Book Review by J. Terry Young, Professor Emeritus, New Orleans Baptist Seminary
God So Loved The World:
Traditional Baptists and Calvinism
By Fisher Humphreys and Paul Robertson, New Orleans: Insight Press, 2001
Two Baptist professors of theology have done Southern Baptists a favor by authoring this small (102 pages) but very helpful book. There has been a rising tide of interest in Calvinism among Southern Baptists in the last thirty years. I saw evidences of it many times during twenty-seven years of teaching theology. I frequently found that students who thought that they were Calvinists quickly said, "That's not what I believe," when presented with a clearer picture of Calvinism.
The Calvinism most often encountered among Southern Baptists today is hyper-Calvinism, the more rigid form that is based upon the Canons of the Synod of Dort, named for the Netherlands city where the Dutch Church council met (1618-1619), backed by the power and authority of the government.
There are five major theological premises enunciated in the Canons of the Synod of Dort. These five statements are the foundation of most of the calls to Baptists to adopt Calvinism as their own expression of the Christian faith. Presently, some of the most noted (and quoted) figures in the new leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are outspoken proponents of Calvinism. Some of them would like nothing better than to lead all Southern Baptists back to Dort. Indeed, debate over Calvinism may be the next major theological controversy for Southern Baptists, who have devoted much energy to doctrinal debate (often splitting theological hairs) during the last twenty-five years.
Humphreys and Robertson want to introduce the uninitiated to this hyper-Calvinism. They try to do it in a very gentle and loving way, writing with a remarkable irenic spirit. Fisher Humphreys is professor of theology at the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. He formerly taught at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where Paul E. Robertson is professor of theology and Director of Research Doctoral Programs.
Humphreys and Robertson believe that traditional Southern Baptists and Calvinist Southern Baptists can function together graciously and lovingly. But that is a very optimistic hope, given the militant, strident tone of some of the Calvinists whom I have encountered, and given the apparent inability of many who attend the annual meetings of the SBC to carry on any doctrinal discussions in a civil manner.
"Our purpose is to help traditional Baptists understand Calvinism, not to debate Calvinists about Calvinism," say the authors. Theirs is a book about theology, "written out of pastoral concerns." They declare, "We are convinced that the Christian way of relating to anything must involve both truth and love; we hope that our book will be an example of speaking the truth in love."
According to the seminary professors, traditional Baptists agree with much of what Calvin says in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, but disagree at significant points. However, the discussion today is not about the entire system of teaching put forth by Calvin. The focus of discussion today is primarily about the sovereignty of God and how God has sovereignly determined before creation who can (will) be saved and who will not (cannot) be saved.
The typical presentation of Calvinism by many today is an explanation of TULIP (from the Netherlands tulips, of course) Calvinism, an acrostic formed from the pronouncements of the Canons of the Synod of Dort.
T is for Total Depravity
U is for Unconditional Election
L is for Limited Atonement
I is for Irresistible Grace
P is for the Perseverance of Believers.
This may be a helpful aid to the memory, but it distorts the Calvinist position. The order of the points in the findings of the Synod of Dort are really, ULTIP. The key to the whole of Calvin's theology is the sovereignty of God, expressed here as unconditional election. Most often today unconditional election is called unconditional predestination. This is the point at which most traditional Baptists have great difficulty.
According to the Calvinist view of predestination, God in his sovereignty determined from the beginning who will be saved and who will be damned. God's sovereign choice of who would and who would not be saved was not based upon his foreknowledge of how these persons would respond to the offer of salvation through Christ, but simply upon God's foreknowledge that these persons would in the future come into existence. These same people then become believers or unbelievers because God determined beforehand that this was to be their lot.
Traditional Baptists believe that God genuinely desires that all people be saved and has made a bona fide offer of salvation to any and all who will accept his offer of salvation.
Limited atonement then means that Christ died only for the elect, not for all persons. Though John 3:16 declares that God so loved the world, it really means, according to the Calvinists, that he loved the part of the world that is included among the elect. Traditional Baptists believe that the Bible means that God loved all persons, not just some. Christ died for all, not just some.
Total depravity means, in the Calvinist system, that people are dead in sin and cannot respond to the gospel with repentance and faith until they have already been born again. Only after they experience the grace of God in the new birth can they respond with repentance and faith. Traditional Baptists believe also that people are dead in sin, but they also believe that God has created them with a capacity to hear the gospel and make an intelligent personal choice to repent and believe or to remain in their sin.
Irresistible grace is the expression of the Calvinist belief that all whom God intends to save will actually be saved. The grace of God cannot be resisted and will not fail to reach a single one of the persons marked out for salvation by God's sovereign choice. Traditional Baptists agree that God is sovereign, but in his sovereignty gave to humans the power of free will, allowing them a genuine choice when the offer of grace comes to them through the gospel.
Perseverance of believers, to Calvinists and to traditional Baptists, means that once people are saved, they will remain saved. Nothing can reverse the new birth they have experienced; they cannot fall away from God's grace.
