Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Building an Understanding of Baptist Calvinism

I’ve been listening to some of the podcasts of the Building Bridges Conference at Ridgecrest last week. Today, I’ve been working through Malcolm Yarnell’s talk on “Calvinism: A Cause for Rejoicing, A Cause for Concern”. He is a non-Calvinist. I appreciate his comments. I think he has dealt fairly with Calvinism for the most part. There are a couple of issues that he brings up that gives me cause to address – perhaps not his own misunderstanding, but certainly the misunderstanding of many non-Calvinists.

He defined the five points of “Classical Calvinism”. To be sure, I don’t see much of a distinction between his definition of Classic Calvinism and Hyper Calvinism. Nevertheless, the five points he gives are these:

Unconditional predestination
Limited or particular atonement
Total human corruption
Irresistible grace

He stated:

“Fisher Humphreys is correct when he notes, ‘anyone who accepts unconditional predestination should have no trouble accepting the other four ideas as they follow naturally from unconditional predestination.’ …By unconditional predestination, classical Calvinism understands not only positive election which scripture definitely affirms, but also negative reprobation which is their mere logical supposition. After the line is crossed into philosophical theology with speculation regarding the divine decrees, there is little holding the Christian theologian back from embracing the soteriological doctrine of Classical Calvinism in its entirety."

Note the sentence I highlighted. One of the complaints I hear from non-Calvinists is that if God elected some to heaven, then you would have to conclude that He elected some to hell. A typical response from a thoughtful Calvinist is that we are already doomed to hell, but the elect are saved by grace. This is not a bad answer.

However, the non-Calvinist qualm employs the deductive “denying the antecedent” fallacy. The syllogism is thus: If I am elect by God to eternal life, then I am not elect by God to go to hell. I am elect by God to eternal life. Therefore, I am not elect by God to go to hell. It is incorrect to conclude that I am elect by God to go to hell if it is given that I am not elect by God to eternal life. The question begged is either that the syllogism is equivalent – namely, “I am elect by God to eternal life if and only if I am not elect by God to go to hell”. However, scripture nowhere affirms that people are condemned to hell because God elected them to it or chose them for hell from the foundations of the earth. Scripture indeed affirms election and predestination for salvation. Therefore, my original syllogism is the scripturally accurate one.

In this case, I think Malcolm Yarnell and I would agree. What troubles me is that too often non-Calvinists assume that Calvinists in general believe in election to hell because the non-Calvinists apply this faulty logic to the doctrine of election.

He makes this next comment by way of illustrating non-Calvinistic missional roots among Southern Baptists:

“..the Hyper Calvinist argument that faith is only available to those possessing a warrant to believe. To argue like the Hyper Calvinists that sinners should not be freely offered the gospel nor invited to respond with faith and repentance is anathema to a missionary Baptist. For instance, Texas union Baptists adopted articles of faith that have been interpreted as Arminian. "We believe that Christ died for sinners and that the sacrifice which He has made has so honored the divine law that the way of salvation is consistently opened up to every sinner to whom the gospel is sent and that nothing but their voluntary rejection of the gospel prevents their salvation." While the claim that such a statement is necessarily Arminian is doubtful, it is definitely not a Calvinist sentiment.”

He also offered a similar statement from Massachusetts. But what I find striking I that aside from the question of a couple of terms, this is not overly non-Calvinist. If it is non-Calvinist, then the only reason I could see why it would be worded so is that there were plenty of Calvinists at the time and the need was felt by non-Calvinists to overreact to some Calvinists who perhaps did have a heretical brand of Calvinism.

The two terms that are dubious here are “opened up” and “voluntary”. Do the writers of this statement mean to indicate that the gospel should be presented to all people or that Christ’s atonement was made for all people. Given the context, I would say the former. If the latter is the intended meaning, then a particular soteriology rather than missiology is being recommended. There is a difference.

The second term “voluntary” is not adverse to Calvinism. Our volition is certain, but dependent on second causes rather than possessing the capacity to be an agent of first causation. All first causation is necessarily unified as eternal. We are saved by faith. Our possession of faith is of second causes. The faithful respond to possession by the Holy Spirit – an eternal agent of first cause. The lack of faith is not an act of volition but rather is exhibited behaviorally. Faith is active while the lack of faith is passive. Behaviors that result in a lack of faith are active. We are responsible for our behaviors. Where there is no faith, we are condemned by our behaviors. Where there is faith, the penalty warranted by our behaviors is atoned for by Christ – an eternal agent of first cause. Therefore, the volition of our faith, while not an autonomous agent of first cause, is freed from responding only to our depravity. We may now respond directly to agents of first cause.

So where does missiology come into play? Why do we have the Great Commission? God can come to people in visions. He still does so today. However, He has made it clear to us that He desires to use us as His second-cause agents of His first-cause activity in the temporal manifestation of the calling of His elect. It is this purpose and command to which we must be obedient. We must proclaim the true gospel and leave it to God to quicken the hearts of men as a matter of first cause. He has given us over to reason that our faith may be shown to be reasonable. He is glorified not only in the response of our second-cause volition to His first-cause quickening, but that our faith may be reinforced with the certainty of the truth and the unfaithful provided with no excuse. Wheat and tares are planted in the same soil.

Malcolm Yarnell further stated:

“With such a history behind Southern Baptists it should be clear that the SBC may be willing to tolerate Baptist Calvinism, and I would argue should be willing to have Baptist Calvinists as brethren in our churches. Classical Calvinism and Hyper Calvinism are singularly unwelcome.”

