So that you will know up front, this post is about Calvinism, and the next will be about the place of women in the church. I thought, since I am about to leave for two weeks to attend the Southern Baptist Convention and help lead a mission team to Mississippi, that I would like to guarantee a full mail box upon my return!
Every once in a while, urban legend makes its way into the church via an imagined controversy. While such conspiracy theories are usually harmless, they can also sometimes stir up needless strife within the body. With regard to the issue of Calvinism and all the noise recently made about it across Southern Baptist life, I am wondering whether this is a true threat as many contend, or simply a scapegoat so that we don't have to examine the real issues behind our problems.
I was reminded of this today after coming home from the office and picking up my latest copy of National Liberty Journal. (Yes, I admit to getting, and sometimes even reading this monthly apologia for the Republican party.) On the front page, Dr. Ergun Caner, President of Liberty Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia, forwards the idea that one of the biggest threats to the unity of Baptist churches is Calvinism. Caner states that "it has become so commonplace in Baptist life, many of us just skim past the articles. In a Baptist paper recently, I read: "Another Church Splits Over Calvinism." Baptist news agencies have begun to investigate this mounting issue."
I hear similar things from pastors from time to time, but have yet to find anyone who can point to a definite example of a church that literally split over this issue. And one would think, given the large numbers of Baptist churches rent in two each year, that at least one tangible example could be presented.
Adding to these thoughts, I should probably reveal at this point that I personally lean very heavily in the Reformed direction. But I've never been angry about it, never attempted to convert a church to it, and honestly detest much of what has been said over the past decade by BOTH sides of the debate regarding this issue.
This is not to say that when I get to texts like Romans 9 or Ephesians 1 that I simply skip over them for the sake of "peace", and I would hope that those who have a different view of these texts would resist that temptation as well! It is however to say that I have always challenged my people to be good Bereans, examine the text for themselves, and draw their conclusions, not based on their pre-conceived notions, or on my opinion, but on the text as it stands. And what has been the result of this approach? In my first pastorate, the church doubled in average worship attendance over a three-year period and saw 60% of its growth come from people turning from their sins and placing their faith in Jesus Christ. I later planted a church that continues to make Kingdom impact, and has helped to birth two other churches. Presently, I get to ride the wave of what I truly believe will become a church planting movement in central Maryland. How did my understanding of the "doctrines of grace" affect this? Well, for one thing, I understand that I didn't accomplish any of the above. God by His grace chose to do it through me even though I didn't deserve it!
To be sure, I'm aware of the fact that there are a few Calvinists out there, "green" in the ministry, usually just out of seminary, who can cause quite a stir. But I have yet to see any examples of such young bucks tearing into a helpless church and leaving them broken. In every case like this I have seen, the congregation, showing much more spiritual maturity than their young pastor, simply fires the guy, and the trouble is over! Al Mohler (himself a five-point Calvinist) has wisely said that any seminary student who becomes convinced of Calvinism should immediately be detained in prison cell for a "cooling off" period! But while I appreciate all the perceived angst over what some believe to be false doctrine, I'm simply not convinced that this threat is real. To use a southern metaphor, I think it is highly possible that the whole "Calvinism debate" is no more than a theological "snipe hunt."
That said, I was surprised to hear Dr. Caner speaking of this "threat" as if the destruction of the entire Southern Baptist Convention were imminent because of it! But frankly, the more I read of his front-page article, the more I came face-to-face with categorical fallicies, undefined and mis-defined terminology, and broad sweeping generalizations. Honestly, given Dr. Caner's past track record of "debate," I should have expected no less. But I was hoping for much more from a seminary president who touts himself as the "intellectual pit bull of the evangelical world."
Caner's latest article is but one of a long string of vitriolic outburtsts at those who have differences with him on issues secondary to the Christian faith. Initially, I thought it best to leave this one alone. But if you are a baseball fan you know that sometimes its hard to resist when the pitcher keeps trying to get you to swing at a pitch in the dirt. Sometimes you have to pick the ball up and throw it back in his face!
