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.