A few days ago on Facebook Baptist historian Bart Barber called attention to Here’s The Point: Calvinists and Non-Calvinists in the SBC by Tom Nettles. In it Nettles asserts that “the loss of Calvinism in issues concerning election, depravity, and effectual calling paralleled the loss of inerrancy and soteriological exclusivity” in the Southern Baptist Convention. He posits that “Traditional” non-Calvinistic soteriology leads to bad theology. Barber disagreed, stating that Nettles’ piece was “Better proof that Calvinism can lead to bad polemics than that non-Calvinism leads to bad theology.”
I agree with Bart Barber. Nettles’ thesis does not prove that the shift away from Calvinism caused or was a major contributor to the rise of “liberalism” in the Southern Baptist Convention. If the move to “Traditional” soteriology were the cause, then similar liberalism should be found in other Baptist groups which were connected to Southern Baptists when the soteriological shift occurred.[i] Barber notes: “Correspondence ≠ Causality. Yes, Southern Baptists moved away from Calvinism in the same time frame as when they moved away from biblical inerrancy, but at the same time the BMAA, ABA, IBFs, and other Baptists in exactly the same milieu moved away from Calvinism without moving away from biblical inerrancy at all.” It would not be hard to prove that the churches of the ABA, BMAA, and IBFs – most of which were part of the Convention until early in the 20th century – all moved to the same soteriological position that rejected unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace. Yet none of them suffered from the same kind of liberal infection as the Southern Baptists. Since all these groups were moving along the same soteriological trajectory as Southern Baptists, it is hard to blame either the trajectory or the results on Southern Baptist theologians.[ii]
I agree with some of the things Nettles states in the essay, but disagree with his general conclusion.[iii]
This subject also brought to my mind the question, “What was/were the cause/causes of the Baptist shift from a fervent stand on the doctrines of particular grace to a dominant view embracing free will and general atonement?”
If I understand Bart correctly, he believes that the Baptist shift was part of a larger general cycle within Christianity in the United States. He explains, “I think Christianity tends to alternate phases of more intellectual and more emotional aspects of its existence. Together with the rise of Pentecostalism, I think the move away from an arid Calvinism represents a turn toward a more practical or emotional Christianity.”
I accept the usefulness of that observation. Moving beyond the general trend in Christianity, what specifically was at work on the majority of U. S. Baptists – the Regular Baptists who held the doctrines of grace (also known as TULIP or Calvinism)?
- The possibility that some of these Regular Baptists nominally held the doctrines of grace, but were not consistent, clear and firm in their teaching of them.
- The anti-creedalism of the Separate Baptists, who merged with these Regular Baptists toward the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. Though they were generally predestinarians like the Regular Baptists, they would not commit to “man-made” confessions like the Second London or Philadelphia Confessions.
- The influence of the evangelism of revivalists like Finney and Moody on these Regular Baptists. Probably the Frontier Revivalism of the early 1800s should also be included. Those who came into Baptist churches from these revivals might be predisposed to favor such methods and find them more compatible with a “free will” theology.
- The removal from these Regular Baptists of an aggregation of doctrinally strong predestinarian churches in the so-called missions/anti-missions schism. [iv]
- The “Spirit” of the American experiment, emphasizing freedom and individualism, seemed to fit better into a system of free will than unconditional election – influencing some of these Regular Baptists either directly (causes change) or indirectly (causes re-evaluation).
In the above suggestions I did not include anything like “changing views due to the study of the Bible/New Testament.” I do not exclude the fact that these people changed from a view they thought the Bible did not teach to a view they thought the Bible did teach. Most would earnestly profess that to be their case. But in the above list I am suggesting outside means that may have been at work with, without or in addition to this factor. Perhaps these ideas might help in considering the history of the shift from high predestinarianism to libertarian free will among a majority of Baptists in America.
[i] It is interesting to see in Baptist history that some of the non-cooperative (with the conventions) Old School predestinarian churches/associations were also moving to a more open, less-restrictive theology of salvation near the end of the 19th century.
[ii] For example, Nettles indicts Southern Baptist theologian W. O. Carver in his essay. Nettles says that Carver’s influence moved Southern Baptists “beyond Calvinism” also led them “beyond inerrancy.”
[iii] I would attribute part of the rise of liberalism in the Southern Baptist Convention to what I call “shift of center.” The extremes on either end of a group of churches keep a tension on the center – as extremes break off, the center shifts. The loss of the “anti-mission” churches was a shift of center that could affect the SBC, even though it occurred prior to its constitution. Another of these shifts was the loss of many Landmark and Gospel Missions churches at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Many Fundamentalists withdrew early in the 20th century. These churches agreed or tended to agree with general position on the atonement, so their removal did little to nothing to shift the SBC view of salvation. But Landmarkers and Fundamentalists were leading contenders against liberal viewpoints – so their presence kept the tension pulled toward conservative and their loss shifted the center away from conservative – leaving a void for more liberal views to take a firm hold. Landmarkers and Fundamentalists have proved in the 20th century that they can be progressive – but they hardly ever can be liberal! When Daniel Parker contended against the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions innovation he declared, “These errors have nearly all originated amongst the wise and learned.” The later errors of liberalism – denying biblical inerrancy, the exclusivity of the Christian faith, ex nihilo creation and such like – would rise out of the centers of education in the Southern Baptist Convention rather than the churches. The “Conservative Resurgence” is a high point in Southern Baptist history that reversed this liberal trend. Despite the shifts of center and rise of liberalism, the SBC was strong enough at the core that it could bring the theology of its churches to the front rather than fall to the liberalism as had every other major mainline denomination in the United States.
[iv] The anti-missions/missions split was an ecclesiological/methodological schism. Daniel Parker’s A Public Address to the Baptist Society (1820) is good evidence of this. He argues against the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions on ecclesiological rather than soteriological grounds. Not-so-much-Calvinists (e.g. J. R. Graves) and Non-Calvinists (e.g. Ben M. Bogard) would later take similar positions against mission boards and methods. Both The Kehukee Declaration (1827) and The Black Rock Address (1832) – documents criticizing the missions movement – also focus on matters of practice rather than soteriology. Across the span of time from the pointing out of problems with the “mission system” to the point of division, the “anti-missions” side of the controversy consistently perceived the problem to be the adoption of practices not justified by the teachings of the New Testament. This does not preclude the fact that the “anti-missions” side might have more appeal to the extreme for predestinarianism while the “missions” side might have more appeal to the extreme against predestinarianism, so that these extremes naturally gravitated to one side or the other.