Founders Journal


Founders Journal 69 · Summer 2007 · pp. 1-8

A Calvinist by Any Other Name

Tom J. Nettles

An encouraging development within the last year has been an increasing openness to serious theological dialogue. Witness the Patterson-Mohler discussion at the 2006 Pastors’ Conference at the Southern Baptist Convention and the Akin/Coppenger live radio discussion during the 2007 Pastors’ Conference. These discussions generated no visible animosity—quite the opposite—but did set a context for serious and substantial doctrinal polemics.

At the 2007 Southern Baptist Convention, the packet given messengers contained a booklet published by Convention Press entitled Building Bridges. Readers saw a foreword by Charles Colson, a preface by Thom Rainer, CEO of Lifeway, and articles by Timothy George and David Dockery. The back cover sports a statement by Morris Chapman: “David Dockery and Timothy George have charted a wise and faithful course for Southern Baptists for the 21st Century. Their invitation to renewal is one worthy of following. I am extremely pleased and thankful for this consensus building project. I commend Building Bridges to every Southern Baptist and invite you to join us on the hope-filled, Christ honoring journey.” The invitation that they issue does give hope of really helpful historically informed, exegetically careful and theologically meaningful engagement with truth.

Recently published by Rowman and Littlefield and edited by Douglas K. Blount and Joseph D. Wooddell, Baptist Faith and Message 2000: Critical Issues in America’s Largest Protestant Denomination has a vigorous discussion of the theological importance of that document. The writers all are unwavering in their commitment to the usefulness of confessions for theological definition and discipline. Also, they are not afraid to show why a new statement was needed in order to clarify some issues that were ambiguous in the 1963 document as well as why certain additions were demanded by the challenging intellectual and cultural direction of contemporary society and the murkiness of much so-called evangelical theology. Many chapters in the book call for serious and edifying theological reflection.

Robert Stewart, writing on the doctrine of “Man” and citing the words “free choice,” asked what kind of freedom does sinful man possess? He presents a strong case for a “compatibilist” view of freedom using theological assertion from within other parts of the BF&M to make his point. He applied this briefly, but with helpful implications, to the issues of God and evil. In addition, Stewart addressed the dicey issue of original sin, actual transgression, and condemnation. He offered an interpretation that he feels will satisfy the “Reformed” Baptists in the SBC (though he does not claim to be among them) and at the same time be true to the confession.

R. Albert Mohler, writing on the doctrine of salvation, pointed to several significant and necessary additions in the 2000 Confession emphasizing the “exclusivity of salvation through conscious personal faith in Christ” (40, 44) to close the door to inclusivism or universalism. Mohler also gave some helpful discussion to the question of the ordo salutis in the confession’s treatment of regeneration, repentance, and faith. He showed the tension that exists between Herschel Hobbs’s personal explanation of regeneration and that which is indicated by the confession, both in 1963 and in 2000 (41). Mohler sees the confessions as a healthy expression of a “modified Calvinism” following J. Newton Brown’s wording and arrangement of the New Hampshire Confession. He observes, “[T]he New Hampshire tradition represents a congenial meeting place for Baptists who are traditional Calvinists and those whose Calvinism is more modified” (38).

Danny Akin’s discussion of “God’s Purpose of Grace” gives a frank warning about extremes. Some Calvinists can be extreme and thus unresponsive to the evangelistic realities of Scripture and obvious human need. Some non-Calvinists can be simplistic and dismissive of the clear scriptural warrant for dealing honestly with such biblical ideas as election, predestination, human inability, and implications of divine sovereignty. He discussed the tension involved in divine sovereignty and human responsibility, gave a brief outline of the “Five Points,” and delivered a biblical and pastoral defense of “Eternal Security/Perseverance of the Saints.” He pointed to Charles Spurgeon as one who maintained a proper emphasis on both divine sovereignty and human responsibility (42–53).

Many other fine articles [e.g. Steve Lemke’s article on “Education,” Joseph Woodell on “Scripture,” Doug Blount on “God,” Jerry Johnson on “Religious Liberty,” and others] grace this volume. Its strongest feature may be the opportunities that it will provide for denomination-wide substantial theological critical enquiry. We should seek to evoke this in our respective spheres of influence.

Now back to the George/Dockery booklet. They not only provide occasion for discussion, but make specific proposals that call for serious engagement. David Dockery calls for a new consensus in Southern Baptist life that will unite seven different groups that participated in the “Conservative Resurgence.” He identified these, including short and appropriate definitions, as Fundamentalists, Revivalists, Traditionalists, Orthodox Evangelicals, Calvinists, Contemporary church Practitioners and Culture Warriors. With the breakdown of the cultural and programmatic consensus that so clearly defined Southern Baptists for fifty years of the twentieth century, the present circumstance of theological tension calls for a “new Consensus to point us toward renewal in the 21st Century” (25). In doing this Dockery said, “We will need to distinguish between markers of Southern Baptist identity and markers of Southern Baptist consistency” (30). I confess, I am not sure what this distinction would look like. The result of this distinction, however, he identified as concentration on “primary and core convictions” without ignoring “necessary boundaries.”

