We Affirm the SBC Statement

Most evangelicals are Calvinists. Some of you may be surprised by that so let me take a goodly share of it back. Yes, Calvinism formed the bedrock of much of the faith of early American Christians that influenced much of evangelicalism today. But … there were the Wesleys who were more Arminian, and the Second Awakening has a goodly share of Arminian theology at work in it (think Finney), and then there’s the revivalism of the 20th Century — and that has shaped American evangelicalism in dramatic ways, not all of them good and not all of it robust in theology — and then there’s so many others today who are evangelicals unless you want to write them off the map as evangelicals. Revivalism shapes much of megachurch evangelicalism and it is hardly robust Calvinism. It’s in fact often a smattering of theologies. Let’s not forget Pietism, seen in the good folks in the Evangelical Covenant Church, and they lean Lutheran or they lean revivalist and generic evangelical, but they’re not very often Calvinist. And then we think of the Nazarenes and various bundles of the Holiness movement, and they’re not Calvinist either.

Some want to define “evangelical” by their own lights, and that means by their own theology or their own denomination, but evangelicalism, as Randy Balmer once wrote in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, is a patchwork quilt and not a single piece of cloth. We are to include, increasingly so, the Restoration movement or the Stone-Campbell movement (2million plus of them folks), the Pentecostals and the charismatics like Assemblies of God (know these numbers? very big) and Vineyard, and there are many others impacted by forms of revivalism who simply are not Calvinists in a robust sense. Yes, they believe in eternal security but they are strong on free will and so many say they are “Calminians” (good Calvinists argh at the “Cal” in that expression). Just in case you’ve ignored them, there’s a long line of straight-laced evangelicalism among the Anabaptists who just don’t get into the Calvinist-Arminian thing but instead have other things more central to their affirmations and beliefs.

So I really like what the Southern Baptists, led by Frank Page (pictured), are recommending here. We are all under the Big Tent called Evangelicalism. Michael Horton is probably right in saying Big Tent unity affirmations are not enough for a local church’s theology but they are enough for us to cooperate and well together under the Big Tent of evangelicalism. What this proposal is urging is this: there’s enough room in the SBC (and I would say under the Big Tent) for both Calvinists and non-Calvinists, and not only that they are arguing their own statement of faith includes and permits both orientations. Good enough for them, good enough for me, too.

Thank God for this meeting of minds, this affirmation of a greater unity, and for helping others see how a group seemingly bent on division is now turning in a unity direction.

With a full recognition of the limitless wisdom of God’s Word and the limited wisdom of ourselves, we urge Southern Baptists to grant one another liberty in those areas within The Baptist Faith and Message where differences in interpretation cause us to disagree. For instance,

  • We agree that God loves everyone and desires to save everyone, but we differ as to why only some are ultimately saved.
  • While we all heartily affirm the article on election in The Baptist Faith and Message (Article V), we differ as to whether the response of faith plays a role in one’s election.
  • We agree that the penal and substitutionary death of Christ was sufficient for the sins of the entire world, but we differ as to whether Jesus actually substituted for the sins of all people or only the elect.
  • We agree that the Gospel should be proclaimed to everyone, but we differ as to whether or how every hearer will be enabled to respond.
  • We agree that everyone has inherited Adam’s hopelessly fallen sin nature, but we differ as to whether we also inherit his guilt.
  • We agree that men and women are sinners, but we differ about the effects of sin on the mind and the will.
  • We recognize the differences among us between those who believe that sin nullifies freedom to respond to the Gospel and those who believe that freedom to respond to the Gospel is marred but not nullified.
  • We agree that God is absolutely sovereign in initiating salvation, uniting the believer to Himself, and preserving the believer to the end, but we differ as to how God expresses His sovereignty with respect to human freedom.
  • We agree that the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel enables sinners to be saved, but we differ as to whether this grace is resistible or irresistible.
  • We agree on the necessity of regeneration that results in God-ordained, Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered obedience from the heart, but differ as to whether faith precedes regeneration or regeneration precedes faith.
  • We agree that most Southern Baptists believe that those who die before they are capable of moral action go to heaven through the grace of God and the atonement of Christ, even as they differ as to why this is so.

