Response to “A Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” Part 3

Preamble (part B)

Though I am tempted to work through the Preamble statement by statement I do not want to get bogged down in this part of the document to the neglect or deemphasis of its theological affirmations and denials. Neither do I want to miss the forest for the trees and thereby fail to understand the stated concerns that spawned the document. So I will first try to summarize overall rationale for the document and then try to offer some constructive critiques of the Preamble.

Summary of the Rationale

In essence, I believe that those who have published it are concerned by the rise of Calvinism among Southern Baptists at all levels of convention life, from local churches all the way down to various institutions and agencies. They think that Calvinism represents the views of only a small minority  while their own views represent the vast majority of Southern Baptists. They are concerned to be identified positively by what they do believe rather than negatively by what they do not believe (“non-Calvinist”). They have offered this document as a testimony to their beliefs and invite other Southern Baptists to sign it to show just how many agree with their views. By doing so, they do not want to intimidate or exclude Southern Baptist Calvinists, but rather are interested in asserting what they are convinced that most Southern Baptists believe on the doctrine of salvation.

Critique of the Rationale

In no particular order I will list several points that I find problematic with the rationale for the document as stated in the Preamble.

  1. The authors authoritatively set themselves up as spokesmen for the “majority” of Southern Baptists, stating 1) “the majority of Southern Baptists do not embrace Calvinism,” 2) “the Southern Baptist majority has fellowshipped happily with its Calvinist brethren while kindly resisting Calvinism itself” and 3) “asserting that the vast majority of Southern Baptists are not Calvinists and that they do not want Calvinism to become the standard view in Southern Baptist life.” My short response to this is, “Prove it,” the impossibility of which highlights a problem that I could wish these brethren were as concerned about as they are Calvinism. No one–not even the FBI–can even find the “majority” of Southern Baptists, much less authoritatively declare what they believe. More substantively, however, is the danger of trying to do theology by majority–something that sends an icy chill up my Baptist spine. Further, when well over 60% of Southern Baptists don’t even show up for worship on Sunday, I’m not sure that I would take much pride in declaring that my views represent “the majority.” Finally, I can more readily prove that the “majority” of Southern Baptists deny regenerate church membership, corrective church discipline, the necessity of holiness and the authority of Scripture than the authors of this document can prove that their views of salvation represent that same majority. All I have to do is appeal to the inerrant words of our Savior, who said, “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:15-20; cf 21-23). The framers of this document will have to find the majority of Southern Baptists before they can ever hope to speak for them. Confidently asserting they can do so is disingenuous at best.
  2. The document makes confusing statements about Southern Baptist Calvinists. In a previous post I dealt with the accusations regarding the supposed goals of Southern Baptist Calvinists, but it also bears noting that the Preamble makes further distinctions among this group. After making the charge that the “New Calvinism” is marked by “an aggressive insistence on the Doctrines of Grace” the statement later says that “most Southern Baptist Calvinists have not demanded the adoption of their view as the standard.” So has this document arisen out of concern for what the authors’ admit to be a minority of a vast minority? If it is only a troublesome minority of Southern Baptist Calvinists who are in view, I think the framers of this document would have been well-served to include some representatives from among the majority of Southern Baptist Calvinists to help them address their concerns.
  3. The document demonstrates historical myopia in its use of the label “traditional.” Much like the desire to have the majority behind you, I can understand wanting to claim that yours is the “traditional” view on a subject. But doing so raises the question, “whose tradition?” This was one of the tactics that liberals used during the inerrancy controversy in their attempt to discredit the conservative resurgence during the 1980s. It is sad to see those who produced this document resort to the same strategy. The Preamble goes all the way back to 1925 to establish its framers’ historical credentials. The problem is that the SBC began in 1845. The document does admit that “Calvinists have been present in Southern Baptist life from its earliest days” and “some earlier Baptist confessions were shaped by Calvinism.” Nevertheless, it is the Baptist Faith and Message of 1925 that is treated as the benchmark for determining what is “traditional” Southern Baptist theology. In his book, By His Grace and For His Glory, Tom Nettles has persuasively argued that Calvinism was the theological consensus for the first 70 years of the SBC. The convention’s first official confession of faith, which was written to provide doctrinal boundaries for our first seminary, reflects this consensus. So if we are going to take the complete history of the SBC into consideration, rather than an abridged version, this document would more accurately be called “A Statement of Modern Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” The understanding of salvation that was prevalent throughout the convention at its inception and for many decades afterward was nothing less than historic, evangelical Calvinism.
