Self-identified non-Calvinism in Southern Baptist life presents a somewhat confusing—even baffling—phenomenon. What is essentially, and mystifyingly, broadly inclusive and non-descript has been given a name of “Traditional Baptist Theology.” It has been given that name, not because it really reflects any specific confessional stream within Baptist life, but because, ostensibly, it distills the instinctive doctrinal ideas of most of the members of Southern Baptist churches at the present. It would be difficult to demonstrate that such is the case, but that the position does represent the views of those that signed this document is clearly the case. This open statement of doctrine is helpful for carrying on profitable and important discussions.
The hybrid nature of the document is one of its interesting aspects. Non-Calvinism dominates most of the aspects of salvation, while an element of Calvinism is retained on the issue of the saints’ preservation to the end, though based on distinctively different premises than historic Calvinism. Prior to conversion, this position maximizes the freedom of man and relativizes divine sovereignty to provision and offer without manifestation of effectuality, subduing the divine will for salvation to the will of the unregenerate sinner. Subsequent to conversion, it maximizes divine sovereignty into an absolute determination that those who have chosen to believe will never fall from their freely chosen position of salvation. Unconditional election, thus, is shifted from the eternal immutable will of God to the temporal, but, at the point of decision, non-alterable, will of man. Thus, it diminishes human freedom, by the traditionalist’s own implication of what freedom is, in that the freedom for salvation or non-salvation was an open issue prior to the faith decision but is no longer optional after the faith decision.
Non-Calvinism, therefore, can include many views from evangelicalism as a highly modified tangent to Calvinism through consistent Arminianism all the way to an aggressive deistic rationalism such as Ethan Allen’s position as developed in Reason the Only Oracle of Man. Andrew Fuller, among his several encounters with non-Calvinism, gave a closely reasoned inspection of Socinianism as the last stop along the way from Calvinism to thoroughgoing infidelity—an expression of moralistic religion with no dependence on supernatural revelation and confidence in human virtue to the exclusion of redemptive intervention. The occasion for Fuller’s interaction with Socinianism came when different segments of English Dissent joined in opposing the remaining debilities placed on them due to the Corporation and Test Acts. The arguments presented during this cooperative effort, however, were oriented toward a Socinian doctrinal position. The influence of Joseph Priestly was heavy, and while Fuller approved of cooperation with other men in what concerned the freedom of all in civil matters, he should be sorry “if a union of this kind should prove an occasion of abating our zeal for those religious principles which we consider as being of the very essence of the gospel.” (ix) Any time the pragmatic interests of cooperation, as good as they might be in themselves, have the effect of such abatement, an evil has been introduced that will compromise the purity of the end.
The title of Fuller’s work is The Calvinist and Socinian Systems examined and Compared as to their Moral Tendency. That the Socinians regarded the Calvinists as their most consistent, and, in fact, reprehensible, opponent may be concluded from their attacks, not only on the inspiration of Scripture and the deity of Christ, but from their rejection of the Calvinist stance on original sin, the nature of the will, the necessity and efficacy of the atoning work of Christ, and the sinner’s complete dependence on sovereign mercy and imputed righteousness for his acceptance before God. Taking notice of the emotional venom expectorated by Socinians against the Calvinist system, Fuller saw some of these attacks as “much more the ravings of insanity, than of the words of truth and soberness” employing the weapons of “virulence, rant, and extravagance.”
A peculiarly acidic portrayal of Calvinism came from Llewellyn’s Tracts written by Thomas Llewellyn. Many of its phrases have a familiar ring to those that have become accustomed to enduring tirades against sovereign grace. “I challenge the whole body and being of moral evil itself,” the writer urged, “to invent, or inspire, or whisper, any thing blacker or more wicked: yea, if sin itself had all the wit, the tongues, and pens of all men and angels, to all eternity, I defy the whole to say anything of God worse than this. O sin, thou hast spent and emptied thyself in the doctrine of John Calvin! And here I rejoice that I have heard the utmost that malevolence itself shall ever be able to say against infinite benignity! I was myself brought up and tutored in it, and being delivered, and brought to see the evil and danger, am bound by my obligations to God, angels, and men, to warn my fellow-sinners; I therefore, here, before God, and the whole universe, recal [sic] and condemn every word I have spoken in favour of it. I thus renounce the doctrine as the rancour of devils; a doctrine, the preaching of which is babbling and mocking, its prayers blasphemy, and whose praises are the horrible yellings of sin and hell. And this I do, because I know and believe that God is love; and therefore his decrees, works, and ways, are also love, and cannot be otherwise.” (87) Fuller quoted this tirade in a chapter (Letter VI) in which he intended to compare the two systems of doctrine “as to their tendency to promote Morality in General.”
