Calvinism, Cooperation, and the Southern Baptist Convention

Frank Page
SBC Executive Committee

Calvinism is probably the most controversial topic in the contemporary Southern Baptist Convention. About a year ago, the debate reached a new level of intensity with the publication of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” and the responses it provoked from both Calvinists and non-Calvinists. Resolutions on the “sinner’s prayer” and cooperation at last year’s Annual Meeting in New Orleans were directly related to the Calvinism debate. In recent months, Calvinism has allegedly been at the center of controversy at more than one Baptist college. I am regularly forwarded links to blog posts by both Calvinists and non-Calvinists that seem more interested in winning a debate than forging a consensus. Twitter is often even worse.

In August 2012, Frank Page of the SBC’s Executive Committee named an advisory committee to “help him craft a strategic plan to bring together various groups within the convention who hold different opinions on the issue of Calvinism.” Dr. Page is expected to report on that committee’s work at this year’s Annual Meeting in Houston. As Southern Baptists prepare for Houston, I want to offer some thoughts on the relationship between Calvinism and cooperation in the SBC. I hope these thoughts are helpful in furthering unity among Baptists on all sides of the Calvinism discussion in our Convention.

Triaging Calvinism

In 2005, Al Mohler published an influential essay titled “A Call for Theological Triage and Spiritual Maturity.” In his essay, Mohler uses the imagery of medical triage to demonstrate that different doctrines function at different levels of importance when we cooperate with other believers. First-order or primary doctrines are those beliefs that distinguish Christians from non-Christians. Second-order or secondary doctrines are those beliefs that are distinctive to different denominations and often help determine one’s local church membership. Third-order or tertiary doctrines are those convictions that normally two members of the same church can hold without any serious division. While not all Southern Baptists have resonated with Mohler’s approach, I find it helpful for our present discussion.

This is my argument: within the Southern Baptist Convention, Calvinism needs to function as a third-order or tertiary issue for the sake of cooperation. I understand that for many folks, their view of the “doctrines of grace” is actually a second-order issue. I know many Southern Baptists of various theological stripes who join a local church partly based upon their understanding of issues like election, effectual calling, and the extent of the atonement. I think this is perfectly understandable. Nevertheless, in the context of the wider SBC, these doctrines should be understood as tertiary rather than secondary.

In reality, I believe that one’s perspective on Calvinism is already treated as a tertiary doctrine by the vast majority of engaged Southern Baptists. Most of us recognize that the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is intentionally vague or silent on each of the “five points” except for perseverance of the saints. Most of us aren’t bothered that some of our seminary professors are consistent Calvinists, some are moderate Calvinists, and some are decisively non-Calvinists——on each of our faculties. Most of us aren’t too concerned with what our missionaries and church planters believe about election, so long as they are urgently proclaiming Christ to all people. The fact is, when it comes to the SBC, Calvinism already functions as a third-order doctrine for most of us, and has done so since at least the latter years of the nineteenth century. I’m simply asking us to more intentionally work from this understanding.

Let’s Play Nicely

I know this sort of approach will not please all Southern Baptists, especially some who have been the most vocal participants in the Calvinism debate. Some SBC Calvinists invoke language that at least suggests they believe Calvinism is a primary doctrine: “Calvinism is the gospel.” Yes, Spurgeon said it, and everyone loves Spurgeon. Nevertheless, it’s unhelpful and, frankly, incorrect——at least the way many Southern Baptists use the quote. I trust that most Calvinists in the SBC believe one’s view of the doctrines of grace are at most secondary rather than primary.

Furthermore, the not-so-subtle insinuation that non-Calvinists would become Calvinists if they were smarter, or more biblical, or more theologically savvy is both obnoxious and insulting. So too unqualified claims that non-Calvinists are Arminians, semi-Pelagians, or even full-fledged Pelagians. If a Southern Baptist Calvinist can’t bear for Calvinism to be treated as a third-order doctrine that can be accepted, rejected, or modified (within boundaries) by any Southern Baptist, including SBC leaders and opinion-shapers, then he or she should consider partnering with other Baptist groups that are more uniformly Reformed in their soteriology.

Some SBC non-Calvinists need to tone down their rhetoric as well. The calls for Southern Baptists to “take a stand against” or “smoke out” Calvinists, the argument that unconditional election or (especially) limited atonement is “another gospel,” the equating of Calvinism with hyper-Calvinism, and the argument that Calvinists aren’t evangelistic are hurtful and (in the latter three cases) simply inaccurate. So too the argument that Calvinistic Southern Baptists are “more Presbyterian than Baptist.” Historically and confessionally, the SBC is broad enough to include everyone from five-pointers to one-pointers.

Also troubling is the argument by some that Christ-centered expositional preaching, an emphasis on the glory of God or the sovereignty of God, and Bible Study curricula that focus upon the gospel are somehow inherently Calvinistic (and thus bad). None of these concepts are, by definition, Calvinistic. Indeed, many non-Calvinists are firmly committed to each of these emphases because they are more about basic Christianity than incipient Calvinism. If a Southern Baptist non-Calvinist can’t bear for Calvinists to thrive and sometimes even serve as leaders in the SBC, then he or she should consider partnering with other Baptist groups that are more uniformly non-Calvinist in their view of salvation.

Moving Forward

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe this issue is important and worth discussing. In fact, I publicly called for more engagement of this issue at the Building Bridges conference in 2007 and the related book that was subsequently published. I’m all for a Christ-like family conversation among all interested Southern Baptists of good will. However, I sincerely believe this is not an issue worthy of denominational infighting or schism.

