Calvinism debate shakes up Southern Baptist Convention

Calvinism debate shakes up Southern Baptist Convention June 11, 2013

Just how much do you know about Calvinism?

Former GetReligionista and current Religion News Service national correspondent Sarah Pulliam Bailey developed a short quiz to gauge readers’ knowledge:

See if your score is predestined, or if you have free will to determine your score.

Go ahead. Take the quiz.

I scored — gulp — 58 percent.

In other words, I probably should start this post by referring to Matthew 15:13-14, where Jesus talks about “the blind leading the blind.” My apologies, GetReligion readers, if I lead you into a ditch with this post.

In yesterday’s critique of an Associated Press story on the political influence of the Southern Baptist Convention, I promised a follow-up post on a mystery subject covered by AP and RNS. That subject: the theological debate over Calvinism simmering in Southern Baptist circles.

In about 900 words, AP covered the debate in a story advancing the SBC’s annual meeting, which starts today in Houston:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Is God’s saving grace free to anyone who accepts Jesus, or did God predestine certain people for heaven and hell before the beginning of the world? That’s a 500-year-old question, but it is creating real divisions in 2013 in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Calvinism is named for the 16th Century theologian John Calvin. Among other things, it teaches that Jesus died only for those who have been elected by God for salvation. That idea does not sit well with many non-Calvinist Baptists, who believe Jesus died for the whole world.

Some of the theological differences between Calvinists and non-Calvinists can get pretty far into the weeds, but what may seem an arcane controversy has become very heated, especially over the past few months.

RNS took AP’s 900 words and countered that it could “Name That Tune” in only 700 words.

The top of RNS’ story:

Nearly 35 years after conservatives launched a takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, a new divide is emerging — this time over the teachings of 16th-century Reformer John Calvin — that threatens to upend the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

When Southern Baptist delegates gather for their annual meeting Tuesday and Wednesday in Houston, they’ll be presented with a report, “Truth, Trust and Testimony in a Time of Tension,” that focuses on the growing popularity of Calvinism among Southern Baptist pastors and seminaries.

At stake are fundamental beliefs on who can be “saved,” the need for evangelism and whether Baptists will retread familiar battlefields on the proper roles of men and women.

Calvinism, which traditionally is the domain of Reformed churches like Presbyterians, differs from traditional Baptist theology in key aspects, particularly on the question of salvation. The report concludes that those aspects, while important, should not divide Baptists.

When I read the AP and RNS stories — as a Calvinism novice (see above quiz score) — I found them meaty and intriguing. But as my GetReligion colleagues and I discussed the subject in an e-mail thread yesterday, I started to wonder if this is one of those subjects that’s almost impossible to cover adequately within the space constraints of a 700- or 900-word wire service story.

Reader Ryan, a self-described Calvinist Baptist, weighed in with a comment on yesterday’s SBC post:

This Religious News Service piece is popping up in several places. It includes lot of theological terms with very specific meanings in this debate (predestination, election) but is light on definitions. This is especially frustrating when the entire debate hinges on these definitions, but we don’t hear anything where each side falls other than a quick “Calvinists believe in predestination”. The debate really hinges on Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, and Irresistible Grace.

For an example of the confusion this reporting causes, this fragment from the RNS article “Eighty percent of SBC pastors disagreed with the idea that only the elect will be saved” is loaded with ambiguity. I haven’t seen the original LifeWay poll to know who was surveyed or the types of questions asked, but does that response mean this 80% of SBC pastors think that non-elect will be saved? That elect will not be saved? That there’s no such thing as election? What would that even mean?

It also conflates Reformed theology in the SBC with gender roles, specifically around female clergy. And to speak to this issue, they interview a *former* Southern Baptist!

This one from AP is a little better (although the sides are lined up as “Calvinists” and “non-Calvinists”). There’s a bit of interesting speculation as to why this debate is happening now, but no real evidence.

Now, Ryan obviously has a dog in the hunt — making him not the best person to offer an unbiased assessment of the journalism produced by AP and RNS. And did I mention that I scored a 58 percent on the quiz, making me not the best media critic to assess the specifics of these two stories?

Perhaps GetReligion’s resident Calvinist — Joe Carter — will want to weigh in. Or maybe Mollie, who made a 100 percent on the quiz, although she admits, “Totally guessed on three questions.”

For now, it’s your turn, GR readers: How’d you score on the quiz?