Therefore, what follows are responses to a five-fold description Caner gives of "Hyper-Calvinism." My reason for this is not to prove one side or the other. The relationship between divine sovereingty and human responsibility has been debated for over 500 years, since before the Reformation, and we aren't about to end that discussion in a single blog entry! Still, my contention here is that if there is trouble over Calvinism in the Convention, it might possibly be caused just as much by those on the other side. And mischaracterizing a person's position is certainly a way to stir up trouble! So let's take a look at Ergun Caner's description of this "danger" called "Hyper-Calvinism."
Says Caner: 1. Double Predestination. Simply put, they believe that a small group of people are predestined, even before the Creation, for heaven, and that the vast majority of the world is predestined, even created for, hell.
This is an interesting way to present this doctrine. First of all, Ephesians 1: 4 states clearly that election, whatever you believe about it, happened "before the foundation of the world." To put it bluntly, Caner's problem with God acting prior to creation isn't with the Calvinists. It's with the Bible
Second, I know of no one holding this view who believes that the saved constitute only a "small number." In fact, when I read Revelation 7, John tells me that the number of the redeemed is so great, mathematics fails at keeping track of them all! Conversely, of those who go to hell, Caner speaks as if these were somehow OK with God until He made a decision to send them there. He forgets the simple Biblical truth that ALL are born dead. Therefore, while a Calvinist may technically believe in what is called "double predestination," no serious student of Scripture believes that "election" and "reprobation" are both active steps of God. "Reprobation," or the sending of someone to hell is done passively. God doesn't actively predestine anyone to hell. He simply allows them to follow their own self-made path of destruction which ends up there. If I die lost, God doesn't have to "predestine" me to hell, because I've been on my way there my whole life!
Furthermore, the contention that the majority of humanity will go to hell is in fact Biblical! Jesus repeatedly states throughout the Scriptures that more will be lost than will be saved (Matthew 7:13-14). This has nothing to do with Calvinism. It is clearly taught in the Bible.
2. Not all babies who die go to heaven. They do not say outright that 'non-elect babies who die go to hell.' They simply say that they leave such issues to the sovereignty of God. This raises the issue of the very nature of God, doesn't it?
For the record, I personally believe that all who die in infancy go to be with Jesus. I make this claim primarily on the basis of David's statement in 2 Samuel, where he looks forward in faith to the moment when he will see his newborn son in heaven.
That said, I have friends who do in fact believe what Caner has described above. While I do not agree, I do appreciate their struggle with this issue, and their refusal to ignore the truth that we are all born dead in our trespasses and sins, and that the "age of accountability" is nowhere to be found in the Biblical text. My own answer to this is that God regenerates the infant prior to death, and I admit that this is an incomplete answer, because it does not address how God does so apart from repentance and faith.
Caner contends that to even discuss such an issue "raises the issue of the very nature of God, doesn't it?" No it does not. It does however, raise the issue of human nature, which Caner seems to completely ignore here. Trite answers to hard questions like this help no one. And lest you think I'm simply living in an ivory tower, I'd remind you that you are reading the words of a father who has six-year-old and eight-month-old sons! What would I do if something happened to one of my boys? If I am given the choice between wringing my hands over whether they were old enough, knew enough, believed enough, or simply placing them in the sovereign hands of the Judge of the Earth whom Scripture tells me always does what is right, I choose the later!
3. God's "love for mankind" must be redefined. Yes, they will say. God does love the world. But His love is a matter of degrees . . .They do not believe that God wants a relationship with everyone. That would go against their system and theology.
Where do I even start? Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists believe that God truly desires a relationship with every person! 1 Timothy 2: 4 says that God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." The problem however, which Caner has completely ignored, is that not all are saved, and both Calvinists and non-Calvinists have their own understanding as to why this is. Neither side would say that there is something or someone more powerful than God who is keeping Him from saving all people. But BOTH sides believe that while God values the salvation of all men, there is something else that He values more. Calvinists say that God values the full display of His glory in both His justice and mercy more than the salvation of all men. Non-Calvinists say that God values man's free will more than the salvation of all men. But neither side, including the Calvinist side, says that God does not have a genuine love for the whole world, nor does either side deny that God is full of sorrow when the wicked refuse to repent. (Ezekiel 18:32)
4. Invitations are an insult to the sovereingty of God. Disturbing as this may sound, some ministers of this stripe have stopped giving invitations in their services.
