What’s the controversy?

Two weeks ago a group of current and former Southern Baptist leaders signed and posted a statement which attempts to draw a clear line between Calvinism and what they call the “traditional Southern Baptist” of soteriology. The document has attracted a considerable number of supporters and critics and sparked a vocal debate about the role of Reformed theology within the Southern Baptist Convention.

If I’m not a Southern Baptist, why should I care about this debate?

Because the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest Protestant denomination in America, both the controversy and the debates about Calvinism are likely to spill into other non-reformed denominations and parachurch ministries and have an influence on the larger evangelical community.

What is the document and how was it introduced?

On May 30, the original signers of the statement, titled “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” posted the document on the website SBC Today.

As SBC Today notes, the format and subject matter of the statement is similar to that of the Together for the Gospel statement, which was signed or affirmed by some Southern Baptist leaders who embrace Reformed views.

Who signed the statement?

The document was originally endorsed by six former SBC presidents (Morris Chapman, Jimmy Draper, Paige Patterson, Bailey Smith, Bobby Welch, and Jerry Vines), two seminary presidents (Chuck Kelley of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and former SBC president Paige Patterson, who now serves as the president of the denomination’s largest seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), and five state executive directors (Jim Futral of Mississippi, David Hankins of Louisiana, Mike Procter of Alaska, John Sullivan of Florida, and Bob White of Georgia).

To date, over 350 Southern Baptists serving as denominational leaders, pastors, evangelists, church staff members, Baptist seminary and college personnel, and lay leaders have also added their names to the statement.

What is the impetus for the document?

Although interest in Calvinism has been growing within the SBC for almost 30 years, the issue has become more divisive within the denomination over the past decade. In a blog interview last October, Frank Page, President and CEO of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, identified the theological divide of Calvinism and non-Calvinism as one of the greatest challenges facing the SBC. “At some point we are going to see the challenges which are ensuing from this divide become even more problematic for us,” said Page. “I regularly receive communications from churches who are struggling over this issue.”

(Page told Baptist Press News that he has chosen not to sign this current document.)

Southern Baptist leaders have also hosted two different conferences to address the issue. The first in 2007 was entitled “Building Bridges Conference: Southern Baptists and Calvinism,” and was sponsored by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) and Founders Ministries and hosted at Ridgecrest Conference Center by LifeWay Christian Resources. Approximately 550 attendees participated in the three-day conference.

The second was “The John 3:16 Conference” in 2008, sponsored by Jerry Vines Ministries, and co-sponsored by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, Luther Rice Seminary, and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was hosted by First Baptist Church, Woodstock, Georgia, with about 1,000 attendees at the two-day conference.

What is the SBC’s official view on Calvinism?

According to the denomination’s website, “The Southern Baptist Convention has not taken an official stance on either Calvinism or Arminianism.”

How many Southern Baptists are Calvinists?

Surveys by LifeWay Christian Resources and the North American Mission Board found that about 10 percent of Southern Baptist leaders identify themselves as five-point Calvinists, while about 30 percent of recent seminary graduates identify themselves as such.

If the signers reject Calvinist soteriology, do they embrace Arminianism?

Although the views expressed in the document are largely indistinguishable (see update) from classical Arminianism, many of the signers appear to reject or avoid that label, preferring to simply be classified as “Traditional Southern Baptist soteriology.” The document itself does not use the term Arminian.

As Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says in regards to this document, “Clearly, some Southern Baptists do not want to identify as either Calvinists, non-Calvinists, or Arminians. That is fine by me, but these theological issues have been debated by evangelicals for centuries now, and those labels stick for a reason.”

UPDATE: In a question below, I raise the concern some critics have about the document being semi-Pelagian. Changing that line to acknowledge the role of prevenient grace would, I believe, shift the document from a presumably unintentionally semi-Pelagian view to one more in line with standard orthodox Arminianism.

Is the “Traditional Southern Baptist soteriology” the traditional view within the SBC?

The view has only been “traditional” since about 1963. As the preamble of the statement admits, “While some earlier Baptist confessions were shaped by Calvinism, the clear trajectory of the [Baptist Faith and Message] since 1925 is away from Calvinism. “

Many of the documents critics dispute the 1925 date since the document’s position is based on a revision to Article III made in 1963. As Tom Ascol of Founders Ministries says,

In 1925 Southern Baptists acknowledged that Adam’s sin left humanity with a corrupted nature that is “in bondage to sin” and also “under condemnation.” The 1963 statement (which remains virtually unchanged at this point in the 2000 revision), reflecting the doctrinal downgrade of the SBC in that era that ultimately necessitated the conservative resurgence that began in the next decade, reduces the impact of the fall from leaving man’s nature enslaved to sin to leaving it, along with his environment, “inclined toward sin” . . . More significant is the removal in 1963 of the idea that people are because of their inherited sinful nature “under condemnation” (1925), though such culpability is acknowledged to be the case after they “become transgressors.” This significant change cuts in half the authors’ claim in the Preamble that their view of soteriology has been held by Southern Baptists for “almost a century.”

