Georgia Index’s Gerald Harris on “The Calvinists are here”

Editor Gerald Harris has written an editorial entitled, “The Calvinists are here” and published in the Georgia Baptist’s Christian Index. It’s truly sad. I don’t think it is available online, yet, but if it becomes available, I will link to it. For now, you can read a retyped copy of the article below. As I read it I felt like I was caught in a time-warp and taken back a decade or so. Anyone who has been around the SBC for very long knows that Calvinism has been a whipping boy for certain SBC leaders and agitators for much longer than that. But, fortunately (and, I would add, by God’s grace) the broadsides began to be toned down over the last few years. That’s not to say that the criticism has stopped and the straw men arguments have disappeared, but the attacks have been more like sniper fire than the previous scud missile-like salvos against Calvinists in the SBC.

I and others have long contended that there are anti-Calvinists in the SBC who would love to demonize their fellow Southern Baptists who hold to the doctrines of grace. Though their rhetoric has been more restrained the last few years due in part to gracious and bold leadership on the part of some “non-Calvinists” (not to be confused with the anti-Calvinists) in the SBC, they obviously have not changed their agenda, despite their refined tactics.

It is sad. And frustrating. It’s also a reminder that if calmer, more biblically informed heads do not prevail in leading the debates over doctrinal differences within the SBC, then that on which we do not agree will be leveraged to divide us despite all that we have in common (authority of Scripture, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, Baptist distinctives, etc.). I would hate to see that happen. If the kind of article that Harris has written becomes the norm again in the SBC, then such a division will become increasingly likely.

Here is where I think we–Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike–must fight hard to walk a straight course. We must determine to speak the truth in love. That does not mean covering up or even ignoring erroneous and fallacious arguments that are made by doctrinal proponents. But neither does it mean returning caricature for caricature. Ed Stetzer’s blog post today, “The Baptist Boogeyman,” points the way forward in a Christ-honoring manner.

Here is Harris’ article:

The Calvinists are here
By J. Gerald Harris, Editor
Published February 9, 2012

John Calvin (1509-1564) was an influential French pastor and theologian during the Protestant Reformation. He is best known for his “doctrine of predestination,” which became the foundation of his theology – suggesting that God predestined certain individuals to be saved.

Calvinism is known for its five basic tenets summarized by the acronym TULIP. Those five points ofCalvinism are (1) Total depravity of man, (2) Unconditional election, (3) Limited atonement, (4)Irresistible grace and (5) Perseverance of the saints.

There are some Calvinists who suggest that unconditional election means that God chooses, or “elects,” His children from before the foundations of the earth – that God does not just “know” what decision people will make, but that God causes them to make the decision to seek Him.

There are also those who hold to Reformed theology who believe limited atonement means that the death and resurrection of Christ is the substitutionary payment for the sins of only those who are God’s elect children, but not the entire world.

Many who embrace Reformed theology are motivated to allow it to influence their church polity by substituting congregational church government with an elder system of church government. While that works well for some churches, James MacDonald, a self-proclaimed Calvinist and member of the advisory board for LifeWay’s new Sunday School curriculum, writes, “Congregational government is an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ.”

Calvinism also influences other areas of theology and ecclesiology, but newspaper real estate prohibits a further exploration of all the facets of Reformed theology.

In 2007 Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., who has served as chairman of the Trustees at Southern Seminary and is one of the most notable Calvinists in SBC life, wrote a series of blog posts titled, “Where’d All These Calvinists Come From?” In his blogs Dever listed ten reasons for the blossoming of Reformed theology’s TULIP within evangelicalism.

Frank Page, chief executive officer of the SBC Executive Committee, was quoted in SBC Today, saying, “I think the challenges confronting the SBC today are different than they have been in decades past. I think one of the issues, which is a tremendous challenge for us, is the theological divide of Calvinism and non-Calvinism.

“I think the challenges confronting the SBC today are different than they have been in decades past. I think one of the issues, which is a tremendous challenge for us, is the theological divide of Calvinism and non-Calvinism.”

