by Adam Harwood, Ph.D.
During the last 12 months, a committee of 19 Southern Baptists labored to write a consensus statement on Calvinism before next month’s annual meeting of the SBC. They met their deadline. On the evening of May 30, SBC Life posted “Truth, Trust and Testimony in a Time of Tension” (T5).
Southern Baptists have discussed Calvinism on multiple occasions in recent years. In 2007, the Building Bridges Conference heard voices from both perspectives. In 2008 and earlier this year, the John 3:16 Conferences articulated a non-Calvinist view; a Calvinistic perspective is heard at the annual Founder’s Breakfast and SBC Seminary-hosted 9Marks Conferences.
Tensions escalated between Calvinist and non-Calvinist Southern Baptists last summer. On May 30, 2012 (exactly one year before the release of T5), “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” (Traditional Statement) was released. In the document, certain non-Calvinists–or, to use David Dockery’s term, Traditionalists–articulated their doctrine of salvation. Some Calvinists considered the Traditional Statement to be divisive. Before the end of the Summer, Frank Page (President of the SBC Executive Committee) announced the formation of a Calvinism Advisory Committee “to develop a strategy whereby people of various theological persuasions can purposely work together in missions and evangelism.”
I had high expectations for a document which might result from the meetings of the Calvinism Advisory Committee and my expectations were met. I see at least 5 reasons to celebrate T5.
1. It models Great Commission unity amidst Southern Baptist diversity. People with differing theological convictions have set aside those differences in order to reaffirm cooperation for the sake of the lost. The last two sentences of T5 exhorts: “But let us not neglect the task we are assigned. The world desperately needs to hear the promise of the Gospel.” By these words, the committee has aligned itself with the mission of the Lord Jesus Himself, who “came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Such unity exists in wide theological diversity within the parameters of the BFM. Page’s team was comprised of prominent, convictional Southern Baptist voices from both sides (and the middle) of the table.
2. Southern Baptists agree to disagree on certain points of Calvinism. That’s important. The wrong approach would be to act as if there were no differences. There are different theological views among Southern Baptists, some of which are significant. But, as T5 rightly notes, Southern Baptists have always been comprised of both Calvinists and non-Calvinists. They hold differing views on certain doctrines. But since the organization of the SBC in 1845, we have agreed to disagree on those particular theological points. T5 simply reaffirms our agreement to differ peaceably on those issues. As the document states, “Southern Baptists who stand on either side of these issues should celebrate the freedom to hold their views with passion while granting others the freedom to do the same.”
3. It denounces partisan and hidden theological agendas. Certain voices on both sides have insisted there is no room in the SBC for the other theological view. T5 says otherwise: “Neither Calvinism nor non-Calvinism ought to be equated exclusively with sound Southern Baptist doctrine nor be considered inconsistent with it.” Also: “Neither those insisting that Calvinism should dominate Southern Baptist identity nor those who call for its elimination should set the course for our life together.” And: “No entity should be promoting Calvinism or non-Calvinism to the exclusion of the other.” These statements rule out-of-bounds any plans for a “quiet revolution” to change the theological convictions of SBC congregations regarding Calvinism. Further, the document declares, “In order to prevent the rising incidence of theological conflict in the churches, we should expect all candidates for ministry positions in the local church to be fully candid and forthcoming about all matters of faith and doctrine, even as we call upon pulpit and staff search committees to be fully candid and forthcoming about their congregation and its expectations.” Both views are permissible in the SBC and all should be honest about their views regarding Calvinism.
4. It affirms that the BFM trumps all Baptist confessions in the SBC. Many SBC churches do not affirm the BFM, which is permissible due to the Southern Baptist view of the autonomy of the local church. But cooperation among SBC churches is only possible when there is one confession which all churches affirm in order to pool resources for efforts such as church planting, missions, and theological education. Recently, some people have claimed that the BFM should be interpreted by other earlier statement of faith, such as the Second London Confession or the Abstract of Principles. This committee has clarified the issue: “Other Baptist Confessions are not to be lenses through which The Baptist Faith & Message is to be read. The Baptist Faith & Message alone is our expression of common belief.”
5. It allows both Calvinist and non-Calvinist views which fall under the BFM, but doesn’t require any commitments necessary for Calvinism. I’ll provide two examples. First, T5 states: “We agree that everyone has inherited Adam’s hopelessly fallen sin nature, but we differ as to whether we also inherit his guilt.” Non-Calvinists can affirm this sentence with no difficulty because some deny inherited guilt and others affirm it. In this way, T5 allows but does not require an affirmation of imputed guilt. However, an affirmation of imputed guilt is required by every historic Calvinistic confession. Second, T5 declares that “we agree that God loves everyone and desires to save everyone, but we differ as to why only some are ultimately saved.” No non-Calvinist would deny this claim, but some Calvinists would deny the claim. Those are just two examples of doctrines which are particular to Calvinism which T5 allows, but does not require. If this is true, then perhaps tensions will subside because T5 declares Calvinism to be permissible but not required in the SBC.
Last summer, Trevin Wax wrote an essay titled “Denominations Ought to Be More Like Family.” He writes, in part:
I wish we’d sit across the table more often from precious saints who don’t always see things the same way. I wish our passion for each other was stronger than our passion for our pet preferences. I wish we’d cut each other some slack instead of nitpicking each other to death. And I wish the fervor of our denominational debates was matched by our fervor for evangelism.
We are family. Because of Christ’s death, we share the same bloodline. Because of Christ’s resurrection, we share the same power. Because of His ascension, we share the same mission. So let’s act like it. Let’s live in the unity Christ bought for us and love each other fiercely, even more fiercely than we sometimes disagree.
I agree with Wax. And I am thankful for the statement from the Calvinism Advisory Committee.
http://sbclife.org/Articles/2013/06/Sla1.asp (accessed May 31, 2013).
For the 9Marks conference schedule, including those hosted by two SBC Seminaries, see: http://www.9marks.org/events/.
Interestingly, the Traditional Statement was released on the evening of May 30, 2012 and this consensus statement was released on the evening of May 30, 2013. To read the Traditional Statement and the 921 online comments (now closed), see http://sbctoday.com/2012/05/30/an-introduction-to-“a-statement-of-the-traditional-southern-baptist-understanding-of-god’s-plan-of-salvation”/.
See David Dockery’s 7 types of Southern Baptists described in Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal (B&H, 2008).
http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=38507 (accessed May 31, 2013).
See Ernest C. Reisinger & D. Matthew Allen, A Quiet Revolution (Founders Press, 2000).
http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2012/08/20/denominations-ought-to-be-more-like-family/ (accessed May 31, 2013).
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