Dr. Tom Ascol is Director of Founders Ministries, the largest network of Calvinists affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Founders Ministries maintains that since Southern Baptists have “lost the gospel”, it apparently will be up to like-minded Calvinists like themselves to assist us in finding the gospel* >>>
*I remain very much aware I broke my own ususal standard in posting such a long piece. I only hope I have not presumed upon my readership for whom I am always thankful...
Of course, their understanding of the gospel is summed up as the “doctrines of grace” or more popularly, TULIP-type Calvinism. Expressed in their visionary statement, they write:
“Founders Ministries is a ministry of teaching and encouragement promoting both doctrine and devotion expressed in the Doctrines of Grace and their experiential application to the local church, particularly in the areas of worship and witness. Founders Ministries takes as its theological framework the first recognized confession of faith that Southern Baptists produced, The Abstract of Principles. We desire to encourage the return to and promulgation of the biblical gospel that our Southern Baptist forefathers held dear” (//link, underlining added)
In addition to the statement above, they also state as their express purpose the “recovery of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in the reformation of local churches.” And, intrinsic to the lost gospel’s recovery is the “promotion of the Doctrines of Grace.” (i.e. Five Point Calvinism). One avenue of Founders' success in promoting the Doctrines of Grace and hence recovering the biblical gospel (i.e. strict Calvinism) has been through national and regional conferences.1
Hence, it’s easily recognizable just what Founders Ministries is about in the Southern Baptist Convention. Simply put, they are about recovering the lost gospel which, for them, is Five Point Calvinism. Nonetheless, time and time again this publicly stated goal is either denied by many Calvinists--even including some Founders-friendly Calvinists!--or summarily dismissed by Calvinist critics.
Nor is this a new vision but one from the Founders inception in 1982. From the originator of Founders Ministries, the late Ernest Reisinger, we hear his clear concern echoing through Founders Ministries today:
“Calvinistic Christianity is nothing more and nothing less than biblical Christianity. It follows, then, that the future of Christianity itself is bound up in the fortunes of Calvinism” (link)
“...reforming a local church involves both the demolition of misguided theological notions and the laying of a biblical foundation anchored by the doctrines of grace” (link)1a
With interest, we compare the first statement by Reisinger with one recently stated by Al Mohler to the annual meeting of Baptist state paper editors: “...Calvinism is the shape of the future, because the options otherwise don’t very much exist.” One may also compare the second Reisinger quotation to another Mohler statement reported in Christianity Today just over a year ago. Columnist Molly Worthen quotes Dr. Mohler:
Non-Calvinist conservatives, Mohler says, "are not aware of the basic structures of thought, rightly described as Reformed, that are necessary to protect the very gospel they insist is to be eagerly shared." He thinks that Reformed theology's appeal to young people proves its unique imperviousness to the corrosive forces of 21st-century life. "If you're a young Southern Baptist and you've been swimming against the tide of secularism … you're going to have to have a structure of thought that's more comprehensive than merely a deck of cards with all the right doctrines." In this regard, Mohler is just as elitist as the moderates of old Southern [seminary]: he is certain he has the truth, and those Baptists who protest simply are not initiated into the systematic splendor of Reformed thought.
Not only then do many Southern Baptist Calvinists claim for Reformed thinking an elite, theological perspective which both defines biblical Christianity on the one hand as thorough-going Calvinism, while on the other, dismisses non-Reformed perspectives like the Traditional Statement as fundamentally unaware of the basic structures of thought necessary to protect the biblical gospel—structures Mohler definitively describe as strongly Calvinistic--they also too often assign our rich Southern Baptist history to little more than an immersion footnote to the Canons of Dort. Indeed we are tempted to conclude that to the five well-known solas of the Reformation--saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Jesus Christ alone all for the glory of God alone as expressed in Scripture alone— many Baptist Calvinists, consciously or unconsciously, add an unstated but well documented sixth sola—as interpreted by Calvinists alone.
