What Should Southern Baptists Do with Calvinists?

In the previous post I mentioned the above titled article written by Elmer Towns of Liberty University and published in Theology for Ministry (May 2008). Kenneth Fryer found the article online which makes it more convenient to review (the published version has been somewhat edited). I encourage you to go read it at the link above.

I found Dr. Towns’ article to be seriously flawed in both research and argumentation. While he does not caricature the doctrines of grace in the typical ways that characterize many of the opponents of Calvinism, he makes some glaring factual mistakes, fails support some gratuitous assertions and leaves the reader wondering what exactly he is trying to say.

For example, in a footnote that is appended to the acknowledgement that “from the beginning the issue of Calvinism has been an issue among Baptists,” Towns’ makes this observation:

Leon McBeth in his historic encyclopedia, The Baptist Heritage Broadman Press, 1987 gives several incidences of Calvinism in the history of Southern Baptist. He gives lengthy discussions of the English Particular Baptist in the 17th and 18th century, and their decline (p. 152-154, 171-178). He tells of the Primitive Baptist, or “Hardshell Baptist” including other small sectarian movements, i.e. the “Absoluters” (p. 720), the “Old Liners” (p. 720), the “Progressive” (p. 720) and the “Two Seeds in the Spirit” (p. 720). He describes many smaller attempts of churches and associations to revive Calvinism such as “Sovereign Grace Bible Conference” (p. 771) and “The Banner of Truth” (p. 771-772), “The Sword and Trowel” (p. 773) and the paper The Baptist Reformation Review (p. 773). We are indebted to McBeth for documenting the futility of so many Calvinistic attempts to influence the Southern Baptist Convention [emphasis added].

What does his last sentence mean? The Southern Baptist Convention was formed by men and churches who held to some version of the 1689 Baptist Confession. Is Towns suggesting that the groups he mentions tried (and failed) to “influence the Southern Baptist Convention?” Does he really regard all of these groups as “incidences of Calvinism in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention?” Check the pages cited from McBeth and judge for yourself if Towns accurately represents the author’s meaning.

He misunderstands the LifeWay research that was released at the Building Bridges Conference last November. After noting that some “alarmists” have warned that “eventually the Calvinists will take over the convention if the seminaries continue to indoctrinate graduates with Calvinist leanings,” Towns evaluates the study this way:

Should people be upset at this trend? The research indicated that “churches pastored by Calvinists tend to have smaller attendance and typically baptize fewer persons each year.” While the study suggested that many Calvinists have the same statistics as non-Calvinistic Southern Baptists, it also asserted that the growth of Calvinism is not a threat. However, the study did not differentiate between five point Calvinism, and Southern Baptist pastors who have identified themselves as Calvinistic [emphasis added].

He is simply mistaken. The 2006 LifeWay research asked the question, “Do you consider yourself a five point Calvinist?” the 2007 NAMB research asked respondents to state their level of agreement with the following statement: “I am a five point Calvinist.” Towns makes this mistake twice in this article, the second time by asserting, “Stetzer’s report did not distinguish between five point Calvinists and the generic Calvinist [by this latter term Towns means someone who believes in the “sovereignty of God,” “salvation by grace” and “eternal security”].” Further, the word “threat” is nowhere in the research document. The conclusion, however, does not the growth of Calvinism, particularly among younger ministers within the SBC.

Towns raises the following big question before addressing four specific questions that he believes will help clarify how the big question should be answered.

Should or should not Southern Baptists attempt to purge itself [sic] of five point Calvinists?

The first clarifying question is this, “Should any Southern Baptist fly under a particular flag?” He asserts, “Most Southern Baptist pastors fly the SBC flag rather high, but some also have other flags,” and then names some of them, including the “Bible expostion,” small groups,” “Sunday School” and “Southern gospel music” flags.

Towns then asks, “So what’s wrong with a five point Calvinist flag?” And answers,

The problem is that most five point Calvinists don’t just point to their flag; many become exclusionary of any other view that will not salute their flag and fight for their flag in ecclesiastical battles. These five point Calvinists claim they have the right flag that should be flown over all churches. Some five point Calvinists try to proselyte everyone into their point of view [emphasis added].

Not only does Dr. Towns demonstrate an inability to read published research accurately, he also shows no hesitation to speak in unwarranted generalities based, as a footnote explains, on nothing more than his experience.

