During the half century that I have been connected with fundamentalism, crusading anti-Calvinism has been a recurring phenomenon. The first episode that I distinctly remember occurred within the Regular Baptist movement during the 1970s. An evangelist went on a tear against a proposal that would have inserted a mildly Calvinistic statement into the GARBC confession of faith. A few years later an independent Baptist evangelist published a small book about why he disagreed with all five points of Calvinism. Unfortunately, he defined Calvinism so badly that even Calvin would have disagreed with all five points.
Crusading anti-Calvinism still pops up every now and then. About a decade ago a Baptist association in Illinois passed a couple of resolutions that misrepresented Calvinism in terms that can only be called slanderous. Then about five years ago a couple of preachers used platforms provided by the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship to deliver dire warnings against Calvinism. Crusading anti-Calvinism is alive and well within fundamentalism.
To be fair, so is irascible Calvinism. For example, the aforementioned evangelist in the GARBC reacted so shrilly because the proposed addition to the doctrinal statement could have disenfranchised the less Calvinistic churches of the Regular Baptist fellowship. His concerns were underlined by the appearance of a book that questioned the Baptist standing of non-Calvinists. While his responses were certainly excessive, they were not groundless.
Some Calvinists treat the doctrines of grace as if they are the sum and substance of the faith. They seem to believe that a denial of any of the five points constitutes a denial of the gospel itself. They love to throw around epithets like “semi-Pelagianism” and to depict their non-Calvinistic interlocutors as either incompetent or nearly heretical.
The problem is not that one person advocates Calvinism while another person opposes it. All Christians have a duty to believe what they think Scripture teaches. All have a right to explain their point of view and to persuade others to it. They even have a right to structure occasions to dwell upon their unique theologies, encouraging one another in the doctrines that they take to be scriptural.
The problem is that none of the usual sides (there are more than two) in the argument over Calvinism has the right to question the Christian bona fides of those on the other side. None of the standard positions within fundamentalism results in a denial of the gospel. None of the standard positions necessarily truncates zeal for evangelism or missions. None of the standard positions necessarily denies the sovereignty of God or the completeness of grace in salvation. Most fellowships of fundamentalists have framed their confessional statements in rather general terms when it comes to this issue. Fundamentalists have not usually thought that the differences among Calvinists and their opponents were grounds for separation.
The dispute between Calvinists and anti-Calvinists has erupted again. This time, however, fundamentalists are not the ones who are bickering. The spat is taking place among conservative evangelicals, particularly Southern Baptists.
Calvinists have been in the vanguard of the conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention. They have been among the foremost proponents of the inerrancy of Scripture. They have led the way in cleansing institutions of liberals and so-called moderates.
Of course, they have not done this work alone. They worked in company with other prominent conservatives, and some of those have now begun to object to Calvinism. As the liberals and moderates have been pushed out, these anti-Calvinists have become increasingly concerned about the influence of Calvinism within the convention. Their concerns have finally spilled out in a document entitled “A Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.”
The “Statement” is as extreme as anything that fundamentalists have produced. It essentially accuses Calvinists of plotting to take over the Southern Baptist Convention. It reacts against Calvinism, not merely by denying limited atonement, unconditional election, and irresistible grace, but even by denying total depravity and (as it is usually understood) original sin. While the signatories acknowledge that each person inherits a “nature and environment inclined toward sin,” they deny that “Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned.” All people who are capable of moral action do indeed sin, but they do not actually become guilty until they personally decide to sin.
Such assertions go much further than traditional Arminianism. They represent a kind of hyper-Arminian approach to anti-Calvinism that can hardly avoid provoking a response. Predictably, some Calvinists have begun to accuse the signatories of semi-Pelagianism. Also predictably, the signatories and their defenders have reacted indignantly. They are not semi-Pelagians, they insist—but even if they were (they ask), is semi-Pelagianism such a bad thing?
Some of the most interesting observations have come from Roger Olson of Baylor University, who is decidedly not in sympathy with convention conservatives. Olson has written extensively in defense of Arminianism. One of his recent books is entitled Against Calvinism, so there is little doubt about Olson’s own views. Yet he has irritated some signatories and their defenders by admitting that some of the assertions in the “Statement” actually are semi-Pelagian.
One of the most irenic evaluations has come from Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary. Mohler is a strong Calvinist who disagrees with the “Statement.” Nevertheless, he points out that the Southern Baptist Convention has been committed to a good bit of latitude on questions about Calvinism. Mohler believes that it is possible to address these questions theologically without making them into a political issue.
Fundamentalism has seen periodic eruptions both of crusading anti-Calvinism and of irascible Calvinism. As the current fracas within the SBC shows, however, these spats are not the sole provenance of fighting fundamentalists. It should be interesting to observe whether conservative evangelicals can avoid turning this dispute into a gutter brawl. Early signs are not promising, but voices like Mohler’s may yet bring sobriety to the discussion.
The Son of God Goes Forth to War
Reginald Heber (1783-1826)
The Son of God goes forth to war,
A kingly crown to gain;
His blood-red banner streams afar:
Who follows in His train?
Who best can drink his cup of woe,
Triumphant over pain,
Who patient bears his cross below,
He follows in His train.
The martyr first, whose eagle eye
Could pierce beyond the grave,
Who saw his Master in the sky,
And called on Him to save;
Like Him, with pardon on his tongue
In midst of mortal pain,
He prayed for them that did the wrong:
Who follows in his train?
A glorious band, the chosen few
On whom the Spirit came,
Twelve valiant saints, their hope they knew,
And mocked the cross and flame:
They met the tyrant’s brandished steel,
The lion’s gory mane;
They bowed their necks the death to feel:
Who follows in their train?
A noble army, men and boys,
The matron and the maid,
Around the Saviour’s throne rejoice,
In robes of light arrayed:
They climbed the steep ascent of heav’n
Through peril, toil and pain:
O God, to us may grace be giv’n
To follow in their train.