Calvinism and Arminianism: Two Rivers that Run Through Us

March 13, 2012

By Ron F. Hale.
He has served as Pastor, Church Planter, Strategist (NAMB), Director of Missions, Associate Executive Director of Evangelism and Church Planting for a State Convention, and now in the 4th quarter of ministry as Minister of Missions.


While living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I loved looking down at the cityscape from the perch of Mt. Washington. You could ride the incline car up the steep hillside and see the confluence of the Ohio River as the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers came to an end at “The Point” in downtown Pittsburgh; Three Rivers Stadium is nearby. Depending on the weather in southwestern Pennsylvania, some days you could see muddy waters from one river flowing into the headstream of the Ohio River, while the other river brought much clearer water. These two rivers (one cloudy and one clear) seemed to flow side-by-side while slowly mixing and mingling together in the formation of the mighty Ohio.

Two rivers of theological thought have historically flowed through the mainstream of the Southern Baptist Convention. The waters have been muddied a bit by the Great Awakenings in America, the Sandy Creek revivalist tradition of Separate Baptists in the South, the Charleston tradition influenced more by Particular confessions of faith and their pastors trained in Presbyterian seminaries like Princeton, and the adoption of new Baptist confessions and statements of faith forged in the New World.

Dr. Steve W. Lemke’s précis of the two streams of soteriology (doctrine of salvation) meandering through our Southern Baptist history is enlightening:

To oversimplify a bit, Southern Baptists have two theological tributaries flowing into our mainstream – the Arminian-leaning General Baptists and the Calvinist-leaning Particular Baptists. Unto themselves, these tributaries were essentially free-standing streams, independent of each other. The General Baptists were first chronologically, with leaders such as John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and Thomas Grantham. The name General Baptist came from their belief in a general atonement – that is, that Christ died for all the people who would respond in faith to Him. These Baptists may not have had access to most or all of Arminius’ works, but they were in agreement with many points of his theology. This theological stream was expressed in doctrinal confessions such as Smyth’s Short Confession of 1610, Helwys’s Declaration of Faith in 1611, the Faith and Practices of 30 Congregations of 1651, and the Standard Confession of 1660. The Free Will Baptists and General Baptists are the purest contemporary denominational expressions of this stream of thought.

In contrast, the name of the Particular Baptists was derived from the fact that they believed in a particular (or limited) atonement – that is, Christ died only for particular people, i.e., the elect. Their best known doctrinal confessions were the 1644 London Baptist Confession (expanded in 1646), the Second London Confession of 1689, and the Philadelphia Confession (of the Philadelphia Association) in 1742. The Second London Confession follows the language of the Reformed Westminster Confession verbatim (except at points that even Calvinistic Baptists differ from Presbyterians), and the Philadelphia Confession likewise copies the Second London Confession almost entirely word for word.[1]

From the Headwaters of the Arminian Stream

James Arminius (1560-1609) refused to accept the teachings of Theodore Beza (1519-1605) on election and reprobation. Beza followed John Calvin at the academy of Geneva and was the architect of the view of predestination known as supralapsarianism. This view argued that before God ordained the fall of Adam, He chose certain persons to eternal life and predestined others to eternal damnation.[2]

After studying under Beza in Geneva, Arminius rejected the teachings of his professor and taught another view. After his death, the followers of Arminius became known as the Remonstrants and they published a theological document that contended for the following five things:

  1. God conditionally elects individuals according to their foreseen faith.
  2. Christ died for the sins of the whole world.
  3. No one has the power within himself to turn to God without the assistance of God’s grace.
  4. God’s grace can be resisted.
  5. It is possible for a Christian to lose his salvation.[3]

From the Headwaters of the Calvinist Stream

The followers of Arminius (the Arminians) and the followers of John Calvin (Calvinists) were embroiled in a theological debate until the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), at which time all five Arminian assertions were rejected.