And what’d you think of the AP and RNS coverage?

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39 responses to “Calvinism debate shakes up Southern Baptist Convention”

  1. tmatt score — 100 percent.

    I studied Calvinism (which my church considers a heresy) of my own free will.

  2. I scored an 83 (I couldn’t identify the Calvinists in the two lists of names), but even as a Wesleyan-Arminian I agree with Ryan’s comment about the confusion the unclear writing causes. I don’t believe either of the stories shown here does a very good job of describing the issues in the debate, but given their brevity I don’t know how they could hope to do so.

    • “I agree with Ryan’s comment about the confusion the unclear writing causes.”

      From the opening of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church where he virtually says every event in our life is predestined, I thought he was a Calvinist. The quiz is clearly wrong: he is. Maybe he’s not part of a officially ‘Reformed’ church but he is clearly a Calvinist.

  3. Presbyterian (PCA) here, got 100% on the test. From my perspective, much of the controversy in this area (whether it’s from the non-Calvinist Baptists or Tmatt’s Orthodox church) comes from non-Calvinists who improperly state what Calvinism is about. To be fair, Calvinists do not help when they fail to ground the topic of predestination in God’s love for all, as in fact did John Calvin himself.

    As a case in point, the Calvinist answer to the question at the top of the AP piece is of course “Yes and yes.” It’s not either-or, it’s both. The key word is paradox. Another example is the canard that Calvinists do not believe in evangelism, which the AP piece effectively counters with an expert quote.

    Also, RNS is totally mistaken to say that “Calvinism… traditionally is the domain of Reformed churches like Presbyterians, [and] differs from traditional Baptist theology in key aspects.” Rather, AP correctly notes that “Baptists in general have been divided about the issue since at least the 17th century” (which is to say, from the very beginning of the Baptist movement).

    • FYI: Baptist are the church that Jesus built (man oh man I know this is going to get some feathers ruffled), and if one would study their church history, the early churches didn’t have names with a denominational affiliation. This is true all the way up to the time of Martin Luther and the like. They were called Monotists, Donatists, Novations, Paulicians, etc…and they all had the same doctrine: baptism of believers only, the soul liberty of the believer, a local, visible, autonomous church body, two ordinances – the Lord’s Supper and Believers Baptism. People who believed this were eventually called “Baptists” or “Anabaptists”, and were being absolutely butchered by the Catholic church. They were hated by the Johnny-come-lately “reformers” – Martin Luther himself believing “anabaptists should be exercised with the sword.” The SBC has turned some Baptist churches into a denomination, but it was never so from the beginning. To be correct, there are Baptist churches – not a Baptist Church (as in The Catholic Church). Calvinism has crept into Baptist churches that have fallen into apostasy. Calvinism IS the domain of Reformed Churches – that theology is what started them. Always remember the question: reformed from “what?” FROM ROME!

      • It’s hard to tell if you’re even serious. This is certainly a highly inaccurate summary of church history.

        • Actually, it’s not at all inaccurate, and I am serious. I hope it leads you to do some more in-depth study of the true New Testament church.

          • derek is repeating the story as it was told in my childhood a hundred years ago. At one time, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary required faculty to sign an oath that they believed it. I think it was called the “trail of blood” or something like that.

          • You are correct Ken. There is a pamphlet called “The Trail of Blood” by B.H.Carroll. There are also many, many other books out there that tell the history of the New Testament Baptist church. There are also other sources who aren’t Baptist who admit that the Baptists are an ancient people before any of the reformers and Rome. Most Baptist have never heard of great men, like Issaac Backus, or Shubal Stearns who started churches throughout America in the 1700’s. One of the first Baptist churches in the south was the church at Sandy Creek, North Carolina which was started by Issaac Backus. The SBC was not started until the 1800’s in Philadelphia, if I remember correctly. I have visited the first Baptist church in America in Providence, RI, which was started by Roger Williams in the late 1600’s. They left Massachusetts because the Puritan “Reformed” residents of the state hated Baptist (as most Reformers do), and persecuted them greatly, until they finally left. It would do Baptists good to study their own history – we have a goodly heritage! A simply Google search on either of the two men named above would catapult you to tons of information.

            God Bless!

          • Indeed Baptists date from the seventeenth century, as I already said. The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith was essentially a revision of the Westminster Confession to include congregationalism and believer’s baptism, but with Calvinist soteriology intact. The movement that we now know as Baptists dates from this century, as does the division between Reformed Baptists and non-Reformed Baptists.

