“A Statement of the Traditional Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”: A Brief Response

Recently, a group of Southern Baptists published a document titled “A Statement of the Traditional Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” The statement, which has been signed by several Southern Baptist leaders, is intended to offer an alternative to a more Calvinistic understanding of salvation. Supporters of the statement believe their views represent the best of the Southern Baptist tradition and accurately reflect what most contemporary Southern Baptists believe about the doctrines of grace. Though these claims are up for debate, we appreciate an effort by thoughtful, committed Southern Baptists to clarify some of the most oft-debated doctrines among us.

We are already aware of several Southern Baptists who have offered critiques or defenses of the statement. No doubt more will be written in the coming days. It is not our intent to wade deeply into this discussion, which we feel will potentially distract Southern Baptists from our primary task of proclaiming Christ and planting churches among the unreached and underserved peoples of North America and the wider world. Nevertheless, we do share some concerns about the statement and its helpfulness at this moment in Southern Baptist history. We would refer you to Baptist 21, where Jon Akin has articulated many of the same concerns we would voice about this document.

It is our conviction that Southern Baptists who affirm the evangelical understanding of salvation summarized in the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) can and should lay aside their differences on secondary and tertiary matters for the sake of the Great Commission. Our confessional consensus is broad enough to include most any Southern Baptist who isn’t a hyper-Calvinist or a Wesleyan Arminian. Since we believe a tiny number of Southern Baptists affirm these two aberrant positions, we remain convinced that almost all of us can and should unite for the sake of the gospel. This is our vision for the future of the SBC when it comes to the Calvinism debate and many other similar debates. We would invite you to join us in this Great Commission vision for our convention of churches.

Calvinism and the SBC: The Case for Consensus, Part 2

Calvinism and the SBC: The Case for Consensus, Part 2

By Alvin Reid and Nathan A. Finn

Several weeks ago we began 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 animate our own conversations with each other. In a follow-up article, we began making a case for consensus within the SBC among those on all sides of the Calvinism debate. With this article, we conclude our thoughts on bridge-building, at least for the time being.

We believe there are four planks around which virtually all contemporary Southern Baptists can unite in a common platform. None of these priorities are new; all of them have characterized the SBC during our better moments. But there are tensions within each commitment, and navigating those tensions is the key to building a healthy consensus among our churches. We are convinced both Calvinists and non-Calvinists can unite around the following.

Plank 1: a commitment to a confessional center of cooperation. In 2000 Southern Baptists voted overwhelmingly to adopt a revised version of the Baptist Faith and Message. That statement is the confessional fruit of the Conservative Resurgence. It articulates the full truthfulness and sufficiency of Christian Scripture. It affirms our foundational doctrines and most cherished priorities, some of which we will discuss below. It guides the selection of our elected, appointed, and employed denominational servants.

We think most Southern Baptists are comfortable with the BF&M, even if they have minor quibbles with terminology, emphasis, etc. This is to be expected with any confessional statement in a network of autonomous churches. Like all confessions, ours is an imperfect document that summarizes particular biblical teachings. But we believe it faithfully represents a confessional center around which both Calvinists and non-Calvinists can cooperate, even if some churches opt to embrace different confessions for their personal use and/or choose to enunciate some secondary or tertiary doctrines differently than the BF&M.

Plank 2: a commitment to a basically evangelical understanding of the gospel. We agree with David Dockery that there is a gospel center among Southern Baptists that is non-negotiable, even as we debate second and third order matters that flow from that center. All Southern Baptists need to be committed to such truths as humanity’s utter sinfulness, the sinless law-keeping of Jesus Christ, his penal substitutionary atonement, justification by grace through faith, the imputed righteousness of Christ, and the necessity of repentance and faith as the proper response to the gospel. We believe the BF&M clearly communicates these doctrines, despite its neutrality on election and silence on the extent of the atonement.

We think the vast majority of Southern Baptists believe these truths, though at times we could stand to make them clearer in our evangelism and discipleship. (The theological jargon isn’t as important as the truths communicated, especially in an evangelistic context.) The Calvinism debate isn’t a debate about the gospel qua gospel, but is rather a debate about the best way to further define and articulate aspects of the gospel. We can debate which view of election and the atonement is more consistent with the gospel than others, but these debates shouldn’t preclude our cooperation as Southern Baptists.

