Two Common Confusions about Calvinism in Baptist History

careyA few weeks ago, I enumerated the greatest misunderstanding many have with evangelical Calvinism—namely that Calvinism kills evangelism and missions. Today, I want to pick up two more objections that were often raised at my last church, but which have little basis in historical fact.

1. Five-Point Calvinists are Hyper-Calvinists

One of the largest confusions in the discussion about Calvinism is the term “Hyper-Calvinism.” Historically-speaking, “Hyper-Calvinism” is different than Five-Point Calvinism. The former has minimized or denied the universal offer of the gospel, the latter has not. The former denies duty-faith—the idea that all are commanded to repent and believer—the latter affirms the universal nature of the gospel call and the duty of every man to repent and belief. Thus, the former has neglected evangelism, missions, and sharing the gospel with all men. The latter, has never minimized the evangelistic work of the Great Commission and its corollary endeavors.

In fact, many Calvinists (e.g., William Carey, Andrew Fuller, and Charles Spurgeon) have argued against Hyper-Calvinism. For instance, William Carey (1761–1834), largely started the modern missions movement when he preached his sermon “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen.” In this sermon, preached to a gathering of particular Baptists in England (1792), he outlined how and why “means” were necessary to the advancement of the gospel. He compared the Christian mission to that of a trading company and challenged his comrades to support such an endeavor. With his appeal, he contested the notions of Hyper-Calvinism, which were prevalent at that time, and he soon became the first foreign missionary sent these Baptist churches. Carey was a Baptist and a Calvinist, one who strongly rejected Hyper-Calvinism.

Andrew Fuller is another Calvinistic Baptist who argued vehemently against Hyper-Calvinism. Coming out of a Hyper-Calvinistic background, Fuller took to task those preachers who denied a universal offer of the gospel. At that time, many were following the sentiment that claimed that one needed to observe grace before they would pronounce the gospel. It required the minister to have a kind of omniscient clairvoyance. Yet, with his forceful pen, Andrew Fuller rejected the Hyper-Calvinism in his classic work, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation. In this work, he articulated a view of the gospel that commended limited atonement and yet declared that the gospel was to be proclaimed to all men.

Significantly, at this time, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists all suffered from the “Modern Question” (Nettles, The Baptists, 1:248), which proposed that a man was never responsible for that which he could not do. In the case of those with Calvinistic leanings, this meant that if a man was unable to believe in the gospel (due to his spiritually dead and depraved standing), then he was not culpable. Hence, many falsely taught that the gospel need not go to all men, but only the elect. The folly in this is assuming one could discern who those were. Ironically, Pelagians/Semi-Pelagians/Arminians fall prey to the same confusion when they argue that men, in and of themselves, are capable of responding to the gospel because God would not give a command that man was incapable obeying.

Finally, Charles Spurgeon is another Calvinist who rejected Hyper-Calvinism. Iain Murray has treated this in his book, Spurgeon and Hyper-Calvinism (Banner of Truth, 1995). In the book Murray, writes why this book is important,

Hyper-Calvinism only arises whenever and wherever the truth of the sovereignty of God in salvation is firmly believed. The reason why Spurgeon’s first controversy has been so little thought of in these last hundred years is not that the subject is insignificant. It is rather that doctrinal Christianity as a whole has been too largely ignored. At the present time, when evangelical Calvinism is again being recovered in many parts of the earth, the danger of Hyper-Calvinism is once more a possibility and the lessons to be drawn from this old controversy have again become relevant.

Spurgeon’s reasoning against Hyper-Calvinism coheres with Andrew Fuller—the Hyper-Calvinists deny “duty-faith,” Spurgeon rightly affirms it. Consequently, Spurgeon is a trustworthy preacher of the gospel, who calls all men to faith in Christ.

Anyone who mislabels Five-Pointers with Hyper-Calvinism must redefine their terms, or do their homework in history. The two are not the same.

2. Calvinism is Incompatible with Baptist Doctrine

In church history, Presbyterians and Reformed (the denomination, that is) have been predominately Calvinistic. In the last century, mainline Presbyterians in the Presbyterian Church-USA have become liberal and are not constrained by the Bible at all. This denomination is vastly different from the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). The former questions the Bible and mutes the gospel; the latter defends the Bible and cherishes the gospel. The former is Calvinistic in tradition only; the latter adheres to a covenantal theology that leads to infant baptism. In this, they fail to understand the difference of the New Covenant and they important many Old Testament notions for being God’s people. They would do well to see the Old Testament symbol of circumcision as a type fulfilled in Christ, not a type that has been transferred into paedo-baptism.

