A Statement from the Calvinism Advisory Committee

Next week, SBC Life will publish the official statement from the Calvinism Advisory Committee that was established last summer by Dr. Frank Page. We have made it available for you here at Between the Times. It is also available at the SBC Life website. The full document is titled “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension.” You may download a copy of it by clicking on the link below.

Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension

It is our prayer that Southern Baptists will read this statement, resonate with its clarity and charity, and take to heart its recommendations. Please join us in praying for unity among us as we labor together to advance the Great Commission among the unreached and underserved peoples of the earth.

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.

Paige Patterson Is Not a Traitor

Recently, I was accused of “treason” in an online comment by an employee of a Cooperative Program-supported college in Georgia.  My crime? I’m general editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum that quotes Wesleyans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians. Apparently, in this person’s mind, quoting people from other denominations is sufficient evidence to deem one a traitor (according to Webster, a traitor is “one who commits treason”).

Now, to be sure, this is certainly not the first time that I have been criticized. And I don’t feel that it is necessary to respond to every statement of disagreement or expression of disdain that is sent in my direction. But in this case, both the use of strong language with the word “treason” as well as the charge itself seemed to warrant comment. When we start to say that looking outside our own convention walls as we learn is disloyal and should not be done, we are only hurting ourselves. Banning non-Baptist books to “protect” lay people does not bode well for our future.

This kind of Southern Baptist isolationism and elitism does not serve the mission of the churches of our convention, and it certainly does not serve the kingdom of God well. Pastors and leaders in our convention have always benefited from books and commentaries written by Biblical scholars from other traditions. We glean insight from people throughout church history, and we can learn biblical truths from people in other denominations.

A great example of this kind of respect of others and humility to learn from others comes from Southern Baptist statesman, and a hero for Southern Baptists, Dr. Paige Patterson. Recently B&H Publishing Group published his long-awaited commentary on Revelation for the New American Commentary series (and I mean long-awaited).

As I have perused this magnificent offering, I noticed he interacts with scholars from across the denominational spectrum– sometimes citing them to make his point. These quotations do not make me question his motives. They don’t make me think he is less than Southern Baptist in his affiliations or convictions. In fact, they provide evidence of how thorough his work was to write such a helpful commentary.

Dr. Patterson is certainly not a “traitor” to the SBC. Instead, I believe this kind of work makes him a better Southern Baptist. Dr. Patterson is willing to glean truth– wherever it is found– and to interact with the Body of Christ at large in a way that strengthens and bolsters his (and, ultimately, our) Baptist convictions.

Some might say that this example is different, as it refers to an commentary where such interaction is expected and appropriate. After all, pastors and scholars need to be aware and exposed to the thoughts of others. A few might think that a different standard should be applied to a bible study curriculum.

First of all, let’s be clear. When The Gospel Project does quote a non-SBC thinker, it is a quote that builds up universal Christian doctrine and biblical truth, not one that undermines our distinctives. But we need to address something that I believe is even more important. At LifeWay, we believe that we do not need to treat laypeople like children. We believe that it’s important to educate our people theologically, and we are grateful for the insights of Christian believers that can point us to the truth. We are not afraid to use them, and we do not condescend toward laypeople as if they can’t handle them.

The Gospel Project starts with theology and goes deep– and we think that laypeople can handle it. Actually, based on the response, we think they are handling (and loving) the depth.

Even with respect to the NAC series, we target not only ministers but also “Bible students” of all kinds, and work to make it helpful for all who want to study and expound the Scripture. Lots of laypeople are buying and interacting with Dr. Patterson’s, and all the other, New American Commentaries.

It is sad that a vocal minority from a few Baptist institutions advocate for a view that can lead to denominational isolationism and elitism. I, for one, am thankful that it’s not treasonous to listen and learn from Wesleyans (like Charles Wesley, whose hymns are in the Baptist hymnal) or Anglicans (like J. I. Packer, who helped us see the importance of inerrancy), or Presbyterians (like D. James Kennedy, who inspired some of our own evangelistic strategies).

The good news is that most Southern Baptists know better– most but, apparently, not all. But, that’s part of being in a family. We don’t all have to agree, though perhaps accusing others of denominational treason is not the best way to be in a family together. We just disagree about what laypeople can and should handle. That’s OK.

People like Paige Patterson, and others who have benefited from the wisdom and faith of non-Southern Baptists, are not traitors to the SBC if they quote non-Southern Baptists. To even insinuate such quotes are disloyal shows an elitist or sectarian spirit that is just not helpful. Thankfully, I believe most Southern Baptists already know that.

If you have not yet read Dr. Patterson’s new commentary in the NAC series—order it now, read its fine scholarship, and read some quotes from people who are not Southern Baptist. You can order it here. It has great reviews on Amazon and makes s strong case for a pre-tribulational, pre-millennial view, while still treating other views with clarity and fairness.

Also, if you’d like to join in with the hundreds of thousands of “traitors” learning weekly through the Gospel Project, written in accordance to the Baptist Faith and Message, and occasionally quoting from well-known Presbyterians, Wesleyans, and Anglicans when they give additional insights in accordance with that faith statement, you can find out more about the Gospel Project here.