Calvinism in the SBC: What to do? Build or burn bridges?

(I posted this on my personal blog (Semper Reformanda), but I thought the CRM reader might be more conversant with some of these issues, particularly within the Southern Baptist Convention. Hence, I share it here as well.)

I’m sharing with you (first) a “Letter to the Editor” type letter I wrote that appears in this week’s SBTexan (1/21/2008), “the Newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.”

It is in response to recent coverage of the “Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism” conference (audio). However, they also printed a letter expressing sentiment much different than my own in the same issue. I’ll share it (second) as well as a few comments in response.

I want to commend the SBTexan on publishing more than one perspective on this issue.

Calvinism coverage helpful

Thanks so much for your recent articles about the conference dealing with the question of Calvinism in the SBC (Dec 24 TEXAN). In an era of divisiveness theological hostility, it’s encouraging to see my beloved SBC lovingly discussion a topic such as Calvinism.

Although Spurgeon labeled it a “nickname” for the Gospel, Calvinism is often caricatured and vehemently attacked. Calvinists are not allowed define Calvinism and attackers often display a lack of openness to some of the more “difficult” passages.

Some will be concerned that the percentage of those embracing Reformed theology has been increasing for decades (particularly among younger pastors), but others (myself included) see this as a natural outgrowth of the diligence done in the past to herald the authority of the Bible, it’s inerrancy and sufficiency.

Add to this the affection for expository preaching and new generations are trying to let the text speak for itself, even passages that don’t readily fit into our way of seeing things (e.g., Gen 50:20; 1 Sam 2:25; Prov 21:1; John 6:44; Acts 13:48; 16:14; Eph 1:3-12; etc.).

Historically, we’ve had both the Reformed and the more Revivalistic within the SBC. I don’t expect that to change, but a conference like this helps us all to honestly approach those with whom we disagree without resorting to vitriolic rhetoric or labels of heresy.

Thanks for helping us better understand each other as both strive to honor Christ through the evangelization of the planet.

Eric “Gunny” Hartman, Pastor
Providence Church, Garland

Calvinism false doctrine

When it comes to false doctrines, what difference does the history of the SBC make? History, associations and friendships have nothing to do with it.

If the doctrine of ‘Total Depravity’ means that we are just as sinful as Satan can get us to be, I agree with it. If it means we cannot act toward God, it is refuted by Isaiah 45:22, which says, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God and there is none else.”

The doctrine of unconditional election is refuted by Jesus’ attempt to get through to even Judas Iscariot, the one who would betray him, at the Last Supper.

Limited atonement is also refuted by Isaiah 45:22, as well as 2 Peter 3:9.

Stephen refuted the doctrine of irresistible grace when he told the elders, scribes, the high priest and his accusers, “… ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.”

Preservation of the saints is the only doctrine that the Calvinists have gotten right.

Now there is one more question to be answered. “Can two walk together expect they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). My question is: why do we even want to walk together with proponents of false doctrines.

Joseph Regel, pastor
FBC Laneville

Since I have written previously on the issues of Calvinism & Hyper-Calvinism and the T.U.L.I.P., I defer to those treatments for extensive coverage. I will try to limit my response to Pastor Regel’s thoughts.

I appreciate Pastor Regel’s attempt to use Scripture as his basis for not liking Calvinism; that isn’t always the case. However, I would assert that his selections don’t do for him what he might think.

First, Isaiah 45:22 (or any other verse like it) does not refute “Total Depravity.” Just because we ought to do something, doesn’t mean we are able to do it. That’s his assumption, but he neglects the texts that assert we “cannot act toward God” apart from divine aid (e.g., John 6:44, 65). After the fall, humans lost not the obligation to love God with their entire being and others as themselves, but they lost the desire to do so, thanks to a heart that is desperately wicked (Jer 17:9). They can’t because they don’t want to, and that is the nature of the freedom/bondage of the will.

For further elaboration of the rationalistic assumption, I refer you to a nice tidbit about the deviations of Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism based on rational assumption. I also give you the following words of wisdom:

“To suppose that whatever God requireth of us that we have power of ourselves to do, is to make the cross and grace of Jesus Christ of none effect.”
-John Owen

Second, with regard to Judas and unconditional election, this is where I’d love for him to elaborate. I don’t see Jesus “attempt to get through to Judas Iscariot,” but rather Jesus provides us with the harsh reality that Judas is beyond saving–he’s destined for destruction, in order to fulfill Scripture (John 17:12).

Besides, Pastor Regel seems here to be arguing against election in general, not merely unconditional election in particular. The Arminian believes in election as well, and would believe that Jesus would already know the destiny of each individual, including Judas. The difference is that the Arminian believes God made that choice before the person was born, but in view to what the person would do in the future with regard to Christ. In other words, it’s conditional on how he/she would respond. The Calvinist believes the same, but that the choice is not conditioned on something in the person or that the person will do. Instead, it’s God’s prerogative that enables the person to respond to the Gospel, which He does for His elect.

