I’m told one of the high-lights of the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference in Greensboro, North Carolina was the formal exchange between Drs. Al Mohler and Paige Patterson on the biblical doctrine of election. Entitled “Reaching Today's World Through Differing Views of Election” each speaker took a different perspective on biblical election, Calvinistic and non-Calvinistic respectively. Especially enlightening are Al Mohler’s words defending Five Point Calvinism against the charge of Hyper-Calvinism >>>
Some Background First
Some billed the exchange between Mohler and Patterson as a dream come true while others undoubtedly scoffed at theological discussion as Rome burns. One particular observation concerning Patterson’s remarks is the full consistency with what he reportedly stated in the exchange with Mohler and the recent Traditional Statement on which he attached his name. According to the Traditional Statement (TS), “Traditional Southern Baptist soteriology is grounded in the conviction that every person can and must be saved by a personal and free decision to respond to the Gospel by trusting in Christ Jesus alone as Savior and Lord” (Preamble). In addition, in “Article Eight: the Free Will of Man,” the author(s) write(s):
“We affirm that God, as an expression of His sovereignty, endows each person with actual free will (the ability to choose between two options), which must be exercised in accepting or rejecting God’s gracious call to salvation by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel” (embolden original)
Comparing the language of the TS with what Patterson reportedly said in 2006, we find perfect consistency. According to Baptist Press, Patterson then said:
- “The calling of God is made to all men, and then men must decide whether they will respond to the calling or not."
- “I just happen to believe that God is sovereign enough that He can make a man totally free if He wishes to do so”
- “If, in fact, men cannot resist the will of the Holy Spirit … then in fact salvation is coercive and a person does not have a choice about what he is going to do”
Hence, we saw in 2006 that Patterson affirmed wholeheartedly a robust understanding of free will, and, given the TS also proposed a robust understanding of free moral agency of human beings, no one should be surprised that Patterson’s name is attached to the document.
Mohler on Hyper-Calvinism
In the 2006 exchange with Patterson, Dr. Mohler pointedly addressed the issue of Calvinism—particularly Five Point Calvinism—being routinely and, in his view, wrongly confused with historic Hyper-Calvinism. He said:
Now we hear all kinds of language thrown around in the midst of some discussions and debates, we hear some persons referred to as hyper-Calvinists and there is always the danger of hyper-Calvinists… These are not persons who are merely five point Calvinists. Five point Calvinism is not hyper-Calvinism, it’s just Calvinism. However, if one takes an additional logical jump from that point and says, therefore, we should not present the Gospel to all persons, they’re in direct conflict with the Scripture and direct disobedience to the call of God and in direct contradiction to the model of the apostles.
And again, Mohler reiterates in Session Two:
I believe in all five points of Calvinism, but I want to tell you that there is a heresy called Hyper-Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism denies the well-meant offer of the Gospel. That is to say the key issue is, can we, must we, do we share the Gospel with all persons, believing that if they profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ they will be saved? Yes we must. Anything less than that is not only ineffective, it is disobedient and it is heretical. Now Hyper-Calvinism is s small movement by definition. They do not reproduce very well, but where they are found they are to be defined as heretics.
As one may observe, Mohler repeatedly defended Five Point Calvinism from the charge that it is “Hyper-Calvinism” by definition. “Five point Calvinism is not hyper-Calvinism,” Mohler insists, “it’s just Calvinism.” And, for Mohler, Hyper-Calvinism is serious error. In fact, for Mohler, Hyper-Calvinism is blatant heresy.
Notice as well, from Mohler’s standpoint, biblical Calvinism becomes unbiblical heresy by a single step of logic: “However, if one takes an additional logical jump from that point and says, therefore, we should not present the Gospel to all persons, they’re in direct conflict with the Scripture and direct disobedience to the call of God and in direct contradiction to the model of the apostles.” From Mohler’s perspective, biblical Calvinism does not believe less than unbiblical Hyper-Calvinists believe; it believes more. Scriptures teach us no matter what our view of predestination and election happens to be, we are nonetheless to go and preach the gospel to every creature. What separates High Calvinism from Hyper-Calvinism is a logical leap Hyper-Calvinists take that High Calvinists like Mohler do not—ergo, no mandate exists to present a well-meant offer of the gospel to all persons. Now, granted there may be more in Mohler’s mind that separates Hyper-Calvinism from High Calvinism, but to be true to his words, Mohler mentions only the single logical leap.