As far as Baptists go, there have always been Calvinistic Baptists and Non-Calvinistic Baptists. Sometimes the first group has been called separate or particular or reformed Baptists; the latter group has been called general or regular Baptists. Some of the most significant figures in the early centuries of Baptist life were Calvinistic. For instance, British Baptists Benjamin Keach (1640–1704), John Gill (1697–1771), Andrew Fuller (1754–1815), and William Carey (1761–1834) were all Calvinistic in their doctrinal stance. In America Isaac Backus and John Leland (who was the pastor in conversation with Thomas Jefferson concerning the separation of church and state[1]), Richard Furman from which Furman College gets its name, Shubal Stearns[2], Adoniram Judson, Luther Rice[3], and the founders of Southern Seminary (James P. Boyce, John Broadus, Basil Manly, Jr., William Williams) were all Calvinistic in their doctrine. Moreover, when the Southern Baptist Convention was begun (1845), every representative at the first convention came from churches that held to Calvinistic confessions of faith. One in particular was P.H. Mell. Mell served as SBC President for more than fifteen years (1863–71, 1880-87). Of the five points of Calvinism, he wrote, “These doctrines [are] the basis of all our pulpit ministrations.”[4]

In most recent years—from the mid-twentieth century until the turn of the century—the SBC has been decidedly Non-Calvinistic. During most of those years, liberalism and modernism pervaded the seminaries (until the 1990’s)[5], and Calvinism was virtually unheard of, except in a few rare exceptions.

Systematically, there is nothing in the belief system of Baptists that must deny Calvinist thinking. Many of the first Baptist confessions are Calvinistic (e.g., 2nd London [1689], Philadelphia). Today, the Baptist Faith and Message is a document that has a historic trail to these earlier confessions. In 1833, the New Hampshire Confession was drafted, modifying the staunchly Calvinistic confessions with a much more moderate Calvinism. The article concerning the “Purposes of Grace” is agreeable to Calvinist and Non-Calvinists. While Calvinists would say more, this document permits Calvinist and Non-Calvinist to retain gospel-centered fellowship in Baptist life (churches, missions, denomination).

In the end, the statement that Baptists are not Calvinistic is short-sighted. It may be the experience of many today, but historically there have been many Baptists of the Calvinistic stream. In fact, some of the most influential apparently” non-Calvinists” are also surprisingly committed to the doctrines of grace—I have in mind here the interview John Piper had with Rick Warren.

Of course, Calvinism is not proved by clarifying its historical moorings. However, if we are going to rightly talk about such doctrinal matters and historical terms, it is vital clarify that Calvinism is not the same thing as Hyper-Calvinism and that Calvinism has held a long and faithful position in the history of Baptists. For those engaged in such discussions, let’s remember our history as we formulate theology in the present.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

________________

[1]The original intent of Jefferson and Leland was the assurance that the state could not interfere with the church, not the reverse as it has been misused today.

[2]Stearns is the founder Sandy Creek association which makes up one of two importants streams flowing into Southern Baptist life. While Sandy Creek has usually been associated with revivalistic preachers and churches, a feature that has sometimes excluded Calvinistic doctrine, Tom Nettles shows that Stearns has Calvinistic-leanings (The Baptists, 2:162-73).

[3]Judson was converted to Baptist belief on the boat ride to his missionary outpost. Luther Rice was another missionary who believed in the doctrines of grace.

[4]Quoted in Nettles, The Baptists, 2:342. There is room for debate about how the five-points of Calvinism relate to preaching; however, the point is clear, the SBC began with a large influence from Calvinists.

[5]Southwestern being the exception. It was never as bad as the other seminaries.

Finding Faithful Preachers to Fill-in the Pulpit

pulpitDuring my five years at Calvary Baptist Church in Seymour, Indiana one of my greatest joys was having faithful brothers come and deliver God’s Word to the God’s people. Filling the pulpit is not something to be taken lightly and I always sought to find a faithful messenger of the Word to feed the flock. For that reason, it was reassuring to bring seasoned pastors to fill-in, but it was equally rewarding to give younger men the opportunity to bring God’s Word. Continue reading

Five Truths About the Sinfulness of Sin

sinThe sinfulness of sin, to borrow Ralph Venning’s language, is beyond our natural comprehension. Born in sin (Ps 51:4), we are unable to see the sinfulness that engulfs our hearts, minds, decisions, and daily activities. Because we love sin so much, we do not even realize the way we manufacture and fondle our idols. Only with the light of God’s Word can we begin to see what sin is, and only as the Spirit illumines our minds do we begin to see our darkness.

