I feel so much like Michael Corleone right now. I want to ignore the Calvinism wars. I want to talk about something else. I want to move on the things that I think are more important that are being ignored in our obsession with promoting or assailing Calvinism. But, as soon as I make a commitment, then:
Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in!
Alan Cross wrote a powerful article at his site, Downshore Drift, called, “Does Al Mohler Need to Repent of Promoting Calvinism?” In that article, he calls on Dr. Mohler to change his ways, asking him to tone down the rhetoric on the Calvinism front. I would encourage you to read Alan’s post before you move on from here.
Okay, I’ll take your word for it that you read Alan’s take on the subject. Alan makes some great points there, which I think need to be heard. I want to expand on what he says with some points of my own.
1) I am a big fan of Dr. Al Mohler and Dr. Tom Nettles.
Dr. Tom Nettles was my favorite professor when I was at Southwestern, both for the quality of what he taught and the way he kept his classes interesting. I will never forget the day he gave a powerful invitation at the beginning of class. We were singing a hymn to open class, and as we got to the third verse, he said, “We will sing the third verse, and if no one comes, we will close.” Of course, a few late arrivers came in, so we sang the fourth verse. A few more came. We sang the chorus again. Then, he had us hum through the chorus until the last of the late-comers had arrived. It was all in good fun. His performances of show tunes was also a highlight – especially “Trouble in River City.” I knew that he was a Calvinist, but he never made that a huge focus of his teaching nor did he ridicule or belittle anyone who was not.
Dr. Nettles’ book (with Russ Bush) on the history of Baptist views of the Bible was an important work during the days of the Resurgence. Dr. Mohler’s influence on our denomination has been strong and in my view, positive! He articulates biblical and theological truth in powerful and practical ways.
What I am about to say comes from a place of respect and honor for these men, their service to Southern Baptists and their place in our denomination’s history.
2) I believe that each side should hold its own side accountable.
Nothing valuable will ever come from Calvinists complaining about non-Calvinists and non-Calvinists complaining Calvinists. We just dig in our heels a little more and our divisions become more defined.
I am not sure I qualify as a Calvinist, but I was appalled at some of the doctrine advocated in the Traditionalist Document, so I guess that if we are choosing sides, I am on the same side as Dr. Mohler, Dr. Nettles and the Founders, even if I do not agree completely with them or ascribe to all their purposes.
The intent of this post is to issue a friendly request from someone who is supportive, not to lob bombs from the enemy camp.
3) There are way more than two sides to this issue. That brings me to a point I think Alan made well on the Calvinist side, but I would like to apply it to both sides. We act as if there is a great wall of division on this topic and that there are only two sides to the issue. That is nonsense.
Alan makes the point that a Calvinist is really a term that should be limited to those who buy the whole 5-point system of Calvinism. Calvinist=Five Pointer. Studies have shown that the 5-point contingent is relatively small in the SBC (maybe 10%?). But there are a lot of us who may be on the Calvinist spectrum who stop well short of the 5-point systematic Calvinist position.
- There are so-called Four-Pointers. (And 3.5 pointers, and 3 pointers, etc.)
- There are Amyraldians.
- There are Compatabilists.
- There are Antinomists (that’s me, folks). We believe that the Bible affirms two truths which according to human logic cannot both be true. But they are true in the higher logic of God which we cannot understand.
All of these may have a place on the Calvinist continuum, but it is hardly accurate to simply use one term to describe us all. The brush-strokes are just too broad. Some “Calvinists” believe in Limited Atonement, but within the SBC, most probably do not. Some hold to regeneration before faith, but many within the Calvinist continuum hold to faith before regeneration.
And the non-Calvinist side is just as varied.
- There is a continuum of belief from those who are basically Arminians who hold to eternal security to folks that approach Calvinism but don’t want the term.
- There are anti-Calvinists who are working to remove any influence of Calvinism from the SBC.
- There are traditionalists, who signed the TD this summer (last I heard the count was about 800, but I don’t know a final count). But the simple fact is that most non-Calvinists in the SBC decided not to sign that document.
None of these terms – Arminian, traditionalist, anti-Calvinist – describes everyone who holds beliefs in distinction from Calvinism.
We definitely have a terminology problem, which I think may be at the heart of some of our difficulties. When I say Calvinism, I mean one thing and you mean another.
Let me be clear: I think that the BF&M is inclusive (and intentionally so) of all of these streams. Dr. Dockery’s lecture at the Kentucky Calvinism conference detailed the two key streams of SBC thought in history (the Sandy Creek stream and the Charleston stream). The SBC has ALWAYS included both Calvinists and non-Calvinists. And that strength balances us. The Calvinist strain anchors us in one direction and the non-Calvinist strain anchors us in the other.
