One often hears the claim that our first convention-wide adopted statement of faith--The 1925 Baptist Faith and Message--was much more Calvinistic than either of the two subsequent revisions in 1963 and 2000 >>>
Indeed one occasional commenter at SBC Tomorrow suggested that since the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message was a "mirror of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith"--a confession, according to him, written by individuals holding "very strong Calvinist leanings"--the 1925 confession was therefore "put together" with "[intentional] vagueness" in order to "widen the denominational tent." Consequently, Southern Baptists' first convention-wide confession "was not designed to allow a few Calvinists into the fold, but at the time, was designed to allow the Arminian-leaning minority a place in our camp" (//link). And therefore for him, interpreting the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message as anything less than a document proposed and embraced by strong Calvinists--albeit accommodating Calvinists but strong Calvinists nonetheless--apparently constitutes an attempt to "uncover a new way to interpret our confession of faith."
Even so, from my comparative reading of the three versions of the BF&M side-by-side, the common claim that Southern Baptists were "much more Calvinistic" in 1925 cannot be sustained given the confessional language found within the documents themselves. If I am incorrect, I challenge the perceptive reader to demonstrate my error in the thread below.
Add to the insufficent confessional language used in the documents themselves to bolster the questionable historical notion that Southern Baptists were much more Calvinistic in 1925 the contextual factors involved including the fact that the preeminent theological visionary penning the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message was a mild Calvinist--if Calvinist at all--the legendary E.Y. Mullins.1 One critic of Mullins laments Mullins' decisive theological move away from the strict Calvinism of Boyce and Manly:
"[Mullins'] role as chairman of the committee which presented the 1925 “Baptist Faith and Message” statement as the Southern Baptist Convention’s first official confession of faith furthered the process of shifting from a Calvinistic to a more modified position, indicating the shift of authority toward the individual. This was accomplished by basing the “Baptist Faith and Message” on the New Hampshire Confession of Faith rather than the Philadelphia Confession, which was more thoroughly Calvinistic"2
The many laments concerning Mullins' rejection of his predecessor's strict Calvinism recorded by many strong Calvinists today remain public and well known. Hence, there is little benefit in citing those. Know also that Mullins was far from alone on the 1925 committee in his rejection of the theological contours of strict Calvinism. For example, E.C. Dargan and Z.T. Cody served with Mullins on the 1925 confession committee neither man concerning whom we lack historical evidence that they strongly questioned strict Calvinism (//link; //link).
So, let's consider another substantial contextual factor in appraising whether Southern Baptists were "much more Calvinistic" in the earlier part of the 20th century than in the latter part of the 20th century.
The 1919 statement of faith
The truth is, Southern Baptists' first convention-wide adoption of a confession of faith was not in 1925 but in 1920.3 Albeit the 1920 statement of faith was adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention, the statement's purpose was specifically for use by the Foreign Mission Board in order to "facilitate the examination of the frequently large numbers of applicants" and to "satisfy the Board that it is not sending to the field those who will "inject discord" or "promulgate doctrines" which were "not acceptable to the churches at home which support the work."4
In fact, according to the board minutes, the statement of belief the Foreign Missions Board unanimously passed in 1919 and subsequently presented to the 1920 Southern Baptist Convention for its approval described the brief doctrinal confession as a "synopsis of the faith which is common among our people" and, along with a previous doctrinal statement called The Fraternal Address (also penned by E.Y. Mullins in 1919)5, would wield "value for our Baptist people everywhere as suggestive of the common bonds of faith, and a basis for Baptist federation and a missionary program" (italics added here and above). In short, the trustee board billed the statement of belief as the common belief among all Southern Baptists.
What does the statement of belief adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1920 reveal about the "common bonds of faith" to which Southern Baptists adhered as a "synopsis of the faith which is common among our people" and consequently to be used by our Foreign Missions Board to "facilitate the examination" of missionary applicants in avoiding "discord" and/or "promulgat[ing] doctrines" unacceptable to the churches at home which supported the missionary work? And, even more directly toward our specific question, does the 1920 statement of belief reveal any indication that Southern Baptists were "much more Calvinistic" in 1925 than in subsequent confessional periods of the 20th century?
