Hoping for Unity
In recent years the topic of “Calvinism” has been featured in a multitude of press articles (both religious and secular), blog posts, sermons, and personal conversations. This has been especially true within the confines of the Southern Baptist Convention. The coverage given to the topic has ranged from discussing the differences between historic “Calvinism” and hyper-Calvinism, the differences between being “Reformed Baptist” and a “Southern Baptist Calvinist,” and calls to either labor together or against those in the “Calvinist” camp. Several years ago Steve Lemke warned, “unchecked hyper-Calvinism” is “potentially the most explosive and divisive issue facing us [Southern Baptists] in the near future. . . . it holds the potential to split the entire convention.” To avert such a disaster, Drs. Paige Patterson and R. Albert Mohler, Jr. held breakout sessions during the 2006 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference. They discussed their differences regarding the doctrine of election while emphasizing the fact that Christians (particularly Southern Baptists) may remain friends (and Southern Baptists) who are unified in the goal of evangelism and missions even while they disagree. Patterson noted of the discussion, “I do hope…we will provide at least an example on that point, if on no other.” Mohler pointed to former stalwarts of the faith – such as John Wesley and George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon and Dwight L. Moody – who disagreed over the doctrines of election and predestination yet considered the others as fellow Christians and labored with them in evangelism.
While it was the hope of this particular chaplain that Christians, particularly Southern Baptists, would follow this genial example, some attending the Patterson-Mohler sessions viewed them as too friendly. For example, Ken Massey, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Greensboro, North Carolina, stated, “I thought the debate was a little too collegial to be helpful.” He added, “I don’t know, but I suspect that there is some significant division regarding Calvinism in the SBC. The turnout [here] is evidence of this.” Further evidence of division was seen clearly as Joel McDuffie, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Valparaiso, Florida, wrote an article expressing strong doubts about the validity of sixteenth-century evangelical reformer, John Calvin, even being saved. In an inflammatory fashion he also condemned “Calvinists” as those who are “fighting all of scripture” because their theology “contradicts the heart of everything revealed in scripture.” Tom Ascol, who is also a Southern Baptist pastor in the Sunshine State as well as a “Calvinist,” responded to the article on his blog. McDuffie had absolutely no desire for dialogue, choosing instead to fire off vitriolic e-mails in response. That same year Ergun Caner, former dean of the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, went so far as to declare, “Calvinists are worse than Muslims!” Christian kindness and civility, urged by Patterson and Mohler (not to mention being a command for Christians in Holy Scripture), was dismissed in favor of lobbing verbal grenades. After all, vitriol grabs the headlines and spikes the blog hits, whereas civility goes largely unnoticed and may even be considered “boring.”
The year prior to the Patterson-Mohler sessions, Jack Graham, senior pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, preached a message entitled, “The Truth About Grace” in which he declared: “There is a brand of elitist theology that is being taught aggressively today in some seminaries and Christian universities, some churches, well known Christian ministries. A brand of arrogant theology that claims that God only loves the elect and that the rest of the world is without a prayer, without a hope, without a chance to know this grace of God. And this perverted form and theology—this hyper view of the grace of God—is an abuse of Scripture. . . . That slanders the character of God. It is an arrogance that borders on blasphemy.” While he didn’t mention it by name, there is no doubt Graham had The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in mind with his verbal broadsides. Under Mohler’s leadership, the institution has returned to teaching the theology mandated by its charter and confession of faith. Ironically, while “Calvinism” has always been a part of both mainstream evangelical orthodoxy and Southern Baptist theology, Graham ignores this while embracing those holding outright heretical views, such as modalist T. D. Jakes and “prosperity gospel” advocates Paul and Jan Crouch. One wonders why Graham is willing to be civil to those holding heretical theology while slandering fellow orthodox believers in Christ.
Not all non-Calvinists within Southern Baptist life have been seeking to push aside their fellow Christians and enhance division. A fine example of this was evident in 2007, when LifeWay hosted a conference which was co-sponsored by leaders from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Founders Ministries – “Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism” conference. Approximately 550 registrants listened carefully as SBC pastors, professors, theologians and historians presented varying assessments of the benefits and dangers posed by the growing influence of Calvinistic convictions in convention life. David Dockery, president of Union University, urged Southern Baptists who differ about Calvinism to concentrate on their common convictions, as Whitefield and Wesley did during the Evangelical Awakening. Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at SBTS, said these common 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. Concerning Calvinists, Nettles noted, “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.”
Unfortunately, the tragic irony of which Nettles spoke began unfurling during the conference as Malcolm Yarnell lobbed theological grenades. Despite claiming “average Southern Baptists” who are “non-Calvinists…treasure Calvinist Baptists” and “believe it decorous to grant one another ‘the appellation of brother,” the theology professor called upon his Reformed brethren to “publicly refute the errors of Classical Calvinism” advocated by the likes of Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin, and codified in such documents as the Helvetic confessions, the Belgic Confession, the canons of the Synod of Dort, the Westminster Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism.
Yarnell claimed erroneously that the “missionary theology of Andrew Fuller and the passionate evangelism of William Carey are inspiring, precisely because these men forsook …rigid Calvinism” and departed from “strict Reformed Theology.” Confusing Classical Calvinism with hyper-Calvinism, Yarnell asserted the sixth article of the New Hampshire Confession is “non-Calvinist” in its declaration that “the blessings of salvation are made free to all by the Gospel; that it is the immediate duty of all to accept them by a cordial, and obedient faith; and that nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner on earth except his own voluntary refusal to submit to the Lord Jesus Christ, which refusal will subject him to an aggravated condemnation.” Had Yarnell been more familiar with the canons of Dort, for example, he could have avoided this stereotypical assertion.
Still, the conference was viewed positively by many who attended. Dr. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, inquired during one of the sessions, “So, will we Southern Baptists live or will we die? Will we come together for life or fracture apart in death?” He answered: “As for me, I prefer to come together for life, but my honest concern is that too many others prefer to fracture for the sake of being ‘traditional Baptists.’ If such a fracture is forced, so be it, but unless and until that time comes, I will imitate David and ‘Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. . . . Commit [my] way to the LORD, and trust also in Him. . . . Cease from anger, and forsake wrath; [I will] not fret–it only causes harm”’ (Psalm 37).
To be continued.