NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A May 30 statement aimed at critiquing Calvinism launched a discussion within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) nearly immediately when it was posted online, and the debate has yet to slow down.
The document, “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” was posted at SBCToday.com and has received more than 800 comments. All total, when including other SBCToday.com stories about the statement, more than 1,800 comments have been logged.
But that’s just scratching the surface, as various Baptist-centric blogs have been dominated by dialog on the 10-point statement. Since May 30, SBCVoices.com, another Baptist blog, has seen more than 1,800 comments – about the same as SBCToday.com – on various blog posts dealing with the statement.
The statement – which affirms what the signers call the “traditional Southern Baptist” understanding of the doctrine of salvation and draws a distinction with the beliefs of “New Calvinism” – includes signatures from two entity presidents (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Paige Patterson and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Chuck Kelley), seven state executive directors (Georgia’s Bob White, Florida’s John Sullivan, Mississippi’s Jim Futral, Louisiana’s David Hankins, Alaska’s Mike Procter, Colorado’s Mark Edlund, Indiana’s Cecil W. Seagle), and in addition to Patterson, five other former SBC presidents (Bailey Smith, Jimmy Draper, Jerry Vines, Morris Chapman and Bobby Welch).
Much of the discussion in the blogosphere has centered on a column written by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s president, R. Albert Mohler Jr., who explained why he did not sign the statement.
“I have very serious reservations and concerns about some of its assertions and denials,” Mohler wrote on his website. “I fully understand the intention of the drafters to oppose several Calvinist renderings of doctrine, but some of the language employed in the statement goes far beyond this intention. Some portions of the statement actually go beyond Arminianism and appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings of sin, human nature, and the human will – understandings that virtually all Southern Baptists have denied.”
Mohler continued: “I do not believe that those most problematic statements truly reflect the beliefs of many who signed this document. I know many of these men very well, and I know them to be doctrinally careful and theologically discerning.”
Semi-Pelagianism, according to the Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (IVP), maintains that “faith begins independently of God’s grace, although such grace is subsequently necessary for salvation.” Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary says that in semi-Pelagianism, “the first step toward salvation was through human will and that grace intervened only with human assent.” It gets its name from a British monk, Pelagius, who lived around A.D. 400.
Mohler was not specific in his concern, although on various blogs, those who have made the same charge have pointed to the statement’s second article, which reads, in part: “We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the gospel.” The first sentence is the one at issue. The second article also states: “We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.”
Vines, on his blog, said the document is not semi-Pelagian.
“I strongly disagree with Dr. Mohler’s assertion that ‘some of the statements appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings.’“ wrote Vines, who emphasized that he and Mohler are friends. “I wonder if Dr. Mohler thinks some of us aren’t theologically astute enough to recognize semi-Pelagianism when we see it!”
Malcolm Yarnell, associate professor of systematic at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, was a signer of the statement, and said it was not semi-Pelagian. He quoted all of the second article and also the fourth article, which reads, in part: “We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement, in freely offering the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in uniting the believer to Christ through the Holy Spirit by faith.”
“A careful reading of the document,” Yarnell wrote, “thus indicates that the signatories believe that faith comes to human beings as an act of divine grace, just as the cross and the proclamation of the gospel are acts of divine grace. Personally, I have always taught my students that divine grace has the priority in salvation, from beginning to end, and I will continue to do so.”
Eric Hankins, pastor of First Baptist Church in Oxford, Miss., was one of the first signers of the statement and wrote its introduction when it was first posted. He wrote at SBCToday.com, “We will never concede the charge of Semi-Pelagianism.”
“Here is what we mean and what we will be glad to debate: We are all ruined by Adam’s sin,” Hankins wrote. “We are born with a sin nature. We all persistently, perniciously, and at every opportunity want to be Lord of our own lives. We cannot save ourselves. The power of the gospel through the initiative and drawing of the Holy Spirit is our only hope, and it alone is sufficient to pierce our spiritual darkness and rescue us. But our real response to the gospel of Christ in the power of the Spirit matters to God.”
Others, though, disagreed, and said the statement, particularly article two, is semi-Pelagian.
“The statement affirms that there is corruption (inclined toward sin), but denies that there is inability,” Chris Roberts, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Panama City, Fla., wrote at SBCVoices.com. Roberts did not sign the statement. “The statement elsewhere affirms that we need salvation through Jesus Christ alone, but repeatedly asserts that salvation is found through a free response of the human will, a will which is here claimed to be inclined toward sin but not incapacitated by sin. If that is not semi-Pelagian, what is?”
Roberts added that from his perspective, the statement seems to be saying that “while the Spirit woos and draws, our response to the Spirit originates in the individual through a will that does not need to be changed by God to overcome sin’s corruption.”
Roger Olson, professor of theology at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary and author of “Against Calvinism” – a book that criticizes Calvinism – said the statement goes too far.
“The problem with this … statement is its neglect of emphasis on the necessity of the prevenience of supernatural grace for the exercise of a good will toward God (including acceptance of the gospel by faith),” Olson wrote in a Patheos.com article. “If the authors believe in that cardinal biblical truth, they need to spell it out more clearly. And they need to delete the sentence that denies the incapacitation of free will due to Adam’s sin.”
The statement has been debated in Baptist state newspapers as well.
The Florida Baptist Witness ran a point-counterpoint on the statement by Bob Hadley, who signed the statement and is pastor of Westside Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Tom Ascol, who did not sign the statement and is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, and executive director of Founders Ministries.
The discussion on blogs about the statement has not always been fruitful, wrote Dave Miller, editor at SBCVoices.com.
“Any post here on Calvinism tends to descend into mudslinging within about 50-75 comments,” Miller, senior pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa, bemoaned. He urged readers to “demonstrate a passion for the unity of the body of Christ” that is “as great or even greater than our passion for our doctrinal systems.”
“We need to eschew the kind of knowledge that puffs up and live in love with one another,” Miller wrote.
Mohler and Vines, too, urged Southern Baptists to be charitable during the discussion.
“I love and respect the men who signed this new statement,” Mohler wrote. “I believe that they love and respect me. We have walked arm in arm for too long to abandon each other now. … The presence of more than one tradition and stream of doctrinal influence has been healthy for Southern Baptists. We have been strengthened by both the Charleston and Sandy Creek traditions, representing Southern Baptists who rightly prize their doctrinal understandings, but eagerly work together in the gospel service.”
Vines, in a post titled, “It is Time to Discuss the Elephant in the Room,” wrote, “I have no desire that any Calvinist be unwelcome in the SBC. I do desire that we can live together as brothers, openly and lovingly affirming our theological positions without trying to force them upon others who take another view. And I pray we will be willing to join hearts and hands with those who may view theological matters somewhat differently than we do, within the framework of our BF&M [Baptist Faith & Message].
Vines said he signed the statement because “there are some, not all, new Calvinists who are hostile, militant and aggressive.”
“The time has come to admit we have a problem, seek God-honoring solutions and move forward to do our part as Southern Baptists to fulfill the Great Commission,” Vines wrote.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.)