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Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation: A Calvinist's Rebuttal

DR. HEATH FORD

Communicant, Alamo First Baptist Church, Alamo, Georgia

 

Misguided philosophy leads to similarly inappropriate and ineffectual ministry and can have drastic implications for free ecclesiastic and civil polity.  The current soteriological confrontation, epitomized in Hankins’s Statement and recently instigated by the majority (non-Calvinist) faction within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), may signify a critical shift in the theological direction of the Convention.  This rebuttal is a response to the divisive article published in SBC Today that, according to the Statement coordinator, Pastor Eric Hankins (First Baptist, Oxford, MS), was written to generate discussion about the future of Calvinism's “place” in Baptist theology.  

 

I briefly offer my opinion about the Statement, but before I share my concerns, I would like to first point out that the article's tone betrays a measure of insecurity with the influence of the Convention’s growing Calvinist minority:  "The goal was to create an instrument that would accurately reflect the beliefs of the majority of Southern Baptists, who are not Calvinists," and"there is no thought that this document [...] should be imposed on all Southern Baptists."  I do not believe that Dr. Hankins's motives are benign.  By drafting the Statement to "stimulate discussion," Hankins fully intends to rally supporters to what he views is the only acceptable soteriological perspective and, by extension, would enthusiastically foist the doctrine on dissenting Southern Baptists.  Notwithstanding the support of many notable, decent, and well-intentioned leaders within the denomination, the Statement nonetheless epitomizes an unjustified, tribal, and historically-blind assault against an essential piece of the SBC’s Calvinist heritage.

Second, the Statement’s characterization of traditional Baptist soteriology as a “non-essential theological matter” is exceedingly disagreeable:  Southern Baptists have been glad to relegate disagreements over Calvinism to secondary status along with other important but “non-essential” theological matters.  Considering the inordinate emphasis the SBC places on evangelization, much to the neglect of the Great Commission’s doctrinal instruction and discipleship requirements (Matthew 28:18-21), the Statement’s relegation of soteriology to “non-essential” status is as puzzling as it is inappropriate.

My concerns are less with what the article affirms and more with what it denies.  Articles I, II, and VI of Hankins's Statement deny (1) "that only a select few are capable of responding to the Gospel while the rest are predestined to an eternity in hell;" (2) "that Adam's sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person's free will;" and (3) "that election means that, from eternity, God predestined certain people for salvation and others for condemnation."

“We study the past not because the present is unworthy of our attention but because only by studying the past can we learn the criteria by which to discern what is worthy in the present” (DT Williams, Counsel of Chalcedon, 2011;1:4-8).  The current debate is by no means new:  the Statement’s misguided views represent an attempted revivification of the foiled heretical ideology of Pelagius, Arminius, and Wesley.  As Marinov writes:

Of course, the greatest challenge to this idea about God’s Sovereignty comes in the form of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, the idea that man by his own efforts and will – free will – is able to achieve that perfection that gives him salvation. The earlier version of it – Pelagianism – claimed that man is completely able to achieve perfection on his own. The early church, and especially that theological giant of the early church, Augustine, exposed it as heresy; it re-appeared much later in the Roman Church. Luther wrote his best treatise on that issue, Bondage of the Will, understanding that the issue of the Sovereignty of God was the pivotal issue of the Reformation. The doctrine re-appeared again in the Protestant churches with Arminius and Wesley but didn’t gain too much ground until the early 20th century. Only in the last 100 years the Protestant and Evangelical churches have switched to full-scale semi-Pelagianism, rejecting their heritage of the Reformation and adopting the doctrines of Rome concerning salvation (Teaching the Whole Counsel of God, American Vision Blog, December 28, 2011)(emphasis added).

Although Calvinism was predominant during the American Founding Era and anathema to tyrannous political and ecclesiastical regimes, many Southern Baptists today would likely recognize Arminian thought as normative.  “[…] ignorance of the Reformation story tends to weaken our grasp of the spiritual [truths] for which the times demand unrelenting contention” (SM Houghton, The History of the Reformation in England, Volume 1, page 15).  Nevertheless, from an historical perspective, Statement assertions represent a minority perspective.  As Talbot and Crampton have observed,

The Scots Confession (1560), Belgic Confession (1561), Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Second Helvetic Confession (1566), Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (1562, 1571), Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619), Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), Savoy Declaration (1658), the Formula Consensus Helveticus (1675), and the London (Baptist) Confession of Faith (1689), are ALL Calvinistic creeds (Calvinism, Hyper-Calvinism, and Arminianism, page 115)(emphasis added).

Fortunately, more than a third of Convention churches have now begun to embrace their Reformation heritage as espoused by these unapologetically Calvinistic creeds and confessions.  For the purposes of rebuttal, we shall use the “more recent” London Baptist Confession (1689) as the standard by which to measure Statement Articles.

