I John 3:14, “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not [his] brother abideth in death.”
My best friend is Calvinist, a Presbyterian. She has not always been so, but went through a period of intense reading and study in which she came to the conclusion that the Calvinist doctrine most closely matches the Bible. I have similarly studied my Baptist faith very intently and have made the same conclusion about my faith matching the Bible.
When we get together, we have wonderful conversations and Bible studies, as we have always done since we were college roommates. The places where we differ, we fill with grace toward each other and move on.
Thus it has always bemused me to see the attitude that some of my fellow Baptists exhibit toward Calvinism and our Calvinist brethren. Sometimes the word “Calvinist” is spoken as an accusation against someone. Sometimes, it almost seems to be thrown out there like a curse word. Why is that?
Surely the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) are not all doctrines with which we disagree. Total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Seems like we agree completely on total depravity, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Unconditional election is pretty hard to dispute by anyone who believes Jeremiah 17:9 about the heart’s deceitfulness. There is nothing to recommend us to salvation except the fact that God loves us. So . . . we get stuck on the limited atonement issue. And fight so fiercely about it that you might think that Calvinist doctrine was more of an obstacle to Baptists than are the cults, or the Eastern religions, or the atheists.
And, truly, it is only the hypercalvinists who say that limited atonement means Christ only came to die for those who would eventually be saved (the elect). The rest of them phrase it that His death was “sufficient for all and efficient for the elect.” Put that way, it doesn’t sound too very far from the position most Baptists take about Christ’s death.
I am going to suggest that the answer to the animosity many Baptists exhibit toward their Calvinist brethren lies in our mutual history.
One place where Baptist theology showed a distinct departure from Calvinism was during the ministry of Charles Finney during the Second Great Awakening. Finney himself started life as a Presbyterian pastor and later rejected Calvinism. Perhaps some of the Baptist antipathy toward Calvinism is inherited from that era. Although Finney took appropriate stands for inclusion of women in worship (short of pastoring) and against slavery (Oberlin College, where he served as president, was one of the first institutions to educate blacks and women alongside white men), he may have played a disproportionately large role in the development of distaste for Calvinism among Baptists.
Prior to Finney, Baptists were often classified as Five Point or Particular Baptists who held to Five Point Calvinism and Four Point or General Baptists, who held to all of the points of Calvinism except for Limited Atonement.
Nowadays, a Baptist expressing belief in either a Five Point or a Four Point position might be seen as guilty of heresy, and in some Baptist seminaries, might face school discipline.
It is my belief that we humans often overreact to things we don’t understand, out of fear, mostly. Seminaries that let people know that they can only think certain thoughts about God without facing discipline probably don’t produce the caliber of thought, analysis, and writing that they would wish to have. How much better to tell seminarians that they are free to explore the whole counsel of God’s Word and to write about it, as long as they can support what they are saying from His Word and not just from a man’s systematic theology!
That is enough for a first look at this topic. I will no doubt be writing more about it as the months go by because it seems that some of my fellow Baptists truly have an irrational fear of Calvinism and, thereby, of our Calvinist brethren. I want to take the tenets of our faith, and theirs, to the Word of God one by one and see what I find therein. For surely we must be willing to abandon any of our pet beliefs if we are shown that they are inconsistent with God’s Word.
I will also look at the five tenets of Arminianism. I have no set schedule for all of the above and I don’t plan to get legalistic about covering everything in a given amount of time. All I can say is “stay tuned . . .”
I doubt anyone will change their systematic theology as a result of the discussion here, but I hope it will help us exercise charity toward our brothers and sisters as we explore some things together.
I believe that one discovery we may make is that there is a not a great chasm between Calvinism and Baptist theology. Based on the good fellowship I have with my best friend (and several other Calvinist sisters), I believe we are closer in our beliefs than we think . . . In other words, I believe we are all pretty Biblical, with some fine points on which we disagree. Let’s look at God’s Word together and see . . .