Last June, I wrote an essay titled “My Hope for Unity in the SBC.” In that essay, I argued that Southern Baptists should unite around four priorities for the purpose of cooperation: 1) biblical inerrancy; 2) an evangelical view of salvation; 3) a Baptist view of the church; 4) and a commitment to the Great Commission. I then wrote the following words:

I remain convinced that if we all agree to unite around these four priorities as they are framed in the Baptist Faith and Message, we can continue to live together and labor together as Southern Baptist Christians. We all need to be open to correction, maintaining a teachable spirit. We all need to forebear those who disagree with us over debatable matters. We need to focus the vast majority of our energies on the matters we share in common, not the issues upon which we disagree. And we need to demonstrate to the world that Southern Baptists care about more than simply fighting among ourselves and trying to win arguments.

Today, nearly twelve months later, I still stand by those words. It’s time for Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists to take a deep breath, ratchet down the heated language, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and recommit to cooperating together for the sake of the Great Commission. Calvinism has been and needs to remain a tertiary issue in the SBC. Now let’s move forward together in advancing the gospel among people here, there, and everywhere.

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  1. Rick Patrick   •  


    There is much to agree with in this well written article.

    First, thanks for having the courage to call out Spurgeon on the whole “Calvinism is the gospel” quote. Let us view this statement as we view his drinking and smoking–simply wrong.

    Second, your paragraph about the “obnoxious and insulting” treatment of non-Calvinists is timely and spot on.

    While I agree that “If a Southern Baptist non-Calvinist can’t bear for Calvinists to thrive and sometimes even serve as leaders in the SBC” then they need to partner elsewhere, I think this slightly misses the point. Most non-Calvinists in the SBC do not mind an occasional leadership position being filled by a Calvinist. Six of the last seven entity heads, however, is a ratio out of balance with our denomination generally and suggests that many qualified non-Calvinists are being overlooked, perhaps intentionally.

    Regarding your larger point about theological triage, I think wherever Calvinism has become a second tier issue at the church level, such a church will likely view it as a second tier issue at the denominational level as well.

  2. Chris Tolbert   •  

    I’m with you, Nathan. While I can’t add anything to this discussion that hasn’t already been said, I can and do pray that those from both camps will be content to lock arms and press on together for the two things that are of utmost importance: the glory of God and the making of disciples through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    God bless.

  3. Jack Wolford   •  

    To throw more manure on the pile just increases the heat. Stick the pitch fork down in there and uncover the real issue and then take the exposed bait that will catch lost souls . A Country Boy – Either Fish or Cut Bait !

  4. Brett Beasley   •  

    Well said, Dr. Finn. Your reflections share the thoughts of my heart exactly. I believe it is time for a greater concern in the “likeheartedness” that Baptist can share, and have shared, rather than insisting on total likemindedness. From what I have seen on both sides of this debate, there is not a great deal of “mindedness” in extremes of either camp. Let’s rejoice in the common ground we share in the middle, and evangelize the world for the glory of God.

  5. Greg Belser   •  

    Nathan, this is well written and following these suggestions is the simple and clear path for enhanced and rewarding cooperation among brothers and churches. Nothing else will do.

  6. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Not sure what you mean about manure, Jack. But thanks for commenting.


  7. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    Thanks for the engagement. I appreciate the affirmations. I agree that Calvinism is a second issue for some churches, but I don’t think it is for all. I know of many churches with Calvinist pastors, but where the churches are mostly non-Calvinist. I also know of even more churches with non-Calvinist pastors, but where there are many Calvinistic members. So I think for some churches it is secondary, while others it is tertiary. I see that as a local church autonomy matter. For the Convention, however, I think the preferred policy is to keep one’s views of these matters tertiary, provided of course that someone doesn’t either (A) tilt toward hyper-Calvinism or (B) reject the perseverance of the saints.

    I’m also not sure what you mean about six out of the last seven agency heads being Calvinist. To my knowledge, Al Mohler is the only Calvinist among Southern Baptist agency heads. I work for Danny Akin, who has been clear he is not a Calvinist. I took theology with Russ Moore, so I know that he is not a Calvinist. Jason Allen is on the record indicating that he is not a Calvinist. Thom Rainer, Tom Elliff, and Kevin Ezell are not Calvinists, unless one of them has recently changed their convictions. Perhaps we are using a different definition of Calvinist, but according to the definition normally used in SBC circles, Al Mohler is the only agency head who is a Calvinist. I think perhaps you might be assuming that some of these men are Calvinists because of they worked at Southern Seminary or served as Mohler’s pastor (Ezell), but that would be an incorrect assumption.

    Thanks again.


