Calvinism and the SBC: The Case for Consensus, Part 1

Calvinism and the SBC: The Case for Consensus, Part 1

By Alvin Reid and Nathan A. Finn

Over the last few days we have conducted 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 are the types of things that we bat in our own conversations with each other. In two final jointly authored articles, we want to suggest a way forward.

Though we disagree with each other concerning Calvinism, we are convinced that this issue does not have to be a source of division in the SBC. We know folks get tired of hearing this, but it is true: there has always been room in the SBC for both Calvinists and non-Calvinists.

When most SBC leaders were Calvinists in the 19th century, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that grassroots Southern Baptists were divided on this issue. First, state paper editors of the period often wrote about Calvinism, indicating that this was a live debate in the churches. Second, “queries” at local associational meetings often dealt with Calvinism, which also points to debates in local churches. Finally, Southern Seminary’s Abstract of Principles, which was meant to articulate doctrines affirmed by virtually all Southern Baptists ca. 1858, took no position on limited atonement and was silent on irresistible grace.

While it appears today that most of our Convention leaders are non-Calvinists, there is plenty of evidence that a growing number of Southern Baptists are Calvinists or at least strongly sympathetic to Reformed theology. There are LifeWay and NAMB studies that show 10% of Baptist pastors and almost 30% of recent seminary graduates consider themselves Calvinists. There are thousands of SBC ministers who attend Reformed-friendly conferences like Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition. Anecdotally, we know a substantial number of foreign missionaries and North American church planters–from all of our seminaries–who are Calvinists.

There was diversity concerning Calvinism in the mid-19th century, and there is diversity on this issue in the early 20th century. Calvinism did not divide the Convention then. It should not divide us now.

We believe this issue has become divisive for several reasons. First, there are many (mostly older) non-Calvinists who are convinced that Calvinism is not really compatible with Southern Baptist life. They often do not know their history. Second, there are many (mostly younger) Calvinists who are convinced the Convention must “become Calvinist” if it is going to survive. They often do not have enough humility. Third, as with every theological position or movement, there are a few extreme voices on all sides that try to anathematize those with whom they disagree.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the internet exacerbates this whole issue by creating a “vicious cycle” of accusations and mean-spirited attacks. Several times in the past few years prominent pastors have criticized Calvinism in a sermon. Because the sermons are available online, Calvinist bloggers jump on the pastor and point out everything they believe he got wrong. Then other pastors read the blogs and are upset that Calvinists are so critical, so they in turn criticize Calvinists in a different venue. Calvinists respond in kind, and the cycle continues. And this is just one example of how the cycle starts-we could also talk about state papers “exposés” of Calvinism, Convention publications addressing the issue, conferences (on all sides), blog series written by angry young Calvinists, etc.

We do not believe the best way to address the Calvinism issue is to cease talking about it. As Nathan said in his address at the Building Bridges Conference, we do not need a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy or a “naked public square” in the SBC vis-à-vis Calvinism. We believe a better approach is to focus on those convictions and priorities that unite us, even while we all commit to be truthful and respectful in our debates about the five points (and other secondary issues on which we disagree). Nobody should have to keep their opinions to themselves, though they should convey their opinions in the most Christ-like way possible.

In our final post, we will suggest at least four different priorities around which we believe virtually all Southern Baptists can unite. We will also suggest a number of ways to facilitate better cooperation among Baptists on all sides of the Calvinism debate.

An Exercise in Bridge-Building

One of the more hotly debated issues in the contemporary SBC is Calvinism. Unfortunately, our intradenominational discussions about topics like predestination and the extent of the atonement have often generated as much heat as light. Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike have been guilty of dealing with their fellow Southern Baptists in less than charitable ways. This does not reflect well on Southern Baptists. More important, it does not please our Lord Jesus Christ.

In November 2007, Southeastern Seminary co-hosted a conference titled Building Bridges with LifeWay Christian Resources and Founders Ministries. The speakers included both Calvinists and non-Calvinists. The purpose was to model a better way to engage in spirited, though Christ-like dialog about this important issue. You can listen to the presentations here, or you can read the proceedings from the conference in Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialog (B&H Academic, 2008).

Between the Times is attempting what might be called an “exercise in bridge-building.” Alvin Reid teaches evangelism at Southeastern Seminary. Alvin is not a Calvinist. Nathan Finn teaches church history at Southeastern. Nathan is a Calvinist. These two men are not just colleagues, but they are good friends who truly want to see Southern Baptists discuss this issue, but do so in a better way than has too often been the case.

Over the next several days, Between the Times will publish at least three more articles about the Calvinism debate in the Southern Baptist Convention. The first will be an open letter from Alvin to Calvinists in the SBC. The second will be an open letter from Nathan to non-Calvinists in the SBC. These letters reflect the content of some of the conversations these two brothers have had with each other off and on over the past two years. Both men speak candidly, but from a spirit of genuine love rather than malice or competition. Our prayer is that their letters will be received in the same spirit they have been written, for the glory of God and the good of the SBC.

Lord willing, the series will conclude with a jointly authored article suggesting some points of consensus among Southern Baptists who disagree about the five points of Calvinism. It is our hopes this series will help further the cause of a Great Commission Resurgence in the SBC.