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.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.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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