Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Calvinism Debate: Will Southern Baptists Learn from History, or Repeat it?

If you are a Southern Baptist who came here to witness or participate in yet another fight over Calvinism, browse on.  You are in the wrong place!

Nope, this post isn't going to be about what you think its going to be about.  The debate over the proper balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility has been going on for more than 500 years, and many of the participants who were way smarter than this native South Carolina redneck were unable to settle the question for good.  So I have no intention of adding gasoline to the fire that seems to be spreading across my beloved denomination.

Instead, my hope is to provide some historical perspective, as well as point out some historical parallels.  Though I can't remember who first said this, our current situation in the Southern Baptist Convention illustrates well that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.

Right here, right now, we are at that very crossroads!

A casual perusal of church history bears out that there are cycles of debates that are necessary, which are usually followed by subsequent debates that, while important, are simply incendiary and ultimately unhelpful.  What I find interesting about the current debate in Southern Baptist life is how uncanny the parallel is between our current situation, and that in which the issues we now fight about find their origin.  As is now the case with Southern Baptists, so it also was at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation; a necessary battle that was unfortunately followed by incendiary and divisive conflict that threatened to tear apart the very fabric of what had just been built.

To see this parallel requires a bit of a dive into Church History.  But stay with me.  I promise we are going somewhere!

The story begins in Medieval Rome  The doctrinal integrity of the Catholic church was at a breaking point.  Cultural syncretism over the centuries had all but led to a complete loss of ecclesiological identity, which by the 1500s was also accompanied by rampant immorality throughout the Roman Empire, enabled by the Church of Rome.  Every kind of evil, from the visiting of prostitutes by Priests to the fleecing of the poor was taking place in the "holy city."

Into this context, in the year 1500, walks an unwitting German monk named Martin Luther.  For most of his life, the young man had longed to see Rome; the fountainhead from which he believed his faith flowed.  What he saw there shocked him to the core.  His stomach was turned by the sexual immorality he witnessed.  But even more offensive to the young Luther was the way the poor were mistreated.  The system of "indulgences" set up by the church to raise money for the building of St. Peter's Basilica created an environment where the rich could sin as much as they wanted, while the poor lived, not only in poverty, but also under the constant threat of eternal damnation.  The young monk so enraptured with thoughts of visiting the holy city would later be quoted as saying "If there is a hell, Rome is built over it!"

Shaken to the core, Luther would ponder his experiences for the next seven years.  But with the escalation of abusive indulgences, and their extension into remote areas outside Rome through Tetzel's preaching, he would finally be motivated to face the corruption head on.  And face it he did, through the document you and I now know as the 95 Theses.  In the coming years, Luther would discover that all of the debauchery he was witnessing in Rome, as well as the strong resistance to his warnings, were informed by bad theology.  And so, the Protestant Reformation had begun.

For those who would soon be called "Lutherans," that Reformation culminated in the Augsburg Confession (1530).  For others who took part in the breakaway from Rome, subsequent confessions would be written, and each would identify themselves as the "true church," over against the Roman Catholicism out of which they had come.  The fires of the Protestant Gospel spread throughout Europe, and established itself within two generations on the complimentary foundations of the priesthood of all believers, and open access to all to the Scriptures, which were translated into the languages of the people.

The Gospel had been recovered, and it was time to move forward.  Unfortunately, the Reformers maintained their posture of critique, and the horrific result is rightly mourned to this day by Baptists who know their history well, as it was our theological ancestors who bore the brunt of their persecution.  What motivated these continued inquisitions depends on which historian you talk to, but the use of political tactics--and force--to silence dissent and other groups, were commonplace throughout this period of history, and those tactics included the execution of those who held different views.

Within this context, a group of Dutch theologians felt the need to respond to aspects of a theology forwarded by the students of a French pastor named John Calvin.  Heavily influenced by Jacobus Arminius, These "Remonstrants" presented a document to the state of Holland in 1610 containing five points of disagreement with their Calvinist bretheren.  Nine years later, the Synod of Dort convened, and developed their own statement in response to the Arminians.  Out of these Canons of Dort came what we know today as the "five points of Calvinism."

(As a side note, I think it would be very helpful to some of my fellow Calvinists if they would understand this historical context.  The "five points" were simply a response to a particular set of 17th century articles of faith.  To be in agreement with them is one thing.  But to centralize one's entire theology around a snapshot in church history is both myopic and foolish!  But I digress . . . )

Here is the big idea:  By the end of the Reformation, the church had recovered the heart of the Gospel.  But instead of seeking to spread that Gospel across the world, they maintained a posture of critique, suspicion, and paranoia.  Ultimately, the Protestant church would be legitimately accused of violating the "prime directive" of Jesus, with the Catholic theologian Erasmus suggesting that these new Protestants can't be the true church, because they don't have missionaries.