  8. Jim O'Dillon   •  

    Doctor Finn, thank you for a well-written article. Because your article is thoughtful it deserves to include a third idea – The Ana-Baptist Position. As you probably already know the era in which Calvin and Arminius were arguing also had a third leg in the stool – the leg on which Huebmaer and Zwingli stood – Ana-Baptism. Since arguments thrive best when there are only two parties, it would seem good to know that even at the time of this debate between Calvin and Arminius, a position that embraces the “T” and “P” of Calvin and the “U,” “L,” and “I” of Arminius was established. Many, many Baptists over a period of hundreds of years have embraced Calvin’s T and P and the U, L, and I of Arminius. May I invite you to consider that you give thought to including THIS combination of thinking in your thinking? :-)

  9. Micah G.   •  

    Thank you for this helpful article! For a split second when you said that we should treat “Calvinsim” (I’ve always hated that term) as a tertiary issue, I thought, “wait a minute!” As I read the “for the sake of cooperation” part it of course makes sense. I would argue that at the local church level we should find (and plug into) a church that matches our own view. I know this is a little outside of the scope of the article, but much of the friction I have seen has been from individual churches where there is a difference of opinion (especially where the congregation and the pastor are not on the same page). It seems that the pastor who is going to introduce Reformed theology and teaching to a church that has never been taught that (or vice-versa) should do MUCH praying and fasting (I’m talking about Jesus-in-the-wilderness-type-fasting) before he embarks on that journey. Otherwise, he should keep it to himself or find a church that agrees with him.

    On a side note, I always found it funny in Bible college when I would talk to guys who were trying to “evangelize” (the term I would use) friends or classmates to identify as Calvinists. If we believe in God’s sovereignty over all things and people (as I do), shouldn’t we be confident that He can use pastors across the “sovereignty spectrum,” and that He will lead someone to identify with Reformed teachings if that is His desire?

  10. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    I don’t think Anabaptism is a third idea. Anabaptists were all over the map on this issue, just like Baptists. Most early Anabaptists were proto-Arminians. Some were closer to Roman Catholic semi-Pelagian sacramentalism. A very few were (soteriologically) Calvinistic. No doubt many were somewhere in between Calvinism and Arminianism. This is much like the Baptist tradition, where even some of the “General Baptists” held to unconditional election and many of the “Particular Baptists” rejected limited atonement. I’m speaking of Calvinism and Arminianism not as the only two options (they obviously aren’t), but as two points along a spectrum within Christian orthodoxy. I think most evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, would position themselves somewhere in the middle, though not all in the same place in the middle.


  11. Rick Patrick   •  


    I consider four pointers Calvinists, and admit to the assumption that Al Mohler has been building a Calvinist faculty and administration at Southern.

    Perhaps my assumption is inaccurate, but it is more popular among Southern Baptists than fried chicken.

  12. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    Thanks for the comment. If you take another look at the essay, I’m making a distinction between how this issue functions in (many) local churches and how it (ought) to function in the SBC. In many churches, it is secondary, though I know of some where it’s more tertiary. In the SBC, it ought to be tertiary, though it *seems* at times like some on both sides want to make it secondary.


  13. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    Fair enough. Thanks for clarifying how you use the term. I suspect that more than a little confusion arises because we aren’t all using the same definitions. If “four-pointers” are to be considered Calvinists in the context of the SBC, then one, maybe two of those other agency heads could legitimately be called Calvinists. But I also think this means that Southern Baptist pastors are far more Calvinistic than the polls show. All the polls that I have seen ask pastors if they are “five-point” Calvinists. I know eight or ten pastors (and other staff) who consider themselves “four-pointers” for every one who considers himself a “five-pointer.” But most of these men don’t consider themselves Calvinists because they don’t affirm limited atonement. Many would also reject the Calvinist label because they don’t affirm presbyterian polity and/or pedobaptism.

    As for SBTS, I think you’d be surprised at the theological diversity among their faculty. In fact, I think most Southern Baptists would be surprised at how diverse all our seminary faculties are. I know that there are many popular and simplistic rumors about certain faculties, but if you spend time on any of our campuses, I think you’d find lots of diversity within the parameters of the BF&M. I think there is a tendency to assume that the theology of a seminary president (or perhaps academic dean/provost) is being replicated among the faculty. This simply isn’t the case.

    Thanks again.


  14. Micah G.   •  

    Thank you for the reply! I understand the distinction that you are making, and I probably focused my comment a little too heavily on the issue at the local church level. I guess I just wonder sometimes if leaders at the denominational level are so vocal because of the friction that they have experienced at the local church level, whether that friction is recent or in the past. I understand that there are some concerns from both camps that leadership from the “other” side might try to push their agendas while they are at the helm of various agencies, but some of the rhetoric that you quote in your article (and that I have personally encountered) smacks of fear or distrust that pastors have experienced a lot closer to home than Nashville/Alpharetta/Louisville/Richmond/Wake Forest/etc. Perhaps I am reading too much into that.

  15. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    There is lots of fear and distrust. Every non-Calvinist knows of a church (or several) that was split by a Calvinist pastor. Often, said pastor allegedly downplayed or perhaps outright lied about this Calvinism. Every Calvinist knows of a church (or several) that fired a pastor because he preached expositional sermons or tried to rectify unhealthy forms of congregationalism or tried to lead his church to practice church discipline. Often, said pastor was not a Calvinist (or was only moderately Calvinistic), but Calvinism was the alleged reason for the firing. These stories go viral. And, of course, you occasionally have the unconverted pastor who comes to faith in Christ, often tied to his either embracing or rejecting Calvinism. Those stories evolve into “I was a Calvinist, then I got saved” or “I was a lost Pelagian, then I was saved when I was introduced to the doctrines of grace.” These stories also become epic. All of them breed fear and distrust.


  16. Vance Daly   •  

    Nathan, let me first state that I am not a pastor or minister, so I really don’t have a dog in this SBC issue, but I am chiming in on this issue from the perspective of a Christ-following church member of your typical SBC church (my pastor posted your link on facebook).

