The Southern Baptist Convention is divided on multiple issues, but Calvinism seems to stir up the most passionate debate. Some Southern Baptists would like to see the Convention properly Calvinized. Others would like to run Calvinists off the plantation altogether.
In their most entrenched forms, these two camps appear to vacillate between a martyr complex and a puzzling triumphalism. Non-Calvinists sometimes write as if the Calvinist resurgence is about to sweep away everything precious in recent SBC history, and yet they constantly remind others that the majority of Southern Baptists are decidedly not Calvinistic. On the other side, Calvinists often feel like a beleaguered minority within the Convention, and yet they marshal the Calvinist beliefs of many early Southern Baptists or the rising number of young Calvinists today as proof of their legitimacy.
Historians debate our roots, some pointing us to the Charleston (cerebral Calvinist) stream while others look back to Sandy Creek (emotional revivalism). Some trace our lineage back to the Reformation, particularly the Particular Baptists. Others see a direct line to the Anabaptists.
Being forced to decide which stream I belong to – Charleston or Sandy Creek – is like someone asking me to take sides in Grandpa and Grandma’s divorce. I’m an intellectually-inclined high church guy who loves aspects of Grandpa Charles, but I’ve been nurtured by Grandma Sandy’s distinct version of piety too. I love them both, and I want them to stay married. Keeping them together makes for a stronger Southern Baptist family.
I generally steer clear of the debate about Calvinism in the SBC, not because I don’t have strong opinions on the matter, but because most blog conversations that I have seen tend to produce much more heat than light, and because the tiresome nature of the debate can distract us from our bigger task of fulfilling the Great Commission. But I am making an exception today, in order to review a recent book that makes a contribution to the discussion.
In November 2008, First Baptist Church, Woodstock hosted several notable Southern Baptist leaders for a conference intended to critique Calvinism. I was largely unaware of what took place at the “John 3:16 Conference” because the audio and video were not made public online. Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism (Broadman & Holman, 2010) is the book of essays that resulted from the conference.
What can one say about Whosoever Will? For starters, the tone of the book was more conciliatory than I expected. That’s not to say that the contributors don’t take firm stands and make strong points. To the contrary, they do. But they do so in a way that doesn’t belittle the intentions and the piety of the Calvinists they critique. The book begins with a foreword, a preface, and an introduction – all before you get to Chapter 1. It appears that the editors spent much time up front seeking to set a positive, Christ-like tone.
The book itself is a mix of popular works and scholarly essays. For example, Vines’ sermon on John 3:16 and Paige Patterson’s essay combines interesting anecdotes, exegetical argument, and pastoral reflection.
For time’s sake, I will refrain from commenting on each essay, but I would like to make some comments on a few of them.
Land on Election
Richard Land’s contribution seeks to establish a middle way between unconditional election and conditional election by appealing to God being outside of time. This “congruent election” proposal is fascinating, but I still am not sure how it resolves the biggest point of contention between Calvinists and non-Calvinists – namely, is God’s choice of us the ultimate cause of our salvation or is it our response to God’s choice? The question of predestination and foreknowledge is less about time, and more about purpose.
Allen on the Atonement
Longtime readers of this blog know that I do not adhere to the doctrine of Limited Atonement, so it’s no surprise that I found David Allen’s essay to be helpful, primarily because of the way he uses Calvinist authors to make the case against the infamous “L” in Calvinism’s Tulip. Kevin Kennedy’s follow-up essay on Calvin’s view of the atonement’s extent adds to the preponderance of evidence that Calvin either did not promote the view of Limited Atonement, or that he was at the very least conflicted and unsettled in his view.
Still, I do not grant Allen’s conclusion that Limited Atonement necessarily causes problems in evangelism. Nor do I think it’s a major point of contention for groups like Together for the Gospel. There are plenty of Reformed-leaning guys like me who may not adhere to the whole system, but who are able to get along just fine with those who do.
Keathley on Perseverance
Kenneth Keathley’s chapter on perseverance of the saints makes a case for total assurance, arguing against Puritan introspection that can become pathological. It’s true that the Puritans were prone to introspection that could lead them to be as self-centered as those who never thought about their sins. But false assurance is also very dangerous.
Which is the greater danger we are facing today? I hardly think the evangelical church is suffering from too much introspection, whereas it appears we are drowning in a sea of false assurance and fruitlessness. Keathley’s chapter is helpful in some respects (though I still find the Schreiner/Canaday view of perseverance to be the most exegetically plausible), but it might have been boosted by acknowledging the excesses of those who take total assurance to an unhealthy extreme.
Yarnell on Calvinist Tendencies
Malcolm Yarnell contributes an essay that seeks to warn churches of the tendencies that accompany Calvinism. The first concerns an Augustinian view of the church, which can lead to a de-emphasis on the purity of the local church and an improper focus on the church universal. In my experience, Baptist Calvinists tend to be more preoccupied with church purity than non-Calvinists. Some non-Calvinist Baptists use Augustinian arguments (such as the Wheat and Tares) as an argument against church discipline.
Next, Yarnell warns about the possibility of aristocratic elitism, seen primarily in the presbyterian form of church government. While this polity may indeed be a tendency for some Calvinist Baptists, I’ve been encouraged to see Southern Baptist church planters countering the Acts 29 elder-rule polity by insisting on congregational authority. But Yarnell is correct to see elitism as a potential problem, though I believe it will be more likely in temperament than in polity. Some Calvinists are elitist theologically, acting as though the people who disagree with them simply have less theological expertise.
Finally, Yarnell focuses on the possible antinomian (lawless) tendencies within the resurgence of Calvinism. I believe this warning is perhaps the most relevant to the discussion. As the younger generation reacts strongly against the moralistic excesses of our past, we should indeed be on the look out for a rise in antinomian tendency. This is why it is helpful to listen to those who are not in our theological camp. Others may see warning signs that we are oblivious to.
Streett on the Invitation
R. Alan Streett devotes a chapter to the public invitation. I was disappointed that this chapter didn’t make any distinctions between invitations and altar calls. While I believe whole-heartedly in calling people publicly to faith in Christ, I do not believe that an altar call is the only legitimate form of issuing this invitation. (By the way, this is not merely a Calvinist discussion. Plenty of non-Calvinists in other parts of the world have no experience with the altar call, either because they are unfamiliar with it or uncomfortable with the American excesses they may have witnessed.)
In all, Whosoever Will is a helpful addition to the discussion on Calvinism within the SBC. The book would have been stronger had the contributors engaged in some healthy self-criticism of the pitfalls and tendencies of the non-Calvinist position. But even as it is, it deserves a hearing from Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike. You may disagree with the point of view presented here, and that’s fine. But at least you will have listened to the arguments from others who love the Lord and seek the good of his church.