The five points of Calvinism sought to respond to the five assertions of the Remonstrants (Arminians):

  1. Total Depravity – as a result of Adam’s fall, the entire human race is affected; all humanity is dead in trespasses and sin. Man is unable to save himself.
  2. Unconditional Election – Because man is dead in sin, he is unable to initiate response to God; therefore, in eternity past, God elected certain people to salvation. Election and predestination are unconditional; they are not based on man’s response.
  3. Limited Atonement – Because God determined that certain ones should be saved as a result of God’s unconditional election, He determined that Christ should die for the elect. All who God has elected and Christ died for will be saved.
  4. Irresistible Grace – Those whom God elected and Christ died for, God draws to Himself through irresistible grace. God makes man willing to come to Him. When God calls, man responds.
  5. Perseverance of the Saints — The precise ones God has elected and drawn to Himself through the Holy Spirit will persevere in faith. None whom God has elected will be lost; they are eternally secure.[4]

By the time I was pulled from the pagan pool in 1975, Southern Baptists had moved away from Calvinism for almost a century, and there was very little debate between the proponents of Arminianism and Calvinism. The two streams of theological thought had mixed and mingled and the waters had settled down. However, after surrendering my life to God’s call to preach the gospel in 1977, I found the calm waters of Baptist life taking me down some rapids through the years of the Conservative Resurgence. I came out of the rapids holding firmly to the Word of God and convinced that Southern Baptists were making a difference in North America and the world. I found great joy in helping plant new congregations and evangelize in states like Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

Later I discovered the currents and rapids getting faster again with the Reformed Resurgence or the rise of Calvinism in SBC life. It seems that some rode the rapids of the Conservative Resurgence with the hopes of returning Southern Baptists to what they saw as our “historic roots” in Calvinism. Since I was happy over on Sandy Creek, this seemed new, different, and challenging. I was unfamiliar with many of the names and nuances of the doctrines of Sovereign Grace and the system of Reformed theology.

Recently I was intrigued by the writings of pastor and theologian Dr. Eric Hankins. In a journal article entitled “Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward A Baptist Soteriology,” he says,

After four hundred years, Calvinism and Arminianism remain at an impasse. The strengths and weaknesses of both systems are well-documented, and their proponents vociferously aver each system’s mutual exclusivity. This paper is based on the observation that these two theological programs have had sufficient time to demonstrate their superiority over the other and have failed to do so. The time has come, therefore, to look beyond them for a paradigm that gives a better account of the biblical and theological data. Indeed, the stalemate itself is related not so much to the unique features of each system but to a set of erroneous presuppositions upon which both are constructed. As the fault lines in these foundational concepts are exposed, it will become clear that the Baptist vision for soteriology, which has always resisted absolute fidelity to either system, has been the correct instinct all along. Baptist theology must be willing to articulate this vision in a compelling and comprehensive manner.[5]

Dr. Hankins is correct that we must move beyond the things that have always divided us. The balkanization of the Southern Baptist Convention will escalate with the quibbles and quarrels growing more intense if we do not move beyond the hair-splitting and nit-picking that has plagued this unending doctrinal debate for almost half a millennium.

Three key understandings help me stay afloat in the white water rapids of change:

  1. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb. 13:8). My faith goes back 2000 years to Jerusalem, not four hundred years to Geneva! Jesus is to be first and foremost in my life.
  2. For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb. 4:12). Books of theology can never satisfy my soul, but the precious Word of God first pointed me to the Savior and feeds my soul until this very day!
  3. I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile (Romans 1:16). The gospel (not the finer points of theology) is the power of God unto salvation! It was the preaching of the death, burial, and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave with the power to forgive me all my sins that caused my heart to trust Jesus many years ago. And, for over thirty-five years, I’ve seen the gospel break the hearts of sinners as they called on Jesus to save them.

I close with a sentence from the Baptist Faith and Message (Section 1: The Scriptures), “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.” The two rivers of Baptist theology have been mixing and mingling, and serving effectively in the SBC for the past century and a half. Without the living, vital relationship with Jesus Christ (anchored in Scriptures), our two historic rivers of theology turn into the marshy waters of a moat surrounding defensive walls. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have set up a defense when we are supposed to be on the offense. New Testament charges the Church to march forward filled with the Spirit and preach the Word of God, which is sharper than any two-edged sword!


[1] Steve W. Lemke, “Editorial Introduction: Calvinist, Arminian, and Baptist Perspectives on Soteriology,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, 8.1 (Spring, 11), 1.

[2] Kenneth Keathley, “The Work of God: Salvation,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2007), 702.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 508.

[5] Eric Hankins, “Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward A Baptist Soteriology,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, 8.1 (Spring, 11), 87.

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volfan007

Ron,

Great article, Brother. Good stuff.

David

    Ron Hale

    David W … you’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever know!

