Thursday, January 17, 2008

Getting It RIGHT About Calvinism

The rhetoric, combatism, and venonmous dialogue about Calvinism and its resurgence among younger Southern Baptists is wearisome. However, though only 10% of Southern Baptist pastors claims to be 5-point Calvinists, there remains growing concern among Southern Baptist leaders (Frank Page Paige Patterson, etc) about the resurgence of Calvinism and its impact on the local SBC congregation. I'm convinced that open dialogue, biblical discussion, and kind-hearted, open-minded conversations would go a long way toward bringing both sides of the debate together.

However building bridges of understanding and cooperation among Jesus-lovers on both sides of the debate will only happen when everyone starts speaking the same language. In other words, understanding will only come when we actually understand and can articulate what each side believes about the issues of election and human responsibility without resorting to caricatures and exaggerated statements about the theological positions of the opposing sides. I also find it increasingly troubling that the conversation about the doctrines of grace continue to be very man-centered. The concern seems to be among many in SBC that we uphold the integrity of human autonomy without giving enough thought to the God-centered nature of salvation.

I found two examples of this in an article in Christianity Today this week.

Example #1: In speaking about the SBC historically...

Long considered more Arminian in orientation—emphasizing an individual's need to respond to the gospel rather than God's election in salvation—the nation's largest Protestant denomination is grappling with doctrines of grace and election amid a seminary-led revival.

While it is true that modern Southern Baptists have not emphasised God's election in salvation, I doubt that even the most sympathetically Arminian Southern Baptist would seek to dismiss God's electing purposes in salvation. If your reject the doctrine of election then you have put yourself outside of a biblical understanding of salvation. They would simply speak of it differently than a Calvnist. They would say that God has elected men and women to salvation based on his foreknowledge of all the future choices of humanity.

But even more troubling is the implication of the above sentence regarding the Calvinists view of human responsibility. Did you catch it? The statement is written suggesting that Calvinists would not emphasize an individual's needs to respond to the gospel. Anyone who would state that an individual's need to respond to the gospel is secondary to God's call of election has misunderstood the intent and tenants of Calvinism. It is clear in Romans 10 that faith comes through hearing, hearing through the word of Christ, and that all who call upon the name of Jesus upon hearing the gospel will be saved. Even the elect must willing respond to the message of Jesus through faith and repentance. No one will be saved without hearing and responding to the gospel. The proclamation of the gospel is the means of God's salvation.

Example #2:From the lips of SBC President Frank Page...

While acknowledging that both sides seek to uphold biblical truth, Page worries that extremists could undermine the SBC's emphasis on outreach. He isn't impressed by arguments that most convention founders embraced Reformed ideas. "The totality of history shows the vast majority of Baptists have not been [Calvinists], so why go back to the founders?" Page said. "I think we need to go back to the Bible."

A biblical Calvinist would shout a hearty "AMEN!" to Page's words, if he means that both sides on this debate should return, not to our traditions, but to Scripture in seeking clarity about how and why any man or woman turns to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith or why we should be motivated to evangelize the nations. But I'm afraid that Page's quote betrays his motive in his statement. He charges Calvinist with running too far to our SBC roots in appealing to the fact that the earliest Southern Baptists were historically Calvinists, while ignoring the fact that for the past 150+ years SOuthern Baptists have NOT been 5-point Calvinists historically. His statement that "we need to go back to the Bible" seems to imply that more recent history is right or more biblical on this issue.

What I find interesting is that most theologians are careful to take this approach with many other theological issues. When confronted with potential heresies, we often look to what the earliest church fathers said about the issue, not what our contemporaries say about it.

If Frank Page means that both Calvinistic and less Calvinistic Southern Baptists should look at what Scriptures says over and above what history and tradition tells us about the doctrines of grace, then I couldn't agree more. But I don't think it is fair to anyone to suggest that simply because Southern Baptists have been less Calvinistic over the past 150+ years that this means that Southern Baptists have been right.


At 4:51 PM , Blogger Meredith said...

I'm burnt out on the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. One of my professors, ironically, won't talk about it in class at all anymore. He says it's a "philosophical" issue and not a "theological" issue. Where he gets that, I don't know, but it's definitely to the point where some people just don't even want to talk about it anymore. Too many arguments, unfortunately.

At 10:21 AM , Blogger Josh said...

Arguments for the sake of arguing does get old at times. But unfortunately it appears as if this is unavoidable. There will always be those who seek to engage in "discussion" for the strict purpose of proving their point and belittling the other side. If people could actually embrace true discussion in a way that honors God, which is one of many great facets of unity that comes through sharing a "gospel partnership" as Driscoll calls it, then I think many great things could come of this. It isn't impossible and therefore we should not abandon the "debate" but rather should hold each other accountable to a healthy discussion that honors the Lord. Many great thinkers and theologians from years past have come from similar environments. One example is the great thinker C.S. Lewis. This is an intellectual who surrounded himself with a handful of people ("The Inklings") who spent much time discussing the things of God and it is certain that they didn't always agree by any stretch of the imagination. But what they did do often is sharpen each other in their endeavors to grow in not just their intellect, but for Lewis especially, in his love and zeal for God. Who knows what we would or would not have from Lewis in terms of his works without this group. This group was one of the most influential groups of people in his life.

Good things come from healthy discussion. I don't know exactly how to do this for everyone, but I would recommend finding people that you can lovingly talk openly and HONESTLY about beliefs, convictions, confession, repentance, etc.


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