Historical Reflections Upon Calvinism and Southern Baptists | Part Three
Dr. Robert Hughes | Professor of Missions & Evangelism
Clear Creek Baptist Bible College, Pineville, KY
I don’t think I would have enjoyed being around John Calvin. I think I’d probably feel that, behind his polite smile and bulging eyeballs, he was sniffing the scent of free-thinking upon me. In a democratic society that would be fine, of course, but in a Calvinocracy like Geneva, that would mean trouble for me. And one of the fearful things about those who trumpet “It’s God’s will!” is, those who join up with them feel no freedom to question that choice later—even if they come to feel certain something is NOT God’s will at all. Instead, the herd grows larger, and the demand for conformity stronger, until the church has fallen back into the control of a few loud men. What shall we say, then? The Reformation was wonderful! (Just not wonderful enough. And it got sidetracked.) The Reformation reformed the institutional church into more institutional churches.
What About Calvin and Calvinism?
Calvin had made a tremendous difference in Geneva and much of Europe—but what we call Calvinism today wasn’t really yet in place. His successor, Beza, also trained as a lawyer, pursued the logic of Calvin’s teachings. As the greatest Calvinist theologian of his time, he set many of the patterns of Calvin’s doctrines into Calvinist systems. But as the Reformed churches discussed and debated these doctrines, problems arose. When did God elect to salvation the elect? Supralapsarians argued that God decided from before the Fall whom to save and whom to damn. Infralapsarians argued that God elected after the Fall. Others who opposed both views were called Remonstrants. One of Beza’s students, Jacob Arminius, who was professor of Theology at Leiden, set out to disprove the remonstrants, and ended up becoming one himself. He voiced the five remonstrances, which became the subject of debate at the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619. The position he came to hold was named after him—and soundly rejected by the other Calvinists, resulting in what we today call the five points of Calvinism, the TULIP, formed by the Synod’s responses to the Remonstrances.
Mankind is Totally depraved, and cannot play any part in salvation. Those whom God chose to be the Elect receive God’s unmerited favor, which has nothing to do with their actions. This is Unconditional election. God is not being arbitrary in this since all have sinned and deserve death. God is well within His rights as God to choose to save whomever He will. Jesus died for the Elect alone—not everybody. If he’d died for everybody, so the legal case goes, then everybody would be saved—and they’re not. There was, therefore, only “Limited atonement” on the cross. Since God elects whomever He will, those who are chosen must be chosen, and have no personal choice in the matter—grace is Irresistible. Because salvation is an act of God and not in any way dependent upon the actions of people, salvation cannot be lost by anything the elect person should do. This is called “Perseverance of the saints.” The TULIP spelled out above is an acrostic you have to learn in Seminary when studying Calvinism.
The debate at Dort got pretty heated—so much so that one Remonstrant lost his head over it the day after the Synod was over. Others were arrested. But Arminianism didn’t die. It continues to be argued wherever Calvinism is taught, and vice versa. So how does all of this apply to Baptists?
When Baptists Appeared (Debatably…)
While Calvin was reforming Geneva, King Henry VIII was “reforming” the church in England. The fact of the matter is that Henry was one of the greatest scoundrels of history, and the result of Henry’s “reformation” was as confusing as Calvin’s was clear.
Any surfer can tell you when you are riding the crest of a wave there’s an exhilarating sense of power. When you’re crushed under the wave, however, in the turbulent whirling and spinning of that salty, sandy water, it’s not much fun. The English Reformation was nothing if not turbulent. During the period between Henry’s break from Rome and the crowning of Elizabeth I, the English people were expected to be Protestant for three years, then (doctrinally) Catholic for seven years when Henry decided to return to Roman Catholic practice, then Protestant again for 6½ years under his son Edward VI, (whom Calvin wrote to regularly), then Catholic again for 5 years under Henry’s daughter Mary (Bloody Mary) when that young king died, then back to Protestant under the new Queen Elizabeth. It would be enough to give anyone spiritual whiplash. This was all the result of the emerging European understanding that the religion of the people ought to match that of their ruler. Why?
So closely had religion become tied to the government that this must have seemed the natural answer. This was already the solution to the problem being worked out in Luther’s Germany – the people of a province followed the religious wishes of their prince. Not yet were governments thinking that people ought to be allowed to practice the religion of their preference, of their conscience. The concept of religious freedom was to be one of the greatest contributions of the English Reformation, (and strongly impacted by Baptists,) but it took years to get to that point.
There were, however, many English believers who were already privately expressing their own convictions. This was hastened by the distribution of English language Bibles, a process Henry at first encouraged, then sought to cut off when he realized people were thinking for themselves. But the process had begun. The result was the formation of multiple denominations of believers, including besides Anglicans the British Presbyterians (organizationally separate from Scottish Presbyterians), and eventually Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers. These groups came to be known collectively in England as Separatists because they separated themselves from the Anglican Church. Many believers in these groups held to a very severe lifestyle that resulted in them being called Puritans—forerunners of groups that powerfully impacted American history. Many leaders in these new churches fled to the Netherlands to escape persecution and death, and it was there that Baptists, one of the largest denominational families in America today, was born.
Part Four Coming Soon!