Clarification to the Calvinist/Arminian Debate in the SBC

Posted: September 7, 2010 in Baptist, Calvinism, Dr. Jerry Vines, Dr. Ken Keathley, Dr. Malcom Yarnell, Dr. Paige Patterson, Dr. Steve Lemke, Reformed Doctrine, SBC Issues, Southern Baptist Convention, SWBTS, Theology

Just when one believes the Calvinist-Arminian Debate is over due to nausea induced arguments, along comes a voice of reason.  In the latest White Paper signed by Dr. Paige Patterson, Dr. David Allen, Dr. Malcolm Yarnell, Dr. Ken Keathley, Dr. Jerry Vines, Dr. Richard Land, and Dr. Steve Lemke, we have a Baptist position expressed by Baptist Theologians.  The point that appeals to this writer centers around the fact of who we are.  Whenever we modify Baptist with either Calvinist or Arminian we just left the central tenant of being a  Baptist-the Bible.  The authors of the White Paper certainly express this truth when they write;

As mission-minded and evangelistic Baptists, we are uncomfortable with moving too far beyond scriptural revelation into speculative theological models.

Dr. Vines referred to “simple biblicism” as the place we should remain with the debate.  With this in mind the White Paper reminds us there is an understanding that we have Calvinist Baptists along with Arminian Baptists within the SBC.  But, as the authors expressed:

We certainly believe that Baptists can be Calvinists and they can be Arminians, but we prefer not to allow ourselves to be defined by either of those great positions, because we see something even greater, something that deserves more attention and requires a higher allegiance. Likewise, theologians open to Molinism, such as Bruce Little and Ken Keathley, do their work with a firm commitment to evangelical Baptist convictions. What we are saying is that our own passion for God’s Word, for Christ and for His Great Commission necessarily places every desire for settling the long-running and seemingly intractable Calvinist-Arminian debate to the side. We recognize this is a debate that will continue to be held and should be held in certain restricted venues. However, the debate itself is trumped by our need to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ, to proclaim Scripture, and to obey His Great Commission. Moreover, we believe our position is the mainstream Southern Baptist position, as Richard Land said in his chapter, “the Separate Baptist Sandy Creek Tradition has been the melody for Southern Baptists, with Charleston and other traditions providing harmony” (50).

This article brings us back to the central tenet that is needed in this debate.

  1. Big Daddy Weave says:


    Would love to see you chime in here at Southern Baptist in NC on the latest CBF happenings in your own backyard. A CBF-NC steering committee has proposed a new Foundational Statement that is completely at odds with the current CBF-NC statement and the CBF (national) statement.

    The apparent purpose of this new statement was to articulate in detail what the CBF-NC was for, rather than against (meaning the SBC). In the process of doing that, the committee drafted a statement that throws the principle which we have moderates have regarded as “foundational” or the “cornerstone of our Baptist faith” completely under the bus.

    To put this in a SBC and distinctly North Carolina context, I guess the question begs: Why would CBFers in North Carolina put soul freedom front-and-center during the national controversy of the 1980s and state controversies of the 1990s if only to abandon it later for a completely different “re-envisioned” Baptist identity?

    Back in 1988, noted moderate Randall Lolley of your alma mater led a group to the Alamo to tear-up copies of Resolution #5 on the Priesthood of Believers. Now moderate North Carolina Baptists appear ready to adopt a statement that does away with the principles that Lolley and those protestors were standing up for!

    I’ve blogged about this at my site with more context:

  2. Dr. James Galyon says:

    I find it a bit ironic that the “simple biblicism” of the “Sandy Creek tradition” led the original Sandy Creek Baptists to formulate doctrines which were Calvinistic, Charismatic, and inclusive of female leadership. The preamble of the first covenant of the Sandy Creek Baptist Church affirms belief in “particular election of grace by the predestination of God in Christ; effectual calling by the Holy Ghost; free justification through the righteousness of Christ; progressive sanctification through God’s grace and truth; the final perseverance, or continuance of the saints in grace.” Article IV of The Principles of Faith of the Sandy Creek Association declares that the churches of that association affirmed “election from eternity, effectual calling by the Holy Spirit of God,” and that “they who are thus elected, effectually called, and justified, will persevere through grace to the end, that none of them be lost.” In addition to these overtly Calvinistic beliefs, the Separate Baptists at Sandy Creek believed in “impressions of the Spirit,” (also known as “immediate teachings of the Spirit”), held to nine rites which exceeded the two ordinances, and permitted women to serve as eldresses and deaconesses.

