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Calvinism debate cancelled, but serious discussion still resulted

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A much-anticipated Oct. 16 debate on Baptists and Calvinism was canceled when parties disagreed over last-minute changes involving the allocation of time, order of arguments and further use of the videotape.

Liberty Seminary President Ergun Caner and College at Southwestern Dean Emir Caner were set to debate Founders Ministries Director Tom Ascol and Alpha & Omega Ministries Director James White in the sanctuary of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.

Ascol and White are Calvinists while the Caners describe themselves as from the “general atonement Sandy Creek, Anabaptist-kinship” tradition.

The event was cancelled Oct. 8, and the reason for calling off the event itself was the subject of debate.

Controversy over Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention has been the subject of public discussion in several Southern Baptist forums this past year:

— Daniel L. Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and Malcolm B. Yarnell III, assistant dean for theological studies, director of the Center for Theological Research and associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, wrote differing opinions on T.U.L.I.P. (an acronym relating to the Doctrines of Grace that largely define Calvinism). These originally appeared in the Southern Baptist Convention’s journal SBC Life, and Baptist Press subsequently published them online. (Link to Yarnell’s column or Akin’s column or see URLs below.)

— On June 12, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, discussed Calvinism during two one-hour-long breakout sessions of the SBC Pastors’ Conference. The sessions, titled, “Reaching Today’s World Through Differing Views of Election,” drew standing room only crowds. (Link to the Baptist Press report or see URL below.)

— During the SBC annual meeting, June 13-14 in Greensboro, N.C., John S. Connell, senior pastor of Calvary in Savannah, Savannah, Ga., offered a motion asking the SBC Executive Committee to establish a committee to study the impact of Calvinism on Southern Baptists and to recommend any necessary actions.

Additionally, the first study released by the newly formed LifeWay Research, a department of LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC publishing arm, addressed Calvinism, finding the number of Southern Baptist pastors embracing five-point Calvinism to be relatively small (about ten percent), but that the conversations on Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention have brought renewed interest to the theological system. (Link to a Baptist Press article or see URL below).

White first issued a challenge to debate Ergun Caner after viewing interaction between the Caners and proponents of Reformed theology on the Founders Ministries website blog (see URL below).

The exchange between the Caners and bloggers on the Founders Ministries website followed several posts critical of Atlanta-area pastor Johnny Hunt. A string of posts began after Ascol listed questions Feb. 14 asking for bloggers to give inputs about the kind of person who would make a good SBC president, what process should be used to nominate candidates, whether multiple candidates would be healthy and for names of persons who would be good leaders. Ascol’s post followed rumors about the possible nomination of Johnny Hunt of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga.

Ascol’s original post eventually generated 372 comments. After bloggers wrote several negative comments about Hunt, Ascol clarified that he did not start the blog thread in order to criticize Hunt, and he discouraged negative posts about Hunt.

Ergun Caner weighed in two days later with a post that criticized Calvinists, saying Calvinists killed their churches with “sermons expounding the Westminster Confession.” Caner challenged the Calvinist bloggers to name a candidate of their choice, saying their nominee would “go down in flames as we enjoy another conservative who has not adopted semi-Presbyterianism.”

Within an hour, Ascol responded to the online discussion by criticizing the tone of Caner’s comments and saying that “unjustified accusations” raised many issues that “beg to be discussed further.”

“The kind of taunting that anticipates being ‘thrilled’ at watching a fellow Southern Baptist ‘go down in flames’ in a presidential election is simply not helpful either to further theological dialogue or to the kind of unity which I believe conservatives can have in the SBC despite our differences,” Ascol wrote.

Emir Caner defended his brother, suggesting those who objected to Ergun’s remarks had bought into his “sarcastic denunciation,” which Emir likened to Luther taking Erasmus to task.

Ascol characterized the posts by the Caners as “flame throwing comments.”

White charged that in a debate the Caners would throw out “every possible red herring” while “torching straw men left and right.”


The four men negotiated details for a proposed debate, going from a two-hour format preferred by Ascol and White to agreeing in May to two and one-half hours. In July, they agreed to lengthen the time to three hours to allow for cross-examinations and a brief intermission. The agreement allowed an opponent to interrupt certain speeches with a brief question but provided that the speaker could decline the question.

Even the style of debate was questioned. The Caners supported the recommendation of Brett O’Donnell — Liberty University’s debate coach — to follow a parliamentary model, which Ascol compared to the British House of Commons, joking that he was relieved he would not be expected to speak with a British accent, but adding that White might be persuaded to wear his kilt. Ultimately, a modified parliamentary format was adopted.