          • “Rather, AP correctly notes that “Baptists in general have been divided about the issue since at least the 17th century” (which is to say, from the very beginning of the Baptist movement).”

            You did not mention”The movement that we now know as Baptists” in your first post. Please notice your words “from the VERY beginning.” If you wish to discuss when Baptists first came to America – fine, but America was not the land of the first Baptists. Furthermore, Baptists are not a “movement,” but rather a biblical view of salvation & church doctrine (a visible church body, a local church body, regenerate church membership through baptism, church discipline, authority of the pastor…etc). Also please note that the name “baptist” was given to them by their enemies, describing their rejection of infant baptism and voluntary church membership. There were Baptist people long before the very name was given to them, as I wrote about in a previous post. They were Baptist, as we call them today, because of what they believed. And this belief system was intact before the Reformation, before the Catholic church, and before any other group that had come on the scene. You have to agree there were churches before the Roman Catholic church, mainly because they were being slaughtered by the Church (just look up the Lollards). Since there were churches before Rome, it would do one good to study what they believed. You will find they were Baptists!

          • I said “the Baptist movement,” and I never mentioned America, but whatever.

            I think you’re a little overeager to see your current convictions reflected in the past, but I’m not interested in continuing the conversation.

          • There were plenty of sects before the Catholic church. The Ebionites, the Elkasites, the Naazoreans — all Jewish-Christian sects that didn’t believe in the deity of Christ or Paul. The Marcionites, the Valentines, the Simonians, the Basilidians — all Gnostic sects who believed heavily in Paul but generally not in the Old Testament (with the exception of Ptolemaic Valentinians). The Catholic church merged these two opposing streams of Christianity together into one incoherent version of Christianity. All of us, Baptist and Lutheran and Presbyterian and Methodist and Anglican and Campbellites and everyone who calls themselves ‘Christians’ today is a descendant of the original Catholic church, of the nonsense juxtaposition of Paul and John (Gnostic writers) with the Synoptics (Jewish Christian writers) and combined with the Old Testament. Pure Christianity came in two forms, and each was pure. Which one was right, take your pick. But what we know and follow today is corrupted mixed Christianity. Either the Ebionites were right, or Marcion was — we today are all wrong because we’ve mixed two incompatible versions. It could be no Christian was ever right because maybe the Jews are right; but certainly all modern Christian denominations are wrong because the canon is wrong; its a joke to mix Gnosticism (Paul and John) with Judeo-Christianity (the Synoptics); an absolute joke.

          • You should include Pelagius in your trail of blood since he clearly disagreed with Augustine’s formulation of original sin in large part because it was being used to require infant baptism.

      • Paulicians were a GNOSTIC group. Donatists were just like Catholics except they didn’t want to allow priests who had denied Christ during persecution back into their posts.

        • The Paulicians are said to have been Manichean-like or Marcion-like in nature, to have rejected the Old Testament, and believed this world was created by and is ruled by the devil. They are possible forerunners of the Cathars who are said to have held similar beliefs, although Gnostics sects of this sort need nobody but Paul or John as forerunners in reality. The main difference between the Cathars and Paulicians is the Cathars most revered John and the Paulicians, obviously revered Paul. These are, of course, always the apostles revered by Gnostics because Gnosticism is created form their inaccurate way of writing and their tendency to go off on nonsensical tangents and imply if not outright teach some sort of predestinarian scheme.

  4. As for the question of whether “Jesus died only for those who have been elected by God for salvation,” let’s please say this all together: sufficient for all, efficient for the elect. On this point, I personally found that the Calvinist position was not meaningfully different from what I believed before I properly understood Calvinism. The difference only arises if you believe in Unconditional Election.

  5. This Catlik scored 92% because I didn’t know Rick Warren was a Calvinist. I also would quibble about whether Anglicanism isn’t Calvinist: my last Episcopal rector liked to say that is is “Catholic on the outside, Calvinist on the inside”. And I thought the Campbells (hence the Churches of Christ) were Calvinists, so thank goodness they didn’t show up.

      • Warren was the answer it was looking for, although I’m not sure the quiz is right. Woodrow Wilson was a Calvinist? Come on! All politicians are really atheists.

    • The Campbells obviously were at one point since they came from the Presbyterian church. But I think that’s one reason they left: they got tired of Calvinism.

