Every summer the national news media go into buzz mode when the Southern
Baptist Convention (SBC) meets. At this year’s meeting in Houston June
11-12, much of the buzz was about the rise of Calvinism in the SBC and the
statement of a special committee appointed by the president of the
denomination’s Executive Committee to deal with the issue.
“Some of the theological differences
between Calvinists and non-Calvinists [in the SBC] can get pretty far into
the weeds,” wrote the AP’s Travis Loller June 7, “but what may seem an
arcane controversy has become very heated, especially over the past few
The rise of Calvinism in the wider
evangelical world over the past couple of decades has hardly been a
secret. In 2006, Christianity Today published a detailed account of the
movement. In 2009, Time identified “The New Calvinism” as one of 10 ideas
changing the world “right now.”
According to polls taken by LifeWay
Research, a division of the SBC, about 30 percent of SBC pastors now
consider their churches Calvinist. About 60 percent are concerned about the
impact of Calvinism in the denomination.
Among pastors aged 18 to 44, 18 percent identified as strongly Calvinist,
whereas only one percent of those over 65 so identified—numbers that will
not surprise anyone who has been paying attention to the phenomenal upsurge
of Calvinism among twenty-something evangelicals. Several Southern Baptist
seminaries (as well as non-SBC evangelical seminaries) are pumping out
Calvinist graduates by the hundreds. Indeed, the new Calvinism is sometimes
called the “Young, Restless, Reformed Movement,” after the title of a book
written by Collin Hansen in 2008.
Within the SBC, tensions between
Calvinists and non-Calvinists have been rising for over a decade. One
catalyst is the common complaint that candidates for pastoral positions in
churches are not revealing their strong Calvinist beliefs until after they
are called (hired). Only then do they reveal their Calvinism and often, so
the complaint goes, attempt to impose it on the congregation.
In most of these cases, the
congregations are not already Calvinist and the frequent result is a divided
congregation. Non-Calvinists cry “foul!” and attempt to warn
congregations—not only about sneaky candidates for pulpits but often about
Calvinism in general.
What is this Calvinism that is capturing
the hearts and minds of the rising generation of SBC leaders?
In fact, it has almost as many varieties
as people who espouse it. To make matters more confusing, the term is often
used synonymously with “Reformed” theology, even though many scholars object
and distinguish the two. Let’s begin with the latter.
What the more than 100 denominations that belong to the World Communion of
Reformed Churches have in common is some consciousness of descending from
the 16th-century Protestant reformers who were neither Lutheran nor
“radical” (Anabaptist). They emphasize the sovereignty of God and infant
baptism as the Christian equivalent of circumcision in the “older covenant”
that God established with the Hebrew people. It is seen as a sign and seal
of being included in the people of God.
Although some Baptist churches call
themselves Reformed (there exists a national network of Reformed Baptist
Churches), most of the historic Reformed churches argue that churches that
only baptize adults cannot truly be Reformed.
Calvinism, for its part, is usually
associated with belief in certain doctrines historically promoted by some
within the Reformed tradition. Named after the influential 16th-century
reformer of Geneva John Calvin, it is often characterized doctrinally by the
acronym “TULIP”—Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement,
Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. But many Calvinists do
not subscribe to the entire TULIP program, embracing some or all of the
doctrinal positions to varying degrees.
But the essence of Calvinism is God’s
absolute sovereignty over everything, above all over who will and will not
be saved. “Predestination” is the key: God selects certain
individuals to be saved and (even if only by neglect) others to be damned
forever. Christ died only for the former and they cannot resist God’s saving
If this thumbnail of Calvinism admits of
numerous variations and qualifications, the same can be said of
“non-Calvinism,” the term favored by those in the SBC who do not call
Historically and theologically, the main Protestant alternative to Calvinism
is Arminianism (named after the 17th-century Dutch theologian Jacob
Arminius). Most SBC people eschew that label, however, because they
(wrongly) identify it with the Wesleyan theology of Methodism and its
offshoots. Methodists have historically subscribed to two doctrines foreign
to the SBC: entire sanctification, also known as “Christian perfection,” and
apostasy, the possibility of losing salvation.
Within the SBC and much of contemporary
evangelicalism, non-Calvinists embrace the core Arminian belief that God
does not select certain individuals to be saved apart from their free will
decisions to repent and believe. They believe that God foreknows who will
freely choose his saving grace but does not impose it on them—that Christ
died for all people equally and all who hear the gospel message have the
ability to resist as well as to embrace it.
