|Resurgent Calvinism Among Baptists|
|Issue: 79 Page No: 14 Updated: 12/27/2010 10:00 AM|
Resurgent Calvinism Among Baptists—What Does It Mean?
By Fisher Humphreys, Birmingham, AL
Last year was the 500th anniversary of the birth of the man who gave us Calvinism. The word refers is the vision of the Christian faith of John Calvin, a 16th-century Protestant reformer.
Calvin thought that, before creating the universe, God decreed that human beings would fall into sin; God then chose which ones God would save (“the elect”) and which ones would remain lost (“the reprobate”). God decided the destinies of the elect and the reprobate sovereignly, without reference to God’s knowledge of how they would respond to the gospel.
Some Christians think that Calvinism is a matter of degree, but in fact, in the sense just described, you either are a Calvinist or you aren’t. If you think that in eternity God sovereignly predestined some people for salvation and not others, then you are a Calvinist; if you do not think this, you are not a Calvinist.
Some people assume that the difference between Calvinists and other Christians is that Calvinists emphasize God’s sovereignty while non-Calvinists emphasize human freedom. However, this is not accurate. Non-Calvinists emphasize both divine sovereignty and human freedom; they just do not believe that the way that God exercised divine sovereignty was to make a decision to save some while passing over others.
The first Baptists opposed Calvinism, but soon Calvinism entered Baptist life and flourished. For more than two centuries, most of the best-known Baptist leaders were Calvinists. Eventually, however, Calvinism began to fade from Baptist life, and for more than a century now most Baptists have not been Calvinists.
Today, however Calvinism is experiencing a resurgence among Baptists in the South and elsewhere. An organization of Southern Baptist Calvinists called Founders Ministries [http://www.founders.org/] is dedicated to this endeavor, and some—but not all—of the six Southern Baptist Convention-supported seminaries actively promote Calvinism.
No one knows exactly how many Baptists are Calvinists. A recent survey found that 10% of pastors in the SBC are Calvinists. My guess is that this figure is high. In my home state more than 3,100 churches are affiliated with the Alabama Baptist State Convention, but barely 1% of them (33 churches) are listed as “Founders-Friendly Churches” on the group’s website (accessed March 2010).
Still, Calvinism is making a comeback. What are the implications of that? There is good news and bad news.
Calvinism has made massive contributions to Christian theology. Resurgent Calvinism may help restore a sense of the value of theology to sectors of Baptist life where that sense is weak. One of the great temptations all human beings face is narcissism. Calvinism is effective at helping people turn their attention away from themselves and toward God. And Calvinists have a long record of taking worship seriously. This could prove helpful to Baptist churches, many of which have become so focused on helping people that they need to place more emphasis on worshiping God.
On the bad-news side of the equation, though, most significant conflicts dividing Alabama Baptist churches today involve disputes over Calvinism, and presumably this is true in other states as well. Usually (but not always) this takes the form of a congregation becoming distressed when it discovers that its pastor is a Calvinist. Some congregations have dismissed their Calvinistic pastors; in other congregations numerous members have left upon discovering their pastor’s Calvinism
Moreover, many Baptists worry that resurgent Calvinism will undercut our commitment to evangelism and missions. They reason that if God has predestined who will and won’t be saved, our efforts to evangelize do not really make any difference—the elect will be saved whether or not we evangelize, and the others will not. Behind this reasoning lies an assumption that what motivates us to engage in missions and evangelism by the idea that their efforts can make a difference about how many persons are saved.
Obviously, Calvinists don’t believe that such human effort can make a difference in who God chooses to save. However, they have other motives for doing evangelism. They evangelize because Christ commanded it, because it brings glory to God, and because they enjoy doing it. The Calvinistic Baptists I know are committed to evangelism and missions. Still, unless they are able to replace the motive they take away (“we can make a difference!”) with other motives, resurgent Calvinists could undermine Baptists’ evangelism and missions.
We Baptists, Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike, are brothers and sisters in Christ. We likely will continue to disagree about whether God predestined some for salvation and passed over others, so we need to treat each other with what the New Testament calls “forbearance.” We who are not Calvinists have a special responsibility to emphasize God’s love for the entire world; then we can follow that up with our conviction that since God loves everyone, God would not have predestined some to be lost.
Fisher Humphreys retired in 2008 after 38 years of teaching theology to ministerial students in various Baptist schools. A version of this article was published earlier by Associated Baptist Press.
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Humphreys, Fisher. "Resurgent Calvinism Among Baptists" ChristianEthicsToday.
The Christian Ethics Today Foundation. Summer 2010 (Issue 79 Page 14)