Dockery then suggested twelve points of proposal for a new consensus. These twelve points undulate in a basically triadic movement between affirmation of the truthfulness of Scripture, going beyond the mere affirmation of Scripture to “commit ourselves foremost to the gospel,” and realization that we can not find unity if we try to demand doctrinal uniformity by going beyond “first order gospel issues.” He mentioned, more than once, the necessity of avoiding demands about “secondary and tertiary” issues. He wants both a formal principle and a material principle for renewal, he wants a center and a circumference for doctrinal confession, but he does not want a “straight jacket” created by demand for doctrinal uniformity in violation of the “considerable diversity” historically reflected among Southern Baptists. The real sticky part of creating a consensus on Dockery’s foundation is the discovery of what all of the seven groups are willing to call secondary and tertiary issues. Presumably, given the emphasis on the Bible and that those “beliefs that rest firmly on scriptural foundations can be regarded as binding on Southern Baptists,” nothing that is the legitimate child of biblical exegesis can be regarded as secondary or tertiary.

Methodologically, two approaches suggest themselves. One, we could start over with no stated doctrines and build a new statement of Christian faith for our generation using only our advanced status of the biblical text and our state of the art hermeneutics. Each generation would be encouraged to do this work all over for themselves. Two, we could begin with the present confessional status of Christianity and test each confessional article by examining its affirmations, and proof texts if there be any, in a rigorous exercise of biblical exegesis. As each article is affirmed or denied or amended exegetically with relative degrees of clarity and consensus, some nomenclature indicating primary through tertiary acceptability should be discussed and used to label each doctrine or acceptable variants on each doctrine.

Even though he is a profoundly careful New Testament exegete, other elements of Dockery’s suggestions indicate that he would be hesitant about option one and more receptive to option two in order to remain in dialogue with the church through the centuries. President Dockery’s article prompts theologians, and in fact every Christian, to ask what does it mean to be “grounded in the Gospel?” (32). What must be said about depravity and the way it is expressed in sin? In what sense are one’s depravity and his capability of “moral action” [a BF&M, article III idea] related? Is only a word, deed or purposeful thought considered a “moral action,” or is the indwelling propensity of heart a “moral action?” What must be said about election to reclaim a gospel of grace? Both biblical exegesis and the historic confessions draw us to the investigation and rightly call on us to give some precision to our faith at this point. If election depends on foreknowledge of a sinner’s faith, can one conceive of this as an action of divine grace or does it become a mere nullity, a pure irrelevancy? Is this a theological issue of primary, secondary or tertiary importance? What must be said about the death of Christ and how it inevitably invites discussion of the biblical ideas of substitution, propitiation, reconciliation, forgiveness, justification and redemption? Are all of these mere potentialities as a result of the death of Christ, or were they intrinsically involved in His vicarious suffering as His crowning act of obedience and the fountain of all other spiritual blessings? I hopefully submit that this is precisely what Dockery had in mind when he urged, “We need to commit ourselves foremost to the Gospel, the message of missions and evangelism, the message that is found only in Jesus Christ and His atoning death for sinners.” (35) Dockery also is right, showing that his biblical exegesis is informed by historical theology, to emphasize that this Jesus Christ is the one of the “orthodox tradition … recovered in conversation with Nicea, Chalcedon, Augustine, Bernard, Luther, Calvin, Wesley” and others. This is the only Jesus Christ, the one of the Bible, that can propitiate divine wrath, make forgiveness both gracious and just, reconcile the world to God, and through whose blood we have redemption. In fact, like His word of creation, as the Word of God, was necessarily effectual, His work of redemption has absolutely secured the “purchased possession.” I would suggest that such a person as Christ is could not have done what He did without its having absolutely invincible efficacy in perfect fulfillment of His Father’s will and to the perfect demonstration of the glory of the triune God.