    I guess the first thing that I would like to point out is that it seems that we as Christians (and in this instance, the SBC) have totally missed the point when we make an issue about “Calvinism”. John Calvin was a man (and I imagine everyone in this debate is aware of the circumstances in which his 5 points arose), and we are making issue over the theology of this man. We have totally been distracted and lost focus on the mission because we are arguing over the theology of a man. Paul addressed a similar situation at the church in Corinth when divisions arose about who the people were following:

    “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” I Corinthians 1:10-17

    “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?” I Corinthians 3:1-4

    Whether it is Satan using this, or merely our own flesh, we have lost the focus of the very reason we are on this earth….to make much of Christ and him crucified. Although a spiritual debate is often fun and engaging, it is drawing attention away from the only thing that matters.

    Again, I am only a church member at a local SBC church, but I also understand that what happens in the SBC directly affects what is brought back to my church. As look around and see that a lot of the “church” is lost, and the world we live in is getting worse and worse each day, people need JESUS. Your normal every day church member does not need an argument about whether John Calvin had proper theology. Your normal every day church member needs to be awakened to the reality of Christ, and needs to be encouraged to go and make disciples, and to use the term we use in our church…to go and live the gospel.

    Let me step back at this point and state that I am a big fan of theology and that I believe theology is VITAL…in our churches and in the SBC. I also agree that the SBC needs to come to some agreement as to what we believe about GOD. However, again, from the perspective of someone sitting in the pews (which I believe is often times overlooked by our leaders), may I suggest that we throw out the term “Calvinism” and his 5 points and stick to the Bible. There are too many people dying and going to hell that have never even heard of John Calvin. And, for the most part, I’d guess that most members in SBC churches don’t even know a debate exists over Calvinism. Theology is great and important, and it needs to be taught because much of the church is biblically ignorant….they truly lack the knowledge…but a debate over the correctness of TULIP is doing nothing to train and teach the church.

    So, my plea to you, as one who seems to have a voice in this SBC debate, please redirect the attention from this debate to Christ. Fight to get the SBC back on task of making disciples and equipping the church to make disciples. Let’s throw away “Calvinism” and teach the Bible in such a way that it stirs the church to love and good works…to making disciples of all nations. We need it. It is hard to live and work and exist in this world in such a way that honors Christ. We need encouragement from our leaders, and we need our leaders to be encouraged. We need HOPE. We need JESUS. We need help to stay on task! We need a lot of things, but one thing we do not need is a distraction from the mission.

    Please hear my heart in this. I do not in anyway want to come across as negative or critical of the SBC or your article. You do a fabulous job addressing this issue, and urge the people to move past it for the sake of the Great Commission. Thank you for that and I whole-heartedly support your efforts.

    However, again, on behalf of your SBC church members, please hear our pleas that we live in a world different than yours. We don’t live in circles that debate Calvinism or make an issue out of TULIP. We live in a lost and dying world, and we are struggling to be the light of the world. We need our leaders encouraged and kept on task so that they will encourage us and keep us on task.

    We need our voices heard in your circles. Please, do what you can to stop this debate and refocus the SBC to help the church be the church. We are dying…

    Again, thank you for the article, for your efforts and for allowing me to ramble on.

    Vance Daly

  17. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. There is no doubt that pastors, seminary professors, missionaries, and denominational servants can get into persnickety debates about stuff that local churches don’t care about. And I really appreciate your reminder that we are not be be a people who follow factions and traditions of men. This is easy to do.

    Having said that, the label “Calvinism” is not really about what Calvin taught so much as it is a generic descriptor for a group of beliefs that have been debated off and on since at least the fourth century. Most Calvinists I know would love to drop the label because they aren’t primarily concerned with what Calvin believed (or any other theologian). All sides of this debate are honestly trying to grapple with what the Scripture teaches about issues such as the nature of grace, the nature of human free will, the sovereignty of God in salvation, and the manner in which the cross saves us. Nobody–on any side–is interested in human systems. Everyone is trying to be a biblicist who follows the Scriptures, whether that gets (regrettably) called Calvinism, Arminianism, non-Calvinism, Molinism, or any other “ism.”

    But again, I appreciate your call for unity and your reminder that “preacher debates” aren’t always as relevant to “real” ministry as we are tempted to think. Thanks.


  18. Tom Fillinger   •  

    This from a gentleman that authored a book titled “The Trouble With The Tulip’? I participated in the Bridge Builders Forum at Ridgecrest. I appealed prior to, during and since that event for exegesis rather than polemics. Did not happen and still has not.

    There are conferences that attract all those who embrace “our side”. We preach to the choir and celebrate our psuedo-humility and whatever else these events are suppose to accomplish. We won?? Really? How sad.

    My appeal is for grace, dignity and genuine irenic, honest and scholarly exegesis done face to face with one another while granting honor and civility to all concerned. The issue is not any “ism”, Calvinism, Arminianism, Traditionalism, etc. Those are smoke screens adopted to minimize the fact that there are serious, real and substantive theological differences among us.

    The principle of Non-Contradiction applies. Scripture is by design of the Holy Spirit recorded with one and only one correct interpretation/meaning/application for every portion we are privileged to hold. I understand the text to declare that I will one day face the Risen Christ and give an account for the things I teach and declare to His people. I am not willing to ‘go along just to get along’ in light of this fact.

    To pretend that we do not have serious difference is dishonest. To make the issue of how a man is redeemed, the doctrine of man, and much more a secondary or tertiary matter seems to lack integrity on its face. On the contrary it is primary, substantive and has eternal consequence.