These differences should spur us to search the Scriptures more dutifully, to engage in lively interaction for mutual sharpening and collective Gospel effectiveness, and to give thanks that what we hold in common far surpasses that on which we disagree. But these particular differences do not constitute a sufficient basis for division and must not be allowed to hamper the truly crucial cooperative effort of taking the Gospel to a waiting world. Southern Baptists who stand on either side of these issues should celebrate the freedom to hold their views with passion while granting others the freedom to do the same.

And this “Testimony”:

We affirm the responsibility and privilege of every Southern Baptist to advocate his or her doctrinal convictions. We affirm that theology should be honored and privileged in our conversations and cooperation. We also affirm that theological and doctrinal debate can be a sign of great health within a denomination that is devoted to truth and is characterized by trust.

We deny that the main purpose of the Southern Baptist Convention is theological debate. We further deny that theological discussion can be healthy if our primary aim is to win an argument, to triumph in a debate, or to draw every denominational meeting into a conversation over conflicted issues. Of more significance to our life together than any allegiance to Calvinism or non-Calvinism should be our shared identity as Southern Baptists.

Most importantly, we affirm together that our testimony to the world must be the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—and that Southern Baptists must stand together in the testimony that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We stand together to declare that salvation comes to all who call upon the name of the Lord, and that God’s desire is for the salvation of sinners and the reaching of the nations.

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  • Yet another way of stating: “We know in part…”

  • attytjj466

    The Evangelical Free Church embraces both Calvinism and Arminianism under it’s denominational tent, and it has worked out well. There is room for differences on these matter, and yes these differences should be embraced in the SBC too.

  • mattdabbs

    That document was one of the most carefully and meticulously worded documents I have ever read. Unity without uniformity! Being agreeable in disagreeing. Seems like they had a really healthy dialog that resulted in all of this. Good for them.

  • scotmcknight

    I agree, Matt.

  • Rick

    Shout out to people such as Steve McCoy (Reformissionary) and his buddy Joe Thorn. They have been pushing for a bigger Baptist tent for years.

  • BradK

    Scot, I read this article twice and still can’t for the life of me understand why you opened it with the statement that “[m]ost evangelicals are Calvinists.” Evangelicalism has been strongly influenced by Calvinism? Sure. Many of the roots of American evangelicalism lie in early groups that were Calvinist? Sure. Are most Calvinists evangelicals? Sure. But by any reasonable definition of the words evangelical and Calvinist, most evangelicals are not Calvinist. Even most Southern Baptists are not Calvinists. It’s not even close to a majority. Based on my experiences, I’m pretty sure most Southern Baptists don’t even know what Calvinism or a Calvinist is. Of course this is sad and unfortunate.

    I do like the SBC statement in that it promotes unity, but it is likely only a stopgap measure. As Calvinism grows in the SBC, a “confrontation” is ultimately inevitable and a split will probably eventually be the result. Do you foresee a different outcome?

  • Jim Dekker

    Thanks for posting this, Scot. As a young Calvinist (of a sort) I saw a lot of Wesleyans and was challenged by their views. I had to make a choice to listen well to ideas and also live out the grace I believed in. When ‘they’ became important friends, my Calvinism became nicer and more care-full. Since this change in me, I’ve found many nice Calvinists (not even Calminians) able to live our faith together with others. At the end of the day, we discover that it’s not about agreeing/arguing but living in God’s grace and love as we share the struggles of articulating our faith. This is a real journey, not only for me as a Calvinist but for others finding God’s love and grace for a Calvinist like me.

  • Joel

    Scott, where could I see your thoughts, &/or Michael Horton’s thoughts, on why “big tent unity affirmations” are not enough for the local church?

  • Phil Miller

    The statement reminded of a book I read last year or so called

    Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine (http://www.amazon.com/Predestination-American-Career-Contentious-Doctrine/dp/0199832390/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1371650734&sr=8-3&keywords=predestination)

    I think the intent of such statements are good, and I hope that people actually try to put them into practice. I think the reason the whole Calvinism/Arminianism debate still goes on is that at its root, it’s about the very nature of God and how humanity relates to Him. I think that’s why people get impassioned about it.

