SBC and Calvinism: Three events that widened the divide

Three events over the last few weeks have called fresh attention to one of the serious doctrinal issues currently brewing in the SBC. There are others, and they are not unimportant, but the one that looms large on the horizon is the debate over Calvinism or reformed theology. Terminology matters, so let me quickly assert that what I mean by “Calvinism” is exactly what the great Southern Baptist statesman, John Broadus, meant when he wrote,

The people who sneer at what is called Calvinism might as well sneer at Mont Blanc. We are not in the least bound to defend all of Calvin’s opinions or actions, but I do not see how any one who really understands the Greek of the Apostle Paul or the Latin of Calvin and Turretin can fail to see that these latter did but interpret and formulate substantially what the former teaches.

What we are talking about is the sovereignty of God in salvation including unconditional election, total depravity of sinful nature, definite atonement of particular sinners by the death of Christ, the monergistic work of the Spirit in regeneration and the preserving grace of God operating in the life of every believer. We are not talking about sprinkling babies.

The three events that have put the spotlight on this issue recently have come from those who are not merely non-Calvinists, but are more accurately described as anti-Calvinists. They profess to have no axe to grind against Calvinism but their tone and treatment are unhelpful to the kind of fraternal dialogue that Southern Baptists desperately need to be cultivating at this point in our history.

1. Steve Lemke’s article
Entitled, “What is a Baptist? Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians,” in The Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (vol. 5, no. 2, Fall 2008), the good points that Lemke makes are marred by his numerous mistakes and misrepresentations of Calvinism in general and Southern Baptist Calvinists and Calvinism in particular. I will cite only two examples.

First, Dr. Lemke makes the following tired charge about Founders:

Founder’s [sic] Movement Calvinists tend to look backward nostalgically to Calvinists of prior generations, to make their Calvinism the focal point of their ministries, to be rather assertive and defensive about their Calvinism, and to be less evangelistic than the average Southern Baptist church.

Dr. Lemke footnotes this by citing a “study” (which is actually his own methodologically flawed survey that has been clearly debunked since he published it) that leads him to his conclusion. Several months ago I applied Steve’s methodology to churches that he himself pastored. The results are…well, let me just say that were I to publish them he would be hoisted with his own petard.

Second, Dr. Lemke completely misunderstands Timothy George’s ROSES acronym, displaying a failure to understand both Dr. George’s theological views and the so-called five points of Calvinism (he was previously corrected on this, also). By the way, Dr. George has been on the advisory board of the Founders Journal for over 15 years. I will not take space here to provide the documentation of Lemke’s unfortunate failure to grasp what George has written, but simply refer you to Justin Taylor’s and Tim Brister’s demonstrations of this point.

2. David Allen’s review

Dr. Allen published on the Baptist Theology website a 34 page review of Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue (B and H Academic, 2008), which is a collection of the papers presented at the Building Bridges Conference sponsored by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Founders Ministries last year. Dr. Allen uses over 500 words in an attempt to debunk research conducted by the the North American Mission Board and LifeWay Research, both of which indicate that Calvinism is on the rise in the SBC.

Tellingly, he defend’s Lemke’s previously cited “study” of Founders churches. Allen writes, “The fact is, some brands of Calvinism (hyper-Calvinism and other extreme forms of five-point Calvinism) are in fact less than evangelistic.” So are some brands of fundamentalism and Arminiansim, as is evidenced by the general state of churches across the SBC, most of which are not Calvinistic.

I find Dr. Allen’s defense of Dr. Lemke’s “study” interesting, in light of the fact that, as I have done with churches that Lemke has pastored, I have applied Lemke’s methodology to churches that Dr. Allen has pastored, as well. Suffice it say that, if I had a mind to, I could publish those results and, with no less authority than that which Lemke and Allen claim, conclude that “Southwestern and New Orleans seminary administrators” are a threat to evangelism and healthy church life.

