Staying Under the “Big Tent” of Soteriology

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.

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, provides brief devotions from own personal daily Bible reading, as well as some of my sermons, book reviews, and family life experiences.
This entry was posted in Current Events, Doctrine/Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Staying Under the “Big Tent” of Soteriology

  1. Andy Fortner says:

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your article and share your concerns about the statement as well.

  2. Bryan says:

    I’d like to spend more time on this article. This was the one class of yours I missed before you fell ill. The “Free Will” and “Salvation” issue seems, at times, to hover around us like a fly. I think that while this is the most talked about doctrines in seminaries, in churches it take a different shape.
    On the subject of regeneration apart from the gospel…
    When salvation is talked about among common believers in BS groups who don’t pay much attention to doctrinal positions what you occasional have is different values when it comes to someone knowing Christ as opposed to relying upon Christ.
    This can be problematic and bothersome at times because of the obvious self-imposed prejudice we apply when we want to gather everyone we love and know under the big tent of salvation by just assuming God will save that person apart from hearing and responding to the gospel…..isn’t that easier?
    I can understand and feel the pain of knowing that someone you love does not know Christ and that could cost them gravely but it becomes dangerous when we apply our own theology to save someone when really all we are doing is deceiving ourselves.
    The downside to all this is…do we really want to start allowing statements and rules to divide us? I struggle with this. It almost seems unavoidable at times but speaking from the pews some things need to be clarified over and over and over….

    • Shawn Thomas says:

      Hey Bryan! Yes, this issue is at the forefront of the Southern Baptist Convention right now — not so much in our church. In fact our church is a good example of what should happen on the national level: Calvinists & non-Calvinists working together for the Kingdom.
      Your point about regeneration and the gospel is a good one. There must be real conversion, not just a surface knowledge of Christ, for salvation to happen. A lot of people are kidding themselves about their own or others’ salvation when there is no real evidence for it.
      Regarding statements, I know what you mean about how they can appear to be divisive. I know people who say we should have “no creed but the Bible!” The problem is, that sounds good in theory, but in practice it opens the door for people to believe and teach any heretical thing! That is why doctrinal statements like the Baptist Faith & Message are important — they give us some general boundaries about what Baptists believe, and within those boundaries there can be a lot of freedom. Ideally though, the boundaries will not be SO restrictive as to exclude godly people who really do share the most important things in common, and who should agree and work together on mission — which is the point of my article.
      Sure miss y’all. I hope to be back soon — but will be back in God’s time!

  3. Bryan says:

    Great point on the Creed. I’m not always excited about doctrinal statements (in a sense) because they sometimes turn into a slippery slope. I guess the only practical thing to do is to sharpen them with scripture and have discerning men of God standing on the shoulders of Godly men, etc. in order to check the motives and circumstances of the doctrines and statements put forth…
    That being said, I realize that we need them and I’m sure that I would add a few myself if I were king. Great article…

  4. Good article. Thanks for the charitable and balanced spirit of this. We need more of this. Unfortunately the loud ones are the ones who usually rise to the positions of prominence in our convention. I do believe Mohler’s response was gracious and thoughtful.

  5. Very nice to see this in the LBC Messenger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s