Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Calvinism and Contention: Who is Stirring Up all the Trouble?

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!


David Phillips said...

How dare you say that Caner doesn't know the Bible! How dare you read propaganda from the Republican... strike that... Liberty University.

Again, an attempt to build straw men and play on people's emotions. I wonder if he has actually sat down and talked with a reasonable Calvinist. How many discussions about the issue has he had with Al Mohler?

My recent study of the book of Romans has brought me fully into the camp, but I'm not nuts about it. I generally work away from the topic - just like eschatology - because I want people to look at the texts and decide this issue on their own.

I hold no one as a demon if they don't believe the way I do. I simply trust in the sovereignty of God, and believe that he will do what needs to be done.

Anonymous said...

I read the Caner piece and it is a fine example of assertion without warrant.

While he insists he is neither a Calvinist or an Arminian, he is forced into a schizophrenic theological wasteland. A firm either/or is exchanged for a relativistic both/and, and what remains is nothing certain.

I appreciate the honesty of David Phillips when he said, "I'm not nuts about it." How many of us first had such reluctant affection for the truth of God's Word? We find ourselves in a position of desperate need, rather than a position of cooperation.

As we progress, however, we find that we are safer being in need of His overriding mercy and grace than being a fellow worker in our own salvation. If we contribute, we can't trust our salvation. If God does it, we are safe, indeed.

Further, Caner represents what I sense is the front end of the last gasp of a certain brand of theological relativism that is based more on moral position than biblical exposition. We can, I think, be optimistic for the future of scholarship, and the attacks from people like Caner will be seen as nuissance rather than a serious threat.

James said...

The issue is not that churches are splitting on paper per se. That would be far too easy to fix. The split slowly and some became cloisters of Calvinism while others something else.

One must remember that no one has a 100% un-bias view of scripture or any text. We also must remember many of us are influenced by modern rationalism and modern thinking in general (or even just the American dream). The writers of the texts in question (the Bible) are at best Pre-modern eastern people. We are not.

We must also remember that some people are Thomists and some are Augustinian ( or other such classical distinction). Calvin did not particularly care for Thomas Aquinas he liked Augustine. The Calvinist is by proxy Augustinian. What does that mean? Well Agustin liked platonic (neo-Platonism to be exact) thought. Aquinas was Aristotelian and we already have a vast difference in logic, epistemology and to be frank, hermeneutic. Platonic thought tends to be a-historical and Aristotelian are more historical. You guessed right Caner is a Thomist. Neo –Platonism was what also gave us the Gnostics, people chosen to receive a special secret “knowledge “ one could not get any where else and you had to have it for salvation (e.i. the platonic forms) Irresistible grace, unconditional election platonic to the core.

The idea that one must be Calvinist or Armenian to be on the theological banks is platonic at best. Maybe they are both wrong...
This seems relativistic because we are not working now in a platonic philosophical framework. This is not appealing to emotion or what the individual wants; one is taking the text from a full vantage point (including history, culture of the writer etc.) and admitting one frailty before jumping onto a full theory. They were more okay with mystery. They also tend to define faith as the end of works not a work.

As to his corner of theology being a last gasp, please do not hold your breath. I do not agree with him all the time but we need to make sure our critics are just.
(I will add in my time at Liberty, Caner was one of the few non-Calvanist in the Religion department)

Joel Rainey said...

Hi James,

Thanks for offering the "crash course" in the difference between rationalism and empiricism.

Unfortunately, neither of these issues is at the heart of what I am trying to communicate in this post. I would encourage you to go back and read my work more carefully. You will discover that it isn't about defending Calvinism. Rather, it is about rectifying a mischaracterization of my position, and declaring my belief that Calvinists and non-Calvinists (I do not speak of Caner, or those who share his views, as Arminian, as you suggest, nor do I see Calvinism and Arminianism as the "banks" of soteriology) can and should work together, rather than see each other as a threat.

Likewise, I don't believe the current debate is between adherents to Augustine as opposed to adherents to Aquinas. Both Caner and myself would come out of the hermaneutical tradition of Augustine, albeit Caner is what is known as "semi-Augistinian." And I would contest your view that this debate is fueled by differing views of epistemology. The difference is merely one of hermaneutics between Evangelical Christians.

One final thing: Your argument that our modern thought and interpretation of Scripture is governed more by Platonic dualism than the actual text of the Bible. While this may be true in some pockets of Christendom, I do not believe that contention holds true here, and I would say this is equally true of Caner. I would also take issue with the contention that Platonic dualism, Gnosticism, etc. had heavy influence on the later writings of Scripture (i.e. the rationale that Paul takes Jewish monotheism, mixes it with pagan polytheism and the result was the trinity). I'm certainly no expert in this field, but I can certainly point you to one. Let me suggest that you read the late Ronald Nash's "The Gospel and the Greeks."

Other than the above, and the fact that you confuse a theologian who belives in totally free will (Arminian) with an ethnic nationality (Armenian), I find your comments intriguing. Do come by again.

Stephen Holland said...

I don't pretend to be an authority on a Calvinist's or an Arminian's school of thought but this polemic is designed based on man's nature to argue with one another for the sake of arguing.

First, I disagree with the notion Scripture is silent about the age of accountability. Dr. Vernon McGee's commentary on the book of Numbers points out when the Israelites were in the wilderness, due to their sin, anyone over the age of 20 would not see the Promised Land. If I remember correctly, a Levite could not work in the tent of meeting until he was 25 and a priest could not begin his service until he was 30, strongly suggesting an age of accountability.

I believe without a shadow of a doubt that my 6 year old brother who died from an accidental gunshoot wound is in heaven right now. Does suffer ALL the little children unto me mean something different?

