A Compilation of the Controversy over Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention

Tim Brister —  May 28, 2007 — 29 Comments

There is no learned man but will confess that he hat much profited by reading controversies — his senses awakened, his judgment sharpened, and the truth which he holds more firmly established. All controversy being permitted, falsehood will appear more false, and truth the more true.

–John Milton, as quoted in The Golden Treasury of Puritan Quotations, compiled by I. D. E. Thomas (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 62-63.
Alright.  So I thought I’d share with you some of my research over the past couple of weeks.  This isn’t comprehensive, but it is close.  Let me say “thanks” to those of you who have assisted me in either resources or general information.  If there any other events that I left out, please let me know.  Or, if I have wrongly attributed a date or detail, a correction would be humbly welcomed.  In any case, I hope this serves to bring a little historical perspective on the issue of Calvinism in the SBC, and as you will see, how Southern Baptist bloggers played a significant role in recent years.  Here it is:

A Chronological Survey of the Calvinism Controversy in the SBC

[Note: As you will see, I put what I thought were the 12 most significant events in recent years, and at the end I have included what I see are contributing factors to the resurgence of Calvinism as well as the contributing factors to the whipping boy of Calvinism.]

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  • While compiling some of my hard copies, I came across something quite interesting. The article “Speaker Challenges Calvinism as not Reflecting God’s Grace” written by Robyn Little for Baptist Press was accessed the day it was written (March 10, 1999). In that hard copy, it says Mrs. Little interviewed Larry Ashlock, pastor of Warren Baptist Church in Augusta. GA. However, a more current hard copy has the same article being not Ashlock but Dr. Frank Page, current president of the SBC. The article was a summary of quotes by the speaker of SWBTS chapel service for March 4, 1999, so I guess that could answer exactly just who Baptist Press is quoting–Ashlock or Page.

    In any case, for the past three days, I have not been able to access Baptist Press to add the links to some articles on the PDF. Needless to say, the document will be changed as needed and as events progress today. Therefore, I am thinking about updating/correcting/adding information and making the PDF available on a semi-regular basis (say 2-3 times a year).

    Unfortunately, many of the state papers do not provide a decent database or archives to search their articles. As a result, I have planned on retrieving the hard copies and have them all on file.

    Good news is I have retrieved the two articles I had mentioned earlier (Bobby Welch and Lonnie Wilkey). Anyone intereted in collaborating on this project, please let me know. I’ve just started, and there is much work to do. 🙂

    BTW, has anyone else been able to access Baptist Press?

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  • Timmy, Thanks for the work. One note for correction. I think your “13th annual founders conference” should be 1996 instead of 2006. I am going to print off your timeline and look through it, but I would suggest that Al Mohler being nominated as president of SBTS should be on the timeline and perhaps the 12 most important events. Just a suggestion…JHG

  • Timmy, this is so valuable. I am reading all the links to all the articles I can. I was generally clueless about the width and depth of the debate.

    In the article “Future of Southern Baptists as Evangelicals” by Steve Lemke, he seems to throw out Hyper Calvinism towards anyone who holds a normal calvinistic view.

    He offers instead a “softer” calvinism, and offers up a “Rose” acronym instead of “Tulip”. What is this softer calvinism? To my eyes it doesnt seem very calvinistic at all! Whats this all about and who represents the soft calvinism view in the S.B.C.?

    Thanks Timmy!

  • Thank you, Timmy! I have been looking for something like this for years. Keep up the good work.

  • Guys,

    Thanks for the feedback. I will take a look at the needed corrections. I really appreciate you pointing them out for me. I most of this while pulling two separate all-nighters, so I expect there to be some mistakes.

    About Lemke, I think Gene Bridges and Tom Ascol pretty much address his treatment of Calvinism. As you can see, the controversy has come on all fronts: both academic and paastoral, scholarly and editorial commentary.

    Scott, I will pray for Kirk. I am sorry to hear of this happening. Unfortunately, he is not alone in his situation. Keep persevering in grace, and may God grant courageous humility and kindness in conviction in these situations.

    • Gordon

      What happened to kirk?

