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Calvinism: Essential or Non-essential?

Tuesday, June 7, 2016 11:45
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Aaron Menikoff is presently senior pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Sandy Springs, Georgia (metropolitan Atlanta). Menikoff holds a PhD from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is author of Politics and Piety (Pickwick. 2014). He also served as an aide to United States Senator, Mark O. Hatfield, and occasionally blogs at The Gospel Coalition.

Menikoff’s latest piece entitled “When Grace Hurts the Church” addresses churches that find themselves possessing different theologies among the members and how they might navigate successfully through the often treacherous waters. Menikoff profiles his own Atlanta flock as illustrative in handling theological diversity.


Menikoff’s Perspective on Solving Conflict over God’s Sovereignty in Salvation

According to Menikoff, while Mount Vernon “increasingly embraces the truth of God’s sovereign grace,” neither are they “monolithic in their view of the doctrines of grace.” Menikoff seems to reduce the conflict concerning the “doctrines of grace” to how God’s sovereignty works itself out in salvation, a notion he indicates is usually handled in three different ways— “it’s helpful to remember that when it comes to God’s sovereignty in salvation, most of us fit into one of three categories.”

The three categories Menikoff mentions are the native, the convert, and the novice.

The native grew up in the Calvinistic camp, learning early on the doctrine of sovereign grace. Natives assume divine sovereignty much like they assume so many other fundamental doctrines like the Trinity. Nor do natives understand how anyone struggles with election or predestination. For natives, divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism is simply what the Bible teaches.

The second type who embraces divine sovereignty is the convert. Converts remember the day they came to understand the doctrines of grace. Menikoff gives his own conversion story about embracing divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism, a conversion brought about supernaturally by the Spirit of God. After testifying that he didn’t “always believe the doctrines of grace” and even as a college student, arguing “vehemently against the notion that God takes the initiative in our salvation,” Menikoff pens his conversion to divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism:

My viewpoint eventually changed, and I can still remember the moment I understood God to be absolutely sovereign in redemption. I was walking to work while reading a book of sermons in the Gospel of John… After pouring over the chapter on Jesus’s response to Nicodemus in John 3, everything clicked: without the Spirit of God, I’d be spiritually blind; without the new birth, I’d be spiritually dead.

Menikoff describes his reaction to the revelation he’d just wonderfully received: “The jaw of my heart fell out of my chest” because “for the first time I grasped what it meant to be saved to the praise of his glorious grace.”

Finally, a third category Menikoff offers are novices when it comes to divine sovereignty in human salvation. Since novices are new to the idea of God’s sovereignty, they worry it leads to a fatalistic view of life. They also fear the doctrines of grace will stifle evangelism and good works. Sometimes novices can feel like second-class citizens in the church; but more significantly, novices need help working through the implications of God’s sovereignty. Others must assist them to rise to the full joy of realizing that 100% of their salvation is dependent upon God alone and nothing they did.

To each of the categories above, Menikoff offers counsel to those in each group so the church as a whole might press on toward maturity and unity in the fellowship.

First, natives must offer thanksgiving to God for opening their spiritual eyes long ago. They should be grateful they have not had to struggle with the doctrines of grace. God graciously bestowed upon natives “good teaching” of the “whole counsel of God” and enabled natives to grasp the “difficult doctrines” of Scripture without the long excruciating struggle converts had to bear. “A sound life depend[s] on sound doctrine”; natives have both grasped and now assume such a glorious Bible doctrine.

Second, converts must especially be patient since “not everyone finds the waters of divine sovereignty so warm and refreshing” as do them. They came to the glorious truth after much wrestling and struggle. But now their eyes are opened, and they clearly see what natives have seen all along–God’s absolute sovereignty over salvation. One hundred percent credit goes to God without withholding even the smallest merit for one’s self in being saved.   Hence, converts must be understanding and patient to novices particularly explaining to them the struggles they once faced but now have overcome pertaining to the biblical truths about divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism.

Third, since novices “can feel like they’re drowning in an ocean of theology deeper than they ever imagined,” they must remain “open to teachings of the Bible” no matter how “uncomfortable” that might make them. Scripture must shape us all if we are to grow in our understanding of God’s revealed truth. Even hard doctrines are for the believer’s good.


Menikoff’s Perspective Itself is the Problem Solving Conflict over God’s Sovereignty in Salvation

In response to Menikoff, there are three observations we might make.