Indeed, simply to know truth about sin does in no way eviscerate the presence of sin in our lives, but it is a start. Truth about sin is necessary for putting sin to death. Such knowledge is not sufficient to grow in holiness, but it is necessary for sanctification. With that hope in mind, I have listed out five points regarding the (1) prevalence, (2) power, (3) pervasiveness, (4) partnership, and (5) pleasure of sin.

May God use these biblical truths to help you and I understand the enemy that lives within that we might cry out with greater earnestness for the grace that pardons sin and the power to say no to sin. Continue reading

A Severe Mercy: Rediscovering the Holiness of God

ok
Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen,
but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.
— Romans 11:22 —

When God created Adam and Eve, he endowed them with a holy calling to worship Him. In fact, made for God’s glory, it was the chief design of humanity to worship and serve the Creator—not only in holy assembly but in every human endeavor (cf. Col 3:17, 23).

Sadly, this original design was lost when the first couple rebelled against God (Gen 3:1–6). Seeking to be like God, they spurned their Creator. As Paul puts it, “For although they knew God, they did no honor him as God or give thanks to him, . . . Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” of created things (Rom 1:21–23).

The Idolatry of Self

In context, Paul is speaking about Gentiles, but indeed, he is using the backdrop of the Garden to explain the source of humanity’s sin. In a word, sin finds its source in idolatry (cf. Jer 2:13). Human hearts are compelled to worship, but after Eden, the Adam’s offspring worship what their hands can make, what their minds can imagine. Even the most avowed atheist cannot stop worshiping—even if he only worships himself. Continue reading

Theological Triage (pt. 3): Love Covers a Multitude of Differences

loveToday, we finish our three-part series on “theological triage.”

In part 1, I suggested genuine Christians stand united in mere Christianity against those who deny the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and justification by faith. At the same time, I explained in part 2 how churches and individuals must pursue unity in the gospel, even when we differ on matters of church government, church ordinances, or charismatic gifts. This gospel unity that overlooks ecclesial differences does not deny the importance of these secondary matters, but it keeps in mind that some doctrines are more essential than others. Some doctrines separate Christians from non-Christians (first-level), some separate genuine believers into different congregations (second-level), and others remain points of disagreement even in the same local church (third-level). This tripartite division has been labeled “theological triage,” and it is this third section we consider today.

The Doctrinal Core

Members of any orthodox church must share the core convictions delineated in the first level (e.g., the Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace alone, and so on). Likewise, every church must also come to biblical conviction about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, congregational authority, etc. In most churches, both of these sets of doctrines (first and second level) are found in their statement of faith.

The practical function of such a confession (or statement of faith) is that when the church gathers there is no need to debate why the Bible is central, why men lead, and why babies are not “baptized.” The confession functions as a general consensus—a doctrinal core if you will—of what the church believes the Bible to teach about the most important tenets of the faith. Still under the banner of a church’s confession (which derive it’s ministerial authority from the Scriptures themselves), there are other doctrines that are not defined. Wisely, confessional statements are abbreviated statements of faith that do not attend to every doctrine. Accordingly, there are other views, beliefs, or questions that members may hold differently.

Some of these doctrines include the doctrines of grace, the way spiritual gifts continue in the church today, and the timing of the millennium. The point of this post is not to address these doctrines, nor to suggest what to include or exclude in the confession. The point to be made here concerns how to handle these third-level doctrinal disagreements in the local church. Continue reading

Theological Triage (pt. 2): Unity in the Gospel, Separation in the Church

t4gOn Monday, I considered the idea of theological triage—the process of holding different Christian beliefs at different levels of importance—and how the first level differentiates “mere Christianity” from errant cults and false religions. Today I will continue to consider theological triage as it relates to second-level Christian beliefs, those doctrines on which gospel-believing churches agree to disagree.

Recognizing and Affirming Historical and Doctrinal Differences Increases Unity

Within orthodox Christianity, second level doctrines separate genuine believers. Points of division at this level include baptism (What does it signify and who is the proper candidate?), the Lord’s Supper (What do the elements represent?), and the use of spiritual gifts (Do tongues continue today?)—to name a few prominent ones. How such doctrines are espoused and questions are answered causes the need for different assemblies of worship. Historically, it has often been disagreement on one of these issues that have separated (or created) different churches (or denominations).

For Baptists, our pedigree originates about 400 years ago, when a growing number of Protestants began to realize from Scripture that baptism by immersion was the proper mode for professing believers. Stepping away from state churches, local Baptist congregation were free and responsible to God for their actions, and on their biblical conviction they recovered the practice of believer’s baptism. Because of its historical roots, Baptist churches share much with other evangelical denominations (e.g., all the matters agreed upon in the first level), but there are enough distinctives that make it impossible for Baptists to congregate with paedobaptists. Continue reading

Theological Triage (pt. 1): Rightly Dividing Truth from Error

TriageTriage.