Allen repeatedly writes with a condescending tone (examples: “I have been a bit tough on young Finn;” he accuses Tom Nettles of writing with “characteristic brusqueness;”) that demonstrates his bias and detracts from his evaluations. Furthermore, his treatment of Malcolm Yarnell’s chapter borders on hagiography. While high praise for his colleague at SWBTS could be expected, the detailed criticisms that mark his treatment of other chapters are absent in his evaulations of Dr. Yarnell’s contribution. I find it particularly odd that he did not even quibble with Dr. Yarnell’s identifying a heretical anti-trinitarian as part of the Baptist family. Any vision of Baptist identity that consciously welcomes heresy into the DNA is dangerous and I would think that other Baptists, regardless of their views on the doctrines of grace, would as well.

Additionally, when Allen finds mistakes in Yarnell’s article that he simply cannot ignore, he chalks them up to “technicalities” or “generalities.” He completely misses Dr. Yarnell’s misunderstanding of a cited article by Mark Dever. Yarnell accuses Dever of using the New Hampshire Confession for the membership of his church but the 1689 Confession for leadership, a position that Dr. Dever has publicly repudiated and which the article Dr. Yarnell read simply does not affirm.

Dr. Allen writes his review with admitted suspicions that there is an agenda afoot in the SBC by Calvinists that everyone should come to hold to a reformed understanding of salvation. He calls attention to a throw-away comment, intended to be humorous, in my chapter. After noting that I was not suggesting that “everyone must or should become a convinced Calvinist,” I added, almost parenthetically, “though you would hear no complaints from me were that to happen!” When presented orally, that line got some laughs. Unfortunately, when Allen read it, it caused alarm bells to go off in his head confirming his already suspicious thoughts of the existence of a nefarious Calvinist plot to “Calvinize” the SBC.

Moving beyond the book under review, Allen raises deep concerns about an article published in the Founders Journal, written by Tom Nettles and entitled, “Why Your Next Pastor Should Be a Calvinist.” He writes:

I cannot imagine using such a title, much less arguing it in print. A church’s next pastor should be the man God leads that church to call, be he Calvinist or no. Imagine the outcry if some group of non-Calvinists should publish an article entitled “Why Your Next Pastor Should not be a Calvinist.” Please understand. Ascol is well within his rights to direct the Founders Ministries and to
publish such an article in his journal. This is not in question. What is in question is whether such constitutes a problem for the SBC and for Ascol’s involvement in a bipartisan conference such as “Building Bridges.” Since one cannot distinguish between Ascol the Calvinist pastor and Ascol the director of the Founders Ministries, his presence on the program of the “Building Bridges Conference,” given the stated goals of the Founders Ministries, is problematic in my view. Furthermore, what is the precedent for two Southern Baptist entities (LifeWay and Southeastern Seminary) partnering with a non-Southern Baptist entity (Founders Ministries) for this kind of conference? I have already stated I think the conference is a great idea. We need to have more. My concern is with the involvement of the Founders Ministries. For them to be a co-sponsor legitimizes their agenda within the convention, an agenda which is counter productive in my judgment. For SBC entities to partner with any non-SBC group that is polarizing and that represents a small fragment of the convention is problematic.

I would like to know why Dr. Allen has never raised an outcry over the dozens if not hundreds of attempts by denominational employees and others to tell churches that “your next pastor should not be a Calvinist.” It is ironic that Allen thinks my presence on the program of Building Bridges was problematic. I am the one who originally suggested the conference.

Allen’s concern about the “precedent” for Southern Baptist entities partnering with a “non-Southern Baptist entity” is eerily similar to the response I got from the pre-conservative-resurgence-faculty of Southern Seminary to the sesquicentennial issue of the Founders Journal. They professed shock and dismay that I would publish a picture of “their” library (Boyce) on the cover of the journal. Perhaps Dr. Allen needs to be reminded of Baptist polity in the same way that those liberal professors needed it.

The “entities” and those who serve in them are answerable to all Southern Baptists, including those of us whose theology they may despise. The suggestion that an entity is not “Southern Baptist” because it does not receive Cooperative Program dollars is terribly provincial and betrays a bureaucratic mindset that is no different from that which prevailed before conservatives came to control the SBC.

