The Current SBC Calvinism Debate: Observations, Clarifications, and Suggestions

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on the blog SBC Today.

The release of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” has engendered a Convention-wide discussion and made nation-wide news. Tongues have been wagging and fingers have been pecking computer keyboards ceaselessly these past few weeks. The Statement has received both acclaim and criticism. In reflecting on the tsunami of words, and as a conversation partner along with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, I have asked the Lord to help me be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove. I hope the following thoughts will be helpful as we continue the conversation in the days ahead. By way of brief personal background, I have served the local church for 26 years, 21 of those years as a senior pastor of two churches. I have served two theological institutions in the classroom since 1985. In addition, I served on the Board of Trustees at one of our SBC Seminaries for 12 years. In the interests of full disclosure, I am a signatory of the document.

Two things are crystal clear. The issue of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention is not going away, and finding our way forward is not going to be easy. Calvinism is viewed through many prisms in the SBC. Some see it as absolutely vital to the health and prosperity, both theological and otherwise, of the SBC. Others view it as theologically flawed, a niggling nuisance spawning various levels of problems, including divisiveness, in the churches. Regardless of which camp you are in, or somewhere in the middle, Southern Baptists need to proceed with caution in the days ahead. When it comes to Calvinism in the SBC, a fair amount of misinformation, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation characterizes the current climate. This makes it difficult for most to cut through the discrepant fog.

The first place to begin, it seems to me, is with our common ground. As Southern Baptists, what we agree on far outweighs what we disagree on: 1) We agree on the BFM 2000. 2) We agree on the Lordship of Christ. 3) We agree on the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture. 4) We agree on the exclusivity of the gospel and the lostness of humanity. 5) We agree that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, not to mention a host of other issues on which we agree. Virtually all of us recognize that Southern Baptists are not going to agree on Calvinism. However, that does not mean that this discussion should not happen! While the debate about Calvinism is necessary, it is absolutely essential that all involved desire, speak, and work for unity. There is a difference between union and unity. Two cats with their tails tied together have union. They sure don’t have unity! Southern Baptists all agree that our unifying doctrinal statement is the BFM 2000. It is sufficiently broad in latitude that we can all live, breathe, and work under its umbrella. In fact, Calvinists and Traditionalists, for the most part, have been doing that already for quite a number of decades.

There is a difference between union and unity. Two cats with their tails tied together have union. They sure don’t have unity!

Second, because of this common ground in the BFM 2000, we should avoid at all costs the Scylla of attempting to run all Calvinists out of Dodge and the Charybdis of attempting to return us as a Convention to the Calvinistic theology of some of our founding fathers. Neither of these will bring us together. In fact, both approaches will foster division. I have on occasion sought to correct overzealous Traditionalists who have questioned the place of Calvinists in the SBC. It is any and every Baptist’s right to be persuaded that a Calvinistic Soteriology reflects the teaching of Scripture. Being a Calvinist should not be a Convention crime. Calvinists have and should always be free to have a place at the SBC table. Any church that feels led of God to call a Calvinist pastor should do so without hesitation. I serve a seminary that has some Calvinists on the faculty, some of whom I myself recommended to the administration for hiring. I have on occasion recommended other Calvinist faculty members to other SBC colleges and seminaries. I have and continue to work side-by-side with Calvinist brothers and sisters in the churches I pastored and in the seminary I serve.

On the other hand, Calvinism should not be a Convention cause either. The publication of an article by a Southern Baptist professor just a few years back entitled “Why Your Next Pastor Should Be a Calvinist” is an example of one aspect of the current problem in the Convention. My friend, Dr. Danny Akin, said back in 2007: “I have Calvinist friends who say they hope and pray for the day when all of our seminaries have presidents and faculties that are five-point Calvinists” (Calvinism: a Southern Baptist Dialogue, 253). Dr. Akin rightfully eschews such a sentiment, but this validates the concern of many Southern Baptists that some Calvinists in the SBC do indeed believe we would be better off if we reverted to Calvinism unilaterally in the seminaries. If there are Calvinists who feel this way about the seminaries, perhaps many of them feel this way about SBC churches as well. Of course this is a recipe for disaster. As long as Calvinists, individually or as groups, continue to seek to make it a cause with the intention of moving the SBC towards Calvinism, then we will continue to have a problem.

If we are to come together in unity, we must do so as Baptists, not as Calvinists and Traditionalists. We must unite around Baptist distinctives, which includes the only glue that can hold us together: a biblical Baptist theology wedded to a Great Commission resurgence of evangelism and missions. We don’t have to cease to be Calvinists or Traditionalists to be Baptists. We’ve had both from day one. Let us debate the theology of Calvinism and let the chips fall where they may, but deliver us from attempting to Calvinize or de-Calvinize the SBC.

