Southern Baptists and Calvinism (pt. 1)

In the August issue of SBC Life Morris Chapman comments on the discussion concerning the Baptist Faith and Message at the 2007 Convention in San Antonio. He writes:

“Our forefathers had the foresight to determine the core beliefs about which they could agree in order that Southern Baptist churches could come together to send missionaries around the world and build seminaries to educate individuals who were to pastor, preach, teach, and minister in our churches.”

The Baptist Faith and Message is not an exhaustive statement of faith nor is it intended to be. Sometimes I lament this fact. I find myself wondering if our churches would be better served by a more comprehensive statement of faith. However, since there are certain important theological issues on which the BFM is either silent or speaks only in generalities it is important for Southern Baptists to extend charity to one another when there is disagreement over those issues. Sadly, this is often not the case. Both laymen and clergy within our denomination have drawn battle lines over doctrines not exhaustively explained or even addressed in the BFM.

Chapman continues:
“When we insist upon engaging each other in heated debates over doctrinal interpretations beyond the Baptist Faith and Message, our Convention shall sooner or later divide into even more factions and distract us from fulfilling the Great Commission…
“Discussing whether the Baptist Faith and Message is a ‘minimal’ statement or an ‘exhaustive’ statement misses its greatest attribute – that attribute is that it is a ‘consensus’ statement that defines Southern Baptist doctrine as believed by the greater whole of the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. Upon these doctrinal statements, we agree to agree. In doctrinal statements not included in the Baptist Faith and Message, we must learn to agree to disagree and debate the differences as Spirit-filled Christians who love Christ and one another.”

Chapman spends most of his article discussing three issues that, in recent years, have been at the center of often heated debates among Southern Baptists: 1) Calvinism, 2) Private Prayer Language, and 3) Water Baptism. When I was in college in the late 80’s the issue of private prayer languages (tongues) was a particularly hot topic. These days however it is Calvinism. Historically, Calvinism was the doctrinal position of most Baptists since the 17th century. In keeping with this trend, the Southern Baptist Convention was founded by men who were Calvinists. B.H. Carroll, the founder of Southwestern Seminary and J.P. Boyce, the founder of Southern Seminary were both Calvinists. The first Presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, W.B. Johnson, R.B.C. Howell, and Richard Fuller were Calvinists. The great early Southern Baptist pastor/theologians like Basil Manly, Sr. & Jr., John Broadus, John Dagg, P.H. Mell, E.Y. Mullins, and L.R. Scarborough were Calvinists. What is more, the very first confession of faith adopted by Southern Baptists, The Abstract of Principles, is Calvinistic or Reformed in doctrine. It was the founding document of both Southern and Southeastern Baptist Theological seminaries. To this day, the teachers at those institutions must sign a copy of The Abstract of Principles signifying their agreement with its doctrine.

For whatever reason, as the 20th century progressed, Calvinist or Reformed doctrine was pushed aside by the majority of Southern Baptists in favor of a more Arminian understanding of salvation (I will write more about Arminianism in a future post). Along with this move came the encroachment of liberalism into the SBC. Efforts to adopt a more comprehensive statement of faith were strongly opposed by new Southern Baptist leadership. As the 20th century progressed, doctrine was de-emphasized in Southern Baptist life. The defining mark of Southern Baptist churches was no longer a common doctrinal confession but loyalty to the Cooperative Program. This is true, to a large degree, to this day.

However, Southern Baptists are witnessing a resurgence in the doctrines of their founders. Not surprisingly, the heat around the issue of Calvinism has increased dramatically. Fearing that Reformed doctrine is a threat, some of the SBC’s most well known mega-church pastors and denominational officials have said some very divisive things about Calvinists from their pulpits. In many cases, their statements about the doctrines on which they cast so much fury display an appalling ignorance. I do not know any Calvinists that believe the caricatures that are often called “Calvinism” by its opponents. These unfortunately common misrepresentations are either the result of ignorance or malice. Either way it is bad. Christians ought to carefully avoid misrepresenting the views of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Ironically, the statement on the doctrine of election in the Baptist Faith and Message would be fully affirmed by any Calvinist. Indeed, it is in this statement where the theological convictions of the SBC founders can be clearly seen. Of the doctrine of election the BFM states:

Section V. God’s Purpose of Grace
Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which he regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.
All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by his Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end.