Chris Roberts

Keep in mind that the greatest work of theology is the Bible itself. People often look down on theology while saying, “You keep your theology, I have the Bible!” yet the Bible is theology. The gospel is theological points. Our task, our challenge, is to ensure that what we say in the way of theological points matches what the Bible has already said. We seek to gain deeper understanding from the fullness of Scripture, and as we figure out how this biblical passage fits with that biblical passage we will express our theological points in ways and words the Bible does not (the trinity serves as a great example) but in the prayerful hope that our “thinking about God” (to quote my very non-Calvinist seminary theology professor’s definition of theology) matches what is taught in his Word.

So what I seek is not a Calvinist understanding nor an Arminian understanding nor a Baptist understanding but a biblical understanding. Your quote from Hankins at first left a bad taste in my mouth as he seems more interested in finding the system he likes best, but he more or less redeems himself when he comes back to say, “The time has come, therefore, to look beyond them for a paradigm that gives a better account of the biblical and theological data.” He is not satisfied with either Calvinism or Arminianism. That’s fine, we disagree on that. For myself, I am satisfied to say that the Calvinist system closely matches the theology presented in the Word of God.

But back to the intent of your post, I do hope Calvinists and non-Calvinists can find a way to live alongside each other in the SBC. The solution is not to erase the distinctions or try to merge them into one homogeneous Baptist soteriology but to recognize that despite the depth of our disagreements, we remain united behind both the essentials of the faith and the points of theology which distinguish the SBC from other denominations.

Grover Westover

Great article Bro. Ron.

Larry

Some more precision, please, pastor!

The idea you stated, that Regular Baptists believe that “Christ died for all the people who would respond in faith to him” — that’s the Particular Baptist view. The Regular Baptist would say He died for more than those.

The solution to the limited / unlimited controversy comes from not Baptist history, but just believing what the relevant verses say. Some things in Christ’s death cover the whole world: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor :19ff). Some things in Christ’s death include only believers in its scope: “”all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death…” (Rm 6:3ff).

Ron Hale

Chris,
Thanks for your thoughts. I would recommend you reading Eric Hankins entire paper at the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry; maybe even write an article on your blog about it. Blessings!

Ron Hale

Larry,

Are you speaking of this quote?: “The name General Baptist came from their belief in a general atonement – that is, that Christ died for all the people who would respond in faith to Him. These Baptists may not have had access to most or all of Arminius’ works, but they were in agreement with many points of his theology.”

Larry

Yes brother. A small inadvertence, since earlier in the article you do state that Arminius taught, under “B”, “Christ died for the sins of the whole world.” If the Regular Baptists taught that “Christ died for all the people who would respond in faith to him” they would be using the language of the Particular Baptists there. For example, Grudem uses almost the same phrase for that view, “for the sins of those who would believe in him,” p. 597, of his Systematic Theology.

Hope this helps clarify, and hope you like the idea comparing Rm 6:2ff. and 2 Cor 5:19, to clarify what “for the sins of …” can refer to. Lord bless.

Ron Hale

Larry,
You have used the term “Regular Baptists” and this term is not used in my article or quote by Dr. Lemke. The Particular Baptists of the Old World became known as Regular Baptists in early U.S. history. Sorry … I’m having trouble following your comparitive thought in you first comment. Blessings.

Larry

That would make it harder to understand what I was pointing out, no doubt! When I said Regular, I was mistakenly referring to the General Baptist view. In your article it was Lemke, not you, that stated the that the General Baptist view: “‘The name General Baptist came from their belief in a general atonement – that is, that Christ died for all the people who would respond in faith to Him.'” So my remarks about that apply to the quoation from Lemke. Lemke is the one mistakenly describing the _General_ Baptist view, and actually describing the Particular Baptist view.

Now that THAT’s cleared up, let’s look again at Romans 6:2. “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” Have you ever heard it preached as if Paul was talking about all human beings as the ‘we” there? No. All human beings, “buried with Him” in 6:4? No. “United with Him in the likeness of His death” in 6:5? No. “Old self crucified with Him” in 6:6? No. “We have died with Christ” in 6:8, is the “we” there, all human beings? No. All human beings, “dead to sin” in 6:11? No.

Therefore these very important things that happened, associated with Christ’s death, happened to some human beings, among whom are Paul and the recipients of his letter, the “called saints,” the “everyone who believes” or Romans 1.

Therefore we can see that it is important to not make a false dichotomy out of Christ’s death, as if everything about it was either for the whole world, or everything about it was for us alone.

Tommy Lusk

Thanks Ron,

As always, I appreciate your articles. I am not a theologian or the son of one, ha, so I greatly appreciate those of you who are –in sharing your thoughts.

