Some Thoughts on Calvinism and Cooperation

I originally blogged on this topic back in May of this year. It was part of a series of posts at my now-defunct personal blog. Every semester in my Baptist History and Distinctives course I spend the last hour or so of the final class meeting hosting a Q&A with the students. The students are allowed to ask me any question about the SBC itself, Baptist distinctives, theology, church life, etc. I promise them a straight answer to every question, though I do not promise they will like my answers! One of the questions I get every single semester (including this past week) is about the future of Calvinism in the SBC.

In light of the internet banter sparked by the recent John 3:16 Conference, I thought it would be appropriate for me to re-post my earlier article (with some minor revisions). Please note that this article was published months before the most recent round of debates and thus should not be interpreted as a direct response to either the conference itself or individual bloggers who have engaged this issue in recent weeks. Rather, it is best understood as my musings about the broader debate itself.

Q. Will the SBC split over Calvinism? (Variation: Do you think they will “kick out” all the Calvinists one day?)

A. The future of SBC Calvinism is actually a relatively complicated issue with implications for other issues. As I see it, there are at least four different Southern Baptist responses to Calvinism. Note that this taxonomy is concerned more with how someone reacts to Calvinism rather than how many “points” one affirms, though there is obviously some overlap between the two.

1. Some Southern Baptists are non-cooperative non-Calvinists. Some of these folks are simply revivalistic evangelicals who are fearful of the influence Calvinism will have on common practices and emphases. Others just despise Calvinist theology. Some non-cooperative non-Calvinists are Amyraldians (“4-point” Calvinists), but most of them appear to be classical Arminians, by which I mean non-Wesleyan Arminians with a high view of sin (though not total depravity), a belief in conditional or corporate election coupled with a general atonement, and an affirmation of some form of eternal security. Many of them would call themselves “1-point” or “2-point” Calvinists, if they use that type of language at all.

Non-cooperative non-Calvinists either see Calvinism as a threat to the Convention’s status quo or they believe Calvinism is the wrong solution to the Convention’s problems–maybe even a worse problem. Not all non-cooperative non-Calvinists want to see Calvinists leave the SBC, but most of them want to see Calvinism relegated to small churches with little intradenominational influence. They definitely do not want to see very many Calvinists receiving CP funds to plant churches (either domestically or internationally) or teach in seminaries and colleges. Many of them are opposed to the Abstract of Principles because they believe it is too Calvinistic. Others have no problem with the Abstract, so long as nobody actually interprets the words to mean what the drafters of the confession intended, particularly regarding unconditional election.

Non-cooperative non-Calvinists tend to misrepresent the convictions of Calvinists (Calvinists aren’t evangelistic) and use incorrect labels when discussing Calvinism (“hyper-Calvinism,” “militant Calvinism”). Though there are some well-known Southern Baptists that probably fit into this category, I suspect it is a minority position among well-read non-Calvinists. Non-cooperative non-Calvinism is an extreme position and is a threat to the future of the SBC itself, not just Calvinism within the Convention.

2. Some Southern Baptists are cooperative non-Calvinists. Like the above category, these folks can shake out anywhere between classical Arminianism and Amyraldianism, though I think it is safe to say there is a higher percentage of the latter in this category. Cooperative non-Calvinists do not agree with traditional Calvinism, especially limited atonement and often irresistible grace, and they do not want to see the SBC become a Calvinist-dominated denomination. But they do believe there is a place in the SBC for Calvinists, even in positions of leadership and influence. For many folks in this category, Calvinism is not a threat to the convention, but plays a prophetic role in speaking out against much of the silliness and shallowness in the SBC, even if Calvinism does not always provide the best solution for those problems.

Most of the non-Calvinist students I know fall into this category, as do a number of non-Calvinist professors at some of our seminaries and colleges. Most non-Calvinist pastors I know, especially those under age 50, fit in this category. The Building Bridges Conference last November was the brainchild of several cooperative non-Calvinists and at least one pastor in the following category. This is a reasonable position that will aid the Convention in building upon the foundation of the Conservative Resurgence as we move toward a Great Commission Resurgence.

