Published June 13, 2013
On February 9, 2012 The Christian Index published my editorial entitled, “The Calvinists are here.” The editorial received considerably more attention than I anticipated – or wanted. The reviews were mixed, but I received plenty of counsel, commendations, and criticism.
I stated, “The Conservative Resurgence and the Great Commission Resurgence have been joined by a Reformed Resurgence. The Calvinists are here. Their presence is evident in many phases and places in Southern Baptist life.”
In the weeks leading up to the 2012 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in New Orleans, LifeWay Research released a study that showed nearly equal numbers of pastors in the SBC consider their churches as Calvinists/Reformed as do Arminian/Wesleyan, and that more than 60 percent were somewhat or strongly concerned about the effect of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist family.
Most Southern Baptists would have to agree that Calvinism, or Reformed theology, has been a frequent topic of conversation at many coffee klatsches or when fellow Baptists gather to “chew the fat.”
SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page addressed the issue of Calvinism during the Executive Committee report at the 2012 SBC annual meeting.
“Friends, I’m concerned because there seems to be some non-Calvinists who are more concerned about rooting out Calvinists than they are about winning the lost for Christ,” he said. “Some Calvinists seem to think that if we do not believe the same thing about soteriology that they believe somehow we are less intelligent or ignorant at best.
“I simply say to you today that it’s time to realize that a Great Commission Advance needs everyone,” he said. “Calvinists and non-Calvinists have worked together for decade upon decade upon decade in this Convention.”
Baptists’ frequent discussions and recurrent preoccupation with Calvinism prompted Page to appoint an advisory team to help him craft a strategic plan to bring together various groups within the convention who hold different opinions on the issue of Calvinism. Baptist Press announced the first 16 members of the advisory team on August 15, 2012. Eventually, three more members were appointed to make a 19-member team.
The purpose of the advisory team was to produce a written report on how we as Southern Baptists can find a way to cooperate together in our common commitment to the Great Commission despite our theological differences on the subject of Calvinism.
Obviously, there is only so much an advisory team can do, but this team, composed of a balanced and respected collection of Baptist leaders, proceeded to pray, pool their intellectual and theological assets, and produce a document that would aid Page and the SBC Executive Committee in fulfilling their responsibility of “encourag[ing] the cooperation and confidence of the churches, associations and state conventions and facilitat[ing] maximum support for worldwide missions and ministries.”
The statement from the aforementioned team has been entitled “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension.” Overall, it is an outstanding and conciliatory document. It seems to address all issues of concern to those who have felt like the future of our denominational unity is in jeopardy.
First of all, it specifies, “We are a doctrinal people … who stand together upon the doctrines most vital to us all, confessed together in The Baptist Faith and Message.” To me it would appear that the BF&M surpasses all other confessions of faith including the Abstract of Principles, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, The New Hampshire Confession, etc.
Another critical issue that was addressed pertains to pastors who gradually and surreptitiously introduce reformed theology or church polity and perhaps in some cases Arminian theology and church polity into unwary churches, ultimately leading to tension and division. Or as Adam Harwood, who was assistant professor of Christian Studies at Truett-McConnell College before recently accepting a position at New Orleans Seminary, explains, “It denounces partisan and hidden theological agendas.”
The document effectively addresses this issue, stating, “We expect all candidates for ministry positions in the local church to be fully candid and forthcoming about all matters of faith and doctrine, even as we call upon all pulpit and staff search committees to be fully candid and forthcoming about their congregation and its expectations.”
I thought it was also prudent to state, “No entity should be promoting Calvinism or non-Calvinism to the exclusion of the other.”
The advisory team affirmed that there is nothing lacking in the atonement of Christ to provide for the salvation of anyone and that no believer can be obedient without telling others about Jesus.
There were a few areas that I viewed as somewhat curious, such as the statement on the destiny of children who have not reached the age of accountability. Rather than making a statement about that issue the report simply says, “We agree that most Southern Baptists believe that those who die before they are capable of moral action go to heaven through the grace of God and the atonement of Christ, even as they differ as to why this is so.” That appears to be more like the result of a survey than a statement or confession of faith.
In reflecting on the aforementioned statement in question, Harwood asks, “Most? What Southern Baptist will make the case that some who die as infants may suffer in hell?”
However, I was extremely pleased with the bold statement expressing a strong conviction that our purpose is not to reduce our theological rhetoric to the winning of a debate, but to elevate our biblical knowledge to the winning of souls.
Regarding that issue the report says, “We deny that the main purpose of the Southern Baptist Convention is theological debate. We further deny that theological discussion can be healthy if our primary aim is to win an argument, to triumph in a debate, or to draw every denominational meeting into a conversation over conflicted issues. Of more significance to our life together than any allegiance to Calvinism or non-Calvinism should be our shared identity as Southern Baptists.”
Overall, the report is exceptionally helpful and should prove to be an effective guideline for pastors, churches, denominational entities, and all Southern Baptists. We certainly need to heed the report of the advisory team, focus on those tremendous tenets of the faith we hold dear, and get on with the business of pushing back the darkness lest the darkness overtake us all.
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