First, it doesn’t seem to dawn upon Menikoff that throughout his brief essay, he assumes as absolute truth divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism to be unquestionably established as biblical doctrine. He calls it the “truth of God’s sovereign grace,” a truth to which God’s Holy Spirit “opened his eyes”; a truth which is “simply what the Bible teaches,” and therefore represents “good teaching,” the “whole counsel of God,” and “sound doctrine” whereby a “sound life” might take root.

If Menikoff is correct, why is divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism optional to anyone? In what way could a church be healthy when it actually promoted on the one hand, divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism which is simply what the Bible teaches; a teaching that is good doctrine, sound doctrine leading to a sound life, a life that gives 100% of the credit to God for salvation; and on the other, promoted a divine sovereignty which apparently is unsound, unbiblical, and meritoriously takes at least some credit for being saved, thereby robbing God of His glorious honor?

What is more, how does assuming the truth of one doctrine as biblical (i.e. divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism) and the err of another doctrine as non-biblical (i.e. divine sovereignty as defined by non-Calvinism) actually heal or practically mend conflict between members sincerely holding each doctrine respectively? Suppose one member believed 2+2=4 while another believed 2+2=5. The former member’s view has solid basis in logic and mathematics; therefore, 2+2=4 is “sound teaching” and “sound doctrine” and is true because it’s simply what the numbers show. But how would conflict between the two members be lessened and/or alleviated by assuming one is right and the other wrong? Menikoff’s method in dealing with doctrinal conflict in the church is just not making sense, especially when he fully embraces divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism as “sound doctrine”; as the “whole counsel of God”; as “sound teaching” leading to a “sound life”; in essence, divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism remains precisely what the Bible teaches.   

Second, Menikoff seems oblivious to the spiritual condescension seeping through the pores of his essay. One gets the feeling that a person in his congregation who doesn’t quite accept divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism is little more than mentally incompetent. He or she seems incapable of soberly thinking through the issues God’s sovereignty in salvation brings. Instead the petty questions raised rob these persons of the spiritual victory in accepting “difficult” notions of God. They are sick, weakly, and in need of the most delicate care. Converts must have patience with them recalling that they too once struggled with the same type questions. It’s stunning to one’s spirit to read such a short piece and observe just how condescending it comes across. If only these doubters could just be “open to teachings of the Bible” no matter how “uncomfortable” they may become in doing so. They must remember that Scripture should shape us not we shape Scripture. Consequently, according to Menikoff, their “Christian life will be richer, deeper, and healthier when they grasp that God gets 100 percent of the credit for their salvation.”

Of course, the unstated (not to mention unproved) assumption(s) from Menikoff’s view is, believers who understand divine sovereignty in a way not defined by Calvinism either a) personally embrace at least part of the redemptive credit for being saved; or b) at minimum, imply from their denial of divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism that human beings deserve partial merit for their salvation. The truth is, however, neither a) nor b) follows from rejecting Menikoff’s view of divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism.

I happen to hold a robust view of God’s sovereignty as clearly revealed in Scripture while at the same time rejecting flat out divine sovereignty as defined by strict Calvinism. For me, strict Calvinism’s view of divine sovereignty is far too influenced and/or held captive by extra-biblical categories, preconceived theological commitments, philosophical determinism, and absence of detailed biblical exegesis. In short, divine sovereignty as defined by strict Calvinism resembles more of an anachronistic overlay imposed upon the biblical text rather than exegetical insight derived from the biblical text.     

Third, for those who think the rift between Calvinism and non-Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Tom nettlesConvention is about fizzled out, don’t hold your breath, as they say, on that one. Menikoff’s essay demonstrates nicely the conflict lives on. Indeed, the conflict has yet to trickle down to the grassroots level in any significant way. It’s true that, from a national platform level, non-Calvinism got its denominational tail kicked pretty badly. Consequently, the Calvinization of the Southern Baptist Convention is an undeniable reality. Entities are presently saturated with Calvinistically-oriented leaders and sympathizers.1

Some of the younger SBCers are publicly calling for a cease-fire. North Carolina pastor, Matt Capps, seems to think this conflict is not so important any more, at least to young Southern Baptists like himself. In a fairly-well publicized essay (and promotional piece for J.D. Greear for president of the SBC) entitled “Is There Really a Calvinist/Non-Calvinist Divide in the Younger Generation?” Capps insists Southern Baptists must be careful “not to allow secondary and tertiary matters of conviction” cause our fellowship division. For Capps, theological divergence over Calvinism apparently falls into “secondary and tertiary matters” of faith and hence we must show grace. After all, as Capps, suggests, “There isn’t just one theological stream or tradition in Baptist life, there are many—including fundamentalists, revivalists, orthodox Evangelicals, Calvinists, Molinists, and everything in between.”

