Doctrines Lead to `Dunghill’ Prof Warns

Doctrines Lead to `Dunghill’ Prof Warns

William R. Estep

[Dr. William R. Estep is professor of church history, emeritus, at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth. His article is reprinted with permission from the Texas Baptist Standard, 26 March 1997. Dr. Estep kindly sent the Founders Journal a slightly revised version of this article in which he added "a few bibliographical references and corrected a couple of dates." It should be noted that he originally entitled the article, "Calvinizing Southern Baptists." The editors of the Baptist Standard are responsible for the title which appeared in that publication. Because it is the one which has been widely distributed, the original version of his article which appeared in the Standard is the one which follows. Due to his heavy writing schedule, Dr. Estep is unable to enter into correspondence with readers about his article.]

Only the most out-of-touch Southern Baptist could be unaware of the attempt on the part of some within our ranks to promote a 19th century version of Calvinism among Southern Baptists as a return to the original theology of the first English Baptists.

This newfound fascination with Calvin and the system of theology that bears his name is both intriguing and puzzling, since most of the ardent advocates of this movement have only a slight knowledge of Calvin or his system as set forth in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. They simply borrow that which they assume to be both biblical and baptistic without adequate research. This is essentially what James P. Boyce did, as reflected in his Abstract of Systematic Theology.

Charles Hodge, the most influential of the Princetonian theologians of the 19th century, was Boyce’s mentor at Princeton.

Thoroughly enamored with Hodge and his three-volume Systematic Theology, Boyce taught Hodge’s version of Calvinism at Southern Seminary, which Basil Manly Jr. also incorporated in the seminary’s founding document, the Abstract of Principles (1858).

These works provide the pretense upon which Ernest C. Reisinger has attempted to call Southern Baptists back to what he conceives to have been their Calvinistic roots. This assumption must be challenged on the basis of the original Baptist vision and its theological insights.

John Calvin (1509-1554)

Calvin is best known for his Institutes, which first appeared in 1536. After several revisions, the definitive edition was published in 1559 in four volumes, He also was the reformer of Geneva.

Trained in law, Calvin attempted to form a church-state for which he drew up laws and set up a “consistory,” not unlike courts of the inquisition in the medieval Catholic Church. This church court condemned many for “heresy”–spiritual crimes–some of whom were executed by the civil authorities and others were exiled.

Among, those condemned, Michael Servetus was burned at the stake for disagreeing with Calvin on the nature of the Trinity and “anabaptism.” Jerome Bolsec was exiled for disagreeing with Calvin on the doctrine of predestination.

Admittedly, this was the 16th century and the pressures on Calvin were enormous, but when all of these factors–political, sociological and religious–are considered, Calvin cannot be exonerated.

He was no advocate of religious freedom, but an autocrat who often mistook his own will for the will of God.

Calvin never was able to free himself from his Roman Catholic heritage. The tenacity with which he held to infant baptism, a church-state in which a sin against the church became a crime against the state, and the use of the civil Government to enforce conformity to the Genevan theocracy reflect his adherence to the Codex Justinian.

His Old Testament hermeneutics and his uncontrollable temper acerbated his intolerance of those who disagreed with him. A case in point was his quarrel with Jerome Bolsec over predestination.

Predestination Controversy

While it is difficult to state briefly Calvin’s view of predestination, perhaps the best summary is that given by Calvin himself:

“By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God by which He determined with Himself whatever He wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation, and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death” (Institutes, 3.21.5).

Bolsec could not accept Calvin’s position, which seemed to erect a whole system of theology on “eternal decrees” without any reference to Christ or the love that caused God to offer His Son as a sacrifice for sinful humanity.

Bolsec did not deny man’s sinful nature or the need of salvation, but his view of election focused on Christ and the grace made available to believers through faith in Him.

He also recognized the individual’s ability to respond in faith or to reject God’s gift of salvation. In doing so, there was no room in Geneva for Jerome Bolsec. He was expelled from the city.

Baptists and Calvinism

Baptists arose out of the English Puritan-Separatist movement, which was Calvinistic, but they modified their Calvinistic heritage to a considerable degree.

