“Traditional” Baptists and Calvinism

In May 2012 a group of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders posted a statement on the “Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” The statement defended man’s free will in accepting Christ’s offer of salvation, and highlighted what is now the key theological division within the country’s largest Protestant denomination. With SBC conservatives having largely taken control of denominational leadership and seminaries from moderates and liberals by the 1990s, the debate over Calvinism, including predestination, election, and God’s sovereignty in salvation, is now one of the SBC’s most fractious, pitting camps of theological conservatives against one another.

The statement generated an indignant response from many SBC Calvinists, and also from some SBC leaders who think the denomination should focus on areas of unity. (Frank Page, the current president of the denomination’s Executive Committee, as well as the leaders of the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board, declined to take sides on the statement.)

Some have raised concerns about the statement’s portrayal of Calvinism, but what I’ll focus on here is the problematic historical stance of the authors, especially in calling free will the “traditional” Southern Baptist position on soteriology (the theology of salvation). To be fair, the authors note that Calvinism has played a role in Southern Baptist life from its “earliest days,” although they do not say whether they mean the emergence of English Baptists in the early 1600s, or the founding of the SBC in 1845. In either case, Calvinists have always been a major factor, but especially if you include the first two hundred and fifty years of the movement, Calvinism arguably has been the dominant theology among English and American Baptists.

This makes dubious the assertion that free will is the “traditional” position. If we were talking about Methodism, by contrast, Arminianism would undoubtedly be the “traditional” position, as Methodist founder John Wesley was rigidly anti-Calvinist, and broke fellowship with the great evangelist George Whitefield over the issue. (The SBC authors, as I understand it, do not wish to be called Arminians.)

But from its origins, the Baptist movement was divided between “General” and “Regular” or “Particular” Baptists over the issue of election (was Christ’s atonement only for the elect, or was it offered to all?). In America, Baptists who believed in a general atonement became a decided minority, especially after the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century, as Calvinistic Separate Baptists, emerging from the revivals, became the most dynamic segment of broader Baptist life.

The statement also acknowledges that “some earlier Baptist confessions were shaped by Calvinism,” but this is an understatement. Of course, there were General Baptist confessions, but the Calvinistic London Baptist Confession of 1689, and the nearly identical Philadelphia Confession of 1742, exercised a dominant influence, even as Baptist churches spread to the American frontier. For instance, in 1785 the new Elkhorn Baptist Association of Kentucky adopted the Philadelphia Confession, which affirmed that “by the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are pre-destinated, or fore-ordinated to eternal life, through Jesus Christ, to the praise of his glorious grace; others being left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of his glorious justice.” Although the 1833 New Hampshire Baptist Confession was more moderate, it too remained Calvinist.

Think of all the Calvinistic Baptists, including Baptist leaders from the South, that we must regard as “non-traditional” if this statement is correct: John Bunyan, Isaac Backus, David George (the pastor of the first enduring African American congregation in America, the Silver Bluff Church in South Carolina), Charles Spurgeon, James Petrigru Boyce…the list could go on and on.

Baptists have long engaged in vigorous debates about Calvinism, and there has never been a unifying Baptist position on the issue. It is one thing for Baptist non-Calvinists to argue that theirs is the biblical position on soteriology–and there is indeed a sound argument to be made for the general atonement and other aspects of the non-Calvinist position. But it is another thing to claim the “traditional” label for free will. It is unclear what the signers mean when they say “it is time to move beyond Calvinism as a reference point for Baptist soteriology,” but with such a strong historic legacy and, apparently, with growing numbers of Baptist adherents, it is not likely that Baptist Calvinism will go away any time soon.

  • Mark Grigg

    Chul thanks for sharing. I’m not sure an uncompromising position is heathy so as I grow in my faith walk I see God’s sovereignty as a means of His grace for me, for the saints, and for the lost.

    • Dixie Ball

      I have a strong suspicion that “when we all get to heaven” and “know even as we are known”, we will all
      find that none of us are quite as learned as we think, and there will be myriads of people there who
      don’t have a clue what all of this is about, yet they know Jesus because someone shared the gospel
      of Christ. Shame on us for letting the enemy divide us so well!!

      • Merrill

        Yes!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003406158777 Junji

      I am opposed to the SBC name caghne and the optional unofficial name . We are what we are and we have good reason to be proud of the SBC name we presently carry. Does anyone really believe that we can caghne our name and the unchurched will suddenly see us in a different light than before, flock to the church buildings and reverse the decline in membership? The Lifeway study that revealed a significant enough level of negativity toward the Southern Baptist churches by the unchurched implies that our work fulfilling the Great Commission is made more complicated. It may be. However, painting our denomination with a different color (i.e., name) does not caghne the composition of our Biblically-based doctrine.With over 50 associations, fellowships and conventions using the name Baptist in the U.S. I can see where the unchurched are confused, as this list goes from the Alliance of Baptists to the World Baptist Fellowship. The Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas is also in this list. We (SBC Baptists) have pregnancy crisis centers, childrens homes, relief shelters, disaster relief teams, foreign and home missionaries and numerous other outreach programs that carry comfort, goodwill and the message of the Cross to those who need it. How many of the unchurched know about these programs of our denomination? I imagine very few.I believe the answer to our negative numbers from the Lifeway study is not window dressing like a new name, but advertising in the national media showing what the Southern Baptists are doing in our communities to serve those in need. Additionally, each of us needs to redouble our time in God’s Word daily and spend copious amounts of time in prayer to God, seeking wisdom, forgiveness of our sins and His assistance to us in living our life as He wants us to do. We need to live our faith each day and be the salt of the earth and that the light on the hill, essentially walking the talk. Any effort less than that is aid and comfort to those who seek to criticize our church.

