Wednesday, June 6, 2012

I Have Problems With the New Traditionalists

The blogosphere associated with the SBC is consumed with the recent “Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”. I’m not going to go in-depth about it because of this. There are a few observations I want to make. And I make the observations I make because I read supporters of this document who write that the document isn’t meant to be divisive or claim to speak for all Southern Baptists.

But that’s not what it says. And if supporters claim that the intent is other than what it says, then we learn something about their capacity to correctly parse what they read. This speaks to their ability to understand the Bible well.

The title:

1.    “…Traditional Southern Baptist…”

The presumption is that what will be presented is THE traditional understanding. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In the Preamble:

2.    “Every generation of Southern Baptists has the duty to articulate the truths of its faith…

The presumption is that the truth of Southern Baptist faith will be articulated. Therefore, the insinuation is that Reformed theology is not true – or at least not truly Southern Baptist. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In the first statement

3.    “The precipitating issue for this statement is the rise of a movement called “New Calvinism” among Southern Baptists.”

If the precipitating issue is the rise of a movement, then how does the statement in my #2 observation above fit? Does every generation need to make a statement against “New Calvinism”? The preamble goes on to identify what the authors believe “New Calvinism” is. Without going into detail, there is nothing new about “New Calvinism”. It’s the same Reformed theology that has been present all along with the understanding that there are, and always have been, varieties of Calvinism. But even these varieties have been around. I’ll say more about this in a few points, I’m sure.

4.    “This movement is committed to advancing in the churches an exclusively Calvinistic understanding of salvation…”

The use of the word “exclusively” is false. Calvinists want to teach Calvinism. I’ve never had a class on Calvinism, and I’ve had a few, where the Calvinistic professor didn’t also positively present a typical opposing view. I’ve always had it presented also where the respectable theologians who hold the view were treated honorably. I’ve heard many lessons given by non-Calvinists where respectable Calvinist theologians were treated dishonorably. In my experience, therefore, it’s the non-Calvinists who desire to be exclusive – not the Calvinists.

5.    “…characterized by an aggressive insistence on the “Doctrines of Grace” (“TULIP”), and to the goal of making Calvinism the central Southern Baptist position on God’s plan of salvation.”

And indeed, the use of the term “aggressive” is a characterization that is shared by non-Calvinists, in my experience. The purpose by the authors of this statement is to vilify Calvinists while ignoring their own sin. It’s written that we should not think too highly of ourselves. The authors have demonstrated that they have disobeyed this admonition.

6.    “…Calvinists have been present in Southern Baptist life from its earliest days…”

This acknowledgment is important. Compare this to my observation #1. There’s still more about this to come.

7.    “Even the minority of Southern Baptists who have identified themselves as Calvinists generally modify its teachings in order to mitigate certain unacceptable conclusions (e.g., anti-missionism, hyper-Calvinism, double predestination, limited atonement, etc.).”

This is an utter lie. The conclusions stated have never been held by mainstream Calvinism, with one exception: Limited Atonement.

8.    “The very fact that there is a plurality of views on Calvinism designed to deal with these weaknesses (variously described as “3-point,” “4-point,” “moderate,” etc.) would seem to call for circumspection and humility with respect to the system and to those who disagree with it.”

The fact that the non-Calvinists want to distinguish themselves from Arminians by not assuming another moniker, “Traditional”, indicates that their position is not particularly monolithic. The fact that some people accept some aspects of Calvinism and some aspects of non-Calvinism indicate that there is probably some spectrum of belief we all fall on with regards to soteriology in the SBC. So it’s disingenuous to say that Calvinists are diverse because their position is weak and non-Calvinists are monolithic because our position is strong. It’s an attempt to mischaracterize everyone’s position in order to make the non-Calvinists appear to have the high road.

9.    “For the most part, Southern Baptists have been glad to relegate disagreements over Calvinism to secondary status along with other important but “non-essential” theological matters. The Southern Baptist majority has fellowshipped happily with its Calvinist brethren while kindly resisting Calvinism itself. And, to their credit, most Southern Baptist Calvinists have not demanded the adoption of their view as the standard. We would be fine if this consensus continued, but some New Calvinists seem to be pushing for a radical alteration of this long-standing arrangement.”

Which is a statement made by someone who demands the adoption of their view (non-Calvinistic) as the standard. It’s interesting that these New Calvinists have not been identified.