I have a great concern for We Southern Baptists to turn again to the Great Call placed upon us to win our lost and dying world. We also are people of the Book, the Word of Life, to go into our generation with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I’m looking for the Biblicaly-fruitful, successful God pleasing way to do that.

I believe that, somewhat similar to Nehemiah, we have a great work to do, and we don’t have time to argue out in the “Ono” region with distractors. The folks in both groups who really want to “build the wall,” have got to strap on their swords and pick up their tools and get back to work. God bless and help us all.

Thanks again, Tommy

    Ron Hale

    Thanks Tommy … I hope your work is going well! Stop by when you’re on I-40.

Ron

Larry,
Dr. Lemke was correct/precise in his writings on General Baptists. I would encourage you to read his full article in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Seminary or the history of these two streams (general and particular).

Larry

We can can clear up the problem by noting that there is plenty of difference in meaning between two statements in the post, a) “Christ died for all the people who would respond in faith to him” ; b) “Christ died for the sins of the whole world.” b) implies a), but certainly a) does not imply b).

The first is from Lemke’s quote, and the second from your description of Arminius. Therefore, when Lemke’s comment about the General Baptists, that they are “the Arminian-leaning General Baptists,” the resolution of the issue is that they do not lean toward him sofar as to say that Christ died for the sins of the whole world, because that certainly is not saying the same thing as “Christ died for all the people who would respond in faith to him.”

And still no response on Romans 6 and 2 Cor 5. Is there a further clarification I need to make, or correct there, as well? What Romans 6 says about how Christians are affected by the death of Christ is far more important than the historical reference. But we can resolve one thing at a time. That’s what blogging helps us all in!

    Ron Hale

    Larry,

    I’m sorry but I will not be joining you on the Rom.6 and 2 Cor. 5 request; too many irons in the fire. Stay in the Word … Brother … and I wish you God’s very best!

Jerry

Ron,

Thank you for bringing the essence of this debate to within reach of the ordinary pastor serving in the Lord’s fields. We are grateful for your reminder that while these significant differences exist within our convention the call of Christ upon each of us remains to walk in the Spirit, preaching His Word. One must wonder what might be if we were faithful in the little things.

That the world might know!

    Ron

    Jerry,
    Keep walking in the Spirit …and…preaching the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation!

Mark

To what extent were there the General Baptists “Arminian-leaning”? Which statement of faith did they use and for how long? How different was their doctrine from that of the Particular Baptists?

Ron

Mark,
Plenty of great Baptist resources out there. But I would recommend the latest …Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (spring 2011) on the NOBTS website. What did you think of Dr. Mohler’s comment to the Editors of state Baptist papers recently that Arminianism has been determined heresy by Southern Baptists?

    Les

    RON,

    Here is the last sentence of the paragraph containing that quote:

    “But the Baptist Faith & Message excludes Arminianism. The SBCs founders identified Arminianism as a heresy they sought to confront.”

    Do you agree or disagree that the founders of the SBC IDd Arminianism as heresy? And that the BF&M excludes Arminianism?

    Les

      Ron Hale

      Les,
      I hope you are doing well.

      Prior to that sentence or two, Dr. Mohler writes,
      “There are amongst us those who are more Calvinist and those who are less.”

      Then he says, “But the Baptist Faith and Message excludes Arminianism.” If he means the BFM does not mention it or seeks to undergird the Arminian system, then I agree. But that can also be said of Calvinism and the BFM.

      Then he says, “The SBCs founders identified Arminianism as a heresy they sought to confront.” He must be talking about the founders of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary ….? Is this your take on it?

        Les

        Ron,

        Hope you are well too.

        Here is the relevant section:

        …Calvinism is the shape of the future, because the options otherwise don’t very much exist. Now if you just quote me on that and put that in the paper it’s going to make people mad. And it’s not tribal language. It is because when I say Calvinism here, I’m going back to 1845, I’m going back to 1925, I’m going back to 1963, and I’m including all of you in that. Now if you’re offended by that just realize that any outside observer looking at the SBC, looking at our confessions of faith, would put us on the Calvinist side of the ledger.

        Now I want to tell you I am a five-point Calvinist, all right? I never write about that, I don’t speak about that. If you want to know that there you have it. But I am at home in the Southern Baptist Convention of the Baptist Faith & Message… The whole SBC, the Baptist Faith & Message and the New Hampshire Confession is clearly out of the basically Calvinist direction. Now that’s tribal. And one of the problems with this is people hear that as tribal … And to hear that as five-point Calvinism, look, that is, that’s not what I’m talking about here. There are amongst us those who are more Calvinist and those who are less. But the Baptist Faith & Message excludes Arminianism. The SBCs founders identified Arminianism as a heresy they sought to confront.

