Reflections on the Calvinism Debate in the SBC

Tom Ascol
| March 19, 2014

It has been nearly a year since the release of SBC Calvinism Advisory Committee’s report. Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee president, Frank Page, appointed that committee, despite the fear and consternation of some, in hopes that such a document could be produced and might prove useful to SBC pastors and churches. It seems that the Lord has used Dr. Page’s leadership to do accomplish both of these goals. I have expressed my thoughts on the report elsewhere, but I don’t think I have written (or at least written much) about nature of the ongoing debate within the convention since the report was published last year.

debateI have been asked quite a bit about it by people both within and outside of the SBC. I also field such questions from believers far removed from the USA. Recently I read David Allen’s “Observations, Clarifications, and Suggestions” on this subject. Dr. Allen, who is Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, takes his cue from the “Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” which he signed after it was released in 2012 (I’ve written a critique of it available here). I greatly appreciate the exemplary spirit and tone of what Dr. Allen has written and agree with many of his observations, especially when he points out the common ground shared by most Southern Baptists who line up on opposite sides of the debate. Too often our agreements are overlooked in the rush to focus on our differences. That point needs to be remembered and emphasized as the discussions continue.

Without a doubt the debate over Calvinism within the SBC has moved progressively to higher ground over the last few years. Those who are alarmed by the intensity of the current debate, or even the occasional rancor that unfortunately attends it, most likely are new to it. As someone who has served more than thirty years as a Southern Baptist pastor who is convinced of the doctrines of grace, I regard the nature of the debate today to be, for the most part, far healthier and more in keeping with the kind of polemical theology that befits true Christians than at any time in recent history.

Take, for example, the following statements that have been made about Calvinism from recognized leaders within the SBC:

  • Calvinism kills churches.
  • There’s not a nickel’s worth of difference between a liberal and a Calvinist.
  • There is no evidence that Baptists in their confessions of faith ever truly adhered to the five points of Calvinism.
  • Calvinism has always been a drag on missions and evangelism.
  • Calvinism is worse than Islam
  • Calvinism is harmful to the Great Commission
  • Calvinism is elitist, arrogant, perverted form theology, that slanders the very nature and character of God and is being aggressively taught in some of our seminaries.
  • “Evangelical Calvinism” is an oxymoron and a dagger in the heart of evangelism.
  • The doctrines related to Calvinism lead to a “dunghill.”

These are only a few—a very few—of the kinds of comments that dominated much of the Southern Baptist debate over Calvinism in years past. The sources for the above public (very public, and widely spread) assertions include seminary professors and presidents, executive committee chairman, convention presidents, and prominent evangelists. Such comments could be easily multiplied.

For a helpful collection of sources that documents some of the worst parts of the history of this debate during which these comments were made, see Timmy Brister’s helpful “Chronological Survey.”

Or consider the following sample of events that have taken place in the past regardng the SBC debate over Calvinism:

  • A seminary president calls a meeting with select (I almost wrote, “elect” 🙂 ) faculty, distributes a brochure for a national Founders Conference, and asks, “What are we going to do about this?”
  • Denominational employees distribute documents to churches and pastor search committees designed to help them smoke out any  Calvinists on their staffs or in their pastoral candidate pool.
  • State Conventions (plural) distribute anti-Calvinistic materials to churches and pastors under the guise of “educating” their constituents about the issue.
  • A seminary provost formally identifies Founders Ministries with “hard hyper-Calvinism.”

Again, such examples could be easily multiplied. There was a time when the kind of rhetoric and actions like those just cited were commonplace in Southern Baptist life. All of this helped foster an unhelpful culture of suspicion, distrust and antagonism throughout the SBC. The impact was felt in hundreds of churches, often with the result that good, godly pastors were unceremoniously dismissed from their pulpits, sometimes following the direct counsel of denominational employees.

Granted, I have said nsbc-calvinismothing about inflammatory comments and actions from and by Calvinists. Do not take that to mean that there were none. Rather, I have limited my small sample to sources that had some recognized if not official status among Southern Baptists. Further, I have done so not to open old wounds or to start rehashing old arguments but rather to make what I think is a very important point that must be considered when evaluating the current climate in the SBC regarding the debate over Calvinism, namely, that we are in a much healthier place today and, by God’s grace, are able to continue the conversations with far less acrimony than was true just a decade ago.

Without doubt there are still a few “angry Calvinists” (as Ed Stetzer so famously likes to call them) around and there are still among us a few who think Calvinism is from the devil and prefer Islam over it. But their voices have by-and-large become increasingly muted. That is why the most vociferous blogs that insist on addressing the issue in strident language have turned into little more than echo chambers. The same small crowds (on both sides) keep preaching to each other in ways that evoke boisterous “Amens” from one another.

But beyond that, in the broadest sectors of the convention, the debate continues but with sincere, brotherly respect. I experienced this first-hand in the deliberations of the Calvinism Advisory Committee. Understandably, there was great concern for confidentiality during those deliberation. I confess, however, that I wish they had been carefully video and audio recorded. I believe that if Southern Baptists could witness the kind of plain-spoken, honest, forceful, humble, thoughtful and at times animated debate that took place in those meetings that it would be a great encouragement to them. There was no pretending that we all agreed on everything nor was there any attempt to downplay the importance of our differences. Rather, our conversations were guided by the kind of love and respect that becomes followers of a crucified Savior. There genuinely was more light than heat in our exchanges.

I see this same spirit taking root and spreading in the broader exchanges across the convention.Why this is happening is an interesting question. No doubt there are many secondary causes, but ultimately and most importantly, it is, I firmly believe, the manifestation of God’s grace and mercy on us.

Regardless of how and why we got here, I applaud and want to encourage the kind of civil, pointed exchanges that a growing number on each side of the Calvinism divide are having. If we can continue to discuss the things of Christ while pursuing the mission of Christ in the spirit of Christ I believe that much good will result. Further, we can all be assured that our Lord will continue to honor His Word, build His church and empower His people to do His will.