Historical Reflections Upon Calvinism and Southern Baptists | Conclusion
Dr. Robert Hughes | Professor of Missions & Evangelism
Clear Creek Baptist Bible College, Pineville, KY
Trail of Blood?
Baptists debate when exactly the Baptist faith came into being. Some argue that there have always been “true” believers in the faith of the New Testament who never became organizationally linked to the Roman Catholic Church. A little pamphlet called The Trail of Blood sketched out how these groups—identified primarily by their rejection of infant baptism—maintained their separation down through the centuries, often in hiding, at other times enduring persecution. The historical accuracy of this viewpoint is challenged by the fact that some of the groups cited as “baptistic” by the pamphlet were, in fact, far from orthodox (sometimes way far from orthodox!). Still, there is no question that there were often dissenters against prevailing views.
During the time of the Swiss Reformation some of the strong supporters of Zwingli in Zurich raised objection to baptizing babies. Zwingli had them convicted of heresy and drowned. Those who held this view came to be known as Anabaptists (rebaptizers), because they refused to accept as members anyone who did not make a conscious and public profession of faith in Christ. These groups, which sprang up all across Europe independently (generally as a result of reading the scriptures for themselves) are usually referred to as the Radical Reformation. It was out of the Radical Reformation that Baptists formed.
Birth of English Baptists
Most historians trace the beginnings of present-day Baptists to the separatist John Smythe, who had himself rebaptized while in exile in Holland in the early 1600s. He formed the first English Baptist church. Smythe was an Arminian… About the same time as another separatist group in Holland—those we Americans know as the Pilgrims—departed for the New World in the Mayflower, Smythe’s Baptist church moved back to England. While Smythe later left the Baptist church that he helped to form, other Baptist churches began to spring up. Thomas Helwys formed one outside the walls of London. Helwys was an Arminian…
Since Baptists have generally resisted any kind of top-down governance (this attitude is called the “free church tradition”) it’s difficult to trace their growth with precision. There’s enough research, however, for us to know that there were two main groups of Baptists: There were the earlier General Baptists, who were basically Arminian in doctrine, and the later Particular Baptists, who were Calvinist. This split among Baptists in England did not die, but it would have been well if they had made peace. The General Baptists, as Arminians do historically seem to do, slipped off toward what we would call today liberalism. The Particular Baptists, as Calvinists historically seem to do, slipped the other direction into so called “hyper-Calvinism.” What that means, essentially, is an overemphasis on the sovereignty of God to the point of the loss of human freedom, and an eventual loss of any missionary motivation. It would have been better for the Kingdom of God if the General Baptists and the Particular Baptists had moved closer to one another, rather than further away. It seems a fact of Baptist history that the two groups—or their spiritual descendants—do much better at reaching the world when they remain together and challenge each other. This finally happened with British Baptists in the 1900s.
Of course Baptist folks—both General and Particular—moved across the Atlantic to the colonies. They were poor and uneducated in contrast to other American Christians, but they had strong convictions and much zeal, and Baptists grew during the First Great Awakening (although the split between General and Particular Baptists remained.) (Of course, there was also a major split in the First Great Awakening between Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, Calvinists, and the Methodist Wesley.) “I follow Whitfield!” “I follow Wesley!” (Sounds like “I follow Apollos!” “I follow Paul!” doesn’t it?)
It was during the Second Great Awakening, however—the great revival on the frontier—that Baptists grew into one of the largest groups in America. Methodists did, too. By contrast, the Calvinist Presbyterians shrunk. Why? These results had much to do with the Camp Meetings movement.
The Second Great Awakening
Between 1800 and 1830 a new Awakening began to spread through the newly expanded United States, particularly in the South and along the Western frontier. Methodist and Baptist churches in particular expanded rapidly through the “camp meeting” approach. People in sparsely settled regions would gather in great encampments that would last for several weeks. These served to strengthen relationships in these areas, and were often multi-denominational, with several different styles of preaching taking place in different parts of the camp. The Cumberland Presbyterians (who broke from the more formal Eastern Presbyterians during this time – and modified their Calvinism) and the Disciples of Christ developed out of this second Awakening. The Methodist bishop Francis Asbury established the pattern of the “circuit rider” preacher, traveling thousands of miles in his lifetime establishing and strengthening Methodist congregations.
