500 years later, theological debate still simmers, splitting Southern Baptists

Saturday, June 8, 2013 at 8:49pm

Is God's saving grace free to anyone who accepts Jesus, or did God predestine certain people for heaven and hell before the beginning of the world? That's a 500-year-old question, but it is creating real divisions in 2013 in the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

Calvinism is named for the 16th Century theologian John Calvin. Among other things, it teaches that Jesus died only for those who have been elected by God for salvation. That idea does not sit well with many non-Calvinist Baptists, who believe Jesus died for the whole world.

Some of the theological differences between Calvinists and non-Calvinists can get pretty far into the weeds, but what may seem an arcane controversy has become very heated, especially over the past few months.

In January, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Louisiana College, Joe Aguillard, wrote in his "President's Pen" column, "My love for all Baptists including Calvinists, does not constitute our approval of its being advocated at Louisiana College."

That came at the same time three Calvinist-leaning professors learned that their contracts would not be renewed. Although Aguillard has not given a reason for the dismissals, many people have connected them to the column.

On blog posts, some defended the move, citing it as payback for an inclination at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., to hire Calvinists over non-Calvinists.

More fuel was added to the fire when the SBC's Campbellsville University declined to renew a professor's contract this spring. Although there was little evidence, observers speculated online that it was because the professor espoused Calvinist views.

Scott McConnell, vice-president of research for the Southern Baptist's Lifeway Research group, said one of the reasons that such a theological debate can seem divisive to an outsider is because Southern Baptists are used to being very united on doctrinal issues.

"From my perspective as a researcher, when we ask many questions of Southern Baptist pastors, they are usually in the same space. ...Typically we see nine out of ten or 95 percent agreeing to something."

It's not exactly clear why the debate is ramping up now, considering Baptists in general have been divided about the issue since at least the 17th century, said Bill Leonard, a professor of Baptist studies at Wake Forest University.

Leonard thinks part of the reason this debate is gaining traction now is because Southern Baptist leaders have purged the denomination of theological liberals and many moderates over the past 30 years. Part of the way they did that was by embracing the inerrancy of the Bible.

"Once you have this ironclad doctrine of inerrancy, it's not going to be long before some people feel the need for theological inerrancy."

Or, as faith and culture writer Jonathan Merritt puts it: "Most Southern Baptists believe the Bible is infallible and inerrant and now some Southern Baptists act as if they are infallible and inerrant."

When Lifeway polled Southern Baptist pastors about Calvinism last year, 30 percent said their churches were Calvinist.

"That's a lot of folks on the other side of the fence," McConnell said.

Thomas Kidd, a professor of history at Baylor University, said the disagreement is especially alarming to some Southern Baptists because of their beliefs about the Bible.

"For people who are evangelical and believe the Bible is true in every word, it leads people to assume that on doctrinal issues there will be agreement. If the Bible is true, then it should give us clear guidance on every issue," Kidd said.

The conflict could continue to grow as the next generation of pastors takes over. The Lifeway poll found 8 percent of pastors overall strongly agreed that they were Calvinists, but among those pastors aged 18 to 44, 18 percent identified strongly as Calvinists. Among those 65 and older the number was just 1 percent.

The Lifeway poll also found that 61 percent of pastors were concerned about the impact of Calvinism on the SBC.

Evangelism is a huge focus of Southern Baptist life and some non-Calvinists worry that the belief in predestination is incompatible with spreading the gospel.

"People involved will always say, 'If you believe in Calvinism, you don't believe in evangelism. If you believe everything is predetermined, why even bother to preach the gospel?" Kidd said. "But as it turns out, Calvinists have never acted that way in the Southern Baptist Convention."

On Friday, a special advisory committee to SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page issued a statement meant to bring the two sides together and chart a way forward.

The statement comes just ahead of the SBC's annual meeting in Houston on June 11 and 12. Among other things, it seeks to reassure non-Calvinists on the issue of evangelism, stating, "We affirm the church's duty to obey Christ by preaching the Gospel to all the nations and by making disciples who obey all that Christ has commanded."

