Nathan Finn structures his essay on the Traditional Statement (TS) around two questions he puts to his “Traditionalist friends”: “What makes Traditionalists traditional?” and “Who are the New Calvinists and what have they done?” My final two posts in this series will attempt to answer those questions. Before I offer my response to the first question, let me make a few brief remarks about the answer Finn gives to it, which is, essentially: “There is nothing significantly ‘traditional’ about Traditionalists.”
Finn’s argument against the name boils down to these two assertions: (1) Calvinism has just as much claim, if not more, to the word “traditional” and (2) SBs don’t put much stock in “traditions” anyway. In other words, Traditionalists have no right to claim that they represent the tradition, and, even if we did, it’s just not all that meaningful. He asserts that Traditionalists are really (and probably correctly) arguing that they represent the “mainstream” or “majoritarian” soteriology of current SBs, and that we should find a term that better reflects those concepts (68).
I understand and appreciate how Finn arrives at his position, even if I disagree with it. That’s the value of scholarly interaction; it creates a venue for the measured communication of thoughtful hypotheses. The remainder of this post will be dedicated to a positive explanation of the choice of the name that will, hopefully, address Finn’s concerns in the process. But let me offer a specific working hypothesis against Finn’s objections: Calvinism is a small but important aspect of SB theological history. But because SB Calvinism has always been (1) so diffuse in its content and underrepresented among rank-and-file SBs and (2) is all but absent in the twentieth century, it isn’t the tradition. While Calvinism was dormant, the soteriology of the last century (that of Mullins, Hobbs, and Rogers; that which provided a denominational home for Billy Graham; that of the core leaders of the Conservative Resurgence) fueled the tremendous kingdom expansion of the SBC. It is the soteriological context in which the vast, vast majority of the current generation of SBs was raised. I think it is safe to say that virtually every adult over 25 in the SBC who came to Christ before 18, surrendered under the preaching and ministry of a non-Calvinist, even the many in this generation who have now embraced Calvinism. So, while I seriously doubt that there was ever a monolithic, strong Calvinism embraced by the “first generation” of SBs, I am convinced that the specific soteriology articulated in the TS is what most SBs have believed for the last hundred years. It is a soteriology that rests on the idea that the gospel needs to go to every person so that every person can respond. That’s the tradition that made us who we are today; that’s what makes a Traditionalist traditional.
More could be said in reference to Finn’s critique, but let me offer my own answer to the question, “What makes a Traditionalist traditional?” Since Finn begins his answer by raising the question of the origin of the term “Traditionalist,” that may be the best place for me to begin. The Spring 2011 edition of the Journal of Baptist Theology and Ministry contained an essay I wrote called, “Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward a Baptist Soteriology.” In the wake of the article and some related blog posts in the spring of 2012, these questions were asked of me: “If we’re neither Calvinists nor Arminians, and if ‘Baptist’ won’t do as a name because it’s too broad, then what are we called and what do we believe? If Calvinists and Arminians have their Five Points, how many “points” do we have? How would we articulate succinctly what we believe about soteriology?”
I thought those were pretty good questions, so I set out to see if could answer them. What would a statement of our soteriology look like? I looked to the BFM and the Chicago Statement for a basic template and gave confession-writing a whirl. I took seriously the relevant articles of the BFM and made sure I launched from them and remained within them. I took seriously the instruction I had received in the SB churches where I was won to Christ and grew in Him. And, of course, I took seriously the biblical witness to the nature of salvation. As the basic shape of the document came to together, I sent it to several respected friends and colleagues who made valuable suggestions and affirmed that I was not off the ranch theologically and that it represented not only their views, but the views of most non-Calvinist SBs they knew.*
The content, therefore, of the TS is the non-Calvinistic, non-Arminian soteriology characteristic of twentieth century SBs; the soteriology of our leaders, pastors, and teachers; not something new, it is a soteriological tradition going all the way back to the New Hampshire Confession, which was written to combat strict Calvinism as much as loose Arminianism; the soteriology that undergirds all three editions of the BFM; the soteriology that emphasizes not the belief that only some are chosen but that anyone who hears the gospel can be saved.
If there is any specific component of this tradition that functions with respect to Calvinism, it is a propensity for valuing Calvinism’s serious views of Scripture, sovereignty, sin, the Savior, and sanctification while blunting the harsh determinism that often dampened missional fervor. That’s the heritage we’ve most consistently held from Fuller, Carey, and Spurgeon. That’s the historical imprint on the Abstract of Principles, which left out Particular Redemption because ordinary SBs wouldn’t have it. That’s the heritage of Mullins, who found in the New Hampshire Confession a more familiar ring than the clanging soteriological rigidity of the Westminster-inspired Philadelphia Confession or the Abstract itself. That’s the heritage of Hobbs, who pushed the BFM even further from the vestigial “Calvinism” of New Hampshire, and of Rogers, who held it there and made it sing.
That’s why “traditional” is le mot juste. Merriam-Webster says that “tradition” means “a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc., for a long time.” That describes our soteriology perfectly. Finn himself concedes in the essay that, soon after the turn of the last century, the soteriology of most SBs was that which Traditionalists describe and remains so until this day (68). If this is not the tradition, I don’t know what is. The tradition is being seriously challenged by a resurgent Calvinism that is unfamiliar and unsettling to most of us. After a century of not really needing to defend it, we are making a reply in the TS because we do not need to abandon the tradition that has made us great and can make us greater still.
*My previous posts evoked some concerns that I was giving the impression that I am solely responsible for the TS. That is certainly not my intent and certainly not the case. In those posts, I make some tangential references to my role in producing the document but those references were not made to the exclusion of others who were absolutely critical to the process. While it is indeed true that I had a lot to do with it, I invited input and critique all along the way and would never have put it forward without the encouragement and accountability of several top-notch SB thinkers. The deep desire of all involved was that the TS would be embraced by many because they recognized in it what they have long believed together.