Reflecting on the SBC Calvinism Advisory Committee’s Report

Introduction

The Calvinism Advisory Committee, organized in August 2012 by Frank S. Page, issued their final report “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension.”  For quite some time it appeared as though tensions over soteriology would lead to a significant and potentially damaging conflict within the SBC.[1]  Southern Baptists should be very excited to read this report and see how the findings of this committee will lead to a stronger SBC unified around theological commonalities, as defined by The Baptist Faith and Message, and the Great Commission.

Summary

There is a lot to be thankful for in this report.  The report begins with a helpful explanation of and commitment to the source of Southern Baptist unity.

Southern Baptists are Great Commission people. We are also a doctrinal people, and those doctrinal convictions undergird our Great Commission vision and passion. We are a confessional people, who stand together upon the doctrines most vital to us all, confessed together in The Baptist Faith and Message.

Within this common confession, we sometimes disagree over certain theological issues that should not threaten our Great Commission cooperation. . .  It is, therefore, our responsibility to come together with open hearts and minds in order to speak truthfully, honestly, and respectfully about these theological and doctrinal issues that concern us, threaten to divide us, and compel us into conversation. Such engagement is appropriate at every level of Southern Baptist life including local congregations, associations, state conventions, and the Southern Baptist Convention.

The committee then introduces and summarizes their findings,

Four central issues have become clear to us as we have met together. We affirm together that Southern Baptists must stand without apology upon truth; that we do indeed have some challenging but not insurmountable points of tension; that we must work together with trust; and that we must encourage one another to testimony.

In what follows they elucidate the truth that unifies, explain the points of tension, affirm that which builds trust while denying that which betrays it, and proclaim the gospel as the unifying word of our testimony.

The report then concludes with several points of encouragement.

Where do we go from here? We must celebrate the unity we share together in our common Great Commission purpose, while acknowledging and celebrating variety among us. We must clarify the parameters of our cooperation where necessary but stand together without dispute. . .

We should call upon all Southern Baptists to promote the unity we share within The Baptist Faith and Message and, while recognizing that most Southern Baptists will believe and teach more than what that confession contains, we must never believe or teach less. . .

In order to prevent the rising incidence of theological conflict in the churches, we should expect all candidates for ministry positions in the local church to be fully candid and forthcoming about all matters of faith and doctrine, even as we call upon pulpit and staff search committees to be fully candid and forthcoming about their congregation and its expectations. . .

We must stand together in rejecting any form of hyper-Calvinism that denies the mandate to present the offer of the Gospel to all sinners or that denies the necessity of a human response to the Gospel that involves the human will. Similarly, we must reject any form of Arminianism that elevates the human will above the divine will or that denies that those who come to faith in Christ are kept by the power of God. . .

Finally, the report concludes,

We have learned that we can have just this kind of conversation together, and we invite all Southern Baptists to join together in this worthy spirit of conversation. But let us not neglect the task we are assigned. The world desperately needs to hear the promise of the Gospel.

Evaluation

While the report is encouraging and rightfully explains why Baptists can, and indeed should, maintain unity despite theological differences the report’s language leaves considerable doubt as to whether or not any real unity will result from its publication.  The committee was comprised of a wonderful balance of influential pastors and scholars which makes the lack of balance in the language used even more surprising. At any rate there are several critical reasons why the text’s language betrays its intentions.  After listing these reasons this author will lay fourth a series of suggestions as to how the language of this report should be altered to achieve greater balance which will be followed by some concluding remarks on the report as a whole.

Linguistic Imbalance

First, the committees name is profoundly misleading and betrays the unity which this statement aims to bring about.  The title Calvinism Advisory Committee seems to indicate that the problem is Calvinism and Baptists must find out what to do with it.  This is more clearly seen in the statement “significant theological disagreement on such issues has occurred with respect to Calvinism.”  There is a disagreement about Calvinism and therefore Calvinism is problematic.