A thoughtful discussion, therefore, of what is involved in a “reaffirmation of the Gospel center” (33) and some defined circumference (32) prompts one to consider how long the diameter must be from circumference to circumference in the confessional circle of Southern Baptists. The longer the diameter the more doctrines are included, the less persons can actually sign on, and the greater the unity within. The shorter the diameter, the less doctrines are included, the more people can sign on (if they would want to), and the more frustrating and superficial is the experience of unity. That is, unless one begins to minimize the importance of doctrines that he thinks are biblical by considering them secondary or tertiary. Southern Baptists in the twentieth century have gradually expanded the diameter on purely doctrinal issues and added articles on social, organizational, and ethical issues, which exponentially extends the sphere of biblical doctrine accounted as important for unity. Compared, however, with the confession that governed the majority of Baptist churches North and South in the 17th – 19th centuries, the Second London Confession [i.e. the Philadelphia and Charleston Association confessions] the diameter in purely doctrinal areas has severely shortened, both in clarity of definition and exegetical usefulness. So, is the call for consensus a call for more clearly defined unity by increasing both the number and the clarity of doctrinal confession; or a call for a more easily attained unity by decreasing the number of doctrines expounded and increasing their ambiguity. Within this unity, how much tolerance will be given to those who believe the confession, or some acceptable variant as speculated above, but think that much more is vitally important?

Timothy George’s article, “Was Jesus a Baptist?” includes a charming and moving personal testimony (37–41), an affirmation of the need for the conservative resurgence (41, 42), and a helpful agenda for achieving “the miracle of dialogue.” He summarized the purpose of his article in the provocative statement, “We will not meet tomorrow’s challenge by forgetting yesterday’s dilemma, but neither will we win tomorrow’s struggles by fighting yesterday’s battles” (42). He proposed “Retrieval for the Sake of Renewal,” “Particularity in the Service of Unity,” and “Humility in the Presence of the Holy.”

Under “Retrieval,” George highlighted the cantankerous issues of creedalism and Calvinism. He affirmed the use of confessions but cautioned against their tendency to choke and stultify when applied wrongly and issued the popular warning against magnifying secondary and tertiary issues to a place of primary importance. He affirmed his personal adherence to historic Baptist Calvinism but warned Calvinists against becoming real, as opposed to alleged, hyper-Calvinists. Thankfully, he also issued a strong warning against the tendency of Arminianism to become Pelagianism and soon to become a faith-denying liberalism (50).

Dr. George made a bold proposal at this point in the interest of facilitating the bridge-building atmosphere. “Let us banish the word ‘Calvinist’ from our midst,” he declared, for it has become the new n-word for some and an “unseemly badge of pride” for others. This proposal does not come from lack of awareness either of the dynamics of Baptist dialogue or of the importance of Calvin as a theologian. George knows as much about Calvin, and appreciates his influence, as any scholar in the world. But he believes that no Baptist is a strict follower of Calvin for the issues of church and state, infant, baptism, or Presbyterian polity as advocated by Calvin do not resonate with our sense of biblical truth. Like Dockery, George is interested in cultivating a culture of truth-telling in the context of mutual respect and earnest persuasion in the context of brother-love. He wants to talk about the most highly contested and deeply disturbing issues between Calvinists and non-Calvinists. He is not seeking to avoid the emerging issues of the neo-Controversy.

But the suggestion to avoid the word “Calvinist” seems to be both unrealistic and superficial. First, why does it seem unrealistic? When the word is as deeply entrenched in the history of Christianity, especially Protestantism, and the polemical side of Protestantism, and the English Puritan/Separatist/Baptist development, and is in the historical documents pervasively, how can the term be avoided? What would one designate as its replacement. Would contra-Remonstrant be satisfactory? Hardly. Would “those that believe the doctrines of grace” be a sufficiently manageable term? It has some merit but non-Calvinists might not want to concede as a term of party identification the words “doctrines of grace” to a party that they oppose in one or a number of doctrines, as if they reject grace in that particular case. Second, it seems superficial, because the objection to the word Calvinist is not a matter of the sound of the word or of the particular objectionable teachings George mentioned that all Baptists resist. When one speaks of Calvinism today in a Baptist context, especially among those involved in discussion about it, no one is thinking that Baptist Calvinists defend infant baptism or reject church-state separation or are wanting to surrender local church autonomy or pastoral accountability to a local congregation as a member of that congregation. But when one begins to speak of God’s gracious and sovereign election, established before the foundation of the world itself, of a fixed number of specific individuals unto salvation to be accomplished through the death, resurrection, ascension and intercession of his Son for those elect persons, what is that called? When one speaks of human sinfulness involving the captivity of the affections to such a degree that no sinner will, or can, repent of sin and place his trust in Christ alone for salvation apart from an omnipotent and effectual operation of the Spirit that calls, and thus grants, such a sinner genuine sorrow for sin and unrelenting faith in Christ, what does one call that? Some will think it is heresy and others will think it is lovely gospel truth, but all will call it Calvinism. Not the name, but the doctrine constitutes the point of contention.

