Encouraging scholarship, strengthening faith identity, and interpreting contemporary issues in Baptist life.
Calvinism is the vision of the Christian faith taught by John Calvin, the sixteenth century Protestant reformer. Naturally Calvin held many beliefs in common with all Christians, such as that God is the Creator, that human beings have sinned, that Christ is the savior, and so on.
Usually what is meant by Calvinism is a group of beliefs that were held by Calvin but that are not held by all Christians. The principal one of these beliefs is predestination. Calvin believed that God sovereignly ordains (wills, decrees, determines, controls) everything that happens; in particular, God sovereignly predestines whether or not each person will be saved. God does this without reference to God’s foreknowledge of how each person will respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Calvinists believe that their vision is taught in Scripture. Apart from Scripture, they say that the best early expression of God’s sovereign predestination was that given by Augustine. The Roman Catholic Church agreed with Augustine, though it did not follow his ideas strictly. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas and the reformer Martin Luther also agreed with Augustine.
Calvinism has many strengths. Calvinists are devout Christians. Calvinism is a sophisticated theological vision. It is supportive of humility, piety, and worship. It has considerable support in the Bible. It is compatible with Christian experience. Calvinists have made enormous contributions to the church and to the world.
Calvinism among the Baptists
The first Baptists were English citizens living in the Netherlands. In 1608-09 their pastor, John Smyth, baptized himself and then his followers. These Baptists knew about Calvinism which was then the dominant view in the church in the Netherlands, and they issued official statements opposing Calvinism. They continued to oppose Calvinism when they returned to England a few years later.
For at least twenty-five years no Baptists were Calvinists, but after Calvinism came into Baptist life in the 1630s it grew rapidly. This was true in America as well as in England.
Most of the men who founded the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 were Calvinists. However, for the last century the majority of Southern Baptists have not been Calvinists.
There is a movement, The Founders Ministries, which works to restore Calvinism to Southern Baptist life. In their work they draw on the writings of earlier Calvinistic Baptists such as John Gill, John L. Dagg, James P. Boyce, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
Calvinism is being re-introduced into Baptist churches throughout the South. With occasional exceptions this is done by pastors who are committed to the Calvinistic vision and who are aware that the churches who are calling them do not share their commitment. This usually leads to conflict.
Calvinism is being promoted effectively on college campuses by groups such as the Reformed University Fellowship and Campus Outreach.
Today there are many excellent champions of Calvinism, among them Baptists such as John MacArthur, Jr. and John Piper, and others such as J. I. Packer and R. C. Sproul.
Because the first Baptists were not Calvinists, and because for more than a century the majority of Baptists have not been Calvinists, non-Calvinistic Baptists may be called traditional Baptists.
The Five Points of Calvinism
A popular summary of Calvinistic beliefs is one that was worked out at the Synod of Dort held in Holland in 1618-1619. One reason for its popularity is that in English its five points can be presented by means of the acronym TULIP: total depravity, unconditional election (predestination), limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. In fact, the sequence followed at Dort was ULTIP: unconditional predestination, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and perseverance. It is important that predestination comes first, because it is the critical issue.
Predestination means that in eternity God decided, without any reference to God’s foreknowledge of how individual human beings would respond, to save one set of people and to damn another.
Limited atonement may mean either that Jesus’ sacrifice was intended to benefit only the elect, or that his sacrifice was sufficient to save only the elect.
Total depravity means not only that all people are sinners, that sin has affected the entire life of all human beings, and that human beings cannot save themselves; it means also that, because human beings are spiritually dead, they are unable to respond to the gospel with repentance and faith; they must therefore be regenerated before they can repent and have faith in Christ.
Irresistible grace means that God will work in the lives of the elect in such a way as to insure their salvation.
Perseverance of the saints means that God will not allow any of the
elect to lose the salvation God has given them.
Calvinism and the Bible
Concerning the Bible, many Calvinists claim that their view is the only biblical view, and many non-Calvinists claim that their view is the only biblical view. These claims lead to a stalemate.