Furthermore, if this is a matter of conscientious concern for Dr. Allen, then I wonder why he has not raised his voice in protest over the partnering of his own seminary with “non-Southern Baptist entities, such as the Grace Evangelical Fellowship, a non-lordship salvation entity that denies the necessity of repentance for salvation (their “Affirmation of Belief” states, that “no sorrow for sin” or “turning from one’s sin” is necessary)? According to the Southwestern website, the seminary is hosting this antinomian Fellowship on campus March 30-April 2, 2009.

The same question arises over the joint sponsorship of 3 of our Cooperative Program-supported-seminaries with Jerry Vines Ministries in the John 3:16 conference. Given the anti-Calvinistic propaganda spread by Dr. Vines, Allen’s participation in this conference makes the stated substance of his protest about the sponsorship of Building Bridges ring hollow. One is left to wonder what is really behind his complaint, since his own participation in the John 3:16 Conference betrays his professed reasons for concern.

3. The John 3:16 Conference
The recent John 3:16 Conference was sponsored by Jerry Vines Ministries, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, Luther Rice Seminary and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. From what I can tell, this conference is the brainchild of Dr. Vines. Critiques from those who were there have been expressed on various blogs (see Lindsey, Mark and Burleson) and don’t need to be rehashed here. Although I must say that any conference that accuses James White of being a hyper-Calvinist loses credibility with thinking people.

The most devastating critique I have read has come from David Miller, who has long been welcomed among the “movement conservative” leaders within the SBC as a stalwart defender of the inerrancy of Scripture and of the need to see conservative theology restored to the convention. Anyone who knows him will testify to his godliness and deep love for God’s Word. David is an effective evangelist and his pivotal role in the SBC battle for the Bible is unquestionable, as he was a leader among trustees at Southern Seminary when that institution was in the throes of being rescued from liberalism.

David attended the John 3:16 conference and recently told me of his experience there. He also shared with me some of his evaluations that he passed on to a couple of the sponsors of the conference. The conference, he said, almost inspired him to write a book, the title of which would be, How Many Inconsistencies and Contradictions Can One Hear in Only Five Sermons. “The brethren (presenters),” he said, “not only contradicted each other but themselves as well” while building “straw men” and “knock[ing] them down with Scripture verses taken out of context…with measured sarcasm and no small dose of arrogance.”


Do not misinterpret my critique of these events as suggesting that we should not be talking plainly about theological differences in the SBC. Pretending that we all agree, or suggesting that our differences are completely irrelevant would be no more helpful than the kind of dismissive misrepresentations of views that I have pointed out above. Nor am I suggesting that Drs. Lemke, Allen and Vines don’t have the right to hold to and argue for their own views.

What I am suggesting is that the approaches exhibited in these three events undermine true understanding and therefore any serious effort to maintain unity. By God’s grace there is a growing number of Southern Baptists who genuinely want to bridge our doctrinal divides where we can and who want to live together in true unity and love with those with whom we disagree on some points. Such efforts hold great promise for the future, if they can avoid being sabatoged by those who seem threatened by such a movement.

The John 3:16 conference, along with Allen’s review and Lemke’s article, do not represent a healthy way forward for Southern Baptists. In fact, if the mischaracterizations, inaccuracies and false accusations that permeate these three events are allowed to become the modus operandi of the non-Calvinists in the SBC, then I fear that those who have predicted the inevitability of a major battle over the doctrines of grace will be proven correct. In fact, some have suggested that this is precisely what certain anti-Calvinists want because they believe that a major fight that erupts soon is their best hope for running Calvinists out of the SBC.

Regardless of the purpose of these kinds of attacks, I pray that all Gospel loving Southern Baptists, whether Calvinists or not, will not be provoked into responding in kind. I learned long ago that another person’s sin never justifies my responding sinfully.

Now is the time for Southern Baptists of all stripes to stand up and hold those who misrepresent brethren with whom they disagree accountable for their words and actions. Speak the truth in love and leave the cons
equences to God. The anti-Calvinists (as opposed to non-Calvinists) are becoming, as one seminary student put it recently, “increasingly irrelevant,” especially to younger SBC leaders. While they are writing and preaching to themselves, more and more Gospel-centered Calvinists and non-Calvinsts alike are showing a genuine willingness to link arms in order to move forward to make disciples of the Lord Jesus.

The future belongs to the bridge-builders, not party-builders.

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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