October 2010 Issue
~ Southern Baptist Perspectives
by John Revell
It is no secret that, over the
last thirty years, the presence and influence of Calvinism has
grown within the Southern Baptist Convention. While there are
those who are concerned over the theological stance and the trend
of its growing presence and popularity, some enthusiastically
Article V, "God's Purpose of Grace," in the Baptist
Faith and Message (BF&M) states:
Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which
He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners.
It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends
all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display
of God's sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and
unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.
All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has
accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall
away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end.
Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby
they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and
bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on
themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through
faith unto salvation.
This statement, reaching back to the original BF&M
in 1925 and to the New Hampshire Confession of Faith upon
which it was based, accomplishes a significant feat; it accommodates
the soteriological convictions of both Calvinists and non-Calvinists
within the SBC family.
While the tensions and debates regarding Calvinism are ever
present in Baptist life, they have intensified in recent
years. As a result, in the last three years Southern Baptist leaders
have 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.
Each conference resulted in a book that committed the primary
addresses to text and presented them in chapter form. Both books
were published by B&H Academic, a division of B&H Publishing
Group of LifeWay Christian Resources.
In this article, we will survey each book, particularly the
emphases of the chapters that resulted from corresponding presentations
at the respective conferences.
Calvinism: A Southern Baptist
The first conference was the "Building
Bridges Conference," and the resulting book was Calvinism:
A Southern Baptist Dialogue, edited by E. Ray Clendenen and
Brad J. Waggoner, published in 2008. The conference and book essentially
offered a point and counterpoint presentation of key issues, such
as the history of Calvinism in the SBC, a general evaluation of
the impact of Calvinism upon the SBC, differing views on the atonement,
the existence of theological stereotypes, and differing views
on God's election and calling.
In the first section, "Calvinism, The Current Climate,"
Ed Stetzer wrote a lead in paper entitled "Calvinism, Evangelism,
and SBC Leadership." Stetzer, vice president for research
and ministry development with LifeWay Christian Resources, confirmed
the notion that the number of Calvinists among Southern Baptists
is growing. He presented the findings from surveys by LifeWay
Christian Resources and the North American Mission Board. Included
in the findings:
10 percent of Southern Baptist leaders identify themselves as
five-point Calvinists, while about 30 percent of recent seminary
graduates identify themselves as such;
led by Calvinists tend to show smaller attendance and baptize
fewer people each year, but their baptism rate (the ratio of membership
to the number of people baptized) is virtually identical to that
of church planting is virtually the same between Calvinists and
The second section, "Calvinism, The Historical Record,"
offers two perspectives on the role Calvinists have played in
the history of the SBC. David Dockery, president of Union University
in Jackson, Tennessee, demonstrated in his chapter that the history
of the SBC is filled with key leaders who embraced Calvinism.
He traced the flow of Calvinists from the Charleston Association,
founded in 1742, with its emphasis on confessional theology, strong
support for education, and quasi-liturgical worship. He also traced
the flow of those who embraced revivalism, suspicion of education,
and "Spirit-led" worship to the Sandy Creek Association
founded about ten years later. While acknowledging the influence
of non-Calvinists, Dockery demonstrated the substantial contributions
Calvinists have made in the shaping and development of the SBC.
Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at The Southern
Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, addressed
the doctrinal importance of Calvinism among Baptists over the
course of history. He emphasized that historically Baptist Calvinists
have been consistent advocates of:
inspiration of Scripture;
of life; and
In the next section, "Calvinism, General Evaluation,"
Malcolm Yarnell and Jeff Noblit gave differing perspectives of
the benefits versus the potential dangers of Calvinism in the
SBC. Yarnell, director of the Center for Theological Research
at SWBTS in Fort Worth, Texas, pointed out the distinctions between
Classical Calvinism, Baptist Calvinism, and Hyper-Calvinism. He
referenced the anti-missionary mindset of the first and third
groups and warned Baptist Calvinists of the danger of a theological
system that drifts from the clear teachings of Scripture and that
abandons central Baptist distinctives. He then pointed to reasons
for rejoicing, as well as causes for concern, regarding how Calvinists
have addressed essential Baptist beliefs regarding Jesus Christ,
the Bible, the Gospel, the Church, and the Christian life.
Senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Muscle Shoals, Alabama,
Noblit pointed to what he believes are seven reasons Southern
Baptists should rejoice in the rise of Calvinism in the SBC, for
he sees the rise of Calvinism as an instrument the Lord could
use to bring revival and reformation "our churches need to
bring Him the glory He deserves." He suggested that the rise
of Calvinism would help in:
"inerrancy idolatry" (holding to the inerrancy of God's
Word without practicing its sufficiency) and reclaiming the sufficiency
"better" church splits (churches born out of a struggle
for biblical integrity);
and removing covert liberalism;
and mobilizing Christian youth;
churches to biblical models of ministry; and
the focus on glorifying God.
In the fourth section, "Calvinism, The Atonement,"
David Nelson and Sam Waldron tackled the thorny issue of what
Calvinists often refer to as "limited atonement." Nelson
is senior vice president of academic administration and professor
of theology at SEBTS in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He argued
for unlimited atonement that is, the Lord's death on the
cross was payment for the sins of all mankind. In so doing, he
covered several key passages in support of his stance. He also
warned Calvinists of the danger of holding to limited atonement
primarily because it logically flows from their view of the elective
decree of God.
Waldron, academic dean and professor of theology at the Midwest
Center for Theological Studies at Owensboro, Kentucky, argued
for limited atonement, otherwise referred to as "particular
redemption." He presented his arguments, supported them logically,
treated a number of passages in support of his stance, and answered
common arguments against particular redemption.
In "Calvinism, Theological Stereotypes," Chuck Lawless,
dean of the Billy Graham School of Mission, Evangelism, and Church
Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville,
Kentucky, and Nathan Finn, instructor of Church History at SEBTS,
addressed popular, but inaccurate, stereotypes. Lawless addressed
and refuted four stereotypes of non-Calvinists, that they:
concerned about numbers than theology;
pragmatic church growth;
approaches to evangelism and are unconcerned about regenerate
church membership; and
Finn addressed and refuted five myths about Southern Baptist
is a threat to evangelism;
are against invitations;
Calvinism is hyper-Calvinism;
deny free will; and
Baptists are not Calvinists.
The fifth and final doctrinal section is "Calvinism, Election
and Calling." Ken Keathley, senior associate dean and professor
of theology at SEBTS, challenged the Calvinist tenet of "unconditional
election," offering and explaining an alternative: the Molinist
view. This view focuses more on God's knowledge and omniscience
than His decrees. It acknowledges the Reformed understanding of
God's natural knowledge (His knowledge of all of that which is
true in the actual realm as well as that which is true of the
all potential scenarios) and His free knowledge (His knowledge
of everything in this particular world because He freely chose
for it to be this way). But then it posits a third realm of knowledge,
described as "middle knowledge." It is there, according
to Molinists, that God considers the free choices of man and melds
them without contradiction to His sovereign plan.2
Greg Welty, assistant professor of philosophy at SWBTS, offered
the traditional Reformed explanation for election, that God's
election is not based upon an individual's deeds or their foreseen
faith. He then provided scriptural support for his stance and
answered typical challenges to unconditional election. In the
second half of his chapter, he addressed effectual calling (avoiding
the common Calvinist term "irresistible grace"), defending
the view that if God issues an "inner" call (as opposed
to an external call that every person receives) it "always
produces repentance and faith, and therefore secures salvation."3 He went on to interpret John 6:64-65 as
teaching that the only way a person can come to Christ is if he/she
is drawn specifically through this kind of efficacious calling,
to which the person most certainly would respond affirmatively.4
The book closed with Danny Akin, president of SEBTS, and Tom
Ascol, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church in Cape Coral, Florida,
and executive director of Founders Ministries, identifying essential
components around which Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists
can and should unite for the sake of the cause of
The "John 3:16 Conference"
resulted in the book Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological
Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, edited by David L. Allen
and Steve W. Lemke, published in 2010. The first part of the book
presented edited forms of the addresses offered at the conference;
the second part of the book offered additional perspectives. This
article will focus on the first part, which essentially corresponds
to each of the five points of traditional Calvinism: total depravity,
unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace,
and perseverance of the saints.
