Hyper-Calvinism, Anti-Calvinism, and Founders Ministries

Tim Brister —  December 5, 2008

Update 12.05.08 :: 11:30 p.m. Having been away most of the day with family outing and then church planting meeting, I have not been able to follow the comments of this post. Upon reading them, I have become discouraged by the direction of the commentary and chose to dump all existing comments, including my own, into the moderation pool.  I will follow up with my thoughts soon, Lord willing.

Whenever controversy arises in the SBC, it is always helpful to understand the agenda on both sides.  Regarding the current controversy over Calvinism, it is important to note that the agenda has often changed.  Earlier in the debate, the goal was to (1) discredit and debunk the doctrines of Calvinism (take William Estep’s 1997 article Doctrines Lead to Dunghill for example). The most devastating blow to Calvinism would be, of course, to show that it is unbiblical.  However, non-Calvinists have not dealt with the biblical texts, and as the John 3:16 Conference reveals, very little exegesis was offered for their rejection of the doctrines of grace.

When it became apparent that Calvinism could not be stopped by proving the doctrines were unbiblical, the next step (2) was to argue from pragmatism.  Calvinism, they say, is contrary to the Great Commission and would result in less baptisms and fewer people being saved.  LifeWay Research last year proved that this claim to be false much to the behest of Steve Lemke and some SWBTS professors.  Ed Stetzer has just posted a response to those challenging and questioning the research methods and approach regarding the Calvinism study by LifeWay/NAMB Research.

Furthermore, when pragmatism couldn’t snuff it out, the next thing on the agenda (3) was to police Calvinism.  In other words, if you can’t beat it, try to control it and marginalize it.  This was seen in the denominational talking point of the pastor search committee and Calvinists putting all their cards on the table.  Calvinists who are (and should be) up front with Calvinism have to plow through the caricatures and misunderstandings that have been perpetuated over the years.  With transparency and integrity as guiding principles, they are told that they should not be wearing Calvinism on their sleeve, that their willing admission therefore constitutes one who is “aggressive and militant.”  On the other hand, Calvinists who are perhaps “softer” and less outspoken about their soteriology simply preach the Bible and love the people, but should it be known at a later time they are Calvnists, they are deemed “deceptive, dishonest, and disruptive to our churches.”  In some state conventions (Florida, Texas, and Missouri to be specific), non-Calvinist literature was purchased and sent to every pastor in their states in an attempt to sway ministers against Calvinism.  Denominational platforms from convention speeches to Baptist state papers to academic “white papers”, the policing effort was rather comprehensive.

During (and perhaps before) this time, another agenda was taking place from the anti-Calvinist camp, namely that (4) Southern Baptists did not originate with Calvinists.  There are three aspects of this agenda: (a) the “two-streams” theory, arguing that Sandy Creek Association was not Reformed (which they were); (b) the emphasis on Anabaptists and their writings; and (c) the Baptist Identity movement (we are Baptists, not Calvinists).  The non-Calvinist historians have not, in the 25 years its been in print, been able to rebut Tom Nettles’ By His Grace and For His Glory.   The most recent Baptist Identity movement has sought to make the case that Calvinism is really Presbyterian soteriology and not Baptististic.  To have have confessional commonality with Presbyterians (or other non-Southern Baptists) on matters like the doctrines of grace is “ecumenical compromise.”

When Calvinism in the SBC could not be defeated by truth, by pragmatism, by heavy-handedness, or rewriting history, the alternative agenda is (5) to change terminology and pursue “hyper-Calvinists” in the SBC.  How many times have we heard of denominational leaders refer to terms like “hyper,” “aggressive,” “militant,” and “extreme”?  The epicenter of this new agenda was to be found nowhere else than in the recent John 3:16 Conference sponsored by Jerry Vines Ministries.  When being interview by Collin Hansen for his book Young, Restless, Reformed, Vines asserted:

“We’re having a problem today because there’s a small group of hostile, aggressive, militant Calvinists.  They kill evangelism, and they kill churches.  And they do it without integrity when they come in under the radar and the people don’t know up front where they are theologically” (84).

Now, notice three of the aforementioned agendas revealed in this short accusation.  Pragmatism, policing, and changing terminology (really name-calling).  The following sentences in the book are quite telling. Hansen asks,

“Does this militant group include Founders Ministries?” “Yes,” Vines responded.