Caner may be unaware that many non-Calvinists are also jettisonning the formal "invitation." No such presentation is given at Marathon Community Church in Easley South Carolina. Yet this church has grown to over 5000 in nine years without such a man-made practice. His myopic sense of history may in fact be prohibiting him from realizing that this formal way of inviting people to come to the front of a church building is a quite new approach, popularized by the revivalist Charles G. Finney.
Do I personally think "invitations" are an insult to God? In general, no. I came to faith in Christ by responding to just such an invitation.
However, do I think "mood music,"turning down the lights, appeals empowered more by emotionalism than truth, shouting over the music, "programming" people to come forward in order to "get it started," 493 verses of "Just as I Am," and marking such a time as more "sacred" than the previous half-hour spent in the Bible is an insult to God? Yes I do! In fact, I believe such actions border on the blasphemous!
5. Calvinism is the only Gospel. they believe that Calvinism, and only Calvinism is the preaching of the Gospel.
This is simply not true! I have rejoiced to hear the Gospel preached by Methodists, Pentecostals, Free-will Baptists, Nazarene's, and a host of others who would reject the "doctrines of grace." Such a characterization may be rightly fitted on the recent seminary graduate I mention above, but I know of no serious pastor holding to Calvinism who would say such a thing.
I found it interesting that, given all the "differences" Dr. Caner claims to have with someone like me, his description of the Gospel was identical to my own. He writes: "I believe Jesus Christ died to save mankind and offers salvation to every living soul. I believe in the 'whosoever will.' I believe that His love and salvation are extended to every person who will repent of sin and trust in Him."
To the above, I can only say "AMEN!"
So then, what is the problem? From whence comes all of the "trouble" Caner laments?
My own experiences after nearly a decade and a half in ministry have taught me that many times, the issue isn't about doctrine so much as it is about attitude. In a sense, Caner has a point. There is a vast difference between being a "Calvinist" and being a "Calvinazi." But this same point could be turned back on Caner himself. It is one thing to reject Calvinism on what you perceive to be Biblical grounds. It is quite another to mischaracterize, mallign, slander, and build "straw men," and then turn around and blame the other side for "stirring up trouble" or for "causing division," or for "splitting churches."
As a pastor, I have nearly fired staff for pushing Calvinism in the church as if the continued life of the congregation depended on their admiration of TULIP. I have also passed over otherwise qualified and talented staff who were non-Calvinists, and wanted to make an issue of it! In short, I've never hired or fired anyone because they were, or were not, a Calvinist. I have however, put my foot in the hind parts of staff members because they were jerks!
So in the end, I would contend that one side is stirring the waters on this issue every bit as much as the other side. And the sad part of this is that NEITHER side can be as evangelistically productive while yelling across the aisle.
On a more personal note, what can I do to quell this unneccesary struggle? Aside from making corrections as I have done above, I can continue to work with those who disagree with me on this issue, because making Jesus known is more important.
I can also continue to recognize that those who differ with me on this issue are my brothers in Christ . . .and when I say that I don't mean to imply that they are my "little brothers." Some seem to approach this issue in exactly this way: thinking they are promoting "unity" because they "tolerate" the other side even though the other side has what they believe to be a "warped view of God." Such a view is built on sinful pride, and will never put an end to the contention.
John Wesley never thought that George Whitefield didn't really mean it when he called sinners to believe in Christ. Whitefield likewise, never accused Wesley of not believing in a sovereign God. Maybe we should try to learn something from these two men who, while they could not have been further apart on this issue, continued to labor together in the same harvest field.
Since 1845, Southern Baptists have had robust debate about the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsbility. What has kept this discussion healthy is that we have kept it "in house" and "off" the mission field! My call here is simply to stop the madness! Both sides have to stop marginalizing each other, calling each other "extremists," viewing each other as a "threat," and believing that the other teaches heresy.
Both sides preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of continuing to tear each other down, maybe we should try working together to lift Him up!