I received my copy of Ministry By His Grace And For His Glory: Essays in Honor of Thomas J. Nettles1 only a few days ago and have made half the journey through the first reading. I do not plan to review the entire volume since a volume of this nature defies brevity. With over 20 different contributors writing independently of one another, one is left with either a mammoth task to accomplish or a shotgun blast so broad, it gives justice to no single author or idea. In my view, it is better to periodically offer bite-sized portions people may chew on one chunk at a time. If one is interested, Nathan Finn offers a general outline of all the chapters >>>
My initial “chunk” to chew on, then, constitutes two statements by Southern seminary president, Dr. Al Mohler. The first statement is found in Dr. Mohler’s contribution to the volume, and the second is found in the chapter by Dr. Erroll Hulse. In the Foreword, Dr. Mohler writes of his assignment as president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky:
“I was elected president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993, charged with the task of returning the denomination’s mother seminary to her confessional commitments and theological accountability” (ix).
While no one disputes Dr. Mohler’s election as president of Southern Baptists’ oldest seminary, one must initially question whether the young Mohler (33 years old at the time) was “charged” with returning Southern Baptists’ “mother seminary to her confessional commitments and theological accountability.” Understand: the question is not whether radical changes were both desired and expected. Nor would Southern Baptists who were loyal to the Conservative Resurgence at that time question whether theological accountability was a non-negotiability.
Rather, I remain confident that Dr. Mohler’s “confessional commitments” did not mean the same to grassroots Conservatives then that it apparently meant to him. In fact, Conservative Resurgence leaders consistently resisted Calvinistic aggression by Founders Ministries. On February 17, 1982, Paige Patterson allegedly responded to a letter written to him by Ernest C. Reisinger, the human energy behind the Founders Movement. Patterson seems to have written:
It is apparent that we differ some in regard to soteriological matters – at least regarding the order of events in soteriology. What does concern me even more greatly, however, is that we are going to eventually forfeit the Southern Baptist Convention as a forum for the discussion of differences among people who have no questions about the total truthfulness of the Bible unless we stay together. I see the possibility of a rift developing between Bible-believing conservatives over the question of the extent of the commitments to Calvinistic theology. If we allow the rift to take place at this stage of the game, I am convinced that it could be all the detractors of the Bible need to wreck our effort to establish the source of truth among Baptists.
I am certain that you have no more desire to see this happen than I, but I want us always to keep before us the importance of staying together until we can win this primary battle concerning the authority of the Word of God (//link)
Evidently, Reisinger pressured Patterson on the “Doctrines of Grace” as far back as the initial stages of the Conservative Resurgence. But Dr. Patterson didn’t budge. So what significant event took place over the next ten years (from 1982-1993) which convinced Al Mohler to apparently conclude that his “charge” was to return Southern seminary to “her confessional commitments and theological accountability”? In short, to reimage Southern Baptist Theological Seminary into “ground zero” for our culture’s new Calvinism? For my part this is inexplicable given aggressive Calvinism’s failure to persuade Conservative Resurgence leaders toward embracing wholesale the theology of Boyce, Dagg, and Mell. Had Adrian Rogers, Jerry Vines, Paige Patterson, et al come around to embracing Founders’ theology by 1993?
Nor would grassroots Southern Baptists have thought Mohler’s assignment was to take their cherished seminary and turn it into a thoroughly “Reformed Baptist” seminary. The truth is, our issue was inerrancy. That’s it. One issue. One! We proudly flew that flag wherever we could. We were interested in inerrancy not election, predestination, effectual call, or being born again before faith. We wanted a seminary where the Word of God was not questioned but rather assumed. Calvinism was not on the table; the authority and truthfulness of Scripture was. Albeit Dr. Mohler’s confident perception of his “charge” to return Southern seminary to her “confessional commitments and theological accountability” definitively meant re-imaging Southern seminary into an exclusively “Reformed Baptist” institution, we beg to differ. The overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists then nor now possess yearnings for a “Reformed Baptist” seminary. If I am mistaken, somebody should produce the goods.
