By Matt Capps, senior pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Apex, NC
Throughout Southern Baptist history, the debate on non-Calvinist and Calvinist soteriology has varied from a murmur to a roar. I predict, however, that many Baptist historians will point to the early 2000s as a watershed moment on this issue among Southern Baptists.
I was in the room at the Southern Baptist Convention in 2006 when Albert Mohler and Paige Patterson discussed “Reaching Today’s World Through Differing Views of Election.” Their conversation brought the discussion on Calvinism to the surface in Southern Baptist life, or perhaps revealed how close to the surface it already was. Not long after that, in 2007, the “Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism” conference was held at Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. The next year, the “John 3:16 Conference” was held in Georgia, which sought to critique what they saw as a growing imbalance in the Convention.
And then, in 2012, a group of Southern Baptist leaders drafted, posted, and signed “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” a document which attempted to draw a clear line between Calvinist and non-Calvinist Southern Baptist views on soteriology. Much of the discussion among messengers to that year’s SBC Annual Meeting surrounded this statement and varying opinions on it. Even as we celebrated the unifying moment of Fred Luter’s historic election, there was still a clear awareness of the differences on this specific issue.
These are just a few of the more public volleys regarding Calvinism in the SBC. The discussion has been, to say the least, lively. And with all the discussion, I have often wondered, “Where do most Southern Baptist pastors stand on this issue?”
In 2012 LifeWay Research released data that reported around 30 percent of Southern Baptist pastors consider their churches Calvinist, while a much larger number—more than 60 percent—were somewhat concerned “about the impact of Calvinism in our convention.” But Ed Stetzer, commenting on the research, noted that that most pastors were not as polarized on the issue as the debate suggested, as if the choice was purely binary—you either are or are not a Calvinist: “It is fascinating how much debate is occurring right now on this topic when most pastors indicate that neither end of the spectrum correctly identifies their church.”
This research is fascinating when compared to a 1793 survey, pulled together by early Baptist historian John Asplund. In Asplund’s research it was estimated that there were 1,032 Baptist churches in America, and out of those, 956 were Calvinist congregations (about 93%). Yet, even during that time, Baptist historian Thomas Kidd notes that “there were still controversies over the nuances of Calvinist theology, beliefs about election, and the effects of Christ’s atonement for sin” (Baptists in America, 82). This remained the case even after the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.
While there appears to be a lot of difference among Southern Baptist pastors on the impact of Calvinism, the LifeWay Research study confirms a wide variety of stances within our convention. This really should not be a surprise. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM 2000), a voluntary confession of faith espoused by practicing Southern Baptists, allows room for both sides. In section V of the BFM 2000, concerning God’s purposes in grace, the writers declare, “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.” And in the previous section on salvation, the BFM 2000 says, “Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer” (Emphases mine).
Commenting on article V of the BFM 2000, Danny Akin argues that we should accept the biblical tension and recognize that extreme positions on either side are biblically unbalanced and theologically unhealthy (Baptist Faith and Message 2000, 49). Southern Baptist theologian Timothy George wondered: “I don’t know who does more damage to our Baptist fellowship: the rabid anti-Calvinists who slander and stereotype all Reformed theology as hyper-Calvinism, or some of the Calvinists who want to tweak the leaves of the tulip so tightly that in their desire to defend the doctrines of grace, they have forgotten to be gracious.” (Southern Baptist Identity, 96). We may not be able to settle each of the “five points” to our satisfaction, but we do know that the Bible is clear in condemning a divisive and uncharitable spirit.
We should be thankful that the BFM 2000 stands in the longer, more gospel and mission-centric historical tradition, affirming and allowing the presence of both Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the convention. There isn’t just one theological stream or tradition in Baptist life, there are many—including fundamentalists, revivalists, orthodox Evangelicals, Calvinists, Molinists, and everything in between.
In 2013, the Calvinism Advisory Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention presented a report entitled “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension” which stated,
“Southern Baptists are Great Commission people. We are also a doctrinal people, and those doctrinal convictions undergird our Great Commission vision and passion. We are a confessional people, who stand together upon the doctrines most vital to us all, confessed together in The Baptist Faith and Message.”
This is an important statement to consider. Many pastors in the next generation will find themselves opting for modified positions all across the spectrum.
Southern Baptists have historically celebrated unity, even in these matters, as we share together in our common Great Commission purpose. This doesn’t mean that sound doctrine is unimportant, or that we should not have these conversations. However, we must be careful not to allow secondary and tertiary matters of conviction to cause division. Let’s gracefully acknowledge and commend the non-essential convictional variety among us, and affirm our uniformity in the essentials. In the classic words of Augustine: In the essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
Moving forward, we should strive to handle these disagreements with grace. Moreover, we should pray for guidance from Holy Spirit where we have theological disagreements, while seeking to converse with one another with humility, avoiding ignorant caricatures. Nathan Finn has rightly warned us that the Calvinism debate, perhaps more than any other issue, is a threat to ongoing cooperation of SBC conservatives, in part because of the intense feelings this debate provokes on both sides (The Great Commission Resurgence, 73).
One final thought: Younger Southern Baptists certainly have many of their own problems, and have a great deal to learn on numerous issues. But thankfully, the debate over Calvinism has been superseded by a prioritization of mission, especially when we see the billions of people in our world who need forgiveness of sin through faith in Jesus Christ. If the Great Commission remains our focus, and if we maintain our convictions on first-order issues like biblical authority and the exclusivity of Christ, then the Southern Baptist Convention will continue to strengthen over time. Southern Baptists on both sides of this discussion must work to combine a unified orthodoxy with a passionately missional orthopraxy. If we do, we will continue to draw pastors and church leaders for generations to come.