Plank 3: a commitment to a basically Baptist ecclesiology. We believe that the Baptist vision of the church closely follows New Testament teaching and example and best represents the consistent application of the gospel to ecclesiological matters. Because we are a Convention of Baptist churches, we need to be united in our advocacy of regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion alone, congregational church government, local church autonomy, and liberty of conscience. We believe all of these principles, when applied in a biblical manner under the lordship of Christ, are non-negotiables for Southern Baptists. The BF&M speaks with clarity about the Baptist view of the church.

We also think almost all Southern Baptists affirm these core Baptist convictions in principle, though there are threats to each of them (that’s for another time). We also think, however, that there is room for debate about how to best apply some of these ecclesiological distinctives. For example, should a church follow a single-elder or a plural elder form of congregationalism? What is the most biblical understanding of liberty of conscience? At what age should an apparently believing child be baptized? Which immersions are alien to biblical faith and practice? These are all worthwhile questions, but differences of opinions on these points that are not addressed in the BF&M shouldn’t hinder our cooperation.

Plank 4: a commitment to evangelism and missions, both in North America and abroad. While this cannot be said of all Baptists, Southern Baptists have always championed the spread of the gospel and the planting of healthy local Baptist churches. The SBC was organized as a network of “missionary” Baptist churches in the South. This was to distinguish them from the “antimission” Baptists who rejected cooperative missions (and sometimes any missions).

We think that almost all Southern Baptists still care about evangelism and missions, though there are clearly differences in strategies. Some churches knock on doors and host tent crusades, while others emphasize servant evangelism. Some churches use evangelism programs like FAITH or GROW, while others forego formal programs. Some churches think about contextualization, while others choose not to. The list could go on, and these are of course generalizations.

We appreciate these differences, but we believe they reflect style more than substance. Virtually all Southern Baptists want to see their cities evangelized, unchurched areas in North America reached, and the gospel preached and churches planted to the ends of the earth. That central conviction matters infinitely more than particular strategies. We believe that methodological diversity in evangelism and missions is a good thing rather than a bad thing in a Convention that prizes local church autonomy. As long as the gospel is not compromised, our shared confessional commitments are not scuttled, and the churches we plant are Baptist in practice (though not necessarily in name), we would suggest our methods can vary as much as Scripture allows.

There are of course other secondary planks around which we can unite. Theological education has long been a priority (we’re all for it!). So has Christian engagement of the public square. Ministries like disaster relief are crucial. So is providing sound curricula and other materials to local SBC churches. But while we believe these ministries are important, they should be driven by the four consensus-building commitments of confessional cooperation, gospel faithfulness, healthy ecclesiology, and bold witness.

As we conclude our thoughts, we want to offer some practical suggestions concerning how Calvinists and non-Calvinists in particular, and different types of Southern Baptists in general, can better facilitate cooperation, especially at the personal and local church levels.

First, we should pray for one another. We should pray that our fellow Southern Baptists would enjoy blessed ministries and enjoy much gospel fruit, even if they have a different view of the doctrines of grace. We should pray that our sister churches would reach their communities with the gospel, even if their strategies vary somewhat from ours. Our prayers are infinitely more beneficial to the kingdom than our criticisms.

Second, we should seek out friends with whom we differ. Our friendship began in a doctoral seminar where it was clear we disagreed about Calvinism but shared a common vision for the Convention’s future. After two years of conversations, we are convinced that our agreements vastly outnumber our differences. Alvin recently wrote a book with a Calvinist colleague. Nathan is currently reading the draft of a book (on the doctrine of salvation!) written by a non-Calvinist friend. We have to get out of our theological ghettos and make some friends who will challenge us and sharpen our thinking.

Third, we should avoid all caricature and misrepresentation. Nathan has often written and spoken about erroneous understandings of SBC Calvinists. Alvin has been misunderstood by more than one “cage-stage” seminarian or rabidly Reformed pastor. We cannot be truth-defenders if we are not truth-tellers. Too many Calvinists arrogantly dismiss many non-Calvinists as Arminians at best and Pelagians at worst. Too many non-Calvinists inappropriately brand Calvinism as hyper-Calvinism, “extreme” Calvinism, etc. This will not build a consensus, but it may destroy the Convention.

Finally, we should commit to disagree agreeably. We still have differing views of Calvinism, and that may be the case until we pass into the next life. But we genuinely appreciate each other and have each benefitted from our friendship. We do not think the other is a threat to the gospel or the Convention. We look forward to the day when both of our respective theological errors are forever left behind, but until that day we labor together despite our differences over secondary and tertiary issues.

We do not have to agree about Calvinism. But we also do not have to divide over Calvinism. Our prayer is that Southern Baptists will not become distracted by our differences, but rather will cooperate in our shared priorities: the gospel lived out in Baptist churches that share common core theological convictions and a passion for the Great Commission.

