By Jerry Faught
The recent Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting featured a 3,500 word report from the Calvinism Advisory Committee, chaired by David Dockery of Union University. To the surprise of no one the committee essentially declared “we agree far more than we disagree.”
The committee decided that the theological differences between Southern Baptist Calvinists and Arminian-leaning Baptists did not warrant division. Convention leaders are keenly aware, of course, that a schism would be devastating for a denomination in numerical and financial decline.
In March 2009 Time magazine listed Calvinism as one of 10 ideas changing the contemporary American religious landscape. Calvinism has certainly enjoyed resurgence among conservative evangelicals, but it has discovered fertile ground in the fundamentalist-dominated SBC.
In recent years an increasing number of religiously conservative young adults have been drawn to the teachings of several popular, charismatic celebrants of Calvinism. The young, restless and Reformed crowd were attracted no doubt to the God of Calvinism, who ordains and carefully orchestrates the lives of individuals.
The sovereign God of Calvinism serves as an antidote to pluralistic postmodern understandings of God. The young and restless found appealing a tidy theological system and frequently proclaim it to be none other than orthodox Christianity — the essence of the Gospel.
Tensions in the SBC concerning Calvinism surfaced as early the 1980s when a group of scholars emerged affirming anew the Calvinism of the Synod of Dordt with hopes of spreading this theology in the SBC.
Timothy George, David Dockery, Tom Nettles, Ernest Reisinger and Tom Ascol — all associated to some degree with Founders Ministries — promoted the thesis that the normative theological outlook for Southern Baptists has been Dortian Calvinistic theology.
These men proposed that Dortian Calvinism sustained Southern Baptists during their first two generations but was altered considerably during the 20th century by a cadre of Arminian-leaning theologians and pastors. The new Calvinist theologians either called for Southern Baptists to return to their theological roots or simply rejoiced that such a movement was underway. But their numbers were small.
Also, at the time the SBC was embroiled in a controversy concerning the inerrancy of the Bible, and fundamentalists were engaged in efforts to purge the SBC of moderates. The New Calvinists supported these efforts and the two sides decided to remain allies.
In the thick of the controversy Paige Patterson wrote to Ernest Reisinger, a leading Reformed pastor who sought to convert seminary students and anyone else to Reformed theology, stating that those who have no questions about the truthfulness of the Bible must stay together so that detractors of the Bible will not “wreck our efforts to establish the source of truth among Baptists.”
In other words, “we agree far more than we disagree.” A commitment to fundamentalist theology along with a similar political agenda united these two groups, although their soteriological views were incompatible. After many moderates exited the SBC or stayed tangentially connected to the denomination, anxieties concerning the rise of Calvinism heightened.
If recent surveys by LifeWay Christian Resources and the North American Mission Board are accurate, only about 10 percent of Southern Baptist leaders identify themselves as five-point Calvinists. That number doesn’t raise any eyebrows. Why all the fuss about the existence of a Southern Baptist-flavored Calvinism?
What has alarmed many Southern Baptists is that about 30 percent of recent SBC seminary graduates identify themselves as Dortian Calvinists. What accounts for this trend?
Many students entering seminaries, having been influenced by the preaching and writings of Calvinist authors John Piper and Mark Driscoll, more often than not find a place where their Calvinist theology is reinforced and refined by seminary faculty members. Indeed, a concern among a number of Southern Baptist leaders is that relative to the Southern Baptist population, Calvinists are over-represented on seminary faculties.
Given that Dortian Calvinism is not the primary theological orientation of most Southern Baptists, when recent seminary graduates step into pastorates with the Bible in one hand and J.P. Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology in the other, they receive significant pushback and frequently leave churches in chaos scrambling to find another congregation to pastor or often to start a new church.
As long as Calvinists maintain a strong faculty presence at Southern Baptist seminaries, this pattern is likely to continue despite the delivering of irenic convention committee reports. Most SBC churches have stiff-armed Calvinism and are likely to continue the resistance. Only time will tell if Calvinism will continue as a force in the SBC.
Several certainties are apparent. For now at least, fundamentalism is the new center holding the SBC together, despite the repudiations of post-takeover SBC seminarians who continue to assert that they are either conservative evangelicals or Reformed evangelicals.
The formal and functional theology of the SBC reveals its true direction. Further, the SBC is in a pattern of decline with no solution in sight and armed only with avowals that the decline would have been worse if liberalism had won the day.
Ever the cultural pugilists, Southern Baptists, obsessed with blocking a liberal left hook, got hammered with a hard right. Dazed and disoriented, the denomination finds itself looking up from the canvas still spouting the rhetoric of championship days seemingly unaware of its declining influence.