Historical Reflections Upon Calvinism and Southern Baptists | Part One

Dr. Robert Hughes | Professor of Missions & Evangelism
Clear Creek Baptist Bible College, Pineville, KY

*For more information about Dr. Hughes or Clear Creek Baptist Bible College click HERE.

When I was growing up I, like most of my generation, was taught that history (like mathematics and the Bible) was absolute truth. “Facts are indisputable,” I was told, and I still believe that. The more history I’ve read, however, the less I believe that historians have the indisputable facts. In fact, history is extremely debatable. If you want to change the public’s perceptions of this or that, attack their understanding of history and revise it. Most people today are so ignorant of history (and so unwilling to study it for themselves) that they will take your word for it and revise their views.

Because I have recently written about history, I have been asked to address the history of Calvinism and Southern Baptists. Much of what follows is adapted from my recent book, History: Think for Yourself about What Shaped the Church, written for NavPress and published in 2008. Since I’ve published a book, does this make me a credible historian? Sure – if you agree with me. If you don’t agree with me, you’ll probably be able to find plenty of failed points of argument below, enough to render me incredible. That, after all, is how scholarly history works: If you don’t agree with the paper’s interpretation of the facts, attack the historian for trying to “revise” history.

Here’s the thing: Calvinism – in many different forms and interpretations, argued from many perspectives and by many different figures – has been a part of Southern Baptist (and before that, Baptist) life since churches first started calling themselves Baptists. Now, that’s an interesting historical tidbit – if that’s as far as it goes. But in fact, Calvinism has torn up churches and torn up associations and broken apart conventions in a number of different centuries. That’s what makes it challenging, whether you use that word in a negative way (such as “We must stop the challenge of Calvinism before it destroys our convention’s effectiveness!”) or in a positive way (such as “We need to challenge the current generation with the doctrines of grace, lest they lose all foundation in doctrine!”) I’ve often heard both views expressed, and – if I’m permitted to excise that offensive “doctrines of grace” statement, I agree with both. But I would surely rather challenge our students and their churches with the absolute truth of the scripture than to seek to prejudice how they view scripture by requiring a particular interpretation of it I want them to think for themselves – and to be loving towards one another as they do so.

There are those today who take the view that the founders of the Baptist denomination (the ones who were right, anyway,) were Calvinists – and therefore all Baptists ought to be as well. This might be called the historical argument for Calvinism. If I were to argue that since many of the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention believed God ordained slavery, all Baptists ought to do so today, would you buy that historical argument? Or would you rather go to the scripture and try to see how at a particular time and in a particular culture, such a doctrine could actually be expressed as revealed truth? History, as I say, is debatable. Just for the sake of debate, why don’t we look at an interpretation of certain facts of history, and see if we can find some historical reflections that will help us in our conflicted present?

Who Was John Calvin?

John Calvin (Jean Cauvin) 1509 -1564, A French lawyer converted to reformation views in 1532 who became leader of the second generation of the Reformation in Europe. Persecuted for his faith he fled Paris and in 1534 was enlisted to lead the reform of the church in Geneva, Switzerland. Apart from 4 years spent in Strasbourg. Austria, Calvin essentially governed Geneva until his death. The laws he established and strictly enforced would be viewed today as direct intrusions into personal freedoms. Best known for writing The Institutes of the Christian Religion, his name is forever linked with the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God and predestination (see “TULIP” below). Calvin’s influence is seen throughout Protestantism but especially in Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed and Baptist churches.

Have you ever had anybody manipulate you with the old “it’s God’s will!” thing? I have. I was once an administrator in a school with another man who shared an office wall with me. We were at the same level on the flow-chart but he was a generation older than me and had taught my older brother, so I guess he believed I was still a student. Whenever I did something that displeased him he would take me out to lunch and tell me – in these words – “That’s not what God told me.” I don’t know if he ever figured out that feeding me lunch every time he got angry was positive reinforcement for my frustrating behavior…? What it did solidify in me was how easily some can make God the author of whatever they want to see happen. It makes me want to ask “How do you know?”

If we asked John Calvin “How do you know?” we’d doubtless get the response “It’s in the Bible!” As we see with Luther, the Reformation was all about people saying “God’s will is revealed in scripture” and not in the traditions of the Church or the writings of the ancient fathers. The thing is, during the 1500s if you said “God’s will is this” when the powers-that-be said “God’s will is that they’d likely cut off your head. Or – worse – burn you at the stake.

Guillaume Farel had fomented Reformation (read “rebellion against the Catholic Church”) all over Switzerland, and had been sent to the city of Geneva to do the same. He was really good at starting debate, but not great at administration. When he heard that a young man named John Calvin was spending the night in the city, he trapped the young man in his room. “It’s God’s will for you to stay!” he thundered at the young scholar, who had already made a name for himself by writing an inflammatory letter to the King of France (Actually, the first draft of the Institutes). Poor John Calvin. He was only passing through town. But if it was God’s will for him to stay in Geneva, he had to stay, right?

Calvin was on the road through Geneva because there was already a stake with his name on it, and all things considered he was a lawyer, not a martyr. What Farel was asking him to do was to plant himself in a particular place and raise his targeted head high. He didn’t want to. But Farel had pushed the right button. It was “God’s will.” Calvin proceeded to write, preach and pressure the leaders of Geneva to adopt his version of “God’s will,” to which, it must be said, many Christians subscribe completely today.

Part Two Coming Soon!