Some Thoughts on Calvinism and Cooperation

I originally blogged on this topic back in May of this year. It was part of a series of posts at my now-defunct personal blog. Every semester in my Baptist History and Distinctives course I spend the last hour or so of the final class meeting hosting a Q&A with the students. The students are allowed to ask me any question about the SBC itself, Baptist distinctives, theology, church life, etc. I promise them a straight answer to every question, though I do not promise they will like my answers! One of the questions I get every single semester (including this past week) is about the future of Calvinism in the SBC.

In light of the internet banter sparked by the recent John 3:16 Conference, I thought it would be appropriate for me to re-post my earlier article (with some minor revisions). Please note that this article was published months before the most recent round of debates and thus should not be interpreted as a direct response to either the conference itself or individual bloggers who have engaged this issue in recent weeks. Rather, it is best understood as my musings about the broader debate itself.

Q. Will the SBC split over Calvinism? (Variation: Do you think they will “kick out” all the Calvinists one day?)

A. The future of SBC Calvinism is actually a relatively complicated issue with implications for other issues. As I see it, there are at least four different Southern Baptist responses to Calvinism. Note that this taxonomy is concerned more with how someone reacts to Calvinism rather than how many “points” one affirms, though there is obviously some overlap between the two.

1. Some Southern Baptists are non-cooperative non-Calvinists. Some of these folks are simply revivalistic evangelicals who are fearful of the influence Calvinism will have on common practices and emphases. Others just despise Calvinist theology. Some non-cooperative non-Calvinists are Amyraldians (“4-point” Calvinists), but most of them appear to be classical Arminians, by which I mean non-Wesleyan Arminians with a high view of sin (though not total depravity), a belief in conditional or corporate election coupled with a general atonement, and an affirmation of some form of eternal security. Many of them would call themselves “1-point” or “2-point” Calvinists, if they use that type of language at all.

Non-cooperative non-Calvinists either see Calvinism as a threat to the Convention’s status quo or they believe Calvinism is the wrong solution to the Convention’s problems–maybe even a worse problem. Not all non-cooperative non-Calvinists want to see Calvinists leave the SBC, but most of them want to see Calvinism relegated to small churches with little intradenominational influence. They definitely do not want to see very many Calvinists receiving CP funds to plant churches (either domestically or internationally) or teach in seminaries and colleges. Many of them are opposed to the Abstract of Principles because they believe it is too Calvinistic. Others have no problem with the Abstract, so long as nobody actually interprets the words to mean what the drafters of the confession intended, particularly regarding unconditional election.

Non-cooperative non-Calvinists tend to misrepresent the convictions of Calvinists (Calvinists aren’t evangelistic) and use incorrect labels when discussing Calvinism (“hyper-Calvinism,” “militant Calvinism”). Though there are some well-known Southern Baptists that probably fit into this category, I suspect it is a minority position among well-read non-Calvinists. Non-cooperative non-Calvinism is an extreme position and is a threat to the future of the SBC itself, not just Calvinism within the Convention.

2. Some Southern Baptists are cooperative non-Calvinists. Like the above category, these folks can shake out anywhere between classical Arminianism and Amyraldianism, though I think it is safe to say there is a higher percentage of the latter in this category. Cooperative non-Calvinists do not agree with traditional Calvinism, especially limited atonement and often irresistible grace, and they do not want to see the SBC become a Calvinist-dominated denomination. But they do believe there is a place in the SBC for Calvinists, even in positions of leadership and influence. For many folks in this category, Calvinism is not a threat to the convention, but plays a prophetic role in speaking out against much of the silliness and shallowness in the SBC, even if Calvinism does not always provide the best solution for those problems.

Most of the non-Calvinist students I know fall into this category, as do a number of non-Calvinist professors at some of our seminaries and colleges. Most non-Calvinist pastors I know, especially those under age 50, fit in this category. The Building Bridges Conference last November was the brainchild of several cooperative non-Calvinists and at least one pastor in the following category. This is a reasonable position that will aid the Convention in building upon the foundation of the Conservative Resurgence as we move toward a Great Commission Resurgence.

3. Some Southern Baptists are cooperative Calvinists. These folks are consistent Calvinists, meaning they affirm all five points of Calvinism (though there may be intra-Calvinist debates about the best way to articulate some of the points, particularly limited atonement). Cooperative Calvinists want to see the influence of Calvinism grow within the SBC. They are excited by both the renewed interest in the soteriological convictions of many of our Southern Baptist forefathers and the creative interaction between contemporary Calvinistic Southern Baptists and other Calvinistic evangelicals. Cooperative Calvinists think that Calvinism offers some good solutions for some of the problems in the SBC, but they are willing to work together with cooperative non-Calvinists within the Convention’s framework.

