Gerald Harris, editor of the The Christian Index, the Georgia Southern Baptist newspaper, recently published the article “The Calvinists are here.”1 There have been two immediate responses to Harris’ piece including one by former Calvinist William Birch2 and an article in the Baptist Press in which some of the people mentioned by Harris answered his concerns.3 Harris’ article seems to be pieced together without a thesis. The article seems strung together by insinuations built upon a connect-the-dots type of guilt by association. In short, there is a lot to untangle in Harris’ article.
In the following response, which has been broken into two parts, I will attempt to untangle some of Harris’ insinuations and point out that his his dots do not actually connect to support insinuations that Calvinism is a problem. Sections of Harris’ article will be quoted and interacted with so this article will be long, but necessary.
Why is this response necessary?
This response is necessary for the sake of encouraging Southern Baptists from differing theological perspectives to move beyond casting judgements based upon personal bias. The response is necessary to encourage continuing working together for the sake of the gospel while embracing one another in Christ without questioning each others motives every step of the way. Remember, love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things (1 Cor. 13:7) and love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). I hold Mr. Harris as a brother in Christ who has served the body of Christ through the SBC for many years. Being the editor of a state Baptist paper, Mr. Harris has a large reach. I pray that his reach be better used to serve Southern Baptists in building bridges rather than widening gaps. Instead, what Harris has offered at this point does not help build up the body of Christ. It would be more beneficial if we Southern Baptists would start talking to each other instead at and past each other.
This article will attempt to give another perspective of what Harris insinuates as problematic for the SBC by examining the rest of the story.
The title of Harris’ article, “The Calvinists are here” may be the closest the reader comes to getting a thesis statement. Is Harris merely observing based on the title that Calvinists are present in the Southern Baptist Convention or Christendom? Were Calvinists absent for some time? Is Harris personally pro-Calvinist, anti-Calvinist or Calvinist neutral? Since his article is an opinion piece, what, exactly, is his opinion?
Mr. Harris begins his article by mentioning influential theologian John Calvin and the popularity of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination which Harris claims to be the foundation of Calvin’s theology. Whatever one believes about the foundation of Calvin’s theology is should noted that he wrote extensively on the topics of prayer and on the Holy Spirit.
Harris then summarizes the five points of Calvinism which arose after Calvin had gone to be the the Lord. As a Southern Baptist writing in a Southern Baptist paper, it may have served his fellow Baptists better had Harris pointed readers to the theology of the Southern Baptist Founders, some of whose work may be found online.4 This is not to say that Calvin did not influence both early and modern Southern Baptists, but the whole Protestant movement has influenced Southern Baptists.
In other words, why not start with the theology of those who actually started the Southern Baptist Convention? Is there a fear that informing Southern Baptists about SBC beginnings may possibly lead to people considering the theology of many of the Founders? Maybe Calvin is an easier example from which to encourage Baptists to distance themselves since he was a paedobaptist.
There are also those who hold to Reformed theology who believe limited atonement means that the death and resurrection of Christ is the substitutionary payment for the sins of only those who are God’s elect children, but not the entire world.
This statement is somewhat nuanced. Regardless of one’s theology, only the elect, i.e. those who believe the gospel, are ultimately the only ones to whom Christ’s substitutionary atonement will be applied. Granted, there are different understandings of how one is elected. Whether one believes, as James P. Boyce, that election is based on God’s will and not on foreseen faith; or that election is based on foreseen faith, the atonement will ultimately only be applied to the elect, universalism not withstanding.
Many who embrace Reformed theology are motivated to allow it to influence their church polity by substituting congregational church government with an elder system of church government.
This statement on church polity is also nuanced. This statement may lead readers to believe that any church with elders is operating like a Presbyterian church which is not the case. I have pointed out that current SBC President Bryant Wright, who is not a Calvinist, has an elder system of church government.5 Since it is not Reformed theology, what then is Wright’s influence for having elders in the local church? Why were no alarms sounded when he was first elected president? Even mega-church pastor Andy Stanley, son of famous Southern Baptist Charles Stanley, who could hardly be labeled as Reformed, serves North Point Community Church which has elders. Also, note that even early Anabaptists, with whom some Southern Baptists feel a spiritual kinship, had elders within their church polity.
While that works well for some churches, James MacDonald, a self-proclaimed Calvinist and member of the advisory board for LifeWay’s new Sunday School curriculum, writes, “Congregational government is an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ.”
First, James MacDonald recently shared that he was “never entirely comfortable with the title ‘reformed’” and would score no higher than 3.8 out of 5 points on the Calvinist test.6 MacDonald certainly did say that congregationalism is of Satan.7 Myself and several others reacted publicly to this charge on social media networks such as twitter. The most immediate and thorough response came from Calvinist writer Jonathan Leeman at the 9Marks blog.8 Many of MacDonald’s most vocal critics of have been Calvinists. Connecting the dots from MacDonald to Calvinism in an effort to seemingly discredit Calvinism does not hold. Therefore, Harris should not have a problem with Calvinism, but with MacDonald and LifeWay.
Let’s further consider the connection between MacDonald and LifeWay. I do not know why MacDonald was involved with LifeWay’s new curriculum. Hiring him is not something I would have done, but Harris seems to have missed something on his radar. See, 3.8 point Calvinist, MacDonald, along with Church of Christ pastor Max Lucado, are individually among the top-selling authors at LifeWay.9 Assuming Harris is worried about the theological content LifeWay makes available, it would seem that he would have been concerned prior to the new curriculum. Of course, the new curriculum is material printed with LifeWay’s name on it, but nonetheless LifeWay is a conduit for getting particular Bible studies in the hands of many Southern Baptists regardless of who publishes them. The average Southern Baptist who shops at LifeWay may be influenced by any and all products sold. Could there be any theological issues with certain authors due to their non-Calvinistic positions?
