Thursday, February 18, 2016

Why the Tension Over Calvinism in the SBC is a Good Thing

If you are a Southern Baptists, then no doubt you are aware of the ongoing tension between Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the convention. Tensions have been high and unfortunately Bible-believing, missions-affirming baptists are fighting each other over tertiary doctrines.

During the pastor search process, one committee member commented to me that twenty years ago they never thought about asking a potential candidate what they thought about election or the extent of the atonement. My response was simple: twenty years ago, many Baptist pastors (especially those with fresh seminary degrees) and many in the pews didn't believe the Bible. This debate should be a relief compared to the one's we had to fight decades ago.

I want to suggest that the ongoing conversation over the doctrines of grace - though at times heated - are actually good for our convention. I admit up front that it has made my life more difficult as I have interviewed at countless churches in the past, ministered and served with countless believers and churches and yet my refusal to "pick a side and stay there" has made things more difficult, I do believe that ultimately debating these difficult theological issues are actually healthy for us.

Where I Stand

Before we begin, let me lay down my cards. I am sympathetic to the arguments (and friendships) on both sides and have concluded that both are wrong (and right). It appears to me that both are guilty of fidelity to a theological system more than allowing the paradox of Scripture to speak for itself.

For example, non-Calvinist seem to struggle with Paul's use the word "dead" in Ephesians 2. The Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace demands a redefinition of "dead," but "dead" only has one meaning. Let me give you an example of this. In the book Whosoever Will, contributor Paige Patterson illustrates Paul's meaning of "dead" as follows:
As a boy in Southwest Texas, I often hunted in the woods. Rattlesnakes were a favorite prey, and I had only one weapon. I visited the army surplus store and purchased an old bayonet, which I learned to use like a machete. At age nine I was armed to the teeth with a bayonet. My friend and I would fin d rattlesnake, and I would chop its head off. One day I was not too accurate, severing the reptile about six inches behind his head. He was dead, and I left him there for a while before touching him to be sure that he was dead. He was such a big rattler that I wanted to take him home and show my father. In a careless moment, I reached out to take his frame, and at that moment the snake's head struck at me and nearly got me. In fact, he did strike the bottom of my blue jeans. I was so glad I was not wearing shorts that day. Its teeth struck in the bottom of my blue jeans. That was a dead snake! (39)
He then applies this story to Ephesians 2: "Actually, being dead does not assure that someone can do nothing." And later, "Note that those who were dead in sin walked in lust and fulfilled the desires of the flesh and mind." (39) With all do respect, Dr. Patterson is wrong. Paul is not guilty of doublespeak. "Dead" means "dead" and non-Calvinists would do well to stop trying to redefine it in order to fit in into their theological system.

Calvinists are just as guilty. My reformed brothers are all over the fence on particular redemption. The debate is always the same. Those in favor line up with their favorite verses while those against it line up with their favorite verses. Either the Bible is contradictory or we're are missing the point. Perhaps we are reading the Bible wrong. I do not believe that Peter and Paul ever discussed the doctrine while in Antioch. Therefore it should not be a priority to us.

Why the Tension is a Good Thing

In my experience, the conversation on both side includes the many strawman arguments. Non-Calvinists constantly levy charges at Calvinists of being anti-free will, anti-evangelism, anti-missions, and anti-altar call. Such belief is typical of Hyper-Calvinism, but no traditional or confessional Calvinist holds such doctrines. If non-Calvinists want to have an honest conversation about the doctrines of grace, they would do well to drop such accusations.

Yet non-Calvinists aren't the only guilty party as many Calvinists do the same to their non-Calvinists counterparts. Arminians, for example, are often accused of not taking the sovereignty of God seriously. Furthermore, they are too often accused of being semi-Pelagian (or even Pelagian), and among young Calvinists, Arminians are associated with a cultured Christianity that we need to abandon.

With that said, we see here the first reason why this tension is a good thing: Tension prevents extremes. Calvinism unchecked can have a tendency to lead toward hyper-Calvinism. We can look through the lens of history for evidence of that. Likewise, Arminianism, unchecked, can lead toward semi-Pelagianism, Pelagianism, Open Theism, and other abuses. Again, a survey of history gives ample evidence of this.

The tension within the SBC, I believe, is a check on both sides. Although I am weary of the constant stereotypes, the conversation between the two sides forces each to hold itself account. If Calvinists are going to roll their eyes every time they are accused of hyper-Calvinism, they had better make sure it is a false accusation. The same can be said to Arminians.

There is a second reason why I believe this tension is positive: Tension Fores Us to Re-evalutate Scripture. If we will humbly reevaluate our own position, our convention will remain strong because we will be forced to read the text of Scripture.

Right now, however, I do not see this latter point being practiced as strongly as it should. Currently, each side is "armed" with their preferred text and launching them against the other. We would do better to listen to the other side, return to the biblical text, and reconsider our theology. Regardless, I do believe that the rise of Calvinism in the SBC has forced a lot of Southern Baptists to reconsider and rethink their theology and that, in the end, is a good thing. 


These are but two major reasons I find that tension is healthy for our convention and churches. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, I believe, is a uniting document that both sides can rally behind and that speaks volumes to the strength of our convention and the vision of its writers. The convention is bigger than Calvinism or non-Calvinism and we should never forget that.

Moving forward, I would like to see more humility on both sides. New Calvinists should love the people in their congregation more than their Calvinism. Non-Calvinists should learn to fear God more than the continual rise of Reformed pastors in the convention. Baptists have always had a healthy debate on these subjects and I see no reason why that should not continue.

For more:
Spurgeon Against Hyper-Calvinism
"Baptists Through the Centuries": Blogging Through Bebbington - The General vs. the Particular Baptists
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