Neither Calvinists nor Arminians but Baptists, 2/3
If you missed part 1, click HERE.
Let us address the negative side of this position statement, “We are neither Calvinists nor Arminians.” The book itself outlines many reasons why we are not Calvinists, but three of those bear repeating in light of our own priorities. First, we do not believe that Dortian Calvinism properly represents the gospel of Jesus Christ in its simplicity and profundity according to the Bible. We are uncomfortable with Dortian Calvinism because we believe its rigid structure is imposed upon Scripture and that it does not allow Scripture to form theology. As philosopher Steve Lemke queried about the Calvinist belief in irresistible grace, “Is Scripture being shaped to make it agree with one’s theological system, or is one’s theological system being shaped according to Scripture?” (127). Malcolm Yarnell was similarly concerned that an exemplary Reformed theologian’s methodological approaches to Scripture “reflect a thoroughgoing rationalism that is prior to and formative for his treatment of Scripture” (The Formation of Christian Doctrine, 50).
Second, we are not Calvinists because we do not believe certain Calvinist doctrines can be found in a gospel-ruled, canonical reading of Scripture. This is why the authors of Whosoever Will repeatedly refer to the plain sense of scriptural passages according to the grammatical and historical context. From the detailed expository approach to John 3:16 by Jerry Vines (Whosoever Will, ch. 1), to the commonsense contextual reading of Ephesians 2:1ff by Paige Patterson (ch. 2), to the canonical approach to defining biblical language utilized by both David Allen (78–83) and Steve Lemke (117–29), the authors repeatedly demonstrate a necessary return to Scripture. Scripture is sufficient for the substance and structure of our preaching, and though we seek to address those living in contemporary cultural contexts, we call our listeners to begin with hearing the Bible in its own context and end with contemporary personal submission to that Word. As a result, most of us are convinced, against Dortian Calvinism, that Scripture does not teach that man is totally unable to respond to the call of God to believe, or that grace does violence to the human will, or that Jesus Christ’s death failed to propitiate for the sins of “the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
Third, we are not Calvinists because we are genuinely concerned about the impact of Dortian Calvinism upon evangelism. As David Allen asserted, “Christians must evangelize because God wills all men to be saved and has made atonement for all men, thus removing the legal barriers that necessitate their condemnation” (97). How could God offer salvation to all people with integrity if Jesus did not die for all (2 Corinthians 5:20)? Since the Calvinist doctrine of limited or particular atonement “provides an insufficient motive for evangelism by undercutting the well-meant gospel offer” by God to all men, as well as by us to all men, Southern Baptists should reject five-point Calvinism (107). We decry the efforts of Calvinist professors of limited atonement who argue the evangelistic altar call is unbiblical or that it somehow represents an attempt by those who deliver altar calls to “manipulate the sovereignty of God” (101). We are motivated to offer the gospel to all, and to invite all to respond, even in a public fashion, because Christ died for all.
Moreover, as the evangelistic preacher Jerry Vines argued, the crisis behind our understanding of Christ’s offer of “whosoever will” comes down to the type of God we are worshipping: “It is the design of the sovereign God to make the salvation of all people possible and to secure the salvation of all who believe. What kind of God would not make salvation possible for all?” (25). We do not ask such questions in order to score rhetorical points against our Calvinist Baptist brethren, but because we believe that the God revealed in Scripture is a God who loves all men, desires their salvation, and has made salvation possible for all by Christ’s death for all.
We say such things because we perceive grace when we hear the gospel verbally and enthusiastically offered to all men freely through personal repentance toward God and faith in Christ. With the first Baptist pastor in England, we believe that Christ died for all men. This is a “comfortable doctrine,” because “every poor soul may know that there is salvation for him by Christ and that Christ hath shed His blood for him, that believing in Him he may be saved, and that God wants not the death of him, but that he should repent and live” (Thomas Helwys, A Short and Plain Proof by the Word, 1611). This is our passion: that every sinner, without qualification, may hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, believe in Him and be saved! With regard to this God, who loves all people, we can agree with Roger Olson, who claims that Arminians “are in love with God’s goodness and unwilling to sacrifice that on the altar of divine determinism.”
And, yet, neither are we happy to receive the name of “Arminian.” Although we respect Professor Olson’s scholarship and passion for God’s love, we disagree with his assessment of where we are. Our understanding from the five Arminian articles of 1610 is that classical Arminians are unsure as to whether Christians may lose their salvation. As the Remonstrants’ fifth article states, they did not reach a conclusion regarding the perseverance of the saints “cum plerophoria animi nostri”, with full assurance in their minds (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, III, 549). On the other hand, unlike classical Arminians, we are absolutely sure that Scripture teaches that a born-again Christian will be saved. This is why our Baptist Faith and Message affirms, without equivocation, “All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end” (art. V, “God’s Purpose of Grace”). Some have referred to Southern Baptists as moderate Calvinists, because our confession clearly affirms this one point addressed by the heads under contention between Calvinists and Arminians. In our churches, this belief is more popularly identified as “once saved, always saved.” On this point, confessional Southern Baptists may never be said to be Arminian, and we are indeed confessional Southern Baptists.
We could also raise other concerns about Arminianism. Among those would be concerns about the tendency of some Arminians to fall into the trap of Open Theism, a doctrine with which we are in adamant disagreement. In response, we would point out that, according to the Baptist Faith and Message, “God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures” (art. II, “God”). The specter of Open Theism arises when we begin to speculate with regard to the doctrine of human free will and proceed to oppose human free will stridently against divine sovereignty. Ken Keathley (Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach) and Jeremy Evans (Whosoever Will, ch. 10) have provided some crisp theological reasons for where we might be headed with regard to these issues.
As mission-minded and evangelistic Baptists, we are uncomfortable with moving too far beyond scriptural revelation into speculative theological models. Jerry Vines referred to “simple biblicism” in his sermon and this describes where we have additional difficulties. Arminians and Calvinists too often seem to be involved in a harsh intramural discussion that begins with a few scriptural texts and then transitions too quickly toward theological speculation. This propensity to move beyond the biblical text is where we see the problems of both Hyper-Calvinism and Open Theism arising. Over against these efforts, we prefer to set aside distracting theological speculation and focus on teaching the gospel clearly and compellingly to our students and churches, both modeling and encouraging the development of personal and professional lives that keep gospel proclamation at the center of our and their efforts.
Moreover, please note that we see many things to appreciate in Calvinism, important things that keep us in fellowship with our Calvinist Baptist brethren. As Paige Patterson pointed out several years ago, there are six reasons why non-Calvinist Baptists fellowship with Calvinist Baptists. We reproduce those here for your benefit, with the caveat that even more things that keep Calvinist and non-Calvinist Baptists together could be listed:
Calvinists, Patterson said: “usually lead very pious lives”; believe theology is important; generally are “very clear about the dangers involved in the charismatic movement”; “understand the purpose of everything is to glorify God”; “never question the inerrancy of Scripture or the substitutionary atonement of Christ”; and “are crystal clear about the fact that salvation is by grace alone” (Baptist Press, 13 June 2006).
Therefore, our claims that we are neither fully Calvinists nor fully Arminians are deeply held and do not arise because of political reasons but issue forth from genuine theological convictions that have ecclesiological ramifications.
Part III, tomorrow.
At the conclusion of Part III will be a link to download the entire document,
“Neither Calvinists nor Arminians but Baptists.”
White Paper 36
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Malcolm B. Yarnell III, Director
The Center for Theological Research Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, Texas