Beginning it is, of the Baptist Wars!

Is it me, or are the underlying tensions in the Southern Baptist Convention about Calvinism beginning to get a little more … tense?

The election of Frank Page to the SBC presidency a few years ago gave some currency to the anti-Calvinist camp. I’ve noticed that in the last few years that Broadman & Holman is producing a lot of Arminian and Dispensationalist books with only a few token Reformed pieces like Jim Hamilton’s book God’s Indwellling Presence. More recently, a group of SBC leaders signed and disseminated a document called, A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation. It claims that historically the SBC “majority” has tolerated Calvinism but overall resisted it. It seeks to interdict any effort to make Calvinism, of any variety, normative or authoritative in the SBC. Now I have a few problem with this statement. First, I don’t recognize the Calvinism that they are denying, it’s certainly not mine, nor most Calvinists I know. Second, I thought Baptist’s believe that each believer and each church had the right to make up their minds about non-core doctrine and the denomination was a loose confederation of independent churches, so who cares if one churches is Calvinist or not, you are not your brother’s keeper.

The Baptican blogosophere is a flutter with posts on this subject. See TGC, Al Mohler, Denny Burk, Roger Olson, and Patrick Schreiner to name a few.

The SBC has many diverse tribes. A friend once gave me David S. Dockery and Timothy George’s book Building Bridges, which was not only very eye-opening about the history and dynamics of the SBC, but also presented a very compelling call for Christian unity in the SBC.

My fear is that the loose alliance of tribes in the highest echelons of the SBC is breaking-down and there will be a long and painful Calvinist purge, probably shortly after Al Mohler retires from Southern Seminary. While the conservative resurgence was a force for orthodoxy against liberalism, I get the feeling from my circle of friends and prior reading that the resurgence also cultivated an insatiable and addictive appetite for purges. Once you get rid of the moderates and charismatics, who else can you go after? The next theological minority! The Calvinists!! It seems that for the moment the Calvinists are begrudgingly tolerated, but the silent grudge against them will one day be aggressively vocalized, perhaps it has already begun.

Beginning it is, of the Baptist wars!

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  • Lou

    I’m with you in spirit on this post, but I do have one disagreement (coming from one who was raised in Baptist circles & still has many friends in them). I believe the result will be the opposite of what you say: not a “Calvinist purge” but an Arminian (or at least, non-Calvinist) purge. The Baptist Calvinism that has come out of Louisville the last several years isn’t your standard ecumenical, peaceful, humble Calvinism. It has been a divisive, militant, aggressive, dogmatic, evangelistic, heresy-hunting Calvinism (I use “Calvinism” instead of “Reformed” intentionally b/c these guys are 5-pointers without any other reformed distinctives…..a point made by Roger Olsen, Jamie Smith, Michael Horton, etc.). There are countless anecdotes of these guys hiding their Calvinism during pastoral interviews, getting the job, & imposing said beliefs upon congregations seemingly out of left field. Louisville has been putting these guys out for a while now, and they’re not the poor guys getting picked on. Their zeal leads me to the conclusion that if anyone is going to lose this battle, it’s the non-Calvinists. I’d seek a few more respected opinions about this if I were you (& Mohler probably won’t retire for 20 more years). Among congregations Calvinism is still the minority, but among leaders it is increasingly becoming the majority

  • Ian Thomason

    As an Australian who just happens to be Reformed in his theology, I’ve long considered SBC Baptists to be, well, a little weird. The Convention presents to me as being a group that argues more for what they don’t agree with and/or believe in, then for what they do. Further, they seem to have a knack for making issues of adiaphora central to whether or not they fellowship with other Christians. So the latest brouhaha from their ranks has me thinking, ‘here they go again …’

    In closing I remain wholly unconvinced that Dispensationalism is a legitimate lens to be viewing Scripture through, and I am forever grateful that it’s influence is very, very slight in my country.

  • Echoing Lou’s point, I would call this statement more of a preemptive defensive against the growing and aggressive neo-Calvinism among many in the SBC (especially the younger generation of neo-Calvinists influenced by Mohler, Grudem, Piper, Driscoll, et al.) than as an attempt at purging a “theological minority.” Though I’m not a member of the SBC, I’ve seen the damage this more aggressive neo-Calvinism can have in denominations and think the SBC is right to push back a bit, even if the document has some foibles.

  • Chris Criminger

    Hi Everyone,
    I live by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and I see the exact same thing that Lou sees.
    To present Calvinism as a minority or a victim are neither true or helpful from my perspective. And if the Calvinists are starting to get picked on, my question is “have you been sticking up for the Arminians who have been getting picked on for yours?” (especially by Mohler and company). I have several embittered Southern Baptist ministers in my area who unfortunately HATE Calvinism now because of the agressive, dogmatic, take no-prisoners kind of approach they experienced at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary!

    • There are a lot of hard feelings around Louisville toward Dr. Mohler and SBTS that have just as much to do with the conservative shift the seminary experienced under Mohler’s tenure. I wouldn’t conflate that issue, one primarily centered around inerrancy and the abstract of principles, with current debates about soteriology.

