In October 2006, Dr. Jerry Vines preached a series of sermons at First Baptist Church, Woodstock entitled “Baptist Battles.” The four main battles which comprised this series were the battle over Liberalism, Pentecostalism, “Libertinism” (alcohol), and Calvinism. To use the term “battle” might be edgy rhetoric for Southern Baptists since the Conservative Resurgence (post 1979 era), but for the sake of this blogpost, I will concede to that term for the purpose of argument.
Dr. Danny Akin shared in his convention address last week what was a fear of the late Dr. Adrian Rogers, namely that those fighting the legitimate battle for the Bible would eventually go back to the barracks and turn on one another (with fighting in their hearts). Perhaps there has been no greater evidence of this reality than that of the “battle over Calvinism.”
I am one who grew up in the middle of this battle. My first four years of ministry witnessed a surge of Reformed theology in college (1997-2001), followed by four years in the revivalist/anti-Calvinist culture (2001-2004). The third set of four years was spent at Southern Seminary when the term “young, restless, and reformed” generation was coined (2004-2008). In fact, in many ways my journey biographically was a microcosm of the larger narrative such that Collin Hansen (who wrote the book) shared a portion of my life story in his book. The fourth set of four years has been as a pastor of a confessionally Reformed church (2008-2012), where I continue to serve today.
As I mentioned in my reflections on #SBC13, the tone and conversation regarding Calvinism is perhaps the best it has been since I’ve been involved in Southern Baptist life. I took some time to reflect on the past 15 years, and I thought I’d share my big picture take on the “Baptist Battle of Calvinism.
1995-2005: The Fortress Years
I consider the decade 1995-2005 the “fortress years” of the Calvinism battle. It was a time period when the CR leadership were enjoying the fruits of their labors, firmly entrenched as entity heads and senior pastors of flagship churches, and controlled authorized media outlets to control the narrative of the SBC. They essentially “fortified” a position of anti-Calvinism through three main pillars: (1) Communications, (2) Conferences, and (3) Control of the SBC Bureaucracy.
I began my “Chronicle Compilation of the Calvinism Controversy in the SBC” roughly around 1995. Looking at this research, you will find how communications in these fortress years came primarily through Baptist state papers and editorials. Examples include Frank Stagg in The Baptist Record (MS), Glenn Brown in The Baptist Messenger (OK), Presnall Wood in The Baptist Standard (TX), Fisher Humphreys in the Theological Educator, Mark Wingfield in The Western Recorder (KY), Lloyd Melton in The Baptist Courier (SC), and William Estep in The Baptist Standard. Baptist Press aggregates many of these editorials and republished articles for a much broader audience. As you can see, articles came out in a relatively short period of time from across the Southern Baptist Convention. In addition to these articles, several books came out against Calvinism at this time, including Chosen but Free by Norman Geisler, Trouble with TULIP by Frank Page, God So Loved the World by Fisher Humphreys, What Love Is This? by Dave Hunt and The Other Side of Calvinism by Laurence Vance.
Alongside the strong influence of communications came the centralizing force of revivalism conferences. These conferences served as a rallying point for leading advocates for anti-Calvinism and fortified the thinking of those who attended on what side to take when it came to the Calvinism battle. During the four years I was involved in the revivalism movement (2001-2004), I attended a number of these conferences, include FBC Jax Pastors Conference (2x), Bailey Smith Real Evangelism Conference at FBC Woodstock (3x), and state evangelism conferences. Many of the most outspoken anti-Calvinists headlined these conferences, including Ergun Caner, Jerry Vines, Jerry Falwell, Johnny Hunt, Bailey Smith, Bob PItman, et al. (note: the position and approach of some of these men have changed over the years). I remember attending some conferences when there wasn’t one sermon that did not have a dedicated rant against Calvinism.
The third pillar of the Fortress Years was bureaucratic control. Conferences and communications helped with this. Communications helped shaped the narrative and influence the thinking of mainstream Southern Baptists, while conferences provided the platform to introduce any new candidates who would be securely appointed to serve at a high level position. These men were called “king makers” and it was typically introduced at the FBC Jax Pastors Conference (February) who would be their pick to be the next SBC President. The annual meeting pastor’s conference (day before the business meeting) would conclude with their nominee giving a resounding sermon almost serving as an acceptance speech.
There is one other important part of the Fortress Years, though I don’t consider it a pillar. It was more like an online hub. BaptistFire was a website dedicated to hosting all the anti-Calvinism articles and sermons in an accessible centralized location. It also highlighted churches who split over Calvinism and gave prominent placement on their website to show how deadly Calvinism is to splitting churches.
As you can see, this was a very significant decade of sowing and harvesting anti-Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention. From denominational entities to state conventions to local associations, the convention was fortified. From books to journal articles to state editorials, the message was clear: Calvinism was bad for the SBC. From evangelism conferences to pastors conferences to annual meeting addresses, the message was uniform: Calvinism is unbiblical, anti-evangelistic, and a man-made system. This Baptist battle strategy and system was a fortress indeed.
