Many observers predict next week’s Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, N.C., will be the most contentious meeting in 15 years. While controversies about doctrinal parameters, alleged mismanagement, principled dissent and presidential politics grab headlines, an even more divisive debate lurks beneath the surface.
The June/July issue of National Liberty Journal, released just before the SBC annual meeting June 13-14, carried a front-page banner headline “Predestined Not to be a Hyper-Calvinist” on a column by Ergun Caner, president of Liberty Theological Seminary and a popular speaker in SBC circles.
Published by Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, the paper is targeted toward Christian pastors and church leaders and claims 500,000 readers nationwide.
Comparing “neo-Calvinism” to the charismatic movement that split Southern Baptist churches in the 1970s, Caner wrote: “As churches and seminaries become more enamored with these teachings, many leaders have stood by silently, or simply grumbled under their breath.”
“Following the lead of Chancellor Falwell,” he said, “I felt someone needed to challenge the assumptions of this new breed.”
Resurgent Calvinism, which insiders also call the “doctrines of grace,” is increasingly being blamed in SBC circles for ills including split churches, anemic evangelism and teaching viewed as unscriptural.
Frank Page, a South Carolina pastor expected to be nominated for SBC president, wrote a book critical of Calvinism titled Trouble With the Tulip. Page has given assurances that if elected he will appoint both Calvinists and non-Calvinists to leadership posts.
But in a 1999 address at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Page denounced Calvinism as presenting “a God who arbitrarily selects some to be saved and some to be lost.”
“It portrays a nature of God who is capricious and even cruel in his selection of those who would be elect and non-elect,” he said. “Not only does the Calvinistic view portray a nature of God that is other than that in the Bible, but it also neglects an overall teaching of [the nature of God] in the Scripture.”
Last year SBC president Bobby Welch published a column in the First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, Fla., newsletter praising an article by Steve Lemke, a professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, which labeled “unchecked hyper-Calvinism” as “potentially the most explosive and divisive issue facing us in the near future.”
“It has already been an issue that has split literally dozens of churches, and it holds the potential to split the entire convention,” Lemke wrote.
Hoping to quell conflict, planners of this year’s SBC Pastors Conference have scheduled two question-and-answer sessions on “Reaching Today’s World Through Differing Views of Election.” They feature two seminary presidents, Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Paige Patterson of Southwestern.
Another seminary president, Daniel Akin of Southeastern, wrote a column in the April/May issue of SBC Life laying out common ground for the two viewpoints to co-exist.
Named for John Calvin, one of the most important figures in the Reformation in the 1500s, Calvinism views God as sovereign over human affairs. In some forms it teaches double predestination, meaning God elects some to be saved and others to be reprobate, or damned.
As articulated in 1618-19 in the Synod of Dort, Calvinism consists of five points typically grouped under the acronym TULIP: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints.
Virtually all Southern Baptists hold to the final point, sometimes described as once-saved-always-saved, and most agree to some degree with the first two, that humans are sinful and must be saved by divine grace apart from their own merit.
Consensus breaks down over limited atonement, which says Christ’s atoning death is only for the elect, and irresistible grace, which says those predestined for salvation cannot say no to God. That doesn’t sit well for many Baptists raised in an evangelical tradition where the first Bible verse they memorized was John 3:16, which says God loved “the world” and that “whosoever” believes may come to eternal life.
“Someone says, ‘Pastor you believe that you’re the elect?'” Johnny Hunt, a former candidate for SBC president, said in a message at last year’s SBC Pastors Conference. “I sure am. Everybody that gets in is the elect; and he’s elected all of us. I believe everyone can be saved. Anyone can come to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”
Last year in a sermon at the 24,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, former SBC president Jack Graham railed against Calvinism as “elitist,” “arrogant,” a “perverted form of theology” and “an abuse of Scripture.”
In a sermon at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., on Palm Sunday night, Caner said he rejects extreme Calvinism in part because it teaches that babies who die but aren’t among the elect are destined for hell.
For their part, neo-Calvinists take take a stern view toward gimmicky outreach, multiple rebaptism, entertainment in worship, lack of “doctrinal” preaching and other practices designed more to draw a crowd than to honor God.
In recent years, some Southern Baptists have advocated a “reformation” to recover the Calvinism of the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention, weakened in the 19th century by individualism and revivalism on the frontier and theology of missions and evangelism in the 20th.
A group called Founders Ministries holds an annual conference, publishes a journal and maintains a Web site that includes a director’s blog. Two of six SBC seminaries–Southern and Midwestern–have presidents who are avowed Calvinists.
Popularity of the view is growing on college and seminary campuses through conferences and books by Calvinist authors, most notably John Piper, pastor of the 2,000-member Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis.
Citing statistics showing that vast numbers of church members seldom or never attend worship, some Calvinists believe as few as one third of Southern Baptists are genuinely saved.
Tom Ascol, executive director for Founders Ministries, has introduced a resolution for consideration at the SBC on “Integrity in Church Membership” that urges church discipline and more accurate reporting of church membership.
Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Seminary and a founder of the “conservative resurgence,” has said a “five-point” Calvinist will not have problems in the SBC unless it leads to “unscriptural conclusions,” like not giving an invitation at the end of worship.
In a widely disseminated quote from 2004, Patterson advised: “When you are called to a church, be sure that you are a man of integrity and you disclose your full theological position to the church to which you are called. Many a church has called a pastor only to find, only to discover, a couple of years in, that he is determined to take the church in the direction of a Calvinistic church. He never told them that up front. He may even have deliberately misled them.
“One of my sorrows in hiring professors across these years is that I’ve often asked that question and gotten a misleading answer and found out later that this man was in the classroom perpetuating the system of Calvinism.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.