Mohler on Semi-Pelagianism and the Traditional Statement
Given the paper-thin distinction1 Mohler makes in his defense of Five Point Calvinism against the popular charge of being Hyper-Calvinism, one would anticipate him being extremely cautious in his judgments of associating a well-polished group of Southern Baptists with the so-called heresy of Semi-Pelagianism, a group that included Paige Patterson with whom Mohler exchanged in 2006 with not a hint that Patterson’s position nodded positively toward Semi-Pelagianism. If Patterson’s robust understanding of free will leaned toward Semi-Pelagianism, as Mohler apparently thinks now, why did Mohler not express this concern in 2006? Wasn’t that the reason for the exchange? To express agreement and disagreement? And, surely a view leaning toward heresy (at least heresy in Mohler's view) would be a substantial difference to explore. Even so, Mohler is not so cautious but steps up to the plate and knocks a fly ball way out into right field toward the Semi-Pelagian bleachers all the while his Calvinist fans are cheering him on.2
Consider also: couldn't the author(s) of the TS employ tight distinctions between their view of free will and Semi-Pelagianism? Could they not similarly argue as did Mohler that they do not believe less than Semi-Pelagians but more? While they believed wholeheartedly with John Cassian and the Marseilles monks in the free agency of human beings, contra the excessive divine determinism of St. Augustine which, in their view (and ours), annihilated human response and thereby made men and women more like regulated pawns than relational persons made in God's image, they would never divorce such a free agency from the active operations of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity in convicting, drawing, and wooing lost, condemned souls through the foolishness of preaching the biblical gospel for the simple but sufficient reason the Scripture prohibited them doing so. Would this not be similar if not identical to Mohler's reasoning for offering the gospel to every creature contra Hyper-Calvinism because Scripture prohibits us from not doing so? Indeed over and over again, the author(s) of the TS make it abundantly clear that not only is an unregenerate person utterly condemned already in his or her free will, neither can he or she unilaterally deploy this free will to escape eternal condemnation apart from a sovereign initiating act of grace by the Holy Spirit Who employs exclusively gospel means:
- "every person who is capable of moral action will sin"
- "no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort"
- "we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel"
- "grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement"
- "We deny that the response of faith is in any way a meritorious work that earns salvation
- "We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel
- "We affirm God’s eternal knowledge of and sovereignty over every person’s salvation or condemnation
- "We affirm that the proclamation of the Gospel is God’s means of bringing any person to salvation" (all embolden added)
The collection of phrases from the TS above is not meant to be exhaustive but representative of a firm affirmation that any verbal similarity to either Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism so-called without also noting the explicit key distinctions—perhaps even paper-thin distinctions1but distinctions nonetheless—between the TS and known heresy cannot and will not pass for legitimate, scholarly exchange, not to mention suffice as brotherly love. If Dr. Mohler and other Five Point Calvinists are offended that their system of belief is routinely mistaken as unbiblical Hyper-Calvinism which they vehemently deny, how much more offended might the supporters of the Traditional Statement be when their view is irrationally associated with the most infamous heretic in Christian church history?
Granted there may be card-carrying Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians among those of us who embrace and/or support, either publicly or privately, the general thrust of the Traditional Statement. But as Dr. Mohler said pertaining to Hyper-Calvinists, they surely are few in number. And, also with him we would gladly affirm, “where they are found they are to be defined as heretics.” But just because many of us hold a robust understanding of libertarian freedom, we are no more Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian than Dr. Mohler would be a Hyper-Calvinist because he holds to High Calvinism as do all Hyper-Calvinists. If he can legitimately express tight distinctions, so can we.
Perhaps our Calvinist brothers would do well to think carefully about that before they strike their next Semi-Pelagian match.
1by “paper-thin distinction” I do not necessarily mean an illegitimate distinction (i.e. “distinction without a difference”) for some distinctions are both valid and extremely tight
2not to mention at least one Arminian theologian rooting in another stadium