    My brothers I do not claim to have all the answers. I do know that God is honored by Truth and Integrity carefully expressed with humility and grace. We will not even admit that we do not have 16.3 million members and ACT ON THAT FACT BY CORRECTING THIS HALLUCINATION. This resistance is a direct result of a seriously flawed doctrine of Soteriology, how are men saved and what is the evidence of their regeneration.

    I pray that we do not simply ‘make nice’ and in doing so miss a glorious Christ honoring opportunity to grapple with the real issues face to face with irenic grace, accurate exegesis, consistent systematic theology free of obvious substantive theological contradictions and see a true and lasting Reformation & Renewal come to our churches and people.

    In Grace,

  19. Clint Bowman   •  

    Nathan, Thank you for a fair and well written piece. May many hear your voice. Thanks. Keep up the good work. cb

  20. Bob Hadley   •  


    I do appreciate the tone of your post and perhaps the spirit. I have read some of your writing but not a lot.

    I do not believe calvinism is a third tier issue for ANYONE close to the ground where calvinism is concerned. That is not even close to being accurate as I see it.

    I do agree it used to be that way but those days are now long gone. Those leading the calvinist revival have made this issue a primary issue. Listen to the rhetoric and I am quoting from memory but it will do.

    As you mentioned, the gospel IS calvinism; Dr. Mohler is closer that Spurgeon. Comments dealing with God’s sovereignty placed against people worshiping at the altar of free-will… and of course the frequent references to semi-pelagianism you referenced; the steady references to “getting the gospel right” 50% of the SBC is MIA because of inept preaching and invitational evangelism because God effectually calls the lost to be saved and these other things do not belong in the church.

    I could go on but that main point to my issue is the entities of the SBC and the direction that they are headed and the proliferation of a calvinist platform that is undeniable. If calvinism was as you suggest a third tier issue, then I do not believe we would be having this converation today because Baptists in general would not care that calvinists are among our ranks. This debate has grown louder and louder over the last couple decades… even heard this one that the calvinist revival is the completion of the conservative resurgence… that getting back to the Bible and settling the inerrancy issue is what has given rise to calvinism!

    I do not believe an amicable solution exists given the position some in the SBC have moved calvinism. There is a pronounced and very effective effort being waged to move the SBC in a Reformed direction and that is what is causing the problems we are facing today and I do not believe it is going to get better; I believe it is only going to get worse.

    I hope and pray that I am wrong but I do not believe that to be the case.

  21. Bob Willfiord   •  

    “Most of us aren’t too concerned with what our missionaries and church planters believe about election, so long as they are urgently proclaiming Christ to all people.” I continue to contend that a Calvinist and a non-Calvinist, such as I am, cannot speak to the same lost person using John 3:16 without the Calvinist honestly explaining what is meant by ‘Whosoever will’….cannot be done in all honesty. How can I cooperate with a Calvinist without total honesty???? I cannot…..

  22. John M. Harris   •  

    Well, this is what we do. I honestly don’t know the climate on Eschatology now, but what if someone claimed to be an a millennialist or even a post millennialist, could they be the SBC president? We take fringe issues and all of a sudden, if someone disagrees, they must not believe the Bible (i.e. “TULIP = Gospel”). Or what if someone believes that the universe is 14,000,000,000 years old? Good stuff in this article. We need to take the gospel, the real gospel, not a bloated pack-everything into it gospel, but the core message Paul summarizes in 1Cor 15 1-8 and we need to rally around that. While lovingly express our interpretations on fringe issues as just that, areas we can disagree.

  23. Bill Gernenz   •  

    “I’m all for a Christ-like family conversation among all interested Southern Baptists of good will.”

    I appreciate greatly not only the article but also the spirit of the article. The above quote, I believe, is where the rubber meets the road. The only way this toxic debate becomes an edifying discussion is if we GENUINELY love each other and speak in “good will.”. Most of the time, I fear, there is a shortage of good will. And while I do not claim to assume anyone’s motives and am not nor will not accuse anyone specifically, it appears that there is a considerable amount of pride, arrogance, bitterness, jealousy, and all kinds of self-serving glory-grabbing and posturing going on. I am reminded of Jesus rebuke of the Pharisees when He told them that they could know His glory because they were too busy pursuing glory from one another. I pray I am more wrong on this than I perceive to be.

    “Good will,” or brotherly love, is very needed… And just as a facade prefaced on toxic pontificating, but genuine brotherly affection. Until then, there will be no cooperation; there will be no consensus.

    Thanks again…. Your article and your commenting have been spot on, gracious, thoughtful, and helpful… to all with the good will to hear it.

  24. Theo K   •  

    If someone looks at the history of the reformation, one would see that all major reformers agreed on the 5 solas as a good summation of the gospel. Monergism (grace alone) was central to their understanding of God’s work in Christ.
    This is the theology of the reformation. This was the theology of Protestantism for the first few centuries after the reformation (just see the baptist confession of 1689).
    This is a clear historical fact.

    It is also a clear historical fact that Spurgeon fought with all his might against the heresy of arminianism (his words).

    Why? Because rejecting monergism means seriously distorting the biblical gospel.

    So every time someone claims that this should be a tertiary issue, it would be beneficial to remember that arminianism is much closer to Roman catholicism than to the faith of the Reformation. And that exporting heresies in the name of mission and for the sake of cooperation is NOT Christ exalting.

    May God have mercy upon the compromised western church.
    May He mightly act, once again, by His Spirit, to bring about Reformation to the doctrines and practices of the church, all to His glory alone.