3. Some Southern Baptists are cooperative Calvinists. These folks are consistent Calvinists, meaning they affirm all five points of Calvinism (though there may be intra-Calvinist debates about the best way to articulate some of the points, particularly limited atonement). Cooperative Calvinists want to see the influence of Calvinism grow within the SBC. They are excited by both the renewed interest in the soteriological convictions of many of our Southern Baptist forefathers and the creative interaction between contemporary Calvinistic Southern Baptists and other Calvinistic evangelicals. Cooperative Calvinists think that Calvinism offers some good solutions for some of the problems in the SBC, but they are willing to work together with cooperative non-Calvinists within the Convention’s framework.

Cooperative Calvinists are not interested in turning the SBC into a uniformly Calvinist denomination, though they would be delighted to see a tempering of some of the revivalism and pragmatism in the Convention. All of the Calvinists I know who work within the bureaucracy are cooperative Calvinists, as are the majority of the Calvinistic students and pastors I know. Several cooperative Calvinists participated in the Building Bridges last November. This is a reasonable position that will aid the Convention in building upon the foundation of the Conservative Resurgence as we move toward a Great Commission Resurgence.

4. Some Southern Baptists are non-cooperative Calvinists. Like the above category, these folks are consistent Calvinists. Unlike the above category, non-cooperative Calvinists are unwilling to join hands with those who do not share all or most of their theological convictions. For these folks, Calvinism is the gospel, and it is as simple as that. Furthermore, the SBC is an almost hopelessly Pelagian denomination that needs to be rescued from the coming wrath of God. Calvinism is the magic pill that will solve all the SBC’s ailments.

Though there are much fewer non-cooperative Calvinists than there are non-cooperative non-Calvinists (there are fewer Calvinists, after all), they probably comprise about the same percentage within SBC Calvinism that vocal non-cooperatives do among the non-Calvinists. Unfortunately, weblogs (especially the comment sections) create the illusion sometimes that this group is larger than it seems, much like the prominence of some non-cooperative non-Calvinists contributes to an exaggerated estimation of the size of that group.

I do know a handful of Calvinistic pastors who fit this bill. I also know some students that are like this, though I hold out hope that most of them are just immature new Calvinists. Thankfully, when most folks have this mentality they tend to leave the SBC and align with more uniformly Calvinistic groups, much like the separatist fundamentalists of an earlier generation. Non-cooperative Calvinism is an extreme position and is a threat to the future of the SBC itself.

Here’s the point of the above taxonomy: if Calvinism is to have a future in the SBC, then both extremes have to pipe down and play nicely or leave the Convention to align with other groups. The tragedy in this whole thing is the way that the different extremes feed off of each other. Many cooperative non-Calvinists have been driven to a non-cooperative position by personal interaction with a pugnacious Calvinist or two (often a staff member or fellow pastor who has recently become Calvinist). Many cooperative Calvinists have been mistreated or maligned by non-cooperative non-Calvinists, pushing them toward a non-cooperative Calvinist position. It is a vicious cyle that crops up in the Convention every few months. To be frank, it irritates the fire out of those of us who want to cooperate.

Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists have a legitimate claim to the Convention. Calvinists can rightly argue that their convictions are more consistent with earlier generations of Southern Baptists than many non-Calvinists. Amyraldians have pretty much always been around the SBC, though most of the early leaders were consistent Calvinists. Non-Calvinists can rightly argue that their convictions are more consistent with recent generations of Southern Baptists. Many non-Calvinists understandably tend to view Calvinism as a recent innovation rather than a resurgence. Both sides can rightly call upon history to buttress their arguments; they simply reference different points in history. Unfortunately, both sides sometimes oversimplify history.

Because the SBC was formed as a means for missionary Baptists to cooperate together in common mission endeavors, it is critical that non-cooperatives on all sides of this issue get with the program or find another place to call home. I mean no ill will; non-cooperative non-Calvinists would be more at home with Independent Baptists, and non-cooperative Calvinists would be more at home in “capital R” Reformed denominations and networks. This is because both groups are more interested in furthering their pet agenda and/or mandating conformity to their personal theological convictions rather than cooperating together to make disciples of all nations.