Second clarifying question: “Is Calvinism a diversion against the Great Commission and baptism?” Included in this section is the odd statement that “Most five-point Calvinists do not give a gospel invitation after they push to get people saved.” What is a “Gospel invitation” if not a “push to get people saved?” As becomes evident later in the article, Towns equates the former with an altar call.

In this section Towns does acknowledge that Spurgeon was a “great Calvinist,” but then makes the undocumented assertion that “research doesn’t show he preached often in [sic] the tenets of five point Calvinism.”

Towns’ treatment of Calvin left me wondering if understands the reformer’s theology. He pits the theology in Calvin’s Institutes against his expositions of Scripture.

In his early life John Calvin espoused extreme positions on predestination in his theology called the Institutes of the Christian Religion.14 Later in life Calvin seemed to mellow his view of predestination as he studied the Scriptures more thoroughly by writing commentaries on every book of the Bible. As an example, his view on predestination opened when he wrote in his commentary on I John 2:2.

Calvin published the Institutes first in 1536 and revised it 4 more times before the final 1559 edition was published. Towns’ footnote in this paragraph (14) is to the 1559 edition. Calvin’s commentary on 1 John was published eight years earlier, in 1551. Had the reformer changed his views he would have had ample opportunity to note that in the last edition of the Institutes.

Towns’ third clarifying question is this, “Is five point Calvinism a new intolerance?” Fair enough. But the explanation that follows has nothing to do with Calvinism at all but rather address the widespread cultural relativism and ideological intolerance of our day. He concludes with this: “Now anti-Christian views are gaining influence, and they have become intolerant to the Christian church, denying the freedom to teach in public what they have always believed.”

What does that have to do with Calvinism?

The fourth clarifying question: “Will five-point Calvinism spread?” Again, I do not follow the reasoning that follows this question. Towns writes,

If five-point Calvinism were an is
olated doctrine that could be embedded into a church for only its members to enjoy, that would be fine, but does it preach “the whole council [sic] of God?” As an example, many deeper life pastors find a nugget of truth in the “abiding life,” and their church becomes a separatist congregation from all other churches because they go deeper into the Word each week to find new nuggets. Sometimes, nuggets become the reason to verify their existence. In the same way, five point Calvinists find their doctrine of predestination the main reason for their existence.

Each of these sentences can be dealt with individually (though the first one doesn’t seem to make much sense), but their relationship to each other escapes me. For the record, I have never met a five point Calvinist who found his reason for existence in the doctrine of predestination.

Towns suggests that a dandelion rather than a tulip would be a better description of Calvinism because “dandelions spread their seeds across the entire lawn, blown about by the winds of fads and self-examination. And what more do we know about dandelions, they kill the surrounding grass and as they spread across a beautiful lawn, they can destroy an entire lawn [this sentence was edited in the published version in the journal, but not without new grammatical difficulties].”

So, what should Southern Baptists do with Calvinists? Towns acknowledges that it is “alright to be a Calvinist,” but quickly adds that “it is not alright to be a flag waving five point extremist that attacks any and every position or church that disagrees with its own.” Since I do not know any Calvinist–or non-Calvinist for that matter–who fits this description, I suppose it is safe to assume that every Southern Baptist Calvinist should feel welcome in the SBC, according to Dr. Towns’ view.

He also makes the point that it is “alright not to be a Calvinist.” Churches that are “dispensational” and that “expose their young to an altar call where everyone – including children and youth – are led to Christ through a tangible conversion experience” do not have to be Calvinistic. I have never come across the language of “tangible conversion experience” before but suppose that he means by that a spiritual experience (conversion?) that is marked by physical movement (walking the aisle).

In the final analysis, Towns does not answer the question his title sets out. While I can understand the difficulty in publicly doing so, I wish that his article had not promised more than it delivered. What he has written does not offer much help to the kind of fraternal exchange that needs to take place within the SBC on this issue.

What would be wonderfully beneficial is a thoughtful, expository explanation of the convictions that men like Towns hold in contrast to historic, evangelical Calvinism. Perhaps the John 3:16 conference will do that. I certainly hope so. That type of effort could promote genuine engagement over the Word of God. Every Christian–Calvinist or not–can support that.

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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