My take on the “Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist understanding of God’s Plan for Salvation”
If you are not a member of the Southern Baptist Convention (now aka Great Commission Baptist), the following blog post may not seem to apply to your own particular situation, but as the largest protestant denomination in America with an extensive missionary force, through the International Mission Board (IMB) in cooperation with local/national denominations, what happens in the SBC/GCB affects many more Christians than those in the denomination. Further, the controversy I’m going to address below involves issues that to the heart of a very interesting debate that is being held in a variety of congregations and denominations and touches on issues of what salvation is (what we may call ‘redemption,’ ‘atonement,’ or altogether fitting within the larger umbrella of ‘soteriology’) and what our current state as people is before God (what might be termed ‘theological anthropology,’ which will include a discussion of the doctrine of sin, or ‘harmartiology’).
What I am talking about is the recently posted “Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of Salvation” that was recently posted to the high profile SBC website SBCtoday, and was signed by numerous denominational leaders, Seminary presidents, pastors, and SBC theology/religion professors. I will return the previous series “Where did our bible come from” to talk about inspiration and a little bit about translation next time. However, considering that many other high profile websites have addressed it, including the other primary SBC site SBCvoices, and the fiercely Calvinist, but not Southern Baptist, site the Gospel Coalition, as well as some of my divinity school colleagues like Chris Roberts (who I am still friends with despite some of our other theological differences), it seems appropriate to come back to blogging in order to address this specific issue.
-On May 30 (not the 31 as some have written elsewhere), a post appeared on the SBC blog SBCtoday entitled “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” It appears, from what I can gather, that it was meant to be an initial offering, accompanied as it was by an introduction explaining the rationale, which might be later modified. If you want to read it in its entirety you can follow the link here. The statement immediately created a buzz and several prominent SBC leaders sign it (such as Jerry Vines, Jimmy Draper, Paige Paterson along with roughly 450 other pastors, theologians, and other SBC leaders or lay leaders). A full list can be found here.
-The next day, over at another prominent SBC blog SBCvoices, a response was posted a response to this statement saying it sent the wrong kind of message and was unnecessarily divisive. It can be found here. While I agree with the post to a certain extent, I do think he overstates his case (see below).
-By June 4, a number of other blogs had picked up the issue. An Roger E. Olson, an Arminian blogger at patheos, on the one hand, and a seminary colleague of mine (whom I still consider a friend) on the Calvinist end of the spectrum, Chris Roberts, both argued that the text of the statement, particularly article 2, sounded rather semi-pelagian.
-On June 6, the incredibly prominent Calvinist blog The Gospel Coalition featured an FAQ on the subject. Some of the information provided there was faulty, I’ll address below, but mostly it simply reiterated information present elsewhere. Why would a Calvinist blog whose primary readership is decidedly not SBC (though a few SBCers do follow it) decide to post on this controversy, well likely because of the Calvinist/non-Calvinist issues currently going on inside the SBC.
A Valid Critique (but not that valid)
The Gospel Coalition FAQ mentions three primary critiques, personally I don’t think the first two are even worth mentioning (but I’ll address them below), and the third needs a bit more nuance. However, the critique they fail to mention, which was picked up by both the SBCvoices blog and Chris Roberts’s blog, is that the method behind this is suspect. The stated purpose of SBCtoday is to promote unity among Southern Baptists. Since that is the case, it seems odd that they would post something that seems so inflammatory. This was a statement specifically geared to distinguish the “traditional Southern Baptist view” from the Calvinist view of salvation. How could this not be divisive? One of my biggest aversions to many in SBC leadership is not a question of theology (in fact, I’m usually in heavy agreement), but in methodology. If there is no love in our words, how are we to proceed. That said, I don’t think the intent of the statement was to be divisive. At worst, it was careless in its timing and possible phrasing. Still, there might have been good reason to put it forth.
I’ll admit, being slightly removed from the action by being in another country and not really leading a church puts me a bit out of touch with the day to day activities of the SBC and how it impacts the local congregations. However, there has been an increasing trend to adopt Calvinism by new SBC pastors. Currently around 10% of the SBC’s pastors and leaders are self-identified Calvinists. However, over the past five years or so, around 30% of SBC seminary graduates are self-identified Calvinists. This doesn’t even account for the variety of non-denominational seminaries whose graduates go on to serve in the SBC. For every one Asbury Seminary graduate who goes to the SBC (a non-denominational school affiliated with Arminianism), I would guess that there are easily two who went somewhere like Reformed Theological Seminary or Westminster Theological Seminary. This is not to say that all of these incoming Calvinist pastors will try to force their congregation to become Calvinist (in fact, I would say that a good number would take strides to prevent that), however it does highlight two important points.
