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Calvinism and S. Baptists: a look at a heavily debated issue
Daniel L. Akin, SEBTS
August 12, 2013

Calvinism and S. Baptists: a look at a heavily debated issue

Calvinism and S. Baptists: a look at a heavily debated issue
Daniel L. Akin, SEBTS
August 12, 2013

Introduction

Many have read about the Calvinism debate among Southern Baptists, and some have followed related discussions on blogs. At the Biblical Recorder we have received questions from Baptists in the pews and many pastors asking what the discussion is really all about.

In an effort to clarify the Calvinism controversy, the Biblical Recorder is publishing an article by Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, that was first published in SBC Life in 2006. We believe Akin’s article will assist in bringing understanding to those who don’t have time to follow this issue and will encourage cooperation among Baptists.

In August 2012 Frank Page, CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, assembled a 19-member advisory committee to examine disagreement within the SBC on the matter of Calvinism and to advise him on developing “a strategy whereby people of various theological persuasions can purposely work together in missions and evangelism.”

The committee was composed of Baptists who are Calvinists and non-Calvinists. Union University President David Dockery, chaired the committee. The report, which was released in May 2013, lists areas of agreement and disagreement between the two camps, saying “we do indeed have some challenging but not insurmountable points of tension.”

The report says, “We affirm that Southern Baptists stand together in a commitment to cooperate in Great Commission ministries. We affirm that, from the very beginning of our denominational life, Calvinists and non-Calvinists have cooperated together.”

The report also adds, “We must not only acknowledge but celebrate the distinctive contributions made by the multiple streams of our Southern Baptist heritage. These streams include both Charleston and Sandy Creek, the Reformers and many of the advocates of the Radical Reformation, confessional evangelicalism and passionate revivalism. These streams and their tributaries nourish us still.”

– BR Editor

Divine sovereignty and human responsibility: How should Southern Baptists respond to the issue of Calvinism?

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Few issues are more likely to ignite a lively debate than a discussion of the relationships between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in this subject in Southern Baptist life, to the delight of some and chagrin of others. The Conservative Resurgence which began in 1979 was about the authority of the Bible. Those who believe the Bible to be the inerrant and infallible Word of God will take its doctrines seriously. Issues like predestination and election, free will and human responsibility will naturally require our careful study.

Thankfully, our theological discussions are not those of other denominations in our day. Issues like the deity of Christ, the exclusivity of the gospel, open theism, abortion, and homosexuality are settled for Southern Baptists because of our commitment to the clear teachings of scripture.

However, some issues in the Bible are more obscure. There is often a mystery and tension to what we find when we examine all that the Bible says on some subjects. This is clearly the case when it comes to understanding God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation.

Unfortunately, there is more heat than light in many instances with shrill voices and unhealthy rhetoric – on both sides of the issue – getting too much attention. On one side you hear people saying that God hates the non-elect and damns babies to hell. They say that Jesus was a Calvinist and that Calvinism is the gospel. On the other side you hear voices stating that Calvinism is heresy and that Calvinists do not believe in missions and evangelism. Some even suggest that the Southern Baptist Convention could split over this issue though I am convinced this will not happen.

I believe we need to tone down the rhetoric. We need to seek biblical balance, theological sanity, and ministerial integrity in the midst of this discussion. Let me attempt to set the playing field for this important issue and then make some theological and practical suggestions as we work together for the glory of God and the cause of Christ.

A Look at Calvinism

The issue that is being debated today almost always revolves around the idea of Calvinism. To some, this is a theological landmine to be avoided at all cost, even if they are not sure what it means. For others it signals a recovery of biblical truth growing out of the Reformation of the 16th century and its emphasis on the great solas: scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, for the glory of God alone. John Calvin (1509-64) was the great theologian of the Reformation. An outstanding biblical scholar, he heralded the theology of both Paul and Augustine (354-430). Like Martin Luther (1483-1546), he emphasized the sovereignty of God, the sinfulness of man, and the necessity of grace for salvation.

Later in the 17th century, followers of Calvin would systematize his theology and go beyond what Calvin himself taught. This system would ultimately be codified through the now famous acrostic TULIP.