Fast forward 450 years, and we find the Southern Baptist Convention in the throes of a theological identity crisis.  In the mid 20th century, the SBC was headed down the same path as most other liberal mainline traditions.  Our mission boards sent an unclear sound to the world regarding the exclusivity of Jesus.  Our seminaries were plagued with Existentialism and Neo-Orthodoxy.  Our Ethics arm in Washington D.C. was essentially "pro-choice."  We were an unhealthy denomination whose dysfunction was enabled by bad theology.  The Gospel was at stake, and something had to be done!

Thanks in large part to men like Paige Patterson, Adrian Rogers and others, local churches were empowered over a 30 year period to change the direction of the SBC, and in most ways, the ship has been set in the right direction.  And the question in front of us is the same that confronted the Protestant Reformers:  Will we move ahead and spread the Gospel globally, or maintain a posture of critique and in-fighting that destroys the very fabric of what has just been built?

The current level of discussion over this issue in SBC life doesn't bode well for our future.  One one side are some Calvinists who maintain a posture of superiority and exclusivity, criticizing everything that doesn't fit into their particular paradigm as "unBiblical."  Though I love and appreciate him, some of Al Mohler's comments haven't helped matters  either.  Though I think his statements are misinterpreted by those who disagree with him, referring to Calvinism as "the heart of the Gospel" simply sends the wrong message.  The Gospel isn't Calvinism or Arminianism.  The Gospel is Jesus!!!!  Calvinism is one way of understanding how Jesus does His work of saving sinners, but it is not the heart of our message as Southern Baptists.

It is sad to admit that, to use a sports analogy, Calvinists seem to have more referees than players.  I don't believe this is true, but I do believe the perception is there.  I also believe there are a few, vocal Calvinists who are not helping us move the ball down the field at all in terms of extending the Kingdom of God, but instead remain on the sidelines ready to blow their whistles and cry "foul" anytime someone espouses something that doesn't completely line up with their own system.

On the other side are those who have recently branded themselves "Traditionalists."  Fueled by a fear that the SBC is in danger of becoming "Calvinized,"  if there is a group on the planet that is more obsessed with Reformed theology than hyper-Calvinists, it is the Traditionalists.  Like the majority of Calvinists, most of those in this camp want to get past the vitriol and back to the mission field.  But a few are spending way too much time developing lists of "how to tell if someone is a Calvinisst," and scouring Sunday School curriculum to ensure proper "balance" is given to their particular understanding.  As a colleague recently said to me, "it's theological bean-counting at its worst!"

So here we sit, with a strong belief in Biblical inerrancy, an exclusive view of Jesus, and the largest and most effective missions-sending delivery system in the history of Protestantism.  Will we come together to capitalize on the opportunity God has given us to change the world, or will we continue to segregate ourselves--fueled by misinformation about each other, suspicion and paranoia--until we become the very thing we claim we hate?

There is another path.  Coming at the conclusion of the One8 Church Planting Conference in Mississippi, Russ Moore paints a potentially great picture of our future together:

What I saw today: Suits and flannel, Reformed and traditionalist, hymnals and iPods.  Fighting devils, loving each other.  The future of the SBC. 

I like that picture!  Let's start drawing it together, shall we?

1 comment:

OTGuy said...

Thank you Joel for writing an intelligent and heart felt caution to those who are making this issue the centrality of the gospel. It is indeed time to play as a team and let the gospel be at the heart of all we do. We could keep staring at the ball, but its much more productive to look at moving it to the goal line instead.

Understanding that the 5 points are a reaction to a reaction, puts things in perspective. This wasn't intended as an attempt to present the whole picture of the gospel.

I would contend that the greatest error of people on both sides of the debate occurs when we apply terminology to a situation or group of people with whom God never applies the terminoloy or if we refuse to use the terminology found in Scripture. Scripture speaks in terms of election and predestination only in conversations with believers and only in regards to assuring believers that we are called to holiness and sealed to glorification based on God choosing us for salvation.

Otherwise, these terms and this logic have little place in any discussion about the world as a whole or unbelievers in particular. Such usage is totally absent in Scripture.

I propose that we limit such terms to the perspective and the audience utilized in Scripture.
If you are interested, you can find this analysis at: