News Articles

Jesse Fletcher: Calvinism is longstanding Baptist dispute

AUSTIN, Texas (BP)–The question has given rise to the oldest continuing controversy among Baptists, and particularly during the 150-year history of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Jesse Fletcher:
Did Jesus die for everyone or for only a few?
While enormously important to the future of Texas Baptists, the controversy over Calvinism “has been a relatively genteel one, as Baptist battles go, but is not without its passions,” Fletcher, chancellor of Hardin Simmons-University, Abilene, Texas, told the annual meeting of the Texas Baptist Historical Society Nov. 10 in Austin.
He added, “… as is in the case of most such battles, each side has a measure of truth from which to make its case.”
Fletcher is the author of “The Southern Baptist Convention: A Sesquicentennial History,” published a year before the 1995 SBC celebration by the Baptist Sunday School Board’s Broadman & Holman division.
A friend asked why he chose to present a paper to the historical society on such an “esoteric subject” as Texas Baptists and Calvinism, Fletcher recounted. He said he replied that it is becoming more important among Southern and Texas Baptists.
The issue of Calvinism has existed ever since Baptists began in England, he said, and the “fault line between Calvinism and Arminianism … periodically resurfaces” as a significant controversy.
Fletcher traced Calvinism from its beginnings in the 1530s in Geneva when Frenchman John Calvin developed an exhaustive and “tightly reasoned” system which he wrote as the Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Calvinism has “five high particulars that theological students have memorized for years with the acronym TULIP,” Fletcher explained: “total depravity of man, unconditional election of some to salvation, limited atonement, irresistible grace implied by the foregoing, and perseverance of the saints.” He said Calvinism originally included a church-controlled state (theocracy) and infant baptism.
While Calvinism was at first “pervasive among English Puritans and Separatists (Baptists),” English Baptists “soon moved away from Calvinism’s limited atonement to Joseph Arminius’ general atonement concepts,” Fletcher said.
General atonement, he said, holds that Jesus died for all, that grace is free to anyone who will receive it and that people have the right to refuse God’s grace.
Calvinism had an impact on early American Baptists, but Fletcher said they “tended toward a modified Calvinism or a general atonement framework.”
The New Hampshire Confession of Faith adopted by Regular Baptists in 1833, he said, reads that the “blessings of salvation are made free to all by the gospel … that nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner on earth except his own voluntary refusal … .”
Southern Baptists, in the course of their 150-year history, “have clearly moved away from Calvinism … to a free grace, full atonement position that fit their missionary and evangelistic culture,” Fletcher said. “Texas Baptists have had a significant part in the development of that missions and evangelism culture.”
Two Texas Baptists — B.H. Carroll and L.R. Scarborough – – were leaders in the effort to turn Baptists toward “a general atonement spirit and a resistible grace evangelism equation,” Fletcher said.
Noting Calvinism has re-emerged as a point of contention among Baptists in recent years, Fletcher said, “When the inerrancy movement broke upon Southern Baptists in the late 1970s and marched resolutely toward dominance in 1990, a number of Calvinists were among its leadership because most Calvinists are inerrantists.
“Yet, as became evident, very few inerrantists are Calvinists,” Fletcher said, quoting Larry Lewis, former president of the then-Home Mission Board, as saying, “Calvinism can be a death blow to missions and evangelism” and former SBC President Bailey Smith saying he does not believe “God elects anybody to be lost.”
Fletcher also quoted former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor R. Cal Guy, whom he called a leader in the conservative resurgence, as saying “God does not send anybody to hell; it is their choice.”
Fletcher said a “group of young theologians organized themselves 1972 as the Founders Conference, dedicated to calling Southern Baptists back to Calvinism.”
The original group, he said, included Thomas Ascol, Tom Nettles, R. Albert Mohler Jr. and Timothy George.
“Ascol, a Florida pastor, and Nettles, a theological professor, are not well-known names in recent Baptist battles, but Mohler and George are,” Fletcher said, explaining Mohler was editor of the Georgia Baptist state newspaper and since has become president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., and George is a former professor at Southern Seminary and currently dean at Beeson School of Divinity at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala.
Fletcher said Calvinism “has in fact been the theology of choice for a very limited, but elite few who, in turn, find and faithfully disciple other like-minded young theologians.”
However, Fletcher added, that may have changed with Mohler’s ascension as president of Southern, his bringing in of Calvinists to the faculty, including Nettles, and “his call for a return to Reform theology.”
In recent days, two other theologians, W.R. Estep of Southwestern and Fisher Humphreys of Beeson, have “joined the fray,” Fletcher said.
He quoted Estep as saying “a continued movement” toward Calvinism “would put Southern Baptists ‘on the dunghill’ in American society.” He quoted Humphreys as saying that the “purpose of the SBC — missions and evangelism — is in direct opposition to the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional predestination.”
In contrast, Fletcher quoted Mohler as predicting that as “Southern Baptists seek to recover our theological inheritance and the essence of biblical Christianity, I believe we will see a return to a more Calvinistic understanding of the gospel and a recognition of the absolute sovereignty of God.”
He added Mohler said the move toward Calvinism would “lead to a blazing recovery of missionary zeal and evangelistic fervor — and the renewal of the church.”
Fletcher, as an unwritten aside, told participants he was “resisting the impulse to say if it did, it would be a historical first.”
He credited Texas Baptists with leading in the creation of a culture in which missions and evangelism are key tenets, and said Texas has very few high-profile Calvinists.
“It is my feeling that the paucity of Calvinistic adherents in this state is probably a direct legacy of the missions and evangelism culture which has dominated Texas Baptist history.” Fletcher said he is not a five-point Calvinist because he has “reservations about John’s Calvin’s theocracy and strict election.”
“I am deeply committed to religious liberty and feel Christ died not only for me but for all people and that I freely chose to trust him. While I understand the devastation of sin on all persons, I feel God’s reconciling work in Christ is efficient and effectual for anyone who responds in repentance and faith.
“My confidence and security as a believer is based upon his promises.”

    About the Author

  • Dan Martin