Third, “limited atonement” is generally the highest hurdle with regard to acceptance of the so-called “5 Points,” and there are admittedly some passages that don’t seem to fit in that regard, at least not at a first glance. That being said, Isaiah 45:22 does not contribute much to this discussion, if anything. In fact, none of the “whosoever will” passages do.

The Bible is true. Whoever believes on the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved. Calvinists wouldn’t/shouldn’t deny that. The reality is, however, that the only ones who will come are those who have been chosen by the Father, as Christ’s sheep. They are the only ones who will know His voice and answer that call (John 10:2-5). That’s why He lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:11, 15). That’s why Christ died for His bride, the church (Eph 5:25).

The lingo “limited atonement” is not as helpful as it could be, for all except universalists “limit” the atonement in some form or fashion, in what it accomplishes and/or for whom it was accomplished. The Arminian limits the atonement in that Jesus didn’t save anyone, but merely made possible the salvation of those who have the opportunity to hear the Gospel and will respond appropriately. In that sense, none could have been saved or some could have, but nothing is certain. One might also make the case that the Arminian also limits the atonement in that Christ did not die for all the sins of everyone, for the sin of unbelief is not atoned for. If a person does not believe, then that person’s sins are not forgiven and the person must pay for them in hell. Consequently, those same sins are punished twice, once on the cross by Jesus and again by the person in hell.

The Calvinist limits the atonement in number also, but not in effectiveness. That is, it secured the salvation of the elect, the sheep, the church. In that sense, Jesus accomplished exactly what He set out to do, to redeem those given to Him by the Father.

More could be said on the doctrine of the extent of the atonement, but for the sake of brevity I will defer to J. I. Packer’s accessible Introduction to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ (which also deals with this issue).

With regard to 2 Peter 3:9 I will just say that there are many questions that need to be asked before we assume the meaning. First, who are the “you” being addressed that section? If it’s Christians or the elect, then you have no issues. Also, does this text mean that people perish and God can’t stop it (cf. Job 42:2; Ps 115:3, if He’s not willing that any should? Lastly, what promise (singular) is in view? God has promised salvation only to those who believe, so that is the group being addressed and the group for whom God will be faithful.

Honestly, this passage could get its own post, so I’ll leave it at that, but would be happy to dialog further in the comments section or direct you to other resources.

Fourth, this leads us to “irresistible grace,” which I think Pastor Regel doesn’t quite understand. But, in all fairness to him, the nomenclature doesn’t help, which is why I’m not a fan of some of the verbiage and have suggested alternatives.

Irresistible grace does not mean that no one can or will resist the Spirit. What it simply means is that God’s elect will come to Christ, in His way and in His timing. This is because he predestined them and will subsequently (effectually) call them and then justify them, etc. (cf. Rom 8:29-30). I might put it simply in the words of Jesus: “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:37).

Fifth, I’m glad we agree on something (i.e., preservation of the saints). But, I would probably muddy the waters by mentioning that eternal security is not the same thing as the “Perseverence/Preservation of the Saints.”

Finally, there are Calvinistic folks who ask the same question about the Arminians in the SBC, why would we want to keep them around? Why would Calvinists want to “walk together with proponents of false doctrines”?

I guess I’m one of those deluded enough to think that both can co-exist with mutual love and respect, but with an openness and willingness to be corrected when & where necessary, according to the Scriptures.

I don’t believe that the Calvinists in the SBC want to eliminate Arminians or non-Calvinists … okay, at least not all of the Calvinists anyway.

But, I do believe the Calvinists in the SBC want to be treated with respect and not have their view caricatured with straw men and ad hominem arguments.

I’m not campaigning, necessarily, for some Rodney King theology (“Why can’t we all just get along?”), as much as I am for Christian communication about theology. By Christian I mean in manner of presentation (i.e., irenic) as well as material used in argumentation (i.e., the Scriptures).

To that end I recommend Roger Nicole’s Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us.

As for my theology … Without God I am nothing. I am the tool by which He works His will.

About Eric "Gunny" Hartman

Gunny is pastor of Providence Church in Plano, TX, and has taught at Dallas Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has completed coursework for a PhD in Rhetoric at University of Texas at Arlington and tries to be a good father to his 4 kiddos, exhibited by coaching a girls soccer team.


One thought on “Calvinism in the SBC: What to do? Build or burn bridges?

  1. >Pastor Regel’s short response was definitely frustrating to read. First let me say that I understand that you must be brief in formats like that so no one expects a full exegetical treatment of the passages he mentioned. However, contradicting a doctrine by stating ‘this single verse contradicts this doctrine’ and then moving on is pretty poor. We need to get away from this sort of proof texting. Read Isaiah 45. Great passage if you’re studying the doctrine of God, not so great a passage if you’re looking to turn all of Romans on its head. We should really take these concepts book by book. What is this author saying about this? Then move on to other passages but not in a way that snatches a single verse out of its context and acting as if that refutes entire doctrines such as total depravity and particular redemption.

    Posted by Jeff Wright | January 26, 2008, 12:57 pm

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