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.

What is Calvinism?

Calvinism means different things to different people. Even to those who might call themselves “Calvinist,” what they mean by the term is not always the same. Typically, as a shorthand expression for what I believe about salvation, I am comfortable to call myself a Calvinist. And yet, because that label is so often misused, misunderstood, and misapplied, I am equally desirous to avoid it altogether.

Nevertheless, the question remains: What is Calvinism?

The answer to that question takes more than just two sentence, simple answer. Because it is a term that has historical, theological, and worldview meanings, it takes time to get a handle on it. Therefore, for those who have an interest and an ear to hear, let me give you a five-fold answer to that question: Calvinism is (1) a shorthand expression for the doctrines of grace, (2) a biblical-theological system, (3) an historical phenomenon, (4) a biblical worldview, and (5) an attitude of worship. As always, let me know what you think.  Continue reading

Who is Upholding Who?: Preaching in the Face of Adversity

Sunday by Sunday, faithful pastors labor to uphold the glory of God in the face of Christ, but such labors can often be overwhelming.  I have garnished much encouragement that this wearying task is not something that only a few experienced.  Rather, any who desire to walk faithfully with Lord will wrestle with sorrow, fatigue, feelings (and realities) of inadequacy, and the like.

David experienced this.  In Psalm 139, he is undergoing some sort of adversarial assault.  Those who surround him are accusing him, attacking him, and/or perhaps questioning his leadership, integrity, or faithfulness.  Maybe some pastors can relate.  What does he do?  He spends eighteen verses recounting the glorious truths of God’s knowledge, presence, and power.  Only then does he ask God for protection and deliverance from these enemies.  In the end, he lets the trial he is facing to be a source of purification.  He once again submits himself to God’s opinion and judgment.  He is a man whose center holds, because he has made God the center of his life.

As I prepared Psalm 139 last week I remembered John Piper’s words to pastors taken from his biography of Charles Spurgeon.  Ten years ago, I was given a cassette tape (remember those) of that Spurgeon message.  I listened to it numerous times, long before I ever was in ministry.  However, the words heard many years ago still resound in my mind and have more relevance and weight to them today then they did then. Pastor, let his words remind you that as you uphold the gospel, God himself upholds you!

Preaching great and glorious truth in an atmosphere that is not great and glorious is an immense difficulty. To be reminded week in and week out that many people regard your preaching of the glory of the grace of God as hypocrisy pushes a preacher not just into the hills of introspection, but sometimes to the precipice of self-extinction.

I don’t mean suicide. I mean something more complex. I mean the deranging inability to know any longer who you are. What begins as a searching introspection for the sake of holiness, and humility gradually becomes, for various reasons, a carnival of mirrors in your soul: you look in one and you’re short and fat; you look in another and you’re tall and skinny; you look in another and you’re upside down. And the horrible feeling begins to break over you that you don’t know who you are any more. The center is not holding. And if the center doesn’t hold—if there is no fixed and solid “I” able to relate to the fixed and solid “Thou,” namely, God, then who will preach next Sunday?

When the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “By the grace of God, I am what I am,” he was saying something utterly essential for the survival of preachers in adversity. If, by grace, the identity of the “I”—the “I” created by Christ and united to Christ, but still a human “I”—if that center doesn’t hold, there will be no more authentic preaching, for there will be no more authentic preacher, but a collection of echoes.

O how fortunate we are, brothers of the pulpit, that we are not the first to face these things! I thank God for the healing history of the power of God in the lives of saints. I urge you for the sake of your own survival: live in other centuries and other saints.

Father, let those who uphold the word tomorrow do so upheld by the power of your Spirit and the promise that your word NEVER EVER returns void (Isa 55:10-11).

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Theology from a Bunch of Dead Guys (Weekend Website)

I cannot remember when or how, but somewhere in college I stumbled accross this website: Theology from a Bunch of Dead Guys, or more officially titled, The Hall of Church History.  This was the first Christian website of its kind that I was introduced to, and as it was then, it is now– the premier spot for all things theological on the world-wide web.  From Calvin’s commentaries to The Fundamentals to Charles Spurgeon’s sermons (also maintained by PJ), Phil Johnson, a calvinistic Baptist himself, has an endless list of resources on his website.  

Theology from a Bunch of Dead Guys

Not to be confused with Darwin on Trial ‘s  Phillip Johnson, Phil Johnson is the Executive Director of “Grace to You,” John MacArthur’s daily radio program and an avid blogger at Pyromaniacs.  His website on theology and church history kicked off in 1995 and today contains hundreds of valuable links to excellent sights.  He categorizes them according to historical tradition: Catholic, Arminian, Reformers, Baptist, and even Heretics–which makes the searching easier.  Overall, his site is a launch pad for excellent, free, full-content resources online.

This makes a great resource for the seminarian who has limited finances, the rural pastor who has limited library access (especially to classic materials), or the pioneer missionary has limited space to store and/or carry all the books he wants.  So, in short, Theology from a Bunch of Dead Guys is a great resource and one you should stop by this weekend.