Garrett on Calvinism in the Alabama Baptist, Pt. 5

In another of his articles in the Alabama Baptist, Dr. Garrett asks, “Have Baptists always been Dortian Calvinists in their confesions of faith?” The answer, indisputably, is no. General (Arminian) Baptists and Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists have published their own confessions of faith throughout the modern history of Baptists. Dr. Garett gives a helpful overview of some of the more prominent of those confessions, including the decidedly Calvinistic Second London Confession of 1677 (published in 1689).

This confession, through its adoption by the Philadelphia Association (with 2 additional articles) and the Charleston Association became the most influential doctrinal statement among Baptists in the South in the 18th and most of the 19th centuries. Leon McBeth notes the adoption of this confession by the Philadelphia Association in 1742 with these words:

It fixed for generations the doctrinal character of Baptists in this country as evangelical Calvinism, providing a bulwark against both the Arminianism of the Freewills and the determinism of the Hardshells” (The Baptist Heritage, 241).

After commenting on other confessions produced by Baptists in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the Abstract of Principles (1858) and the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963, 2000), Dr. Garrett offers this conclusion:

Those Baptists framing confessions in England and America who were on the Calvinistic side of the Calvinistic-Arminian divide generally adhered to some of the “five points” of the Synod of Dort, but such was not generally true of those on the Arminian side, and progressively those on the Calvinistic side modified or muted their adherence to Dort so that by the 20th century, only the affirmation of perseverance remained.

He does not mean that by the 20th century that Baptists only affirmed the last of the so-called five points of Calvinism. That would be much too broad of a statement. Rather, he presumably means that the confessions of faith produced by Baptists in the 20th century affirm only perseverance out of the Dortian 5 points.

I think he almost asserts too much at this point. Some might conclude that all of the other points of Calvinism have been denied by 20th century Baptist confessions. Even the Baptist Faith and Message can be cited to demonstrate that this is not the case. And I grant that a failure to deny is not necessarily an affirmation, therefore, in that sense, Dr. Garrett’s point is well taken. He most certainly is correct that the 20th century witnessed a loss of an earlier commitment to the doctrines of grace among Baptists–especially Southern Baptists.

Still, it is interesting to note the language of the BFM on a few of the other points. In the 1925 version the following statement is made about man’s bondage in sin:

He was created in a state of holiness under the law of his Maker, but, through the temptation of Satan, he transgressed the command of God and fell from his original holiness and righteousness; whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.

While I would affirm more than this, the statement hardly seems like a repudiation of total depravity (for a fun and frightening treatment of our move away from the biblical doctrine of sin, read Mark Coppenger’s “The Ascent of Lost Man in Southern Baptist Preaching“).

But there is more. The BFM 2000 affirms election in terms that view it as fixed and unchangeable:

Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.

Again, I would affirm much more but how can election be the gracious purpose of God that is unchangeable while at the same time being the basis on which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies and glorifies sinners unless it is eternal? I suppose one could be a universalist and believe that statement but can one honestly believe that election is both conditioned on anything in the creature and at the same time be the “gracious purpose of God” which is “unchangeable?” I agree with Dr. Garrett that this is certainly a “muted” statement of unconditional election, but I would not be willing to say that it does not therefore affirm that point of doctrine.

If some want to debate me on the above two points, I will readily concede that the language is ambiguous and not as clear as one would hope from a document that is supposed to help us confess our faith. Nevertheless, those two statements do at least allow for a Dortian view of sin and election.

My final example is not so linguistically ambiguous. At least it isn’t to English teachers and those who are accustomed to taking grammar seriously. Article 4 of the BFM 2000 says,

Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.

This statement declares that regeneration is “a change of heart…to which the sinner responds in repentance and faith.” I have heard the arguments against reading the statement this way but still contend that this is the simplest reading of the text.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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