Recently I blogged about the Southern Baptist statement “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension.” I provided a link to it, but some have told me they could not access it using that link. So, I suggest you simply “Google” it by that title and “SBCLife” (The Journal of the Southern Baptist Convention). That has worked for me. The entire statement is there if you click on the title of the statement when you get to that web site.
That blog message is only a few days old; you should be able to find it by looking back at recent blog messages here.
While I applauded the irenic and conciliatory tone of the statement (which was accepted enthusiastically by the recent Southern Baptist Convention in Houston) written primarily by Al Mohler and Eric Hankins—a Calvinist and a non-Calvinist—I have some qualms about some of its wording.
The Calvinism Advisory Committee that approved the statement and presented it to the convention consisted of several Southern Baptist theological heavy weights (as well as non-theologians). On the committee were the two authors I just mentioned and: David Allen, dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (a non-Calvinist), Tom Ascol, president of the Calvinist Founders Ministries (A Calvinist group), Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. (a Calvinist), Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University (a Calvinist), Steve Lemke, provost at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (a non-Calvinist), Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (a non-Calvinist) and Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (a Calvinist).
One of the statements in the statement is “We agree that God loves everyone and desires to save everyone, but we differ as to why only some are ultimately saved.” Read that again—carefully!
My question is: Can a consistent Calvinist really affirm honestly, without immediate and emphatic qualification, that “God loves everyone and desires to save everyone?”
Yes, yes…I know all the “footnote” qualifications Calvinists offer up to explain how they can say this without crossing their fingers behind their backs. That’s irrelevant to my concern here.
My concern here is whether it is ever right for a Calvinist to say that without immediately explaining what is meant—namely that God actually does not love everyone in any ordinary meaning of the word “love” and does not actually desire to save everyone in any ordinary meaning of “desire.”
So, to be clear about my complaint here: I am asking whether it is perhaps disingenuous for a Calvinist to claim that God loves everyone and desires everyone to be saved without immediately (in context so that it cannot be missed) explaining the peculiar uses of “love” and “desires”—because in this cultural context the vast majority of people are going to assume the ordinary language meanings of “love” and “desires.”
Let me illustrate by turning the table around. Suppose I, an Arminian, wrote or signed a public statement that I know will create an impression about what I believe among constituent churches that says God elects people to salvation and that people do not have free will to choose whether to be saved or not. With the proper qualifications I could write such a statement and/or sign one. But suppose I wrote and/or signed it without those proper qualifications—knowing that the statement would create an impression about what I believe among a group of churches some of which are strongly Calvinist. Wouldn’t Calvinists who know what else I believe call me disingenuous? I’m sure many would. I would expect them to.
Why does this matter?
Well, one of the reasons for the “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension” statement was to calm the troubled waters in the SBC created, in part at least, by Calvinist candidates for pulpits in SBC churches who do not tell the pulpit search committees or the churches before they vote on their call everything they believe (e.g., “TULIP”). This statement contains wording strongly encouraging all candidates for pulpits to be entirely forthcoming about their doctrines.
But, given the wording of the statement to which I am objecting (viz., “We agree that God loves everyone and desires to save everyone”), why couldn’t a Calvinist candidate for a pulpit say that without any qualifications other than are offered in the immediately surrounding context—which would completely elude most lay people?
I tend to think that no self-respecting Calvinist can or should ever say that “God loves everyone and desires to save everyone” without following that immediately with “but sovereignly chooses to allow some he could save to go to hell for eternity without any real opportunity to be saved.” That would be totally honest and forthcoming. Less is not.
Again, I tend also to think that no self-respecting Arminian can or should ever say that “God elects some to salvation and people do not have free will to choose whether to be saved or not” without immediately adding “but the election I believe in is conditional and the free will I do not believe in is natural, without special, prevenient grace.”
I suspect that this statement, “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension,” papers over some of the depth of division between ardent Calvinists and Arminians. To me it sounds like saying “Peace! Peace!” when there is no peace. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not opposed to the good intentions and effort of the committee. I’m just pessimistic about how well it is going to work. I suspect it is going to lull many SBCers and others into a sense that Calvinists and Arminians (who are called “non-Calvinists” in the SBC) really agree on all the important matters. In fact, many on both sides consider the doctrines about which they disagree extremely important and will continue to press their cases among the churches.
Does the statement mean, for example, that the Founders Ministries, a Southern Baptist group committed to promoting Calvinism among Southern Baptists, is going to stop promoting Calvinism as part of “historic Southern Baptist principles” that all Southern Baptists should return to? Many Calvinist SBC churches do not allow members to serve as leaders unless they affirm Calvinism. Some Southern Baptist seminaries hire only Calvinists and I know that many non-Calvinist students at some Southern Baptist seminaries feel persecuted, treated as second-class Christians, by fellow students and some faculty members. I know that some faculty members at some Southern Baptist seminaries routinely misrepresent Arminianism in lectures. (How do I know these things? Well, I have had students who transferred from those seminaries report them to me convincingly.)
I hope the statement brings about a new era in Southern Baptist (and perhaps by extension in evangelical) life where Calvinists and non-Calvinists are completely transparent about all they believe in all situations and completely stop misrepresenting or demeaning the other belief system. But my hope is dim.