The Bible clearly speaks about the doctrine of the elect but John 3:16 says God so loved the WORLD... What does the "world" in that verse mean in Greek? The Bible also says God takes no enjoyment in punishing and wants EVERYONE to come to repentance.

Calvinists and Arminians alike need to realize that no one is worthy, no, NOT ONE, and we who have been drawn to Christ by need to show that much more love b/c we were chosen, for His glory, to be freed from a death sentence by the one true Governor.

Joel Rainey said...


Please don't take this as sarcasm or disrespect, but I'm honestly wondering . . . did you even READ my post?

Aside from your contention with me on the "age of accountability," everything else you said was either "preaching to the choir" (I agree that God wants all to come to repentance, and so do all Calvinists I know. I also agree with you on the issue of infants and young children who die.) or "straw men" arguments (If someone else quotes John 3:16 to me as the 'end all, be-all refutation of Calvinism, I'm going to scream! All sides believe EVERY WORD of John 3:16! This issue is a bit deeper than just appealing to a proof text).

I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt at present that you simply didn't pay attention when you read my article. If this is so, I beg of you to read it again, and this time, slow down a bit so that you can catch the spirit of what I'm saying.

It is interesting to me that you started by saying we shouldn't fight about this issue, then immediately proceeded with a very weak attempt to actually take a side. My point here is that we should be working together, regardless of our convictions on this matter. If you agree, then I'm not sure of the purpose of your post.

Stephen Holland said...

Yes Joel, of course I read your post.

I was in Sunday school this past week and the doctrine of election was the topic and I brought up John 3:16 and the other verse about God wanting everyone to come to repentence. A gentleman said he went on a website called "got questions" and typed in the doctrine of the elect. It was suggested 3:16 meant every person from every tribe and tongue of the world would be represented in the age to come alluding to Scripture notated in Revelations I believe. Have you heard that interpretation? I have not and thought it was interesting.

I never said 3:16 was the end-all, be-all, I was just using that verse as a reference to support my "weak argument".

The purpose of my post I thought was clearly outlined in my last paragraph. I do agree with you Joel that we should not fight over something that is clearly a mystery of God since we are not privy to and have no inclination of on who the elect are or are not.

Hence the reason on the futility of this debate.

Joel Rainey said...


Thanks for the clarification, and please accept my apology for misunderstanding your intent.

I did in fact interpret your words as an attempt to refute my own position. Understand that I am completely OK with those who don't agree, and I even desire discussion on this so that iron can sharpen iron. However, many have simply quoted John 3:16, told me that God doesn't take pleasure in the death of the wicked (two things I wholeheartedly agree with) in order to "debunk" what they see as an aberrant way of thinking. Usually this is in the context of the argument "Calvinism and Arminianism are both wrong," followed by an attempt to take on Calvinism.

I hope this explains why I misunderstood your intentions. These are discussions that should take place, I think. But there must be mutual respect and an over-arching concern for mission for the discussion to happen in the right spirit. At present, there are those on both sides who have little if any respect for their brothers, and who have more interest in debating theological minutea than in refining their understanding of mission so that they can more effectively obey the Great Commission.

Also, please accept my condolences concerning your brother. I'm assuming this happened a long time ago, but regardless, you never get over those things, and I know that horrible experience causes a great deal of reflection on issues like those that were discussed here.

Hopefully, you will understand why I misjudged you, accept my apology, and stop by again. :)

Stephen Holland said...

No problem Joel, really.

You came as a guest speaker at my church one time. I am pastored under Spencer Haygood at Orange Hill Baptist.

He has a blog site as well but in truth Joel since I knew of you when you visited my church I visited your site once and keep coming back.

Not to uplift you, but God has given you a gift and I immensely enjoy and profit from your posts!

In truth Joel, please let me know especially if you disagree. I read this quote once where Wolfgang Puck said he learned more about the one restaurant who didn't succeed as opposed to all the others who did. I may not always agree either but we're still brothers in Christ.

Be well and I look forward to your next post!!

johnMark said...

About these alleged splits by Calvinism and suc in SBC churchs I wonder something along the same lines. I wonder how many folks in the pews even know and understand the Baptist Faith and Message 2000? A poll would be interesting as I don't think it would turn out well.

Stephen, I have thought about visiting Orange Hill and still may. Pastor Haygood is listed on the Founders site I believe which makes me want to visit.


Ps. There is a local SBC church who has a self-proclaimed, 5-point Arminian as its pastor. How does this fit with the BFM2K?

Joel Rainey said...

John Mark,

As far as I'm aware, there are no full Arminians serving as pastor of any Southern Baptist Church. Although our churches are free to call whomever they desire, it is generally understood that to deny eternal security (perseverance, or whatever you prefer to call it) is contrary to the 200 BFM.

I agree with you however that it is likely few Southern Baptists have even read the 2000 BFM, or any of its predecessory documents. Most Baptists retch at the doctrine of unconditional election, but simultaneously cling tightly to eternal security, often not realizing the close connection between the two.

I would encourage you to visit Orange Hill. Pastor Haygood is a dear friend of mine, and I'm certain you will be blessed by him, as well as the rest of the congregation. I preached at his church about a year and a half ago. They are a fun bunch!

johnMark said...

Before I hit the sack let me clarify. I know for a fact as this man as told me directly that he is a full blown Arminian. He doesn't believe one can lose their salvation per se, but that one can forfeit it if they desire.

This church isn't far from Pastor Haygood's either.

Blessings and g'nite,


Stephen Holland said...

John Mark,

We would love for you to come and visit!

Spencer is a phenemonal teacher and an excellent expositor of the Word. I realize I am probably being biased but I still feel it is true just the same.

Sunday school, or equipping classes, start at 9:30 and worship begins at 11.

Hope to see you soon!!