For the Record (John Hammett): Being Biblical More Than Logical or Why I am a Four-Point Calvinist

[Editor’s Note: John Hammett is Professor of Systematic Theology and Associate Dean of Theological Studies at Southeastern. He is a former missionary to Brazil and a specialist in eclessiology. He is a theologian in all the best senses of the word. For these reasons, we asked him to put his view of a controversial point of theology on the record.]

Like most Calvinists who hold four of the traditional five points, I have struggled with the L of limited atonement. On the one hand, limited atonement makes perfect logical sense and I like the idea that the cross actually accomplished salvation for me. Further, if the cross is efficacious for salvation, then it must be limited or it leads to universal salvation, which is unquestionably non-biblical. On the other hand, there are a number of verses that I have not been able to reconcile with limited atonement. Placing biblical arguments over logical or theological arguments has led me to affirm a general understanding of the atonement.

The three texts that seem to point most forcefully to the general view are I John 2:2, I Tim. 4:10, and II Pet. 2:1. First John 2:2 affirms Christ as the propitiation not just for “our sins” but also “for the sins of the whole world.” Those who support limited atonement argue that the “whole world” does not mean every individual but all types of people, or all races, classes, or times of people. Those are possible arguments, and if this was the only verse, it might be exegetically fair to infer such a reading. But there are other verses, and there is nothing in the context to indicate a limitation of the scope of “world.”

The second text, I Tim. 4:10, speaks of God as Savior “of all people, and especially of those who believe.” Admittedly, this verse does not speak of the cross specifically, but if the cross that accomplishes salvation, here that salvation seems to extend beyond those who believe. In some sense, God is the Savior of “all people” in a sense that extends beyond believers. In what sense could God be the Savior of those who do not believe? The most cogent way I have heard is to see it as affirming that God has made provision for their salvation through the death of Christ.

The third text approaches the topic from a different direction. According to limited atonement, all those for whom Christ died, the elect, are saved. But II Pet. 2:1 affirms that some of those “bought” by Christ have become false teachers, deny Christ and bring destruction upon themselves. This sounds very much as if they are lost individuals, and yet they had been bought by Christ. It again sounds as if those for whom Christ died extend beyond those who are saved.

I recognize there are several objections lodged against the general atonement view. To my mind, the most serious is that this view weakens the accomplishment of the cross. It sees the cross as making provision for my sin, but it does not become efficacious for my salvation until I receive that provision by faith. But that is in fact what Scripture seems to teach (see Rom. 5:17). I see my reception of that provision as itself the result of God’s effectual calling and election at work in me, both of which are limited, and so I am still a Calvinist, but the L belongs in calling and election, not the cross.

A second argument is that general atonement leads to universal salvation. But this is true only if the cross by itself is efficacious for salvation; that is, that sins are forgiven by the payment offered on the cross apart from any personal response. But the general atonement view argues that it is theologically permissible and biblically warranted to separate the provision of atonement and the application of atonement.

A third objection is that general atonement seems somehow wasteful and introduces disharmony within the Trinity. If God the Father has chosen a limited group, and the Holy Spirit only convicts and draws to faith a limited group, why would the Son die for a larger group, especially when many of that group will not be saved? But we can note that God often provides more than is accepted. Universal revelation is given to all, but Romans 1 is clear that, rather than utilizing that light, many suppress it (Rom. 1:18). At any rate, this too is a logical argument that I cannot place over a biblical argument.

Thus, I find myself in agreement with the classic if somewhat ambiguous formula: the atonement was sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect (or for those who believe, since they are the same group).topodin

For the Record: Nathan Finn on Being Baptist (Part 2)

5. One of the recurring debates among Baptists is the origin of our tradition. What do you think about Baptist origins?

There are at least four broad camps when it comes to Baptist origins, with variations within each camp. Some hold to some form of Baptist perpetuity, arguing that there have always been Baptist-like Christians and that this remnant alone gathered into true churches. Sometimes folks in this camp are called Landmarkers. Another camp argues that Baptists are closely kin to Anabaptists, sometimes even claiming that Baptists intentionally appropriated some Anabaptist distinctives. The dominant camp among most contemporary scholars focuses upon the English Separatist roots of the earliest Baptists. Some in this camp concede the possibility of at least a bit of Anabaptist influence, but they still choose to emphasize the fact that the earliest Baptists were in fact Separatists who embraced believer’s baptism. A final view champions polygenetic origins, arguing that there was more than one Baptist group in the seventeenth century and that different groups had different origins.

