SBC Voices has posted the text of “A Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” on their site. In the next few posts, I want to interact with the document in hopes of fulfilling the spirit of our late brother, Roger Nicole’s, admonitions on “How to Deal with Those Who Differ with Us.”
Though I am not ashamed to be known as a Calvinist by those who have an accurate historical and theological understanding of the term, it is not a badge I wear. Having held my theological convictions on this issue for over 30 years, I don’t know how anyone could honestly call me a “new” Calvinist. I do have many young friends who could perhaps accurately be put into that camp, however. It grieves me to see them maligned and the doctrinal convictions which we share in common–and which we have repeatedly, publicly, historically and confessionally tried to articulate–misrepresented. Contrary to what the framers of this document assert, I hope that their judgments and views are far less representative of Southern Baptists than what they boldly assert.
At the outset I want to state plainly that, though I disagree not only with many of the theological expressions of this document but also what I see as several implied and stated misrepresentations, I am grateful for the clarity with which the authors have stated their views. For the most part, there is no difficulty understanding what they are affirming and denying. That is always helpful in theological dialogue. Furthermore, none of my critiques should be interpreted as suggesting that I think the originators of this document have no right to issue it or to argue strenuously–dare I say, aggressively–for their views. I am assuming that we are all mature enough to handle pointed, ruthlessly biblical debate. That does not mean “mean-spirited.” It means doggedly determined to follow Scripture and to press each other to do so without apology.
I believe this document to be unwise. As I have stated previously, I think it has more potential to provoke serious division than anything else I have read on this issue coming from within the Southern Baptist camp. Given some of the debates and shenanigans that have gone on in the attacks and counter-attacks on Calvinism over the last ten years, that is a bold statement. However, I believe that the potential divisiveness might, by the grace of God, be negated and that the ensuing result could help clarify the attitudes and convictions of several key Southern Baptist leaders. Words have meaning and are a reflection, Jesus said, of what’s in the heart. There is a spectrum of views on Calvinism within the SBC. At one extreme we have Calvinists who would be happy to run all non-Calvinists off (or at least relegate them to the arena of “being tolerated”). Their counterparts on the other extreme–the anti-Calvinists–have the same agenda but with their guns aimed, obviously, at the Calvinists.
This document helps position its framers and signatories on this spectrum for all to see. That will ultimately prove to be helpful as Southern Baptists come to terms with the increasingly inescapable decision of how we will live together in the SBC. Will we demand complete uniformity on each of the doctrines clustered around salvation? Will we only tolerate those who disagree with us at any point? Or will we choose to walk together as those who agree with the Baptist Faith and Message without crossing our fingers?
Following is the first of a two-part response to the stated rationale for the document.
The Preamble (part A)
The preamble to this document identifies the precipitating issue that has called it forth as “the rise of a movement called ‘New Calvinism’ among Southern Baptists.” Though TIME Magazine popularized “New Calvinism” (NC) as one of the “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now” in 2009, the framers of this statement infuse the term with their own prejudices by describing it as being characterized by “an aggressive insistence on the ‘Doctrines of Grace’ (‘TULIP’).” Of course, one man’s aggression is simply another man’s passion but the authors have been called to action by their perception that the NC movement is committed to two goals: 1) “advancing in the churches an exclusively Calvinistic understanding of salvation” and to 2) “making Calvinism the central Southern Baptist position on God’s plan of salvation.”
The first of these charges raises a question as to the signatories’ attitude toward the autonomy of local Southern Baptist churches. If a church prayerfully and carefully calls a man to serve its membership as pastor, should those members not expect that pastor to “advance” his understanding of what the Bible teaches about salvation and to do so “exclusively?” I, for one, could hardly respect a man who did anything less, regardless of his theological convictions. If a Baptist church calls an Arminian to be its pastor then do we have any right to be alarmed if that man “advances an exclusively [Arminian] understanding of salvation?” Wouldn’t the same be true if the church called a Molinist or Dispensationalist? We may lament and regret such a move, but should we be alarmed at a pastor and church for acting under the authority of Christ in advancing their understanding of Bible doctrine “exclusively?”
On the second charge, perhaps Hankins, Patterson, Vines, et al are privy to documents that spell out this agenda. If so, it would be enlightening to know exactly how the NC movement plans to proceed and furthermore, how will they know when they have achieved making their views the “central Southern Baptist position?” Once again, if the concern is that Calvinists want everyone to believe what they believe, then what alternative would the framers of this document propose for truth loving pastors of any theological stripe? Surely they would not advocate that anyone–Calvinist or not–hold their views on salvation with a “que sera, sera” attitude.
I do not know any Calvinist who has an agenda to make Calvinism “the central Southern Baptist understanding of salvation.” It certainly is not my agenda. Although I would love for everyone to read Scripture the way that I do, I am content to live within the SBC under the doctrinal umbrella of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 and to cooperate with my less-Calvinistic brothers and sisters who are willing to do the same.
It seems that behind this second charge there must be some underlying concern that perhaps is not fully articulated in the preamble. I am speculating here and am willing to be corrected, but if the concern is that Calvinists are acting sinfully or unethically in trying to promote their views then let that be clearly stated. If there is a plot or conspiracy to make Calvinism “the central Southern Baptist position,” then the authors would help us by making that known. Otherwise, their assertion of such is gratuitous and and reveals that they are warring against a straw man of their own creation.
I will finish looking at the Preamble in my next post before evaluating the ten affirmations and denials.