I hate hidden agendas – they are unworthy of God’s people. Paul said, in 2 Corinthians 4:2 that he renounced secret and shameful ways. So, I want to come clean here and tell you exactly what I am doing.
In the book, “Anyone Can Be Saved: A Defense of ‘Traditional’ Southern Baptist Soteriology” edited by David L. Allen, Eric Hankins, and Adam Harwood, Dr. Allen opens the discussion with an excellent essay entitled, “The Current SBC Calvinism Debate: Observations, Clarifications, and Suggestions.” It is one of the best things I have read on the topic. What I’d like to do is simply copy it here for you to read in full, but there’s this little hindrance called a copyright and the good folks at Wipf and Stock might object. So, I will interact with what Dr. Allen wrote in enough detail to give you a good idea of what he said without, hopefully, running afoul of any laws!
He begins by asserting the obvious.
Two things are crystal clear. The issue of Calvinism in the SBC is not going away, and finding our way forward is not going to be easy.
He is absolutely right. Southern Baptists have been “discussing” this topic (with varying hues of red faces) since the convention was founded, with both the Sandy Creek and the Charleston streams flowing free. If the Lord tarries and the convention survives, in 100 years there will be Calvinists and non-Calvinists arguing still. Hopefully, they will also be partnering for the gospel.
Dr. Allen makes eight key points, which I believe both diagnose the problem in our current Calvinism discussions and provide an effective course of treatment.
1. As Southern Baptists, our agreements outnumber our disagreements.
To hear some, Calvinists and Traditionalists preach different gospels, but Dr. Allen highlights the doctrines we hold in common. We confess the BF&M 2000, the Lordship of Christ, the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, the lostness of humanity and the exclusivity of the gospel, and that salvation is by grace through faith alone. Bart Barber had a post years ago in which he listed common doctrines of Calvinist and non-Calvinist Baptists. Seems like the list ran over 40 items.
Dr. Allens asserts that this is a necessary discussion, though I’ve seen great damage come from it. If the attitude Dr. Allen promotes can prevail, I’d rethink that. He speaks of the unity of Baptist Calvinists and Traditionalists around the BF&M.
It is sufficiently broad in latitude that we can all live, breathe, and work under its umbrella. In fact, Calvinists and Traditionalists, for the most part, have been doing that already for quite a number of decades.
2. Because of this common ground, we should avoid “the Scylla of attempting to run all Calvinists out of Dodge and the Charybdis of attempting to return us as a convention to the Calvinistic theology of some of the founders.”
These attempts foster division. Some insist Calvinism is outside of “Southern Baptist soteriology” and others wish to paint the founders of the SBC as monolithically Calvinist. These are attempts to assert “superior Baptistitude” (yeah, just made that us). Instead, we must accept one another as equal partners in the SBC world.
If we are to come together in unity, we must do so as Baptists, not as Calvinists and Traditionalists. We must unite around Baptist distinctives which include the only glue that can hold us together; a biblical, Baptist theology wedded to a Great Commission resurgence of evangelism and missions. We don’t have to cease to be Calvinists or Traditionalists to be Baptists.
Can I get a witness?
3. We need to love and respect one another even though we are not in complete agreement on every theological point.
We should speak the truth in love and avoid strident, emotive language.
Well, there goes blogging.
Seriously, in blogging, few of us avoid the periodic (or frequent) violation of these wise words, but many now see the Bible’s calls to unity, gentleness, and respect as markers of a lack of conviction. One blogger recently labeled unity an idol. Thankfully, he is extreme, but many use the words of Jesus to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 as justification for verbally eviscerating one another and ignoring the calls to build up, to be meek, to guard our words, and to be loving in all we do. That takes real courage and conviction.
Yes, there are charlatans and sinners who must be confronted, but kindness, love, and respect must be our default.
4. We need to be reminded that the truth of a given position is in no way related to who or how many hold that position.
Are you saying that a LifeWay survey of how many Baptists identify with each side doesn’t establish truth?
If it could be proven that a majority of our founders believed in Calvinism, it is not proven. If we can show that 97.2% of key leaders in the SBC today reject Calvinism, it does not disprove it. The Berean spirit (Acts 17:11) must prevail as we are guided by God’s word.
Obviously, all sides believe that their position is established in Scripture. That is why love and respect are needed. We accept one another as brethren (and sistern) while we grow in the knowledge of God’s word and its author.
5. Generally speaking, all Southern Baptists are concerned about theology.
Dr. Allen makes an important point, even if we all know Baptists who couldn’t care less about theology and doctrine.
