Neither Calvinists nor Arminians but Baptists, 1/3

April 30, 2014

“The primary focus of Christians should be to carry out the Great Commission under the lordship of Jesus Christ according to the guidelines found in the inerrant Word of God.”

White Paper 36
Published by the Center for Theological Research
© 2010

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Malcolm B. Yarnell III, Director
The Center for Theological Research Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, Texas

Neither Calvinists nor Arminians but Baptists

Are You Calvinists or Arminians?

There is a question that many professional theologians, pastors and students, as well as theologically-minded Christians in the local churches, are being asked these days: Are you Calvinists or Arminians? More specifically, in our case, are the authors who have contributed to Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism to be identified with Calvinists or Arminians? Because that book is specifically intended to address the type of Calvinism that measures theology according to the five heads of doctrine promulgated in the canons of the Synod of Dort, the idea may arise that the authors themselves are, therefore, Arminian. This idea has been clearly promoted by Roger E. Olson, an articulate advocate of Arminianism, author of a significant text on Arminian theology, a self-proclaimed “classical Arminian,” and a recent reviewer of Whosoever Will. In an academic book review at and on his personal blog, Dr. Olson identified the authors as both “anti-Calvinist” and “Arminians.”

Although we might variously appreciate Professor Olson’s claims that the book “contains 11 mostly excellent chapters by Southern Baptist leaders and scholars absolutely demolishing key Calvinist doctrines,” and that it “stands as the scholarly argument against Calvinism by evangelical authors,” we would unanimously, though respectfully, disagree with his characterization of us as “Arminian.” As he notes, the editors do not claim to be Arminians. Here, the relevant words from the book’s introduction seem appropriate to repeat: “none of the authors in this project is Arminian or a defender of Arminianism. None of the authors is a five-point Arminian, a Pelagian, a semi-Pelagian, or a strong Calvinist. . . . Instead, our contributors try to keep the two more extreme positions in balance, learning from both, counting themselves as being in the mainstream of the Baptist theological tradition” (Whosoever Will, 5).

If you were to read more broadly in their works or hear each of them speak in both private and public settings, the contributors themselves occupy a spectrum of views on the controverted points of Calvinism. Some of the authors in Whosoever Will would occupy a position closer to five-point Calvinism while others would occupy a position closer to Arminianism, but none would identify himself with either extreme. Yet other contributors would adamantly maintain that the common practice of measuring theology according to a flawed instrument created by a gaggle of baby baptizing, state church theologians in the seventeenth century is by degrees anachronistic and unhelpful. The purpose of each author in contributing to the book was to provide a critique of some aspect of Dortian Calvinism from a majoritarian Baptist perspective rather than to promote a particular version of Calvinism or Arminianism.

So, why did these theologians address Calvinism? Note these factors: First, a major task for any theologian is to reflect critically upon the proclamation of the church. Second, many of our churches have recently been proclaiming Calvinism with the encouragement of sectors of the Southern Baptist academy. Taken together, these factors require responsible theologians to address an issue that is of growing concern among many of our churches. We are servants of the churches, and when we are constantly bombarded with well-meant queries regarding biblical interpretation in our classrooms, churches and homes, we are compelled to deliver a reasonable response. We addressed Calvinism because we were asked to help our people think through the important subjects that Calvinism raises. For this, we have no regret but a sense of duty.

Logically, because the authors are providing a critique of Calvinism from a biblical-theological perspective, it might be assumed that they are the ideological opposite: Arminians. However, had the authors provided a critique of Arminianism from a biblical-theological perspective (a critique we have not attempted nor perceived the need to address at this time), they would doubtless be identified by some as Calvinists. Indeed, we understand yet another forthcoming book has referred to us as “moderate Calvinists.” While some of the contributors might be comfortable with that designation, yet others would disagree with the characterization of being “moderate” with regard to any theological position, including Calvinism. The same discomfort with regard to certain labels applies to the description of the authors as “anti-Calvinist.” Again, a citation from the book would be helpful: “The contributors are not ‘anti-Calvinist’ and therefore are interested in dialogue, not diatribe. We have no desire to sweep the SBC clean of Calvinism” (9).

So, Then, Who Are We?

So, then, the authors claim they are neither Calvinist nor Arminian, nor anti-Calvinist. Because the authors have been clear as to what they are not and what their agenda is not, we would ask our readers to honor our claims. However, since these claims have apparently left a sense of conceptual vacuum for many readers, we would like to remind our readers of who we are and of what our agenda consists. Rather than allowing others to define us according to a construction not of our own making, we would prefer to fill the ideological space created by certain reactions to the book with our own meaning.

(Please note three qualifications: First, the book itself was not intended to provide a full statement of the way forward but to provide a critique. Please respect the stated purpose of the book alongside the narrow purposes stated for each essay to stand, and please judge them on those self-identified bases. Second, as the writers of this particular response, please note that the undersigned are not the totality of the eleven. We believe the other contributors to Whosoever Will would not disagree with much, if any, of our assessment. Third, in this essay we are not attempting to provide a complete systematic statement of our theology but merely an outline of the focus we believe should provide the way forward for all Baptists, especially Southern Baptists.)

Are we Calvinists? No. Are we Arminians? No. So, then, who are we? We are Baptists. We are majoritarian Baptists in the Sandy Creek tradition, who formulate theology according to the authoritative, inerrant, and sufficient Word of God so that we might better proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to all human beings. We are neither Calvinists nor Arminians; we are Baptists! Please give us a moment of your time to unpack the meaning of this important position. We believe that almost anywhere you stand on the ideological spectrum of Calvinism and Arminianism, or even if you refuse to take a stand on the spectrum itself, you could and should join us in affirming, as some of our leaders have said before: “The primary focus of Christians should be to carry out the Great Commission under the lordship of Jesus Christ according to the guidelines found in the inerrant Word of God” (8). In summary, we are neither Calvinists nor Arminians, but Baptists!
Part II, tomorrow.
At the conclusion of Part III will be a link to download the entire document,
“Neither Calvinists nor Arminians but Baptists.”