We must unite around Baptist distinctives, which includes the only glue that can hold us together: a biblical Baptist theology wedded to a Great Commission resurgence of evangelism and missions.

Third, we need to love and respect one another even though we are not in complete agreement on every theological point. This is the clear mandate of Scripture. We should speak the truth in love and avoid strident, emotive language. May we not allow the opinions of others about us, whether positive or negative, to cause us to reciprocate in kind (the negative that is!) to our fellow brothers and sisters or cloud our assessment of their doctrinal positions. One of my favorite stories about General Robert E. Lee concerns the time he was asked by President Lincoln his opinion of one of his officers in the Confederate army. Lee responded that he thought the gentleman was a good man and a fine officer. Someone nearby reminded Lee that this particular officer had been critical of the great General. Lee’s response was classic: “Yes, that’s true. But the President asked my opinion of him, not his opinion of me.” Deep-seated convictions usually breed deep-seated emotions. Deep-seated emotions, left unguarded, can breed deep-seated sin. Fair-mindedness coupled with plain-spokeness is what scores a direct hit. A thick head and a thin skin is a bad combination for theological dialogue. Scrappy, sarcastic, sardonic speech and writing chills the air quickly. It is incumbent on all of us to engage the concerns and questions that come our way in a straightforward manner, rather than appearing to evade and dissimulate. We’re not here to hornswoggle anyone. On a related note, those on both sides of the issue should refrain from drive-by verbal “shootings.” We don’t need innocent casualties via collateral damage. Failure to be careful in these areas will not exculpate us at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Remember, the enemy is the devil, not each other.

Fourth, we need to be reminded that the truth of a given position is in no way related to who or how many hold that position. Positions should be evaluated on their merits and ultimately according to their comportment with Scripture, not because high profile leaders and/or churches or groups hold them or don’t hold them. The fact that the majority of Southern Baptists do not adhere to Calvinism is no argument against whether it is true or false. The fact that some of the early Southern Baptist leaders were Calvinists is no argument that Calvinism is true or false nor is it an argument that Calvinism should or should not be embraced today. Neither the popularity nor unpopularity of something should play into the discussion of whether that something is true or false. Each of us should take to heart the approach of the Bereans in Acts 17:11, who “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”

Neither the popularity nor unpopularity of something should play into the discussion of whether that something is true or false.

Fifth, generally speaking, all Southern Baptists are concerned about theology. With respect to the current discussion, some of my Calvinist friends as well as some of my Traditionalist friends need to become better and more careful theologians and historians. Some Traditionalists need to be aware of and respect the Calvinistic heritage of the SBC. Some Traditionalists need to read more broadly in the area of Calvinism in order to understand its theology and why Scripture is interpreted the way it is in a Reformed Soteriological framework. On the other hand, some of my Calvinist friends need to shore up their theologizing as well. I have observed through the years that some Calvinists, especially young Calvinists, make two mistakes. 1) They simply take their theology from Calvinist writers without filtering it through the New Testament. None should be a theological epigone. 2) They read predominately, if not exclusively, contemporary Calvinist authors and neglect the writings of the earliest generations among the reformers and the reformation, Calvinist or otherwise. Calvinism is not monolithic. In fact, it never has been. Disagreement among Calvinists themselves over Limited Atonement since the Reformation, not to mention other issues, makes this clear. The TULIP acrostic is itself a 20th-century construct.

In this vein, all of us are prone to a number of errors which we should heartily strive to avoid:

  • subsuming one set of Scripture passages under another set of Scripture passages in order to maintain a particular doctrine or belief system
  • prejudicing that which is logical over that which is paradoxical in the Scripture
  • succumbing to logical fallacies in an attempt to maintain our particular theology
  • doing systematic theology before one does Biblical theology and/or allowing systematic theology to trump biblical theology
  • confusing one’s theological system with the Gospel and reacting as if a critique of the system is a challenge to the Gospel
  • confusing a critique of someone’s doctrine as a critique of that individual personally
  • engaging in ad hominem attacks
  • questioning one’s motives (which are often wrongly judged and can only be surmised at best unless one directly speaks to his/her motives for what he says and does)

I suppose, at one time or another, each of us has fallen into one or more of these or similar traps. Ted Williams ended the 1941 baseball season with an extraordinary .406 average. But even with this remarkable feat, he still grounded out, flied out, or struck out roughly six times out of every ten at bats. No one bats a thousand. We need to cut each other a little slack along the way.