While the conference was being not billed as a “Let’s bash the Calvinists” conference, it was quite telling when there was great applause from the crowd when one gave a testimony of being “saved out of Calvinism.”  Vines himself has, as Hansen’s book reveals, gone on record stating his antagonism towards Founders Ministries.  But the anti-Founders Ministries (really anti-Calvinism) does not end with Jerry Vines.  Consider the recent parsing of Baptist Calvinists by Dr. Steve Lemke who was also a speaker at the John 3:16 Conference.  Of the four versions of Baptist Calvinism, Lemke speaks most critically and condescendingly towards Founders Ministries:

“Founder’s (sic) Movement Calvinists tend to look backward nostalgically to Calvinists of prior generations, to make their Calvinism the focal point of their ministries, to be rather assertive and defensive about their Calvinism, and to be less evangelistic than the average Southern Baptist church.  They primarily interact with and attend conferences with other Calvinists.”

I have addressed Lemke in detail here and here about his pseudo-labeling of Baptists Calvinists.  Lemke has not only been instrumental in the agenda of changing terminology, but he is also behind some of the pragmatism agenda as well.  His “study” of Founders-friendly churches, although debunked several times publicly, has been and continues to be used against Founders Ministries.  Not only did then President Bobby Welch refer to the study questioning Calvinism and the Great Commission, but Dr. David Allen affirmed the “study” in his most recent “white paper” review of the Building Bridges Conference.  Incidentally enough, were the standards used in his study applied to the churches both Lemke and Allen pastored, the results would show that the baptism numbers and church attendance would reveal they are more “Calvinistic” than many Calvinist churches.

The most recent agenda in the changing terminology has been the issue of “hyper-Calvinism.”  Here Steve Lemke is joined by Malcolm Yarnell with the popularizing idea of the presence of hyper-Calvinists in the SBC.  In his paper, “The Future of Southern Baptists as Evangelicals,” Lemke refers to a “hyper-Calvinistic soteriology” which he associates with Founders Ministries.  Lemke writes,

“If you’ll allow me to oversimplify a bit, in the Southern Baptist Convention there are essentially two streams of Calvinism. One stream is what we might call hard hyper-Calvinism (often associated with the Founder’s Movement), and the other is a softer baptistic Calvinism. I will be delineating these more clearly later, but for now my point is that it is with hyper-Calvinism that I have major concerns” (13).

While Lemke has heeded the critique made by Ascol and others about naming Founders Calvinists as hyper-Calvinists in his most recent journal article, the charge no less served the purpose of the changing terminology agenda against Calvinists.  A few months after Lemke’s article being published, Malcolm Yarnell publishes a “white paper” entitled “The Heart of a Baptist” wherein he states:

“Hyper-Calvinism is becoming a real problem in the Southern Baptist Convention. When a Calvinist allows his own reason to draw lines where Scripture does not draw them, he becomes a hyper-Calvinist” (9).

One of his qualifications in discovering who are the hyper-Calvinists is whether they give an invitation (presumably at the end of a message, also known as an “altar call”).  Yarnell adds,

“It is the anti-invitation expression of hyper-Calvinism that currently challenges Southern Baptists (ibid.).”

The assumption is that if you did not give a public invitation after a sermon, then you are a hyper-Calvinist.  Rejection of the invitation system, therefore makes a Calvinist a hyper-Calvinist. The “real problem” of hyper-Calvinism, then, must be understood as the Calvinists not following a modern invention of invitations, which, if accepted, legitimizes the charge of hyper-Calvinism in the SBC.  There are Baptist Calvinists who give altar calls regularly, some who give them randomly, and others not at all, but all Calvinsts plead with sinners to repent of their sin, flee to Christ, and trust in him.  This premise of anti-invitation “hyper-Calvinism” is faulty and the charge is baseless.

Most recently, David Allen has pulled out the “hyper-Calvinist” label to stick on James White, Steve Camp, et al.  I will leave you to read the responses of James White (and here), Phil Johnson (and here), and Steve Camp for you to decide whether Allen’s charge is justified.  For Allen, the point is not to accuse Founders Ministries or Tom Ascol of hyper-Calvinism (as Lemke has done); rather, it is to accuse Ascol for having anything to do with hyper-Calvinists.  So the accusation moves from falsely labeling Founders as hyper-Calvinists who do not give an invitation to guilt-by-association (when in essence, the charges don’t stick to White either).

David Allen, in giving his reasoning for calling James White a hyper-Calvinist, shares the “main point” behind all this:

“My main point, which seems to have been lost on so many people, was not to focus on James White and his hyper-Calvinism. My point was to show the unwisdom on the part of Tom Ascol in his willingness to team up with James White to debate within the Southern Baptist Convention. Many non-Calvinists within our convention are concerned not only about Calvinism, but about some hyper-Calvinistic tendencies in the convention.”

