Friendly Reflections on Trad Statement from Calvinistic Southern Baptist / Nathan Finn, Ph.D.

April 3, 2014

On the “Traditionalist Statement”:
Some Friendly Reflections from a Calvinistic Southern Baptist

by Nathan Finn, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Historical Theology & Baptist Studies
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

When the “Traditionalist Statement” was published in May 2012, I confess I had mixed feelings about the document.1 On the one hand, I believe that confessional statements (and similar documents) are helpful tools for various groups of Baptists to more clearly communicate their convictions. This is especially important in a tradition that has never been defined by a single, authoritative confession along the lines of the Westminster Confession of Faith for Presbyterians or the Augsburg Confession for Lutherans. Furthermore, there is little doubt that the nature of soteriology is an area in desperate need of clear communication by Southern Baptists on all sides of this discussion. I am grateful to Eric Hankins and others who drafted, signed, and promoted the Traditionalist Statement. We need more documents like this, not less.

On the other hand, I had several concerns about the Traditionalist Statement. For starters, I disagreed with some of the positions put forward in the document. If the vision set forth in this manifesto represents a traditional Southern Baptist view of soteriology, then I am definitely not a traditional Southern Baptist; this is a somewhat depressing thought for one who spends much of his time studying and teaching others about Southern Baptist history. Second, I was concerned about the widely circulated rumor that some of the signatories of the Traditionalist Statement wanted the SBC to formally adopt the statement as some sort of litmus test for our agencies and boards. Whether this was merely a blogosphere conspiracy or whether there was at least tentative talk of a litmus test is still very much in dispute, depending upon whom you ask. Third, I was disappointed at some of the rancor that was displayed by folks on both sides of the debate, especially on the internet. The polemical heat did not seem to bode well for Southern Baptist unity.2 Finally, I feared that the Traditionalist Statement would provide an occasion for distraction from our primary task as Southern Baptists: cooperating together to play our part in fulfilling the Great Commission.3

I have been asked to offer some friendly reflections on the Traditionalist Statement from the perspective of a Calvinistic Southern Baptist.4 Because of my understanding of soteriology, I disagree with most of the affirmations and denials in the Traditionalist Statement. I have a different understanding of the relationship between Adam’s original sin and subsequent human sin, the nature of free will, the meaning of election, the intent of the atonement, and the efficaciousness of grace. I would also nuance the section on the gospel differently than the Traditionalist Statement. While I agree that all people are “capable of responding” to the good news, I also believe that sin has so blinded humanity that nobody will choose to believe the gospel without the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit. I have no qualms with the words in the articles on eternal security and the Great Commission, though I recognize I bring different theological assumptions to these articles than the framers of the Traditionalist Statement.5 I could not sign the Traditionalist Statement in good conscience because I do not believe it accurately summarizes the biblical understanding of salvation.

As a Calvinistic Southern Baptist, I respectfully disagree with the soteriological convictions held by my Traditionalist brothers and sisters in Christ. I see no need to say much further on this point. Rather, in this short essay, I will focus my reflections on the document’s Preamble, since this section speaks more to the occasion for and potential uses of the Traditionalist Statement. I share these thoughts out of a sincere desire to see better understanding, closer cooperation, and a greater sense of spiritual unity among Southern Baptists with differing opinions about election, the intent of the atonement, and the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation. As I wrote in a previous essay,

The Calvinism issue is not going to go away, so Southern Baptists must be willing to discuss and debate openly the doctrines of grace in an effort to be biblically accurate and perhaps come to a greater theological consensus in the years to come. If we are to move toward a more cooperative future, we must all be committed to defending and commending our particular convictions, but not at the expense of either our cooperation with one another or our personal sanctification.6

It is in this spirit that I engage with the Traditionalist Statement’s Preamble. I want to pose two questions to those who helped draft the Traditionalist Statement or who resonated enough with the document to affix their signatures to it during the summer of 2012.7 I hope my Traditionalist friends will receive these questions in the spirit they are being asked.

