Today it seems that the topic of Calvinism within Southern Baptist life stirs up a curious amount of passion among its proponents and opposers alike. As I stand back and watch, I believe I perceive what must be a pervasive ignorance among many who engage in attempting to create fear over Calvinism as if it were a gospel-perverting heresy. As a pastor, it is easy also to observe that most people in the pews of Southern Baptist churches are uninformed on the issue, making them extremely susceptible to reacting fearfully to misinformation and mischaracterization.
The primary purpose of this blog post is to inform. I really don't mind if you are a Calvinist or non-Calvinist. For me, it is not a test of fellowship. However, as Baptists I think it is critically important for us to be informed of the place of Calvinism within the Baptist heritage.
The term Calvinism, for better or worse, is derived from the sixteenth-century French pastor/theologian John Calvin. Calvin was a Reformer (meaning he broke with the dominate Roman Catholic tradition) and conducted the majority of his ministerial work in Geneva, Switzerland. Like other Reformers Calvin led his congregation to implement significant changes in form and doctrine, guided by a return to the ultimate authority of Scripture. Other Reformers, such as Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli were taking on the same challenge; however, Calvin emerged as the prominent systematic theologian of the bunch and distinguished himself with his work, Institutes of the Christian Religion - a work that has never been out of print.
At this point we still have no Baptists on the scene. However, at the turn of the seventeenth century our first groups that became known as Baptists began to emerge. By that time two theological streams of Protestantism had developed from which Baptists could be nourished. A theology that emphasized God's sovereignty in salvation and human affairs had developed with the first generations of Reformers (we'll go ahead and call it Calvinism) stood in contrast to a theology that emphasized man as a free agent in regards to salvation and human affairs. This second kind of Protestant theology was a reaction to the first kind that preceded it. This theology came to be called Arminianism, deriving it's label from Jacob Arminius, a Dutch theologian who had taken Calvin to task on some of his theological views. One should note that the disagreements then were as strong as they are now.
As Baptists emerged, the first ones stepped into the Arminian stream. These had much in common with our faith cousins, the Anabaptists. These first identifiable Baptists, who were Arminian are historically observable around 1608-12, first in Holland, then England. However, the other stream of English Baptist development that swelled into a river were those of the Calvinistic mindset. These congregations of Baptists first emerge in the 1630s, becoming the more plentiful kind of Baptists.
Therefore, from the beginning Baptists have had this theological dichotomy in regards to the doctrine of salvation. This was also the case in the American colonies and throughout the development and growth of Baptists in the United States. Calvinism has surged and waned in popularity through 400 years of Baptist history. In recent years Southern Baptists have been experiencing a resurgence, which implies it's always been there, but is now gaining a new generation of adherents.
This resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC has been completely and totally caused by the conservative resurgence within the SBC during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Ironically, that resurgence was predominately led by non-Calvinists. However, a return to the authority of Scripture inevitable backtracked to a more conservative Reformed theology. It is a fact that liberalism sprung from the theological soil of Arminianism. A liberal Calvinist is a contradiction in terms. (I'm speaking primarily in regards to views on the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible). Also, even those who were non-Calvinists who led the conservative resurgence were not true Arminians.
So, are Southern Baptists more Arminian or Calvinistic in their collective theology? Most, I believe are neither Arminian nor thoroughly Calvinistic. The only Baptists that are thoroughly Arminian are Free Will Baptists. They believe, unlike Southern Baptists, that a person can lose his or her salvation. This is the true litmus test for Arminianism. The theological understanding that true believers will persevere to the end (or in Baptistese, "once saved, always saved"), is a Reformed notion (i.e. Calvinism). I've never met a Southern Baptist who didn't believe this.
Every Southern Baptist, whether they know it or not, has been theologically influenced by Calvinism, at least on the idea of perseverance. I believe it's safe to say that even those who are anti-Calvinists are more indebted to and have been more influenced by Calvinism than Arminianism. However, some Baptists today and always have found some tenets of Calvinism theologically unpalatable.
Regrettably, I think that there is also a mischaracterization of Calvinism being spun from fear based on an ignorance of history and lack of respect and trust toward Calvinists themselves, which I think overall is unfounded. When you hear some say, "Well, I'm a John 3:16 whosoever will Baptist," the implication is that Calvinists dismiss or diminish the significance of Jesus' words. When you hear someone say, "Calvinists don't believe Jesus died for everyone," the intent seems to be to stir up negative emotions based on our sense of fairness, rather than engaging the relevant biblical texts in a thoughtful manner and truly attempting to understand what the tradition means by the concept termed "limited atonement." When you hear some say, "Calvinism will kill missions," he is projecting an extreme view (hyper-Calvinism) on the whole and is probably uninformed about Baptist history.
Baptist history is pregnant with Calvinists. Here are a few examples. The author of The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan - Calvinist. The most prominent eighteenth-century English Baptist theologian, John Gill - Calvinist. The father of modern Protestant missions, William Carey - Calvinist. The prince of preachers, Charles Spurgeon - Calvinist. The founder of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, James Petigru Boyce - Calvinist. And there are many, many others.
Baptists in general and Southern Baptists in particular have always been either consistent Calvinists or had Calvinistic theology to some degree embedded in them. This is just the historical fact. With the rise of liberalism Calvinism became a marginalized minority voice within Baptist life, but with the conservative resurgence in the SBC Calvinism is naturally finding the right soil for new growth. This is not a surprise.
With all this said, now let me clearly say this: Calvinism is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Calvinism is an interpretation and explanation of the Gospel. The Gospel is what God did in His Son, Jesus, and what that means to humanity. Calvinism is an understanding of the Gospel. It is Augustine's famous, "faith seeking understanding."
My appeal to Southern Baptists is to understand the history of Calvinism within Baptist life and avoid the hysteria. My hope is that all our theology, including Calvinism, will be measured by its faithfulness to the clear teachings of Scripture, not by our emotions, traditions, or the company we keep. Southern Baptist life has been and ought to continue to be informed and gracious enough to be welcoming of Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike. Our cooperation with one another is about the Gospel and fulfilling our Master's command to take it to the nations.
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