I agree that we need not prejudice the effectiveness of dialogue by the insistent use of a label, but some usefulness at least must be discerned in a summary word that encapsulates a substantial body of doctrine. When Jonathan Edwards published Freedom of the Will, he explained his choice of the words “Arminian” and “Calvinist” for the purposes of less awkward discussion. Noting that some claim that “the keeping up such a distinction of names, has a direct tendency to uphold distance and disaffection, and keep alive mutual hatred among Christians, who ought all to be united in friendship and charity, though they cannot in all things think alike,” he admitted that “there are some unhappy consequences of this distinction of names.” He felt that the objections were “carried far beyond reason,” however, for succinct designations give quick and easy signification to our minds, “and our speech is delivered from the burden of a continual reiteration of diffuse descriptions, with which it must otherwise be embarrassed.” Then, after explaining that he meant no reproach by using the term “Arminian” instead of some circumlocution or other designation likely to be taken as the product of an ill-temper, he observed a notable situation relevant to the Southern Baptist dilemma. “However, the term Calvinistic is, in these days, among most, a term of greater reproach than the term Arminian; yet I should not take it at all amiss, to be called a Calvinist, for distinction’s sake; though I utterly disclaim a dependence on Calvin, or believing the doctrines which I hold, because he believed and taught them; and cannot justly be charged with believing in every thing just as he taught.” We simply view the words as convenient descriptions of doctrine with which we might agree or disagree, but not as insults.

George’s call for particularity in service of unity issues several compelling challenges. Every follower of Christ must cultivate an appreciation and respond positively when another speaks honestly and transparently in an attempt to advance the truth. In addition, every Christian must speak the truth and argue for a truth that assumes a love for each follower of Christ, accepts the reality that everyone born of God loves the truth, and excludes the embracing of error. The long-term goal George envisions is unity, for how can we come to agree if we do not know the points at which we clearly disagree. All of this takes place in a context of love sobered with the realization of our own sinfulness, proneness to error, and need of constant streams of grace. In this context, a sobering stewardship necessitates the courage and skill to realize where one has gone outside the zone of acceptability and must be seen as an enemy of the cross of Christ, or a preacher of another gospel, not to be encouraged or embraced in Christian fellowship, but opposed.

His call for humility in the presence of the holy should never be far from our consciousness. While we never underestimate the necessity of our faithfulness and the accountability that we have before God for the right disposition of our gifts, we should never overestimate our personal importance or consider our concerns as superior to those of others. The Bible not only gives us a system of truth, but insists that the effect of truth on the heart of the one that believes it is humility—“God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

The great theologian Charles Hodge, no compromiser of the truth but rigorous in his exposition of the historic Reformed faith, gives us a concept that might help us negotiate the kind of inter- and intra-denominational discussions that should regularly take place. “The true method in theology,” he asserted, “requires that the facts of religious experience should be accepted as facts, and when duly authenticated by Scriptures, be allowed to interpret the doctrinal statements of the Word of God.” He went on to say:

So legitimate and powerful is this inward teaching of the Spirit, that it is no uncommon thing to find men having two theologies,—one of the intellect, and another of the heart. The one may find expression in creeds and systems of divinity, the other in their prayers and hymns. It would be safe for a man to resolve to admit into his theology nothing which is not sustained by the devotional writings of true Christians of every denomination. It would be easy to construct from such writings, received and sanctioned by Romanists, Lutherans, Reformed, and Remonstrants [Arminians], a system of Pauline or Augustinian theology, such as would satisfy any intelligent and devout Calvinist in the world.” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:16, 17).

This issue of the Founders Journal will give a quick synopsis of the theological commitment of J. P. Boyce with some attention to his method—not exhaustively because I have not discussed his commitment to biblical exposition as the rock-bottom foundation of all theology or his view of the clarity of Scripture that undergirds much of his doctrinal formulation. Nevertheless, he stands as one theologian who can guide us in our search for a new consensus. He would say that it should look a whole lot like the old consensus. Included also is an article by Stephen Matteucci, a Southern Seminary student, on Calvin and prayer. When one grasps Calvin’s doctrine of prayer and its usefulness for Christian assurance and piety, who would not want to be a Calvinist in prayer. This lives in the realm of “heart” theology addressed by Hodge. Last, a Calvinist more infamous than respected because of the perpetuation of gross caricatures, Theodore Beza, gives the Christian a great sense of God’s deep care and concern for His people, in this world and the next. Shawn Wright, a valued colleague in the church history department of Southern Seminary who is doing more than anyone to dispel the pall of forbiddenness that has cloaked the name of Beza, shows how his theology, in this case his eschatological vision, demonstrates the deep intensity of his pastoral concern. Again, this is a kind of Calvinism to which every minister should aspire.

Let us go now to the pages before us and see what these classic Calvinists have to say to us about our Southern Baptist struggle.