by Eric Hankins, PhD
Pastor, FBC, Oxford, Miss.
Dr. Hankins is the primary author of
“A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist
Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.”
The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 and is comprised of forty-five thousand churches, sixteen million members, ten thousand home and international missionaries, and six large seminaries with ten thousand students preparing for ministry. Last year, over six hundred thousand people were baptized in Southern Baptists churches and ministries in the United States and around the world. The SBC has survived and thrived in a kaleidoscopic and increasingly secular American culture. While mainline denominations are collapsing under the weight of modernism’s flight from biblical authority, Southern Baptists’ unique identity, polity, and theology have seen us through difficult days in unparalleled fashion. All of these reasons and more provide a sufficient warrant for the articulation of a theological perspective that is uniquely our own. Not a Baptist theology, for we do not speak for all Baptists, but a Southern Baptist theology. This needs to be done not for the purposes of separating ourselves from others or demonstrating our superiority. Rather, it is right for us to codify and contribute to the wider Christian world what we understand to be the basis for the sustained cooperative kingdom reach that is unique to us. Moreover, because the SBC is being challenged by the threats of fragmentation and decline, it is needful to understand clearly what it is about our identity that should be maintained as we seek to make our message meaningful in an ever-changing world. Finally, because no theological paradigm is perfect or eternal, ours needs to be publicly articulated so that it may be evaluated, improved, and retooled for future generations.
Within the broad sweep of systematic theology, soteriology has been the most contested doctrine over the last fifteen hundred years. While Calvinism and Arminianism have dominated the discussion within Protestantism, neither system has prevailed in Southern Baptist life. The contention here is that our reluctance to identify with either system is actually a clue to our effectiveness: we believe very simply but very deeply that anyone can be saved and, once saved, is secure forever. Anyone is “sovereignly savable.” In a technical theological sense, savability seeks to convey the idea that the salvation of every sinner is the object of God’s sovereign love and Christ’s saving work. Savability means that anyone who hears the gospel is the object of the Spirit’s saving ministrations and can respond with repentance and faith or rebellion and unbelief. This response of faith results in the sealing of the Spirit and eternal security in the accomplished work of Christ. Savability also insists that every sinner is in desperate need of salvation; it takes as axiomatic each sinner’s absolute need for rescue and redemption. Savability speaks not of one’s ability to save himself (the term itself is fundamentally passive) but of God’s ability to save anyone, even the “vilest offender who truly believes.” In a sense, the ten articles of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” are simply an expression of the various implications the belief that anyone can be saved forever.
Now, all Southern Baptist Calvinists want to speak of the gospel, salvation, and God’s love as being for all, but their own theology works against the intelligibility of such a claim. If Christ died only for the sins of some, then no provision has been made for others, making their salvation impossible. If some are chosen without respect to their response of faith, then no hope of salvation ever existed for others. If saving grace is irresistible for some, then saving grace is unavailable for others. If there is no hope for some, if salvation is impossible and saving grace is unavailable for some, then the Calvinists’ claim that the gospel is for all is, ultimately, self-contradictory.
By comparison, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has 351,406 members in 1,771 churches, with 10,067 professions of faith (available at http://www.pcaac.org/statistics.htm; accessed October 13, 2012), yet it has a very distinctive theological tradition and exerts an influence on American evangelical theology that far exceeds its size. Note the output and impact of R. C. Sproul, James M. Boice, D. James Kennedy, J. Ligon Duncan, Timothy J. Keller, Phillip G. Ryken, Bryan Chapell, Edmund P. Clowney, John M. Frame, and Tullian Tchividjian, to name a few.
Alister McGrath, The Future of Christianity, Blackwell Manifestos (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 100. McGrath essentially makes the point that the future of Christianity will not include the mainline denominations.
Contra David S. Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal (B&H Academic, 2008), 9, who believes that Southern Baptist laypeople were ill-equipped for modernism’s challenge to biblical authority, I think it is clear that they were quite adequately equipped. Through the consistent and biblical simplicity of Hershel Hobbs’ Sunday School literature and the leadership of preachers like W.A. Criswell, Adrian Rogers, Jerry Vines, Charles Stanley, and Jimmy Draper, Southern Baptists believed that biblical inerrancy, soul-winning, and missions were core values. When they discovered that these values were not shared at their agencies, local church autonomy empowered them to bring radical change.
4Before Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), which is strongly Calvinistic, became the dominant theology textbook at Southern Baptist seminaries, Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) was the standard. While encyclopedic and conservative, its moderate Calvinism is not particularly distinctive, creative, or compelling. Certainly, it never produced the sort of convictional commitment to a particular theological system that Grudem’s has. It is more of a reference book for general theological parameters rather than a resource book for constructive Southern Baptist theological engagement.
Malcolm Yarnell, “Neither Calvinists nor Arminians but Baptists,” White Paper 36, The Center for Theological Research (September 2010); available at http://www.baptisttheology.org/baptisttheology/assets/File/ NeitherCalvinistsNorArminiansButBaptists.pdf (accessed October 6, 2012). See also Dockery, 60–62.
Tom Nettles, By His Grace and for His Glory, rev. ed. (Cape Coral, FL: Founder’s Press, 2006), 281: “All are invited indiscriminately to share in Christ, Christ is open to all and displayed to all. It is clear, however, that only those who believe receive the promised benefits. How does anyone believe? By special operation of God’s power on the word of truth, a benefit given only to the elect.”
*SBCToday reprinted with permission this excerpt from the NOBTS Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry.
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