  6. A few commenters here have ably hit on problems with terminology.

    As a point of history, it is simply not true that Reformed ideas are a new import to Baptist circles, even in the U.S., let alone in the U.K. It is true that Baptist churches in the American South tended to be more Arminian.

  7. The only thing you need to know about Calvinism is that all Calvinists go to hell.

  8. Which individual was NOT an early Reformed theologian? (John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther, Martin Bucer)

    I said Zwingli but the question is expecting Luther.

    The quiz is CLEARLY in error. Luther WAS a Calvinist. He wrote the damn “Bondage of the Will” for crying out loud.

    • While Zwingli and Luther were both “reformers,” the line of reform from calvin/zwingli is called Calvanism and the line from Luther is called “Lutheranism.” They share many common theological elements, but Luther in Germany was never a Calvanist, just as Calvin was never a Lutheran.

      • “Lutherans is the worst kind of Calvinists” — THE ADVENTURES OF DOCTOR ESZTERHAZY

  9. In all these discussions of Calvinism, Luther, etc…. what fails to be mentioned is that each person has a duty to “understand” the whole Word of God. If we all believe in the Trinity, Grace through faith (lest any man boast), Jesus Christ was the atonement, the death, burial, and resurrection was true and real, that Jesus Christ is Lord of all and at the right hand of the Father, that we must believe, repent of sin, follow Christ’s example, and love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and spirit and our neighbor as ourselves, and that we have the Holy Spirit indwelled within us through Christ’s atonement for our sins, is there any need of this discussion. We are the ingrafted branch. It becomes endless genealogies as “man” needs something to chase and which causes separations (discord) in the body of Christ (the church). What people need to do is read the Word, read the Word, read the Word. Forget books, forget sidebar discussion, just seek the Face of God, repent and ask for forgiveness of sin, and read and study His perfect and infallible Word (I refer to the original Hebrew and Greek which was at best “converted” to English by Tyndale, KJV, and a few versions which are acceptable today NKJ and do not distort the original word for word translation (not though for thought). I have no seminary training, no book learning of these things, but only God revealing to me through His Holy Spirit what is correct, good, right, and truth as we are the priesthood of the believer. God gives wisdom without strings as He states and the Word of God is infallible, true, not to be changed, and useful for teaching and sanctification (lots of versus here summarized). If people, followers of the “Way” as it was called will humble themselves and seek His face and read the Word and pray daily they will be changed believers and have knowledge and wisdom far beyond themselves as it is from God.
    I have heard many argue that this cannot happen. I ask them to try one thing, read the Bible (start somewhere – maybe John or Corinthians, or Galations or Mathew or generally New Testament) each day, truthfully seeking God, repenting of Sin, asking God to use His Word to teach and sanctify, and commit to this for 30 to 40 days, then the person truthfully following this will change their walk forever. I have seen this occur time after time after time when someone really did this trail with Jesus through God’s Word. I have seen people do this and say they got nothing, but over years later go on to realize that this person, through their actions during those years, had other issues more serious than sanctification and growth (maybe it was salvation itself or backsliding or significant sin, capable for repentance, etc….) present in their lives.
    The point is if we study back to the Old Testament we see these same fights and arguments (comparatively) between what develops as factions of Judaism or “religion” of the Jews or the interpretation of the Law (P and S for example).
    Jesus said to the disciples about the children, that their faith and belief was what the kingdom of heaven was about and more or less based upon. A child cannot understand Gnostics, Luther, Calvin, Constantine, a schism, reformation, etc….
    Endless genealogies. But, I recognize that if one of these with “endless genealogies” comes to run your church you will watch it change, not for the good of God, over time and begin its death and die if change back to Christ’s doctrine is not made. I speak this from several experiences.
    “where selfish ambition is present, there will be every evil practice”. That is why our “churches” are dying. They have shepherds desiring to fulfill their ambition or doctrine and not follow the will of God. Note in Acts the New Testament church was always growing in numbers (sometimes small numbers sometimes large), baptisms, helping others, witnessing, teaching, preaching, etc… When this is not present it is easy to see. Usually that church is stagnant or shrinking. Show me were a church seeking God in the Word shrinks. It does not exist.
    If all would use the Word of God as the prism to view life, decisions, understand how to function in this world, how to study the Word, see examples of what happens when mistakes are made or what happens when one follows God in a life of love of Jesus, how to resolve issues, etc… their life would be a testament to others without a word said.

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