What Makes Traditionalists Traditional?
Like many observers, I confess I was a bit confused that the authors and early signatories of the document in question chose to call their views “traditional” and identified themselves as “Traditionalists.” I have a theory about this approach, which may or may not be true (please correct me if I am missing something). I think that Traditionalists are upset that many Calvinists …*
_____________________

1The full title of the document is “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” It was published at the blog SBC Today, available online at http://sbctoday.wpengine.com (accessed September 6, 2013).
2I was pleased at how Executive Committee President Frank Page brought together representatives from both perspectives to craft a winsome consensus statement. While real differences remain, it seems the document drafted by Page’s committee has helped bring about a more mature and Christ-like tone to the discussion. See “TRUTH, TRUST, and TESTIMONY IN A TIME OF TENSION,” SBC Life (June–August, 2013), available online at http://www.sbclife.org/Articles/2013/06/sla5.asp (accessed September 6, 2013).
3On the latter point, I helped to draft a response to the Traditionalist Statement by the contributors to Between
the Times, the faculty blog of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. See “‘A Statement of the Traditional Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation’: A Brief Response,” Between the Times (May 31, 2012), available online at http://betweenthetimes.com. (accessed October 21, 2013).
4When asked to clarify my views, I describe myself as an evangelical Calvinist. As an evangelical Calvinist, I combine an evangelical understanding of conversion and mission with a Calvinistic understanding of soteriology. Earlier generations of Baptists described views like mine as “Fullerite,” after the famous English Baptist pastor-theologian Andrew Fuller. For more on Fuller and “Fullerism,” see Peter J. Morden, Offering Christ to the World: Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) and the Revival of Eighteenth Century Particular Baptist Life, Studies in Baptist History and Thought, vol. 8 (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK, and Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2003), and Paul Brewster, Andrew Fuller: Model Pastor- Theologian, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010). My use of the Calvinist label should not be construed as my approbation of Reformed pedobaptist understandings of ecclesiology, the sacraments, or the relationship between church and state.
5I offer this qualification because I respect the principle of authorial intent when it comes to interpreting confessions of faith. This means I recognize that the words of a confessional statement must be interpreted in light of its framers; I am not free to interpret their statement according to my own understanding. This seems to be the position that has the most interpretive integrity and shows neighbor love to the framers of a confession of faith.
6Nathan A. Finn, “Southern Baptist Calvinism: Setting the Record Straight,” in Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, ed. E. Ray Clendenen and Brad J. Waggoner (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 192.
7Before the list of signatories was taken down in July 2012, the Traditionalist Statement had garnered over 800 endorsements, including six former SBC presidents and two sitting seminary presidents. See “Framers of TS Re- move Signatory List,” SBC Today (July 14, 2012), available online at http://sbctoday.wpengine.com/2012/07/14/framers-of-ts- remove-signatory-list/#more-8906 (accessed October 21, 2013). The signatories list was subsequently posted and is available online at http://connect316.net/signers (accessed November 28, 2013).
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SBCToday reprinted with permission the above excerpt.

 

 

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Rick Patrick

Dr. Finn writes, “The Calvinism issue is not going to go away…” Of course, I would respond, neither is “the Traditionalism” issue. One of my greatest concerns is that we tend to speak of our soteriological viewpoints using an exclusively Calvinistic vocabulary. This creates a “Calvinism—Pro or Con” dynamic placing Traditionalists at a disadvantage semantically. We are forced into a box in which we appear to be the disgruntled ones, the antagonists, the opposition. Of course, this is unfair, for we have just as much a right to promote our own views as do the Calvinists. I believe the best way to disabuse Traditionalism of the false designation “Anti-Calvinism” is for both sides to admit that we are indeed FOR certain propositions—and to give us the dignity of a positive vocabulary for adequate self-definition. There is no better term for doing this than the term “Traditionalism.” There is no better description of this Traditionalism than that found in these two journals http://www.baptistcenter.net/journals/JBTM_9-2_Fall_2012.pdf and http://www.baptistcenter.net/journals/JBTM_10-1_Spring_2013.pdf.

In response to Dr. Finn’s question, “What makes Traditionalists Traditional?” I would like to invite our Calvinist friends graciously to embrace the use of the term. We did not come up with it. It was first used by Fisher Humphreys as early as 2000. It certainly does not mean that we consider ourselves to be the ONLY Southern Baptist tradition. But clearly there is a Hobbs-Rogers theological tradition that differs from our Calvinistic one. Providing both sides in this debate with positive terms for identification prevents the needless rancor of presuming that anyone is out to do harm to anyone else. We should be willing to match phrase for phrase—Reformed Theology and Transformed Theology, the Doctrines of Grace and the Doctrines of Love, Calvinism and Traditionalism.

How we define this viewpoint matters. All the other terms fail—Arminian, Semi-Pelagian, Anti-Calvinist, etc. We could do worse than the term “Traditionalism.” In fact, we already have.