Such a tempting conclusion is obviously intended as hyperbole. However, at times, we know of few alternatives afforded us in interpreting some of the apparent attempts to recreate our Southern Baptist history into the Baptist Calvinist’s own image. Truth be told, Southern Baptist history cannot fit the monolithic historical trajectory indicative of the typical Founders Calvinist—including Al Mohler’s own apparent historical myopia.
Historically, Southern Baptists resemble more a theological motley crew providentially glued together by an unapologetic commitment to free church ecclesiology, a commitment perhaps more significant than any other single cooperative component. That remains, at least in significant portion, for example, why Southern Baptists held tightly together for over three-quarters of a century without a convention-wide confession of faith. According to W.B. Johnson, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention (and presiding when the convention was formed in 1845), “We have constructed for our basis no new creed, acting in this manner upon a Baptist aversion for all creeds but the Bible."2 Ironically, Al Mohler's muscular confessionalism would have been thoroughly rejected by many, if not most, early Southern Baptists.2a
In a more recent example of recreating Southern Baptist history in the image of strict Calvinism, we find the Founders Ministries director recruiting the support of the famed and late pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, W.A. Criswell, as a potential champion of historic Baptist Calvinism. Quoting Dr. Criswell, a man whom Ascol rightly pointed out was a “godly, influential Southern Baptist giant” Ascol queries: “I could not help but wonder if he [Criswell] would attach his name to the recent statement that Jerry Vines, Paige Patterson, David Hankins, Emir Caner and others have issued and signed.” Ascol then quotes Criswell proclaiming in a message he preached in 1955:
That’s our God! Now that’s what you call foreordination. That’s what you call predestination! That’s Calvinism! And I am a Calvinist. That’s good old Bible doctrine, and I believe the Bible! These things are in God’s hands, and ultimately and finally, He purposed it and executeth all of it!
Ascol goes on and quotes a more recent sermon preached in 1983 when the Conservative Resurgence had gained some fairly important victories, Dr. Criswell, at least in some important ways, leading the charge for biblical inerrancy. The sermon Criswell preached Ascol describes as a “masterful piece of homiletical work.” Of the general and effectual call, Criswell said:
There is a general call, but there is also an effective call. In the great general call, most of them did not respond… but always some came, some heard, some were saved—the effectual calling of God… . There is an effectual call. There are those who listen. God opens their hearts. God speaks to them, and they hear their name called, and they respond; the effectual calling of the elective choosing Spirit of the Lord.
Fair enough. Let’s grant Criswell was a Calvinist precisely as he himself said. The question we have raised time and again on this blog for over six years, however, is not:
- a) whether or not Calvinism is a significant part of our history as Southern Baptists. Indeed non-Calvinists know it is and those who study Baptist history on any level without reservation affirm it is;
- b) whether or not good, godly men and women have been Calvinists. Indeed non-Calvinists know them and those who read Baptist history without reservation affirm them as such;
- c) whether or not many Calvinists have been at the historical forefront in missions. In fact, to our embarrassment as non-Calvinists, we must at times concede that we experience a comparable amount of lapses in evangelistic fervor as do our more Calvinistic brothers and sisters. And, given our reservations about what we judge are unavoidable implications of their soteriology, we confess our theological presuppositions sometime inhibit us from fully understanding the evangelistic dynamic of strict Calvinism. Nonetheless, visible evidence exists indicating many Calvinists have as much or more evangelistic conscience than many non-Calvinists;
- d) whether or not Calvinism is welcome in the Southern Baptist Convention. If Calvinism has been a significant part of our rich, diverse history as Southern Baptists, then it makes entirely zero sense to suggest that Calvinists per se should have no present home among Southern Baptists. While precisely how that guiding principle teases out in everyday convention-life remains the most challenging part, we possess no alternative, if we remain Free Church believers, but to diligently attempt to work that principle out. To formally exorcise Calvinism from convention-life is, for my part, to forfeit Baptist ecclesiology. If we do so, my membership as a Southern Baptist believer will swiftly come to an end.