10.    ‘We propose that what most Southern Baptists believe about salvation can rightly be called “Traditional” Southern Baptist soteriology, which should be understood in distinction to “Calvinist” soteriology. Traditional Southern Baptist soteriology is articulated in a general way in the Baptist Faith and Message, “Article IV.”’

Read Article IV. It is consistent with 5-point Calvinism. What is proposed in this new “Traditional” statement goes far beyond Article IV. Who is pushing for the adoption of their position? Let’s look at the next statement:

11.    “While some earlier Baptist confessions were shaped by Calvinism, the clear trajectory of the BF&M since 1925 is away from Calvinism.”

And they call their position “Traditional”? If anything, by this admission they are the New Non-Calvinists.

12.    “Without ascribing to Calvinism, Southern Baptists have reached around the world with the Gospel message of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone.”

Apparently, Southern Baptists have done it by ascribing to Calvinism as well, even more so in the past according to the statement I answered in #11.

13.    “Baptists have been well-served by a straightforward soteriology rooted in the fact that Christ is willing and able to save any and every sinner.”

That’s debatable. There has been some decline in baptisms since 1925 and some wonder if it’s not because the soteriology has drifted toward non-Calvinism.

14.    “While we are not insisting that every Southern Baptist affirm the soteriological statement below in order to have a place in the Southern Baptist family, we are asserting that the vast majority of Southern Baptists are not Calvinists and that they do not want Calvinism to become the standard view in Southern Baptist life. We believe it is time to move beyond Calvinism as a reference point for Baptist soteriology.”

So the admission is that Calvinism has been waning, but in recent years there has been a resurgence of Calvinism – hence the moniker “New Calvinism” – and it makes non-Calvinists worried that the balance will return to a more Calvinistic soteriology. So they want to get away from Calvinism altogether in order to make this less likely. This contradicts what they said in my #10: ‘“Traditional” Southern Baptist soteriology, which should be understood in distinction to “Calvinist” soteriology.’ But their goal, as I indicated in #9, is to redefine (or at least clarify) Baptist soteriology as non-Calvinistic. They are the ones pushing their agenda – not Calvinists.

That’s from the preamble. What follows in the document are the articles of Affirmation and Denial. It’s interesting that they want to specifically define themselves over and against Calvinism where they said they need to “move beyond Calvinism as a reference point”.

I won’t go into much of what they say in the articles for one exception. This exception has already been pointed out by others, but I believe it to be a dangerous statement that was made. It’s certainly a non-Calvinistic statement to make, but it’s also a non-Arminian statement to make. In fact it’s downright non-orthodox Christianity:

15.    “We deny that Adam’s sin… rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned.”

Now, to be fair, go to the document and read it in context. They do affirm that “because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin.” However adding that no one is guilty before they have personally sinned effectively guts the doctrine of Original Sin. It also denies the truth of such passages as Rom 5:12 and Eph 2:3.


  1. I suppose that I grew up under New Calvinism at WABC, while my family grew up under independent, free-will Baptist theology and what was taught in evangelical Methodist congregations of the 60s and 70s. It wasn't until Rev. Spry preached explicitly on it that my family voiced disagreement over it, and some even left our church. While I am ambivalent towards New Calvinism (admittedly because I haven't studied it in depth, aside from the writings of John Piper), it concerns me that a majority of the congregation may not be fully informed of the theology they are being taught. My first exposure to the concerns of New Calvinism was this blog:

    What was taught before, and when did the shift occur? Were members of the SBC Armenian, or some degree of it? Is there a possibility of a schism within the SBC?

    1. I don't know where you are in your investigation of theology, so forgive me if I explain too much.

      As far as I can tell the SBC was originally more Calvinistic than not. But this is only with regard to soteriology, or the way that God saves us. Calvin was paedobaptistic. That means that he was for baptizing babies. So no true Baptist can be fully Calvinistic. But I think there have also always been people who believed in some level of libertarian free will in the SBC.

      At Western Avenue, we have a great mix of both and we all seem to get along just fine. We have discussions about it from time to time, but stand side-by-side on the mission field and proclaim the same basic gospel.

      That's the way the SBC should be. This kind of a statement by people of one side where both sides are misportrayed (that's the key word here) in order to win people to one side or another is not helpful at best and sinfully divisive at worst. That's why I pointed out the errors that I did.