  25. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    I appreciate your call for these sorts of exegetical debates. Perhaps we will eventually have that conference. I have to confess, however, that I am less optimistic than you that we will arrive at the correct answer. Christians have been debating these doctrines since at least the time of Augustine. I doubt we’ll have any new insights. Please don’t misunderstand me–I’m not saying every view is correct, which would be patently absurd. I’m simply saying I’m not sure we’ll know this side of heaven who is really correct in their interpretation of these doctrines.

    Until then, I’m all for “making nice,” as you say, and cooperating with other substantially like-minded churches around the four priorities I mentioned in the post.


  26. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Some of the more recent comments on this post demonstrate that some Southern Baptists believe that we cannot be a healthy Convention without either eliminating Calvinism or undergoing a Convention-wide conversion to Calvinism. While I respect your convictions about these doctrines, even those of you whose convictions differ from my own, I believe your approach to this issue is regrettable and unhelpful.

    Simply put, the Southern Baptist Convention is not, nor has it ever been, the denomination you want it to be. I know some of you are very upset that Calvinism no longer occupies the central place it once did among SBC leaders. I know others of you are very exercised that Calvinism has undergoing something of a revival in recent years after many decades of declension. Nevertheless, the Southern Baptists I talk to about this issue–who are all over the country in a variety of sizes and styles of churches–believe that folks who make comments like you men have published here seem more interested in winning the debate than fostering cooperation in a network of substantially like-minded Baptist churches. I agree.

    So I would refer you to the paragraphs under the section “Let’s Play Nicely” and I would plead with you to either reconsider your approach to these issues or disengage from the SBC. As it currently stands, you aren’t going to be satisfied because you will not get what you want out of the SBC. I would rather see you be happy and fruitful in another group that reflects your opinions than continually dissatisfied and agitated as a Southern Baptist, a group that is pursuing a more diverse vision than your own.


  27. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Theo K,

    With respect, it is clear that you aren’t as familiar with Reformation history as you suppose. There is no Reformation scholar anywhere who would make the sort of sweeping claim that you’ve made. I would urge you to read the primary sources. You would find a remarkable amount of diversity, even among the “leading reformers,” on how to interpret these very doctrines. Far from being caught up in the midst of some sort of declension, contemporary Baptists and other evangelicals are, in fact, doing exactly what the reformers did: debating the finer points of the doctrine of salvation.


  28. a.   •  

    # 19 Vance Daly says: “It is hard to live and work and exist in this world in such a way that honors Christ. We need HOPE. We need JESUS.”


    I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. John 15:5

  29. Ken Hamrick   •  

    Southern Baptists are represented by a spectrum of beliefs and are not a mere two-party denomination. The two groups who are most opposed to one another do not make up the whole of the convention. There is a stable middle that has traditionally gotten along well with either end of the spectrum but is much less vocal and often overlooked. You can call them compatibilists, antinomists, congruists, centrists and middlers. But you cannot call them anything that puts them in the camp of those who deny divine determinism or in the camp of those who deny freedom of will—-except to call them Southern Baptists. The current practice, prevalent in discussions of Calvinism, of breaking the SBC into two categories, Calvinists and “non-Calvinists,” with the false assumption that all “non-Calvinists” deny divine determinism, is just plain wrong.

  30. Ken   •  

    As one who is not even an SBC member, but rather an old-fashioned separatist Fundamentalist pastor of an independent Bible Church, it is with interest that I have read your article and the responses to it. It resonates with our experience within Fundamentalist circles as well: we are facing the same challenge. Fundamentalism has enjoyed a long history of broad-based, interdenominational fellowship among brethren of like-mind about the fundamental doctrines, but apart from the whole “Neo-Evangelical / Separatist” division of the 1950’s (which caused our numbers as separatists to dwindle), nothing seems to have affected our unity more than the whole Calvinist/Non-Calvinist debate. But the problem lies not with the theology itself – whichever perspective one takes – but more with the attitude and mentality with which folks hold to it. For example, within the level of our local church, this has not been a problem. Neither I nor our church doctrinal statement affirms full-fledged “5-point” Calvinism, yet we cooperate with and support missionaries and ministries that do. We have guest speakers who embrace the TULIP, and whose preaching is clearly informed by their theological perspective. This has never been a problem for us within our church: our members our mature enough to disagree with a guest speaker/missionary, while still appreciating his ministry. But, within the broader spectrum of Fundamentalism, the problem exists because many – especially among the younger generation – are embracing Calvinism as the “silver bullet” answer to worldliness within our churches and shallow youth ministry. It is this “silver bullet” mentality that is more of a problem than the actual theology itself. We don’t have to agree on all of our theology: the genius of Fundamentalism is that we have cooperated wonderfully despite our differences, but we do have to agree on how we are going to handle the differences and with what attitude.

  31. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Ken Hamrick,

    I don’t think anyone disagrees with you. There is obviously a spectrum, with most Southern Baptists landing somewhere in between “five-point” Calvinism and whatever the other end of the spectrum might be called (folks on that end of the spectrum often don’t like labels, so I won’t use one). Plus, some “four-pointers” and even “three-pointers” call themselves Calvinists, while some of them identify with the Traditionalists. We’re obviously all over the map. Hence, the need to view this debate as tertiary in the context of the wider SBC.