Rather, what I have consistently opined on this site, around the net, and in personal one-to-one dialogs for six long years is a definitive maneuver by high-profile Calvinists to institutionalize Reformed theology into the Southern Baptist Convention. We could continue rehearsing the “quiet revolution” of Founders Ministries to “recover the gospel” we apparently lost when Five Point Calvinism gradually faded off the theological map in Southern Baptist life during the last quarter of the 19th century, and faded so much so, that Dr. Z..T. Cody could, at the turn of the century, proclaim without fear of dispute:
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?
We could also mention (and have documented numerous times) the complete institutionalization of strict Calvinism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary by its president, Al Mohler, an institutionalization hardly unnoticed by the young, restless, and reformed community itself. Colin Hansen, an insider in the New Calvinism, identified Southern seminary as “Ground Zero” for the young, restless, and reformed suggesting, “due mostly to this foundation”—that is, a reinforcement of the abstract of principles, derived via the Second London Confession from that landmark Reformed document, the Westminster Confession—“Mohler saw that the seminary had a ‘heritage to be reclaimed, and I [Mohler] felt a deep personal commitment to that heritage'”3 We could add to the institutionalization of Calvinism at Southern a similar but less pronounced attempt to Calvinize Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Given just these two historic pieces of evidence4 cataloging the institutionalization of Calvinism as the primary theological trajectory for the Southern Baptist Convention--an institutionalization cooperatively funded, in large part, by Southern Baptists who are not of the Reformed persuasion--pardon us in love if we do not respond well to the almost universal denial from our Calvinistic brothers and sisters that any such institutionalization is taking place now or has been in the past. As frustrating as the denial and/or dismissal has been to many of us, we persevered by grace alone.
Consequently, it seems not too much to suggest that the Traditional Statement marks perhaps the first public acknowledgment that a sizable group of theologically-minded, biblically-informed pastors, denominational leaders, seminary presidents, retired entity heads, past presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, seminary scholars, and college and university professors and administrators definitively perceive some form of institutionalization of Reformed theology being systematically imposed upon Southern Baptists. At least, they perceive the imposition of New Calvinism on Southern Baptist sub-culture strong enough to raise a flag, collect a gathering, and initiate a push back. This, my brothers and sisters, right or wrong, is historic.
Before closing, I want to get back to Ascol’s recruitment of Criswell around the Calvinistic campfire. Our reply, in short: perhaps Criswell was a Calvinist. Granted. But he surely was not the kind of Calvinist the Traditional Statement had in mind with its carefully nuanced catalog of affirmations and denials. Nor did Criswell represent the kind of Calvinism I've publicly opined for six years. One example from a few of Criswell’s sermons will suffice to establish my point.
In 1978, the great expositor Dr. Criswell, preached a sermon entitled “What must I do to be saved?” In it he said:
“Number two: how can God face the question of free moral agency. How can God save me and not violate my personality? For I am free. If God coerces me, I’m not free. If God forces me, and makes me, I’m not free. How can God save me, and at the same time leave me morally free, and not violate, destroy my own personality, my freedom of heart and choice?
This is the way God did it: God left it to me to make the choice in a free moral act. The Lord lays before me the whole story of the self-revelation of His heart. He loved me and gave His Son to die for me. His Spirit woos and makes appeal, and the gospel message tugs at the strings of my heart. And God, having opened wide the door, leaves the choice to me.
I can say “No” to God. I can. Even though I’m made of the dust of the ground, I can say “No” to God. I can double my fist, and shake it in the face of God. I can curse God. I can trample under my feet the blood of the covenant that sanctified Jesus. I can reject His every overture of love and mercy. I remain free.