In other words, in the view of the
non-Calvinists, nobody is drawn irresistibly into salvation. This is the
central issue that divides them from Calvinists in the SBC and elsewhere.
Contrary to the impression of many
people, including in the media, wrangling over God’s sovereignty in
salvation is nothing new for Baptists. Indeed, they have been debating
Calvinist doctrine almost since their beginning.
The first Baptist churches were founded
in the Netherlands by English exiles in 1610 and 1611. The founders were
separatist English Puritans—Congregationalists who rejected the Church of
England, its bishops, and the Book of Common Prayer. Unlike other separatist
Puritans, they also rejected infant baptism in favor of “believer baptism.”
They were by all accounts non-Calvinists.
But back in England 40 years later,
Calvinist Baptist churches were popping up all over the landscape. Their
members were known as Particular Baptists because they believed in
“particular election” and “particular atonement”—that God chooses who will
be saved and Christ died only for the elect. Those Baptists who followed the
founders in believing in free will were known as General Baptists because
they believed Christ died “generally” for all people.
This dispute over predestination and
free will has been the major division among Baptists ever since. Of the
dozens of Baptist denominations in North America alone, some are officially
“free will” and reject Calvinism, while others are officially Calvinist and
affirm four or five points of TULIP. Still others consciously choose to
allow both views and have pastors that preach TULIP, pastors that preach
against it, and pastors that just ignore it. The SBC has historically been
of the last variety.
Both Calvinist Baptists and
non-Calvinist Baptists can point to great Baptist heroes of the past who
were of their persuasion. Perhaps the favorite Calvinist Baptist hero is the
19th-century English preacher Charles Spurgeon, whose sermons are studied
and imitated by Baptists of all kinds. But while Spurgeon sometimes
identified Calvinism with the gospel himself, he could also be generous to
non-Calvinists. One of his favorite prayers was “O God, save all the elect,
and then elect some more!”
Non-Calvinist Baptists like to point to
Billy Graham, the greatest Baptist revivalist of all time. Graham, so they
argue, has always preached a non-Calvinist gospel that at least implies that
“everyone within the sound of his voice” can freely accept Jesus Christ as
his or her personal savior merely by making a decision.
What are the recent roots of the current
SBC (and wider evangelical) controversy over Calvinism?
Around 1980, many American evangelical
theologians and pastors became convinced that a heresy called
Semi-Pelagianism had taken over their churches—including conservative ones.
Semi-Pelagianism is the very non-Calvinist belief that human persons
can and must take the initiative in salvation, that God waits to see the
exercise of a good will toward God in persons and then reaches out to them.
Some have called this “Touched by an
Angel” theology—a theology of salvation promoted by folk religious beliefs
as well as the entertainment media. It was condemned as heretical in the
sixth century and ever since orthodox Christian groups have affirmed that
the initiative in salvation is God’s, not the human person’s.
“Seeker-sensitive worship,” megachurches
(Willow Creek and its imitators), popular methods of evangelism, “praise and
worship choruses,” revivalism—all seemed to Calvinists to threaten the
historic Christian consensus about the all sufficiency of God’s grace. They
seemed “anthropocentric”—human-centered—rather than God or grace-centered.
Several influential evangelical and
Baptist theologians and pastors began to network with each other to correct
this popular trend. Many of them regarded stout Calvinism of the five-point
variety as its only antidote and attempted to revive the spirit of the great
18th-century Puritan preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards among
Foremost among these was (and is) John
Piper, the Baptist theologian and preacher whose books pour forth by the
dozens and sell by the millions. Piper earned a doctorate in New Testament
from the University of Munich and taught at evangelical Baptist Bethel
University in Minnesota before taking the pulpit of Bethlehem Baptist Church
in Minneapolis. His influence on the Young, Restless, Reformed
Movement is incalculable.
Other evangelical leaders, some Baptist
and some not, organized or worked individually to revive and spread the
gospel of Calvinism. Groups such as CURE (Christians United for Reformation)
and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals published magazines such
as Modern Reformation to promote Calvinist tenets.
World magazine, the evangelical alternative to Time (so some of its fans
say) edited by Marvin Olasky, leans heavily toward Calvinism. Individual
radio preachers, conference speakers,
and authors such as John Macarthur and James Montgomery Boice have worked
hard to turn American evangelicalism toward Calvinism.