I am glad, finally, that the anti-Calvinists are finally admitting to their agendas.  They are not after hyper-Calvinism per say; they are targeting Founders Ministries and Tom Ascol. The greater problem is not James White’s soteriology but rather Tom Ascol and the influence of Founders Ministries in the SBC.  If the anti-Calvinists can silence Tom Ascol and discredit Founders Ministries, then their “Baptist battle” against Calvinism would be won.  Ascol’s influence, especially on the internet, has been a source of chagrin, as David Allen apparently thinks that the blogosphere is the gateway to hyper-Calvinism in the SBC.  Allen writes:

“Has anyone noticed how many of the Southern Baptist Calvinist bloggers, including Founders Ministries, link to James White’s website? I say this because I am concerned that hyper-Calvinism is being allowed to slip into the convention because well-meaning Calvinists are not being discerning on this point. They are uncritically endorsing hyper-Calvinist bloggers and therefore their ideas are slowly filtering into the SBC.”

It’s the bloggers fault!  “Uncritically endorsing hyper-Calvinist bloggers . . .” whose ideas are “slowly filtering into the SBC.  In every aspect, this explanation is without warrant.  The “unwisdom of Tom Ascol” and the “well-meaning Calvinists who are not discerning” are to blame for whatever hyper-Calvinism anti-Calvinists argue is “slowly filtering” in the SBC.  I would like to know on what basis and furthermore how to measure the infiltration of hyper-Calvinism in the SBC.  Does Allen have a formula to figure this out?

In his presentation at the John 3:16 Conference, Allen declares,

“Now whatever we do in Baptist life, we don’t need to be teaming up with hyper-Calvinists. It’s fine for Calvinists to get together and have debates with non-Calvinists. Fine, dandy and wonderful; let that happen all day long. But it is time for Calvinists within the convention to come out and say some strong words about hyper-Calvinism.”

What Allen apparently does not know is that Calvinists have been the MOST vocal opponents of true hyper-Calvinism for years.  Tom Ascol provides three examples,

  1. In 1996, the Founders Journal published a letter I wrote to a father whose son was caught up in real hyper-Calvinism, trying to counsel him on how to help and evangelize his son. In that same issue, an excerpt from a small book I wrote was included under the title, “Calvinism, Hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism: Issues Shaping Our Identity as Southern Baptists.”
  2. In 1996, Founders Ministries gave away 2000 copies of Iain Murray’s book, Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism. We were ridiculed, chastised and questioned by friend and foe alike for “stirring up trouble when there is none.” We pressed on with this effort because, as students of history, we know that hyper-Calvinism is a parasite and it only emerges where true Calvinism lives. Because we saw the danger of what might attend the resurgence of true Calvinism, we sought to educate as many people as we could about the issues.
  3. We have, on this blog and elsewhere, repeatedly addressed the error of hyper-Calvinism, calling it pernicious, damnable, and unbiblical.

Aside from hyper-Calvinism, anti-Calvinists have sought to criticize Founders on other grounds.  I already mentioned Lemke’s “study” of Founders-friendly churches.  David Allen argues that, despite the rebuttals, “Lemke’s conclusion still stands.”  Allen has also lamented with great disappointment in the Founders’ partnership with LifeWay and SEBTS in the Building Bridges Conference.  In his white paper, Allen argues,

“Ascol is well within his rights to direct the Founders Ministries and to publish such an article in his journal. This is not in question. What is in question is whether such constitutes a problem for the SBC and for Ascol’s involvement in a bipartisan conference such as “Building Bridges.” Since one cannot distinguish between Ascol the Calvinist pastor and Ascol the director of the Founders Ministries, his presence on the program of the “Building Bridges Conference,” given the stated goals of the Founders Ministries, is problematic in my view. Furthermore, what is the precedent for two Southern Baptist entities (LifeWay and Southeastern Seminary) partnering with a non-Southern Baptist entity (Founders Ministries) for this kind of conference? I have already stated I think the conference is a great idea. We need to have more. My concern is with the involvement of the Founders Ministries. For them to be a co-sponsor legitimizes their agenda within the convention, an agenda which is counter-productive in my judgment. For SBC entities to partner with any non-SBC group that is polarizing and that represents a small fragment of the convention is problematic” (28, emphasis added).

