When the Traditional Statement was released in 2012, it drew fire from many Calvinistic quarters across the evangelical spectrum not the least of which was Founders Ministries, then the largest network of Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention. Accompanying many of the criticisms of the document was an appeal for theological support from the late Pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas, Texas and Southern Baptist legend, W.A. Criswell. For example, Tom Ascol, the executive director of Founders Ministries, wondered aloud if Criswell would attach his name to the recent statement that Jerry Vines, Paige Patterson, David Hankins, Emir Caner and others have issued and signed. In his piece, Ascol cited Criswell's sermon preached in 1955 on Isaiah 46:9-11. "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!"1 The money quote is "That's Calvinism! And I am a Calvinist." Calvinism, according to Criswell, allegedly is nothing more than "good old Bible doctrine."
Consequently, I wrote a response to what I interpreted as a skewed understanding of Southern Baptists' most esteemed pulpiteer showing from several other sermons Criswell preached that Criswell was hardly the kind pro-Calvinistic witness Ascol had made him out to be. Criswell's recorded rhetoric definitively removes him from serious consideration as a credible Founders-friendly ally. The fact is, Criswell explicitly denied Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and regeneration precedes faith all doctrines of which remain non-negotiable to Founders-type Calvinism. Moreover, Criswell hardly sounds like someone strict Calvinists would desire as a veritable witness for their theological position in this sermon:
We all have a part in our salvation and in our service and destiny. God has a part, but I also have a part. In my text, He says, the Lord says, "You make a new heart and you make a new spirit." Yet the Bible plainly teaches us it is only God's Holy Spirit that can give us a new heart and a new soul. But both of them are together, always, in the Bible… .
…There's a philosophical reason, I think, why I must have a part in this being saved by the grace of God. Number one: if I don't have a choice, I am a robot, I am a pawn, and I am not accountable. If it is all of God and I have no choice in it, then I cannot be held accountable for what I do…
Number two, why it is that I must have a choice in this salvation: because of my experience. In my heart I am free. One of the most amazing things in the world about free moral agency is this: puny worm of the dust that I am, I can curse God… We can spurn all of the overtures of mercy of the Lord.
A third reason why it is that we have this part in our salvation: the Scriptures always address themselves to our turning, to our repenting, to our accepting, to our believing, to our receiving. From the beginning, we were made free. God gave us freedom of choice, and He pleads with us on the basis of that created freedom… Thus it is in my salvation: my response answers the willingness of God to forgive me and to save me and to keep me. …
And if anybody says we don't have any hope, my brother, it's all hope in Jesus. We're weak; it's all strength in Jesus. It's desperate; it's all bright and glorious in the Lord Jesus. All I need to do is to obey those simple things that God has commanded us to do, and God's enabling grace performs the marvelous miracle beyond.
We're saved like that. We're saved like that. It's that response that God looks for, and takes, and uses as the basis of His regeneration. By one act of sin did we fall: by an act of repentance are we restored. By one tremendous failure, did we fall into death: by one tremendous commitment are we raised from the grave. The Lord takes our obedience, our reception, our response, God takes it and He makes it the occasion for the great regenerating power of His saving hand.
God never, ever judges us on the basis of our past transgressions. God always judges us and receives us on the basis of our present obedience. "Lord, here I am. Here I come. I trust You. I believe in You. I give my life to You." And when you do, God's whole vast armory of regeneration, now and in the hour of your death, and forever, is yours by your side, working, slaving, ministering, providing just for you, as though there were no other soul in the earth. God's entire arsenal is dedicated to you. The change is in you; you change, and God changes.2
The quotes could be multiplied many times over from various sermons Criswell preached.
Yes, Criswell claimed he was a Calvinist. But it's entirely out of the question he was the kind of Calvinist Ascol claims.
More recently I had a brief twitter exchange with Presbyterian evangelist, Colin Maxwell. I posted two quotes from Criswell indicating his problem with TULIP Calvinism, the kind of Calvinism which Founders-friendly Calvinists inevitably insist is Calvinism. One quote I tweeted questioned Limited Atonement: 'I've never been able to understand how the Calvinists, some of them, believe in a "limited atonement."' The other quote I tweeted seems to state Criswell's denial that an exact transaction of salvation took place upon the Cross for the sins of the elect alone. "God's salvation is no salvation at all...and pardon is no pardon at all until I accept it, until I receive it." In other words, Christ's death was a sin sacrifice providing salvation for the whole world not a sin substitute for the elect alone. And, as we noted in the sermon quoted above, "We're saved like that. It's that response that God looks for, and takes, and uses as the basis of His regeneration."
In response to my two tweets, Maxwell pointed to a post on his blog presumably correcting what he later seemed to insist was my confusion concerning Criswell. However, it's both Ascol and Maxwell who appear confused by making Criswell into their own Calvinistic image.
Maxwell apparently thinks because a) Criswell claimed to be a Calvinist; and b) Criswell spoke well of Calvin (and the Reformation), it follows Criswell must have had theological affinities with his kind of Calvinism.
As for the latter, if speaking well of Calvin makes one a strict Calvinist, then it follows James Arminius himself must have been a strict Calvinist for he had nothing but profound respect for his theological nemesis, John Calvin, often speaking kindly toward him and about him. Indeed Arminius indicated he could sign his name to most of what Calvin had written. "In the interpretation of the Scriptures, Calvin is incomparable...[Calvin's] commentaries are to be valued more than anything handed down to us in the writings of the Fathers.." Hence, I'm afraid citing Criswell's admiration for Calvin no more dismisses personal reservations with Founders-type Calvinism than dismissing Arminius' theological reservations because he admired Calvin and Calvin's works.
As for the former, while Criswell in fact claimed to be a Calvinist, it would be a colossal mistake to conclude from his claim that he embraced the kind of Calvinism either Ascol or Maxwell apparently embraces. For Criswell, a robust libertarian freedom of the will existed even in fallen humanity, an existence of which I'm fairly confident Ascol denies and presumably Maxwell as well.3 Criswell also denied Irresistible Grace and Limited Atonement not to mention his denial that regeneration precedes faith, which seems to indicate to most Calvinists, as do both libertarian freedom and resistible grace, a deficient understanding of total depravity.
If I am correct about Criswell, then he ends up being, at most, a two-point Calvinist embracing the U and the P in Founders-type, Dortian Calvinism.
Consider: if only two points of five in the Calvinistic TULIP are embraced, how can one claim, with any veracity at all, that W.A. Criswell embraced Calvinism?
1Ascol also quoted from a second Criswell sermon from Romans 9:15-16 (1983).
2"The Enabling Mercy of God" 4-14-85 10:50 a.m.
3It's possible, however, to hold to a form of libertarian freedom while remaining a convinced Calvinist, a prime example of which is the late reformed theologian, Francis Schaeffer. However, most Calvinists today insist upon a compatiblist approach to human freedom.