So to answer the original question: I do not think the SBC will divide over Calvinism, though it is possible if the extremes do not tone it down or move on. Think about the trend: As many as one-third of the SBC pastors and staff members who are recent seminary graduates are consistent Calvinists. That is not counting younger church leaders who did not graduate from seminary or have only a college education. That is not counting foreign missionaries, North American church planters, or professors, ministries toward which a disproportionately high number of Calvinists seem to gravitate. And that is not counting Amyraldians and other types of “four-point” Calvinists. In other words, Calvinism is becoming more influential in the SBC, which is why it is critical that Convention Calvinists be willing to cooperate and non-Calvinists be willing to let them do so. If this does not happen, then yes, we will divide over Calvinism. There will be no Great Commission Resurgence. And that will be a shame.

Amend ETS

The Evangelical Theological Society will hold its annual meeting next week in Providence, Rhode Island. The ETS is a scholarly society comprised of evangelicals who affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and the doctrine of the Trinity. Because this is a pretty minimalist doctrinal commitment, the ETS has faced some internal controversies in the past decade, most notably a battle over whether open theism is a legitimate evangelical option.

To help bring greater doctrinal clarity to the ETS, Boyce College dean Denny Burk and Union University professor Ray Van Neste, both New Testament scholars (and Southern Baptists), have been advocating an amendment to the ETS doctrinal statement for some time. There will be a vote to amend the statement at this year’s meeting. You can read about the proposed amendment on Denny’s blog or your can check out the Amend ETS website.mobil rpg game

The Type of Statesmen Southern Baptists Need, Part 2

1. We need leaders who balance orthodoxy and Christian piety.

As with almost all groups, at times in our history Southern Baptists have had leaders who were committed to sound doctrine but were not always careful to “watch their life” (1 Tim. 4:16). At other times we have had leaders who rejected, or at least questioned, historic orthodoxy, though many of them were seemingly model Christians in terms of their spiritual walk. This is not the way things are meant to be. Doctrine without piety leads to dead orthodoxy, which is in fact unorthodox. Devotion without theology leads to either liberalism, unbridled pragmatism, or both, which is in fact impious.

Healthy Christians, including Christian leaders, think rightly about God and live rightly before God. They affirm and defend the fundamentals of the faith that are revealed in Scripture and have been confirmed by the consensus fidei of the wider body of Christ. They cling to an evangelical gospel that is rooted in the grace of God and grounds our salvation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. They mortify their sins and pursue godliness by the power of that gospel. They live as those who have been redeemed and not like the world from which they have been rescued. Their priorities are godly priorities and their values are biblical values. Their commitment to Christian sanctification is infectious, inspiring others to fight their sin and daily look to the cross of Christ. We need SBC leaders who are diligent to balance theology and practice.

2. We need leaders who are convictionally Baptist.

Though this may sound strange to post-denominational ears, in a Baptist denomination it is necessary for our leaders to be committed to a uniquely Baptist vision of the Christian life. Though I do not believe that our leaders must agree upon every nuanced debate within Baptist thought, there should be a basic consensus concerning what constitutes Baptist Christianity. As convictional Baptists, our leaders must model a commitment to the lordship of Christ in all things, including the nature and ministry of churches that seek to conform to the New Testament.

Southern Baptist leaders must affirm and model regenerate church membership, which entails unambiguous gospel proclamation, a commitment to discipleship, and the practice of redemptive church discipline. They must practice and defend believer’s baptism by immersion alone as the only baptismal practice consistent with the New Testament witness, the nature of the gospel, and a commitment to a believer’s church. They must affirm a pastor-led congregationalism and a cooperative, non-isolationist version of local church autonomy. They must defend liberty of conscious for all people, not for the sake of plurality of conviction (as if that were an end in itself), but for the sake of the freedom of gospel proclamation in a plural society.

3. We need leaders who pray for, evangelize, and lead others in sharing the gospel with non-Christians.

The SBC exists as a Convention of autonomous churches for the sake of preaching the gospel to all people. Southern Baptist leaders need to be the type of people who weep over the souls of men and women who do not yet know Christ. Our leaders need to be people whose lives are characterized by a personal commitment to evangelism. Our leaders need to be people who support our denomination’s foreign and home mission endeavors, preferably in more ways than merely giving financially to the Cooperative Program and other mission causes (though giving is important).

