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.