    Nonetheless, I think the overall tone of this white paper is encouraging. I, for one, certainly hope to see dialogue, rather than diatribe, as do the contributors.

  3. Greetings, Tim:

    Thanks for this post. Some time back I wrote a proposal for unity between Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC:

    I can detect some of the same concerns by the brothers who wrote this paper.

    But I do have one historical-theological observation to make that is at odds with this paper:

    The theological view represented by the authors (and, I would say, by the majority of Southern Baptists) is actually a theological anomaly in church history. It is a hodge-podge of inconsistent views that has led to a dangerous understanding of the gospel among rank-and-file Baptists. Allow me to explain:

    Once you combine a libertarian doctrine of free will (which thereby undercuts unconditional election and effectual calling) with the doctrine of the security of the believer, you often end up with easy-believism. Historically, the doctrine of the security of the believer has been rooted in the doctrine of unconditional election. Those who believe most certainly will be saved in the end because of God’s electing decree, which cannot fail. God is responsible for keeping his elect in the faith, and he will not allow us to wander away from him permanently. He has power over the human will, not in a coercive sense but in his creative ability to draw us to himself, much as Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

    Once you reject that view of God’s grace, you leave salvation ultimately in our hands. I don’t mean this in the sense that we save ourselves, but rather that God does everything up to a point and then leaves the last, and determinative, step to us. Well, if God cannot violate our libertarian free will by drawing us effectually to himself, then it would seem to follow that he cannot violate our libertarian free will by keeping us in the faith once we have believed (and if he can keep us in the faith in spite of libertarian free will, why can he not draw us to faith in spite of it as well?). Once you adopt libertarian free will, then you are always left with the possibility that a true believer might abandon the faith at some point.

    Yet Baptists still want to hold on to the security of the believer. So what about those believers who do walk away from the faith? Many Baptists, following the logic of this position, have ended up saying they are still saved. Salvation becomes a transaction located entirely in the past, one that can never be forfeited even if you renounce Christ. From a plain reading of the New Testament, few things are more certain than the fact that those who renounce Christ and run headlong into sin will be lost in the end (barring repentance).

    I am not saying that the authors of the pamphlet hold this view of easy-believism (whether they do or not, I don’t know). But I am saying that their view lends itself to this kind of thinking, and this kind of thinking has been widespread in Baptist circles in no small part because, somewhere back in our history, we divorced the security of the believer from the doctrine of unconditional election. This theology is inconsistent, and I believe it is partly responsible for our bloated church roles and multitudes of nominal church members. We have told our people for decades that once their past transaction with Christ has been secured, they’re in no matter what. Is it any surprise that so many of them care nothing for the church now?

    The doctrine of the security of the believer must always be tied to the sovereignty of God to keep his elect in the faith. But these authors promote a different view of God’s sovereignty, one wherein God will not act in any way that violates libertarian free will. It just does not work. It is much better to be a Calvinist Baptist or an Arminian Baptist than to be a Baptist with this kind of inconsistent, even dangerous, theology.

  4. Tim Rogers says:

    Brother BDW,

    Really tied up at this moment getting ready for some things here in NC and attending a conference in Atlanta. However, I did see this and plan to comment on it. From the appearance it looks like CBF-NC is trying to get conservative fence-straddlers to begin financing their efforts. As you know, Priesthood of all Believers is a belief that was defined differently by the two groups during the CR.

