Dr. Eric Hankins is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Oxford, Mississippi. He is the author of the much-discussed Traditionalist Statement and was central to the Calvinism Task Force appointed by Dr. Page, which reported at the Houston Annual Meeting. We look forward to this series of articles.
Over the next few weeks, I will be offering some responses to Nathan Finn’s essay “On the ‘Traditionalist Statement’: Some Friendly Observations from a Calvinistic Southern Baptist,” which appeared in the most recent edition of New Orleans Seminary’s Journal of Baptist Theology and Ministry. Let me say how deeply grateful I am for Finn’s willingness to engage the Traditional Statement (TS)* critically while being “eager to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). He expresses a hope that his “Traditionalist friends will receive these questions in the spirit they are being asked” (66), and I can say unequivocally that Finn has made it easy to do so. I’ll make every attempt to respond in kind to the questions he’s raised.
In that spirit, this first post will focus on the observations Finn makes with which I completely agree and which I believe are extremely important as the discussion moves forward. Finn acknowledges that, as an “evangelical Calvinist,” he is most definitely not a Traditional Southern Baptist. He does not agree with most of the affirmations and denials, and he could not affirm the statement because he “does not believe it accurately summarizes the biblical understanding of salvation” (65). Finn states, “I have a different understanding of the relationship between Adam’s original sin and subsequent human sin, the nature of free will, the meaning of election, the intent of the atonement, and the efficaciousness of grace” (65). To these things I say, Hurrah! The TS has been completely understood! Finn’s sentiments about Traditionalism precisely match the way I feel about Southern Baptist (SB) Calvinism. SB Calvinists and Traditionalists are at complete variance on these very important soteriological issues. In another post, Finn makes it quite clear that this is not a matter of heresy, specifically falsifying the charge that the TS is semi-Pelagian. It is of note that Finn, after summarizing his disagreement with the document’s rejection of Calvinism in the essay at hand, really doesn’t interact any further with the content. I take this as a tacit stipulation that the TS accurately describes a coherent, orthodox brand of SB “non-Calvinism.”
When I set about crafting the TS, I wanted to do so in such a way that no SB Calvinist would be able to affirm it, not because I wanted to be divisive but because I wanted to clarify an issue that has hindered this debate for years: the idea that we all basically agree and that we are all soteriological Calvinists of one sort or another (I’ve heard of One, Two, Three, Four, and Five Point Calvinists). Convictional SB Calvinists of the “Founders” variety have used this thinking to make the case that since all SBs are Calvinistic, then we really ought to return to Four or Five Point Calvinism if we want to be consistent. While I disagree with their premise (that we are all basically Calvinists), I agree with the logic that flows from it (you’re either a Calvinist or your not). That’s why, after working awhile to get my arms around Calvinism, I came to understand that, because of its philosophical presuppositions, it is essentially an all or nothing soteriological system. Three years ago, I called myself a “Three Point Calvinist,” but I realize now that these sorts of designations don’t work and actually add to the confusion. The only way “T,U, and P” Calvinism makes sense is if Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, and Perseverance of the Saints are defined in a way no consistent Calvinist like Finn ever would.** We don’t “basically agree” on soteriology; we fundamentally disagree.
Moreover, the basis of this disagreement has nothing whatever to do with our view of the authority of Scripture. Thankfully, the SBC settled the matter of where it stood on the issue of inerrancy almost a generation ago. That’s why, as the debate moves forward, I would encourage everyone to stop the “dueling-Bible-verses” bit: “Well, what about John 3:16?” “Well, what about Romans 8:29-30?” Well, what about 1 John 2:2?” “Well, what about Ephesians 2:1?” Well, what about these verses, indeed? As Finn notes, he has already made several theological decisions about the nature of things like depravity, the Fall, free will, election, the extent of the atonement, and the way grace operates in salvation. These decisions form the grid Finn uses to approach or, as he says, “accurately [summarize] the biblical understanding of salvation” (65). As I have written in other places, the crucial theological presupposition for Finn’s understanding of soteriology is his (and all SB Calvinists’) commitment to theistic determinism and compatibilistic freedom, which can (in his opinion) be inferred from Scripture but is certainly not demanded by it. I reject theistic determinism and compatibilistic freedom, so I wind up at a different place soteriologically.
Instead of saying that we basically agree or that we disagree because the other person has rejected the authority of Scripture, SB Calvinists and Traditionalists should say, “We have theological and philosophical disagreements about the nature of divine action and freedom that have profound implications for our soteriology. Let’s talk about the strengths and weaknesses of those philosophical and theological approaches.” This will keep us from interminable and emotional exegetical death matches.
The other important area of agreement that I have with Finn’s article is his statement, “The Calvinism issue is not going to go away, so Southern Baptists must be willing to discuss and debate openly the doctrines of grace in an effort to be biblically accurate and perhaps come to a greater theological consensus in the years to come” (66). That truly is what I am hoping for. It’s the other main reason why I crafted the TS. Finn qualifies his Calvinism as “evangelical” in the vein of Andrew Fuller, which, of course, is a particularly Baptistic brand of evangelical Calvinism. Finn is affirming that Baptists have always modified Calvinism. We’ve never been comfortable with full-bore Westminster-type Calvinism for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it sometimes failed to be “evangelical” (that’s why Finn uses the adjective “evangelical” to qualify his Calvinism–Fuller was distinguishing himself from the hyper-Calvinism of some his forebears). The critical question for us is, Why have Baptists, and, particularly, Southern Baptists always modified Calvinism? I think it’s because we really believe (Finn included) that everyone can be saved, and, therefore, everyone ought to hear the gospel. The problem for SB Calvinists like Finn is that their philosophical commitments actually work against such claims.** If God has determined not to save some without respect a response of faith, then it is hard to see how a legitimate claim can be made to the idea that God loves and desires to save everyone. If only certain ones are regenerated to the desire to respond to the gospel, then, again, it’s hard to see how that belief comports with God’s universal desire to save. Often, this is where Calvinists appeal to “mystery,” but the problem with their view is not that is paradoxical but that it is self-contradictory. (I am quite familiar with Calvinist counter-claims to my criticisms here. So far, none of them seem compelling to those not already committed to Calvinism. They certainly aren’t compelling to me.)
So, I, like Finn, am looking forward to the day when the best of Calvinistic affirmations (a strong view of God’s sovereignty, man’s sinfulness, Christ’s substitution, the church’s sanctification, etc.) can be welded to the much more consistent Traditionalist claim that anyone can be saved.
*In the time-period since the release of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” the document has acquired the shortened form: “Traditional Statement.” Finn calls it the “Traditionalist Statement” in his title, which is just fine, but I am going to stick with the existing parlance in hopes of bringing some uniformity to a debate that tends to be terminologically confusing.
** “I have no qualms with the words in the articles on eternal security and the Great Commission, though I recognize I bring different theological assumptions to these articles than the framers of the Traditionalist Statement” (Finn, 65).
*** “While I agree that all people are ‘capable of responding’ to the good news, I also believe that sin has so blinded humanity that nobody will choose to believe the gospel without the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit” (Finn, 65).