      I don't have a problem with non-Calvinists. My base criteria is the clear Biblical teaching that God is absolutely sovereign and we are morally responsible for our sin. Paul addresses this theological tension in Romans and answers it in Romans 9. The answer he gives isn't satisfactory to people who want a clearer answer. The reason God doesn't give us a clearer answer is because the answer is in trusting God rather than having the answer. So we take what the Bible teaches and make sense out of it as best we can. I happen to believe that Calvinism does this best. Others are convinced that some non-Calvinistic understanding is better. Wrestling with it is healthy as long as we don't place our answers above our trust in God, because if we do that then we will cause unnecessary division - just like this silly "Traditionalist" statement is doing.

      There's already a bit of a schism in the SBC. There have been Calvinistic pastors who have torn apart churches pushing to require the church to be explicitly Calvinistic. There have been churches who were previously unaware of their own non-Calvinistic leanings who ran Calvinistic pastors out who were similarly naive about the issue and didn't think their Calvinism would be a big deal to the church. One mostly non-Calvinistic local association recently denied a Calvinistic church membership in the association because the church was Calvinistic. These kinds of things leave a bad taste in people's spiritual mouths and result in people reacting poorly. So now there are people who are afraid that the "other side" will gain all the power in the convention.

      Now, there are churches in the SBC who are explicitly Calvinistic. There are some who are explicitly non-Calvinistic. It happens and both are consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message. Since churches are autonomous, they have every right to be that way. I think the author(s) of this statement are accurate when they say that non-Calvinists are in the majority. It just means that Calvinists have to organize in order to enjoy the fellowship of people who have a like mind because we're fewer and farther apart.

      I think we happen to have a larger concentration of Calvinists in Western Avenue than in SBC churches in general because we have had several people join who fled liberalism in their former non-baptist Calvinistic denominations. Like I say, everyone seems to get along well. Plus, we enjoy the richness of honestly exploring both theological systems instead of dumbing it all down to produce artificial peace.

      So a schism might threaten the SBC, but as long as we continue to trust God and stay focused on our task of taking the gospel to our area and the nations, I think Western Avenue may be one to provide a model of how to get along. A statement like this one where one side marginalizes the other isn't the way.

  2. Only a little Wikipedia searching on my part, but I understood most of it :). I am thankful that churches have recognized autonomy within the SBC, and I agree with you about the respectful mix in our congregation and our ability to unite under the Gospel. I can see where the people I know who have made a big deal out of this are the ones who care about "being right" more than they do truly trusting God. That's why I enjoy reading John Piper so much; his focus is on enjoying God and trusting him fully.

    Thanks for the explanation.

  3. I read that Lifeway says 30% of the SBC Churches are Calvinist and 30% are Arminian/Wesleyan with 60% of the SBC Pastors concerned about the rise of calvinism. I come from a very Arminian end of the SBC and all the Calvinists I know personaly are close to my age (30) in the SBC. I've never met a Southern Baptist Calvinist of Albert Mohlers age for example.

    1. Well, you know Al Mohler.

      I don't know what the precise stats are. The fact is that the authors of this document want to hold two visceral positions that logically don't go together:

      1) The majority of the SBC is firmly non-Calvinist
      2) Calvinism is significantly on the rise.

      Point 1 is held to affirm that the minority Calvinists need to be put in their place because they are insignificant.

      Point 2 is held to alarm non-Calvinists that it's important to put Calvinists in their place lest they take over. And behold, they are already in positions of power! AAHHH!

      But the argument can go both ways. Calvinists can easily argue from both points:

      Point 1 can be held to affirm that no one has anything to worry about from those insignificant Calvinists.

      Point 2 can be held to volley for Calvinists holding a few positions of influence. We just elected the first African-American president of the SBC today and he is in the minority ethnically speaking.

      And on that last note, it should be clear that this exercise was unhelpful. No one is about to argue that blacks should have been put back in their place. Their place is side-by-side in ministry with their white brothers and sisters in Christ. Neither Calvinism nor non-Calvinism have been found to be particularly heretical. We need to stand side-by-side in ministry as brothers and sisters in Christ. Should we have healthy debates to sharpen each other? Yes. But this document wasn't healthy.