During the last 12 months, a committee of 19 Southern Baptists labored to write a consensus statement on Calvinism before next month’s annual meeting of the SBC. They met their deadline. On the evening of May 30, SBC Life posted “Truth, Trust and Testimony in a Time of Tension” (T5).
Southern Baptists have discussed Calvinism on multiple occasions in recent years. In 2007, the Building Bridges Conference heard voices from both perspectives. In 2008 and earlier this year, the John 3:16 Conferences articulated a non-Calvinist view; a Calvinistic perspective is heard at the annual Founder’s Breakfast and SBC Seminary-hosted 9Marks Conferences.
Abraham Maslow has been credited with the observation that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” When looking for a solution, we project our own interests and expertise onto the problem itself. In the TV show House, for example, it was a common occurence in the diagnostic team for the neurologist to suggest a brain issue, the immunologist to suggest disease and the surgeon to suggest an operation.
Southern Baptists are all about theology. Gather a group of ministers together to discuss a problem and they will more than likely seek a theological answer. After all, God is the source of all knowledge. In seeking to know Him better we can find all the direction and guidance we need to move forward. Certainly, theological debate and discourse can be a healthy and profitable pursuit. May this quest for knowledge continue forever.
By Dr. Rick Patrick
Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church
Long before the dot-com crisis fifteen years ago and the real estate disaster five years ago, from the Dutch Golden Age of the Seventeenth Century comes the fascinating story of the world’s very first speculative economic bubble. Known as Tulip Mania, the price of tulips in the Netherlands skyrocketed so rapidly that at its peak in 1637 a single tulip bulb sold for more money than ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman.
This frenzied excitement stemming from instant fortunes was frowned upon by the stern Calvinists of the day as a denial of the virtues of moderation and diligence. Please take a moment to savor the delicious irony of Calvinists refusing to embrace the tulip.
The bubble burst at an auction in Haarlem, when buyers apparently refused to show up. Only sellers existed, with no buyers at all to purchase the flowers. In just a few weeks, prices fell to one percent of their earlier value. Many wanted to sell the tulip, but nobody was buying it anymore. Everyone who really wanted a tulip already had one. The trend would not continue its skyrocketing trajectory, but was destined for a mighty crash.
In a similar fashion, ministries often confuse short term trends with long term realities. A church growing from 0 to 500 over five years believes it will run 1,000 in ten years, following the logic of a simple straight line progression. One might ask the bankrupt Rev. Robert Schuller about the validity of such projections. Sometimes trends drop off mildly, while other times they crash, which explains the reason investment companies disclaim their funds by stating: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”
At some point, it is fair to ask the question, “Is it good stewardship for me to pay for the institutional advancement of organizations promoting doctrines I do not embrace personally, nor desire to teach my children, nor favor publishing at Lifeway, nor seek to advance through church planting?” It is precisely here, in the practical outworking of our theological disagreements through our institutional struggles, that the same elephant we might overlook in our Sunday School class or church becomes absolutely impossible to avoid at the denominational level.
3. The Adversarial Agenda
Some have claimed that we not only have an elephant in the room, but we also have a snake in the grass. The only way to sympathize with such a sentiment is to consider whether a clearly adversarial agenda has been advanced by a network of Calvinist organizations relatively unknown to Traditionalist Southern Baptists, who secretly and quietly seek nothing other than to turn Traditionalist churches into Calvinist ones, a clearly stated goal they simply refer to as reform.
In their defense, it cannot be said that the Calvinists are doing anything they perceive to be wrong. Once one understands that they equate Calvinism with the true gospel of Christianity, any pejorative connotations are removed with regard to motive. Frankly, if I believed the way they do, I would also seek the spread of Calvinism everywhere, including the primarily Traditionalist churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. However, the agenda is adversarial in nature just the same. In order to explore this further, we will (a) identify five such Calvinist organizations, (b) examine one purpose statement, (c) evaluate our conflicts as interpersonal or foundational, and (d) clarify the uneven rules of engagement that have thus far marked the contest.
Charles Kettering said, “A problem well-stated is half-solved.” Now that Southern Baptists are talking about the proverbial elephant in the room, it seems helpful to define that elephant as clearly as possible. Thus, I write this article not to foster division among us, but to more clearly define that division which already exists. The tension between Calvinism and Traditionalism in Southern Baptist life will never make sense to anyone who views this struggle merely as a dispute over minor doctrinal concerns. Rather, our present fault lines stem from three specific components: a theological debate, an institutional struggle and an intrinsically adversarial agenda. Unless we look at this elephant from all three sides, we will fail to comprehend the scope of our conflict resolution challenge.