By Shawn Thomas, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Moss Bluff
While I am not a Calvinist, a number of my friends and family members are, which I believe gives me a balanced perspective regarding the current debate over soteriology in the SBC.
I almost signed the recently released “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of the Doctrine of Salvation” the first time I read it. I agree with much of it, and believe that it does generally reflect the position held by most pastors and laypeople in the Southern Baptist Convention today.
But I did not sign the Statement, for several reasons.
First, I disagree with some minor points in it.
For example, in Article 2, the Statement reads: “We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will.” I believe the terms “Pelagian” and “semi-Pelagian” have been used too promiscuously in recent years by some Calvinists, but this sentence seems to say that man’s free will was not impacted by the Fall.
If so, this contradicts John 6:44, where Jesus said that “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws Him,” and I Corinthians 2:14, “But a natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him ….”
While I do not believe that God’s grace is irresistible, I do believe that He must take the initiative with us, and that His grace is necessary for us to make a free choice. I do agree with the article’s theology generally, but unless assertions like this one are amended or clarified, I couldn’t currently sign it.
Secondly, having enjoyed fellowship with and read materials from many who adhere to the “doctrines of grace,” I do not believe the Statement always represents the SBC Calvinist positions fairly.
For example, in Article 5, the denial section reads: “We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel.” I do not know of any SBC Calvinist who would assert that any person is saved apart from hearing or responding to the gospel. This would be a manifestation of “hyper-Calvinism,” another term which has been tossed about too freely, but I have not seen any evidence of that from the SBC’s “new Calvinism.” Such misrepresentations do nothing to further healthy debate, but derail us from the real issues and cloud fellowship.
Finally, I have concerns as to how this document will be used.
A mere statement which expresses the soteriology of the signers is absolutely acceptable. Calvinist soteriology statements are ubiquitous – and certainly any group of Baptists has the freedom to present one. With some “tweaks” to this Statement, I might sign it myself.
On the other hand, I would be strongly opposed to its use as a tool of enforcement at our Convention’s institutions, seminaries or colleges. Southern Baptists already have a consensus statement of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. It is a “big tent,” purposefully wide enough to include both Calvinist and “traditional” Baptist understandings of soteriology.
Frank Page, our SBC Executive Committee President, who has written a book opposing Calvinism, declined to sign the Statement. He stated that he preferred a consensus statement, which addresses the core commitment of both parties, and that the BFM 2000 is such a document.
Despite his personal theological leanings, Page is a wise statesman, acting in the interest of unity in our Convention. Others of us should follow his lead.
But whatever one decides about signing the Statement, it should be not used as a standard for our institutions. It would be very harmful and divisive, at a time when our focus should be on our mission.
However: if one asserts that the BFM 2000 is sufficient for the SBC’s institutions, then we need to be consistent and address the fact that there are currently two SBC seminaries – Southern and Southeastern – supported by Convention-wide Cooperative Program funds, which require adherence by all their professors to the “Abstract of Principles,” a clearly Calvinist document.
I am all for using the BFM 2000 as our only standard for SBC-funded institutions, but if we do, then we should be consistent across the board, and there should be a balance of theology taught at all of our CP-supported schools.
In conclusion, we need to heed the words of Galatians 5:15, “But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another.” Let us not fulfill the prophecies of moderate Baptists that the SBC would continue to divide after the inerrancy battle, because conservatives must always fight about something.
For the sake of God’s Kingdom and glory, let us not needlessly divide over soteriology. Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike should serve together in the SBC under the “big tent” of our Baptist Faith & Message 2000.
Let us determine that our generation of Southern Baptists will be remembered for proclaiming the doctrine of salvation, not fighting over it.