Consider the soteriological heart of the 1919 statement of belief which contains five short, straight-forward articles reflecting the common bonds of faith among Southern Baptists in 1919-1920:6
IV. That in his natural state, man is depraved and without true holiness;
V. That salvation is wholly of grace through Jesus Christ;
VI. That on condition of personal repentance for sin and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ any man can receive the forgiveness of sin and salvation unto everlasting life;
VII. That regeneration is necessary to spiritual life in Christ, and that this change is effected by the direct action of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of each individual who exercises personal faith in Jesus Christ;
VIII. That sanctification is the process by which, between regeneration and glorification, the spiritual life of the believer is deepened, and he grows in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ;
Immediately one is faced with an embarrassing display of how remarkably inaccurate many of today's Calvinists are who insist Southern Baptists in 1925 were "much more Calvinistic" than during the subsequent periods of the 20th century. Note, for example, the innocuous description of human depravity which surely makes any strict Calvinist cringe (IV). Our fallen state is described as merely "depraved" and lacking "true holiness." Is there even a hint that fallen humans are totally depraved and therefore possess complete inability to respond to the gospel since they are spiritually dead and cannot respond to the gospel in repentance and faith until they are first of all born again?
Not only is there no hint of strong Calvinism's insistence that regeneration necessarily precedes faith, but there also exists fairly clear indicators that Southern Baptists confessed some form of conditional election--or, at minimum, conditional salvation, which, in the end, seems to reduce to conditional election. Note articles VI and VII. Only on conditions of personal repentance and faith can forgiveness be obtained for salvation leading to everlasting life. Nor is there reason to assume these conditions were predestined by God to be bestowed upon only the elect. Nothing is written or implied concerning either eternal election or predestination.
In addition, while Article VII states unobjectionably from both Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike not only the necessity of regeneration "to spiritual life in Christ," but also the unilateral work of the Holy Spirit in directly effecting the transformational change in the person's heart (i.e. monergistic nature of the new birth), unlike strict Calvinism which insists people must be born again before the conditions of repentance and faith can be accomplished, the 1919 article clearly states that the new birth comes upon each individual "who exercises personal faith in Jesus Christ." In other words, not unbelievers but believers are born again by God's Spirit. For them, faith clearly precedes regeneration.
Incidentally, the language of the 1919 statement of belief concerning the new birth being conditioned upon faith is very similar in content to the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message. Corresponding to Article VII of the 1919 statement of belief, Article VII of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message unequivocally states regeneration to be a "work of God's free grace conditioned upon faith in Christ and made manifest by the fruit which we bring forth to the glory of God" (italics added). Of course, this is no surprise since Mullins theologically envisioned and chiefly composed both documents. What remains a surprise, however, are Calvinists who continue to insist Southern Baptists were strongly Calvinistic at the begining of the 20th century. Yet the historical record does not seem to prop up their truncated historiography.
Often non-Calvinists have surely been guilty of outright dismissing the strong Calvinistic contribution(s) Baptist Calvinists have made to the Southern Baptist Convention. And, when they do, those of us who not only appreciate our rich Southern Baptist heritage but also favor fair readings of the historical record are obligated to set the record straight. On the other hand, it assists the Calvinistic cause in recovering the strong Calvinism of the 19th century not a single scintilla by reading into our history notions that remain definitively absent.
1one would be hard-pressed to find an historian who would minimize Mullins' influential contribution to composing Southern Baptists' first convention-wide, stateside confession of faith. Also included on the composition committee were other well-known Calvinist detractors like E.C. Dargan, Z.T. Cody, and L.R. Scarborough
2R. Albert Mohler, Jr., vol. 3, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology Volume 3, 4 (Louisville, KY: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1999), 13
3it remains not historically inaccurate, however, to speak of our cooperate confessional history as Southern Baptists beginning in 1925 since the 1925 BF&M was the first confession we both proposed and adopted as a convention-wide summary statement of belief to speak outside our denominational infrastructure
4I am indebted to a 2002 article by Jeffrey Riddle in Southeastern's Faith and Mission journal for the specific data included on this post pertaining directly to the historical information on the 1919 statement of belief. I posted a complete record on all thirteen articles on a separate page (includes the source documentation)
5some Baptist historians consider The Fraternal Address Southern Baptists' very first confession of faith. James E. Carter, "The Fraternal Address of Southern Baptists," Baptist History & Heritage, (precise vol. presently missing from my databank)
6as I stated above, all thirteen articles are available to the interested reader on a separate page