This is a welcome statement. His gave particular definitions of Classical Calvinism and Hyper-Calvinism. There’s apparently a very fine historical distinction. However, I must have missed an elucidation on what he considers acceptable Calvinism. I can think of it, but I’m more concerned for the non-Calvinists who can’t.

He gave three reasons why “the non-Calvinist outlook will continue...”:

1) Southern Baptists are committed to foreign missions.

2) In their own nations, cities and home towns Southern Baptists have greatly emphasized evangelism and church growth.

3) A dispensational view of eschatology which enjoys popularity across the SBC is generally not compatible with Calvinistic theology.

What I have to note is that if missions, evangelism and eschatology are reasons why a non-Calvinistic soteriology will persist, then it is because there is a lack of understanding among many Southern Baptists who incorrectly link a lack of missions, a lack of evangelism and amillennialism with a Calvinist soteriology. In other words, these are not glowing reasons. They speak of a glaring need for improved theological equipping among Southern Baptists in general.

For the record, the reason I, a Southern Baptist who holds to a Calvinistic soteriology, didn't go the 80 miles down the road to the Conference is because it happenned inthe middle of the week. To be sure, I could take vacation days to go. However, I'm saving as many vacation days as possible to do more mission work next summer.

Finally, Malcolm Yarnell gave five benefits and concerns about Calvinism:

1) Calvinism takes Christological Orthodoxy seriously. However, Baptists focus on demonstrable faith.

And Calvinists do not focus on demonstrable faith?

2) Calvinists hold a high view of the Bible. However, the non-Calvinists suspect that Calvinism is a system that is not particularly Biblical, but more philosophical. Must "rightly divide the truth", but not continue to divide it ad infinitum. Some forms of Calvinism, not all, are simply not Biblical enough.

Some forms of non-Calvinism are not Biblical enough. As for being philosophical inasmuch as we are all theologians we are also all philosophers. It is more fruitful to talk about presuppositions. There are theological conclusions that are true and theological conclusions that are false. Likewise, there are philosophical presuppositions that are true and philosophical presuppositions that are false. Calvinists are no more philosophical than non-Calvinists. The question is what presuppositions are true.

3) Calvinists are serious about the gospel. Spurgeon's Calvinism pursues the gospel, but not all forms of Calvinism do. The Classical Calvinist doctrine of salvation is confusing and troubling because they seem to deny the need to repent. Calvinists make a distinction between common grace and special grace, but folk theologians do not because they cannot find it in the Bible. "Non-Calvinist Baptists would call our Calvinist Baptist brethren to reject clearly and permanently the speculative doctrines insofar as they detract from the clear presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

What is “troubling” is the speculative use of “confusing” and “seem to” as well as a reference to “folk theologians”. What is he talking about? The reason anyone would not find something in the Bible is that their presuppositions preclude a clear understanding. The doctrine of the trinity is not in the Bible any more than, say, limited atonement. God is not mentioned in the book of Esther. However, God is evident in the book of Esther, the doctrine of the trinity is evident from Genesis to Revelation and limited atonement is likewise as clear.

Another thing that is “troubling” is his reference to the “clear presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” What is sufficiently “clear”? Is it clear enough if the gospel is rejected? What if we are explaining the gospel to someone with impeded mental faculties who cannot understand penal substitution? Should we compromise penal substitution in order to present a gospel that is more understandable? We must communicate the gospel to the best of our ability with as much an understanding of our audience as possible. However, the theology of the gospel must not be compromised for some misperceived level of clarity.

4) Calvinists have been at the forefront of ecclesiological reform. However, the Calvinist teaching of the "invisible church" goes against Baptist congregationalism. Calvinists are to thank for Baptist "historiology". However, they emphasize the history of Baptist Calvinism at the expense of Baptist non-Calvinists.

I have to be honest. I don’t understand precisely what he means by “invisible church”. I know what I would mean if I used that term and what I would mean if I used that term doesn’t contradict congregational ecclesiology. In fact, it would support it. “Invisible” speaks of the fact that our association with true Christians outside of our local congregation transcends any imposed man-made hierarchical ecclesiological government. Looking at how God has revealed Himself throughout history and in the images in prophesy, the parables of Christ and the examples of Paul, God likes to spell things out in simple terms. The microcosm of the local congregation should be a picture of the church at large. That doesn’t defeat congregationalism in the least.

5) Calvinists are good at encouraging genuine Christian living particularly in criticizing the invitation or the altar call. However, there is a need for a public display of one's faith.

Look at the benefit here of encouraging genuine Christian living versus the concern from the first issue. I’m probably just missing something, but these don’t seem to jive. Indeed, he specifies the “invitation” or “altar call” here. As far as that goes, I’ve seen the opposite. I’ve defended the use of the invitation in the face of criticism from non-Calvinists. As such, he may be alluding back to some historic hyper-Calvinists, but I don’t see this at all today among Baptists.

In all, I appreciate his comments. He was exceedingly fair and gracious in his treatment and my commentary here is merely my thoughts as I listened to him. It seems that there remains much that non-Calvinists do not understand of Calvinism. Being a professor of theology, he had a better understanding of Calvinism than most non-Calvinists I know. As long as we seek a greater understanding and to agree on the important issues of the authority and accuracy of the revelation given in the text of the Holy Scriptures, the full gospel of Jesus Christ and the call to righteousness even to the fulfillment of the Great Commission, we will be unified in Christ.

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