“Everyone is aware of this but few want to talk about this in public. The reason is obvious. It is deeply divisive in many situations and is disconcerting in others. At some point we are going to see the challenges ensuing from this divide become even more problematic for us. I regularly receive communications from churches who are struggling over this issue.”

Former SBC President Jerry Vines was also quoted in SBC Life, proclaiming, “Theologically, will the issue of Calvinism create further division in the SBC? I have been an SBC preacher over 50 years. I have worked quite well with my Calvinist friends, many of whom I invited to preach for me. “I have no desire to run all Calvinists out of the SBC; I think it would be divisive and wrong. But, current attempts to move the SBC to aCalvinistic soteriology (doctrine of salvation) are divisive and wrong. As long as groups and individuals seek to force Calvinism upon others in the Convention, there will be problems. There is a form of Calvinism that is militant, hostile and aggressive that I strongly oppose.

“I have stated before, so it’s not new news, that should the SBC move towards five-point Calvinism it will be a move away from, not toward, the Gospel.”

So, apparently the Conservative Resurgence and the Great Commission Resurgence has been joined by a Reformed Resurgence. The Calvinists are here. Their presence is evident in many phases and places in Southern Baptist life.

Many great preachers and theologians have embraced Calvinism through the years, but today some greet the rising tide ofCalvinism with delight, others with disdain.

The Economist reports, “Since 1990 the [SBC] has been losing ground, relative to America’s population, to other evangelical churches. So cadres of Young Turks are looking back to the 16th century for fresh inspiration.

According to LifeWay Research, the SBC’s, statistical arm, 10 percent of all SBC pastors now identify themselves as Calvinistsand a third of recent graduates from SBC seminaries espouse Reformed doctrines, with Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY, a particular source.

It would be surprising if The Gospel Project, a Sunday School curriculum for all ages that LifeWay will soon be rolling out, were not marked by an unmistakable Reformed theology.

Trevin Wax, who works at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, admits that he has been influenced by Reformed pastors and authors like John Piper, Mark Dever, J. I. Packer, C. J. Mahaney, Jerry Bridges, Sinclair Ferguson, Tim Keller and others.

The advisory council and writers for The Gospel Project (including D.A. Carson, Matt Chandler, James MacDonald, Eric Mason, Joe
Thorn, Juan Sanchez, Collin Hansen, former North American Mission Board missionary to the Internet Afshin Ziafat and Geoff Ashley – for the most part looks like a Who’s Who of Reformed theologians.

The average Baptist who sits in a Sunday School class or a small Bible study group has depended on LifeWay to provide Bible study materials that are true to the Word of God and representative of historic Baptist theology. However, for bane or blessing LifeWay President Thom Rainer seems to have led the SBC literature-producing agency to become more and more Reformed in its theological content.

North American Mission Board President Kevin Ezell has a goal to plant thousands of churches over the next ten years, but there seems to be a shortage of church planters. According to a LifeWay study in 2006 nearly 30 percent of SBC seminary graduates between 1998 and 2004 now serving as pastors describe themselves as Calvinists. Since the LifeWay study is now over five years old the number of Reformed pastors has doubtlessly increased by now. The most recent NAMB On Mission magazine highlights several church planters, two of whom could be seen as Reformed in their theology.

Won Kwak has planted Maranatha Grace Church in Fort Lee, NJ. North Shores Baptist Church in Bayside, NY, Kwak’s mother church, has developed a ministry called Doctrines of Grace Church Planters. On their website they proclaim, “Sovereign Grace Church Planters exists solely for the purpose of planting sovereign grace churches in and around the New York City area.”Reformed leaders James White and D.A. Carson endorse this church-planting ministry.

The second church mentioned in On Mission magazine is City on a Hill in Brookline, MA, in metro Boston where Bland Mason is pastor. I had the privilege of meeting Bland in December and really like him. He is also the chaplain of the Boston Red Sox, which makes him particularly special to me.