The history of Southern Baptists includes those on one side of the theological spectrum who have flatly rejected three or more of Calvin’s five points and those at the other who have enthusiastically embraced all of them, with many Baptists falling somewhere in between.

The reality is that the SBC has included “Five-Point Calvinists” and “Modified” Calvinists from the start. It should be stressed here that, from a denomination standpoint, in this discussion there is no “right or wrong.” Southern Baptists have always been diverse in many regards, and the theological realm is no exception. Neither the Southern Baptist Convention, nor its seminaries, endorse or promote a particular theological system or stance on areas not addressed in the Baptist Faith and Message.

Frankly, I don’t foresee that ever changing. So what follows is not an endorsement or promotion of Calvinism, but rather a review and condensed explanation of what some of our Southern Baptist brethren believe on the five points of the Calvinistic system. My hope and prayer is that a fuller understanding will help set the stage for what follows in the final section.

  • Total Depravity – This view holds that man is born with a nature and bent toward sin. Every aspect of man’s being is infected with the disease of sin so that he cannot save himself, neither can he move toward God without the initiating and enabling grace of God. Man is not as bad as he could possibly be, but he is radically depraved. Most Baptists would agree on this point, at least in some measure. It is hard to deny it in light of Romans 3:9-20 and Ephesians 2:1-3.

  • Unconditional Election – According to this view, God, in grace and mercy, has chosen certain persons for salvation. Those who hold this view believe that His decision is not based on human merit or foreseen faith, but in the goodness and providence of God’s own will and purposes.

Many would add, however, that the electing purpose of God is somehow accomplished without destroying human free will and responsibility. Accordingly, no one is saved apart from God’s plan, and yet, anyone who repents and trusts Christ will be saved. The French theologian Moise Amyraut (1596-1664) referred to this as God’s secret or hidden decree. There is an admitted tension in this position, but a tension that need not be viewed as contradictory. Calvinists commonly cite John 6:37-48 at this point.

Of course, this view is hotly debated among some Southern Baptists, with alternative interpretations of scriptural passages being offered and both sides genuinely believe they are operating from a biblical basis.

The reality is Southern Baptists will likely debate this point until the Lord returns, but there is certainly no need for division or ill will over it.

  • Limited Atonement – Most Calvinists view this as an unfortunate phrase, preferring the term “particular redemption” instead. The original stance of Calvin’s followers was that the intent of the atoning work of Christ was to provide and purchase salvation for the elect.

Thus the work of Christ would be limited to the elect, and His atonement was made for a particular people (e.g., His sheep, the Church, His Bride).

This is a real point of contention for many, and, in fact, most Modified Calvinists cannot embrace this teaching in its classic form.

However, let me offer a crucial observation that hopefully will foster some unity on this point. All Bible-believers limit the atonement in some way. To not do so is to advocate Universalism, the view that eventually everyone will be saved. Most Baptists would say the Bible teaches that the atonement is limited in its application, but certainly not its provision.

In other words, in His death on the cross Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world (John 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:4-6; 4:10; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 2:1-2; 4:9-10) making a universal provision. However, the application is limited to those who receive the free gift of salvation offered to them by their personal faith in Christ. One can see then that all evangelicals limit the atonement in some sense, but do so in different ways.

  • Irresistible Grace – Most Calvinists would see this as another unfortunate choice of words that stirs up unnecessary debate. Instead, they would prefer the phrase “effectual calling.” This doctrine asserts that those who are predestined to be saved are called to salvation (Romans 8:30) effectually or effectively. They are not forced to come but are set free to come and they do so willingly. Timothy George strikes the balance of this teaching with human responsibility when he writes, “God created human beings with free moral agency, and He does not violate this even in the supernatural work of regeneration. Christ does not rudely bludgeon His way into the human heart. He does not abrogate our creaturely freedom. No, he beckons and woos, He pleads and pursues, He waits and wins” (Amazing Grace, p. 74).

  • Perseverance of the Saints – Those God saves, He protects and preserves in their salvation. Baptists have historically referred to this as the doctrine of “eternal security,” or in popular terminology as “once saved, always saved.”

