Southern Baptists Are Divided Over Calvinism

Molly Worthen in Christianity Today article The Reformer writes:  R. Albert Mohler Jr. is the president of the SBC’s flagship school—the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and the most prominent public intellectual in the convention. In recent years, his influence has spread beyond Southern Baptist circles. He blogs for The Washington Post’s On Faith religion column, not to mention his own blog, AlbertMohler, and has appeared multiple times on Larry King Live. Until this July, he reached listeners across the country five days a week on a syndicated radio program (he gave up the show to free up time for writing books and longer-form podcasts).

Time magazine has turned to Mohler for the conservative evangelical perspective on issues ranging from evolution to Christian missions in Iraq, calling him the “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.”

After nearly 20 years at the helm of Southern Seminary, Mohler has put the finishing touches on what supporters call the “conservative resurgence” and critics bemoan as the “fundamentalist takeover”: the radical shift of SBC leadership from the moderate, even mainline-inclined theology of the 1970s to today’s firm grounding in biblical inerrancy, a complementarian view of gender roles, and, more often than not, conservative politics.

Before Mohler’s appointment, Southern faculty celebrated higher biblical criticism and embraced evolutionary theory. Now the school is a bulwark of conservative Reformed theology and creationism. The campus of lush trees and neocolonial architecture is the staging ground for a struggle against a mainstream culture that Mohler believes is sliding into moral chaos—and against “postmodern Christians,” the enemy within.

To Mohler—who eschews the “culture warrior” label for its political connotations—these battles require not so much reformation in Washington as renewal in the church. Despite his modest media empire and efforts to engage a broad audience, Mohler’s parachurch enterprises come second to his duties as a denominational man, his aim to unify the SBC and reverse falling baptism rates.

He is not the only Southern Baptist worried about the church; nor do all of his fellow believers agree with his theological vision for the denomination. As Southern Baptists struggle to evangelize post-Christian America and rev up missions worldwide, they are finding that the denomination cannot face the future until they agree on what constitutes true Southern Baptist history and identity. Mohler believes Southern Baptists are Reformed thinkers rather than merely pietistic revivalists, citizens of the world rather than the South, and evangelical in the best sense of the word.

In 1979, when the SBC’s annual meeting elected Memphis pastor Adrian Rogers as president and the conservatives launched their push to take over the denomination’s leadership, Mohler was a senior at Samford University in Birmingham. He had only a faint notion of the turmoil engulfing his church. Samford’s moderate faculty inculcated students with the view that “there were good guys and bad guys in this denominational conflict, and the good guys were forces of scholarship, academic respectability, and serious theological thought, and the bad guys were recidivist fundamentalists who were seeking to topple the integrity of the Southern Baptist system,” Mohler says.

At the time, moderates staffed the SBC’s key bureaucratic bodies and the boards of trustees that ran the denomination’s schools. Since the late 1960s, conservatives had grumbled that these leaders embraced modern methods of interpreting the Bible, compromised Scripture to accommodate secular culture, and espoused a version of Christianity alien to the Baptist in the pew. They organized fellowships and founded renegade Bible schools years prior to the 1979 election, when they studied the minutiae of SBC electoral rules in order to direct the outcome. Most moderates failed to take conservatives’ intentions seriously until it was too late.

The conservative strategy was simple: Elect a conservative as president of the SBC for ten consecutive years, during which time all crucial denominational positions would come due for re-nomination, allowing them to populate all boards, agencies, and trusteeships with their own kind. Conservatives gained control of nearly all major Southern Baptist bodies by the end of the 1980s. They pressured the moderate president of Southern Seminary, Roy Honeycutt, to crack down on faculty who deviated from the school’s founding Abstract of Principles, a document based on the early confessions of English Calvinist Baptists. Honeycutt weathered years of negotiation and compromise between liberal faculty and fire-breathing trustees, finally announcing his retirement in the fall of 1992. After a tense presidential search, the trustees appointed the candidate many considered a long shot: the untested Mohler, then 33.

The seminary’s Abstract of Principles did not address women’s ordination, but Mohler and the trustees believed that faculty should conform to what they considered the prevailing sentiment among Southern Baptist laypeople. Through a combination of forced resignations and “golden parachute” retirement packages, Mohler purged the School of Theology, closed the School of Social Work, and replaced moderates with inerrantist faculty who agreed with him on abortion, homosexuality, women’s ordination, and his brand of Reformed theology. (As proof of the seminary’s current “diversity,” some faculty protest that they are only four-point Calvinists.)

Many commentators, in these pages and elsewhere, have noted the rising interest in Reformed theology among young evangelicals. In no denomination has the Calvinist revival been more striking, and more controversial, than in the SBC. Although many Southern Baptists were Calvinists in the 19th century, for the past hundred years most have feared Calvinism as an abstract bogey in a Geneva collar, threatening to divide churches over doctrinal minutiae and kill evangelism with predestinarian bile.

