I am not a church or Baptist historian. I’ve done some reading, but the distance between my level of learning and expertise is significant. But I watched Dr. David Dockery’s explanation of Baptist history at the Kentucky Baptist Convention-sponsored conference last year, which were (not surprisingly) highly instructive. If you have not yet, I would encourage you to watch these videos, available on YouTube. Here is Part 1 and Part 2.
Basically, Dockery identifies how the two streams, which he identifies as Particular Baptists and General Baptists, were present in SBC life from the very beginning. Both sides, he said, had strengths and inherent weaknesses.
Here is the point I drew from his presentation. Each of these streams of thought in Baptist life has inherent strengths and weaknesses. And it is the balance of these two streams that keeps Southern Baptists anchored, grounded and focused. When we have both robust Calvinism and robust non-Calvinism in the SBC, the denomination prospers.
If you are a passionate proponent of Calvinism, or a passionate opponent of the same, what I am saying is not going to be palatable. For the ardent Calvinist, that system is representative of biblical truth is such a way that he believes that the convention would only benefit from being dominated by Calvinists and Calvinism. For the ardent anti-Calvinist among us, only the elimination of Calvinistic influence will suffice.
Ardent adherents on both sides probably think me naive in my view. They may be right.
But I believe that the SBC prospers by the balance of the two streams of Baptist life.
Long Live the Antinomy
I was approached by a church some time ago as a part of their pastoral search process. As is the norm, they sent me a questionnaire. The first six questions had to do with Calvinism in some form. I told them I was probably not the man for them. If (as I assumed) the church was thoroughly reformed, I would not be Calvinistic enough for them. If they were ant-Calvinist, I would be too Calvinistic for them. Most of all, I do not want to pastor a church where Calvinism is a front and center issue.
I am an antinomist. I use this term is a specific way, different perhaps than the normal, philosophical usage. I think most biblical truth follows this pattern. Antinomy (at least the way I use it) occurs when two truths are both affirmed in Scripture that cannot both be true in human logic. I rely on Isaiah 55:8-9 which tells me that God’s ways are higher and his thoughts are higher. There is a divine logic which so supersedes human logic that things which are impossible in inadequate human terms become possible in the divine logic.
- God is One. God is Three. Every explanation of the Trinity on human terms is a heresy of some form. It is beyond human explanation. We can state the Trinity, but we cannot understand it. How can three Persons each be fully God yet there is only one God?
- Jesus is fully Divine. Jesus is Fully Human. He is not part God, part man. He is fully each. The dual nature of Christ is an antinomy.
- I think sanctification is an antinomy. It is Christ who makes us holy. Yet, we must choose holiness. If I am accepted in Christ and made holy in him, why must I also strive for holiness? But I must.
- I sometimes (not to open a can of worms) wonder if this explains some of the debate around eternal security and perseverance. I believe that eternal life is eternal, and once given cannot be taken away. But those we are secure in Christ, we must also make our calling and election sure. Antinomy? Seems that way.
I often find myself taking middle ground positions on issues we discuss. That is not because I am theologically wishy-washy (though certainly a few have leveled that charge), but because I think most truth is held in balance with other truth that on human terms seems contradictory. Our duty is not to understand everything about God, but to trust a God we cannot always understand.
When it comes to Calvinism, I am an antinomist. I believe that God, solely as an act of his Sovereign Grace and without regard to any merit on our part (or even future choice) chose from among this world’s sinners those who would become his and predestined them to become like Jesus Christ. That squarely puts me in the Calvinist side.
However, I also believe in human moral choice in a way that many monergists would not support. Calvinists will generally acknowledge human responsibility before God (distinguishing them from the dreaded Hypers), but I would emphasize that choice a little more than some of the Calvinists I have seen would be comfortable with – more a matter of degree. I’ve read Calvinists who even deride term “decisional evangelism” as if emphasizing human decision was something shameful. In a genuine act of his human will, a man must choose to respond to the proclamation of the gospel and choose to believe in Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord.
If God chose who would be saved before the foundation of the world, how can evangelism and human decision matter? I don’t know. Ask God when you get to heaven, maybe he can explain it to you. But in the meantime, I am going to believe both because I believe the Bible teaches both.
The Strength Comes from the Balance
Because I am neither completely in the Calvinist camp, nor completely in the Free Will camp, I think there are benefits that come our way from the balance of the two. Dockery showed, in his presentations mentioned above, that historically, both sides have been prone to error. Calvinism tend to emphasize divine sovereignty in the process of salvation while non-Calvinists often emphasize human means and the need for decision.
The presence of Calvinistic theology among us can serve to protect us from the excesses some evangelists and revivalists have fallen prey to. I’ve got some stories of things I’ve observed, but I will only share those in the comments if people deny that human means can be abused. The Calvinist stream can keep us from trying to do in our own strength, intelligence and methodologies what only the Spirit can do – awaken the dead.
On the other hand, the presence of non-Calvinist streams among us can serve to protect us from the excesses that Calvinists often fall prey to. I’ve known Calvinists who so emphasized God’s sovereignty that they viewed an emphasis on human decision with suspicion. Settle down, guys. I’m not saying that all Calvinists believe this, or that it is a part of core Calvinist doctrine. But the tendency is present among some.
One of the strengths of the SBC, in my opinion, has been the balance created by the tension between the Calvinist and non-Calvinist streams of SBC history. In my youth, Calvinism had dwindled to the point where its impact was minimal. The emphasis was on human responsibility almost to exclusion of divine sovereignty. Calvinism began to return to its former, more prominent position and a re-emphasis on the primacy of God’s work in salvation returned with it.
Call me naive. Call me Pollyanna. But I think we are better when there is a healthy balance of the two views, and the total dominance of either side would not be best for us as a convention.