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. This is part 4 in the series. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
In this final post, I offer a response to the second question Nathan Finn puts to Traditionalists in his recent essay in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry. Finn asks, “Who are the New Calvinists, and what have they done?” (68). Finn understands the preamble to the Traditional Statement (TS) to be insinuating that New Calvinists (NCs) are theologically rigid in places where Southern Baptists (SBs) are flexible and that they are anti-missional hyper-Calvinists. He counters with the assertion that NCs are actually theologically diverse and passionate about missions. If Finn’s analysis is correct, then he is right to wonder why Traditionalists are so alarmed. Unfortunately, Finn both misses the point of the preamble and fails to characterize adequately New Calvinism. The preamble is not charging NCs with insisting on only one brand of strict Calvinism. Instead, it is making the point that all the adjustments Calvinists have had to make across the years to keep the system from becoming hyper-Calvinist and anti-missional are reasons why SBs have historically resisted Calvinism and ought to continue to do so.
Since Finn’s answer to his own question is inadequate, let me put into evidence the answer of a New Calvinist Finn mentions, John Piper. Who are the NCs? Piper says they are passionate about the authority of Scripture, the centrality of the gospel, and the glory of God as these things are described by John Calvin, which is to say, as these things are understood through the lens of theistic determinism. Piper begins his answer by describing how NCs respond to tragedies like 9/11. Instead of a god who was either too weak or not good enough to stop those events, the God of NCs has a bigger plan. What Piper does not spell out, as he does in other places, is that God meticulously foreordained the events of 9/11 so that they could not have been otherwise. He determined to be most glorified in that destruction as the elect learn to be most satisfied with even that “frowning providence.” The Bible is the story of a determining God. The gospel is the story of God’s determination of the destiny of every person with respect to Jesus Christ: some are in, most are out. The glory of God, deterministically enjoyed by some, is the central reality of the Bible, the gospel, and the Christian life. These are the beliefs of the New Calvinists.
What have they done to draw the criticism of people like me? Piper himself acknowledges that Calvinists are often negative. He proposes three reasons why this is the case. First, because of the powerfully coherent nature of the system, it tends to appeal to rigorous minds, serious intellectuals who often are not the warmest, friendliest people. They don’t suffer fools gladly and are impatient with those who can’t or won’t acknowledge Calvinism’s internal consistency. Second, they are sometimes angry that they went so long without recognizing the doctrines of grace in the Scriptures or without being taught them in their churches. In a real sense, their churches and pastors failed them, and they are justifiably upset and justified in their efforts to correct those problems. Third, a New Calvinist sometimes comes off as overbearing because he has been graciously enabled and now is passionately overwhelmed by the truths that teach that he “has been awakened from the dead, like being found at the bottom of a lake and God, at the cost of his Son’s life, brings him up from the bottom, does CPR, brings him miraculously back to life, and he stands on the beach thrilled with the grace of God.” Piper goes on to say that the negative impression that people get from this passionate advocacy is sometimes due to the sinfulness of the Calvinist but also “to people’s unwillingness to see what is really there in the Bible.”
Piper’s is the correct answer to Finn’s question. A strong motivation for the production of the TS is that NCs often come off as arrogant, angry, and cocksure that their deterministic soteriology accounts for the totality of the biblical data. To Piper’s answer, I would give a little tweak and some further application to the SB context. My tweak would be to make as clear as possible that what ultimately defines a New Calvinist is his commitment to theistic determinism. Not just an emphasis on the Bible, but an emphasis on a deterministic reading of the Bible. Not just an emphasis on the gospel, but a deterministic understanding of the gospel. Not just as an emphasis on the glory of God, but a deterministic understanding of the glory of God.
The coherence of Calvinism is the coherence of determinism. Biblical texts that don’t fit the system are marginalized or reinterpreted to fit it. A variety of shims are inserted into the system to soften or hide the jolting but necessary demands of determinism. These fixes (Amyraldianism, single predestination, “duty faith,” God’s two loves, His two wills, compatibilistic freedom, “mystery, paradox, antimony,” etc., etc., etc.) actually destroy the coherence of determinism, even though they are well-intended—they are crafted to rescue the character of God, the plain-sense meaning of many biblical texts, and a legitimate rationale for taking the gospel to every person. In the past, most SBs were willing to live with these “adjustments” because Calvinists didn’t push determinism hard and so we weren’t highly motivated to hammer out our specific response to them. But that’s changed. NCs are actively promoting this approach to theology, and Traditionalists are no longer going to give them free passes on its problematic affirmations and implications. NCs are going to have to spell out, in a compellingly coherent manner, how determinism fits with our passion about the fact that anyone can be saved. So far, no such articulation has been provided. If NCs can’t offer an acceptable explanation, then we will either have to return to the detente that has characterized the SB relationship to Calvinism in the past or find a way to sublimate the best of both soteriological approaches while dropping determinism as a theological presupposition.
The supposedly overwhelming beauty of Calvinistic determinism is, in fact, disturbing to most SBs. We are not interested in a God who drowns us all for the sin He foreordained that we commit and then resuscitates a few of us for His own glory. This is not a straw man; this is not misrepresentation. This is what John Piper thinks is at the core of biblical soteriology. NCs make this work by keeping the attention on those who “[stand] on the beach thrilled with the grace of God” and off of all the dead people at the bottom of the lake who will never have an opportunity to be anywhere else. Well, I see dead people. And we are going to talk about them. We are not troubled by the claims of Calvinism because we don’t understand them. We are troubled by the claims because we do. Finn is correct in pointing to the concern raised in the preamble to the TS that NCs are pressing for the “radical alteration” of a “long standing arrangement” (68). NCs want to move their deterministic soteriology from the periphery to the center, which means that the idea that anyone can be saved will be replaced with the idea that only some have been meticulously foreordained for salvation while all others are without hope. This has never been at the heart of SBC evangelism and missions, certainly not since the crafting of the first BFM and the formation of the Cooperative Program. We have always resisted this view, and we will continue to resist it. That’s our old problem with New Calvinism.