  32. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    The other Ken,

    Thanks for providing an outside perspective. I have observed this debate taking place among my fundamentalist Baptist friends. When I was researching my dissertation, which is on the development of Baptist fundamentalism in the South from 1940-1980, I visited the “Fundamentalism Files” in the archives at Bob Jones University. The young men who helped me that day talked about how their circle of churches were debating whether or not guys like John Piper and Mark Dever were doctrinally “safe” or whether they were theologically suspect. I told them that was not all that different from my circle of churches, except we also give to the Cooperative Program while we have that debate!

    Thanks again.


  33. Max   •  

    As a long-time Southern Baptist, I truly believe that Calvinism would be considered a second tier issue among the rank and file. Unfortunately, the local majority really don’t have a clue what is going on at the national level regarding this theological conversation. They are either uniformed, misinformed, or willingly ignorant as they continue to do church as usual. Leadership at most of SBC’s 45,000+ churches have chosen not to have “family talks” on this matter – a disservice to their membership. The “Trad” document on soteriology and associated resolutions at SBC-New Orleans drew only limited attention via cyberspace noise. Couple this with declining messenger attendance at national meetings, the interest falls short of true convention representation. God’s plan of salvation should not fall in priority in any Christian denominational triage, regardless of the prominence and popularity of who proposes it.

  34. Rick Patrick   •  


    You wrote, “Jason Allen is on record indicating that he is not a Calvinist.”

    Allen recently tweeted this quote of R. C. Sproul, who is certainly a Calvinist: “God’s sovereign will is not at the whim and mercy of our person and individual responses to it.”

    Without any other context or word of explanation, it would seem Allen is quoting this statement approvingly, thus supporting unconditional election and irresistible grace.

    He must be using that “I disaffirm Limited Atonement so I am not really a Calvinist” four pointer loophole argument you mentioned.

    I hope my Calvinist friends realize how very Calvinistic these ideas seem to those outside of the reformed camp, and how difficult it is for us to classify such persons as disaffirming Calvinism when it seems so clear to us that they embrace it.

  35. Bill Gernenz   •  

    Oops… Earlier post should have read:

    “Good will,” or brotherly love, is very needed… And NOT just as a facade prefaced on toxic pontificating, but genuine brotherly affection. Until then, there will be no cooperation; there will be no consensus.”

  36. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    I don’t think most Southern Baptists have a clue about what happens in the SBC period, including Calvinism. I would estimate that half of our churches at best are nominally engaged in SBC life. Far less ever send messengers to an annual meeting. However, I don’t think I (or anyone else) is arguing that “God’s plan of salvation should fall in priority”–far from it. I am arguing that different Southern Baptists nuance aspects of that plan differently and those differences, though real, ought not to preclude denominational cooperation. Church membership, maybe, for some folks. But not denominational cooperation.


  37. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    You were being so nice yesterday, and now you’re talking about “loopholes,” which would seem to indicate you think someone is being disingenuous. I don’t think that is the case with Jason Allen or anyone else.

    I think this is rather a negative side affect of the way the labels function in the SBC. Let me give you a counter-example. Last summer, some observers both inside and outside the SBC argued that Traditonalists embraced a form of Classical Arminianism, pointing out that Classical Arminianism affirmed original sin (but not original guilt), rejected unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace, and left the question of perseverance open-ended (many, in fact, affirmed perseverance). Traditionalists responded that they weren’t Arminians of any kind–they rejected the label, despite substantial theological affinities with those who do own the label. Please don’t hear me arguing that Traditionalists are Arminians–I’m not. I am simply pointing out that this sort of practice–distancing oneself from a label that *might* apply in the eyes of others–is common among Southern Baptists among all sides of this debate.

    Four-pointers are obviously very close to five-pointers, but many of them reject the Calvinist label for any number of reasons (they don’t affirm limited atonement, they reject Reformed ecclesiology, they think of themselves as biblicists more so than adherents to some system, etc.). Some non-Calvinists are obviously very close to some forms of Arminianism, but many of them reject the Arminian label for any number of reasons (they don’t affirm final apostasy of true believers, Southern Baptists don’t have historic roots in Arminianism, etc.). People ought to be able to label themselves as they like, so long as they are clear about the beliefs they hold to. I think most Southern Baptists of any theological stripe are committed to doctrinal transparency.

    As for re-tweeting Sproul, I think you might be overly sensitive to this particular issue and thus tempted to read Calvinism into someone re-tweeting a Calvinist. On several occasions, I have retweeted something that Barack Obama said. I hope you don’t assume I’m a political liberal because I think he (occasionally) gets something right!!!


  38. David Rubemeyer   •  

    I am thankful for the well written article. I am thankful for most of the comments. I am disturbed by the ones that believe you must be hard and fast on one side or the other.

    In reading God’s Holy Word it clearly says that “those God for knew He predestined” and it also says “that who so ever shall call on the name of Christ shall be saved”. The other thing that I know is in Isaiah and other places it tells us that God’s ways are His own. God doesn’t owe me an explanation for what He does, who is saved and who is lost. Jesus simply said “if you love me you will do what I command”. Folks He commanded that we take the Gospel to the world who has no hope without Christ. I say let’s do that walking together in Christ and sharing Him with everyone not because we love them so much but because we love Him.

    May we discuss, love and press forward with the Gospel.

    David R.