Let me be clear: I am not arguing for uniformity in missional strategies, emphases, or approaches. Not every person or church evangelizes in the same way or even the same “type” of lost people (in terms of worldview, station in life, geographical context, etc.). Our hope is not in more programs, humanly conceived statistical goals, or standardized methodology. It is certainly not in demonizing churches that embrace different programs than yours, baptize fewer new converts, or have differing convictions about how to best engage in evangelism. The vast majority of Southern Baptist churches (and presumably pastors and other leaders) are not concerned enough with reaching lost people, and this is true regardless of their respective traditions, programs, emphases, and theological convictions. To say it bluntly, let’s quit shooting at each other and start sharing the gospel with non-Christians, even as we have family discussions about the best way(s) to do so.

4. We need leaders who know how to contextualize the best of our history in their own setting.

Let me explain. It is popular among many contemporary Baptists to look back to an imagined golden era of Baptist (or at least Free Church) history and wish we could bring it back. Some want us to recover the radical nature of Anabaptism, often overestimating the historical relationship between Anabaptism and the Baptist movement. Some of us want to recover the theology of the founding generation of Southern Baptists, often overestimating the uniformity of consistent (“five-point”) Calvinism in the mid-19th century. Some of us want to recover the ecclesiological emphases, if not always the presuppositions, of postbellum Landmarkers, often overestimating the ability (or willingness) of Landmarkism to tolerate other opinions. Some of our moderate friends want to recover the progressive emphases of the era between World War II and the Reagan Administration, often overestimating the spiritual value of modern or post-modern theological trends.

We need leaders who can take what is good and useful from each of these (and other) baptistic sub-movements and “translate” them for 21st century Southern Baptists. Our hope does not rest in Balthasar Hubmaier or Pilgram Marpeck, but in contemporary Baptists who share their commitment to costly discipleship and a believer’s church while rejecting their cultural separatism. Our hope does not rest in Basil Manly Sr. and John Dagg, but in contemporary Baptists who share their commitment to sound doctrine and cooperative missions while rejecting their captivity to Southern culture. Our hope does not rest in J. R. Graves and J. M. Pendleton, but in contemporary Baptists who share their commitment to distinctively Baptist Christianity while rejecting their sectarian tendencies. Our hope does not rest in Duke McCall and Louie Newton, but in contemporary Baptists who share their commitment to the Convention’s growth and success while rejecting their indifference to theological consensus.

5. We need leaders who inspire and equip future leaders.

Authentic leaders are like rabbits-they multiply. Their character and giftedness is an inspiration to younger men and women who possess leadership potential. Furthermore, real leaders recognize that potential and invest their lives in mentoring future leaders. Healthy leadership is replicated in the rising generation. (So is unhealthy leadership.)

If Southern Baptist leaders do not inspire future leaders, then some of our best and brightest seminarians and pastors will gravitate toward non-Southern Baptists who do inspire them. I would contend this is already happening; ask present and future ministers under age 40 whose sermons they are downloading, whose conferences they are attending, and whose books they are reading. You might be surprised at how disconnected many of our potential future leaders are from many of our current leaders. We will lose a generation to other movements if we do not inspire them to want to exercise their gifts within the Southern Baptist Convention.

But inspiring future leaders is not enough; current leaders must equip young potential leaders so that they will know how to lead well when the opportunity comes. Pastors and other church leaders should spend time mentoring young people, especially those who are wrestling with a call to some form of “vocational” ministry. Seasoned pastors need to spend some time with less experienced ministers, helping them to work through some of the thorny issues and life experiences that cannot be taught in a classroom or read in a book. Seminary and Christian college professors must take the time to pour their lives, and not just their lectures, into students-they are hungry for someone who cares enough to spend time with them outside of class. Agency administrators must figure out which of their subordinates have the potential to eventually assume greater leadership responsibility, give them some opportunities, and then offer some constructive feedback to help sharpen future leaders. Leaders need to prepare others to one day take their place.

These are the type of statesmen Southern Baptists need as we press on, by God’s grace, toward a Great Commission Resurgence in our churches. Join me in thanking God for our past leaders, praying that God would have his way in the lives and ministries of our current leaders, and trusting that God will raise up future statesmen who will honor him and strengthen the people called Southern Baptist.