Second, throughout the article the conflict is phrased as being between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.  The only point within the text that Arminianism is mentioned is in reference to a denial of what appears to be openness theology.  This would appear to give the impression that you have Calvinists one the one hand and then normal Christians on the other.  The constant and consistent use of non-Calvinism would seem to indicate that Calvinism is some sort of aberration when compared to traditional or normal Baptist belief.

Thirdly, if the report had been issued by the Arminianism Advisory Counsel and was written to address tensions and the transcendent source of unity between Arminians and non-Arminians the language would remain just as imbalanced as it currently stands.

A Better Way Forward

First, and foremost it must be acknowledged that Calvinism is no more the problem than Arminianism.  The problem is not that these positions exist or even that both of these positions can be held by individuals who affirm The Baptist Faith and Message.  The problem is that tension exists between Baptists who hold to these two theological positions; specifically as it pertains to particular points of their respective soteriology.  With that in mind it might have better expressed the reality of these tensions and maintained less biased language if the committee were called the Soteriological Advisory Committee.  That would have correctly pointed us to the real issue; tensions created by the wide range of Soteriological positions allowed within The Baptist Faith and Message.  That would have prevented the blame from being placed upon any group as the source of the problem.  This also serves to reinforce our unity, encourage cooperation, and promote trust as we have Soteriological unity in our common confession of The Baptist Faith and Message despite our difference around certain particulars.

Second, as noted above the problem is not Calvinism but rather theological tensions resulting from varying positions on soteriology.  As such the article cannot phrase the tension in the misleading terms of Calvinism and non-Calvinism but must rephrase it in terms of soteriological difference.  The authors could, of course, rephrase it in terms of Calvinism and Arminianism, or Arminianism and Calvinism, as this would be an honest explanation of the two main systems of thought between which these tensions exist.

Finally, the authors note “We affirm that, from the very beginning of our denominational life, Calvinists and non­Calvinists have cooperated together.”  This further confirms the first critique and reaffirms the necessity of the first suggestion.  The problem is not Calvinism, nor is it Arminianism as they have been a part of the SBC’s denominational life since its inception.  This also both confirms the second critique and demonstrates the necessity of the second suggestion.  As Calvinism has been a part of the SBC since its inception and therefore it cannot be the cause of this tension it is incredibly misleading to phrase the tension in terms of Calvinism and non-Calvinism.

Conclusion

With such a long history of cooperation between Arminians and Calvinists there must be other factors at play to create the current levels of tension beyond mere theological difference.  If these two groups have cooperated to fulfill the great commission in affirmation of common theological bonds “from the very beginning of our denominational life” then any explanation that fails to discuss what recent change has occurred to disrupt this longstanding peaceful cooperation and raise tension levels to their current position is simply inadequate.  That is the ultimate weakness of this document.  It fails to perceive the heart attitudes and actions which have led to this current situation and since these attitudes and actions are not mentioned they cannot be corrected which really leaves us in a slightly better place than where we began because at least now there is dialog, regardless of how helpful it may prove to be.


[1]For more information on the history of this committee I would recommend reading “Finding a Way Forward: Calvinism Advisory Group Presents Report to EC’s Frank S. Page.”

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3 thoughts on “Reflecting on the SBC Calvinism Advisory Committee’s Report

  1. Layman’s worthless commentary: Paul admonished the Church, whose small groups had already developed widely different doctrines, to continue meeting together, serve and encourage one another, and be like Jesus. If people in the same denomination–both affirming a fairly detailed doctrinal statement like the BFM– can’t get along to the point where they have to have a committee to start a dialog, then what hope is there of having unity and cooperation in the Great Commission with other Christians? I hope and pray that the resources and minds devoted to this task don’t take away from those resources and minds sharing the Gospel.

  2. Exceptionnoted,
    I think there have been numerous statements from various leaders, poor arguments, and misleading representations on both sides of the argument that have created the present tesion. I would argue that certain leaders from one of these two camps have done much to escalate this tension. I am not sure why this has occurred or what their motives were but it is unfortunate.

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