By Kelly Boggs, Message Editor
The theological system known as Calvinism has long been a catalyst for controversy. The debate, though not new, seems to have gained new vigor in the Southern Baptist Convention in recent years.
“This is an old discussion,” Paige Patterson said during a discussion on Calvinism at the 2006 SBC Annual Meeting in Greensboro, N.C. “It’s a discussion that predates Calvin. It is a discussion that predates Augustine. …,” Baptist Press reported Patterson as saying.
The president of Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, continued, “God’s people have always struggled to try to figure out what is it that God has done on one hand and what is it for which we are responsible on the other.”
The theological system developed by John Calvin in the early 1500s is best known for its five points that are summed up in the acronym TULIP. Each of the letters in the word represents a key doctrine of Calvin’s theology.
The ‘T’ represents “Total depravity.” This doctrine teaches that as a consequence of the fall of man into sin, every person born into the world is enslaved to sin.
The ‘U’ stands for “Unconditional election.” This teaching asserts that God’s choice from eternity of those whom he will bring to Himself is unconditionally grounded in His grace alone. These are known as the elect of God. Conversely, the Lord has also chosen from eternity to withhold Himself from the un-elect, and condemn them to face his wrath.
The “L” stands for “Limited atonement.” This doctrine asserts that only the sins of the elect were atoned for by Jesus’ death. This teaching holds that the atonement, while sufficient for all, is only effectual for the elect.
The “I” stands for “Irresistible grace.” As the term suggests, this teaching asserts that when God purposes to save someone, that individual will be saved. The doctrine holds that every influence of God’s Holy Spirit cannot be resisted.
The “P” stands for “Perseverance of the saints.” This doctrine asserts that those whom God has called into communion with Himself will continue in faith until the end. Those who apparently fall away either never had true faith to begin with or will return.
Not everyone agrees with all the aforementioned doctrines. In particular, Calvin’s teachings on election, atonement and grace have long been sources of disagreement.
During the 2006 discussion at the SBC Annual Meeting, Paige Patterson highlighted several areas that of concern that he has with “some Calvinists.”
The concerns articulated by Patterson and reported by Baptist Press are:
n The notion that if “you are not a Calvinist then you must be an Arminian.” He said he is neither.
n The argument that “if you are not a Calvinist then you do not accept the doctrines of grace.” Patterson said, “I believe that salvation is by grace alone, and I’m not a Calvinist.”
n The assertion that those who are not Calvinists don’t believe in the sovereignty of God. “I just happen to believe that God is sovereign enough that He can make a man totally free if He wishes to do so,” Patterson said.
n “Antinomian tendencies” present “in some Calvinists,” particularly on the subject of drinking alcohol. Antinomianism tends to overemphasize grace in relation to law.
n A failure of Reformed (Calvinist) pastors to be “completely forthright” with pulpit committees during interviews. “This is a concern not only about Calvinists,” Patterson said. “It’s a concern about any position which you hold.” There should be “full disclosure of what you believe and what you plan to do once you become the pastor of that church.”
n The “compassionlessness” for a lost world seen in “some Calvinists.” Patterson pointed out that he has friends who embrace Calvinism who are passionate for the lost, but that is not true for all who advocate Calvin’s teachings.
Another aspect that adds to the controversy over Calvinism is the internal debate among Calvinists as to what constitutes an accurate understanding of key doctrines, especially pertaining to election, atonement and grace.
Some adherents of Calvin push the doctrines to what they contend are logical conclusions. As a result, some of their beliefs are: Human beings have absolutely no free will whatsoever; Justification occurs in eternity, not in time; God creates unbelief in the hearts of the non-elect; Evangelism is unnecessary, or even wrong.
“Mainstream” Calvinists (for lack of a better term) who seem to make up the majority of those who embrace Calvinism reject the aforementioned teachings and label those who do hold them as “hyper-Calvinists.”
As Patterson indicated in 2006, the issues stirred by Calvinism are not new. However, it seems they will continue to be a source of intense discussion in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Navigating this centuries old theological debate will require transparency, humility and mutual respect. It will also require a precise definition of terms and the astute application of logic.
In the end, a healthy discussion on Calvinism is not likely to resolve all the issues of a debate dating back almost 500 years. However, if Calvinists and non-Calvinists agree to disagree agreeably, Southern Baptists could come out with a greater theological understanding and commitment to reaching the world with the Gospel.