      • Marie Peterson

        Great point, Ryan! As for the comment earlier re: “militant Calvinists,” I think that there are more than a few who would fit that description, but many who do not. And I think that “militant Calvinism” is not because of any problem with the teaching, but with the temptation that comes to anyone attending a seminary of any sort. There’s the temptation to make everything academic and see the “devotional” aspects of our faith as secondary. There’s the temptation to see our understanding of the truth as an essential of the faith (there are essentials, but being a Calvinist is not one of them). There’s the temptation to place academia above the local church. Also, my guess is that many of these “militant Calvinists” may, after pastoring a church for any length of time, realize they need to repent and seek to be more humble, while still holding on to their convictions. As one who went through so-called “cage-stage Calvinism” myself, I am thankful for those who helped cure me of it, people not unlike our brother Ryan Szrama, I might add!

  • Gary T. Meadors

    About 10 years ago, I used to travel with a book editor for Spring golf. We always stopped by Southern Sem in Louisville on our way south. I always enjoyed going incognito to the student lounge and read…and mostly eavesdrop on student conversations. Even then, I was struck by the comments of students from mainline southern SBC churches complaining about Southern being taken over by NON-Southern Baptist. There were a variety of complaints (more about “evangelicals” than calvinists at that time), but it was clear…it was no longer their daddy’s school.

    I observed SBC churches in VA, NC and points south in the 60s and 70s. My less-than-critical thinking observations at that time were that the SBC was arminian and amillennial. During that same period, a lot of the Bible Colleges were complaining about calvinism, especially about the atonement. But, in my observation, most Bible Colleges in the south were also arminian (whether they knew it or not).

    I would like to see an informed study on the changing SBC as it emerged from its cultural isolation and moved closer or into “evangelicalism” (or some may say, as evangelicals took it over). I’m not sure who could write that book without bias. Even Dave D. may have been part of the transition.

  • R David
  • James M. Leonard

    Lou is right, at least in regard to the kind of Calvinist Baptist pastors being produced in recent years. They teach 5 point Calvinism on the sly after infiltrating non-Calvinist churches. Most SBC churches are oblivious to the notion of a limited atonement, or perhaps have heard about it in passing and assume that only the most whacked out heretics hold to such a position.

    So, Calvinist pastors have to hide their limited atonement in the candidating process, and only gradually reveal their cards over the first couple of years in their new pastorate. Consequently, numerous churches find themselves in theological conflict with their pastors. Churches are split, and congregations ask their Directors of Mission (regional church leaders) why they were not warned previously of such “heretics.”

    Currently, two seminaries are aggressively promoting Calvinism–Southern (Louisville) and Southeastern (Wake Forest, NC). In recent years, a pushback has been seen at New Orleans and at Southwestern (Dallas, TX).

    Interestingly, Baptists who reject “once saved, always saved” are already persona non grata in SBC. That is to say, it would be easier for a 5 point Calvinist to get a job at Southwestern Seminary than it would be for someone who affirms “salvation by grace through faith, and continuance in salvation by grace through faith” and who rejects the notion that initial faith guaranties final salvation. Of course, someone who affirms “salvation by grace through faith, and continuance in salvation by grace through faith” is much closer theologically to most Southern Baptist churches than 5 point Calvinists, so, a fortiori, why shouldn’t 5 point Calvinists be purged from the denomination?

  • Jason

    Just two comments here:

    (1) As a graduate of Southwestern, I saw the same ‘militant’ charges brought against the Calvinists there. Those who would identify themselves as 5-point Calvinists or leaning to that side (say 4-points) did not opening advocate their views. (At least that was my experience when I left a few years ago, I’ve not heard that things have changed, but perhaps someone can correct me here.) It is hardly fair to speak of Southern and Southeastern as promoting Calvinism ‘aggressively’ without also acknowledging that Southwestern and New Orleans (?) are doing the same but from the other perspective.

    (2) I’ve heard the charge for years that Calvinists are hiding their views during interviews and then forcing their views onto churches after being hired. Why is this evidence never presented? Is this just a ‘I heard about this church from my cousin’s cousin’ or is there actual evidence for this? I don’t doubt that there are some who hid their views — and probably not just Calvinists! — but I wonder how widespread this practice actually is. A couple examples hardly makes convincing proof that the majority of SBC Calvinists are doing this.

    Moreover, if pastoral candidates are lying during the interviews, then the problem is not their Calvinism, but something worse. However, if the pastoral search committees are not asking the right questions, then that is not the fault of the candidate. That simply reveals the lack of theological depth that our churches now have. (How many of our search committees ask a candidate to explain the Trinity and to show how this belief is theologically necessary and practically relevant?)

  • James M. Leonard

    As far as first hand evidence is concerned, I have documented my own experience here: Not my best bit of writing–going back as it does to pre-PhD days, but truthful, nonetheless.

    Again, the typical Baptist church would never have conceived that it was possible that a Baptist minister would affirm limited atonement, and so limited atonement was never an issue that would come up in a job interview. So, the minister would not have lied about his theology; rather, he would have couched his theology in disarming terms and used language like, “I affirm the doctrines of grace,” when a more honest statement would be something like, “I affirm the doctrines of LIMITED grace.”

    And to counter Jason’s assessment of Calvinists at Southwestern, the most recent friend I’ve made who is a student at Southern, out of the blue introduced himself to me, “I’m doing my ThM at Southern, but I’m not an aggressive 5-point Al Mohler-Calvinist typical of the seminary.” (Perhaps not an exact quote, but true to his meaning.) The comment is all the more interesting since, by his own admission, he tends toward 5 point Calvinism.

  • bill victor

    This purge will come close to nailing the coffin lid closed on the relevance of the SBC (I’m in the SBC and not even Calvinist).

  • Dr. Bird’s warning against “cultivat[ing] an insatiable and addictive appetite for purges” says it perfectly. We must always check our heart and our theological priorities.