In the same way that James White supposed hyper-Calvinism was not the issue but rather Tom Ascol’s “unwisdom,” Building Bridges was not the issue but rather “the involvement of Founders Ministries.”  It is fine for Dr. Mohler to debate Dr. Patterson on Calvinism, but it not fair to hold a Building Bridges Conference with Founders Ministries because it “legitimizes their agenda.”  Apparently Allen thinks that holding a jointly-sponsored conference where Calvinists and non-Calvinists have equal opportunity to address the issues is “polarizing” and “problematic” while the John 3:16 Conference held entirely by non-Calvinists with no Calvinist representation is not problematic or polarizing.  Consider Allen’s answer for justifying SWBTS and NOBTS for sponsoring a non-Southern Baptist entity’s (Jerry Vines Ministries) conference:

“Second, there is a significant difference in Founders Ministries partnering with SBC entities for a bi-partisan conference, and SBC entities co-sponsoring a partisan conference. Furthermore, since non-partisan SBC entities partnered with partisan Founders Ministries for the Building Bridges Conference, it would seem to me Dr. Ascol would have no grounds to question non-partisan SBC entities partnering with partisan Jerry Vines ministries on this or any subject.”

So NOBTS and SWBTS cannot be criticized in the way Allen criticizes SEBTS and LifeWay because of the arbitrary standard Allen has created.  In short, Allen’s confusing answer is a clarifying way of saying, “We really don’t want anyone in the SBC to have anything to do with Founders period.”  To think that Allen is presupposing a non-partisan position, along with Lemke at NOBTS, is another matter in itself.  Because you are affiliated with a SBC entity does not mean you have moral neutrality or theological higher ground.

Allen further makes the assertion that Founders is trying to “Calvinize” the SBC.  Allen argues,

“I do, however, think there is an effort–an “agenda” to use my word–on the part of the Founders Ministries to “Calvinize” the SBC and I make no bones about it.”

His main argument stems from a Founders Journal article by Tom Nettles entitled “Why Your Next Pastor Should Be a Calvinist?”  Allen emphatically declares in all caps:

NO ONE SHOULD HAVE BEEN A SPEAKER AT A BI-PARTISAN CONFERENCE ON CALVINISM WHO BELIEVES AND PUBLISHES AN ARTICLE WITH THE TITLE “WHY YOUR NEXT PASTOR SHOULD BE A CALVINIST!” ARE WE TO ASSUME THAT GOD HIMSELF DESIRES ONLY CALVINISTS FROM HERE ON IN TO PASTOR SBC CHURCHES?

Two things need to be mentioned here. First, the journal article was published in Winter of 2008 while the BB Conference was in Fall of 2007. You are going to criticize Ascol for doing something after the fact? Secondly, did Allen actually read what Dr. Nettles wrote in the article?  Here is the outline for the kind of pastor Nettles was advocating:

1.  A Calvinist firmly believes in the divine inspiration of Scriptures.
2.  A Calvinist firmly believes the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.
3.  A Calvinist firmly believes the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
4.  A Calvinist firmly believes in religious liberty.
5.  A Calvinist firmly believes in missions and evangelism.
6.  A Calvinist firmly believes in Christ-centered preaching.
7.  A Calvinist firmly believes in holiness of life.
8.  A Calvinist firmly believes in regenerate church membership.

What church would not want a pastor who held embodied these characteristics?  With historical examples of Southern Baptist Calvinists along with Scriptural exhortation, Nettles makes the case for Southern Baptists Calvinists in the pastorate today.  Allen concludes that

“It is this kind of thing that causes the vast majority of Southern Baptists, and even many Calvinists within the Southern Baptist Convention, to distance themselves from the Founders Ministries.”

Jerry Vines held a conference attractively entitled the John 3:16 Conference with speakers who have forwarded the anti-Calvinism and anti-Founders movement in the SBC. Vines, Yarnell, Lemke, and Allen are not after the Calvinism restrained by the bureaucracy; they want to snuff out the Calvinism their Baptist distinctives will not allow them to touch because of local church autonomy.  Calvinists in seminaries are safe; Calvinists in the bureaucracy are silenced due to political pressure; but the Calvinist pastors and ministers in the churches–they are targeted in the anti-Calvinist “Baptist battle” as they are falsely labeled, denominationally policed, and publicly scorned.

In spite of the fact that their failed agendas and tactics have spawned more and more lovers of the doctrines of grace, anti-Calvinists continue the factious spirit working contrary to the gospel-driven consensus and Great Commission Resurgence we so desperately need.  There are those in the SBC, Calvinist and non-Calvinist alike, who are tired of the uncooperative agendas and want to come together for the good of our churches and the advance of the mission.  I believe Founders Ministries and Tom Ascol are working to help see that happen, along with many others in the SBC.  While it is tempting to give credence to the charges of the anti-Calvinists today, Southern Baptists and the lost world at large would be much better served by an unflinching resolve to focus on Christ rather than the false charges and continuing controversies that detract us from and discourage us in the mission which we together embrace.  May God help us to the grace to stand for the sake of truth and love for the sake of the lost by the Spirit of Him who is the founder and perfector of our faith.

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