There was an indirect theological shift taking place throughout this revival—a movement from Calvinist to Arminian theology. The emphasis in these camp meetings was often placed upon the free will of an individual to choose Christ’s offer of salvation -or to refuse it. From the Calvinist perspective this sounded like a salvation of works rather than grace—the “work” being the choice on the part of the individual. After early participation in the camp meeting approach Presbyterians abandoned it, questioning the emotionalism and the lack of doctrinal teaching. As a result, the Methodists and Baptists became the dominant churches in the South and West, and a pattern of thinking was established that would eventually give rise to Pentecostalism.
This period was also the run-up to the Civil War, the cataclysm that would split both the Methodists and the Baptists into Northern and Southern wings. In 1845 the Southern Baptist Convention was formed. Many of the Baptist leaders of this split were adamant supporters of a union of Southern states as well. While southern Baptists were united on slavery, there were differences in theology between the educated, highly cultured East (which was largely Calvinist) and the rough and tumble, uneducated churches of the revivalist West, hi many ways this was just a continuation of the old General Baptist-Particular Baptist division, which had been imported from England long before. Because Baptists are a “free Church tradition”—because Baptists had a long tradition of simple Biblical theology, in contrast to adherence to a more formal systematic theology—because unlettered Baptists mistrusted education—because Baptists in the American West had a tradition of evangelicalism, revivalism, and personal invitations -this age-old division was never healed. Instead, Southern Baptists after the Civil War became united in the fervent pursuit of missionary advance. That became the lynchpin, the common ground, the point of agreement that moved the Southern Baptist Convention toward cooperation (and, incidentally, toward the Cooperative Program.) The result? While other denominations battled over liberal theology or hyper-Calvinism, The SBC grew. Its focus was upon missions and evangelism, not on theology and perfectionism. Would that it still were.
Doctrines of Grace?
Sometimes these days during class a student will make off-handed reference to “The doctrines of grace”—by which he means Calvinism. This strikes me about like it does when Texans speak of that state being “God’s country”—as if everywhere else (including my native California or my adopted Kentucky) is not. Excuse me, but I have always held a theology based in grace. Oh, I understand: The naïve assumption of a Calvinist tends to be that if you’re not “with us”, then you must be an Arminian. I’m not. When pressed about my position on the five points, I give my OWN five points, as follows:
Junk (not by God’s design – Rom 7:18-19)
Eternal Love (God’s, from the foundation of the Universe)
Supreme Sacrifice (John 3.T4-15)(Christ’s – for me and for you)
Universally Offered (John 3:16; 1 Tim 2:4; Rom 10:12; James 10.T6)(Whosoever)
Secure in Christ (Romans 8:38-39)(Nothing can pluck me out of His hand)
Then I say “You can keep your TULIP, I’ll keep my JESUS.”
That, however, may be a bit too “preachy” and not intellectual enough for such a gathering. So let me finish by being intellectual and properly theological…
Models and Qualifiers
I refer to the thinking of I.T. Ramsey, who wrote most effectively about “models and qualifiers”. Hang with me here for a moment…
Ramsey was engaged in the debates about religious language, which swirled through theological circles after Wittgenstein in the early 1900s. Don’t worry if you don’t know whom or what I’m talking about; most people don’t, and are perfectly fine without it. But Ramsey’s point was interesting: He said that much of our confusion and argument in the areas of religious discussion was related to the use and abuse of human models and heavenly qualifiers in our discussion. That is, we acknowledge God as our Father, but modify that concept with the word “heavenly” so that it conveys the more, the mystery of God that we cannot express. Father is the model, heavenly is the qualifier. We use the model of Life when we talk about heaven, because that’s what it is and will be, but we modify that word with eternal—Eternal Life—to express the inexpressible nature of that life. Life is the model, eternal is the qualifier. Understand?
Now look at the TULIP. Grace is the model, irresistible is the qualifier. From the Arminian side “resistable” is the qualifier. Friends: How can we possibly know whether grace can or cannot be resisted? Upon what can we base our understanding? We want to resist the World’s temptation to base everything upon experience instead of upon scripture, but honestly—how can we know?
Think about Atonement. The wonder of that word is that Christ paid the penalty for our sin upon the cross. We can never praise Him enough for that gift, that grace! But when we put “limited” or “unlimited” in front of that marvelous word we end up in fruitless debate that says nothing about God, and everything about our petty intellectualism. As if we knew the wondrous workings of God’s omnipotent mind!
Instead of focusing upon the qualifiers, let us focus instead upon the five points of theology: Mankind’s sin! God’s grace! God’s favor! Christ’s atonement! God’s promise! And for goodness sake, let’s start telling the World about these wonderful truths so people don’t end up going to hell because they never heard!
There’s a fire. People need to be saved. Let’s lead them to safety instead of arguing about the color of the exit signs.