Upgrade down South
Much is being written about the spread of the so-called Emergent Church among young adults who grew up in Evangelical churches. While that movement is certainly growing and must be confronted, the attention it has generated has made caused many North American Evangelicals to overlook another, more significant, development in their midst.
Collin Hansen’s recent book, Young, restless, reformed (Crossway, 2008), chronicles this other emergence by surveying the growth of Calvinism across denominations over the last twenty years.
It is unquestionable that within Baptist life generally, and throughout the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in particular, there has been a significant resurgence of Calvinistic convictions during this time.
In a survey of more than four hundred Southern Baptist pastors during July and August of 2006, LifeWay Research discovered that one in ten considered himself to be a Calvinist. This figure can be taken as a conservative estimate based on the simplicity of the one research question that was asked: ‘Are you a five-point Calvinist?’
The only person who would answer in the affirmative is one who is theologically informed and self-consciously committed to this set of doctrinal convictions. It is reasonable to assume that some who might baulk at such a designation would, nevertheless, be very Calvinistic in their understanding of the nature of salvation.
More extensive research conducted just after this initial LifeWay study suggests that this is indeed the case, particularly among younger Southern Baptist ministers. In late 2006 over two thousand recent graduates from Southern Baptist seminaries were surveyed on their commitment to Calvinistic doctrines.
Twenty-nine per cent were ‘five-point Calvinists’. This research strongly suggests that the growth of Calvinism among Southern Baptists is being experienced primarily among the rising generation.
Once again, the conclusions should be regarded as conservative due to a difficulty encountered in the collection of data – Southern Baptists have six theological seminaries plus the Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary, but the seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, did not release a list of its graduates to the researchers. As a result (through other means) only fifty-two respondents from that seminary were included in the research.
By 2006, the Louisville Seminary had become the largest of the Southern Baptist seminaries and could be described by Hansen as a ‘Reformed hotbed’. It is safe to assume, therefore, that had a representative number of graduates from that school been included in the survey the results would have identified an even larger percentage of young Southern Baptist ministers as ‘five-point Calvinists’.
Not everyone excited
Not everyone in Southern Baptist life is excited about the resurgence of Reformed theology. Some leaders stridently oppose it. In October of this year, a conference was organised by well-known Southern Baptist pastors to refute the doctrines of grace. It was entitled ‘The John 3:16 Conference’. Despite this opposition (and perhaps, in part, even because of it) interest in Reformed theology continues to grow.
While many groups are discovering the doctrines of grace for the first time, this current resurgence is no more than a homecoming. The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 by 293 delegates from churches across the southern states.
Each one of these delegates came from churches or associations that held to the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (which is virtually the Second London Baptist Confession with two additional articles). Though largely eclipsed for most of the twentieth century, Calvinism was the theological cradle in which the SBC was rocked.
This doctrinal homecoming bodes well for the future of Southern Baptists. Long heralded as the largest Protestant denomination in the USA, the SBC has been in spiritual decline for some time.
In June of this year the convention admitted publicly that its reported statistics provide greater cause for concern than for boasting. Southern Baptists report over 16 million members in their churches, but acknowledge that on any given Sunday, only six million people show up in their primary worship services.
Occasion for rejoicing
While a concern for unregenerate church members is not exclusively Calvinistic, the clearest, loudest calls for addressing this problem have been issued by Calvinists. Doctrinal reformation informs and inflames ecclesiological reformation.
These developments give occasion for great rejoicing among all who love the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace. They provide no ground, however, for any triumphalism. Any doctrinal upgrade that has occurred is the result of God’s kindness and power.
The needs and challenges we face, not only within the SBC but throughout evangelicalism in the West, are more than enough to keep us humbly crying out for greater manifestations of divine favour.
If the present reformation is to grow deeper and wider, then many changes will come to denominations, local churches and individual Christians. Because of doctrinal neglect and long-term spiritual apathy, some of those changes will be painful and unsettling. There can be no reformation otherwise – such is the nature of repentance. But where true repentance takes root, spiritual refreshment blossoms (Acts 3:19).
As you pray for the advance of the gospel in the twenty-first century, remember to seek God for the ongoing reformation within the SBC.
Tom Ascol has been in pastoral ministry for 30 years, the last 22 at Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL. He is a graduate of Texas A&M University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the Executive Director of Founders Ministries and Editor of the Founders Journal.