Southern Baptists debate Calvinism: how do we decide what issues are important?

The Southern Baptists have been debating Calvinism and Arminianism again, and the matter was addressed at the recent historic meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). As the Baptist Press reports,

The issue of Calvinism also was addressed from the platform several times, with each speaker urging messengers to remain united for the Great Commission. Executive Committee President Frank Page — who said he’s not a Calvinist — addressed each side of the debate. He told the non-Calvinists: “There seems to be some non-Calvinists who are more concerned about rooting out Calvinists than they are about winning the lost for Christ.” He then addressed Calvinists, some of whom he said “seem to think that if we do not believe the same thing about soteriology that they believe then somehow we are less intelligent or ignorant.” Soteriology is the study of the doctrine of salvation.

The article quotes the outgoing SBC president Bryant Wright:

“Our calling is to be centered on Christ and grounded in the Word, while agreeing to disagree on the finer points of theological issues,” Wright said. “May we all agree that Christ … has given us a very clear message and mission for the church.”

Wright added, “If we pride ourselves more on being a traditional Southern Baptist or more on being a Calvinist or a Reformed theologian, more than we are thankful that we are Christ-centered and biblically based … then it is time to repent of theological idolatry.”

For Reformed and Presbyterian Christians this attitude to Calvinist soteriology is quite interesting. Many Calvinists tend to view the “Five Points of Calvinism” (really the five points of the 17th Century Synod of Dort) as the heart of the gospel rather than as the “finer points of theological issues.” We are often more willing to allow divergence of opinion on the sacraments than on predestination. We are more likely to work closely with Reformed Baptists than with Methodists.

But the Southern Baptists see things differently. In his Imagine! A God-Blessed America Richard Land, the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, distinguishes between primary, secondary, and tertiary issues that divide Christians. Among primary issues, on which there can be no compromise, he lists doctrines like the resurrection of Jesus. Among secondary issues, on which Christians divide denominationally while affirming one another as true Christians, he mentions doctrines like baptism. Among tertiary issues, on which Christians may disagree but should not divide, he lists controversies like Calvinism versus Arminianism. For Baptists, in other words, the sacraments are more important than the debate over predestination.

At first glance John Calvin actually seems to agree with Land. In the Institutes Calvin argues that one may only leave a church if that church shows itself to be a false church, and a church can only be said to be false if it fails to preach the gospel or to properly administer the sacraments. Calvin even clarifies that a church may have many doctrinal problems but that as long as the gospel is preached, believers should not separate from it. From this angle, at least, it seems like Calvin may have been willing to be a Methodist, but that he could not have been a Baptist.

Of course, Reformed believers might quickly respond that the Five Points are essential to the right preaching of the gospel, and that although Baptists do not baptize infants, they still administer the sacrament correctly in virtually all other respects. And I have no disagreement with this claim. My point is not to say that we should not be committed to the Five Points, or that Baptist churches are not true churches. Let me be clear for the record, I would never make that argument, and in fact, I have argued in print against others who do. Many of the best preachers of the gospel are Baptists and one of the most faithful and enriching congregations I have ever worshiped in regularly was Baptist. I am not trying to be critical of the Baptists; on the contrary, I am trying to learn from them.

It is helpful sometimes to reflect on how we determine what doctrinal issues are important. Is predestination really more important than infant baptism? Why do the Baptists (and many other denominations) see it differently? If anything, I suspect we tend to exaggerate the importance of theological formulations concerning salvation and to underestimate the importance of the appointed means of grace in the church. After all, Jesus never outlined the Five Points as such (though I agree, he and his apostles did teach them, as should we). He did give us the sacrament of baptism.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 25, 2012, in Calvinism, Southern Baptist Convention and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Southern Baptists debate Calvinism: how do we decide what issues are important?.

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