    Dr. Gaylon,

    Sandy Creek also had public invitations. So, how does that coincide with their doctrine of effectual calling? While, Sandy Creek certainly had language that you and I would agree sounds and looks Calvinistic, I believe we would also agree that their practices were not in the vein of Calvin’s teaching.

    Dr. O’Kelley,

    You and Dr. Gaylon are killing me here, you know that don’t you. :) I believe that your understanding and mine are the same as to the “anomoly” that results in a “theological hodge podge” of inconsistencies. That is the very reason we have all maintained that the SBC is neither Charismatic or Calvinistic. Your point is well taken and I believe exactly what the authors of the White Paper are communicating. I have no problem with being “inconsistent” in a theological systematic approach as long as I remain Biblical. You cannot deny that the Bible teaches Free Will and I cannot deny that the Bible teaches election. It is the rigidity of how we force those views on others that we as SB have always rejected.

    Allow me, if you will, to point to something I believe is a straw man used by many Calvinist as well as you in your op.

    Yet Baptists still want to hold on to the security of the believer. So what about those believers who do walk away from the faith? Many Baptists, following the logic of this position, have ended up saying they are still saved.

    I cannot speak for those who signed the White Paper, but I can speak to those who taught me, ie. Patterson & Yarnell. The teaching that someone who walks away from Christ is still saved is absolutely preposterous. I do not agree that person is still saved. You would hear Dr. Patterson and Yarnell say they were never saved in the beginning. Why? After salvation, it is impossible for one to “walk away” from Christ. I promise you we do not take pen knives and cut out Romans 8:35-39

    Also, you say;

    The doctrine of the security of the believer must always be tied to the sovereignty of God to keep his elect in the faith.

    I may have misunderstood you here, but I thought that Bible teaches the security of the believer is tied to the resurrection of Christ, not the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Thus, it would seem that I base my life in Christ on Christ,’s life. Galatians 2:20. I believe we see the difference here of holding to the sufficiency of Scripture vs.the doctrine of Man.


  5. Tim,

    The philosophical notion of “free will” is tricky to begin with. Philosophers distinguish between the notions of compatibilist freedom and libertarian freedom. There is no text you can go to in Scripture that says, “Free will must be conceived in a libertarian sense in order for human responsibility to be maintained.” But that is the assumption that non-Calvinists begin with. This, and not Calvinist doctrine, is the “doctrine of Man” that colors the exegesis of everything.

    The Bible clearly teaches human responsibility, but human responsibility is and always has been part and parcel of Calvinistic doctrine. Non-Calvinists often accuse us of denying what the Bible teaches on this, but their accusation is always based on the prior commitment to libertarian free will, an idea that cannot be established from Scripture at all.

    In fact, the Christian doctrine of original sin implies that libertarian free will is a fantasy. We are all sinners. We sin, in a sense, by necessity. I don’t mean that we are coerced into sinning by someone outside of ourselves, so that we avoid responsibility. Rather, we do exactly what we want to do, and in every single person without exception (save Jesus), that means we sin. How can the will really be “free” in a libertarian sense if we cannot avoid sin? It is much more biblical to speak, as Luther did, of the bondage of the will to sin.

    As for the resurrection and the security of the believer, I think you are confusing categories here. Christ’s resurrection (along with his death) is the basis for the accomplishment of our redemption, but surely you would agree that, apart from the application of his accomplished work to us, we are still lost in our sins. So the point at which I am focusing is not on the accomplishment of redemption, but on its application. And here I would say that the perseverance of the elect in the faith is biblically tied to the sovereignty of God to keep his elect and thereby finish the good work that he began (Romans 8:29-30; Philippians 1:6; 1 Peter 1:3-5; John 6:37-40).

    But I am willing to grant that, from another angle, Christ’s death and resurrection are the ground of the security of the believer. If you have a strong understanding of what Christ accomplished on the cross, actually securing our salvation (by securing its objective accomplishment AND its certain application to the elect), then yes, you could say that our security is tied to the resurrection. And then you have articulated the classic doctrine of particular redemption, aka limited atonement, the view that the cross and resurrection actually save us, rather than fulfilling the preconditions by which we are enabled to decide for ourselves whether or not we want to be saved.

