By Bob Allen
A Baptist state newspaper editor has questioned whether the report of a Calvinism study committee implies that some high-profile Southern Baptist leaders believe that infants who die before reaching the so-called “age of accountability” are destined for hell.
Gerald Harris, editor of the Georgia Christian Index, voiced concern in an Aug. 22 editorial about a section of a June statement by a Calvinism Advisory Committee appointed by SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page that cites disagreement about what happens to children who die before they are capable of moral action.
The report stated: “We agree that most Southern Baptists believe that those who die before they are capable of moral action go to heaven through the grace of God and the atonement of Christ, even as they differ as to why this is so.”
Harris said the statement so troubled him that he asked the advisory team for further clarification about, “What Southern Baptists are there who do not believe that those who die before they are capable of moral action go to heaven?”
“I have been a Southern Baptist for 62 years and I have never met any Baptist in our convention who admitted to believing that children who die before they are capable of moral action go to hell,” Harris wrote. “Therefore it would appear that the nebulous statement about the destiny of children would have to be influenced by a person or persons on the advisory team.”
Harris suggested he wasn’t totally satisfied by the responses he received. Some told him the statement didn’t necessarily reflect the views of any member of the advisory panel but simply acknowledged a wide range of viewpoints among rank-and-file Southern Baptists. Other members did not respond to his inquiry. Some who support Calvinism said they believe the Bible teaches that all persons who die in infancy are among the elect.
But Harris said Eric Hankins, pastor of First Baptist Church of Oxford, Miss., who assisted in writing the document, indicated that the wording of the section in question was crafted to accommodate some members of the advisory team who were not comfortable with the assertion that all who die that are morally incapable go to heaven.
David Allen, dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, stated wholehearted agreement that all infants who die are safe in the arms of Jesus, and said that “to suggest otherwise represents an extreme position within a Calvinistic Baptist framework.”
“Calvinists outside the SBC have differed for centuries over whether all who die in infancy should be considered among the elect,” added Adam Harwood, associate professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. “For some Calvinists, both the Bible and the Westminster Confession are unclear on the matter. But Southern Baptists, whether Calvinist or non-Calvinist, have been united on this issue — until now.”
Harris, a former pastor and Georgia Baptist Convention president who has edited the Christian Index since 2003, has voiced skepticism before about the growing popularity of views labeled as Calvinism, the “doctrines of grace” and “young, restless and reformed” in the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics.
In 2012, he editorialized about a “presumable encroachment of Calvinism” that he believes is more rigid than that held by Southern Baptist founders who were influenced by teaching at Presbyterian-affiliated Princeton Theological Seminary in the mid-1800s.
“I am getting the distinct impression that many who embrace a reformed theology in the Southern Baptist Convention are beginning to feel very uncomfortable with the new kind of Calvinism very unlike the reformed theology of Charles Spurgeon, David Livingstone, William Carey, James Petigru Boyce, Carl F.H. Henry, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones,” Harris wrote in his more recent editorial.
The Calvinism Advisory Committee report, titled “Truth, Trust and Testimony in a Time of Tension,” said Southern Baptists are united in belief that conversion of the sinner is necessary for salvation.
“We deny that salvation comes to anyone who has not experienced conversion,” the committee said. “We also deny that salvation comes to any sinner who does not will to believe and receive Christ.”
Article III of the Baptist Faith and Message, however, claims that men become transgressors only “as soon as they are capable of moral action.” Historically Baptists have turned to a doctrine called “the age of accountability,” which maintains that personal soul competency before God presupposes a conscious choice and does not apply to infants or others incapable of coming to faith in Christ.
Herschel Hobbs, chairman of the committee that drafted a previous version of the Baptist Faith and Message in 1963, wrote in a 1979 article in Review and Expositor that the result of the fall is that men inherit a “nature and an environment inclined toward sin” rather than imputed guilt.
“This, of course, agrees with the position generally held by Baptists concerning God’s grace in cases of those under the age of accountability and the mentally incompetent,” the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, who died in 1995, wrote in the article titled “Southern Baptists and Confessionalism: A Comparison of the Origins and Contents of the 1925 and 1963 Confessions.”
Meetings of the 19-member ad hoc task force — appointed to study the impact of recent seminary graduates who adhere to a “five-point” Calvinism at percentages far higher than the people in Southern Baptist pews — were closed to the press.