  4. Though the Preamble refers to the Baptist Faith and Message, it glaringly does not quote it. Article IV is specifically mentioned but only in passing as expressing the authors’ views in a “general way.” I would have appreciated their engagement of paragraph A of that article, which states, “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” (emphasis added). When I examine “Article Five: The Regeneration of the Sinner” in a later post, I will have more to say on this.
  5. The Preamble leaves one with the unmistakable impression that, despite disclaimers, Calvinism really is to be feared and resisted. This sentence is the most egregious example: “Even the minority of Southern Baptists who have affiliated themselves as Calvinists generally modify its teachings in order to mitigate certain unacceptable conclusions (e.g., anti-missionism, hyper-Calvinism, double predestination, limited atonement, etc.).” Here the authors betray either their bias against or misunderstanding of hi
    storic Calvinism. Biblical, or what Andrew Fuller called “strict” Calvinism, needs no such modifications. Such terms as “anti-missionism” and “hyper-Calvinism” perpetuate the easily-debunked-but-never-dying myth that Calvinism undermines evangelism. Any honest reading of history will show that many of the greatest evangelists and missionaries the world has ever seen have held firmly to the doctrines of grace. Calvinists do have variations with regard to reprobation vs. preterition and exactly how to articulate the accomplishment of the atonement (sufficient for all, efficient for the elect vs. sufficient only for the elect, etc.) but those are intramural theological debates–not attempts to “modify” Calvinism. Granted, there are self-described “modified Calvinists” who reject one or more of the so-called “five points” but nowhere does this Preamble appear to have such people in mind. Furthermore, the authors seem to have forgotten the near apostasy of the SBC in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Consider the line of reasoning that the following statements reveal. “For almost a century, Southern Baptists have found that a sound, biblical soteriology can be taught, maintained, and defended without subscribing to Calvinism….Without ascribing [sic] to Calvinism, Southern Baptists have reached around the world with the Gospel message of salvation by grace alone through in Christ alone. Baptists have been well-served by a straightforward soteriology rooted in the fact that Christ is willing and able to save any and every sinner.” This sounds as if the demise of Calvinism in the early part of the 20th century set the SBC’s sails for smooth sailing doctrinally, evangelistically and missionally over the last 100 years. Anyone who lived as a Southern Baptist during the last two decades of the 20th century knows better. We almost reached a point of no return in our slide into neo-orthodoxy and liberalism. It should be noted that it was not on the Calvinists’ watch that this happened. And to suggest that all has been well doctrinally in the SBC Zion during the last 100 years ignores that dramatic, historic era in Southern Baptist life and simply distorts the documentable record.
  6. Finally, as I worked my way through the Preamble I could not help noticing what can be properly described as a paternalistic attitude. The framers describe themselves and their phantom “Southern Baptist majority” as having fellowshipped “happily” with Calvinists “while kindly resisting Calvinism itself.” Though less sanguine in their evaluation of “most Southern Baptist Calvinists” they nevertheless acknowledge that, “to their credit” those in this group “have not demanded the adoption of their view as the standard.” Though this statement leaves me wondering who exactly is making such demands and what is the exact nature of such demands? Are Calvinists making threats? Or employing physical coercion? Or intimidation? The very next sentence, however, is the one that reveals a condescending attitude toward Southern Baptist Calvinists. “We would be fine if this consensus continued, but some New Calvinists seem to be pushing for a radical alteration of this longstanding arrangement.” In other words, the authors and signers would be content (“fine”) if Calvinists in the SBC would only maintain our supposedly minority status, being ever so grateful that “the majority” is willing “happily” to fellowship with us despite our theology, which that same “majority” so “kindly” resists. As long as Calvinists stay in their assigned place and don’t wander beyond their boundaries, then the authors “would be fine.” Unfortunately, as I suspect the originators of this document know full well, the doctrines of God’s grace in salvation are spreading rapidly not only within the SBC but beyond it as well. There is a doctrinal resurgence afoot and those who would be “fine” if Calvinists stayed in their assigned corner have become alarmed by continued growth of this movement.

In the next post I will start addressing the 10 affirmations and denials.

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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