Sixth, it is crucial that we avoid misrepresenting someone’s theology. I have found that when this happens, it is usually the result of a lack of understanding the specifics of a position, or of overzealous rhetoric. There have been times in the past when Calvinists and their theology have been misrepresented BY a, a, a, we, a, absolutely, theologically, Southern, a, well., long, Calvinists, groups, Calvinists, well, some, well., if, a, well., Southern describe what the other side believes, 2) to accurately describe what the other side is attempting to do (that is, disprove a particular doctrinal point via use of a reductio ad absurdum argument), and 3) to accurately distinguish between what one believes from what one thinks might be inferred from that belief (in other words, to use a “straw man” argument). When these kinds of things happen, it becomes virtually impossible to read what others write or listen to what others say without partiality. Emotive language and emotive thinking are often slippery slopes to straw men arguments and generally erect signs that read “Dead End Street.”

This, I believe, describes some of the misunderstanding surrounding the debate concerning the Traditionalist Statement on Salvation. Some in the press, on blogs, and in comment threads have accused the statement of “distorting” Calvinism, setting up “straw men” arguments, and “inaccurately” describing the theology of Calvinism. I do not believe this charge is accurate. For example, I have seen several occasions where the statement has been criticized for “saying” or “implying” that Calvinists believe a person can be saved apart from repentance and faith. The Statement neither says nor implies such. Some have apparently wrongly inferred this from the Statement. There is a huge difference in “implying” and “inferring.” Implication is in the mind and pen of the writer; inference is in the mind of the reader. Writers/speakers imply; readers/hearers infer. Traditionalists are well aware that Calvinists don’t believe anyone is saved apart from repentance and faith. The real difference between Calvinists and Traditionalists here is the nature and function of the will in salvation. Traditionalists believe that Compatibilism implies a denial of genuine freedom. Calvinists don’t. But both groups affirm the necessity of repentance and faith for salvation. Mischaracterization is one thing. Disagreement with someone’s critique of your position should not ipso facto place the disagreer under condemnation of mischaracterization. One person’s mischaracterization is sometimes merely another person’s critique. May God help us to be less shrill in our rhetoric; less sloppy in our understanding and use of history, theology, and language; and make every argument and counter-argument biblically tethered.

Implication is in the mind and pen of the writer; inference is in the mind of the reader. Writers/speakers imply; readers/hearers infer.

Seventh, is the Statement divisive? Division, like most things, occurs in varying degrees and is not always unhealthy or wrong. One degree of division is the simple fact that some believe Calvinistic doctrines and some don’t. Some Calvinists believe in Limited Atonement, while other Calvinists and all Traditionalists don’t. Calvinists believe in Irresistible Grace while Traditionalists don’t. “Almond Joy’s got nuts; Mounds don’t.” This kind or level of division is not at all unhealthy. Another kind of division occurs when people of a like theological mind tend to pal together. They spend more time talking, texting, and emailing one another than they do those in the other group. Again, this kind of division is not unhealthy. A third kind of division is when people in one theological camp think, speak, and act in ways that promote their theological convictions. They sponsor conferences. They join together to produce books. This naturally divides them from those who hold differing theological convictions. This kind of division is likewise to be expected and is not in and of itself necessarily unhealthy.

But there are unhealthy divisions as well. When people think, speak, and act in ways that seek to promote their theological convictions with an agenda, stated or unstated, to marginalize those who differ with them theologically, this kind of division is unhealthy. When people fail to be courteous and respectful in their discussions with those who disagree with their theology; when they engage in emotive language, straw-man arguments, and misrepresentation; this kind of division is unhealthy. It is divisive when people insist that their view is the only correct possible reading of Scripture or even to insist that those who disagree with them are heretical. When leaders unfairly favor one group over another in hiring practices, service opportunities, committee representation, book and literature production, etc., this creates unhealthy division. This is especially egregious if the favored group is in the statistical minority in the organization.

In daily life, healthy division is unavoidable. Theological disagreement need not be divisive, need not entail unhealthy division, and need not result in disunity. To preserve unity will require focused effort on the part of all parties in this discussion. May God help us to keep in step with the Holy Spirit, who is our source of unity.

Finally, the entire enterprise calls for a healthy dose of humility and prayer. The worm of pride is ever threatening to eat into the fruit of the Spirit. Adrian Rogers used to talk about preachers who could strut sitting down. God deliver us from ourselves and a tin God complex in this debate. To reflect God’s light, we should not seek the limelight. As Southern Baptist missionary Miss Bertha Smith used to say: “Even the donkey that brought Jesus into Jerusalem knew that the applause was not for him.” The goal in this dialogue should not be to win at all costs. The goal should be to win the world for Christ at all costs. May God grant it for His glory.

Let the dialogue continue.