The second chunk on which to chew is from Erroll Hulse’s chapter entitled “God’s Sovereign Election” (chapter eight). Hulse rehearses Mohler’s words:
Mohler declares his indebtedness to Carl Henry and accords with Henry when he chides Southern Baptists for their “theological amnesia.” Mohler writes: “Even the opponents of Calvinism must admit, if historically informed, that Calvinism is the theological tradition into which the Baptist movement was born. The same is true of the Southern Baptist Convention. The most influential churches, leaders, confessions of faith and theologians of the founding era were Calvinists—it was not until well into the twentieth century that any knowledgeable person could claim that Southern Baptists were anything but Calvinists” (p. 136)2
Let’s briefly respond to this statement. First, the idea of “theological amnesia” amongst Southern Baptists—at least amongst those who have studied Baptist history on any level—is clever rhetoric but nonsensical and almost insulting. No one disputes Calvinism’s theological contribution to Baptists generally or Southern Baptists particularly. If so, we’d like them named. So far as I know no Baptist historical textbook has scrubbed our Calvinistic roots from our history as often implied by terms like “theological amnesia.” And, as I’ve often stated, the first book recommended to me in 1979—the first year I was introduced to theological education in Louisville—was Calvin’s Institutes. Before that, my pastor who graduated in the 50s from Southern seminary gave me his systematic theology textbook which I still have today. It’s title? Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof. If there is amnesia, perhaps some who advocate the Founders Movement may have come in contact with it.
Second, nor is it likely that those who are historically informed will ignorantly concede that Calvinism is the “theological tradition into which the Baptist movement was born.”
Has Dr. Mohler forgotten that the first Baptists were anti-Calvinists? In the Short Confession of Faith in XX Articles by John Smyth (1609), it reads, “that men, of the grace of God through the redemption of Christ, are able (the Holy Spirit, by grace, being unto them grace prevement [sic]) to repent, to believe, to turn to God, and to attain to eternal life; so on the other hand, they are able themselves to resist the Holy Spirit, to depart from God, and to perish forever”3. John Smyth held anything but Calvinism and apparently may have embraced some of the Remonstrant’ conclusions in “falling from grace.” Indeed it was approximately two and a half decades before a Calvinistic Baptist church showed up.
Suppose someone suggested the Conservative Resurgence was born in 2006 when Frank Page was elected as President of the Southern Baptist Convention—a full two and a half decades after Adrian Rogers was elected president of the SBC. Imagine trying to persuade Southern Baptists Frank Page’s election to the presidency was the birth of the CR. Hence, to not only suggest that Baptists were born in the theological tradition of Calvinism, but also to imply those who deny such are historically ignorant is fundamentally absurd.
Third, it is true that many--perhaps most—of the influential churches, leaders, confessions of faith and theologians of the founding era of the Southern Baptist Convention were Calvinists. What does this prove? If we determine who Southern Baptists should be by counting noses, then we should be non-Calvinists. Even more alarming is, most of the influential churches, leaders, and theologians of the founding era were also slave-owners. I wonder if we should start lifting up our founders’ moral example in arguing for slavery? Apparently not since some are touting slavery as a means to dump “Southern” from Baptists. But if our founders like Boyce, Manly, Broadus, Dagg, Mell, Mercer, and others cannot be moral models for contemporary Southern Baptists so far as slavery goes, why are we implored by Dr. Mohler and others to follow some of the founders in their rigid, stiff Calvinism?
Dr. Mohler also erroneously suggests it was not until “well into the twentieth century that any knowledgeable person could claim that Southern Baptists were anything but Calvinists.” Really? Not according to some experts—at least in the rigid sense Dr. Mohler accepts. For example, the most recent definitive history of Baptist origins in the state of Alabama was published in 1998 by the University of Alabama Press, a history entitled Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie, written by Professor Wayne Flynt. He writes,
"No Biblical dispute shaped early Alabama Baptists so profoundly as Calvinism...Although Baptists were Calvinists in the general sense of that term, they modified the doctrine" (p.26)
"If Charleston, South Carolina provides the clearest ancestry for Calvinism, Sandy Creek, North Carolina, lays firmest claim to the revival tradition. Ardent, charismatic, emotional, independent, Biblicist, the Sandy Creek tradition merged elements of both Calvinism and Arminianism" (p.27)
If Mohler is correct that it wasn’t until well into the twentieth century that Baptists in the south were anything other than rigid Calvinists, Dr. Flynt has misread the record. While Flynt does say that Alabama Baptists were Calvinists, they were nonetheless Calvinists in the general sense of that term for the simple reason they had modified the Calvinist doctrine. Paige Patterson allegedly implied virtually the same to Reisinger in 1981:
It would be inappropriate and dishonest for me to deny that Dr. [Tom] Nettles and Ernest Reisinger are more Calvinistically turned than I am. You would be correct in your assumption that I would reject the concept of a limited atonement as it is most frequently defined in Calvinistic theology, and would even want to be sure I heard the definitions on three others of the traditional points of Calvinism. However, if the two poles under consideration are Calvinism and Arminianism, I am certainly far more Calvinistic than anything else (//link, embolden added)
Patterson appeared to concede that, granting for argument’s sake the notorious but undesirable either/or theological polarization routinely pitched at Southern Baptists who do not identify with either Calvinism or Arminianism but Biblicism, he definitely fit Calvinism more than Arminianism. For aggressive Calvinists, this remains unacceptable as the recent essay by William “Bill” Harrell makes clear—“We are right and you must agree.” Moreover, Flynt also speaks of the unspeakable tributary to the Baptist movement absent amongst truncated views of Baptist history visible in Dr. Nettles’ historiography—a theological mingling of Calvinism and Arminianism in the Sandy Creek tradition. For aggressive Calvinism, apparently any step from the undiluted doctrines of grace—at least the way they interpret them—is a step toward liberalism, humanism, and unorthodoxy4.