Reaction to the statement, published in the journal SBC Life, was cautiously optimistic.

"There's going to be less consensus in the future, so people are going to have to get really comfortable with disagreeing about these issues," said Collin Garbarino, an assistant history professor at Houston Baptist University. "The latest document tries to do that, to say it's OK not to have that 95 percent consensus."

But he added, "On both sides there are going to be certain individuals who are not satisfied and who want to draw lines in the sand about what it means to be a Baptist and what it doesn't mean. And they tend to be noisy and tend to have blogs that get a lot of traffic."

11 Comments on this post:

By: pswindle on 6/8/13 at 11:04

It is what one wants to believe. Can it be proven one way or the other? The Bible is a big contradiction.

By: govskeptic on 6/9/13 at 8:46

A leap of faith is too much for the smallest of brains as well as many of the largest.

By: daytonsdarwin on 6/9/13 at 11:30

As someone else said in summing up Christian beliefs:

God said, "I'm going to create man and woman with original sin. Then I'm going to impregnate a woman with myself as her child, so that I can be born. Once alive, I will kill myself as a sacrifice to myself. To save you from the sin I originally condemned you to. Ta dah!!!"

Arguing over Calvinism verses evangelism is like arguing whether Humpty Dumpty was pushed or accidentally fell. When you're discussing imaginary characters like Jehovah, Allah, Yahweh, Elmer Fudd or Humpty Dumpty, it doesn't matter.

It's time to give up religious superstitions.

By: global_citizen on 6/10/13 at 8:17

Considering how petty theological differences of opinion escalate into major rifts that divide and alienate close friends and family, I feel sorry for anyone who takes this mythological nonsense seriously.

By: TITAN1 on 6/10/13 at 9:45

I feel sorry for anyone who mocks God. Pswindle, where does the Bible contradict itself? Before you answer, please tell me you know the difference between Old Testament customs and laws.

By: Blanketnazi2 on 6/10/13 at 9:50

PSA 145:9 The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.

JER 13:14 And I will dash them one against another, even the fathers and the sons together, saith the LORD: I will not pity, nor spare, nor have mercy, but destroy them.

By: Blanketnazi2 on 6/10/13 at 9:52

ISA 14:21 Prepare slaughter for his children for the iniquity of their fathers; that they do not rise, nor possess the land, nor fill the face of the world with cities.

DEU 24:16 The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.

By: Blanketnazi2 on 6/10/13 at 9:56

"And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven." (2KI 2:11)

"No man hath ascended up to heaven but he that came down from heaven, ... the Son of Man." (JOH 3:13)

By: global_citizen on 6/10/13 at 12:42

Well, Titan, you issued a challenge that is pretty easy to address (but will surely be ignored and dismissed by you). The biblical apologetics business strains credulity, but nonetheless continues to be very popular among true believers. Gee, where to begin.

First of all, how did God make plants grow before he created the sun? Oh, right, he's omnipotent.

Next, where did Jesus, Mary, and Joseph go right after Jesus was born? Was it Egypt as it says in Matthew (to flee Herod), or was it Nazareth as it says in Luke? Oh, sure, some will say it could be both, that neither writer included ALL of Jesus' life in their account, by why would either overlook these important details when they cover so many other things in agreement?

Did the temple veil tear before Jesus breathed his last breath, or before? The gospels differ on this and it's not of trivial importance to those who believe strictly in an inerrant bible.

What did the women who discovered the empty tomb (who, by the way, differ according to each gospel) do once they found Jesus wasn't there? Did they run away and tell no one because they were afraid, as it says in Matthew, or were they overcome with joy and then ran to tell the good news to the apostles, as it says in the gospel of John?

Please tell us your take on why these are not contradictions.

By: Blanketnazi2 on 6/10/13 at 3:33

I guess Titan has taken a sabbatical.

By: daytonsdarwin on 6/10/13 at 5:08

Titan has been ruptured — I mean raptured.

For an interesting look at the Bible, try http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/