A historian questions the suggestion that Calvinists are to be tolerated only as long as they do not express their views.

By Bob Allen

A seminary professor denounced the marginalization of Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention at a breakfast gathering during the recent SBC annual meeting in New Orleans.

tom nettlesSpeaking at the 2012 Founder’s Breakfast, Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, weighed in on controversy over a recent statement claiming to represent “the beliefs of the majority of Southern Baptists, who are not Calvinists.” The document referred to a “long-standing arrangement” by which Calvinists and “traditional” Southern Baptists managed to work side-by-side in evangelism and missions.

“Well, what arrangement is this?” Nettles, author of books including By His Grace and For His Glory: A Historical, Theological, and Practical Study of the Doctrines of Grace in Baptist Life, asked in remarks now posted as online audio. “I don’t recall an arrangement by which a Calvinist could be tolerated as long as he did not seek to propagate his views.”

Nettles said recent criticism doesn’t stop with Calvinist thought but “seems nonplussed that the Calvinist would want his church to have an exclusively Calvinistic understanding of salvation.”

“Indeed, that a Calvinist would want all churches to have that same understanding seems to this emergent traditionalism to be shocking and the violation of some social arrangement that has normally governed the place of Calvinism in Southern Baptist life,” he said.

“Before, Calvinists were so rare and seemingly so odd that they provided comic relief to the more thoroughbred Southern Baptist,” Nettles said. “It was good to have them around, for some oddities in life provide amusement and a target for good-natured humor.”

“The traditionalist was just fine with the occasional presence of an inconsequential Calvinist,” he continued, “but these Calvinists have now become uppity and they dare to take their own views of truth with the seriousness with which convictions of truth should be taken. They think their view of the gospel should impact evangelism, missions, church discipline, preaching and theological education.”

“How dare they violate the arrangement?” he asked. “See how nasty and aggressive these Calvinists are. See how vile they act as they seek to drink from the same water fountain as the traditionalist, when they claim an equal right to argue their case, propagate their views, and are unembarrassed to accept all the common rights of what it means to be Southern Baptist.”

One way being used to oppose Calvinism, Nettles said, “is to represent it as something of a new spirit, a new aggressiveness, a new cocksureness.” He quoted one observer who described a “new kind of Calvinism” that is “hostile, militant and aggressive.”

“Oh, that’s probably what I’m being right now,” Nettles said. “I’m sorry.”

Another tactic, Nettles said, is to “inform all the churches through the directors of missions that Calvinism is dangerous and will destroy your church.”

“So give hints to the deacons as to how they can detect a Calvinist and generate as much prejudice as possible against it,” he said. “If he resists the charges that are given, seeks to explain them, and a group within the church comes to his side, then he has become the typical Calvinist church splitter. See how divisive they are!”

“Apply majoritarian pressure that indicates that it is not appropriate for Calvinists to hold positions in which their salary comes from the Southern Baptist Convention, the property of the traditionalists,” he continued. “No matter their competence, their orthodoxy in historic Christianity, their views of biblical authority, their thorough commitment to Baptist ecclesiology, their involvement in church planting, missions and evangelism in the local church, their contractual obligations to support a chartered confessional statement, the newly minted traditionalist says we do not want such a person in a position of influence.”

Nettles said Southern Baptists have come full circle in their renewed interest in Calvinist views, also known as Reformed Theology or the Doctrines of Grace. When Southern Baptists formed in 1845 for cooperative missions and then moved into theological education and publishing literature, he said, the first thing they did was to solidify their understanding of salvation through “confessional Calvinism.”

In the 20th century, organizational growth into a centralized denomination with a strong geographical base “began to make Southern Baptistness something very distinctive,” he said.

By the time doctrinal reform rolled around beginning in 1979 with the “conservative resurgence,” Nettles said, Calvinism had come to be viewed as one of several inconsequential doctrinal divergences in Southern Baptist life. That same recapturing of biblical authority, he said, is what drove some Southern Baptists back to doctrines that were stated in historic Baptist confessions of faith but no longer normally taught or clearly proclaimed.

Nettles said based on his reading of history he would have expected that over the next 10 or 15 years Southern Baptists “were going gradually to seek to work out these issues, but it seems the future has come upon us now with great rapidity and more ferocity than I had anticipated.”

“The question that always lurks in the background of everyone’s mind is, ‘Do we agree on enough of the elements of the gospel to maintain a unity of cooperation in the preaching of the gospel to the nations?’” Nettles said. “So far the common theological affirmations that have emerged from the conservative resurgence have been sufficient grounds for maintaining fellowship and a united purpose to teach, preach, evangelize and fellowship together in an exercised discussion, but that now has become quickly confrontive.”