The first English Baptists of record (1608), came to be known as “General Baptists,” since they believed in “general atonement”–that Christ died for all and not just for the elect. Their Calvinism almost completely vanished under Anabaptist-Mennonite influence.

The “Particular Baptists” (1641) were so designated because they held with the English Puritans’ belief in “particular atonement”–that Christ died only for the elect.

But they also modified their Calvinism, as Glen Stassen has shown, under the influence of Menno Simons’ Foundation Book, which they quoted in the First London Confession of 1644. Its revision in 1646 reveals a further departure from Calvinism in their rejection of the fourfold ministry of Calvin’s invention and by greatly enlarging his article on religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

While Baptists never have been doctrinaire Calvinists, as a careful study of the sources reveals, there have been some Baptists from time to time who have advocated such a position.

When John Ryland Sr. called William Carey “a miserable enthusiast” and told him, to sit down that God “would save the heathen without your help or mine,” he reflected the hyper-Calvinism of John Gill, who set forth his position in numerous works and prided himself on never extending an invitation for a sinner to trust Christ during his entire London pastorate of more than 50 years.

Andrew Fuller wrote The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation against Gill’s Calvinism, concluding: “Had matters gone on but a few years, the Baptists would have become a perfect dunghill in society.”

Fuller’s modification of Calvinism among the Baptists made possible the foreign mission movement of which Carey became the catalyst.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon often has been cited by Baptists as a staunch Calvinist. At times, the young Spurgeon claimed to be exactly that, but at other times it is clear he was neither a hyper-Calvinist nor even a consistent Calvinist.

A. C. Underwood, in A History of English Baptists, writes that Spurgeon’s “rejection of a limited atonement would have horrified John Calvin.”

According to Underwood, Spurgeon often prayed, “Hasten to bring in all Thine elect, and then elect some more.” The mature Spurgeon confided in Archbishop Benson, “I’m a very bad Calvinist, quite a Calvinist–I look on to the time when the elect will be all the world.

Problems with Calvinism

Apparently Baptists always have had problems with an unmodified Calvinism. Only a few can be mentioned here.

First, it is a system of theology without biblical support.

It assumes to know more about God and the eternal decrees upon which it is based than God has chosen to reveal in scripture or in Christ. To say God created some people for damnation and others for salvation is to deny that all have been created in the image of God.

It also reflects upon both God’s holiness and His justice, as portrayed in the Bible.

Further, Calvinism appears to deny John 3:16, John 1:12, Romans 1:16, Romans 10:9-10, Ephesians 2:8-10, and numerous other passages of scripture that indicate, as Baptists confessions have consistently stated, that salvation comes to those who respond to God’s grace in faith.

Second, Calvinism’s God resembles Allah, the god of Islam, more than the God of grace and redeeming love revealed in Jesus Christ.

Third, Calvinism robs the individual of responsibility for his/her own conduct, making a person into a puppet on a string or a robot programmed from birth to death with no will of his/her own.

Fourth, historically, Calvinism his been marked by intolerance and a haughty spirit. Calvin’s Geneva, the Synod of Dort (1618-619) and the Regular Baptists (Hardshells, Primitives and Two Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists) are only some of numerous examples of this Calvinistic blight.

Fifth, logically, Calvinism is anti-missionary. The Great Commission is meaningless if every person is programmed for salvation or damnation, for [then] evangelism and missionary effort are exercises in futility.

Apparently, Calvinism is an excursion into speculative theology with predictable results, which we as Southern Baptists can ill afford.

It also introduces another divisive element in a badly divided denomination.

If the Calvinizing of Southern Baptists continues unabated, we are in danger of becoming “a perfect dunghill” in American society, to borrow a phrase from Andrew Fuller.


There is no learned man but will confess that he hat much profited by reading controversies — his senses awakened, his judgment sharpened, and the truth which he holds more firmly established. All controversy being permitted, falsehood will appear more false, and truth the more true.

–John Milton, as quoted in The Golden Treasury of Puritan Quotations, compiled by I. D. E. Thomas (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 62-63.