[. . .]

[T]his document would more accurately be called “A Statement of Modern Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” The understanding of salvation that was prevalent throughout the convention at its inception and for many decades afterward was nothing less than historic, evangelical Calvinism.

Historian Thomas Kidd makes a similar point,

[T]he authors [of the document] 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.

What are the primary criticisms of the document?

Critics of the documents—including both Calvinists and Arminians—have presented three general criticisms:

1. The document’s primary argument relies on an appeal to the masses rather than careful exegesis of Scripture — The statement’s primary contention for rejecting Calvinism appears to be based on the fact that the majority of Southern Baptists have already rejected Calvinism: “. . .we are asserting that the vast majority of Southern Baptists are not Calvinists and that they do not want Calvinism to become the standard view in Southern Baptist life.” Like most other evangelicals, members of SBC churches are unlikely to be able to distinguish between Calvinism, Arminianism, or heretical views of soteriology. Basing the claim on what the “majority” view is not an adequate foundation for settling the issue.

2. The document makes erroneous claims about the “traditional” Baptist view of soteriology. — As noted above, the signers of the document overlook the historical view in favor of one that is less than 50 years old.

3. The document endorses a semi-Pelagian view of soteriology — The most serious charge made by critics of the statement is that it is semi-Pelagian, a view that claims human beings retain the ability to desire God, to seek God, and to pursue salvation through an act of the free will without God first operating on the human heart.

The passage that raises concerns is the denial in “Article Two: The Sinfulness of Man”:

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

As the Arminian theologian Roger Olson points out,

Semi-Pelagians such as Philip Limborch and (at least in some of his writings) Charles Finney affirmed the necessity of the gospel and the Holy Spirit’s enlightening work through it for salvation. What made them semi-Pelagian was their denial or neglect of the divine initiative in salvation (except the gospel message).
The problem with this Southern Baptist statement is its neglect of emphasis on the necessity of the prevenience of supernatural grace for the exercise of a good will toward God (including acceptance of the gospel by faith). If the authors believe in that cardinal biblical truth, they need to spell it out more clearly. And they need to delete the sentence that denies the incapacitation of free will due to Adam’s sin.

Calvinist Chris Roberts, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Panama City, Florida, draws a similar conclusion:

The statement affirms that there is corruption (inclined toward sin), but denies that there is inability. The statement elsewhere affirms that we need salvation through Jesus Christ alone, but repeatedly asserts that salvation is found through a free response of the human will, a will which is here claimed to be inclined toward sin but not incapacitated by sin. If that is not semi-Pelagian, what is?

It should be noted that most of the critics would likely agree that the document’s endorsement of semi-Pelagianism is due to sloppiness on the part of the drafters rather than endorsement of heresy by the endorsers. I believe that Albert Mohler expresses the views of many of the statement’s critics when he says, “I do not believe that those most problematic statements truly reflect the beliefs of many who signed this document. I know many of these men very well, and I know them to be doctrinally careful and theologically discerning.”

I’m still confused by some of these theological terms. What is Calvinism, Arminianism, soteriology, and semi-Pelagianism?

Arminianism — a set of doctrines, first elucidated by Jacob Arminius but based on exegesis of scripture, that concludes that unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God’s will, yet salvation is conditioned on a person’s willingness to freely place their faith in Christ. For Arminians, the offer of grace by the Holy Spirit is resistible.

Calvinism — a set of doctrines, first elucidated by John Calvin but based on exegesis of scripture, that conclude God alone is responsible for every aspect of salvation, from beginning to end, election to glory, and man contributes nothing to it. For Calvinists, the offer of grace by the Holy Spirit is irresistible.

Soteriology — the study of the doctrine of salvation, how the Triune God ends the separation people have from God due to sin by reconciling them with God’s self.

Semi-Pelagianism — As defined by Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck in volume III of Reformed Dogmatics:

According to semi-Pelagianism, the consequences of Adam’s fall consisted for him and his descendants, aside from death, primarily in the weakening of moral strength. Though there is actually no real original sin in the sense of guilt, there is a hereditary malady: as a result of Adam’s fall, humanity has become morally sick; the human will has been weakened and is inclined to evil. There has originated in humans a conflict between “flesh” and “spirit” that makes it impossible for a person to live without sin; but humans can will the good, and when they do, grace comes to their assistance in accomplishing it.

Other Posts in this Series:

Are Mormons Christian?

The Contraceptive-Abortifacient Mandate

Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

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