He graciously includes a rejoinder to Traditionalists not to disrespect the theological competency of Calvinists. Some dismiss Calvinists as more concerned with systematics than biblical theology, as shaping their theology from confessions and creeds more than from exegesis, and of tending to get lost in the weeds of hero worship (Piper said it, I believe it, that settles it).
But I’ve been involved enough with Calvinists to deliver a friendly word of rebuke. Many Calvinists tend to look at Non-Calvinists and especially at Traditionalists as theological rubes who just don’t have the insight or intelligence to see the Bible correctly. I’ve heard solid Bible scholars spoken of dismissively simply because they hold to non-Calvinist positions. One can be intelligent, a scholar of God’s word, deeply in love with Jesus, and come to a position different than yours.
Dr. Allen gives a list of 8 errors to avoid in theological debate.
- Do not subsume one set of Scriptures under another.
- Prejudicing that which is logical in Scripture over that which is paradoxical. (I believe paradox, or antinomy, may be the key to all hermeneutics)
- Succumbing to logical fallacies to maintain our particular theology.
- Doing systematic theology before biblical theology. (This should, perhaps, be #1?)
- Confusing one’s theological system with the gospel and reacting to criticism of the system as a challenge to the gospel.
- Confusing a critique of someone’s theological system as a critique of that person.
- Engaging in ad hominem attacks.
- Questioning the motives of others in theological discussion.
6. Avoid misrepresenting another’s theology.
This is at the heart of much of our problem in Calvinism discussions. People say, “This is what Calvinists believe,” and Calvinists say, “but it isn’t.” The Traditionalist then enforces his interpretation of Calvinist belief over what the Calvinist claims to believe. The TS comes out and Calvinists shout, “Semi-pelagian.” Traditionalists say, “We are not Semi-pelagian because….” but Calvinists continue to enforce the Semi-Pelagian accusation. We speak but do not listen.
The key to any discussion is to be able to present the views of the other side in a way that the OTHER SIDE UNDERSTANDS.
I have been in some form of ministry for nearly four decades, and have noticed that every marriage I have ever seen that is in trouble has the same problem. Communication. The problem can present in terms of money or sex or children or a hundred other things, but 100% of the couples that end up in my office for counseling are terrible at talking to one another. No, that’s not it. They are terrible at LISTENING to each other.
Ever heard of active listening? That’s where a man sits on the couch with his wife and asks her how her day went. She speaks and then he says, “What I heard you saying was…” and he tries to accurately restate what she said. If he gets it wrong she helps him clarify until he can succinctly restate what she was saying. Then, and only then, after he’s listened carefully to what she said, does he respond. Then, she says, “What I heard you saying was…” It takes hours to have a simple conversation! But when a marriage is in trouble, it is because man and wife have stopped listening to each other. They are interpreting and overblowing and forming their responses before they’ve actually listened.
The SBC is a giant dysfunctional marriage and we are terrible at listening to one another. What if Calvinists made a good-faith effort to genuinely understand what Traditionalists and other non-Calvinists believed, and the various non-Calvinists did the same thing? It would be a great first step.
Dr. Allen makes a distinction between understanding a theological system and examining its implications. This is always going to be tricky. The key issue with non-Calvinist views of Calvinism is their belief that they are deterministic. Calvinists deny that in various ways. But Traditionalists and other non-Calvinists make the claim that the implications of the Calvinist system are deterministic. Calvinists do similar things when they examine the implications of various free-will systems.
If we begin with a genuine effort to understand the theology the other side believes, then simply argue at the level of implications, it may not lead to easy resolution, but it is a good first step. The key is that we cannot willfully, ignorantly, or through laziness, misrepresent the other side in our discussions.
7. Is the TS divisive?
Dr. Allen distinguishes several kinds of division, some of which are healthy and others not so.
Any Baptist is free to state his or her theological position. Doctrine by its nature is divisive but that division is not inherently unhealthy. It becomes so when we respond badly. Has the TS been divisive? Undeniable so. But it was wholly appropriate for Eric Hankins to write and release this. It was wholly appropriate for others to critique it – to affirm it and to disagree with it. We are a deliberative body. We discuss and we disagree.
But too often our disagreements have been unhealthy because of how we have behaved. That isn’t the fault of the TS but of the way people have behaved either in support of it or in opposition to it. Establishing and advocating for a theological position – that is wholly appropriate. How we’ve done that often is not.
8. The entire enterprise calls for a healthy dose of humility and prayer.
I’m not sure what to add to Dr. Allen’s words.
The goal in this dialogue should not be to win at all costs. The goal should be to win the world to Christ at all costs.
What Dr. Allen said.
David Allen for president. I don’t know of what…but something.