Observers of Baptist life – especially as it relates to the Southern Baptist Convention – will not be surprised to learn that Calvinism is on the rise. With Al Mohler, an advocate of Calvinism, having led the SBC’s flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for some years now, it’s not surprising that a growing number of seminary graduates also profess Calvinism.
Acknowledging the trend, conferences on the newly resurgent doctrine now dot the Baptist landscape, including one of about 550 people who are at Ridgecrest this week for a conference called “Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism.” The conference is co-sponsored by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and “Founders Ministries,” an unabashed pro-Calvinist organization.
Speaking at the conference, the SBC’s LifeWay Christian Resources researcher and “missiologist in residence” Ed Stetzer said nearly 30 percent of recent SBC seminary graduates now serving as church pastors affirm the traditional five points of Calvinism.
That compares to about 10 percent of pastors who claim to be Calvinists among the general SBC population.
Stetzer said his research showed that 29 percent of SBC pastors who are recent SBC seminary graduates indicated they are Calvinists. He said 27 percent of 1,234 recent graduates serving in SBC church leadership positions “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” that they are five-point Calvinists, while 67 percent affirmed that God’s “grace is irresistible” and 58 percent said they believe “people do not choose to become Christians, God chooses and calls people who respond to him.”
In other words, a clear majority of recent SBC seminary graduates do not believe that God gave humans the freedom to make their own decisions about matters of salvation, but that God alone decides who will receive grace and who will be condemned.
For many rank and file Baptist church members, that is a surprising and radical thought – but one that might well be proclaimed by their next pastor.
Stetzer’s numbers indicate that the Calvinist shift has strong momentum: the numbers of graduates who affirmed Calvinism rose steadily between 1998 and 2004, with 34 percent of the 2004 graduates identifying themselves as five-point Calvinists.
Some of Baptists’ bitterest battles were fought in the nineteenth century as Calvinistic “anti-missionary” Baptists and Arminian “missionary” Baptists struggled for control of churches on the American frontier.
Now that fundamentalism has won the day against more progressive thought in the SBC, it appears certain that the next “resurgence” will not be of conservatives, but of Calvinists.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.