It seems to me that the situation is actually as follows. There are many biblical passages that, taken at face value, teach Calvinism; a classic example is Romans 9; let us call these the C (Calvinistic) passages. There also are many biblical passages that, taken at face value, teach against Calvinism; a classic example is 1 Timothy 2:1-6; let us call these the B (traditional Baptist) passages.
Calvinists naturally take the C passages at face value, and they then interpret (= offer a meaning other than the face value meaning) the B passages. Non-Calvinists naturally do the reverse; they take the B passages at face value, and they interpret (= offer a meaning other than the face value meaning) the C passages.
Since this is what is actually happening, it is natural to ask, “What leads Calvinists to take the C passages at face value, and what leads non-Calvinists to take the B passages at face value?” The answer seems to be that Calvinists are guided by their understanding of the sovereignty of God to take the C passages at face value, and non-Calvinists are guided by their understanding of the love of God to take the B passages at face value.
What Traditional Baptists Believe
First, we acknowledge that both traditional Baptists and Calvinists are Christians who share many beliefs in common. Many of these beliefs are more important than the beliefs about which they differ.
Second, we believe that there are passages in the Bible that, taken at face value, support our view; we take these at face value because we are guided by John 3:16: God loves the world. We acknowledge that there are passages in the Bible that, taken at face value, support Calvinism; we believe that there are other, non-Calvinistic meanings in those passages.
Third, we believe that the main issue between traditional Baptists and Calvinists concerns God’s love. We believe that God loves all people and wants them all to be saved; Calvinists believe God predestines some people to be lost.
Fourth, we believe that God is sovereign. We agree with Calvinists that God has the power and the knowledge to do what Calvinists say God has done, namely, predestine that some people will be saved and others not. We believe God sovereignly decided not to do that.
Fifth, we believe that God sovereignly decided to give human beings freedom and to respect the decisions they make. We do not believe that it is a loss of divine sovereignty for God to relate to human beings in this way. We believe it is an exercise of divine sovereignty for God to have decided to relate to human beings in this way and then to do so.
Sixth, we believe that everything that God does is good. God is responsible for the good in life; human beings are responsible for their sin, for the suffering that accompanies sin, and for the condemnation they receive for their sin. People sin and suffer and are lost, not because God ordains that these things will happen but because human beings choose them; they are not God’s will but are contrary to it.
Seventh, we believe that God knows the future. Most of us think that God foreknows everything; some among us think that God foreknows all that can be known but not everything. In either case, we believe that God’s foreknowledge does not predetermine the future.
Eighth, we believe that foreordination is a biblical idea, but we think that Calvinists have misunderstood it. We believe that the Bible teaches that God foreordains many things: to anoint Jesus as the Christ, to save the world through Christ, to work with the Jews rather than others, to send Paul as a missionary, and so on. We believe that God never foreordains evil, only good, so that sin, suffering, and damnation are products of human choices rather than of divine foreordination.
Ninth, we believe that predestination is a biblical idea, but we think Calvinists have misunderstood it. We believe that the Bible teaches that God predestines that all who are in Christ will be saved and will be transformed into good people (Eph. 1:4-6). We believe that God predestines to salvation those whom he foreknows will trust in Christ (Rom. 8:29-30).
Tenth, we believe that God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved. We believe that it is tragic that many people never experience God’s love. We believe that it is our responsibility to do all we can to communicate the message of God’s love to all people. If we do so, then they will be able to trust in the Lord and be saved.
Eleventh, usually the terms of this controversy are divine
sovereignty and human freedom. I believe this is misleading. Human freedom
is very important to me, but, asked to choose between these two, I would
certainly affirm divine sovereignty. In my judgment, this is not the
issue. The issue is predestination. Did God in eternity sovereignly
predestine some people to be saved and not others? Put this way, it is
clear that there can’t be a middle way: either God did, or did not, do
this. On these terms, there can be no modified Calvinism and no four-point
or three-point Calvinists. My principal concern about Calvinism is not its
affirmation of divine sovereignty; my principal concern is whether God
loves all people and so wants them all to be saved.
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