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10/21/97 4 Baptist academicians air views of Calvinism

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Four Baptist academicians amplified their views of Calvinism in an Oct. 15 dialogue at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala.
“If the gospel is so good, so beneficial, why do some people, perhaps a majority, not accept it?” asked Wake Forest University divinity school dean Bill J. Leonard in his opening remarks.
Calvinists, named for 16th-century theologian John Calvin, say it’s because they can’t, Leonard recounted; others, called Armenians after 16th-century theologian Jacob Armenius, say it’s because they won’t.
“Can’t or won’t, either way, they don’t,” Leonard said of “the age-old debate over predestination and free will.”
The Calvinism panel was part of Leonard’s three-day Dotson M. Nelson Jr. Lectures on Religion in Life at Samford on the theme, “Great Ideas That Divide Churches.” Leonard chaired Samford’s department of religion and philosophy before assuming the Wake Forest post one year ago.
Leonard was joined in the Calvinism dialogue by Samford’s Beeson Divinity School dean Timothy George and Samford professors Fisher Humphreys and Ralph Wood. The four, while having written and spoken previously on their differing views of Calvinism, are longtime friends of 20 years standing.
“We were friends before Calvin, and will be after Calvin,” said Leonard.
The five points of Calvinism formed the basis for the Samford discussion. Known by the TULIP acronym, they are: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints.
“You must decide what kind of Calvinist you want to be,” Leonard said, running down a list of a half-dozen categories, all varying slightly in description.
Leonard put Southern Baptists in the “Popular Calvinist” slot, in which, “You talk like a Calvinist, but act like an Armenian.”
The many questions that must be addressed in studying Calvinism include the sovereignty of God, the nature of human nature and who can be saved, Leonard said. Of the five points of Calvinism, he said, the idea of limited atonement may be one of the most difficult ideas for a generation, and a country, reared on democratic idealism.
Especially, what about the babies and people who have never heard the gospel? “Do non-elect infants go to hell the same as non-elect adults?” Leonard asked. “The question of the damnation of infants was and remains a significant question for Reform theology.”
Leonard speculated Calvin’s watchword would have been “back to the sources,” particularly Scripture.
“To study, struggle with and debate Calvinism compels us to ask, What texts are important, how do we read those texts and how do we interpret them? What do they mean to our era and what glasses do we wear in interpreting them?”
George said he is pleased Baptists are talking about Calvinism. “It’s a good, healthy sign that Baptists are grappling with what does it mean to be a Christian when other mainline denominations are dealing with such issues as the ordination of homosexuals,” he said.
Baptists are not Calvinists in many ways, said George, who noted many times the term is used in a pejorative way. “There are many things in Calvin’s theology that we think are wrong on the basis of our understanding of Scripture,” he said, citing differing views on infant baptism, congregational versus presbyterian form of church governance and separation of church and state.
“I prefer the term Reformed Baptists,” George said, noting it takes in the heritage of the reformation and maintains some Baptist distinctives.
George declined the personal label of “hyper-Calvinist,” one who believes in the doctrine of eternal justification, which can remove the urgency of repentance and faith and deny the universal offer of the gospel, possibly leading to anti-missionary teaching.
“But I am happy to be called an evangelical Calvinist,” said George, who said he prefers the term “overcoming grace” to the “more mechanical and impersonal sounding irresistible grace.”
“The message of the gospel is that God continues to call us in spite of our resistance,” George said.
Acknowledging Calvinism “could be true,” Humphreys called it “attractive, enormously biblical, conducive to humility and worship and a coherent theological system that holds together well.” It is a view that should be respected, he said, “because it tries to take seriously the God revealed in Scripture.”
“In the end, however, I haven’t been convinced,” Humphreys said, explaining the problems for him lie in the area of salvation and how it takes place.
“It’s difficult for me to think that God has decided that some would be saved and others not be, and that he has done this independently of any foreknowledge of how they might respond if the gospel is preached to them. Certainly, God is capable of deciding this in advance, but it is difficult for me to imagine that he would have done that,” Humphreys said.
“It is incomprehensible to think that God who gave his Son on the cross would not choose to save anyone he has made,” he said.
For Wood, Baptists belong to the central stream of the Reformation.
“Salvation is utterly God’s gift which we gladly and graciously acknowledge, receive and accept,” Wood said. “God places it before us and says, ‘It’s yours.’ You can walk off, but it remains yours even if you walk off.”
In the same way that people cannot choose their parents, Wood said, “God has made himself in Jesus Christ our adoptive parents. We cannot choose him as we can pretend our parents are not ours.”
Salvation is God’s declaring himself in Jesus Christ, Wood said, noting, “Our resistance of that good news is itself enabled by that good news.”
Regarding total depravity, Wood said he believes “it doesn’t mean that we’re total wretches, but that the extent of our depravity is total, and reaches to every aspect of our being,” including heads and hearts.

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  • Mary Wimberley