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Calvinism examined in its Baptist context

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–The rise of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention was variously described as a cause for rejoicing and concern and as a movement that should be understood in its proper historical context, speakers said during a Nov. 26-28 conference on Reformed theology and the SBC.

Roughly 550 registrants listened carefully as leading Southern Baptist historians, theologians, professors and pastors offered sometimes sharply differing assessments of the benefits and dangers posed by the growing influence of Calvinist convictions in Southern Baptist churches.

“Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism” was co-sponsored by Founders Ministries and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. Founders Ministries formed in 1982 to advance Reformed theology in SBC churches.

Southern Baptists have been shaped by many streams of faith and practice, including Calvinism, said David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

“Have Southern Baptists been Calvinists? The answer is yes and no,” Dockery said. “If you ask our Wesleyan or Arminian friends, they say yes without hesitation, for they make the dividing line along the issue of eternal security and anyone who holds to eternal security, from their perspective, is a Calvinist of some type. On the other hand, if you mean have the majority of Southern Baptists been consistent five-point Calvinists, I think the answer is no.”

As part of the session titled “The Historical Record,” Dockery traced the flow of Calvinist convictions into Baptist life, first in England and then in the United States, by focusing on the ways successive Southern Baptist leaders adopted, modified or reacted against Calvinism. Today’s Southern Baptist debate about Calvinism is hampered, he said, by a general ignorance of Baptist history.

“We cannot say there is one stream that has made us. We find ourselves shaped by fundamentalists, by revivalists, by evangelicals and by Calvinists,” Dockery said. “We are at a time when we need to understand who we are, where we have been and where we are going. By and large, we don’t understand our heritage.”

Dockery urged Southern Baptists who differ about Calvinism to focus on their common convictions, citing the 18th-century friendship of George Whitefield and John Wesley during America’s Great Awakening.

Whitefield and Wesley had opposite convictions about Calvinism, “yet they were best friends, colleagues, co-laborers together for the cause of the Gospel,” Dockery said. “We can learn lessons here in this bridge-building effort, find ways to advance in the Gospel and the cause of Christ.”

Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said Calvinist convictions extend beyond the familiar five points to doctrines that Baptists feel strongly about.

“Calvinism has within it a core of doctrinal beliefs not unique to Calvinism, but enthusiastically espoused by Baptists who may yet have some misgivings about the other doctrines,” Nettles said.

Those convictions include the inspiration of Scripture, Trinitarian theology, substitutionary atonement, religious liberty, missions and evangelism, Christ-centered preaching, holiness of life and regenerate church membership.

“It can hardly be denied that those issues which mark Southern Baptists so strongly historically found vocal and articulate advocates from Calvinistic ranks,” Nettles said. “In contemporary Southern Baptist life, among their strongest defenders will be Calvinists. What a tragic irony it would be if those who birthed the convention and fostered its foundational strength with such firmly grounded theology should now be seen as enemies of missions effectiveness in the world.”

Malcolm Yarnell, assistant dean of theological studies and associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, noted that while the first Baptists in England developed in a Calvinist context, they nevertheless had significant doctrinal differences with the Reformed churches.

The “classical” Calvinism of the 16th century advocated doctrines unacceptable to Baptists: the baptism of infants, sacraments as means of grace and an amillennial view of the end of the world, among other doctrines, Yarnell said in the session titled “Calvinism: A Cause for Rejoicing, a Cause for Concern.” By the same token, he added, 16th-century Calvinism would reject Baptist emphases such as adult baptism and being born again, and would be uncomfortable with evangelicals talking about a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ.

Baptists today would benefit from recognizing that both classical Calvinism and modern hyper-Calvinism add “speculative doctrines and extra-biblical distinctions” to biblical faith, Yarnell said. “To argue, like the hyper-Calvinists, that sinners should not be freely offered the Gospel nor invited to respond with faith and repentance is anathema to a missionary Baptist.”

Jeff Noblit, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Muscle Shoals, Ala., said a resurgence of Calvinist doctrines would help Southern Baptists reclaim a sagging conviction in the sufficiency of Scripture and would promote true evangelism.

“The rise of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention will help us overcome inerrancy idolatry and reclaim the sufficiency of Scripture in our churches,” Noblit said. “Holding to the inerrancy of the Scriptures without at least an equal passion and commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture for all faith and practice is sheer idolatry.”

While some portray Calvinism as a danger to evangelism and missions, the lack of baptisms in thousands of Southern Baptist churches cannot be blamed on Calvinist convictions, Noblit said.

Southern Baptists apparently have millions of church members who “walked to the front of the church building, repeated somebody’s prayer, but the fruit of their lives does not look like biblical conversion,” he said. “I believe the Spirit of God illumines and awakens people and we rush them into prayer and baptism before they ever get to repentance and faith.”

The faith and practice of many Southern Baptist churches is contrary to scriptural doctrine -– and the challenge of building a bridge to connect them all might not be a good idea or even be possible, Noblit said.

“There are some bodies of water men have never even thought of building bridges across,” he said. “No one has ever suggested building a bridge from New York City to Liverpool, England. The divide is just too great.

“I think building bridges is a noble task, and I am very thankful for the effort,” Noblit said. “But I am not embracing some things I see under the broad tent of Southern Baptists.”
Mark Kelly is a freelance writer based in Gallatin, Tenn. Audio podcast downloads of all the presenters at the “Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism” conference are available at www.lifeway.com/insidelifeway.

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  • Mark Kelly