The Calvinist view of these five points is considerably different from the traditional Baptist view. Humphreys and Robertson are quick to point out that the earliest Baptists were not Calvinists, even though they had their beginnings in a Calvinistic environment. It was a quarter of a century before Calvinist views appeared in Baptist life. Even then, for a considerable period of time there were two different groups of Baptists in England, General Baptists (non-Calvinistic) and Particular Baptists (Calvinistic). Later (1891) the two groups merged, but many congregations on both sides were suspicious of the merger and remained separate. In America, the first Baptist church (FBC of Providence, Rhode Island) had both Calvinists and non-Calvinists in its membership.
The Great Awakening and the beginning of revivalism, in England and America, significantly impacted Baptists with Calvinistic leanings. For example, the New Hampshire Confession of Faith of 1833, shows that the language of Calvinism and predestination was being muted. This Confession was widely distributed in Baptist churches all over America and was the model for the Baptist Faith and Message of 1925.
Humphreys and Robertson insist that the majority of Baptists are not Calvinists, despite the fact that numbers of outstanding Baptist leaders have been Calvinists. "Baptists who want to be true to their Baptist heritage have no obligation to become Calvinists. The earliest Baptists were not Calvinists, and neither are the great majority of Baptists today" (p. 38).
Millard Erickson, through his large (1300 pages) Systematic Theology has influenced many in the present generation of Baptists with his well-reasoned presentation of Calvinism. Erickson is a very astute theologian, and he knows how to reason his way through, or around, the points of Calvinism that are so difficult for traditional Baptists. The authors point out for instance, that Erickson says that God's plan (i.e., what God has predestined) is not so much an imperative as a descriptive statement concerning what will happen. Erickson reasons that there is no conflict between human free will and God's sovereign plan. Erickson holds that God has rendered everything that occurs certain, but still insists that humans make free decisions.
But Humphreys and Robertson are not convinced. "In spite of all of the thoughtful arguments made by Calvinists past and present, we, along with other traditional Baptists, remain unconvinced that God has done what Calvinists say, namely, decide the destinies of individuals in advance of their decisions and independently of God's foreknowledge of their decisions" (p. 25).
The primary point of disagreement that Humphreys and Robertson have with Calvinism, in its various expressions, is the point of predestination. They simply cannot accept the idea that God has arbitrarily decided in advance who will and who will not be saved. They certainly do not question the sovereignty of God, but they insist that God has not exercised his sovereignty in this way.
Humphreys and Robertson examine a selection of Scripture passages that at face value appear to support the Calvinist view. Then, they examine a selection of Scripture passages that at face value appear to support the traditional Baptist view. The co-authors easily show that the passages often used by the Calvinists can be understood differently. The serious Bible reader must get below the surface of a few selected passages to work out a coherent reading of both sets of passages and a coherent reading of the Bible as a whole.
There are five points of basic traditional Baptist belief that are singled out for special comment by Humphreys and Robertson in their examination of Calvinism.
1. The sovereignty of God and predestination: While traditional Baptists and Calvinists agree that God is sovereign, traditional Baptists believe that God decided to exercise his sovereignty in a universe in which the humans he created have the ability to make real choices, and God respects those choices. God also chose out of his sovereignty to provide for forgiveness and salvation for all who would accept his offer of grace.
2. The knowledge of God: "Traditional Baptists believe that God has all knowledge and all wisdom and all understanding" (p. 87). But traditional Baptists do not believe that this means God has planned everything that happens. Traditional Baptists are not determinists. How God knows everything may be one of those things shrouded in mystery that we cannot penetrate.
3. Human freedom: "Traditional Baptists believe that God sovereignly decided to create human beings with personal freedom and to respect the decisions they make" (p. 90). This is not a limit on the freedom or sovereignty of God since God chose to do this. There is no problem of reconciling divine sovereignty and human freedom unless "one assumes in advance that divine sovereignty means that God wills or foreordains or decrees everything that will happen in the world" (p. 91).
4. Sin: Traditional Baptists believe that all human beings are made in the image of God, and all have chosen to sin. While they are dead in their sin, they still have the God-given ability to hear the gospel and respond to it with repentance and faith, which are gifts of God to all when presented with the gospel, and not gifts which God gives only to the elect.
5. The grace of God: "Traditional Baptists believe that God freely offers grace and salvation to all people. The offer is genuine; everyone is able to accept or reject it" (p. 93). While the sovereign God could have made grace irresistible, God did not choose to do so.
The crux of the whole discussion of Calvinism for Humphreys and Robertson is this: "Did the sovereign God decide in advance to save particular individuals and to damn others? If we answer that question Yes, we are Calvinists, whatever we may say of the other four points of Dort; if we answer it No, we are not Calvinists, whatever we may say of the other four points" (p. 95).
The most important truth in Christian theology is that God is love-God loves the whole world. Calvinism fails to say clearly and unequivocally that God loves the whole world. "Since love means that you act for the welfare of those you love, predestining persons to be damned is not love" (p. 97).
The two theologians draw a very important implication from this emphasis on divine love. "The principal motives that drive most evangelistic and missionary work among traditional Baptists are that God loves all people and wants them all to be saved, and that we must share the gospel so that people can be saved" (p. 100). Calvinists do not have these motives since they do not believe that God loves all people and the elect will be saved anyhow because of the sovereignty of irresistible grace. Indeed, Calvinism has sometimes been used as the basis of an anti-missionary theology. Along with the authors, I greatly fear the influence of a predestinarian Calvinism that so easily becomes a rigid determinism, blithely believing that everything that happens is the will of God.