First, there is a significant uptick in the number of ministers who identify themselves as Calvinist, much moreso than in previous years, or indeed living memory, for the SBC. This can cause a certain amount of backlash as the once dominant group begins to feel slightly threatened. If that is the motivation behind this statement (which it may be for some), then the criticism against it as needlessly divisive has some strong grounding. However, given the introduction to the statement, I don’t believe that is the case.
In the introduction to the document, the authors are rather complimentary of the majority of SBC Calvinists, noting that they have no desire to force their views on the rest of the convention. Admittedly some of the caricatures of Calvinism it mentions (anti-missional, hyper-calvinism) are unfair and no serious follower of Dortian Calvinism (TULIP/ROSES) would accept these oddities as accurate doctrine. However, it also mentions some “New Calvinists” who are not so keen to avoid imposing their views on others. Despite the opinion of Matt Svoboda, who wrote one of the earlier responses, he is likely not included in the group of “New Calvinists” mentioned (at least if what Svoboda says about himself is true). Specifically, the “New Calvinists” are not just part of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” group (though there may be some overlap), but are those whose Calvinism has a certain method.
The New Calvinists mentioned in the preamble to the statement are new to the SBC not because of their theology, but because of their methodology. They do seek to impose their Calvinism on the convention and, because they think it is entirely correct and the only gospel truth, seek to force others to embrace it. Now, the methodology is not necessarily so straight forward. Instead, they are encouraging each other to take pastoral positions at non-calvinist churches, essentially hide their calvinism, and then subtly through weekly preaching and selection of education literature, move the congregation toward Calvinism. I knew some who were involved in this movement and went to divinity school with some (I am not, repeat not, including Chris Roberts in that group, I think he is a model of how a Calvinist pastor in the SBC should approach his duties as a pastor by being open about his Calvinist beliefs with his congregation (who is not Calvinist) and working together with them toward a mutual respect and cooperation for the Gospel). These people were easily identifiable in my divinity school because they sat in the back of the theology classroom, where the decidedly non-Calvinist Baptist professor (Fisher Humphreys for the curious) would directly address this phenomenon. They would mock him after class when he dared to give equal time to any theological position that was not expressly Calvinist without also deriding it. There was no respect there, and they were very clear that their intent was to move the whole of the SBC toward Calvinism, by any means necessary. I have not kept up with those former co-students, nor do I think I could recall their names, but they were present at the divinity school I attended (which, let me be clear, is not the fault of the divinity school, nor the majority of the Calvinist students).
It is this, somewhat disturbing and subversive, trend to which the statement explicitly states it is a reaction. If that is the case, then it is somewhat appropriate to make such a statement. Churches, who may have good reasons for their beliefs, even if they cannot articulate them in theological language, are well served by such statements. Not because the statements are polarizing, but because they provide a clear stance of beliefs held for good reasons that people may lack the formal training to articulate in a coherent manner (for instance, for the first several decades of the early church they lacked the formal language to express the Trinity until much later, but the evidence that it was accepted as early as the writing of the New Testament is very clear).
That said, while I understand the impetus to create the statement, that indeed may be valid, I do not know that I would agree with the exact language or timing of the message. The language has a sense of “us vs. them” to it that I do not know is entirely appropriate. As the document acknowledges, Calvinists have been part of Baptist tradition almost since the beginning. Thus it is really only one group’s “traditional” view, and even if it is the majority it is inappropriate to isolate one group in this manner. The language seems to indicate the authors don’t view Calvinists as genuinely Southern Baptist, and they were, instead, some sort of outsider group who were merely tolerated byreal Southern Baptists. This is a mistake because national groups of Baptists, from the earliest Triennial Convention (the first national Baptist group), have always emphasized adherence to the gospel and missions above all else and well before such doctrinal distinctions as these.
In summation, while I can understand, and to a certain sympathize with, the reasons for releasing the statement, I do find that I agree with this critique to a certain extent (though I would say that some of the critiques go too far). It seems to divide much more than it helps. As I said before, though, I am removed from the situation and don’t know the day to day impact the “New Calvinists” are having upon the SBC churches. So while I don’t agree with the method, I can sympathize with it (and find myself largely in agreement with its theology). Regardless, it’s already been put out there and so should be dealt with, including .
Two Grossly Mistaken Critiques
The Gospel Coalition, in the FAQ I mentioned above, gives three major critiques of the statement. Only one actually deserves an extended discussion, but the other two seem to demand some explanation, only because of their prevalence.
Allegation of lack of Scriptural foundation
First, the Gospel Coalition alleges that “The document’s primary argument relies on an appeal to the masses rather than careful exegesis of Scripture.” It is difficult to take such a critique seriously, particular given that after each article a list of passages used as support are given (following the style of the Baptist Faith and Message). The trouble is the Gospel Coalition blogger who wrote this, like a surprising number of Calvinists, assume that if your position does not match theirs, you must not be basing it upon Scripture. It’s not explicit in those terms, and may not even be something of which they are conscious, but it is something I have found in conversation with many (but by no means all) Calvinists. There is no doubt in their minds that there is one correct way to interpret Scripture and if you don’t agree, you must not be reading it correctly. There’s a certain amount of arrogance in that statement above (that it does not rely on careful exegesis of Scripture). It assumes not only that the authors of the “traditional” statement did not engage in their own study of Scripture, but that the majority of Southern Baptists do not base their views on Scripture.
Suggestions of a different history
Second, the Gospel Coalition goes on to suggest, in its second critique, that the non-Calvinist position is relatively recent, dating only to the publication of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message. This is simply untrue, but all too common. There is a fair amount of historical revisionism in such claims among many (but again not all) Baptist Calvinists. It’s assumed by a fair number of Baptist Calvinists that Baptists have historically been Calvinists and it is a recent phenomenon that they lost their Calvinist roots. This assumption is based upon the fact that most early baptist confessions have been Calvinist in tone, but it fails to account for the broader historical picture.
To begin with, the very earliest baptists, both in the US and in England (where the very first baptists, distinct from the Anabaptists, came about), were decidedly non-Calvinist. In England they eventually became labeled “General Baptists” to distinguish themselves from the other group of Baptists, who sprung up independently about a decade later, who became known as “Particular Baptists.” While this later, Calvinist, group had some more outspoken members, they were less persecuted (but still persecuted and imprisoned) than the other, non-Calvinist group in large part because of their closer ties to the Westminster Confession of Faith (a document that is strongly Calvinist in tone and content). The lessened persecution, which subsequently meant they did not have to flee for a time to Amsterdam, is likely the reason that more of the early leaders’ writings persist to this day. In the US, Roger Williams set up Providence, Rhode Island, after being exiled from the Puritan settlers in New England. He intentionally set up his community to be non-exclusive in terms of theology and, despite using the term “providence” to describe his community, was not really a Dortian Calvinist.
While it is difficult to say exactly what number of other early American Baptists were Calvinist, given that they had many ties to both the first and second Great Awakenings in the US, it is probable that there was a mix of Calvinists and non-Calvinists, though considering the more charismatic nature of many of these revivals, its likely that more were non-Calvinist. Looking at some of the documents related to the first national Baptist group, the Triennial Convention, it is likely that, again, there was a mixture of Calvinists and non-Calvinists.
Once the Southern Baptist Convention was formed, in the years leading up to the American Civil War, they eventually created their own seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. One of the founding documents, The Abstracts of Principles, is decidedly Calvinist and was the first confession of faith exclusively for Southern Baptists (and required of all faculty). Considering that the Seminary was founded in 1858 and the next SBC seminary (Southwestern) was not founded until 1908, as well as the somewhat Calvinist nature of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message (the first denomination wide confession of faith for Southern Baptists and the only major confession since the Abstracts of Principles), this has led some, such as those in the Baptist Founders Movement (like founders.org) and Al Mohler (among others), to suggest that Southern Baptists have historically been predominantly Calvinist. However, this ignores the broader historical setting in which these documents arose (and the responses to them).
First of all, although the Southern Baptist Convention was formally formed in 1844, they continued to use the seminary of other baptists (Newton Seminary) at the time. For those Southern Baptists who did not want to use that seminary, the still fairly young Furman University founded in 1826 as Men’s Academy and Theological Institute in South Carolina, and renamed to Furman 1850 maintaining its affiliation with the South Carolina Baptist Convention and adding to that an affiliation with Southern Baptists (though now it has severed ties, formally at least, with both). Furman was, and still is, largely anti-creedal and resistant to formal confessions. It’s important to note this affiliation predates the founding of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary by nearly a decade. It should also be noted that James Boyce, the first president of Southern Baptist Theology who wrote the Abstracts, did not attend one of these Baptist seminaries, but instead attended Princeton Theological Seminary, which was still fiercely committed to Dortian Calvinism at the time. It is for this reason, not because it was predominant Southern Baptist Theology, that Boyce likely constructed the Abstracts the way in which he did.