Some have been critical of City on a Hill being featured in On Mission because it is also included on the Acts 29 Network website as one of its churches.

NAMB President Kevin Ezell recently explained that Mason’s church was recommended for inclusion in the magazine by the leadership of the Baptist Convention of New England, that Mason is a soul winner, and that the church is an ardent supporter of the Cooperative Program.

Some contend that churches associated with the Acts 29 Network are anathema because of their identification with the Network’s founder and lead visionary, controversial Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll. The Network is also admittedly evangelical, missional and Reformed in its approach to church planting.

Others will find it interesting that St Louis is targeted as one of the focus cities in Send North America. In St. Louis NAMB will encounter a Baptist association that has already launched 15 church plants, seven of which are listed as Acts 29 Network churches.

In an exclusive interview with Ezell in our June 2, 2011 issue titled “Filling the Blanks,” The Index reported, “Missionary participation (with the Acts 29 Network) does not concern Ezell one way or the other; he neither endorses nor criticizes such involvement. And since NAMB trustees have not set policy on the issue, he does not involve himself with the discussion.

Ezell emphasized, “We plant Southern Baptist churches that adhere to the Baptist Faith and Message and support the Cooperative Program.”

Although Acts 29 only has 288 churches in its network in the U.S., Driscoll seems to have a significant influence in the lives of some Southern Baptists. It should be noted that Mark and Grace Driscoll have written a book entitled “Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship and Life Together.” The book has shocked conservatives with its graphic sexual descriptions and alarmed liberals because of its degradation of women.

Writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans stated in the Nashville Tennessean that the Driscolls give too many intimate and specific details about sex. She added, “I don’t need my pastor to tell me whether or not I should use sex toys. I don’t feel like I needed all of those details.”

The Tennessean also reported, “In short, the Driscolls say sex is only for married couples, and that those couples should be best friends, have lots of sex and skip the birth control pill, using alternate sex acts that don’t cause pregnancy when necessary.”

Denny Burk, associate professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of Southern Seminary, has reviewed the Driscolls’ book. Burk indicates that the book is sexually explicit in some ways, but the Driscolls’ offer a disclaimer by stating that anyone uncomfortable with the book’s content must be either a rube or uninterested in reaching the culture for Christ.

Call me a rube or a hick.

Burk adds, “To those with legitimate concerns, these remarks come across as dismissive at best and patronizing at worst.”

The book would hardly be worth mentioning except for the fact that Southeastern Seminary President Danny Akin and his wife Charlotte endorsed it. In recent years Driscoll has been a chapel speaker at SEBTS and his influence at the seminary cannot be ignored.

There is a growing perception that Southern Seminary has become a seedbed for a brand of Calvinism that is quite different from theReformed theology of its founder, James Petigru Boyce, and also a training ground for Reformed church planters. Therefore, it appears that some of our institutions and agencies are giving, at the least, tacit approval to Reformed theology or are, at the most, actively on a path to honor, if not implement Reformed theology and methodology in their institutions.

While most of the Reformed pastors and churchmen I know are gracious and godly people with a profound devotion to the Word of God, Southern Baptists must decide if they are satisfied with what I would call the presumable encroachment of Calvinism in SBC life.

By the way, Southern Baptists must also soon decide if they want to fulfill their ministry under another name. There are at least four possibilities: Evangelical Baptist Convention, Continental Baptist Convention, International Baptist Convention and Great Commission Baptist Convention. At least, those four domains were purchased through GoDaddy.com in September 2011.

I personally think the Great Commission Baptist Convention is more likely to be the recommendation of the SBC name change committee. Leaders may reason that Southern Baptists could no more reject the recommendation of the Great Commission Baptist Convention than they could reject the Great Commission Resurgence recommendations. The subliminal implication is “to reject the new name is to reject The Great Commission and Southern Baptists would never do that.”

If that is the suggested name and if we dare vote for it to be our new appellation we dare not defame it with half-hearted evangelism and church plants that wither away in five years.

The Christian Index

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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