2005-2010: The Guerrilla Years
By referring to 2005-2010 as “The Guerrilla Years” I am specifically referring to the unconventional approach and irregular strategy taken to counter the fortress system in the SBC. 2005-2008 was the time when the tension was highest and the clashes seemed most regular. I argue that during this time all three pillars and the online hub of BaptistFire where unconventionally challenged by the Reformed resurgence.
The first pillar of communication has challenged by the advent of blogging in 2005. For a decade or longer, rarely if ever were the caricatures or misrepresentations of Calvinism held accountable to Scripture. Calvinists in the SBC did not have access to “authorized” channels of communication, so they went to the “unauthorized” and unconventional channel of blogging.
The day I think it all began was the pastor’s conference at the annual meeting in Nashville (2005) where Johnny Hunt spoke on election (June 20, 2005). By that time, Tom Ascol, James White, Joe Thorn, Gene Bridges, myself (and several others) had begun blogging. What would transpire over the next several years is a concerted effort to engage every attempt to marginalize or misrepresent Calvinism from Southern Baptist leaders through the open forum of the blogosphere, including sermons by Jack Graham, Bobby Welch, Steve Lemke, Steve Gaines, Jerry Vines, Ergun Caner, Roy Fish, Malcolm Yarnell, Bill Harrell, Nelson Price, Jerry Falwell, Morris Chapman, and several others (see compilation for links). For the first time, Calvinists were given the opportunity to challenge what was being said, providing a counter-argument from Scripture that would gain the hearing of Southern Baptists through unconventional methods such as SEO (search engine optimization) and social media (Twitter/Facebook). Bottom line: the unauthorized communication strategy provide rapid fire responses, sustained engagement, and a flattened platform for Calvinists to speak to the issues and actually bring some “ammunition” to the “battle.”
One of the biggest weapons during the Fortress Years was how BaptistFire was used to educate pastors and DOM’s on the evils of Calvinism. In one state convention alone in 2005, 5 Calvinist pastors were removed from their churches with the aid of this website. Together with three other men, I helped form the group blog, Strange BaptistFire dedicated solely to correcting the errors and caricatures propagated through this website. SBF was launched May 1, 2006, and 10 days later (May 11, 2006), BaptistFire disappeared from the Internet never to be seen again. While this may sound like a small matter in the battle, the disappearance of BaptistFire from the Internet removed the online hub for anti-Calvinism on the Internet and removed one of the primary weapons used in the trenches of local church life.
The second pillar challenged was the centralizing force of conference culture. In 2006, Together For the Gospel held its first conference with 3,000+ Reformed pastors attending. Over the next six years, this conference would grow to 8,000+ pastors, with more than half being from the SBC and under 40. Other conferences become a popular centralizing force for the Reformed community in the SBC, including the Desiring God National Conference, The Gospel Coalition National Conference, and Acts 29 Bootcamps. Another unconventional method of centralizing and “arming” the Reformed community was through the seminaries of the SBC. I happened to be attending one during this time, and it goes without saying that the student bodies of several of our seminaries were well-informed Biblically and equipped to engage the doctrinal and theological issues from and exegetical and historical vantage point. Revivalism conferences had given way to Reformed conferences, though they did not come with the authorized badge of the SBC.
The third pillar challenged was the control of the SBC bureaucracy. This aspect of the “battle” has lasted much longer than the other two pillars, but the biggest breakthrough came early in the 2006 Greensboro Convention when Frank Page (the dark horse candidate) won the presidential election on first ballot. The king-maker’s nomination lost, and Frank Page credited a significant role to the SBC blogosphere for helping him win the nomination. Although an outspoken non-Calvinist, Dr. Frank Page pledged to be a unifier, not a divider. He proved to listen to both sides, including Calvinists, though he did not agree with their soteriology. In doing so, Dr. Page won the respect of many Calvinists with his cooperative spirit and commitment to lead the convention in a healthy direction in the midst of such heightened “battles.” By the end of 2010, most of the anti-Calvinists had resigned, retired, or been replaced in the bureaucracy from a national level, including Morris Chapman who had served 18 years as President and CEO of the Executive Committee (and controlled Baptist Press).
In summary, from 2005-2007, the SBC blogosphere became the unconventional method of countering the fortified SBC. From 2008-2010, the SBC twitterverse became the new unconventional method for communicating and changing the narrative of the convention. Where the revivalism conferences were attracting the over 40 generation of seasoned pastors, the reformed conferences were attracted the under 40 generation of church planters. While the fortress culture attended the authorized pastors conferences, the reformed community was attending the unauthorized auxiliary conferences of IX Marks at 9, B21 Luncheons, and Founders Breakfasts. While the fortress culture had the authorized “SBC Tapes”, the guerrilla years of bloggers and conference planners promoted free mp3’s and podcasts, created video channels on YouTube and Vimeo and did it all for free. In just about every way, the Fortress years had become dismantled.