Adam Harwood

I am thankful that Dr. Finn penned this reply to the TS and am grateful for his friendship and ministry.

I offer this comment in reply: As Hankins explains in the preamble to the TS, the word “Traditional” is not meant to imply that this is the only theological tradition in the SBC and among Baptists. Rather, the word “Traditional” is an attempt to apply a label to a specific theological tradition among Baptists. The terms “Traditional Baptist” and “Traditionalist” were used by Baptist theologians to distinguish this non-Calvinist viewpoint *several years* before Hankins used it as a descriptor for this statement. For example, see (as Rick Patrick notes above) Fisher Humphreys and Paul E. Robertson, _God So Loved the World: Traditional Baptists and Calvinism_ (Covington, LA: Insight Press, 2000). For a more recent example, see David S. Dockery’s use of the term in _Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal_ (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 11.

In Him,
Adam

Ron F. Hale

Dr. Finn,

Thank you for responding to the invitation to write this paper for the Journal. I have truly enjoyed the essays in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry and have pointed many people to these latest editions.

In reading the journal and today’s blog, the one word that stands out to me is your choice of the word—“most.”

It is found here: “Because of my understanding of soteriology, I disagree with most of the affirmations and denials in the Traditionalist Statement. “
Using that word speaks of a very wide chasm, to me it seems that you disagree with just about everything.

I have read many of your writings even going back to 2006 or so when you wrote a series entitled– Some Possible Solutions for What Ails the SBC. In that series you stated that:

“The biggest problem in the SBC is our loss of the gospel. It is pervasive. It is often subtle. It is likely accidental, or at least it has not been deliberate. And it is a tragedy. . . . In many corners of the SBC, the gospel has either been redefined, dumbed-down, confused, prostituted, or downplayed. Again, I think almost none of this is deliberate. But it has happened.”

I could be wrong, but my assumption is that those not holding to the doctrines of grace (Calvinism) are those who have “lost” the Gospel?

If that is true, I have a question—if many of the non-Calvinists or Traditionalist have lost the Gospel and you disagree with “most” of what we say that we believe, then how can we genuinely and lovingly walk forward in unity in sharing the Gospel and fulfilling the Great Commission?

Blessings!

Max

“… how can we genuinely and lovingly walk forward in unity in sharing the Gospel and fulfilling the Great Commission?”

And how can two distinctly different messages re: God’s plan of salvation coexist in a single denomination going forward? Effective evangelism and worldwide mission depend on a common and clear message of the cross of Christ. I have listened carefully to the arguments posed by both sides pertaining to the soteriological debate and know that the BFM2000 revision allows sufficient wiggle room for diversity within the SBC big tent. I have heard the reformed rhetoric about forsaking our roots, abandoning the rich theological heritage of SBC’s founders, losing the gospel in the 20th century, and today’s widespread Biblical ignorance in 45,000+ SBC pulpits and pews. Frankly, I’m growing weary with this distraction while millions die in darkness. A once great evangelistic denomination has surrendered too much ground.

I’m reluctant to share the following quote by Charles Finney (knowing that I immediately lose the attention of the reformed brethren at the drop of his name), but I find it appropriate at this juncture in SBC life:

“It is evident that many more Churches need to be divided. How many there are that hold together, and yet do no good, for the simple reason that they are not sufficiently agreed. They do not think alike, nor feel alike … and while this is so, they never can work together. Unless they can be brought to such a change of views and feelings as will unite them, they are only a hindrance to each other and to the work of God. In many cases they see and feel that this is so, and yet they keep together, conscientiously, for fear that a division should dishonor religion, when in fact the division that now exists may be making religion a by-word and a reproach. Far better would it be if they would agree do divide amicably, like Abraham and Lot. ‘If thou will take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if thou depart to the right hand, I will go to the left.’ Let them separate, and each party work in its own way; and they may both enjoy the blessing.” (Charles G. Finney, Revivals of Religion, Lecture XVI: The Necessity and Effect of Union.)

Leo Percer

I am thankful to the folks at SBC Today for publishing materials from more than one side of this issue. As a non-Calvinist, I confess that my view of things will differ from Dr. Finn’s statement above. On the other hand, I want to thank him for offering a different view for us to consider. I have one question nonetheless. Dr. Finn says above: “While I agree that all people are ‘capable of responding’ to the good news, I also believe that sin has so blinded humanity that nobody will choose to believe the gospel without the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit.” There are several definitions I’d like to request, but instead I will simply get to my question. What role does the “image of God” play in current Christian anthropology? Do the unsaved have any remnant of the image of God? If so, does that have any effect on their “ability” to respond to God? If not, can you please provide evidence about what happened to the image of God in humanity? Thank you!