Article 1:  We denythat only a select few are capable of responding to the Gospel while the rest are predestined to an eternity in hell. Refutation, London Baptist Confession (1689), Chapter 10 Sections 1 & 4:  (1) Those whom God hath predestinated unto life, he is pleased in his appointed, and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.  (4) Others not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet not being effectually drawn by the Father, they neither will nor can truly come to Christ, and therefore cannot be saved: much less can men that receive not the Christian religion be saved; be they ever so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature and the law of that religion they do profess.

Article 2:  We deny that Adam's sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person's free will. Refutation, London Baptist Confession (1689), Chapter 9 Section 3: Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.  

Article 6:  We deny that election means that, from eternity, God predestined certain people for salvation and others for condemnation.  Refutation, London Baptist Confession (1689), Chapter 10 Section 4:  Others not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet not being effectually drawn by the Father, they neither will nor can truly come to Christ, and therefore cannot be saved.

In a recent conciliatory response to Hankins’s Statement, President Albert Mohler, Jr. of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the denomination’s flagship educational institution, praised the Convention’s evangelical efforts but nonetheless poignantly expressed his

reservations and concerns about some of its assertions and denials. I fully understand the intention of the drafters to oppose several Calvinist renderings of doctrine, but some of the language employed in the statement goes far beyond this intention. Some portions of the statement actually go beyond Arminianism and appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings of sin, human nature, and the human will — understandings that virtually all Southern Baptists have denied. Clearly, some Southern Baptists do not want to identify as either Calvinists, non-Calvinists, or Arminians. That is fine by me, but these theological issues have been debated by evangelicals for centuries now, and those labels stick for a reason (Southern Baptists and Salvation: It’s Time to Talk, AlMohler.com, June 6, 2012).

In order to recognize the practical relevance of this argument to ecclesiastical and civil polity, we must ask, "What are the consequences of not addressing these controversial Articles?”  The consequences are as dire as they are recognizable:  (1) The sovereignty of God will be replaced by the sovereignty of man.  “Arminianism is a theological movement within the church which manifests itself in everyday life as an emphasis on man’s experience as against God’s sovereignty” (Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Summer, 1976, page 69).  Rushdoony long ago recognized that sovereignty is an inescapable concept and will be seized by a rival god (usually man represented in the form of the State) if not recognized as an unassailable attribute of Almighty God.  (2) The doctrine of total depravity will be downplayed, which will introduce a divergence from the philosophical basis of the US system of checks and balances and further man's utopian ambitions to create a statist heaven on earth.  And (3) false converts will fill Southern Baptist congregations and, given enough time, hijack the Convention’s majoritarian governmental structure to mold the denomination into the socialistic mess the formerly Congregationalist New England states have yet to overcome.  (The Presbyterian governmental structure, with democratically elected representative elders (not committees, deacons, or majorities) determining the actions of federated church fellowships, is a model strongly supported by the Old Testament and the basis for the civil structure of the United States.)

Unfortunately, Dr. Hankins may be correct in asserting the prevalent acceptance of his positions within the Convention.  Why is he correct?  Because all of the consequences of false soteriological doctrine are manifest.  False converts fill church rolls.  How could phrases such as “backslider” and “carnal Christian” become such attractive descriptors of many Southern Baptist communicants?  What else adequately explains the rampant defection of Southern Baptist youth from church attendance once they reach college age?  The doctrine of total depravity is no longer widely acknowledged.  Man is not basically good, despite utopian rhetoric of nearly all Democratic and many Republican social(ist) planners.  And the sovereignty of God has steadily eroded in both civil and ecclesiastical spheres, as witness the impertinent insistence that the tithe be the exclusive tax of the apostate church and not Kingdom-advancing, dominion-oriented, Christian organizations. 

Civil institutions take their cues from the ecclesiastical sphere.  Civil leaders, for instance, will eventually concede issues that are openly granted even tacit acceptance in the SBC.  And both spheres will endlessly probe the implications of their basic philosophies.  Calvinism is a philosophy of freedom under Christ’s (Biblical) Law; Arminianism, Pelagianism, Mormonism, Atheism, and all other -isms that deny the sovereign attributes of Jesus Christ, are philosophies of death.  "All that hate me love death" (Proverbs 8:36).  

For these reasons, SBC churches should relentlessly pursue the implications of pure doctrine in every aspect of life rather than waste spiritual and political capital resurrecting invidious, destructive, and heretical debates.  History is not determined by majorities but by the dedicated minority that stands unswervingly on its faith.  Calvinists, I hope, will continue to be that dedicated group within the SBC.