Chapter 1 by Jerry Vines, president of Jerry Vines Ministries
and pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida,
introduced the entire discussion with an exposition of John 3:16.
In it, he stressed four main points from the text, backing each
with extensive exegesis:
love is global;
love is sacrificial;
love is personal; and
love is eternal.
In chapter 2, Paige Patterson, president, professor of theology,
and L.R. Scarborough Chair of Evangelism at SWBTS, addressed total
depravity. He made the point that Scripture indeed teaches that
humans are dreadfully sinful and will not/cannot seek God on their
own. He provided scriptural support for the reality, the meaning,
and the source of depravity. However, he also offered support
for his view that depravity does not totally render a person incapable
of calling out to God in a desperate plea for salvation.
Oxford-trained theologian Richard Land, president of the SBC
Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, addressed election in
Chapter 3 "Congruent Election: Understanding Election
from an 'Eternal Now' Perspective." In his treatment, he
traced the history of Baptists beliefs concerning election, suggesting
that most Baptists have been neither "fully Calvinists"
nor "remotely Arminian," but rather remaining "different
and distinct from both."
Then he introduced his own perspective, which he labeled "congruent
election," a relatively unknown view of election based upon
the eternality of God. He linked it to what C.S. Lewis called
"the eternal now" of God the fact that God is
not confined to time as we are, but rather views all things past,
present, and future (from a human perspective) as existing in
the present for Him.
Therefore, while we are inclined to view the events of salvation
on a timeline, God's calling in eternity past and a person's response
in the present all take place in His eternal now.5
Chapter 4 was written by David Allen, professor of preaching,
director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching,
George W. Truett Chair of Ministry, and dean of the School of
Theology at SWBTS. He tackled the issue of whether the atonement
is limited or universal.
In an extensive and comprehensive treatment, he made a solid
case for his view that Christ died for the sins of all humans,
not merely for the sins of the elect. Pointing out that Calvin
himself rejected such a view, he made a case historically, exegetically,
logically, and practically against limited atonement.
The longest chapter in the book, Chapter 5, is entitled "A
Biblical and Theological Critique of Irresistible Grace."
In it, Steve Lemke, provost and professor of Philosophy and Ethics
at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana,
provided extensive arguments against the Calvinist position. He
gave a thorough treatment of key passages and theological issues,
challenging the view that a person must respond affirmatively
to God's call.
Kenneth Keathley addressed "Perseverance and Assurance
of the Saints" in Chapter 6. He rejected what Calvinists
and Arminians alike point to for assurance evidence of
practical sanctification and suggested instead that assurance
is tied to one's justification in Christ. His model is based on
four primary points:
basis for assurance is the objective work of Christ;
is the essence of saving faith (that a certain knowledge of salvation
is simultaneous with being saved);
faith perseveres or remains until the day when it gives way to
subsequent to salvation are for the believer to win or lose.
Both books reflect strong convictions that correspond to a
deep commitment to the Person and Work of Jesus Christ as well
as a high regard and profound respect for God's Word. Both highlight
the need for aggressive and passionate evangelism.
Both emphasize the priority of unity of purpose in the midst
of theological diversity and the application of love in the midst
of doctrinal differences. Both acknowledge the historical reality
of Calvinism in the history of the SBC. Both warn against extremism
as well as the tendency to stereotype those in other camps.
And for those who might be inclined to take a hard stand on
one side or the other, each book offers critical insights into
the issue that should help prevent doctrinal hostility and cultivate
a genuine camaraderie in the cause of the Gospel and the fulfillment
of the Great Commission.
1. See pages 13-24
for extensive charts and statistics given in support of the points.
2. Space does not permit a full or fair explanation of this view
... to properly do justice to this perspective it is necessary
to read the section in its entirety.
3. In a quote of John L. Dagg on page 235.
4. Pages 237-239.
5. Again, space does not permit a full or fair explanation of
this view ... to properly do justice to this perspective it is
necessary to read the section in its entirety.
John Revell is a member of Long Hollow Baptist
Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and editor of SBC LIFE.
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