While I am not a Calvinist, I have a number of friends and family members who are. This helps give me what I believe is a balanced perspective regarding the current debate over soteriology in the SBC, which is revolving around the recently released “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of the Doctrine of Salvation.”
I actually almost signed the statement the first time I read it, but decided against it, for reasons I will delineate below. I will say that I personally agree with much of it. And I do believe that it generally reflects the “majority”/”traditional” SBC position – that held by most pastors and most of the laypeople in the Southern Baptist Convention today. Certainly I know one could define “traditional” as dating back to the Calvinism of Boyce and others in the 1800’s. But I am defining “traditional” here as what most of us have known for the last couple of generations of SBC life. I think the Statement fairly accurately represents that view.
But, as I said, I did NOT sign the Statement, and I did not do so for a couple of reasons. First, I disagree with some minor points in it. For example, in Article 2, the Statement reads: “We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will.” I believe the terms “Pelagian” and “semi-Pelagian” have been thrown around all too promiscuously in recent years by some Calvinists, but this sentence actually does seem to indicate that our free will was not impacted by the Fall. Unless I misunderstand what the authors are asserting here, the Statement would contradict John 6:44, where Jesus said that “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws Him”, and I Corinthians 2:14, “But a natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him …” While I do not believe that God’s grace is irresistible, I do believe that He takes the first step towards us, and that His grace is necessary to give us the ability to make a free choice. As I said, I do generally agree with the article’s theology, but if I am to sign my name to something, I should agree with all of it, and unless some assertions like this one are amended or clarified, I can’t do that right now.
I also hesitate to sign because, having read a range of Calvinist material, and enjoying a number of friends and acquaintances who adhere to the “doctrines of grace,” I do not believe the Statement represents the SBC Calvinist position fairly at points. For example, in Article 5, the denial section reads: “We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel.” I do not know of ANY SBC Calvinist who would assert that ANY person is saved apart from hearing or responding to the gospel. In my limited understanding, this would truly be a manifestation of “hyper-Calvinism,” a term which, again, is tossed about all too freely by some more “traditional” Baptists, though I have not seen any evidence of it in the SBC. Even if a rare person holding that position were found, it is not the majority view of the “new Calvinism” in our Convention. There are several such instances in the Statement which are regrettable, as these kinds of assertions do nothing to further understanding or feed healthy debate; they only derail us from the real issues and serve to cloud matters further.
I also must say that I have some concerns as to how this document will be used. If it is merely a statement which expresses the soteriology of the signers, that is wonderful. And to some extent, I cannot understand the furor by Calvinists over the existence of such a Statement. Calvinist soteriology statements are ubiquitous – and that’s ok! Certainly any group of Baptists has the freedom to make a statement of faith The same is true for the authors and signers of this document. There is nothing wrong with doing such a thing. With some “tweaks” to this Statement, I might sign it myself! On the other hand, if it is intended to be used as a tool of enforcement at our Convention, or any of our institutions, such as our seminaries or colleges, I would be strongly opposed to it. We have, as Southern Baptists, a marvelous statement of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. It is a “big tent,” purposefully wide enough to include both Calvinist and “traditional” Baptist understandings of soteriology. Frank Page, our SBC Executive Committee President, who has himself written a book opposing Calvinism, declined to sign the “Statement,” stating that he preferred a consensus statement, which addressed the core commitment of both parties, and that the BFM 2000 is such a document. Page, despite his personal theological leanings, is acting as a wise statesman in the interest of unity and mission in our Convention. I personally believe that others of us should follow his lead. But whatever one decides about signing the Statement, I do not believe that it should be used as a standard for our seminaries and institutions. It would be very harmful and divisive, at a time when our focus needs to be on our mission.
But while we are addressing issues of fairness and balance, I feel this must be added: if one asserts that the BFM 2000 is sufficient, and no additional statement regarding soteriology should be added to our seminaries and institutions which would exclude Calvinists, should the principle not be applied both ways? The fact is, we currently have two SBC seminaries which require adherence to the “Abstract of Principles”, which is a clearly Calvinist document, by their professors. Thus, we have two of our six SBC seminaries, supported by Cooperative Program funds given by churches of every spectrum across our Convention, which basically exclude non-Calvinists from their faculty. If we are truly going to be consistent across the board, this state of affairs should be changed. The trustees of those institutions should be called upon to approve the BFM 2000 as the only doctrinal statement for their institutions, and professors from both sides of the theological spectrum should be employed at those schools. If this does not change, then there is no moral high ground for an outcry should something like the current “Statement” be adopted by other seminaries or institutions. In what significant way would that differ from using the Abstract at those two seminaries? I am all for using the BFM 2000 as our only standard for SBC-funded institutions, but let’s be consistent. One can’t have it both ways. I am not being disingenuous or sarcastic in my suggestion. I believe this to be a consistent and balanced position for reasonable men under God.
In conclusion, I believe we need to heed the words of the Apostle Paul: “But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:15) This is a timely word for our Convention. Let us not fulfill the prophecies of those moderate Baptists who said that the SBC would continue to divide after the inerrancy battle was over, because conservatives always have to fight about something. Literally for God’s sake; for the sake of His Kingdom and glory, let us not divide over this issue. Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike can and should live together in the SBC under the “big tent” of our Baptist Faith & Message 2000. Let us determine that our generation of Southern Baptists will be remembered for proclaiming the doctrine of salvation, not fighting over it.