  39. Jim Richardson   •  

    I am a third generation of Southern Baptist preachers and my son is a fourth. My father was a deacon in a Southern Baptist Church. We have always believed that God knows all things and His ways are higher than ours and His thoughts higher than ours. We were taught that Jesus died on Calvary for the sins of the whole world and never gave any thought to the management of the Gospel, but consistently preached that anyone who confesses that Jesus is the Christ and that God hath raised Him from the dead could be saved. I have remained until this day a member of the sales team and left the management to God. The Calvinist and the Non-Calvinist should be busy about preaching the Gospel and not thinking that their theological suppositions give the right or license to confuse people in the realm of God’s business. If you have faith in Almighty God then realize that He does not now or ever has needed you to defend or argue His position or Attributes. He is God and there is no other. We should be recognized as Southern Baptist for our missionary evangelism and not our ridiculous arguments over things that we need to leave alone.

  40. Danny Daniels   •  

    Greetings Nathan, thank for submitting article. I did read Mohler’s Theological Triage and Christian Maturity. I pastor First Southern Baptist Church in Las Vegas, Nevada and teach church history, systematic theology and preaching the GGBTS CLD Center in Las Vegas. W. Morgan Patterson was my primary teacher and I studied also with Penrose St. Amant, Roland Bainton and Jarislav Pelikan.
    As a recovering Calvinist (was in Hungarian Reformed Church and family from Debrecen, the first Calvinist Seminary ever) I read your article with much interest
    I wonder if much of the debate and “dialogue” has come about especially in acedemic circles and younger generation pastors because of the shallowness of doctrinal teaching in our SBC churches. With the eruption and emergence in the past decades of atractional, seeker-driven, so instead of praxis, management techniques and church CEOism,the response is a real hunger for Bible teaching and historical faith. Blessing on you. “Eclessia Reformata, semper reformanda.”

  41. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    Thanks for your comment. I knew a former pastor of your church who pastored in my hometown in South Georgia before relocated to Las Vegas.

    I have no doubt that the popularity of Calvinism is partly a response to the lack of theological depth in (many) Southern Baptist churches during the second half of the 20th century. Some have sought to fill this gap by emphasizing Calvinism. Others have emphasized earlier Baptist theological traditions, both Calvinist and non-Calvinist. Many have looked to the evangelical Anabaptists for inspiration. Still others have drawn upon postwar evangelicalism for theological inspiration. Some, of course, look to more than one of these groups. This is not at all to discount the reality that all of these folks are reading their Bibles and seeking to follow its teachings–they surely are. But I do think that our context affects this debate more than many folks realize.

    I heard retired Beeson Divinity School theologian Fisher Humphreys speak on Calvinism several years ago. Dr. Humphreys argued that one of the reasons that so many collegians were attracted to Calvinistic ministries like Campus Outreach and Reformed University Fellowship is because they find a theological depth that they were not exposed to in their home churches. He said this, not as a fan of Calvinism, but as a forceful critic of Calvinism who has written books and articles against Reformed theology. I thought he was on to something then, and I still do today.


  42. Tony   •  

    The Calvinists I have encountered recently hold to the belief that a person must experience regeneration BEFORE they can believe or experience faith. Such an unscriptural belief (see Ephesians 2:8-9) makes Calvinism a PRIMARY concern and issue in my way of thinking. Amos 3:3 says, “Can two walk together without agreeing?” So many are suggesting that we ignore our differences for the sake of “unity.” There is no place of compromise when it concerns Truth!

  43. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    Incidentally, Calvinists quote that same passage (among others) to argue their views on regeneration and faith. Both sides are interested in the truth, though they disagree in their exegesis on this admittedly important topic. But from the thrust of your comment, I’d say you’re the one making this a primary doctrine. Please see the the paragraphs under the section “Let’s Play Nicely.” Thanks.


  44. Rick Patrick   •  


    I apologize for using the term “loophole.” I did not mean for it to sound so pejorative. I simply meant to convey their Calvinistic views of unconditional election and irresistible grace represent, for me, the crux of the Calvinistic argument. To deny Calvinism by disaffirming general atonement is a bit of a side issue, a secondary concern, a distraction from the issue, in my opinion. I sincerely hope these expressions are not considered as pejorative as “loophole.” I’m just trying to express how the denial of general atonement does not get these folks off the Calvinist hook, at least in the eyes of those on the other side of the theological aisle.

    If it does disqualify them as Calvinists according to their definition, and they are not true Calvinists, then what term do they prefer, and will they please start using it…regularly, often and in a very loud voice? Maybe it will catch on and we can describe them more properly. It would at least avoid this confusion with regard to identifying various different views as all being different strains of Calvinism. I think this contributes to many of our misunderstandings.

    Thanks again for your article.

  45. Ken Hamrick   •  

    Would it be helpful if we did not see “third-order doctrines” as less important but as grounded on less certainty? Instead of saying “that different doctrines function at different levels of importance when we cooperate with other believers,” we could say that they function at different levels of certainty. The areas under dispute are surely important—a lesser importance is not really why they are relegated to third-level, but rather it is the fact that God has not provided the same level of certainty for these things that He provides for first and second-level doctrines. That has not stopped many from feeling certain about them, but we should acknowledge that it is a lesser certainty.

  46. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Hey Rick. Thanks for the clarification about the “loophole” term. I’m happy to hear you meant it the way you meant it and not the way I took it! Concerning labels, it is a sticky wicket, to be sure. Some folks like them, some hate them, some are ambivalent. Plus, some of them really do have more than one definition–including Calvinist. Some of my Presbyterian friends say there is no such thing as a Baptist Calvinist. (I understand their point, though I disagree.) I’m not sure we’ll ever solve the label problems because Baptists (naturally!) can’t agree on how, or even if, to use the labels.


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