Now, for My Point
Alan Cross talks about repentance in a specific way. He is not implying that Mohler has committed some heinous sin. Though not a Calvinist, Alan affirms the right of Calvinists to hold positions of influence in the SBC and to do so openly and unashamedly.
However, Alan details several statements Mohler has made that seem to indicate that he wants to turn all Southern Baptists into five-pointers. I think those statements are misunderstood and misused by those who would oppose Calvinism, but nonetheless the statements exist.
Dr. Nettles has also made some strong statements about his support of Calvinism in the past – statements that anti-Calvinists point to to demonstrate Nettles’ malicious intent. And, of course, the Founder’s documents have some statements that could be interpreted as indicating that it is their desire to turn every SBC church into a thoroughly Reformed, five-point haven.
I have never been part of the Founders, but back in my seminary days I was more passionate in my Calvinist doctrine (which I’ve since moderated or compromised – you make the call). At SWBTS, we were a minuscule minority. There was Dr. Nettles, Dr. Vaughan (maybe another prof or two) and there were a handful of us students. In those days, we tended to use strong rhetoric as a minority. But, as Calvinism has become more mainstream in the SBC, Calvinists have become less extreme in their rhetoric and more likely to want to partner with and cooperate with those who did not share their views. I noticed this around the time of the election of Johnny Hunt as president. Johnny Hunt is not a Calvinist by anyone’s definition but as he promoted the GCR, he reached across the aisle and brought Calvinists into the fold. Calvinists, who were initially suspicious of Hunt’s views, climbed on board and partnered together with non-Calvinists.
Here’s what I believe:
Obviously, we’d all like to convince each other that we are right. If you are really Calvinist, you believe everyone should be one. If you are Arminian, you believe everyone should be one. I am an antinomist now. I think you should be one too! That’s the way it goes.
But I do not believe that the SBC’s leading Calvinists have some kind of intent to takeover the SBC or to eliminate those who disagree with them or to exclude non-Calvinists from positions of influence. My experience with Calvinists in the SBC today is that they are passionate (yes, sometimes even obnoxious) about their theology, but they are willing to work with anyone who loves Jesus, loves the Word, loves the gospel and wants to proclaim it.
The Calvinists I know are very willing to cooperate with non-Calvinists and accept them willingly in SBC life.
Now, here’s the problem:
There have been, at times in the past, comments made by Dr. Mohler, comments made by Dr. Nettles, comments made in Founder’s documents, etc. that give a different impression. Some of those statements feed into the interpretation of those who would attack Calvinism or who see some sort of Calvinist conspiracy or organized effort to take over the denomination.
I don’t think that is the intent of any of these men anymore, if it ever was. But some of their statements from the past can certainly be interpreted that way. Why not clarify that?
So, Here is My Request
Perhaps this will be part of the Unity team that Dr. Page has organized. But I will make the request anyway.
I would request from Dr. Mohler, from Dr. Nettles, and from the Founders ministry a statement of their views on cooperation in the Southern Baptist Convention with non-Calvinists. Am I right that each of these is willing to cooperate and is no longer seeking to “calvinize” the entire SBC? Are they willing to cooperate in the SBC on the basis of the BF&M with those who reject Calvinism?
Since there are statements out there that can seem to indicate a passion for the expansion of Calvinism, it seems to me that statements expressing a desire for cooperation would be very helpful.
And, while we are at it, I would issue a call to every Calvinist out there. I’m not trying to be unfair. It is just that I think it is the job of non-Calvinists to hold their side (or their end of the continuum) accountable. Whether they choose to do that or not, I am encouraging Calvinists to guard every word you say.
- You don’t have to fight every fight to the death.
- You don’t have to answer every insult (the greatest lesson I’ve learned from blogging!)
- You don’t have to correct every error (that does not touch the gospel).
- You do have to affirm every brother (and sister) in Christ – genuinely and without hypocrisy.
So, when someone unfairly attacks your viewpoint, respond in grace. When I suggest this, people say, “But then people will have a false view of what I believe.” Okay, answer this. When you have “corrected” their false impressions, has it ever done any good? Has anyone ever said, “Your wisdom has changed my mind on the issue?”
Seek first to win your brother. Then, perhaps, as you walk together in unity you can teach him to see what you see in the Word. Or, as long as he holds to the basics, you can walk together in your disagreements.
I am not calling out Dr. Mohler, or Dr. Nettles, or Tom Ascol or anyone. I come to them as a friend (no, I do not have a personal relationship with any of them) and supporter asking that they clarify their previous statements and make their commitment to cooperation abundantly clear. I think it would help the situation.