Despite Boyce’s encouragement that other churches adopt similar confessions, no such moves were made. In order to provide a more official sounding alternative to the Calvinist heavy Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was founded in 1908 (it should be noted that during the Civil war and early reconstruction periods Southern was incredibly limited in the scope and number of courses offered, so the gap of time is not as long as it seems, in only about 20 of the 50 years between foundings could Southern have been said to be active, and Newton as well as Furman were still viable (and popular) alternatives. Nevertheless in 1908 Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was founded and they explicitly refused to adopt anything remotely similar to the Abstract of Principles (only Southeastern would accept Southern’s call to accept the Abstracts). So, despite the narrative told by the founders movement, the majority of Southern Baptist education was not Calvinist throughout its history (and for a long period in the 20th Century, even Southern wasn’t very Calvinist).
Regarding the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M). Quite frankly, I don’t know how it can be described as a Calvinist document. Most of the statements are left unchanged in newer versions (the 1963, and 2000 BF&M), only exhibiting later expansion. Further the 1925 confession expressly states that grace is accepted or resisted by free action. Specifically it states:
The blessings of salvation are made free to all by the gospel. It is the duty of all to accept them by penitent and obedient faith. Nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner except his own voluntary refusal to accept Jesus Christ as teacher, Saviour, and Lord.
It bears some resemblance to the earlier New Hampshire and London confessions, but that is likely due to the fact that they needed a format to follow. In terms of actual content, it is nowhere near as Calvinist as the founders movement would have you believe. Don’t take my word for it, though, you can compare all the SBC national confessions here.
What is particularly troublesome about the Gospel Coalition’s critique is that they refer to the 1963 BF&M (and by proxy the 2000) as a “doctrinal downgrade.” Granted they are quoting from founders.org, but for a non-Baptist group (like the Gospel Coalition) to even reference a source that declares one SBC BF&M a “downgrade” is wildly inappropriate and irresponsible. It is only a “downgrade” from the perspective of the “New Calvinists” who wish the SBC was more homogenous in accepting Calvinist and other similar revisionist histories. And to point out that the 1963 and 2000 are essentially identical with regard to such a “downgrade” is insulting to the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists who adhere to one or both of those documents. It is frankly a little sad that I have to spend so much time debunking what is a clear rewriting of baptist history. The truth is that the “traditional” nature of the statement is much more traditional than most of its critics care to accept.
I’ve used a variety of sources in compiling the above section, the two primary ones, however, are:
H. Leon McBeth’s The Baptist Heritage
James Leo Garrett’s Baptist Theology: A Four Century Study
A seemingly Valid Critique
The third critique mentioned by the Gospel Coalition, the final one that I will discuss here, and the primary one levied by both Arminian Roger E. Olson, and Calvinist (and Baptist, and again colleague) Chris Roberts (who is referenced on both SBCvoices and the Gospel Coalition) is that the statement is semi-pelagian. Specifically they want to identify it with the heresy that is now called semi-pelagianism, here’s the problem, no such heresy has ever been declared.
Usually when someone states that semi-Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy, they are referring to the Marseillianism, in reference to the monks from Marseilles who were condemned for advocating “relics of Pelagianism” in 529. It is important to note that what was condemned was not a separate heresy, but the same heresy of Pelagianism. It wasn’t until the sixteenth and seventeenth century that this was (briefly) referred to as semi-Pelagianism in an effort to discredit Molina and his followers who advocated a “Middle Knowledge” or Molinism (he was cleared of any heresy allegations). It was not really used strongly again until the twentieth century, though possibly as early as the nineteenth century. But let’s look at what exactly was condemned in 529.
Pelagius argued that people were not born with either an inclination to sin nor the condemnation of sin. He suggested that is was possible for humans to live a completely sinless life, and by doing so earn their own salvation without the need for God’s grace. He went on to suggest that some people alive during his time were actually living such sinless lives. Pelagius was condemned as an heretic for preaching a gospel contrary to the Scripture (he was not, however, executed as the Clive Owen version of King Arthur suggested).