  6. Dr. James Galyon says:

    As Dr. O’Kelley pointed out above, Calvinism/Calvinists (including those at Sandy Creek) have historically affirmed not only divine sovereignty, but also human responsibility. In their view, public invitations upheld this belief. Those who today tend to eschew the altar call don’t negate an invitation altogether. Personally, I believe it wise to carefully counsel all those who respond to the invitation given during the proclamation of the gospel, regardless of what form and at what time for which that response is called. This was certainly the way the original Sandy Creekers handled the matter.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by the statement, “While, Sandy Creek certainly had language that you and I would agree sounds and looks Calvinistic, I believe we would also agree that their practices were not in the vein of Calvin’s teaching.” Care to clarify?

  7. Dr. James Galyon says:

    BTW, its GAL-YON.
    : )

  8. David Campbell says:

    “How can the will really be “free” in a libertarian sense if we cannot avoid sin?”

    Because God was not the author of Adam’s sin.

  9. David,

    Thank you for your reply. Historically, Calvinists have agreed wholeheartedly with you have asserted.

    But the fact remains that I myself am not and never have been in Adam’s pre-fall position. I am bound to sin. I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me (Psalm 51:5). I cannot avoid sin. If personal responsibility requires that I have the moral ability to do otherwise in any given situation, how can I be held responsible for my sins if I cannot help but sin?

    Libertarian free will posits that in any given situation, whatever influences may be pushing the will of an agent in a given direction, the will is not determined to act in one way or another. In spite of influences, the will always determines itself. That means that however an agent acts in a given situation, he always had the moral ability to do otherwise (note that I am speaking here of moral ability, not merely natural ability; if you are not familiar with that distinction, I would be glad to unpack it for you).

    The upshot of this is that there is no explanation for why we choose the things we do. Choices are ultimately random and disconnected from our natural dispositions and inclinations. If we have libertarian free will, then our sin nature cannot be a determinative influence upon our choices, and thus there is no reason in principle why I should not be able to live a sinless life. This is plainly incompatible with Christian theology, but I submit that libertarian free will is the driving presupposition behind non-Calvinist interpretations of the Bible. Non-Calvinists rightly discern a clear and strong teaching of human responsibility in the Bible, but because they conceive of responsibility as being necessarily tied to libertarian free will, they then deduce that human responsibility must imply at least some limits on the sovereignty of God. That is, non-Calvinists would argue that God cannot save us unless we give independent consent. Irresistible grace is soundly rejected if libertarian free will is true.

    And so it is in this way that non-Calvinists set divine sovereignty and human responsibility in opposition to one another. One has to end where the other begins. But as Calvinists have been arguing for centuries, if free will is conceived in a compatibilist sense, there is no reason to say that human responsibility is a limiting factor on divine sovereignty. We act according to what we want to do, and we are responsible for our actions, and at the same time all things are foreordained from eternity by God. If this kind of thinking is the product of mere human reason, one wonders why it is so counterintuitive to the way we normally think about human responsibility. But its counterintuitive nature is something I find to be one of its strengths: no man would have made this up. It has come to us through divine revelation. I am not saying that Calvinism is illogical or self-contradictory (I don’t promote the idea that we can hold self-contradictory views in theology; that would be nonsense). But Calvinism is somewhat mysterious and counterintuitive, exactly the way you would expect deep truths of divine revelation to be (like the Trinity and the mystery of the Incarnation).

    Let me present a challenge to those who think Calvinism is an imposition of mere human reason on the Scriptures: try removing from your mind the presupposition of libertarian free will. Try reading the Bible sincerely without presupposing that human responsibility requires this particular philosophical notion of free will. See if a different model can tie the whole teaching of the Bible together in a better way.