This is one point of Calvinism that almost all Baptists affirm. Sometimes misunderstood and falsely caricatured by those rejecting this doctrine, perseverance of the saints does not teach people can live any way they want and take advantage of God’s grace. Rather, because of the greatness of the gift of our salvation, true believers will be grieved when they sin and will pursue a life that is pleasing to the God whom they love and Who keeps them safely in His hand (John 10:27-29).

This is a summary of “five-point Calvinism” or what its advocates call “the Doctrines of Grace.” Though it is not as popular among Southern Baptists as it was in the past, there has been a rise in interest in its teachings. And one should honestly acknowledge many wonderful and significant Baptists in the past followed these doctrines. This includes men like William Carey, Andrew Fuller, Luther Rice, Adoniram Judson, Charles Spurgeon, John L. Dagg, Basil Manly Jr., and James Boyce. John Broadus and B.H. Carroll would also have considered themselves Calvinists, though both would have affirmed only four of the five points. They did not advocate particular redemption.

How then should Southern Baptists, with such a rich and diverse theological heritage, respond to this controversial issue at the dawn of the 21st century? As people of The Book who rejoice in a remarkable history, how might we move forward together in unity in the days ahead?

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Daniel Akin is president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. The second part of Akin’s article will be featured in the Biblical Recorder’s Aug. 31 issue. This article is being used with permission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The article was originally published in the April 2006 SBC Life, news journal of the SBC’s Executive Committee.)

Glossary of theological terms

  • Calvinism – A theological tradition named after sixteenth-century French reformer John Calvin that emphasizes the sovereignty of God in all things, man’s inability to do spiritual good before God, and the glory of God as the highest end of all that occurs.

  • Doctrines of grace – Another term for the theological tradition commonly referred to as Calvinism.

  • Arminianism – A theological tradition named after seventeenth-century theologian Jacob Arminius that seeks to preserve the free choices of human beings and denies God’s providential control over the details of all events.

  • Supralapsarianism – The belief held by some Calvinists that God decided first that He would save some people then decided to allow sin to enter the world so He could save them from it.

  • Double predestination – The belief that God predestines some to salvation and others to damnation.

  • Atonement – The work Christ did in His life and death to earn our salvation.

  • Providence – The doctrine that God is continually involved with all created things so that He maintains their existence, guides their actions, and directs them to fulfill His purposes.

  • Pre-tribulational/pre-millennial – The view that God will rapture believers into heaven secretly during Christ’s first return prior to the great tribulation.

  • Amillennial – The view that there will be no literal thousand-year bodily reign of Christ on earth prior to the final judgment and the eternal state.

  • Pelagians – Those holding the theological beliefs of the fifth-century monk Pelagius, who believed that man has the ability to obey God’s commands and take the first steps to salvation without God’s assistance.

  • Open Theists – Those who believe that God does not know with certainty all future events.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – While most pastors would recognize and understand the theological terms used in this article, we have a growing number of readers who have not had formal theological training and might be unfamiliar with such terms and phrases as these.)

Quotes from members of the Calvinism advisory committee

“As the statement affirms, these tensions have been present within the Southern Baptist Convention from the very beginning of our life and work together. We are people who take theology seriously. But we are also people who take seriously our joy and privilege in working together in service to the Great Commission.”

– R. Albert Mohler Jr., president, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky.

“My love for the unity in essentials among Southern Baptists for the purpose of getting the [g]ospel to every human on earth has wrung my signature on this document from my heart. The most important aspect to me is the provision for honesty and integrity for all.”

– Paige Patterson, president, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas

“I believe [the advisory committee report] effectively articulates and models the way forward, taking seriously both our theological unity and diversity as a truly positive component of our ‘one sacred effort.’”

– Eric Hankins, senior pastor, First Baptist Church, Oxford, Miss.

“This group had the difficult task of dealing with a subject that many Southern Baptists have very strong opinions about. My personal prayer is that this report will be an example of how believers can come together to impact the Kingdom of God and not personal agendas.”

– Fred Luter, president of the Southern Baptist Convention; senior pastor, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, New Orleans, La.