One Southern Baptist who has been at the
center of this whole effort is Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist
Seminary in Louisville, the SBC’s flagship school for pastors. Mohler
was one of the younger leaders of the “fundamentalist takeover” of the SBC
in the 1970s and at times he has seemed to regard promoting Calvinism as a
logical extension of that struggle. Since becoming president of Southern in
1993, he has hired almost only Calvinists to the faculty, and has
consistently provided aid and comfort to all those evangelicals who have
been working tirelessly to promote the cause.
In 1999, World published a column by Edward Plowman on Founders Ministries,
a group within the SBC led by leading
Calvinist Tom Ascol, senior pastor of
Founders Ministries, which organizes conferences and publishes The
Founders Journal, is dedicated to returning the SBC to what its members
claim are the denomination’s Calvinist origins.
The SBC was created in 1845 when the
body that encompassed Baptists in both North and South decided that its
missionaries could not own slaves. While it is generally accepted that most
of the founders were Calvinists of some kind, it is debatable that they all
subscribed to TULIP, as the Founders Ministry people suggest.
Most SBC historians (and historians of
the Baptist tradition who are not SBC) agree that Calvinism was strong in
the SBC in the 19th century but waned in the 20th, thanks in significant
measure to the influence of revivalism.
Revivalists often use non-Calvinist
language to win converts—for example, by asking people to “make a choice”
for Christ. But Baptists were not always enthusiastic about revivalism, and
Calvinistic Baptists were the least enthusiastic. As widespread as it was
in 19th-century America, revivalism thus had a delayed effect on
Eventually, however, it succeeded in
putting Calvinism on the defensive and nearly drowning it out. Focused on
evangelization, most SBC pastors turned toward non-Calvinism, preaching to
one and all that Christ had died for them and that if they chose to
accept Christ they could and would be saved.
Yet for all the ebb and flow of
Calvinism and non-Calvinism, the SBC always agreed to let the two
sides disagree, so long as they adhered to the larger, unifying themes of
evangelical theology: that the Bible is God’s inspired Word, that Jesus
Christ is God incarnate, and that salvation is by grace through faith and
involves a personal decision of repentance and faith (conversion).
The Baptist Faith & Message, the SBC
doctrinal statement that was revised most recently in 2000, teaches neither
Calvinism nor non-Calvinism. Voices on both sides, however, claimed that
certain phrases in it support their side. As a result, in 2012, SBC
Executive Committee president Frank Page appointed a 19-member “Calvinism
Advisory Committee” consisting of different types of Calvinists and
non-Calvinists, and including pastors, professors, and lay people.
Charged with drafting a common statement
were two SBC heavyweights: Mohler, the staunch Calvinist, and Eric Hankins,
the non-Calvinist pastor of the First Baptist Church of Oxford, Mississippi.
The 3,200 word statement offered to this year’s convention for response was
titled “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension.”
The statement admits differences of
theology over Calvinism within the SBC and encourages both sides to engage
in dialogue without rancorous debate. Among other exhortations, it
urges Calvinist and non-Calvinist pastoral candidates alike to reveal their
theologies completely to pulpit committees. In line with SBC tradition, the
overall thrust of the statement is that the SBC needs to remain united in
fellowship and evangelism in spite of ongoing differences of opinion over
the secondary doctrines of free will and predestination.
The messengers in Houston received the
statement enthusiastically. Typical was the response of Denny Burk,
associate professor of biblical studies at Southern Baptist-related
Boyce College: “This is just the kind of unity statement that I was hoping
But not everyone was on board.
“Cooperation is not the driving force for our convention it is
Truth,” commented North Carolina blogger Tim Rogers. Indeed, it is doubtful
that the peace and unity statement will prevail.
The SBC is shrinking in membership and
declining in cultural clout, and its recent evangelization initiative, the
Great Commission Resurgence, has been a bust. Calvinism, which proposes that
salvation is for the few not the many, may just be a better fit than
non-Calvinism for the SBC today.
Moreover, given the generational divide,
non-Calvinists know that if they do not reverse the trend, they will lose
the argument simply by attrition. It’s a fair bet that between the fears of
the old and the enthusiasm of the young, anti-Calvinists and Calvinists will
continue to press their cases aggressively.
Baptists are, I’m afraid, genetically programmed to fight. And when it comes
to the mechanics of salvation, they’ve always had plenty to fight about.