Three specific teachings of the Marseillian monks were likewise condemned as heresy:
1) Faith is what saves you, but faith is really just the exertion of your own free will (i.e. you save yourself by your own efforts to act morally good)
2) While they condemned the Pelagian teaching that everyone is naturally meritorious (free from sin and performing morally good acts), they nevertheless argued that everyone has a natural claim or right to grace irrespective of anything else (essentially a form of universalism)
3) “Perseverance to the end” or the idea that one remains saved until death or the return of Christ is, according to this movement, the result of human effort only. (as opposed to the idea, affirmed by virtually all Southern Baptists that once you are saved by God, he will preserve your salvation, not by your own actions)
Much of the above was taken from the Catholic Encyclopedia, the relevant available online here.
What is being labeled as semi-Pelagian in the statement is article 2 which reads:
We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.
We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.
None of the above three points that are applied the Marseillianism heresy can be applied to this statement. Instead, it is labeled semi-Pelagian merely because it is not a strict adherence to the Augustinian view of the Original Sin. According to Augustine, every person inherits both a nature inclined toward sin as well as the guilt of the initial sin of Adam (prior to any moral action themselves). This is inherited, reasons Augustine, through a process he calls “concupiscence.” While the term has broad meaning, for Augustine it essentially means that every child was conceived as a result of lustful passion (though it is unclear whether he considers it sinful in itself, it seems very likely) and as a result the Original Sin is passed down generationally from Adam, including the guilt of that sin.
There are some problems with Augustine’s account, including that it seems to have a very negative view of human sexuality, even within Christian marriage, and for that reason no one accepts it outright (everyone modifies it to some degree). While I won’t bother to get into some of the particular problems I have with Augustine’s view, I will simply say that Calvinists, by and large, who are generally Augustinian in their theology have a tendency to label anything that does not conform to their own adoption of Augustine’s view of Original Sin as semi-Pelagian or outright Pelagian. The most notable exception being Karl Barth who argued that Original Sin exists within all humanity as a propensity toward sin, but does have an inherent guilt associated with it (which is close to, but not identical with, the position offered in the “Statement”).
I could go on and on about this particular criticism and how valid it is, and to what extent a Southern Baptist (who in reality recognizes “no creed but the bible”) should be troubled or not by it, but suffice it to say, I don’t think an honest case can be made for labeling this statement semi-Pelagian in the sense of the early heresy nor do I think that if it is merely semi-Pelagian in the sense of “not fully Augustinian” should we be particularly bothered.
It is interesting to note that, in a follow up, Chris Roberts sought to get a better definition of Semi-Pelagianism than the one offered quickly on various common sources (like Wikipedia or the like). While I examined the Catholic Encyclopedia, he turned to Reformed Theologian Herman Bavinck. According to Bavinck’s description of semi-Pelagianism, it may be entirely likely that article 2 of the “statement” is semi-Pelagian (but it still is not necessarily so). However, if we read closely, we see that many of those whom Baptists readily acknowledge as part of their heritage are included in Bavinck’s rather broad interpretation of semi-Pelagianism. To quote Bavinck directly:
“Totally in agreement with this [what Bavinck has called semi-Pelagianism] is the opinion of Anabaptists, Zwingli, the Remonstrants [Arminians], the Moravian Brethren, the Supernaturalists, and many modern theologians.” (Underline and information in brackets mine).
If you don’t follow Baptist theology, you should know that Baptists have much in common with the Anabaptists, but even moreso with Zwingli. The understanding of the Ordinances of the church for the overwhelming majority of Baptists (including Calvinist Baptists) is almost completely Zwinglian. It’s pretty bold to claim that we should abandon this statement, as well as some of the foundational theologians of baptist life because a few Calvinist theologians (and apparently one Arminian today) argue that it is heretical. Although I don’t necessarily agree with the manner in which the document was released, or some of the divisive language, considering it is already out there, I find myself to have an incredible amount of agreement with it. If that makes me semi-Pelagian, then so be it. I’m more concerned with an adherence to what I think is the true Gospel of Christ than a skewed interpretation of history and regulations to which I (as a free church Southern Baptist) am not genuinely tied.
Since the post has gone on for quite some time (and I’ve been working on it for a few evening commutes now), I think I’ll leave it at that for the time being. If you’d like to rebut me, suggest something I’ve missed, ask me about anything I haven’t made clear, or encourage me to delve deeper, feel free to do so in the comments below and thanks for reading.
Post Script: I do not mean to attack Chris Roberts personally. I think he is an admirable pastor and should be very much welcome in the SBC. I did, however, take exception with the content of the critique of the original statement and since he has become one of the more high profile critics of the statement (having been cited on other blogs) I do feel it is appropriate to cite his blog in response. I still consider him a friend, and I hope he can consider me the same and view this as merely a friendly (if still serious) disagreement.