I am a member of a Southern Baptist church. I am also a Calvinist. For those of you who belong to another denomination you may not be aware of the tension that exists between those who identify as Calvinists and those who do not. Personally I’m ok coexisting, but increasingly there is a vocal group within the Southern Baptist Convention who see Calvinism as a blight within the denomination.
First a quick definition of the terms Calvinism and Arminianism thanks to Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition:
Arminianism — a set of doctrines, first elucidated by Jacob Arminius but based on exegesis of scripture, that concludes that unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God’s will, yet salvation is conditioned on a person’s willingness to freely place their faith in Christ. For Arminians, the offer of grace by the Holy Spirit is resistible.
Calvinism — a set of doctrines, first elucidated by John Calvin but based on exegesis of scripture, that conclude God alone is responsible for every aspect of salvation, from beginning to end, election to glory, and man contributes nothing to it. For Calvinists, the offer of grace by the Holy Spirit is irresistible.
I was reminded of this conflict, as it’s not really all that visible in my local church, when I read about a recent chapel service at the SBC’s largest seminary – Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, TX. I was troubled by the chapel speaker’s comments, but more so by what Dr. Paige Patterson, president of the seminary, said directly after.
I know there are a fair number of you who think you are a Calvinist, but understand there is a denomination which represents that view. It’s called Presbyterian.
I have great respect for them. Many of them, the vast majority of them, are brothers in Christ, and I honor their position, but if I held that position I would become a Presbyterian. I would not remain a Baptist, because the Baptist position from the time of the Anabaptists, really from the time of the New Testament, is very different.
Prior to this over 1000 Southern Baptists (including numerous former SBC leaders and pastors) signed a “Statement on the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of Salvation.”
This tension is not unique among Southern Baptists there have been similar tensions within the Evangelical Free Church (I have served as a youth pastor and pastor in the EFCA) even though the factions have not been so organized. Also there is a detente that has taken place within the Evangelical Free Church which has taken a neutral stance on Calvinism, or the doctrines of grace, within their statement of faith. Unlike the Evangelical Free Church, the Southern Baptist Convention does take a position on eternal security so in that sense they have adopted at least one tenet of Calvinism formally.
The Baptist Faith & Message takes a neutral stand on election.
Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.
All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
The primary difference influence of Arminianism is seen when looking Article III in the Baptist Faith & Message as it deals with the Doctrine of Man.
Man is the special creation of God, made in His own image. He created them male and female as the crowning work of His creation. The gift of gender is thus part of the goodness of God’s creation. In the beginning man was innocent of sin and was endowed by his Creator with freedom of choice. By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God. The sacredness of human personality is evident in that God created man in His own image, and in that Christ died for man; therefore, every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love.
“Inclined toward sin” is a statement that doesn’t reflect a view that man is totally depraved.
I want to make two points here.
1. The “traditional” Southern Baptist soteriology is not actually traditional.
The 1925 Baptist Faith & Message says this about the doctrine of man.
Man was created by the special act of God, as recorded in Genesis. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen. 1:27). “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7).
He was created in a state of holiness under the law of his Maker, but, through the temptation of Satan, he transgressed the command of God and fell from his original holiness and righteousness; whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.
Inheriting a corrupt nature and being “inclined toward sin” are significant differences. This change occurred in 1963. The statement on election has been virtually unchanged.
Thomas S. Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University, points out that Calvinism is not new to Baptists.
In a 1793 survey, early Baptist historian John Asplund estimated that there were 1,032 Baptist churches in America. Out of those, 956 were Calvinist congregations. These were “Particular Baptists,” for they believed in a definite atonement (or “particular redemption”), that Christ had died to save the elect decisively. “General Baptists,” who believed that Christ had died indefinitely for the sins of anyone who would choose him, accounted for a tiny fraction of the whole. Even some of those, Asplund noted, believed in certain Calvinist tenets such as “perseverance in grace.”
Kidd notes there were Baptists among those who came to faith in Christ during the Great Awakening:
The Separate Baptists of New England were typically people who had been converted during the Great Awakening, often under the itinerant preaching of (Calvinist) George Whitefield or other zealous evangelicals. The Separate Baptists were almost uniformly Calvinist in their convictions, as were the pastors who led America’s Great Awakening (like Jonathan Edwards). The converts often discovered that their own churches and pastors were not supportive of the revivals, so they started meeting in “Separate” churches.
What I find interesting is that it was the Arminian Baptists who opposed the revivals happening during the Great Awakening.
Only some of the “Particular” or “Regular” Baptists associated with the Philadelphia Association of Baptists (formed decades before the Great Awakening) supported the revivals. The General Baptists of New England, wary of interdenominational cooperation, mostly opposed the new revivalism. Doing so nearly ended the Arminian (free will) Baptist influence in America for about three decades. Their numbers dwindled and some Arminians joined Separate or other Calvinist Baptist congregations.
Then if you look further back at the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith it very much embraced the Reformation view of soteriology which is Calvinistic.
Kidd noted a decline in Calvinist influence among Baptists starting in 1830. Even so, the SBC’s doctrine of man did not change until 1963. Hardly the traditional view!
2. Calvinist Baptists are not the same as Presbyterians and Reformed Christians.
The Presbyterian Church is not a natural home for Baptists who Calvinists as Patterson suggests. Being Presbyterian or being Reformed means much more than believing in the doctrines of grace.
The primary difference is over baptism. I disagree with baptizing infants. Baptizing those who have professed their faith in Christ by immersion is the biblical model. I know many, many faithful believers who attend churches that practice infant baptism who believe differently, but it is one of the reasons I can’t become a member of a Presbyterian or Reformed church.
Then there is the issue of church polity. Presbyterian and Reformed Churches use a presbyterian form of church government which is elder run. Not only do they have elders that oversee individual churches, but they are also under the delegated authority of a regional body of churches which is called a presbytery in the Presbyterian Church and a classis and an even broader body called a synod in the Reformed tradition.
Most Baptist churches utilize a congregational form of government. This generally means each individual church is autonomous. That is the primary difference – there is not a regional body that has any authority over an individual church whether it is delegated or not. Baptist churches (and other congregational churches) can and do belong to different conventions, districts or associations that allows them toshare common beliefs, cooperate in joint ministry efforts and regulate clergy with other congregations. Congregations typically vote on different items during business meetings for members of the local church. Churches under the congregational system vary however with some being led by a single elder/pastor and other churches have a plurality of elders and the level of congregational involvement and decision-making varies by church.
These are not the only distinctions, but these are the major ones.