I hold to a form of the polygenetic view. The early English General Baptists closely identified with the Anabaptists, though they never claimed to actually be Anabaptists. Among the English Particular Baptists, some such as the J-L-J Church were likely influenced by the Anabaptists, while others such as John Spilsbury’s church were likely not connected in any way with Anabaptists. The Mixed Communion Baptists and Seventh-Day Baptists, most of whom were Calvinistic, tended to closely identify with English Independency. In the American Colonies, the earliest Baptists were apparently influenced little if any by either the Anabaptists or the English Baptists, though they grew closer to the latter during the 1640s.

6. The SBC is being asked to consider adopting Great Commission Baptists as an optional second name for our network of churches. Do you think this is a good idea? Do you like the name that has been proposed?

As my friend Micah Fries has demonstrated, there were only two real options: keep the name the same or propose an optional nickname that some churches and ministries could embrace either in addition to or as an alternative to the Southern Baptist name. The task force recommended the latter, and I’m fine with that. I’ve said from the very beginning that I’m ambivalent about the whole name issue. I’m not in principle opposed to a name change, but neither am I convinced that changing the name, in and of itself, will help us reach more people and plant more churches. I guess it would be fair to say that I’m comfortable with the recommendation and that I’m amiable to the proposed nickname, but I’m not enthusiastic about it. I will vote for it without hesitation, but it’s unlikely that I’ll say much more about it publicly beyond this blog post.

7. It seems likely that Fred Luter will be elected the next president of the SBC. What would his election mean for Southern Baptists?

It does seem likely, doesn’t it? There is a greater chance that Tony Merida will grow a ponytail than that a serious candidate will challenge Luter for the SBC presidency. Even if someone does run against him, Luter will win handily. He is very popular.

I think Luter’s presidency will be good for the SBC. While it’s largely a symbolic gesture (the president has little real power), this particular symbol is important in a denomination with a checkered past when it comes to the race issue. I hope Luter’s presidency will serve as a constant reminder that we are far too diverse to be led almost exclusively by white dudes. We need to identify leaders who come from ethnic minorities and immigrant contexts. We need to prioritize church planting among those who are not white and/or for whom English is a second language. We need to encourage our churches to seek to be as ethnically diverse as their geographical context. We need to push back against lingering racism and ethnocentrism in our churches. Luter’s presidency won’t solve these issues, but it could be catalytic in mobilizing Southern Baptists to become even more intentional in these matters.

8. What do you think is the biggest challenge Southern Baptists will face over the next decade?

I think the lingering question for us is whether or not we can become more unified for the sake of the Great Commission. We really like to fight. We used to fight Catholics, until they became political allies. We used to fight moderates and liberals, until most of them left. Now we fight each other over generational differences, worship styles, missions funding strategies, views on Calvinism, the nature of contextualization, the number of elders a church should have, etc. Some of these issues are important and worth having family discussions about, but unfortunately, it’s often the shrillest voices that rise to the top. Blogs and social media such as Twitter and Facebook exacerbate this phenomenon; what were once water-cooler bloviations have at times taken on a life of their own.

We’re going to have to find a way to debate our differences like grownups so that our diversity doesn’t distract us from our common mission. If your pet convictions preclude you from cooperating with and, in some cases, being led by folks who differ from you in secondary or tertiary matters, then you’d probably be happier somewhere else. For my part, I think we need to unite around a common core (an evangelical gospel and a Baptist view of the church), a common confession (the Baptist Faith and Message 2000), and a common purpose (to do our part in helping to fulfill the Great Commission). The more we unite around these commonalities, the less we’ll be shooting each other over matters that, while not wholly unimportant, aren’t worth all the fuss they often games mobile

For the Record: Nathan Finn on Being Baptist (Part 1)

[Editor’s note: Nathan Finn is Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies here at Southeastern. He is known as a top-shelf classroom instructor, a prolific writer, and a student of all things Baptist. In this interview, we ask him questions about eight of the most significant and/or controversial issues arising in Baptist life today. Part 2 (questions 5-8) will appear here tomorrow morning.]

1. Baptist identity seems to be a hot-button issue in some SBC circles. How do you understand Baptist identity?

This is a great question. I’ve written a great deal on this topic over the years, most recently in a nine-part series on my personal blog that attempts to tie Baptist identity and distinctives with the gospel. First of all, we need to understand that there is no such thing as a normative Baptist identity. Presbyterians have the Westminster Confession and Roman Catholics have their Catechism, but we can’t point back to a particular document and say “that’s the authoritative statement of Baptist identity.” As a tradition that has emphasized freedom and autonomy, sometimes perhaps too much so, we have to be careful to distinguish between description and prescription. So descriptively, I’d say there are many Baptist identities, even within the SBC. The tricky part is articulating a view of Baptist identity that reflects biblical emphases and is compelling to Baptist Christians.