Joseph Priestly, though he confessed that he had to “look upon Calvinists with a kind of respect,” and consented that Calvinism was “generally favourable to that leading virtue, devotion,” could not restrain himself from criticism, inconsistent though it showed him to be, and said, “I do not see what motive a Calvinist can have to give any attention to his moral conduct.” Looking at the entire system of sovereign and effectual grace, Priestly objected, “If any system of speculative principles can operate as an axe at the root of all virtue and goodness, it is this.” (89, 90)
Understandably, Fuller took great exception to this accusation and argued that the central doctrines of Calvinism have in them tendencies that promote the most sustained and exalted views of morality, virtue, holiness, righteousness, and the joys of pure worship. Fuller contrasted the systems in the following areas: their tendency to convert profligates to a life of holiness, to convert professed unbelievers, to produce a heightened standard of morality both individually and in society as a whole, to promote love to God, to promote candor and benevolence to men, to promote humility, to promote charity rather than bigotry, their promotion of love to Christ and a heightened veneration for the Scriptures, to promote happiness and cheerfulness of mind, to give motives to gratitude, obedience, and heavenly-mindedness, and their relative tendencies to decline to infidelity.
Obviously Fuller focused much attention doctrinally on the deity of Christ as a major difference between the two systems as well as the reality of a substitutionary atonement, “the central point in which all the lines of evangelical truth meet.” (201). Also, total depravity, monergistic regeneration, election and predestination, and the doctrine of perseverance had special applications that clearly distinguished Calvinism, that Fuller considered the most consistent presentation of Christianity, from Socinianism. “If we believe in the absolute necessity of regeneration, or that a sinner must be renewed in the spirit of his mind, or never enter the kingdom of God” then how do we regard those that deny the “doctrine of a supernatural divine influence, by which a new heart is given us, and a new spirit is put within us?” (202) Fuller described the views of the Socinians in their rational coolness deriving satisfaction from the serenity with which they can contemplate philosophy and look upon all avocations of life with composure. Such is the “summit of their happiness” and should be for all people who wish to escape the censure of enthusiasm from the Socinians. How dull and cold compared to the view of joy and delight contained in the Calvinistic system.
It is affecting to think that man, originally pure, should have fallen from the height of righteousness and honour, to the depth of apostasy and infamy; that he is now an enemy to God, and actually lies under his awful and just displeasure, exposed to everlasting misery; that, notwithstanding all this, a ransom is found, to deliver him from going down to the pit; that God so loved the world, as to give his only-begotten Son, to become a sacrifice for sin, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life; that the issue of Christ’s death is not left at an uncertainty, nor the invitations of his gospel subject to universal rejection, but an effectual provision is made in the great plan of redemption, that he shall see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied; that the Holy Spirit is given to renew and sanctify a people for himself; that they who were under condemnation and wrath, being justified by faith in the righteousness of Jesus, have peace with God; that aliens and outcasts are become the sons and daughters of the Lord God Almighty; that everlasting arms are now beneath them, and everlasting glory is before them. These sentiments, I say, supposing them to be true, are undoubtedly, affecting. The Socinian system, supposing it were true, compared with this, is cold, uninteresting, and insipid. (278)
After a thorough examination of the corrupting tendencies of Socinianism at every vital point of its distinctiveness, Fuller concluded that “it is not the gospel of Christ, but another gospel,” and “those who preach it preach another Jesus whom the apostles did not preach.” (341) At the same time “if that system which embraces the deity and atonement of Christ, with other corresponding doctrines, be friendly to a life of sobriety, righteousness, and godliness; it must be of God and it becomes us to abide by it; not because it is the doctrine of Calvin, or of any other man that was uninspired, but as being the gospel we have received from Christ and his apostles; wherein we stand, and by which we are saved.” (340)
The issue of “other corresponding doctrines” interested Fuller and prompted his engagement with a variety of evangelical departures from consistent Calvinism which he considered as a flirtation with the path to infidelity. But that is for another blog.
Tom J. Nettles