        It seems to me that Mohler is simply making the case that the SBC was founded as Calvinistic. Outsiders would say that (and I agree).

        Then he says he is a five-pointer. No surprise there. And he feels at home in the SBC as such, as in the BF&M.

        The SBC, BF&M, New Hampshire confession are out of the “Calvinistic direction.” But he then says that (though he is a 5-pointer) he is not saying that the SBC is not monolithic as 5-pointers. He says, “that’s not what I’m talking about here. There are amongst us those who are more Calvinist and those who are less.”

        So, according to him, the SBC was from the beginning Calvinistic, though not necessarily 5-point Calvinistic. Some are, some are less than 5.

        But then, the BF7M excludes Arminianism. I would agree, wouldn’t you? Does not the BF&M exclude the notion that a believer can fall from grace?

        Now he didn’t say this, but I think we can say that the BF&M DOES NOT exclude some who are Arminianistic. Agree?

        As to this phrase, “The SBCs founders identified Arminianism as a heresy they sought to confront,” I do not think he was referring to SBTS. He clearly said “SBC” founders.

        At least that is how the words seem to read to me.

        God bles,

        Les

Ron Hale

Les,

You said: “It seems to me that Mohler is simply making the case that the SBC was founded as Calvinistic. Outsiders would say that (and I agree”

Many of the founders were out of the Charleston Calvinist tradition — but since Dr. Mohler mentions the New Hampshire Confession and the Baptist Faith and Message, it is clear from these documents that Southern Baptists were moving away from (not toward) the sticter Calvinistic documents.

Therefore, from the beginning the SBC was Calvinistic —but—also there was the Arminian stream. So one could say, from the beginning the SBC was both C and A.

As Southern Baptists documents reflect the mingling and mixing of both C and A … we see the BFM moving away from statements like this in the Abstract of Principles, “God from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass” … or…”Election is God’s eternal choice of some persons unto everlasting life” to a general atonement and salvation is offered freely to all who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior … without the hints of decretal theology.

Les

Ron,

I don’t think I can disagree that there was a move toward accommodating Arminian leaning folks.

I do have a question or two. It does seem like most of the conversations about soteriology is about whether one is a Calvinist or a non-Calvinist (C or NC). I’ve seen here and other places where people say they are not Calvinists, but neither are they Arminian. They eschew labels…except to say that for sure they are not a Calvinist.

Why would people not at least say that they are Arminianistic, like many say they are Calvinistic? Seems reasonable to me. If people really are not favorable to Calvinism as their own theology, why not say they are more in line with Arminianism? Maybe 3 or 4 points of agreement with Arminianism?

Just wondering. And where do you put yourself on the spectrum?

Have a great Lord’s day!

Les

Ron Hale

Les,

You might say that I’m a mongrel (of mixed theological influences combined with a strong biblicism from the Conservative Resurgence). For instance, I believe that “grace” can be resisted, but once a person is saved (in Christ) there is eternal security. This would be representitive of many Southern Baptists that I have studied with in college and seminary.

Mongrelism — maybe a new theological term.

Les, maybe most would use the term “non-Calvinist” instead of “non-Arminian” because “Calvinism” was the more dominant stream.

Blessings!

Les

Ron,

“Mongrelism.” I like that. I often use that term to describe my background as well. I’ve been pre-trip/pre-mil, amil, now post mil. Been dispy, now covenantal. Studied at NOBTS, MABTS and Covenant Theo. Seminary. I’ve immersed folks and sprinkled others (and I see both as valid).

My question on terminology was really wondering if we could legitimately say someone is a) Calvinist or b) Calvinistic or c) Arminian or d) Arminianistic. I suppose it would depend on how many “points” one holds in either camp.

For instance, if someone holds 3 or more of TULIP he would be Calvinistic. If 2 or less, that means he probably holds 3 or more of Arminianism. So he would be Arminianistic.

Just wondering aloud I guess.

God bless and have a great week.

Matsy Moxie

I have wondered why the Baptist beliefs I learned 40 years ago are so foreign to the newly converted Baptists of today. In any random Baptist church I often felt like a foreigner in my own country. At least I now understand how the SBC got from Point A to B without all the social media finger-pointing that goes on today! Thank you so much for this discussion.

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