Today we have a guest post by William Birch, which was originally posted on his site. This article is a response to Gerald Harris’s recent article “The Calvinists are Here.” If you comment, please comment in a similar manner as Birch’s article. After all, in Birch’s words, “We are on the same team, people!”
Every now and again I am accused of misrepresenting Calvinism by a Calvinist brother. It often happens when I focus upon what I perceive to be certain implications of Calvinism rather than what Calvinists actually claim or believe. When I do so, the Calvinist is right to correct me; I cannot complain about implications I perceive about Calvinism when Calvinists themselves reject those implications as beliefs to which they do not hold.
A recent article has emerged from the Southern Baptist “non-Calvinist” camp, written by J. Gerald Harris, entitled “The Calvinists are Here.” (I am taking Harris’ quotes from the Founders Ministries site.) My first thought was, “The Calvinists have been here; where have you been?” Indeed, the history of Baptists have included Calvinists from its beginnings. Calvinists have not just arrived in the SBC either; they have been here since its inception.
If I may criticize the tone of the article, I want to make two main complaints: 1) the author appears baffled that Calvinists are in the SBC to a large degree (but this has been the case for years); and 2) the article appears as little more than random thoughts against Calvinism. As a matter of fact, that would have served as a better title. I had a very difficult task of locating a central theme; the article was all over the place, if you will (from Calvin and ecclesiology to Acts 29, Mark Driscoll’s sex book, and the SBC name change).
I find a problem with the very beginning of Harris’ article. John Calvin wrote more about the Holy Spirit than he did about predestination or election. That may surprise some people, but he could just as easily be known as a theologian of the Holy Spirit as he could for his more infamous writings on God’s decrees of election and reprobation. So, for Harris to suggest that predestination was “the foundation of his theology” is a bit amiss, in my opinion.
Moreover, I would not even suggest that predestination was the foundation of Calvin’s soteriology. The doctrine of predestination, for Calvin, was meant to be a comfort to believers who doubted their salvation. By grounding the believer’s election in eternity past — and that God would preserve such a one unto the end — brought hope and comfort to its adherents. (I have no intention of commenting on Calvin’s soteriology in this post, so do not look for it.)
Harris briefly explains the TULIP acronym and then moves to ecclesiology: “Many who embrace Reformed theology are motivated to allow it to influence their church polity by substituting congregational church government with an elder system of church government.” I have to wonder if he thinks this particular ecclesiological method is supposed to warrant suspicion of Calvinists or Calvinism. Paul wrote to Timothy, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (Titus 1:5 NASB). Paul did not instruct Timothy to let the several congregations choose their own elders. However one interprets Paul’s instructions to Timothy, he cannot insist that “an elder system of church government” is unbiblical.
From Calvin to TULIP, and then election to ecclesiology, Harris transitions to several statements about the growth of Calvinism and Calvinists in the SBC, noting its alleged “challenge” to the denomination. Again, this puzzles me on a historical level. The SBC hasalways contained Calvinists. I think what is bothering many non-Calvinists in the SBC is the growing numbers of Calvinists within its ranks. What non-Calvinists do not want is a “Calvinist take-over.”
But what of the Calvinists in the SBC? Do they not fear a “non-Calvinist take-over”? Do they not sense that they are a minority within the SBC? Harris writes, “While most of the Reformed pastors and churchmen I know are gracious and godly people with a profound devotion to the Word of God, Southern Baptists must decide if they are satisfied with what I would call the presumable encroachment of Calvinism in SBC life” (emphasis added). Is he suggesting that Calvinists need to leave (or be forced to leave) the SBC?
Are we non-Calvinists or Arminians in the SBC to be comforted by the fact that we have more numbers on “our side” then the Calvinists do on “their side”? But if we are to be one united denomination, then there can only be one side. We are one people, united Southern Baptists, made up of diverse parts — you know, like the body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12)! (See Southern Baptists: Diversity in Unity.) Though we have a soteriological divide, significant as it may be to many, we are still one people: Southern Baptists. If we continue this “us vs. them” mentality, our unity will be destroyed.
Am I a Calvinist sympathizer? First, I am a Christian sympathizer. Second, I am a Southern Baptist sympathizer. Since born again Calvinists are my brothers and sisters in Christ first, as well as my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters second, then to a large extent, yes, I am a Calvinist sympathizer. I, by God’s grace, can disagree sharply with some core tenets of Calvinism, however, without either sacrificing my spiritual union with Calvinists or suggesting that Calvinists do not belong in the SBC.
That brings me to the following. Harris vies for the SBC name change “Great Commission Baptist Convention.” He then writes, “If that is the suggested name and if we dare vote for it to be our new appellation we dare not defame it with half-hearted evangelism and church plants that wither away in five years.” Where this latter idea came from I am at a loss to discover. If this comment is a slight on Calvinists or Calvinism with regard to evangelism or church planting, then the numbers and statistics against the tenor of this comment render it naïve at best and ludicrous at worst. Calvinists evangelize and Calvinists plant churches.
I am disappointed that articles like this still crop up in non-Calvinist circles. I can empathize with not wanting to see Calvinism spread, especially when one thinks that its core doctrines (Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, as well as high or low deterministic views) are false.
However, the growth of Calvinism in the SBC should inform all non-Calvinists to at least two very simple truths: 1) the younger generation takes theology very seriously (and for that we should be grateful); and 2) the growth of Calvinism in the SBC should not be a cause of alarm ecclesiologically or theologically.
Under the first point, I want to emphasize that Calvinists have performed in an outstanding fashion with regard to promoting a godly, biblically conservative theology. I would rather a young, conservative Southern Baptist student accept Calvinism than to take the road of liberal-leaning Wesleyan-Arminians such as Roger Olson and Jerry Walls, who reject inerrancy and the exclusivity of the gospel, among other beliefs (that will score me no points with some Arminians).
Under the second point, I want to comfort all non-Calvinists by pointing out what should be obvious. The SBC is constructed in such a way that it cannot inform a local church as to what soteriological position she should hold (either Calvinism or non-Calvinistic/Arminianism). In other words, the SBC is not dominated by either Calvinists or non-Calvinists/Arminians, and neither group can enforce its soteriology on the other.
So, relax! Love one another in Christ. Demonstrate from the inerrant word of God your position. But do not think for a moment that either group is going to somehow dominate the SBC and force all its members to hold to one particular soteriological construction. And for the sake of our union with Christ, while we are debating our theology, remember that we are all one in Christ. We are on the same team, people!