Therefore, according to Capps, “Let’s gracefully acknowledge and commend the non-essential convictional variety among us, and affirm our uniformity in the essentials.”

Yes. Let’s.

But first, let’s consider why, if Calvinistically-driven soteriology falls into the “secondary and tertiary matters of conviction” which are “non-essential” and since we have not one theological stream or tradition in Baptist life but many, many including “fundamentalists, revivalists, orthodox Evangelicals, Calvinists, Molinists, and everything in between,” why are Southern Baptists expected to fund a seminary that virtually excludes any other of the many theological streams in Baptist life than strict Calvinism? Why do Al Mohler and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary get a pass on excluding all theological streams of Baptist life except the “Reformed” stream?

Furthermore, if Calvinism and non-Calvinism come under the heading of “secondary and tertiary matters of conviction” which are “non-essential,” what remains the actual motivation behind the theological shift back toward the 19th century Calvinism of James P. Boyce? If Calvinism and non-Calvinism come under the heading of “secondary and tertiary matters of conviction” which are “non-essential” why was it so important to implement a Calvinism Resurgence at Southern seminary?

Moreover, if Calvinism really belongs to “secondary and tertiary matters of conviction” which are “non-essential” as Capps insists it does, would Capps be willing to publicly exhort Al Mohler and the seminary over which he sits as president to correct the misguided vision of imposing non-essential, secondary and tertiary matters of conviction upon an entity owned by all Southern Baptists who are made up of fundamentalists, revivalists, orthodox Evangelicals, Calvinists, Molinists, and everything in between?  

There are other factors we could cite in showing pastors like Capps are simply not paying attention—whether intentionally or unintentionally—to what’s taken place in the convention over the last two decades concerning Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention.

And, I’m sorry to add, if Capps was paying attention, he would surely include an essay like Menikoff’s in his sights, for Menikoff boldly proclaims Calvinism anything but “secondary and tertiary matters of conviction.” Rather, like Al Mohler and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Menikoff places divine sovereignty as defined by Calvinism as essential, non-negotiable theological truth representing the “whole counsel of God” as “sound doctrine”; in short, it simply is what the Bible teaches.


1Please understand: not all sympathizers are strict theological Calvinists and may even hold to a more non-Calvinist theology. If we maintain a more narrow definition of Baptist Calvinism as those embracing the “doctrines of grace” or the so-called “five points of Calvinism” (i.e. TULIP), it’s clear a significant portion of those who’ve embraced and at least partially supported what I’ve come to call the “Calvinization” of the convention are not Calvinistically-inclined at all. Even so, they have for the most part remained publicly silent about the Calvinist Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, and more significantly, have adjusted their convention role to accommodate the Calvinization of our entities, boards, and denominational infrastructure at all levels. Thus, the term I employed to describe them–sympathizers.

Know also that the sympathizer pool continues to swell in the SBC and will remain at flood-stage levels for any foreseeable future. I do not blame them really. Many of them are denominational employees, and their livelihood would surely suffer were they to publicly resist in any significant way the Calvinization process. The truth is, all the major megaphones of influence in the Southern Baptist Convention presently and decidedly belong to strict Calvinists and their sympathizers. This will not be undone easily.

As a side note, since strict Calvinists and their sympathizers are now in charge of the Southern Baptist Convention infrastructure, the success or demise of the Southern Baptist Convention is in their hands. No longer will they be able to blame Charles Finny, Billy Graham, E.Y. Mullins, W.O. Carver, pragmatism, teetotalism, decisionism, Arminianism, the sinner’s prayer, single-elder church, and, most of all, getting away from 19th century strict Calvinism for the demise of the convention, a demise, as our statistics undeniably show, already in progress since strict Calvinists and their sympathizers ascended to the captain’s chair of the old Southern Baptist ship. They are the watchmen on the wall. What happens to the convention happens on their watch.            





















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