Nor does it seem Dr. Mohler is aware of Z.T. Cody’s provocative essay around the turn of the twentieth century. Though not well known today, Dr. Z.T. Cody (1858-1935) stands as no stranger to either Southern Baptists in general nor to Georgia Baptists particularly. While Alabamian by birth, Cody attended Mercer University, was ordained to ministry by the Second Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA and later received a D.D. degree from Bowden College, GA.
Dr. Cody was a sophisticated “theologian of the first rank”— according to the Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists. He studied under famed Calvinist theologian, Professor James P. Boyce, receiving his Master of Theology degree in 1887 from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.
Dr. Cody served Southern Baptists in the South well, being appointed to various significant committees at all levels of denominational life. He served as Vice President of the Home Mission Board in 1898 and was Pastor of several churches in the South, not the least of which was the historic First Baptist Church, Greenville, SC (1901-1911), where he gained wide popularity and earned deep respect from not only South Carolina Baptists but Baptists all over the south.
In an essay entitled, Are Baptists Calvinists? Cody was decisive and clear:
The so-called "five points of Calvinism" are the essential doctrines of the system. Men have forgotten them now but they were once as familiar as the letters of the alphabet. They are, particular predestination, limited atonement, natural inability, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. Now if this is the system that constitutes Calvinism it is again very certain that Baptists are not Calvinists.
This system can be, it is true, found in some of the older confessions of faith and it was at that time held by some Baptist churches. It is also true that there are now many of our churches which hold some of the doctrines of this system. All Baptist churches, so far as we know, hold to the perseverance of the saints. But it can be very confidently affirmed that there is now no Baptist church that holds or defends the five points of Calvinism. Some of the doctrines are repugnant to our people. Could there be found a minister in our communion who believes in the theory of a limited atonement? (//link, embolden added)
Unless Dr. Mohler judges the turn of the century “well into the twentieth century” it’s hardly persuasive to argue as does Dr. Mohler that it was not until “well into the twentieth century” that any “knowledgeable person” could claim that Southern Baptists were anything but Calvinists.
Historical oversights like these can embarrass even the brightest among us. In addition, historical oversights can also blind us to our own history. Southern Baptists are and always have been a mixed breed of believers (i.e. Calvinists and non-Calvinists). Our tenacious adherence to the priesthood of the believer and the autonomy of the local congregation creates a nightmare for those like Drs. Mohler and Nettles who apparently want to demonstrate an exclusive soteriological vision among Southern Baptists which matches their own. When will we stop denying the deep Baptist waters from which Southern Baptists emerged in the 19th century, waters deep enough and shores wide enough to carry the missionary battleship that has historically come to be known as the Southern Baptist Convention?
With that, I am…
1Thomas K. Ascol and Nathan A. Finn editors, Founders Press, 2011, $29.95 Hardback. At a chapel service at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on November 10, Dr. Nettles was presented the debut copy by Tom Ascol, director of Founders Ministries
2We assume Hulse has rightly quoted Mohler since no source is specifically cited for Mohler’s words. It could be vol. three of Nettles’ work mentioned on the previous page but one cannot be sure
3Baptist Confessions of Faith, William L. Lumpkin, pp.100-101; in 1610, “A Short Confession of Faith” was produced by the “Helwys party”also bearing Arminian or “General Baptist” tendencies
4see Reisinger’s clear view here