    Although, I have to say, there are a fair number of people who don’t care either way. Most people see it as an intramural debate for theological nerds.

  • Joel Black

    I too, like BradK, was surprised at the opening statement about most evangelicals being Calvinist.

    I would also like to see more than just one view of the atonement represented in this statement. For example, “We agree that in His death and resurrection, Christ defeated the powers and principalities that once held humanity in bondage, but we differ as to the centrality/importance we place on this victory.”

  • Tony Springer

    If this thinking and consideration occurred during the 1980s, the SBC might have not suffered in its inerrancy debate. Then again, the SBC produced a “lets all get along” document then. Denominational histories are littered with “peace” documents before the storm. After the storm, the debate is less about theology and more about control. Hopefully this document will stop disunity this time.

  • Phil Miller

    I noticed the atonement thing, too… I thought perhaps I was being too picky, but I think I agree with you. I guess the SBC still considers penal substitution one of their bedrock beliefs. And, really, they’re entitled to do that.

  • Now this is how one agrees to disagree. Good on the Southern Baptists.

  • BradK

    “I think the reason the whole Calvinism/Arminianism debate still goes on
    is that at its root, it’s about the very nature of God and how humanity
    relates to Him.”

    This is spot on, Phil. And it is the reason why those who see it as merely an intramural debate for theological nerds are probably misguided. It rarely becomes an issue in a church until someone begins explicitly teaching an interpretation of election like that of Calvin or Piper. Then many people start to wonder if that God so portrayed is the same one they know and love and whom they see portrayed in scripture. Then people seem to care quite a bit. It is hard for a big tent to contain essentially diametrically opposed views about something as fundamental as the nature of God and the nature of humanity unless everyone pretty much just keeps those views to themselves. That rarely happens in churches.

    Will we ever see a similar statement from the SBC urging tolerance for both paedobaptism and credobaptism? I suspect not. And yet that issue does not seem nearly as important as the core issue you raise in regards to Calvinism/Arminianism.

  • I don’t think many Arminians would claim Finney as one of theirs . . .

  • scotmcknight

    Didn’t I — after that opening statement — then say let me take a good share of that back, and end up saying most of what you wrote in this comment?

    I hope the SBC can carve a path for getting along. I don’t know the future on this one at all. But I was fearful of a major showdown and crack among the SBCers on this one.

  • scotmcknight

    Michael had an article in an online magazine. Not sure where, maybe Modern Reformation? My thoughts were in a post on Big Tent Evangelicalism.

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, a more comprehensive atonement would be nice. But I have to say if one sees “death” as the recompense of sin, and if Jesus dies our death or at least conquers our death, then some kind of penal and substitution is at work.

  • Good compromise but it Looks like both sides agree on penal substitution. So as a denomination i would say they still have some progress to make 🙂

  • fisherjacob
  • Joel Black

    Yes, Scot. I’m not denying that. But I think for many younger “evangelicals”, other aspects of the atonement are also crucial to our faith. Turning division into unity is a noble thing. I applaud the SBC for taking on this task. Just making a suggestion to include other views of the atonement inside the “Big Tent”.

  • You just redefined penal substitution, but i have no problem with that. I do it too sometimes.

  • Phil Miller

    He’s like our crazy uncle…

    Actually, for all there is to dislike about the man, there’s a lot of what he did that I find inspiring. There are sometimes when I think some of crazy is a prerequisite for being used by God. 🙂

  • Joel

    Thanks Jacob!

  • Wow. I especially like the statement: “We agree that God is absolutely sovereign… but we differ as to how God expresses His sovereignty…” I think that is important to emphasize. Some seem to feel that non-Calvinists do not believe in God’s sovereignty. This recognizes that both groups have common ground here, but a difference regarding God’s expression of sovereignty.

    I also like your focus on responsibility and privilege to discuss and debate tempered with acknowledging the preeminence of the message of Christ to a lost world.

