Fall 2013, Vol. 15, No. 1

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From the Editor:
The Anti-War Choir

Pope Francis Roars into Town

The Cardinals Knew What They Were Getting

Marriage Equality and Religious Liberty

The Calvinist Youth Movement

Congress Gets a None

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The Calvinist Youth Movement
by Roger Olson

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 months.”

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 grace.

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 themselves Calvinists.

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 evangelicals.

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 Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida. 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 Southern Baptists.

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 for.”

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.


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