Cooperative Calvinists are not interested in turning the SBC into a uniformly Calvinist denomination, though they would be delighted to see a tempering of some of the revivalism and pragmatism in the Convention. All of the Calvinists I know who work within the bureaucracy are cooperative Calvinists, as are the majority of the Calvinistic students and pastors I know. Several cooperative Calvinists participated in the Building Bridges last November. This is a reasonable position that will aid the Convention in building upon the foundation of the Conservative Resurgence as we move toward a Great Commission Resurgence.

4. Some Southern Baptists are non-cooperative Calvinists. Like the above category, these folks are consistent Calvinists. Unlike the above category, non-cooperative Calvinists are unwilling to join hands with those who do not share all or most of their theological convictions. For these folks, Calvinism is the gospel, and it is as simple as that. Furthermore, the SBC is an almost hopelessly Pelagian denomination that needs to be rescued from the coming wrath of God. Calvinism is the magic pill that will solve all the SBC’s ailments.

Though there are much fewer non-cooperative Calvinists than there are non-cooperative non-Calvinists (there are fewer Calvinists, after all), they probably comprise about the same percentage within SBC Calvinism that vocal non-cooperatives do among the non-Calvinists. Unfortunately, weblogs (especially the comment sections) create the illusion sometimes that this group is larger than it seems, much like the prominence of some non-cooperative non-Calvinists contributes to an exaggerated estimation of the size of that group.

I do know a handful of Calvinistic pastors who fit this bill. I also know some students that are like this, though I hold out hope that most of them are just immature new Calvinists. Thankfully, when most folks have this mentality they tend to leave the SBC and align with more uniformly Calvinistic groups, much like the separatist fundamentalists of an earlier generation. Non-cooperative Calvinism is an extreme position and is a threat to the future of the SBC itself.

Here’s the point of the above taxonomy: if Calvinism is to have a future in the SBC, then both extremes have to pipe down and play nicely or leave the Convention to align with other groups. The tragedy in this whole thing is the way that the different extremes feed off of each other. Many cooperative non-Calvinists have been driven to a non-cooperative position by personal interaction with a pugnacious Calvinist or two (often a staff member or fellow pastor who has recently become Calvinist). Many cooperative Calvinists have been mistreated or maligned by non-cooperative non-Calvinists, pushing them toward a non-cooperative Calvinist position. It is a vicious cyle that crops up in the Convention every few months. To be frank, it irritates the fire out of those of us who want to cooperate.

Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists have a legitimate claim to the Convention. Calvinists can rightly argue that their convictions are more consistent with earlier generations of Southern Baptists than many non-Calvinists. Amyraldians have pretty much always been around the SBC, though most of the early leaders were consistent Calvinists. Non-Calvinists can rightly argue that their convictions are more consistent with recent generations of Southern Baptists. Many non-Calvinists understandably tend to view Calvinism as a recent innovation rather than a resurgence. Both sides can rightly call upon history to buttress their arguments; they simply reference different points in history. Unfortunately, both sides sometimes oversimplify history.

Because the SBC was formed as a means for missionary Baptists to cooperate together in common mission endeavors, it is critical that non-cooperatives on all sides of this issue get with the program or find another place to call home. I mean no ill will; non-cooperative non-Calvinists would be more at home with Independent Baptists, and non-cooperative Calvinists would be more at home in “capital R” Reformed denominations and networks. This is because both groups are more interested in furthering their pet agenda and/or mandating conformity to their personal theological convictions rather than cooperating together to make disciples of all nations.

So to answer the original question: I do not think the SBC will divide over Calvinism, though it is possible if the extremes do not tone it down or move on. Think about the trend: As many as one-third of the SBC pastors and staff members who are recent seminary graduates are consistent Calvinists. That is not counting younger church leaders who did not graduate from seminary or have only a college education. That is not counting foreign missionaries, North American church planters, or professors, ministries toward which a disproportionately high number of Calvinists seem to gravitate. And that is not counting Amyraldians and other types of “four-point” Calvinists. In other words, Calvinism is becoming more influential in the SBC, which is why it is critical that Convention Calvinists be willing to cooperate and non-Calvinists be willing to let them do so. If this does not happen, then yes, we will divide over Calvinism. There will be no Great Commission Resurgence. And that will be a shame.