2011-2013: The Diplomacy Years
By the end of 2010, the battle over Calvinism started to wane. Resolutions and motions could still be heard from the convention floor. Books and blogposts were still being written. Conferences still were being attended. But there was a weariness and a ripe moment for a new narrative to garner the interest of Southern Baptists, and that new narrative was the call for a Great Commission Resurgence (GCR). Leading up to this moment (2008-2010), there were two competing visions for the SBC: the Baptist Identity (BI) movement, and the GCR movement. In 2008, each side had a candidate for the presidency of the SBC (Frank Cox for BI, and Johnny Hunt for GCR). Calvinists in the SBC largely supported Johnny Hunt, even though, like Frank Page, he was a non-Calvinist. But also like Frank Page, Johnny Hunt wanted to be a uniter, not a divider. His rhetoric had long changed since 2005, and he had begun befriending Calvinists in the SBC like Mark Dever and Tom Ascol. After Johnny Hunt won the 2008 election, the GCR narrative was in full swing, and its focus became a unifying point for Calvinist and non-Calvinist to rally around the Great Commission. This was the first diplomatic effort by both sides to work together for the good of the SBC (note: there was previously a “Building Bridges” conference hosted by Founders Ministries, SEBTS, and LifeWay in 2006 which was quite constructive, but the focus was theological whereas the GCR was missiological).
A second significant diplomatic move was the formation of the Calvinism Advisory Council by Dr. Frank Page. The CAC was to meet several times between the 2012-2013 annual meetings and draft a consensus statement that could be signed and supported by all members of the committee. Members of this committee included Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Tom Ascol, and Timothy George from the Calvinist side, and Paige Patterson, David Allen, Eric Hankins, Johnny Hunt, and Steve Lemke from the non-Calvinist/Traditionalist side. Together on stage, these men (and woman) stood shoulder-to-shoulder in public affirmation of this statement, spearheaded by Dr. David Dockery (self-described as a “Calminian”). What this statement does not do is water down or appease each side by eliminating the convictions or failing to recognizing the tensions that have existed on both sides of the “battle.” What this statement does do is say that we can address the issue of Calvinism in a manner that humbly and respectfully honors the brothers and sisters on the other side by representing their views accurately and recognizing there is much for which we can actually agree as cooperating, confessional, Southern Baptists.
2013-Onward: What Lies Ahead
I believe the SBC is in the best place regarding its tone and attitude toward Calvinism in my lifetime (ironically, I was born in 1979, the year of the birth of the Conservative Resurgence). In many ways, and with many people, things have changed. I know I have. There is a sense in which my blog is biographical and historical at the same time. It tells some of my story as well as some of the larger history of the SBC. I think others have changed as well. I think if you would ask men like Frank Page and Johnny Hunt if they are addressing Calvinism differently now than they did 5-10 years ago, I think they would say yes. I don’t think any of us have handled our beliefs and convictions perfectly, and where I’ve fallen short of virtue and honorable discourse, I want to repent and change course. That does not mean I hold my beliefs and convictions any less strongly or passionately than before. Rather, it has to deal with how I hold my beliefs and am learning ways to engage more constructively for the edification of all who take part.
There are pockets in the SBC where the Baptist battle still rages on. In several state conventions, Calvinist churches planters are not considered for funding through the Cooperative Program because of their beliefs. In local associations, I have heard first-hand accounts where the Director of Missions (DOM) acts as a local bishop, presiding over local church search committees and pre-filtering any resume from Southern Seminary or hints of Calvinistic influences. There are Baptist state colleges removing Calvinist faculty without warrant or justification. The battle is not over, and I think we would be naive and historically ignorant to think it would be over, even in our lifetime.
But what we can do is chart a course where we can robustly discuss theology face to face and then join hand in hand to take the gospel to the world. We should not shrink back because of the bruises and wounds from the battle line and think the best approach is to avoid theology altogether. Rather, we should have charitable pre-commitments that afford us opportunity to engage the Scriptures and one another without pretense, personal agenda or even having to win the argument. What I have come to find is that both sides have their own version of rigid fundamentalism, and I would rebuke a rigid fundamentalist Calvinist as I would a rigid fundamentalist Traditionalist (e.g., the majority of people I’ve blocked on Twitter are angry Calvinists with strong fundamentalism).
I believe we are at a unique moment in contemporary history of the SBC. I guess you could say this is a “kairos” moment that we should all seek to steward well. I am personally not interested in reliving the past. While it is not something I will forget, that does mean that is something I would like to repeat. And we don’t have to. So my appeal to Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike is to lean into what lies ahead with faith in what God is going to do through us together, hope in how God is going to grow us together, and love one another in a way that is genuine and sincere. After all, Jesus said the world will know that we belong to Him when they see that love in action. There is a world that needs to know that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Our message of reconciliation is their only hope, and our ministry of reconciliation is our chief responsibility to discharge. May God lead us to spend and be spent on the battle for the souls of men and women, as C.T. Studd would exhort us: “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell, but I want to set up my rescue shop within a yard of hell.”