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  • John Winder

    Check trends today in America, and in Europe, it is these kinds of discussions that are killing the church. Jesus Christ is the savior.
    18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

    ALL authority is His. Your arguments, definitions and classifications won’t/don’t change that.
    “Go and make disciples” – while you argue among yourselves souls are lost, the Church is dying, and the world has gone to hell.

    “And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” So SHUT UP and listen to Him.
    This is why I am no longer a Baptist, and a large part of why, so many are no longer a part of any church.

  • http://GospelCoalition Jim

    O my goodness! To be dubbed an “Arminian”! What worse fate could one endure! Shall it never be! Rather, let us evangelize God’s true message: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau I have hated.” “For God so loved the elect that He gave His only begotten Son for them and selected them and compelled them to believe in Him, so that they, alone among all mankind, would not perish, but have everlasting life. And the rest of you can (actually, will, if this doctrine is to be believed) go straight to hell.” Ah, Evangelicalism! The good news would then be annihilationalism; otherwise, a cow has a much better deal than those consigned to perdition before the foundations of the world.

    • Marc Dale

      Jim,
      Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, bro. Caricaturing the Calvinist position in the way you have does you no credit and belittles so many heroes of the faith and godly saints today who have faithfully understood the Bible’s teaching within that framework. Surely we can all have the humility that the author has shown and acknowledge that there are Biblicly sound arguements that can be advanced byboth sides of this debate. Assuming or asserting that those who hold conservative beliefs on this or any matter of doctrine do so as a result of ignorance or mean-spiritedness is unwise.

    • Andy

      Let’s set ourselves as the ones who choose salvation rather than God. Let’s make up a theology as to how babies get saved where the blood of jesus is able to cover them for their sins up to some arbitrary age, but one day after that the blood of jesus “magically” doesn’t save them any more.

      all of us deserve hell. i don’t pretend to know why God saves some, but i’m thankful that he does. if there has to be a chooser as to who gets saved, is there any better chooser than God?

      • Ron Schooler

        “All of us deserve hell.” How far off is our sense of justice from God’s understanding of justice? How many of us think that any infraction of the law from littering to murder deserves the same punishment–whatever is the maximum? Does God actually see a person who puts in effort and lives a decent life for others, but has never heard the Gospel and knows nothing of Jesus (and that is a lot of people gone and yet to come) the same as a Josef Stalin type? Does God really want to spend eternity with conservative Christians only?

        • Andy

          got any references to back assertion that sin doesn’t keep us separated from God?
          Or that being a decent guy is enough to get you into heaven?
          If mowing your lawns, being a nice person, and looking after elderly neighbours and poor people was enough to get us into God’s good books, why did Jesus have to die for our sins?

          • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com Dan F.

            “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or in prison” ….

            Jesus died for the sins of the whole world – including those who, without fault of their own, will never in this life hear his Name spoken but still live morally because of the Law of God written on their hearts.

          • Ron Schooler

            Andy, I hope I didn’t say that being a good person gets you into Heaven. God’s grace is the only way.

            As I read it, Christ died for us “while we were yet sinners.” He came not to condemn the world, but in order to save it. Jesus died for the sins of the world, which, to my theology was all the sins committed already by the dead, by those alive, and by those still unborn. I also subscribe to the Reformed notion of sin that it is not so much a matter of wrongs committed or good things not done. It is a condition of life. Even our best acts are tinged with our sin nature. We are impure. In spite of this, God reconciled Himself to us through Jesus, the Christ.

            I guess I’m asking you if you think God so loved the world that He sent his Son to redeem a small minority based solely on a choice made before the foundation of the world. This choice was not based in merit at all. It is impossible to know who these chosen ones are for sure. Better just hope you are one of them. This view is difficult for many of us to swallow. While it can be defended from some Scriptures, so can a more generous notion of God’s grace. Which is more powerful: God’s love of people or God’s hatred of peoples’ sin?

  • http://biblecentre.org/topics/pw_arminianism_vs_calvinism.htm BothSidesAreWrong

    http://biblecentre.org/topics/pw_arminianism_vs_calvinism.htm

    The linked article, largely based around a critique of aw-ful pink on the calvinism side, clearly shows how both arminism and calanism are dangerous additions to scripture and makes a biblically sound case for plotting a middle ground between the pitfalls of both sides.

    • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com Dan F.

      Perhaps a ‘pre-ground’ if you will? Maybe before the Calvinism/Amrnianism debate there was an already established theological position that was faithful to the Scriptures and the teaching of the Apostles…

  • http://biblecentre.org/topics/pw_arminianism_vs_calvinism.htm Bothsidesarewrong
  • Chris

    Jesus was the only sacrifice sufficient for the sins of the world. Period. God created the world. God is, or as He put it: I am. Without God, we don’t exist, and without Christ’s sacrifice no man can come to the Father. We also know that God is good and that God is kind. So while the initiation of salvation is clearly God’s and He is the only One of whom we can boast, His kindness, goodness, and for that matter, love must be defined very differently if I am to ascribe to Him the eternal torment of unknown millions of people. If He can command us to love, He must believe that we have an adequate definition of love and of course, an incredibly perfect example of love in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003406179877 Haytam

    I am thankful that the Convention has given so much touhght and prayer to this issue. I too am proud of the long heritage that the SBC has in going after the main thing, the gospel. However, I believe that it is insightful and sensitive to discuss a name change as we look to the future. I believe that the name Great Commission’ will be offensive to many people, but it will be offensive because of the gospel message that it bears. What is better, to be offensive because we are being obedient to God in our pursuit of the Great Commission, or to be offensive because our name Southern’ reminds people of the terrible time in our country’s history when slavery and prejudice were ingrained so deeply that even our churches followed the cultural influences?


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