Point of View: Final thoughts on the Calvinism-Arminianism debate in the SBC

Article Date: Dec 6, 2012

Editor’s note: This article is the twelfth in a series of 12 columns that will be published in 2012 addressing the always controversial theological issues surrounding how Southern Baptists understand the doctrine of salvation. The Witness welcomes letters to the editor on this subject as the series is published throughout the year, keeping in mind the irenic spirit modeled by Mark Rathel, who teaches theology at The Baptist College of Florida.

From the time frame of the 1970’s to early 1990’s, Southern Baptist engaged in a “Battle for the Bible.” The debate centered on the inspiration and sufficiency of God’s Word. The resurgence of conservative theology within the SBC coincided with a resurgence of Calvinism. From the late 1990’s to the present, Southern Baptists appear to be engaged in a “Battle for the Doctrine of Salvation.” Throughout the calendar year 2012, I attempted to offer irenic discussions of this battle without advocating either position, except for perseverance of the saints. In this concluding article, I hope to offer suggestions for going beyond the impasse.

First, Southern Baptists need to become reacquainted with their history. Baptists are the only denominational group with a heritage within both Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvinist theology dominated some aspects of Southern Baptist life in that many of the key leaders of the SBC in the nineteenth century affirmed some form of Calvinist theology. The advent of the twentieth century witnessed a shift towards a more Arminian friendly theology as evidenced by shifts in the language of the doctrine of salvation in the trajectory of Baptist confessions: New Hampshire Confession of Faith and the various editions of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925/1963). David Dockery attributed to influential leader Dr. Herschel Hobbs, often nicknamed “Mr. Southern Baptist,” key leadership in this shift away from Calvinist theology.

Second, Southern Baptists need to approach this divisive issue with humility and love. I personally am grieved by some of the harsh language used by both sides. I teach my students that regardless of their conclusions on this issue there are people on the other side that are more holy, more godly, and more evangelistic/mission-oriented than they are. I personally am convinced that Southern Baptists leaning toward either pole of this continuum can share in the ministry of the Gospel together.

Third, in terms of the current debate within the Southern Baptist Convention, the term Arminian is a misnomer for two reasons. First, because the Baptist Faith and Message affirms the perseverance of the saints, a five-point Arminian, an individual affirming the possibility of apostasy, cannot be comfortable within the SBC. (In a similar manner, Calvinists within the SBC cannot accept the full system of Calvinist doctrine because Baptists disagree with Calvin and his followers in our understanding of the nature of the church and the ordinances.) Second, a significant percentage of SBC leaders opposed to Calvinism refuse the label Arminian in favor of a kinship with sixteenth-century Anabaptists. 

Simultaneously, then, Southern Baptists are experiencing a resurgence of Calvinistic and Anabaptistic theology. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary provides key leadership and theological undergirding of a resurgence of Calvinistic theology within the SBC; Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary provides key leadership and theological undergirding of a resurgence of Anabaptistic theology within the SBC. While perhaps not the dominant position, numerous Baptist historians have connected the origin of Baptists to Anabaptist influence.

The historical origins of Anabaptism (meaning “re-baptizers”) predate both Calvinism and Arminianism. Anabaptists originated among the followers of Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli in Jan. 21, 1525, when some of Zwingli’s followers rejected infant baptism. At a January 2012 “Ana­baptism and Contemporary Baptists Conference” hosted by SWBTS, Dr. Paige Patterson in his conference address identified the key question as “…with whom Baptists will identify and with whom Baptists will emulate.” Will Southern Baptist identify and emulate Calvinists or 

Anabaptists? Patterson expressed the opinion that the future of Southern Baptists is bright if we identify with and emulate Anabaptism in some areas, including our understanding of salvation. Yet, there are some key aspects of Anabaptist thought and culture Southern Baptists like Paige Patterson would reject such as Anabaptists teachings that disciples should not serve in government positions, rejection of oaths, and pacifism. 

What are key themes in terms of the doctrine of salvation that some Southern Baptists share with sixteenth century Anabaptists? First, 

Anabaptists affirmed the concept of original sin, that is, the doctrine that all humans inherit a sinful nature and die because of Adam’s sin. Second, Anabaptists affirmed freedom of the will of an individual to respond to God’s gracious invitation. Third, Anabaptists denied predestination of individuals to salvation. Beyond similar understandings of the doctrine of salvation, 

Anabaptists and Southern Baptists together affirm the following doctrines: believer’s baptism, regenerate church membership, church discipline, and a strong advocacy of religious freedom.

Calvinists, Arminians, and Anabaptists are brothers and sisters in Christ. Rather than fighting each other, we should look outward to the “fields white unto harvest.” A lost world does not care if you fly the flag of Calvinism, Arminianism, or Anabaptism. We can and should join together to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5).

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