I argue that when Baptists are at their best, our identity is simultaneously catholic, reformational, evangelical, and radical. By catholic, I mean Baptists share certain core convictions with all professing Christians, particularly concerning the Trinity, Christology, and basic anthropology and eschatology. By reformational, I mean we share certain beliefs with all traditional Protestants, especially concerning the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and the centrality of justification by faith alone. Our identity is also evangelical because we hold to a conversionist understanding of salvation and embrace the imperative to intentionally share the gospel with others. And our identity is radical because we embrace a view of the church (especially the local church) that was considered radical until the last couple of centuries because it rejects any version of Constantinianism and embraces a believer’s church and credobaptism.

2. Do you think there is such a thing as a uniquely Baptist understanding of doctrines such as Scripture, salvation, last things, etc.?

For me, this is closely related to the last question. I wouldn’t say there is a “uniquely” Baptist understanding of these things-again, we want to stand with other types of believers in these areas. But it would be true to say that there are definite tendencies in the way that most Southern Baptists (and many other Baptists) approach these doctrines. For example, most all Southern Baptists affirm a view of the Bible that is common to many conservative evangelical Protestants; it’s not unique to Southern Baptists, but most of us are on the same page. The same could be said of salvation-virtually all Baptists argue that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There are different nuances (the Calvinist-Arminian debate sticks out here), but even in those cases we agree on more than we disagree and our debates aren’t unique to Baptists. On eschatology, we pretty much all agree on the basics, though we debate some of the particulars; again, our core convictions and our debates are common to other Christians. The only area where Baptists really stand apart is in our ecclesiology.

3. We hear a lot about Baptist distinctives. What are the Baptist distinctives?

The Baptist distinctives are those eccesiological views or tendencies that are uniquely emphasized by Baptists. The earliest Baptists simply attempted to take the principle of sola scriptura and apply it to eccesiological matters. They would say that when local churches are brought under the lordship of Christ as it is revealed in Scripture, those churches will look a particular way. I’d argue that wherever you find these views, you have a Baptist (or perhaps better, baptistic) Christian, even if that identity isn’t affirmed in an overt way.

I’d argue Baptists have four unique emphases: a regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion, congregational freedom, and a free church in a free state. We believe that local churches should be communities of presumably regenerate individuals who’ve covenanted to walk together under Christ’s lordship for the sake of the gospel. We believe that only those who can give a credible salvation testimony should be baptized by full immersion and become church members. (I’d also argue only baptized believers should participate in the Lord’s Supper, but many Southern Baptists argue baptism shouldn’t be a prerequisite to communion.) We believe that the whole congregation should come together to make the most important decisions of the church (congregationalism) and that every church is a local outpost of the kingdom that is free to pursue Christ’s agenda for that body (local autonomy). We believe that God alone is Lord of the conscious and that authentic Christianity best thrives when full religious liberty is extended to all citizens in a particular land. Different Baptists will nuance each of these distinctives in different ways, but we’re pretty much agreed on the basics.

4. Which Baptist distinctive do you believe is most threatened in our contemporary context?

They’re all threatened to some degree, but I think congregationalism is far and away our distinctive that is most threatened. I think there are many reasons for this. Some Southern Baptists are overreacting to unhealthy manifestations of congregationalism: the tyranny of the majority, reckless congregational votes to terminate pastors, full church votes on even the most mundane matters, etc. Others are convinced congregationalism is incompatible with pastoral authority, often because they’ve experienced bad congregationalism, incompetent pastoral leadership, or both. Many are convinced congregationalism isn’t as efficient as other polity models-it takes time for a church to come together and seek Christ’s will for the body. Still others believe that congregationalism is simply not as biblical an option as some sort of pastoral rule, whether by a single pastor or a plurality of pastors (or elders).

We need to admit that congregationalism as we practice it isn’t a perfect reflection of the New Testament. In the apostolic era, they had apostles who exercised authority over the whole church. Yet we also see that the congregation often made certain key decisions, particularly the setting apart of elders and deacons and the final act of church discipline. I call the New Testament model “apostolic congregationalism.” Since most Baptists agree that the apostolic office didn’t continue past the original apostles, we’ve attempted to adapt what we can of New Testament polity to a world without apostles. I’d argue this is a pastor-led congregationalism, where the pastor or pastors lead the body through the ministry of the Word but the whole church at the very least sets apart pastors and deacons, practices church discipline, and (for the sake of prudence) approves of the budget and important church property matters. Everything else can be contextual from congregation to congregation.