    One concern I have (and there is plenty of blame to go around to non-Calvinists as well) is how Calvinistic doctrines seem to take front and center in so much biblical discussion. At times I have felt that I was not considered a Christ-follower or even very intelligent by some who espoused their Calvinistic beliefs. For instance, I’ve visited some churches on numerous occasions where the concept of perseverance of the saints was hammered so hard and often that one wondered if there were any other teaching found in the Bible.

    I understand how we all want to convince others to agree with us, but sometimes I think we over-emphasize some things that God may not have intended for us to emphasize so strongly.


  • Joel

    Scott, Thanks for the reply. I am sure it isn’t easy keeping up with all of the comment/requests. Please know how grateful I am for you to take the time to not only write thoughtful and helpful posts, but also to respond the questions/comments.

    I did a fair amount of looking for the blog post you mentioned in your archives. I could not find one with the specific title of “Big Tent Evangelicalism”. Was that the exact title? Am I looking in the right place? If you don’t remember the exact title or don’t have time to track it down I understand. I am just doing some thinking on that subject and looking for some wisdom.

  • I do like the spirit of the SBC statement, especially the focus on agreement and cooperation. Personally, I take the same points much further as a Process thinker and viewer of the Bible as mainly a human record of human theology and interpretation of history (yet with spiritual value) but prompted by God’s Spirit. From that “location”, I welcome and encourage related steps like this which I believe reflect the grace that certainly is one core theme of the Bible… one it is very healthy to pay attention to and meditate on.

    As to use of “Big Tent” (capitalized), a comment: I suppose the “Big Tent Christianity” movement (if it could be called that) may not be active organizationally any more, after a mere two conferences under that title, one East Coast, one in Arizona (Phoenix). I attended the latter and enjoyed it thoroughly. For those not aware, its “bigness” was broader than the tent SBC seems to be pitching. There were a lot of true “Progressives” there, not just the Emerging (Evangelical, in my view) kind… both on podium and in the audience. I would dearly love to see dialog promoted and done on that level further, but I know of no similar venues, at least as to an actual gathering…. I and others, I realize, do try to interact online, civilly and with grace, on deeper issues of theological differences than those raised in the statement or addressed by you, Scot.

    If anyone knows of a potential revival of the same Big Tent Christianity interaction from about 2010-2011 or something similar, please comment here or contact me.

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. McKnight you said, “Michael Horton is probably right in saying Big Tent unity affirmations are not enough for a local church’s theology”
    I could not disagree more. This is why I have such a problem with Dr. Roger Olson saying similar things. Ideally a denomination like the Evangelical Covenant church which uses “Big Tent” language, would want their local churches to follow suit. In reality they do not always do this but this is the ideal and in some churches of theirs I have attended – High Rock Covenant Church around Boston, MA this very thing is happening and thriving.
    This is also why I have a problem with having a Messianic Jewish congregation in a mixed neighborhood. As Paul said so eloquently in Galatians, Peter was not sinning while he was eating with Gentiles, but only after he withdrew! Unity was more important to Paul than tradition, so let us stop thinking that a church cannot have Big Tent theology and just do it without nit-picking. The pastor needs to take the lead on this.

  • edwardfudge

    For another irenic look at “What Calvinism and Arminianism Have in Common,” first published in Christianity Today, see http://edwardfudge.com/written/article1.html .

  • Phil Miller

    I think where problems arise in the local church setting is that the pastor is going to have some opinion, along with the elders, associate pastor, etc. And it seems like eventually it will come up. I’ve heard pastors say things like, “we don’t take a firm stance on predestination/election, but here’s what I think…” That’s great if people don’t really care or actually agree with him, but it becomes harder if someone doesn’t agree. I’m not saying it has to mean people with different views can’t attend the same church, but I think it’s difficult.

    I think in many local churches pastors try to avoid talking about the things they know will be controversial. That way people in the congregation who do have opinions will just assume the pastor agrees with them.

  • scotmcknight
  • Andrew Dowling

    If I were a betting man I’d bet this ‘Big Tent’ doesn’t stay upright for too long . . .

  • pete dayton

    Agree But one disappointment from the EVFree annual meeting was not including differing eschatalogical views, such as amillenialism under their tent, even though more EVFreer’s are moving in that direction.

  • Tiago de Oliveira Cavaco

    Good post, Scot!