In our ongoing discussions of important issues, one perennial problem is breakdown in communication. An issue where this problem seems to occur often is in our discussions about Calvinism. Just what do we mean when we use the term “Calvinist”? Because the term is used in a variety of ways we often fail to communicate and misunderstanding occurs. Unfortunately, such misunderstanding too often leads to unnecessary division and offense. For positive dialogue on this or any issue, both the speaker and the hearer have a responsibility to strive for understanding. The speaker must communicate effectively and the hearer must strive to discern what the speaker intends to say.
In terms of language itself, the term “Calvinist” has a number of different uses within a semantic range. As you look across the SBC landscape, the term is used in at least four different ways, depending on the context. Many of us have used more than one of these meanings at one time or another. Others use the term with only one specific meaning and must take care they do not misunderstand what is being said when other uses are employed — especially if we ourselves use self-descriptors that either include or exclude a particular view of Calvinism. Of course, “Calvinist” is not the only term where this problem exists. The same semantic problem occurs with terms like “Reformed”, “Evangelical”, “Arminian”, “heresy”, “missionary”, and even “Christian.”
The following is a list of ways the term “Calvinist” is presently used by Southern Baptists. Depending on its use, the term may mean…
1. All non-Arminians including any who hold to classic doctrine of perseverance regardless of their view on any of the remaining four points. In this use, anyone who believes that salvation once received cannot be lost is considered Calvinist. In broader evangelical world, classic Arminians commonly refer to all Southern Baptists as Calvinists. Historically, Southern Baptists have been a mix of strict and modified Calvinists. Thus in this usage, one might rightly say that Southern Baptists are Calvinist or Calvinistic.
2. Those who believe in Unconditional Election including all 3-5 point Calvinists. In this use, the key distinctive is that God chooses the elect based on His own sovereign purposes, irrespective of Divine foreknowledge. What one believes about irresistible grace or limited atonement is incidental. In this usage, we may rightly say that the “Abstract of Principles” is a Calvinist document and that professors at Southern and Southeastern seminary are Calvinists even though only some would adhere to all five points of TULIP.
3. Strict Calvinists/5-point Calvinist. By this definition the term is reserved for those who affirm the entire classical system of the five doctrines of grace most commonly presented as TULIP. Those who do not affirm irresistible grace and/or limited atonement would be excluded. As an example of this usage, then, we could rightly say that Mohler is a Calvinist while Akin is not.
4. Hyper-Calvinist. In this use, the person may affirm from 3-5 points but, as a consequence of their view of election, either neglect or reject the proclamation of the gospel. The problem with this use is that it nearly always conflates hyper-Calvinists with other forms of missionary Calvinism and thus is nearly always interpreted by the hearer as pejorative. In my view, this use is almost never appropriate without the accompanying prefix “hyper”.
So what is to be done given this broad semantic range and the constant danger of being misunderstood? Effective communication and Christian dialogue demands certain things from both the speaker and the hearer. The following are some guidelines for any who wish to dialogue on this issue.
For the Speaker:
1. Be careful whenever you use descriptors like “Calvinist” that it is clear which meaning you are using. If your intended meaning is not immediately clear from the context of the discussion, it may be helpful to use qualifying prefixes like modified-, strict-, or hyper- so that the hearer understands just whom you are including in the moniker.
2. Recognize that in the present state of our denomination, terms like “Calvinist” are loaded with a lot of prior thinking and emotion on all sides. Great care should be taken when using the term. Whatever the point we are making, no matter how legitimate, we must be careful not to alienate our hearers. Though we can never totally avoid this possibility, there is a responsibility to avoid unnecessary offense. For example, you will OFTEN get resistance from self-described non-Calvinists when you include them as Calvinists and you will nearly ALWAYS get resistance from self-described Calvinists if you even hint that Calvinism is inconsistent with evangelism and missions.
3. Recognize that your primary role as a communicator is to communicate. It does not matter what you meant to say if the hearer hears something different. You are responsible to communicate clearly, whether speaking to a group of academics, writing an editorial, preaching to your congregation, having a casual conversation with fellow pastors, or commenting on a blog.
4. Recognize that in this multi-media age, your audience is often larger than the people in front of you. What may be clear to your immediate audience may not be clear to the broader audience who hears your remarks rebroadcast on a podcast, blog, news article, or other medium. Be careful that your remarks are clear to this broader audience as well.
For the hearer:
1. While speakers/writers are responsible to be clear in their communication, hearers also have a responsibility to give persons a fair hearing. This means that we do our best to understand what a speaker is attempting to communicate even if they are not being clear in doing so or using language in a way that we would not use it. Being “quick to listen” includes an honest effort to understand a person’s position before responding to it or making a judgment. Being a good listener means that we must seek to understand what is being communicated.
2. We should default to seeing things in the best possible light, rather than the worst. We must act with grace toward one another.
3. We must treat other people’s views fairly; especially when we disagree. One of the least effective ways to debate is to set up a “straw man” argument by presenting another’s views dishonestly. Be careful to present a person’s position accurately and do not hide behind use of terminology to mischaracterize or malign the speaker.
4. Do not get upset over every disagreement or misuse of terms. God has put us together as a family of believers and has brought together for the cause of the gospel. We ought to love one another and love “is not easily offended” (1 Cor 13:5) and “covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8). Let us approach each other on these issues, not as enemies, but as brothers.
Ultimately, our disagreements on the issue of Calvinism are nothing new. Southern Baptists have always held a wide range of opinions on soteriology within the limits of Christian orthodoxy. The BFM2000 sets clear parameters about our beliefs concerning election, salvation, and the Great Commission, while at the same time allowing for a diversity of opinion on tertiary matters like the extent of the atonement and unconditional election. Let us continue to allow for some diversity on these matters. Especially, let us not cause unnecessary division by either our careless use of terminology or our unwillingness to be gracious hearers.