Originally, the Caner brothers proposed to debate, “Resolved: That God is an omnibenevolent God to all humanity through salvation and opportunity,” directing attention to a specific doctrinal difference. However, the four men agreed to “Baptists and Calvinism: An Open Debate” to allow the use of any Baptist or biblical material in presentations by speakers.

Ascol objected to the initial call for audience participation that allowed limited questioning of speakers. That issue was taken off the table and the time proposed for it added to the debate time, according to Ascol.


The debate appeared to be set until O’Donnell sent an Oct. 4 e-mail that set “the final details for the debate and are non-negotiable as they are based on what had been settled through earlier discussions.”

The formats outlined by Ascol and O’Donnell differ in two key areas. Both provided for two each of alternating affirmative and negative speeches — although O’Donnell pointed out that there really was neither an affirmative or negative position since the debate did not include a resolution statement (e.g. “Be it resolved …”), but only a topic. Both also provided for five minutes of cross-examination between speeches. However, Ascol included 20 minutes each for the speeches while O’Donnell scheduled only 15 minutes.

Both allowed for a brief intermission, followed by four 12-minute rebuttal statements, two each alternating the affirmative and negative position. However, Ascol proposed a five-minute cross-examination after each of the four statements, and O’Donnell offered no time for cross-examination. O’Donnell scheduled the rebuttals so that the affirmative position would be stated last.

O’Donnell explained his amendments were needed because Ascol’s format “will make the debate last much longer than three hours.”

“One need not be a mathematician to recognize that over one-half an hour of time was excised from the debate by moderatorial fiat,” Ascol wrote.

Ascol and White also objected to a “no use agreement” that gave exclusive rights to the recording and distribution of the debate to Liberty Broadcasting Network.

One week before the debate, Ergun Caner announced the cancellation on his website (see URL below), charging that White had backed out, that White refused to submit to moderator rules. Caner later explained that he had learned Oct. 6 that either Ascol or White, or both, objected to the rules outlined by O’Donnell.

Caner said, “My answer then is the same as my answer now. Whatever the moderator stipulated I would agree to.” He added that he was disappointed but not surprised by White’s refusal to accept O’Donnell’s changes.

White disputed the notion that the debate was cancelled over a small amount of time, saying the cross-examination time “was being diminished to the point of being irrelevant.” He also objected to the Caners’ insistence that the affirmative be given the first and last word.

On his website, White questioned the Caners’ intentions, writing, “Upon what basis could anyone trust that the debate would go forward as promised even if we agreed, yet again, to another modified format?” (See URL below).

Offering concluding thoughts on the debate, Emir Caner wrote, “Scripture cannot be boxed into one theological system — be it Calvinism, Arminianism, or otherwise. I would argue that it would be, shall we say, a pulpit crime to overlook the love of God that He has for all men,” Caner added, borrowing from the title of one of White’s books.

Emir Caner blamed the standoff on OCD: “Obsessive Calvinistic Disorder.”

White responded that he would rather have OCD than HAS: “Human Autonomy Syndrome.”

O’Donnell sent an e-mail Oct. 8 stating that he had spoken with Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell and they concurred. Because the two sides could not “agree on the terms of the debate in a spirit of compromise … the debate should not occur and therefore there will not be a debate on October 16 agreeing with the decision that was announced on Friday [Oct. 6] by Dr. White.”


Ergun Caner announced on his blog that he will post some of the material he would have used in the debate for those who struggle with the issue. “The preponderance of the evidence will show that Christ died for the world, and His omnibenevolence extends to whosoever will surrender and believe.”

White offers numerous files outlining his views on his website under the category of reformed apologetics. The Founders Ministries, which Ascol directs, provides many resources on Reformed Baptist teaching through their website. Emir Caner’s website links to www.baptisttheology.org where managing editor Malcolm Yarnell has posted his white paper on “The Heart of a Baptist,” which warns of an unhealthy tone in the Calvinist-Arminian debate.

Though frustrated by what he described as a fiasco, Ascol said, “It has provided a context and forum for some serious discussion about the doctrines of grace. It has called attention to Baptist theology.

“In this respect, I agree with Emir Caner when he writes, ‘It is never a waste of time to study theology — never.’”
Yarnell on T.U.L.I.P.: http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?ID=22971
Akin on T.U.L.I.P.: http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?ID=22970
Mohler & Patterson: http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?ID=23457
LifeWay study on Calvinism: http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?ID=23993
Founders Ministries blog: www.founders.org/blog
Ergun Caner: www.erguncaner.com
White: www.aomin.org
Emir Caner: www.emircaner.com

    About the Author

  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter