Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Southern Baptist Convention and Calvinism

I spent a few years in a Southern Baptist church. I even met my wife there and got married there. Most churches that I was aware of in the SBC held to some mixture of Calvinist and Arminian theology. They liked the idea of "once saved always saved" but not the limited atonement, irresistable grace, or total depravity. In recent years there has been a resurgence of five point (or sometimes four point) Calvinism in the SBC. The churches that identify themselves as Calvinistic amount to about 10% of the total number of churches in the SBC. There are about 42,000 churches in America that are part of the SBC so that's about 4200 churches that identify themselves as Calvinistic.

The non-Calvinists have often denied that Baptists have ever been Calvinists. The Calvinists have been making the claim that the SBC has been Calvinist historically but has drifted away from Calvinism. They are calling the SBC back to its historic roots. Who is right?

The Southern Baptist Convention was initially formed by churches that broke away from Calvinistic Baptist churches over the issue of slavery. The southerners did not appreciate yankees coming down south and telling them to give up their slaves and the northeners would not allow slave owners to serve as missionaries. Some of the churches that became part of the SBC retained their Calvinist creeds (there were different Calvinistic Baptist confessions that different churches from different regions subscribed to). But not all did. Some churches in the SBC still subscribe to one Calvinistic Baptist creed or another. But creedal subscription was never a requirement to serve as a minister in the SBC or for a church to affiliate itself with the SBC. The earliest systematic theologies written by professors in the SBC seminaries were Calvinistic but I don't think it logically follows that the SBC was Calvinistic. Calvinists like systematic theologies probably more than anyone else. If you are a Calvinist you are far more likely to write a Systematic theology or be interested in systematic theologies than just about any other group. You can't look at the books and movies, both fiction and non-fiction, that have been produced in the last few decades about eschatology and conclude that most Christians are premillenial dispensationalists. It simply isn't true and has never been true. But you are far more likely to write a work of fiction about eschatology if you are a dispensationalist. Most of those in the SBC who are writing lengthy histories of the SBC are teaching that historically the SBC was Calvinistic but once again most of them are Calvinists. The Calvinists in the SBC tend to be better educated and more likely to write history books. Calvinism feeds the brain in a way that the mushy theology of the other churches in the SBC does not and encourages further education and research. Some Baptists are simply afraid of education. What was the original purpose of the SBC? The original SBC constitution says:

It shall be the design of this Convention to promote Foreign and Domestic Missions, and other important objects connected with the Redeemer’s kingdom, and to combine for this purpose, such portions of the Baptist denomination in the United States, as may desire a general organization for Christian benevolence, which shall fully respect the independence and equal rights of the Churches.

The intent of the denomination seems to have been to create a big tent denomination in which people with all kinds of soteriological views could join together to promote foreign and domestic missions. The churches are to respect each others independence which I would understand as freedom to own slaves and teach whatever soteriology you want. As far as I know, nobody in the SBC owns slaves and so the impetus for the formation of the SBC doesn't really exist anymore. They have even issued a declaration of repentance. It would seem that if the SBC is anti-slavery, the Calvinists within it should return to the Calvinistic denominations that they left in the first place. However, the original constitution seems to still be honored. Baptists of whatever stripe are free to join the SBC and it is highly unlikely you would ever get kicked out. As long as you don't baptize babies you can join. Billy Graham is probably one of the most popular Southern Baptists of all time. Billy Graham ended up denying the traditional teaching on hell and trusted in his own works for salvation. He also seemed to regard Mormons as Christians. There was never any attempt to kick him out of the SBC and some in the SBC consider the person anathema who criticizes Billy Graham.

This whole thing seems odd to me. I believe babies should be baptized because they are part of the nations and need forgiveness of sins just like everybody else. But it seems like a very odd thing to hold a denomination together with. I wouldn't want to be part of a denomination that was held together by nothing but a common belief in baptizing babies. For what? To support missionaries? Are they going to go around just preaching that babies need to be baptized? It would almost make more sense to have a denomination where Calvinistic credo-only and paedo-Baptists join together. I don't think this would be a good idea either. I think it better to work together searching the Scriptures until agreement can be reached but it seems like a wiser idea than these Baptist denominations where different pastors come in and say all kinds of contradictory things about salvation. What is the message that we are actually promoting? "Don't baptize babies" seems like a pretty Christless message.

All of this shows the importance of being united by a common confession. It doesn't mean that we regard all who are not part of our denomination as being lost. But what message can people really bring if they are being sent by various churches with different soteriologies. If our unity is based on anything but a robust confession, it will end up being based on something else. It could be slavery or alcohol or ethnicity or social justice. None of these things are Jesus. And if you just say that we are just going to preach Jesus, what does that really mean? The Calvinist Jesus is not the same guy as the Arminian Jesus. Neither of them are the same as the Lutheran Jesus. These Jesus' did different things. Is He a moral example, a CEO, a life coach, or did He actually do something? Did He do something for you? Can you be sure? Is Jesus an abstraction?


Jason Smathers said...

The SBC was on the road to formation without the slavery issue, the slavery issue pushed it to completion, but the SBC would have likely been formed even if the slavery issue didn't blow up.

I agree it would have been wise to adopt a confession at the time of forming the convention. However, an official doctrinal statement was created 14 years after the SBC was formed --- The Abstract of Principles. The only people required to sign it are faculty at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. However, the SBC including this doctrinal statement requirement set a clear understanding of what is considered orthodox for the SBC.

Calvinists liking systematic theologies isn't the only reason the first SBC systematic is Calvinist. The entire inaugural faculty of SBTS were all Calvinists (Boyce, Broadus, Manly, Jr., and Williams), so it would be hard for them to publish any Arminian works.

The first three presidents of the SBC were also Calvinists:
W B Johnson: First president of the SBC, served 1845-1851
R B C Howell: Second SBC president, served 1851-1859
Richard Fuller: Third SBC president, served 1859-1863

I've not taken the time to research who the forth president was or beyond, but I suspect you will see the trend continue for some time.

Starting in 1925 a doctrinal statement was established for the SBC and adherence to it was expected for participation in the SBC. The statement in the Baptist Faith and Message 1925 on the fall of man would prevent most Arminians from participation:
"[Adam's] 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."

This statement was not changed until 1963, when the view more acceptable to Arminians was expressed:
"[Adam's] posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin, and as soon as they are capable of moral action become transgressors and are under condemnation."

Chuck Wiese said...

Why would the SBC have been formed? Is there any theological reason or is it just a matter of regional disputes?

The Abstract of Principles only means that the SBC had a Calvinist seminary. Were all pastors even required to go to seminary? Wouldn't the freedom of the churches allow them to call whoever they wanted? Was there ever any ability on the part of the SBC to remove churches that did not teach what is considered orthodox by the SBC or were they just "expected" to adhere? What happened if they did not live up to expectations?

One of the sites I was looking at noted that the committee recommended a revised version of the NH Confession be adopted: Do you know what was revised. Even the unrevised NH Confession does not appear to teach 5 point Calvinism.

The statements you posted seem as though they may be out of harmony with more Pelagian forms of Arminianism but not necessarily classical Arminianism.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this analysis of the dynamics within the SBC....when I was a kid I was in an SBC church that became more and more reformed over time. I've been thinking about the reason for the current Calvinist surge in the SBC for some time.....

Seems to me that when a body is challenged (by liberalism for instance) it instinctively reaches out for doctrinal/foundational standards. This drives more emphasis on systematic theology...which as you mention tends to be dominated by Calvinists.