In the 1980s, a small number of Southern Baptist scholars began examining their denomination’s Reformed roots. “The leaders of the conservative movement didn’t want this,” says Thomas Nettles, who teaches historical theology at Southern Seminary. “Calvinism had been demonized. When they were shown that it was Southern Baptist, that James Boyce was formulating something that was generally held by Southern Baptists, it became a matter of, ‘We’ve outgrown that.’ … The Calvinist movement was very small at first, but it became larger as the younger generation began to see this in the documents.”

A year or two into Mohler’s presidency, when his intention to steer Southern seminary in a Reformed direction became clear, non-Calvinists indicted him as the main carrier of a theology they viewed as an alien spore in SBC life. However, it was too late to halt Calvinism’s growing popularity. “Calvinism had the chance to seep out into the convention in a more pervasive way, so that no one could say Southern and Mohler were the problem,” Nettles says. In a 2007 LifeWay Research study, nearly one-third of recent SBC seminary graduates self-identified as Calvinist.

Mohler believes that the only intellectually robust defense of biblical inerrancy lies in the Reformed scholasticism that emerged from the Synod of Dort (1618) and enjoyed its apogee at late-19th-century Princeton Theological Seminary, where James Boyce trained.

Non-Calvinist conservatives, Mohler says, “are not aware of the basic structures of thought, rightly described as Reformed, that are necessary to protect the very gospel they insist is to be eagerly shared.” He thinks that Reformed theology’s appeal to young people proves its unique imperviousness to the corrosive forces of 21st-century life. “If you’re a young Southern Baptist and you’ve been swimming against the tide of secularism … you’re going to have to have a structure of thought that’s more comprehensive than merely a deck of cards with all the right doctrines.” In this regard, Mohler is just as elitist as the moderates of old Southern: he is certain he has the truth, and those Baptists who protest simply are not initiated into the systematic splendor of Reformed thought.

“I would disagree completely,” says David Allen, dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Seminary. “The early church affirmed inerrancy long before Calvin set foot on the planet.” Yet Mohler is correct that the theologians of old Princeton, drawing on a particular strain of Reformed theology, formulated the hyper-rationalist theology that deemed the Bible “a storehouse of facts” (in the words of Princeton theologian Charles Hodge) and became a cornerstone of American fundamentalists’ response to modernity. “Fundamentalism of a more sophisticated sort traces its roots to Dort Calvinism,” says Hinson. (Calvin’s own theology is distinct from that of his followers. It is far from clear, for example, that he believed in limited atonement, the L in Dort’s famous TULIP.)

Hinson and other moderates say that Mohler misrepresents the Baptist tradition. A pietistic strain of theology that emphasized religious experience evolved parallel to the Calvinistic theology of Southern’s founders. The Puritan movement, out of which Baptists emerged, “was primarily about heart religion, not primarily scholastic in character, or obsessed with doctrine, as Mohler is,” says Hinson.

To Joseph Phelps, a graduate of the old Southern who pastors a liberal Baptist church in Louisville, Mohler’s version of Baptist history is not only reductionist but also damaging to evangelism. “It’s not my experience [that seekers demand rationalist proof of the Bible],” he says. “Even if that were true, to reduce the gospel to logic is not a fair thing to do, just because that’s what people think they need to perpetuate the faith. That doesn’t get you the kingdom, the mystery, and the love of God.”

Among conservatives, leaders on both sides of the Calvinist chasm downplay the friction these days. “I’m more in the Radical Reformation tradition than Mohler would be,” says Patterson, citing the Anabaptist heritage that his seminary celebrates. “But we’ve always been able to work together.”

“Calvinism is a small issue,” says Ed Stetzer of the SBC’s LifeWay Research. “On the scale of theological diversity, it’s not that big of a distinction.”

Yet faculty at Southern say their graduates have struggled to find pulpits in the Deep South, where fear of a Calvinist conspiracy is perhaps strongest.

Moreover, the SBC’s current crisis over baptismal numbers—and how to evangelize in a postmodern age—has placed theological questions front and center. “What’s scary to Reformed people is that they don’t want to fall into the same decisionistic evangelism that filled our churches with non-serious people,” says Nettles.


The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 11:5 that God has a means of saving people; it is called the election of grace.

Paul wrote an entire book to the Ephesians communicating that God purposed to save the elect, from before the foundation of the world, as he related in Ephesians 1:4.

At the appointed time, one believes and is saved. It is  as the Apostle Luke records in Acts 13:48: all those destined for eternal life believed.

John McArthur raises and also answers an important question Is the Doctrine of Election Biblical? ……


One Response to “Southern Baptists Are Divided Over Calvinism”

  1. Southern Baptists Are Divided Over Calvinism « EconomicReview Journal | Conservative Government Says:

    […] a complementarian view of gender roles, and, more often than not, conservative politics. … “conservative politics” – Google Blog Search This entry was posted in Conservative Politics and tagged Baptists, Calvinism, Divided, […]

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