Well, well. That hardly sounds robustly Calvinistic to me. Let’s try another from 1978 entitled “The Doctrine of Election.” In it, Criswell says,
“Now, the other fact plainly revealed to us on the sacred page is no less dynamically pertinent and true. This also is a fact in life and in the Holy Scriptures: God made us free. We are human agents, able to choose for ourselves. God did that, too. We are absolutely free, we are morally responsible. We can choose for ourselves, and we do. In the beginning, the apostle Paul says in I Timothy, 2, Paul says that Adam was not deceived. Eve was deceived; the subtle serpent led her astray, but not Adam. Adam chose to eat the forbidden fruit; he chose to die with his wife rather than live without her. He had the power of choice in the beginning, Adam was not deceived. He made the decision that has followed through all generations since and comes down to us. Choice is a fact of human experience and human life”
Risking presumption upon a weary reader, allow me just one more lengthy quote from a sermon preached in 1984 entitled, “Decision for Damnation”:
“I want to make my appeal. Why doesn’t God take the unrepentant sinner, the unchanged, unsaved sinner, why doesn’t God take him and make him repent and make him change and make him believe? Why doesn’t God do that? Why doesn’t God say to him, “See this Tree of Life? You’re going to eat of it whether you like it or not.”… Well, we can ask Him for an ultimate answer when we see Him. All I know is from the beginning, He made us free, absolutely free, morally free and I can decide one way or the other, for or against. I am absolutely uncoerced, I am free.
God did that with our first parents. The whole garden is before you…. Just obey this one appeal… Don’t eat of the forbidden tree. If you do, you die… The unrepentant, unforgiven sinner, God lets us choose. We’re free; positively, absolutely wholly and completely free.
And I make the choice. All God does, ever, is to appeal to my soul, that’s all. He never goes beyond it. He never coerces. He never forces. He just makes appeal. And what He does now, is what He does forever. What He has done, what He continues to do, He makes appeal. That’s all.
Now, may I ask Tom Ascol and those Calvinists5 who desire to recruit W.A. Criswell to sit around the theological campfires in Reformed rags and pick out a perky tune on strict Calvinism this one question: in light of the statements above, why wouldn’t Criswell sign the Traditional Statement since the Traditional Statement seems to possess an identical libertarian understanding of free will as did Criswell?
One might object by suggesting, “Well, Criswell was being inconsistent!” Granted.
But one thing is for sure: Founders Calvinists like Tom Ascol under no uncertain terms could affirm Criswell’s obvious libertarian free will theology no matter how much he embraced Criswell’s “masterful piece of homiletical work” on effectual call. Nor would Ascol and other Founders-friendly Calvinists budge if we discovered Criswell screamed from the pulpit every, single Sunday, “That’s Calvinism! And I am a Calvinist. That’s good old Bible doctrine, and I believe the Bible!”
Indeed, given his rather full-bodied free will affirmations above, Criswell may very well qualify as the first Semi-Pelagian Baptist Calvinist discovered in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention.6
1many of today's high-profile Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention have been frequent speakers at Founders Ministries Conferences (some more than others) including Al Mohler, Tom Nettles, Mark Dever, Ed Stetzer, Russ Moore, Don Whitney, Joe Thorn, Michael Haykin, Jim Eliff, Phil Roberts, Timothy George, Mark Coppenger, David Miller, David Dockery, and Voddie Baucham (no particular order for speaker list considered)
1ain addition, see the piece here for Reisinger’s “quiet revolution” to take over Southern Baptist churches. By the way, compare Al Mohler’s statements about the theological exclusivity of New Calvinism being the only viable option with Reisinger’s statements above--here, and here
2nor am I suggesting we do away with all confessions including the BF&M2K
2aperhaps a tighter statement would be, Mohler's penchant for confessional Christianity not entirely unlike we find in more robust Reformed groups which were and are creedally connected to The Westminster Confession would hardly have survived at the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. While local churches held a healthy understanding of confessions in governing its local body, a universal confession for all Baptists was barely conceivable at that time as Johnson's statement indicates. Again, a strong free church ecclesiology still lorded it over Baptist thinking
3Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. Colin Hansen, Crossway 2008, p.73
4and, I assure you, I have six years worth of varying types of evidence on this site that the new breed of Calvinism (some perhaps rightly suggesting, Calvinists rather than Calvinism, placing the focus not upon principled theology but on personal temperament) is becoming ever more ubiquitous not only in churches (which, in all fairness, is not our ecclesial business) but also in top-tier positions in the denomination. Again, it’s not that Calvinists cannot or should not serve our convention. Rather, when Calvinists become entirely more effervescent than their actual numbers reasonably warrant, it should not surprise anyone that red flags will begin to legitimately arise
