Kentucky Baptists address Calvinism
On Saturday 4 August, the Kentucky Baptist Convention (KBC), consisting of 2400 churches and 71 separate associations sponsored a conference on Calvinism.
The stated purpose of the conference was to give an opportunity for people of different perspectives on the issues of divine sovereignty and related subjects to engage and better understand each other.
Also the sponsors of the meetings hoped that out of these lectures and discussions a peaceful and harmonious spirit would develop, in spite of whatever theological differences there might be within the membership of the churches and clergy.
The conference was held near Louisville, Kentucky, in the Crestwood Baptist Church, a huge facility built in an open area near Crestwood. Approximately 200 registrants were in attendance, with about 500 participating online by viewing streaming videos.
The programme consisted of two major lectures by David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee; a panel dialogue between men of different views on Calvinist theology; a question and answer session; and an address by Dr Frank Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and now chairman of the executive committee of the Convention.
The conference invitation stated that the upcoming meetings were necessary because Calvinism appears to be the most discussed and controversial, and perhaps divisive, issue facing Southern Baptists today.
The SBC is the largest evangelical denomination in the United States, consisting of 16 million members and over 40,000 churches. Recent polls have determined that over 10 per cent of the pastors claim to be five-point Calvinists, that many more are of the four point variety, and doubtless there are an undetermined number who have milder sympathies with the leading concepts of Reformed theology.
The growth of Reformed theology in recent years has come as a profound shock to many of the older leadership of the SBC, who have no sympathies with this movement.
Dr Paul Chitwood, executive director of the KBC, made it clear in his welcoming remarks that the intentions of his staff were definitely not either to promote or refute Reformed theology. He was obviously concerned that the educational and evangelistic goals of the Convention could be compromised by serious divisions over the subjects soon to be discussed.
Unity, peace and harmonious fellowship among all pastors of the participating churches were understandably his goal, since, while a very conservative denomination, both the KBC and SBC have a wide variety of theological emphases within their folds, not only on such questions as election and irresistible grace, but on prophecy, the gifts of the Spirit and a host of other issues.
The first lecture of Dr Dockery laid out in a masterful way the historical roots of Baptist theology, going back to the early days of the General and Particular Baptists of the sixteenth century.
He pointed out that strongly Calvinistic Baptists and Arminian-leaning Baptists have always flowed alongside each other for centuries. Faithfulness to history required him to point out that the early Baptists of America (such as those who organised the Philadelphia Association, the first of its kind in North America) were predominantly Calvinistic.
It was they who organised the first missionary societies and sent men such as Adoniram Judson to foreign fields. He cited some early Baptist theologians, such as J. L. Dagg, J. P. Boyce (strong Calvinists, the latter founder of the Southern Baptist Seminary), B. H. Carroll (probably in the four point category, and founder of the Southwestern Baptist Seminary). Dockery traced various modifications that developed as Calvinism was challenged through the years.
His second lecture explained with remarkable insight and honesty how the modern revival of Calvinism developed in Baptist circles. Two things were highlighted. One was the fact that the strong Calvinistic sources of Baptists in America have in recent years been rediscovered. The other was the influence of people outside Southern Baptist circles, such as J. I. Packer, John MacArthur and John Piper.
Dockery affirmed, with strong factual support, that all forms of Calvinism were well within the limits of acceptability for preachers and churches in the SBC, except hyper-Calvinism.
He also opined that liberal theology, which denies the authority of Scripture and other fundamentals, is outside the bounds of acceptability. He concluded, with what I personally thought was the most forceful point — that whatever we may think about Reformed theology, it is here to stay and will always be welcome in Southern Baptist life.
He also noted the obvious — that Arminianism, at least in some modified form, is also within the fold. He reminded us that the ‘eternal security of the believer’ is universally believed by Southern Baptists.
In the interests of space, I will comment briefly on the rest of the programme, which ended at 15.30. A panel discussion took place after lunch between two Baptist leaders who line up on opposite sides of the Calvinism issue.
Dr Hershael York, pastor of Bucks Run Baptist Church and associate dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, represented the Calvinist position. Dr Steve Lemke, director of the Baptist centre for theology and ministry at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, represented the opposite side (I noticed none of the participants wish to be called ‘Arminian’, which is a pejorative term in Southern Baptist circles).
York admirably defended all the five points and Lemke affirmed a ‘conditional’ view of election, that God foreknows who will accept Christ but his foreknowledge does not contradict man’s free will. The discussions were totally free from harshness or rancour, although sharp differences were expressed.
The last major segment brought appeals for unity from Drs Page and Chitwood. Page’s address was entitled, ‘A vision for a united SBC’. He had in a previous question and answer time confessed some obvious angst that he had been dealing with many churches torn up over the Calvinism issue.
I was particularly interested in what he had to say, since when he was elected to the presidency of the SBC he was noted as a militant anti-Calvinist. But his address was conciliatory, gracious and winsome. He pointed out that it is Satan’s business to divide, destroy and distract God’s people.
His main point was that there is much more that unites Southern Baptists than separates us. In essence, he said, ‘We are all living in the same denominational house and need to love and respect each other’.
Chitwood echoed essentially the same appeal in closing the conference, and invited all to stand who pledged to show Christian respect for all orthodox people in the denomination and work together with them. I gladly stood and did not see anyone remain seated.
In the closing moments, I could not help but recall something I read in one of the sermons of the great Baptist and Calvinist Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Unlike many of his Calvinist brethren, he opened his heart and hand of fellowship to many who did not agree with his strong Calvinist stance.
He held a high regard for the Wesley brothers and lectured about them. In his sermon ‘The great mystery of godliness’ he says, ‘I want you to notice still further that in this summary there is no exhibition of mere doctrine.
‘I believe, most firmly in the doctrines commonly called Calvinistic, and I hold them to be very fraught with comfort to God’s people; but if any man shall say that the preaching of these is the whole of the preaching of the gospel, I am at issue with him.
‘Brethren, you may preach these doctrines as long as you like, and yet fail to preach the gospel: and I will go further, and affirm that some who have even denied these truths, to our great grief, have nevertheless been gospel preachers for all that, and God has saved souls by their ministry’.
He goes on to exhort preachers: ‘Preach Christ, young man, if you want to win souls. Preach all the doctrines, too, for the building up of believers, but still the main business is to preach Jesus who came into the world to seek and to save that which was lost’ (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 13, pp. 706-707).
Happy would it have been in Spurgeon’s day and would be in our own era if more Calvinists heeded the admonition of the great English divine.
I believe that that conference at Louisville was a very necessary step in helping our Southern Baptist pastors and lay people understand the issues facing us in interpreting the sections of the Bible that deal with the doctrines of grace.
I commended Dr Paul Chitwood for his taking the initiative to organise this meeting and securing these Baptist leaders for their part in the conference. I sincerely hope that the goals of the organisers — harmony, peace, openness and cooperation among people of different viewpoints — will be realised.
The author is worship pastor at Bellepoint Baptist Church, Frankfort, Kentucky, USA
John F. Thornbury