It is not a word that we often associate with church life, or if we do, the connotation is probably not positive. However, I think the word has great potential for helping us understand and promote unity in the church—local and universal.

In its original context, triage “means the process of sorting victims to determine medical priority in order to increase the number of survivors.”  While the term is usually placed on the battlefield or in the wake of a natural disaster, it also has an important application in the church for knowing how to rightly hold the doctrines we believe.

Applied to biblical doctrines, the term has been labeled by Albert Mohler as “theological triage,” and it basically indicates that we should sort out three different kinds of biblical belief—(1) those that separate Christians from non-Christians, (2) those that separate different churches and denominations, and (3) those that individuals may disagree about but which are overcome by greater unity on more primary matters.

Today, I will consider the first level, and later this week days I will follow up with the second and third levels to help us think about our relationship with other faiths, other churches, and other individuals in our church. Continue reading

Reconsidering “Above All”: How Hermeneutics Must Intersect with and Inform Our Hymnody

aboveallYesterday, I raised concerns with the popular song “Above All” by Michael W. Smith. For some time, I have taken theological issue with the central lyric of the song:

Like a rose / Trampled on the ground
You took the fall / And thought of me
Above all.

Those last two lines have always made me stumble because of the way they seem to eclipse God with humanity. I’ve always heard them as making the claim that Christ thought more of me than he did of God—which I argued reverses the God-centered nature of the universe and the cross.

For that reason, I was theologically opposed to the song. While I could sing the rest of the song with delight, I always cringed as the chorus neared. Hence, I set out to write these reflections so as to expose the errant chorus. However, a funny thing happened along the way—I read the lyrics again (and again) and this time in context.

Unlike any time before, I read the chorus in light of the whole song. Not surprisingly, reading it context provided greater light. But surprisingly, I had to adjust my thinking for I realized that if I (or we) let the song define its own terms—a principle of general hermeneutics—it does not ascribe humanity to a place higher than God. In fact, the song rightly retains a high view of God’s sovereignty and the dignity assigned to humanity, as the pinnacle of creation. Continue reading

Above All, Who Did Christ Die For?

crossCrucified / Laid behind a stone
You lived to die/ Rejected and alone
Like a rose / Trampled on the ground
You took the fall/ And thought of me
Above all

 

These words, the chorus of the song “Above All,” have echoed in evangelical churches far and wide. On the whole I like the song, it’s first two stanzas testify to the universal sovereignty of God. However, as it enters the chorus, the sweeping sovereignty of God appears to be displaced by a form of sentimentalized love that is all too common in our self-exalting century.

The theological problem that some have with this song comes at its climax, the point that the whole song drives towards. In that final line, “Above All” ostensibly leaves the high ground of God’s sovereignty (“above all kingdoms / above all thrones / above all wonders the world has ever known”) to frolic in the marshes of ego-boosting self-esteem (God “thought of me above all”).

Intended to express breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s unfathomable love, Michael W. Smith’s lyrics come close to severing the root of God’s love by leading the chorus to sing that God in his love thought about me “above all.”  I say close, instead of actually committing the act, because I think upon closer inspection “above all” in the chorus should be delimited by the earlier “all” statements.

Tomorrow, I will show how I think “Above All” can serve as a God-exalting worship song, but today let me unpack the theological truth that has led many to take issue with this song, namely that the highest purpose of the cross is not directed towards man, but towards God himself. Continue reading

Four Reasons You Should Read and Preach the Old Testament

ot“Long ago, at many time and in many ways,
God spoke to our father by the prophets,
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son,
whom he appointed the heir of all things,
through who also he created the world.
He is the radiance of the glory of God
and the exact imprint of his nature,
and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
After making purification for sins,
he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
having become as much superior to angels
as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
— Hebrews 1:1–3 —

If it is true that in these last days, God has spoken by his Son as Hebrews 1 says, why should pastors preach from the Old Testament? If we have the full revelation of God in the substance of Christ, what interest should New Testament Christians have with Old Testament shadows? Surely, it is good to know history and to learn lessons from the past, but do we really need lengthy sermon series of Exodus or to read 1–2 Kings and 1–2 Chronicles?

Without committing the Marcion heresy of denying the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament, some self-identified “New Testament” preachers have stressed the New Testament so much they have lead their flocks to miss (or deemphasize) more than two-thirds of the Bible. In the language of Galatians 3:8, they miss the gospel preached beforehand and hence minimize the full riches of the gospel contained in both testaments.

If you have heard or imbibed such thinking, you might ask whether regular portions of the Old Testament are necessary for reading and preaching for New Testament discipleship. I believe it is, for at least four reasons. Continue reading