    Norm Miller

    Brother Percer:
    I cannot answer for Dr. Finn, but I can tell you what my *former* pastor (a Calvinist) said to me in answer to the same question. “The imago dei was effective before the Fall in the garden and was used to administer the dominion as God had commanded.”
    What?
    I asked how he preached against abortion and euthanasia. His response? “I don’t use the imago dei in such sermons.”
    Note he did not answer my question.

    Still perplexed,
    Norm

    Bob Hadley

    Bro. Percer,

    I believe you have asked a very good question. The calvinist is quick to say that the unregenerate can no more change his depraved nature than can the leopard change his spots therefore God MUST do it through regeneration and effectual call allowing a person to THEN repent and believe. My question is very similar to yours; how could man change his original nature of being created in the image of God? Truth is, he cant and no where in the Bible does God say He changed it so I believe it is still in tact and it is this aspect of our being that is able to respond to God. No man can come to the Father unless the Father draw him; no one can get up one morning a decide, “I am going to become a Christian today.”

    Another problem that I see in the calvinistic soteriological position is a poor concept of God’s sovereignty as I see it. Calvinism seems to me to say that God is incapable of speaking to a lost person through His Word UNLESS and UNTIL He regenerates them and THEN and ONLY THEN can that person respond in repentance and that is the ONLY RESPONSE he can make. If God is indeed sovereign as I believe He is THEN I believe He can give man His Divine Word and that Word can penetrate our hearts as we hear it being preached or taught or shared and the Holy Spirit can then begin to reconcile us to Him. None of these things are effectual to the slightest degree in the calvinist position until God regenerates the individual first. I argue that repentance and believing faith for the calvinist are the first response of sanctification as opposed to that which brings conversion or new life.

    I am still amazed that Southern Baptists are actually debating on how a person who is lost is found and how that person is actually saved. God help us!

      John D

      Im a 5 point Calvinist, and I have no problem with the term “Traditionalist” and use it often. However, I feel that many traditionalists are re-defining the term “Hyper Calvinist”. That I have a problem with. Most people that I’ve seen accused of being hyper Calvinists are not hyper Calvinists. Just my two cents.

        Norm Miller

        Thank you, JD@gmail, for your comment.

        I agree that being falsely accused is problematic, but is not exclusive to Traditionalists. A president of one of our seminaries intimated that the “Traditional Statement” was semi-Pelagian — an accusation that has yet to be apologized for or retracted, despite documentation that the insinuation is patently false. So, we can relate to how you feel, and rightly so.

        This blog has attempted to deal openly, honestly and fairly with Calvinistic theology in an attempt to educate those who are less conversant with that system. We do that in hopes of bringing understanding to the soteriology of Calvinists and to why we believe it is contrary to Scripture. Many such blog posts here have cited Calvinists’ writings, and even Calvin himself. So, I doubt that those resources are guilty of what you say the less-informed are guilty of doing.

        It is not our desire to misrepresent Calvin or his devotees. We find that describing Calvin’s system accurately and fully is the best way for people to see it for what it truly is. It serves no good purpose for any of us to misrepresent the other, I am sure you will agree.

        Thanks again for your comment.

      Leo Percer

      Bro. Hadley,

      I tend to agree with your view on the issue of the image of God. If it is intact, then humans have the necessary equipment to respond to God (or so it would seem). Thanks for sharing!

Ken

It almost seems to connote that less than “calvinist” is symptomatic of the proverbial pendulum swinging back towards liberalism.

Mitchell

I agree with Dr. Finn. The use of the term “traditionalist” is problematic for many reasons. Mainly the term “traditionalists” seems to imply that their beliefs are the long-established and the traditional beliefs of Southern Baptist. However, as Dr. Finn wonderfully pointed out, this simply is not the case.

    Norm Miller

    Mitchell:
    Numerous times have we noted that Traditionalist does not mean exclusivity. SBCToday has repeatedly acknowledged the Calvinistic influence in the SBC founding and the commitment to Calvinism in our heritage. So, again, we do not claim exclusivity to the term Traditionalist. But we do, nonetheless, believe it is accurate.
    Why?
    Because SBCToday is in possession of historical documentation that refutes the claims some make regarding the SBC’s founding. We are preparing a post in that regard, and believe it will be most informative to you and so many others.

    Thx for your comment,
    Norm

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