  10. David Campbell says:

    Thank you for your meticulous post sir. As a former 5-point Calvinist, I understand your reluctance to change. If you believe the propensity to sin, inherited from Adam, nullifies a libertarian free will, so be it. However, I also challenge to you put down the spectacles of compatibilist medieval philosophy and allow the scriptures to paint the God of holiness, not sin. I am no longer willing to chalk Adam’s sin up to a mystery. He made a real choice as did Lucifer.

  11. David,

    I certainly understand the difficulty you are describing. Calvinists do seem to be saddled with a problem when it comes to God and evil.

    But as I have wrestled with the problem myself, two things have helped confirm me in my present belief.

    (1) Any view of God that claims he is sovereign over his creation is saddled with the problem of evil. Even if you argue that God does not foreordain all things, the fact remains that the church has always confessed that God at least foreknows all things. And if God foreknows that if he creates this world, and in this world Adam will certainly sin, then God, in an indirect manner, foreordains the sin of Adam by choosing to create this world instead of some other world (or refraining from creating at all). Libertarian free will alone cannot alleviate the problem, because you are still left with the fact that God is responsible for setting up the conditions that he knew would certainly lead to sin.

    Open theists have, in the light of this difficulty, proposed that God does not foreknow all things, but that he took significant risks when creating this world, not knowing how his project would unfold. This view has been explicitly denied by the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, and it has rightly been rejected by the vast majority of Southern Baptists because it is so out of step with the teaching of the Bible about God. But even open theists cannot dodge the problem of evil, for they are still left with the problem that God created this world, foreknowing at least the possibility of catastrophe (for, according to them, God knows all things that COULD happen). Moreover, they argue that he is so masterful in his wisdom that he can often predict what will happen. So, in the case of the problem of evil, we are left either with the view that God had a lapse in wisdom and got taken totally off guard by Adam’s sin, or that God knew there was a very good probability that Adam would sin, but he chose to create this world anyway. He gambled against strong odds. Neither view inspires much confidence in me as a solution to the problem of evil.

    So, unless you want to become a process theologian (and thus deny the historic Christian faith), you cannot escape the problem of evil. It will be there waiting for you every time you confess that God rules over this creation. So the problem is not unique to Calvinism.

    (2) As I have studied Scripture on the problem of evil, I have noticed that it does not propose free will as a possible solution. The Bible nowhere relieves the mystery for us. Instead, what we have are declarations that God is God and that we should shut our mouths before him (see the book of Job, where God’s ultimate control over all that has happened to Job is never questioned, but is implicitly affirmed throughout). Instead of understanding the “why” questions, we must be content simply to trust in the one who declares himself to be both completely sovereign over all things and completely without spot or stain of evil. Philosophical ideas about secondary causality have been brought forward to help explain how this can be so (and to show that it is not a logical contradiction), but ultimately we must bow before the God whose ways we cannot comprehend (see Paul’s eruption of praise in Romans 11:33-36 after he has expounded at length on God’s mysterious purpose in hardening Israel for a time in order to save the Gentiles).

    And then I’ll say one last thing. Your last comment simply confirms my point that libertarian freedom is a driving presupposition in non-Calvinist thought. When you say that Adam “made a real choice,” you seem to imply that, unless he had free will in a libertarian sense, his choice would not have been real. Compatibilists argue that our choices are real because they proceed from what we desire to do. They are a product of our own nature, influenced by external factors.

    Adam had no sin nature before the fall, but his finite nature was mutable and thus subject to being swayed to evil by the external influence of temptation. He made a real choice when he sinned because he did exactly what he wanted to do. But that does not necessarily entail libertarian freedom.

    I don’t think of compatibilism as a medieval imposition on the text of Scripture. I think of it as a philosophical construct that can help us make sense of two truths that Scripture clearly affirms:

    (1) God is sovereign over all things, working all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11).
    (2) Human beings make real choices for which we are morally responsible.

    It is our natural inclination to say these two things are incompatible. Compatibilists simply affirm that, because both are clearly taught in the Bible, both are true.

  12. David Campbell says:

    My use of “real” was intended as a sarcastic juxtaposition…. Get my computer back in a couple of days… Hard to fire from the iphone…