bus or seared with a red hot “C” and marginalized. God forbid that Calvinists become unwilling to work with non-Calvinists in the SBC to reach the nations with the gospel.
I agree with Charles Spurgeon when he said, “I love the pure doctrine of unadulterated Calvinism. But if that be wrong – if there be anything in it which is false – I for one say, ‘Let that perish too, and let Christ’s name last forever. Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Crown Him Lord of all!’”
Pastor Josh Buice