Harris next mentions Mark Dever’s article “Where’d All These Calvinists Come From?” which gives ten reasons Calvinism is re-emerging. Harris writes nothing else about Dever’s article other than to point it out. This may be one of the reasons why Harris’ article has been criticized as being pieced together. He then moves to Frank Page who said the following.
“I think the challenges confronting the SBC today are different than they have been in decades past. I think one of the issues, which is a tremendous challenge for us, is the theological divide of Calvinism and non-Calvinism.”
“Everyone is aware of this but few want to talk about this in public. The reason is obvious. It is deeply divisive in many situations and is disconcerting in others. At some point we are going to see the challenges ensuing from this divide become even more problematic for us. I regularly receive communications from churches who are struggling over this issue.”
The divide will continue if articles like Harris’ continue. Who is making Calvinism the divisive issue, Calvinists or non-Calvinists? Harris’ article should give the readers a hint.
Jerry Vines is quoted next with what seems to be contradictory positions on Calvinists. Since Harris is quoting Vines, does he hold the same opinion that Vines shares in the following quotes? The following replies are to Vines’ with Harris in mind as one who tacitly agrees.
“Theologically, will the issue of Calvinism create further division in the SBC? I have been an SBC preacher over 50 years. I have worked quite well with my Calvinist friends, many of whom I invited to preach for me. I have no desire to run all Calvinists out of the SBC; I think it would be divisive and wrong.”
Jerry Vines’ statements have drawn recent responses.10 Note that Vines has worked “quite well” with his Calvinist friends so why not model for the rest of us how to do so? While he states that has no desire to run all Calvinists out of the SBC, does he desire to run some of them out? Which ones and why? Would running only some Calvinists out of the SBC also be divisive and wrong?
Harris continues quoting Vines.
“But, current attempts to move the SBC to a Calvinistic soteriology (doctrine of salvation) are divisive and wrong. As long as groups and individuals seek to force Calvinism upon others in the Convention, there will be problems. There is a form of Calvinism that is militant, hostile and aggressive that I strongly oppose. I have stated before, so it’s not new news, that should the SBC move towards five-point Calvinism it will be a move away from, not toward, the Gospel.”
Who is attempting to move the entire SBC to a Calvinistic soteriology? I’m sure there is a form of militant, hostile and aggressive Calvinism, but who in the SBC is promoting such an animal? Is it also divisive and wrong, or possibly hostile and aggressive, to claim that a move toward Calvinism, a theology in which the SBC was rooted, is a move away from the gospel? What if someone started as a “one-point Calvinist” and gradually moved to two, and then three points? Does the acceptance of each point move this person further away from the gospel? Is it amazing to Vines/Harris that anyone is even saved in a church with a Calvinist preacher?
I digress. Harris continues.
According to LifeWay Research, the SBC’s, statistical arm, 10 percent of all SBC pastors now identify themselves as Calvinists and a third of recent graduates from SBC seminaries espouse Reformed doctrines, with Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY, a particular source.
The best I can tell is that the research to which Harris alludes is from a 2006 LifeWay study and a 2007 NAMB study.11 According to the studies, there are no percentages given to compare the differences by which each seminary is graduating Calvinists. Actually, on page 14 of the surveys, the SBC seminaries are listed in descending order in proportion to their graduates who are Calvinists. While Southern tops the list in the 2007 NAMB study followed by Midwestern, Golden Gate, Southwestern, New Orleans and Southeastern; the 2006 LifeWay study has Golden Gate leading the way followed by Southeastern, New Orleans, Southwestern, Midwestern, and, finally, Southern.
It would be surprising if The Gospel Project, a Sunday School curriculum for all ages that LifeWay will soon be rolling out, were not marked by an unmistakable Reformed theology…The advisory council and writers for The Gospel Project (including D.A. Carson, Matt Chandler, James MacDonald, Eric Mason, Joe Thorn, Juan Sanchez, Collin Hansen, former North American Mission Board missionary to the Internet Afshin Ziafat and Geoff Ashley – for the most part looks like a Who’s Who of Reformed theologians.
Why would it be surprising if The Gospel Project were not marked by an unmistakable Reformed theology? Trevin Wax, managing editor of “The Gospel Project” answered questions that speak to Harris’ allegations.12 One may either distrust Wax’s answers and believe he is lying or one may graciously accept that Wax is being truthful and is not trying to promote Reformed theology.
Speaking of divisiveness.
For what it’s worth…
- J. Gerald Harris. The Calvinists are here. The Christian Index. Full text may be found here: Georgia Index’s Gerald Harris on “The Calvinists are here”. ↩
- William Birch. The Calvinists Have Been Here… ↩
- Erin Roach. ‘Encroachment of Calvinism’ concerns editor. ↩
- Founders Library. founders.org ↩
- Southern Baptist Church Offices, Elders et al. ↩
- James MacDonald. Why I Resigned From The Gospel Coalition ↩
- Dr. James MacDonald. Congregational Government is From Satan. ↩
- Jonathan Leeman. Congregationalism Is Used by Satan…Like He Uses Everything Else. ↩
- Bible Study. LifeWay.com ↩
- A Response to Jerry Vines on Calvinism and Southern Baptists ↩
- Ed Stetzer. Calvinism and SBC Church Leadership:Key Findings and Evangelistic Implications. LifeWay Research. ↩
- Dave Miller. The Gospel Project: An Interview with Trevin Wax. SBCVoices.com ↩