5one college student, Joshua Breland, followed Ascol’s unscholarly attempt to baptize Criswell into the Founders Calvinists’ Hall of Fame. But while we may rightly offer intellectual mercy to Breland for his immature, sophomoric and errant conclusions concerning Southern Baptist history, no such mercy should be allowed to Ascol who ought not only to know better, given his PhD in church history from Southwestern, but also for leading naïve college students astray with sloppy, unwarranted historical analysis
6yes, there is an answer to Criswell’s conundrum. It may not be the only answer. But it seems to me to fit well into his perspective. From what I gather, Criswell, was, for lack of a better term, a "paradoxicalist" when it came to God’s Sovereignty and human free will. While we are taught in our philosophy of religion 101 classes to not accept what appears to be a contradiction in theological principles (i.e. If God is fully sovereign, how can humans be fully free?), for a biblicist like Criswell, he finds no contradiction in Scripture. Hence, he can say with the utmost sincerity:
“For example, there is no man that has ever lived that could make fit together these two truths, though you can talk about them one at a time: the sovereignty of God and the free moral agency of the man. You can look at one at a time, one side at a time, but you can't see them both together. You can't even see all the truth if you were in an airplane and had an air view of it…”
“What we sense, and what we see in our own lives, we see in all history. There is freedom of will, and there is the sovereignty of God. Charles Haddon Spurgeon said, “I cannot make them come together; but you cannot make them cross”… . Edgar Young Mullins, our greatest philosopher theologian said, “They have been struggling with the problem of free moral agency and the sovereignty of God from the beginning of time. And no philosopher yet has ever arisen who can reconcile the two doctrines”… .
“There are two sets of nomenclature used in the Bible, constantly used. One set of words refers and are used by the Lord God up there in the heaven of eternity where He has His throne. And those words are “predestination,” “election,” “foreknowledge,” “constancy,” “sovereignty,” “omnipotence,” “omniscience,” “omnipresence.” Those are the words used in heaven…
Down here in this world where I live, in the dust of death, there is another set of words. We use the words “moral freedom,” “advantage,” “contingency,” “possibility,” “the exercise of my volition.” These are the words down here: freedom of spirit, freedom of choice, freedom of election, all the possibilities that are daily set before me…
And no man will ever get the right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once. These two facts: divine sovereignty and human freedom are parallel lines. I cannot make them meet, neither can anyone make them cross.
Hence, for Criswell, he possessed little desire to reconcile what he believed to be firmly impossible. And, this paradoxical approach seemed to play in his favor as to precisely why he could get along with strict Calvinists on the one hand and support those who embrace, as did he, a robust understanding of free choice on the other.
Many contemporary Calvinists, however, are hardly the committed biblicist Criswell was (recall, “Why I Preach the Bible is Literally True”). Instead they appear utterly sold out to a rigid systematic Calvinism which brings with it as theological baggage not only an entirely new theological language, but a hermeneutical methodology which insists on making everything “fit” into a neat, tidy closed system. Few strict Calvinists today allow a loose theological end to dangle in their system. Hence, rather than settle for a paradoxical approach as did Criswell, they insist, for example, on redefining what Criswell called “free choice” into a “compatible” version implementing philosophical categories to do so. Consequently, but only potentially, is delivered "logical compatibility" between God’s Sovereignty and human “free choice,” a compatibility for which Criswell wouldn’t have a paid a plug nickel. He didn’t care what theologians thought about his supposed antimony. He just wanted to preach the Bible as he saw it. For him, biblical text trumped systematic theology. Many truly biblcial preachers sound like a Calvinist one sermon and a rank Arminian the next! Our task as biblical expositors is not to make the Bible into a consistent system. Rather our task is to be faithful to the inspired text we preach and leave the philosophy of religion conundrums in the classroom or coffee shop. For my part, I think an unhealthy focus on systematic theology, together with a tragic, concurrent demise of simple biblicism (i.e. not to be confused with simplistic biblicism) could go far in explaining why contemporary Calvinists and non-Calvinists experience abnormal difficulties getting along with one another.