Calvinism and the SBC: The Case for Consensus, Part 2
By Alvin Reid and Nathan A. Finn
Several weeks ago we began a little “exercise in bridge-building” by writing two different “open letters” to Southern Baptists. After an introductory article, Alvin wrote an open letter to his Calvinist friends in the SBC. The next day Nathan wrote an open letter to his non-Calvinist friends in the SBC. The issues we raised in those letters animate our own conversations with each other. In a follow-up article, we began making a case for consensus within the SBC among those on all sides of the Calvinism debate. With this article, we conclude our thoughts on bridge-building, at least for the time being.
We believe there are four planks around which virtually all contemporary Southern Baptists can unite in a common platform. None of these priorities are new; all of them have characterized the SBC during our better moments. But there are tensions within each commitment, and navigating those tensions is the key to building a healthy consensus among our churches. We are convinced both Calvinists and non-Calvinists can unite around the following.
Plank 1: a commitment to a confessional center of cooperation. In 2000 Southern Baptists voted overwhelmingly to adopt a revised version of the Baptist Faith and Message. That statement is the confessional fruit of the Conservative Resurgence. It articulates the full truthfulness and sufficiency of Christian Scripture. It affirms our foundational doctrines and most cherished priorities, some of which we will discuss below. It guides the selection of our elected, appointed, and employed denominational servants.
We think most Southern Baptists are comfortable with the BF&M, even if they have minor quibbles with terminology, emphasis, etc. This is to be expected with any confessional statement in a network of autonomous churches. Like all confessions, ours is an imperfect document that summarizes particular biblical teachings. But we believe it faithfully represents a confessional center around which both Calvinists and non-Calvinists can cooperate, even if some churches opt to embrace different confessions for their personal use and/or choose to enunciate some secondary or tertiary doctrines differently than the BF&M.
Plank 2: a commitment to a basically evangelical understanding of the gospel. We agree with David Dockery that there is a gospel center among Southern Baptists that is non-negotiable, even as we debate second and third order matters that flow from that center. All Southern Baptists need to be committed to such truths as humanity’s utter sinfulness, the sinless law-keeping of Jesus Christ, his penal substitutionary atonement, justification by grace through faith, the imputed righteousness of Christ, and the necessity of repentance and faith as the proper response to the gospel. We believe the BF&M clearly communicates these doctrines, despite its neutrality on election and silence on the extent of the atonement.
We think the vast majority of Southern Baptists believe these truths, though at times we could stand to make them clearer in our evangelism and discipleship. (The theological jargon isn’t as important as the truths communicated, especially in an evangelistic context.) The Calvinism debate isn’t a debate about the gospel qua gospel, but is rather a debate about the best way to further define and articulate aspects of the gospel. We can debate which view of election and the atonement is more consistent with the gospel than others, but these debates shouldn’t preclude our cooperation as Southern Baptists.
Plank 3: a commitment to a basically Baptist ecclesiology. We believe that the Baptist vision of the church closely follows New Testament teaching and example and best represents the consistent application of the gospel to ecclesiological matters. Because we are a Convention of Baptist churches, we need to be united in our advocacy of regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion alone, congregational church government, local church autonomy, and liberty of conscience. We believe all of these principles, when applied in a biblical manner under the lordship of Christ, are non-negotiables for Southern Baptists. The BF&M speaks with clarity about the Baptist view of the church.
We also think almost all Southern Baptists affirm these core Baptist convictions in principle, though there are threats to each of them (that’s for another time). We also think, however, that there is room for debate about how to best apply some of these ecclesiological distinctives. For example, should a church follow a single-elder or a plural elder form of congregationalism? What is the most biblical understanding of liberty of conscience? At what age should an apparently believing child be baptized? Which immersions are alien to biblical faith and practice? These are all worthwhile questions, but differences of opinions on these points that are not addressed in the BF&M shouldn’t hinder our cooperation.
Plank 4: a commitment to evangelism and missions, both in North America and abroad. While this cannot be said of all Baptists, Southern Baptists have always championed the spread of the gospel and the planting of healthy local Baptist churches. The SBC was organized as a network of “missionary” Baptist churches in the South. This was to distinguish them from the “antimission” Baptists who rejected cooperative missions (and sometimes any missions).
We think that almost all Southern Baptists still care about evangelism and missions, though there are clearly differences in strategies. Some churches knock on doors and host tent crusades, while others emphasize servant evangelism. Some churches use evangelism programs like FAITH or GROW, while others forego formal programs. Some churches think about contextualization, while others choose not to. The list could go on, and these are of course generalizations.
We appreciate these differences, but we believe they reflect style more than substance. Virtually all Southern Baptists want to see their cities evangelized, unchurched areas in North America reached, and the gospel preached and churches planted to the ends of the earth. That central conviction matters infinitely more than particular strategies. We believe that methodological diversity in evangelism and missions is a good thing rather than a bad thing in a Convention that prizes local church autonomy. As long as the gospel is not compromised, our shared confessional commitments are not scuttled, and the churches we plant are Baptist in practice (though not necessarily in name), we would suggest our methods can vary as much as Scripture allows.
There are of course other secondary planks around which we can unite. Theological education has long been a priority (we’re all for it!). So has Christian engagement of the public square. Ministries like disaster relief are crucial. So is providing sound curricula and other materials to local SBC churches. But while we believe these ministries are important, they should be driven by the four consensus-building commitments of confessional cooperation, gospel faithfulness, healthy ecclesiology, and bold witness.
As we conclude our thoughts, we want to offer some practical suggestions concerning how Calvinists and non-Calvinists in particular, and different types of Southern Baptists in general, can better facilitate cooperation, especially at the personal and local church levels.
First, we should pray for one another. We should pray that our fellow Southern Baptists would enjoy blessed ministries and enjoy much gospel fruit, even if they have a different view of the doctrines of grace. We should pray that our sister churches would reach their communities with the gospel, even if their strategies vary somewhat from ours. Our prayers are infinitely more beneficial to the kingdom than our criticisms.
Second, we should seek out friends with whom we differ. Our friendship began in a doctoral seminar where it was clear we disagreed about Calvinism but shared a common vision for the Convention’s future. After two years of conversations, we are convinced that our agreements vastly outnumber our differences. Alvin recently wrote a book with a Calvinist colleague. Nathan is currently reading the draft of a book (on the doctrine of salvation!) written by a non-Calvinist friend. We have to get out of our theological ghettos and make some friends who will challenge us and sharpen our thinking.
Third, we should avoid all caricature and misrepresentation. Nathan has often written and spoken about erroneous understandings of SBC Calvinists. Alvin has been misunderstood by more than one “cage-stage” seminarian or rabidly Reformed pastor. We cannot be truth-defenders if we are not truth-tellers. Too many Calvinists arrogantly dismiss many non-Calvinists as Arminians at best and Pelagians at worst. Too many non-Calvinists inappropriately brand Calvinism as hyper-Calvinism, “extreme” Calvinism, etc. This will not build a consensus, but it may destroy the Convention.
Finally, we should commit to disagree agreeably. We still have differing views of Calvinism, and that may be the case until we pass into the next life. But we genuinely appreciate each other and have each benefitted from our friendship. We do not think the other is a threat to the gospel or the Convention. We look forward to the day when both of our respective theological errors are forever left behind, but until that day we labor together despite our differences over secondary and tertiary issues.
We do not have to agree about Calvinism. But we also do not have to divide over Calvinism. Our prayer is that Southern Baptists will not become distracted by our differences, but rather will cooperate in our shared priorities: the gospel lived out in Baptist churches that share common core theological convictions and a passion for the Great Commission.