18 June 2012

Thoughts on "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation"

I know that I'm late to the party on this one, but pastoral and family duties have captured my attention over the last three weeks.  So, I'm just now sitting down to digest the document that has created the most recent stir around the SBC.  The statement was posted on www.SBCToday.com on May 30, and entitled "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation."

I guess it was just a matter of time before one group fired the first serious shot at the other in the growing tension among Calvinists and Anti-Calvinists in our convention.  This is unfortunate, but not surprising.  Hopefully, we will quickly agree to a cease fire, before this brouhaha escalates.

Just after a cursory reading of the statement two immediate observations are clear.  First, the document appears to be the product of fear.  Second, through the statement, Calvinism itself is mischaracterized through oversimplification and overgeneralizing.

In the preamble, the statement identifies a growing menace in the convention whom it labels the "New Calvinists."  The document recognizes that Baptist history in undeniably filled with both those who have been Calvinists, those who lean toward Calvinism and those who lean away from it.  However, the author(s) of the statement fear that "some New Calvinists seem to be pushing for a radical alteration of this long-standing arrangement."  The preamble draws up a clear "us" versus "them" mentality on the issue of Calvinism.  The document speaks for an unidentified "they" who "do not want Calvinism to become the standard view in Southern Baptist life."

What is clear is that the writers of this document fear Calvinism.  It reads as if a conspiracy is afoot to impose a Calvinistic understanding of salvation into our convention.  Although I have, like many others, observed a clear resurgence of Calvinistic theology in our convention, especially among the younger generation, I have not perceived any movement to amend our confession of faith to make it more Calvinistic.  I have not heard of any desire to make Calvinism a litmus test for employment or appointment.  However, it would appear that those who oppose Calvinism have an anticipation of such things, which is creating this fear, which has caused them to pull the trigger with this statement.

The document is made up of ten articles that alternate between "We affirm" statements and "We deny" statements.  There are 10 of the former and 15 of the latter. The "We affirm" statements generally repeat what the Baptist Faith and Message clearly affirms.  Therefore, the "We affirm" statements don't really serve a constructive purpose.  They simply repeat positive statements that already exist in our convention's confession of faith. 

The focus of the document is the "We deny" statements.  In other words, this is what the author(s) really wanted to say!  Most of the "We deny" statements are direct shots at their understanding of Calvinism and its theological implications.  As I read these statements, I can see the proverbial straw man being erected so the fight can commence.

According the statement, a Calvinist's understanding of grace necessitates a denial of man's free will.  Additionally, a Calvinist's understanding of predestination, sin, election, and God's sovereignty necessitates a denial of man's free will.  Here seems to be the rub for these self-proclaimed "traditionalists" - they fear Calvinism strips man of his free will and negates or ignores all the biblical content related to appeals to man's volition.  This is not a surprise and it's certainly nothing new.  This has been the charge consistently laid against Calvinism since the Reformation.  However, I believe the typical Calvinist would allow for a great deal of mystery in regards to these matters that would not allow for such simplification. 

A person once asked Charles Spurgeon, who was a Calvinist, how he could reconcile God's sovereignty and man's responsibility.  His response was, "I don't try to reconcile friends." The typical Calvinist understands that this mystery is part of our faith, just as is the Trinity and the Incarnation.  To create a false dichotomy between the two is theologically fallacious and damaging to our fellowship.

Calvinism is an explanation of the Gospel; it's not the Gospel itself.  Certainly, there are practical implications for methods based upon one's theology.  In other words, a commitment to a certain theological understanding will inevitably shape ministry practice.  But I believe the "traditionalists" fear the exceptions rather than what has always been normative for Calvinists within Baptist life.

The Baptist Faith and Message has  more than adequate statements on salvation and grace that are theologically inclusive.  Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike can embrace with no reservation the carefully selected language.  Then each can add their own personal commentary, according to their own study of the Word, in their preaching and writing.  However, the commentary ought not be a source of acrimony in the convention.  We should allow such discussions to produce greater understanding and cooperation as "iron sharpens iron."  And you can't put metal to metal and not have a few sparks fly!  But after a flurry of sparks settle the product should be sharper minds biblically and theologically in a genuine spirit of Christian charity.  Let's just make sure we are sharpening our minds and not weapons, guarding our hearts from fear, despair and contentiousness, and staying focused on working together for Christ and His Kingdom.   


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