In the past decade, Southern Baptists have engaged in an ongoing conversation about the rise of Calvinism within our churches and seminaries, and whether this development should be embraced or resisted. Several years ago, a committee with representatives from both sides came together and released a document explaining how Calvinists and non-Calvinists can coincide peacefully within the Convention.
I realize that many of my readers are not Southern Baptists and may not be interested in these conversations. Likewise, many within the Convention see this debate as an irrelevant, intramural squabble. If you’re in one of those categories, please bear with me today. Every now and then, I post some thoughts about the debate, always (hopefully) with the aim of strengthening our ties of cooperation for mission. That’s my aim with this post as well.
Last week, Dr. Tom Nettles wrote a post for the Founders blog that took issue with one of the claims in the “Traditionalist Statement” put together by non-Calvinist Southern Baptists: “For almost a century,” the statement says, “Southern Baptists have found that a sound, biblical soteriology can be taught, maintained, and defended without subscribing to Calvinism.”
Nettles disputes this claim. History shows that a loss of Calvinism on three of the five points (unconditional election, total depravity, and effectual calling) is what led to “a truncated evangelism that jettisoned the doctrinal foundation for the examination of an experience of grace,” affecting both our view of salvation and of the church. For Nettles, the shift away from Calvinism was a shift toward a man-centered view of salvation, one that no longer paid adequate attention to God’s sovereignty and eternal purpose. “A soteriology without Calvinism is a path to bad religion and compromised churches,” he writes.
In Nettles’ account, Baptist professors in the early 20th century (such as W. O. Carver) moved the SBC away from Calvinism. The students who followed in their wake (such as Dale Moody) challenged the truthfulness of the Bible and the doctrine that Jesus is the only way to God. Thus, “the ‘move beyond Calvinism’ is a move toward bad religion,” Nettles writes. He concludes:
“Thankfully the conservative Southern Baptist non-Calvinists have not adopted the preaching purpose or absolutely detached evangelistic appeal of Joel Osteen; their position, nevertheless, is on that plane and leads to ‘bad religion’.”
I appreciate Dr. Nettles’ emphasis on God-centered religion and doctrine, and I share many of his concerns about man-centered theology and techniques. But it is problematic to claim that a move away from Calvinism necessarily entails a move toward theological liberalism.
Nettles’ claim mirrors something often heard on the Traditionalist side – that a full embrace of five-point Calvinism necessarily entails a slide toward Hyper-Calvinism. History can be marshaled to back up that claim, too. The second and third generations following fervent Calvinist preachers sometimes hardened into hyper-Calvinists who opposed men like William Carey and Andrew Fuller, or blasted preachers like Spurgeon for their evangelistic pleas. It is unfair to argue against Calvinism in the SBC because of a slide that might take place toward Hyper-Calvinism. Calvinism itself does not necessitate that kind of move.
Because it is unfair to smear Calvinists today with the slippery slope argument of Hyper-Calvinism, it is also unfair for Dr. Nettles to claim that any move away from Calvinism necessitates the journey toward theological liberalism and inclusivism. This idea overlooks the degeneration of once-robustly Calvinist denominations such as the PC(USA) as well as the leap of some Calvinists to universalism. It also overlooks the fact that non-Calvinist leaders were the ones who led the charge in bringing the SBC back from the brink of liberalism (though not without collaboration with Calvinists who held a high view of Scripture).
To say that non-Calvinist Southern Baptists are on the same plane of theological degeneracy as man-centered liberals is to adopt the same kind of argumentation so often used against Calvinists: that they are just one step away from denying the need for evangelism. I do not see how claims like this will bring about unity in the SBC, because as long as people on both sides of this debate see dastardly consequences for either Calvinism or Traditionalism, there can be no true common ground.
In the past, I’ve surmised that God may be using our Southern Baptist diversity on this issue for our overall health. I know many disagree with the idea that our diversity may be a good thing. Some Calvinists believe the SBC would be stronger if everyone shared their soteriological views and other Southern Baptists believe the SBC would be stronger if there were no Calvinists at all. I understand these perspectives, but my strong belief in God’s sovereignty gives me confidence that God will use our differing conclusions for the good of His people.
What if, in God’s good providence, He uses our debates and discussions as the means by which He keeps us on mission for His kingdom?
What if the way God keeps our Calvinist brothers and sisters from hardening into the evangelistic apathy of Hyper-Calvinism is through ongoing conversations with those who disagree with their soteriological position?
What if the way God keeps our non-Calvinist brothers and sisters from softening into the inclusivism that dilutes our evangelistic passion is through tough conversations with the more Reformed?
Perhaps God makes the SBC stronger through these discussions and debates. That’s why it would be wrong to claim an artificial harmony where we say the differences don’t matter, and unwise to chase out brothers and sisters who are not of the same theological persuasion.
To that end, I caution those who make their case against Calvinism because of what might happen theologically or in the future. And I also caution Calvinists who imply that a rejection of Calvinism necessitates the slide into liberalism. Neither position necessitates the other, and these kinds of claims make it harder to do ministry together.