Southern Baptists debate Calvinism

Published Aug. 9, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

Southern Baptists have fought pitched battles over the Bible, women's ordination and congregational autonomy.

Now, there are signs a new theological tussle may be brewing in the nation's largest Protestant denomination _ this time over the role and impact of historic Calvinist beliefs, especially the idea that salvation is predetermined by God and there is nothing humans can do to change who will be saved and who will be damned.

The fight is being fueled by a wave of "Five Point Calvinism" that some believe is washing over the denomination's seminaries and infecting pulpits and has led to schism in some congregations.

Five Point Calvinism is based on the teaching of 16th century Protestant reformer John Calvin and his views of unconditional election and limited atonement, meaning God's choice of certain individuals for salvation is conditioned only on God's sovereign will and that Jesus' redeeming work on the cross was only to save those already elected by God.

Churches in the Calvinist, or Reformed, tradition include Presbyterian denominations, the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ.

For Baptists, at issue is this central question: If God has already predetermined who goes to hell and who goes to heaven even before they're born, why preach the Gospel? Why send missionaries to India? Why, indeed, evangelize?

"The logical conclusion (of predestination) is that evangelism is useless," said W.R. Estep, professor emeritus of church history at Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, arguing that a strong belief in predestination would pull the rug out from under Baptist evangelism.

Baptists, he said, have traditionally believed in the absolute freedom of the human will to choose or reject salvation.

"Generally, Baptists have always held that God's plan of salvation was that in Christ all people would have an opportunity to accept the invitation to belief and to the Christian life and to become a disciple."

Some lay members, too, are concerned.

Kelly McGinley, a member of First Baptist Church of North Mobile, Ala., said she does not believe in Calvinism and would be upset if her pastor started to teach it.

"It would give all those who don't like going to church something else to make fun of us for," she said. "It might cool some people going to church. . . . It's very scary."

Others argue, however, that the denomination needs to recover a notion of the sovereignty of God and dismiss the fear that Calvinism leads to a waning of evangelistic fervor.

"Our Lord died particularly for the sins of his elect people, accomplishing their salvation from beginning to end _ and for no one else," said the Rev. Fred Malone, pastor of First Baptist Church in Clinton, La.

Malone is part of the Founders Conference, a loose-knit network of Southern Baptist Calvinists who say their five-point doctrine was the theology of most early leaders of what became the Southern Baptist Convention.

To many Christians who adhere to Calvinism, however, the zeal to evangelize is not quenched by belief in predestination.

"It was the most freeing thing that ever happened to me, to discover that there was nothing I could do to win God's grace, that it had all been done for me already," said Bob Norman, a member of Grace Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Mobile, Ala.

Scholars say the debate goes back to the 17th century, when the Baptist movement was being formed.

According to Timothy George, dean of the Beeson School of Divinity at Samford University in Birmingham, at that time there were two "streams" of thought: the General Baptist tradition and the Particular Baptist tradition.

The General Baptist tradition, George said, received some of the same influences that shaped the Methodist movement and held that salvation was by faith through grace, but that a person's free will to choose God's redemption was necessary.

"Like (Methodist founder) John Wesley, they placed more emphasis on free will, less emphasis on predestination," George said.

The Particular Baptist tradition, he said, involves a belief in "partial redemption," or the belief that God has destined some people for salvation and others for damnation. George said that when the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845, the vast majority of Baptists were Particular Baptists, or Reformed Baptists.

"That was the founding doctrine of Southern Baptist life until the early 20th century, and there are some who want to recover that and see what it has to offer to us today," he added.

But that direction has led to error in the past, George added. Deep within the Baptist "consciousness" is a fear that Calvin's doctrine of predestination will engender "hyper-Calvinism," an attitude of indifference to those who are not saved and a reluctance to invest in evangelism.

At the same time, George noted that some traditions in the Calvinist mainstream have been in the vanguard of evangelism. He noted especially televangelist D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale. Kennedy, George said, has formulated the "most powerful one-on-one witnessing program."

"The doctrine of grace motivates (Kennedy) to share the Gospel," George said.

Estep, however, remains uneasy. He calls the movement "superficial intellectualism."

Some churches in the Southern Baptist Convention have disintegrated or divided over the issue, Estep said. When preachers begin to talk about predestination, their congregations conclude that missions and evangelism programs are going to suffer.

"But I'm not sure that the Baptists in the pews know anything about Calvin and care anything about these issues that the preachers get involved in," Estep added.

Five points of Calvinism

Calvinism is a theological system formulated in 16th century Swiss reformer John Calvin's central writing, Institutes of the Christian Religion, and codified by the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) in the Five Points of Calvinism. Although Calvin's theology involves more than his theories on salvation, the Five Points are the most often quoted _ and the most controversial. They are:

+ Total depravity, or total inability: Humanity is unable to believe in God and is totally corrupt. Faith is a gift from God to the sinner, not the sinner's gift to God.

+ Unconditional election: God's choice of certain individuals for salvation is conditioned only upon God's own sovereign will, not on the virtue of the believer. God's choice of the sinner, not the sinner's choice of God, is the determining factor in salvation.

+ Limited atonement, or particular redemption: Christ's redeeming work on the cross was intended to save only the elect, or the chosen. The salvation of all the chosen is guaranteed.

+ Irresistible grace, or the efficacious call of the Spirit: The Holy Spirit gives the elect a special inward call that inevitably brings them to salvation. It cannot be rejected, and always results in conversion for those to whom it is extended.

+ Perseverance of the saints: All who are truly chosen by God and redeemed by Christ are eternally saved. They are kept in faith by the power of God and persevere to the end.