  • thanks Timmy,

    valuable links!

  • Timmy,

    What did you mean by:

    1. The Arminianizing of the SBC by E.Y. Mullins, Dale Moody, and Herschel Hobbs

    I have looked at some of this, especially analyzing The Baptis Faith and Message by Hobbs. And it is incredible that it was so widely circulated with what is contained in it. It is simply bizarre theology.

  • For what it’s worth, I have decided to post an updated version of this in about a week or so with additional information, includinng new links, and corrections of dates, names, etc. Again, this is a work in progress as I am learning more and more each week. And I suppose that the controversy will continue . . .

    So stay tuned!

  • Thomas,

    The men aforementioned are in large part responsible for spearheading the Arminianism of the 20th century in the SBC.

    For Hobbs, check out Fundamentals of Our Faith and What Baptists Believe

    For Moody, see The Word of Truth

    For Mullins, see The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression and The Axioms of Religion

  • Hutch

    If you wanted to go back further, you could talk about Rolf Barnard (1904-1969) who was proclaiming Calvinist doctrine in the Arminian wilderness of the 1950s and 1960s SBC. Also, you could include Curtis Vaughan who taught NT at SWBTS from 1950-1995. It would be interesting to establish what influence these two men had on the later Founder’s movement in the SBC. You might also want to include Tom Nettle’s teaching tenure at SWBTS from 1976-1982 (I am not sure these dates are exactly right).

    Also, in tracing influences, you could include the fact that Ernest Reisinger was a member at Walter Chantry’s church (Grace Baptist Church in Carlisle, Pennsylvania) before he moved to Florida to found his church there (which began mailing out Boyce’s theology in 1978). Walter Chantry was part of the independent Reformed Baptist movement which began in the northeast U.S. in the 1960s, and it was heavily influenced by the Puritan reprint movement that Banner of Truth began in England in the 1950s.

    It could be said that a lot of conflict in the SBC is the result of outside influences (people look outside the SBC for substance because there is not much indigenous substance there). SBC Calvinists were heavily influenced by independant Reformed Baptists. SBC fundamentalists were heavily influenced by independant fundamentalist Baptists. SBC moderates were heavily influenced by mainline protestants. Of course, each group claims that they represent the true, authentic SBC tradition and all the others are imposters who have imported alien influences into the SBC.

  • Hutch,

    Thanks for the information! I think some of the earlier influence you mention is included in Nettles’ By His Grace and for His Glory, though I will have to go back and check.

    You made an interesting point that the influences were largely coming from outside the SBC. I haven’t thought about that. I wonder, though, where Dagg, Mell, Boyce and Broadus would fit in that equation.

    Something that I am interested in learning about is the relationship of the independent fundamentalist movement with the SBC from 1910-1945. I am aware of the Northern Baptists and PCA, but I have read little about Southern Baptists. I think Nathan Finn, a PhD candidate is writing on that as his dissertation over at SEBTS.

    I remember in Boyce’s “Three Changes” address where his second point was to provide a means for Southern Baptists to develop their own scholars rather than having it outsourced to other demoniations. He wanted to cultivate first-rate scholarship from a distinct Southern Baptist perspective. Most recently, we have seen the development of B&H Academic where many SBC scholars have contributed and recent dissertations published. I also heard of a “SBC” systematic theology being developed by some of the folks at SEBTS.

  • Hutch

    >>> You made an interesting point that the influences were largely coming from outside the SBC. I haven’t thought about that. I wonder, though, where Dagg, Mell, Boyce and Broadus would fit in that equation.

    I think that Dagg, Mell, Boyce, and Broadus were mostly forgotten by the 1960s and 1970s, and there was no direct line-of-descent between them and most of the SBC Calvinists of that period of time. Instead, the SBC Calvinists were learning Reformed theology from sources outside of the SBC (Banner of Truth reprints of Puritans, Spurgeon, J. I. Packer, A. W. Pink, etc.). Their interest in Reformed theology caused them to become more interested in learning about the history of the SBC, and they were glad to find about the 19th century Calvinistic SBC guys, especially when people said to them, “This Calvinism stuff isn’t Southern Baptist.” The exception to this trend might have been somebody like Tom Nettles who would have read a lot of primary sources in Baptist history as a Ph.D. student at SWBTS in the early 1970s.

    I was Southern Baptist when I embraced Calvinism in 1992, but I didn’t hear about the Founders Conference until 1993, and I didn’t read Nettle’s book until 1995. People like R. C. Sproul and J. I. Packer influenced me long before I ever read any of the Founders stuff or listened to any of the tapes of the Founders Conference. I was glad to find out about the Founders Conference, and its existence encouraged me to remain SBC.

    It is fun to listen to some of the early tapes of the Founders Conferences from the early 1980s – it kind of sounds like a secret society meeting in catacombs.

  • Hutch,

    I think you are right in that outside sources were more accessible and recognized than primary souces from yesteryear, and my findings seem to verify that. I recently did an unscientific survey and asked Reformed folks what were there top five influences or reasons they were Reformed. The two dominant people (outside the Bible, Jesus, and Paul of course) were Piper and Sproul, neither of whom are Southern Baptist. Founders has been very encouraging to many who have very little reason to stay in the SBC other than them.

    I need to get my hands on some of the audio from the early 1980’s. 🙂

  • Jeff Spry


    You mention George’s ROSE acrostic in your compilation in the year 2000. However, it should be ROSES.

    Radical depravity
    Overcoming grace
    Sovereign election
    Eternal life
    Singular Redemption

    I appreciate all your work.

  • Thank Jeff! I will make the correction.

  • Jim Pemberton

    Incredible work, Timmy! Thanks for the effort.

  • Thanks Jim! More to come. I’m also trying to make it possible to access the older files which are only available in print.

  • Ron Kinzel

    I also would love to hear the tapes from the 80’s. I think every baptist calvinist can relate to being an outsider at some point or another. I bet it was interesting at those early founders meetings….I wonder if that’s where the secret plans were made to split churches and decieve pulpit committes and quit evangelizing? I gotta get those tapes!

    But seriously, Thanks Timmy for the work. This will be a good resource to have.

  • Klay,

    Thanks for the information update. I will make the changes accordingly. So is there any difference between your GRACE and George’s GRACE?

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  • Janet Falkmann

    Dear Calvinism Controversy compiler,

    I have been trying to find out what Tony Evans had to say at the Southern Baptist Convention about Calvinism. Do you have a link to his message or a transcript of it?
    The men below were mentioned as having participated in this discussion. Which were in defense of calvinsim?

    Erwin MacManus, David Jeremiah, Tony Evans, and Ed Young

    I wanted to find out which side these men fell on if any. Any input you would have would be appreciated.

    Thank you very much,

    Janet Falkmann

  • Dr. James Willingham

    Sirs: Sovereign Grace, the Doctrines of Grace, the TULIP teachings are the secret of the First and Second Great Awakenings, the Great Century of Missions, religious liberty, the uniting of separate and Regular Baptists, evangelism in quality and quantity, etc. In fact, these teachings, understood and properly applied make one to be balanced, flexible, and creative. Taken wrongly, they are destructive. Abuse of God’s revelation is to be expected, given man’s falling (note FALLING) condition. But in view of God’s grace and mercy we must also expect the wonderful renewals, when truth is taken rightly, that is with all due humility and a sense of utter unworthiness as witness the greatest of all hymns, Amazing grace. It sums up the right attitude in the most appropriate terms. What we are now witnessing might be the ground swell preceeding the greatest awakening of all, the one in which the whole earth is filled with His knowledge and glory as the waters that cover the sea.

  • Donald R Whisler

    Contrary to what Dr. Willingham says the 2nd great awankening happened because both the Baptist and the Methodist were preaching Biblical Holiness and Godly Living.

  • Sir: I speak out of six years of research in Baptist church history, covering over 250 sources, accumulating some 3000 5×8 notecards, and writing an MA thesis in American Social and Intellectual History. In addition I taught a Baptist History course in seminary extension, church history for another school, and American History. Besides, I continued to do reading and research for years and years. Even John Wesley paid homage to Whitefield in his journal, admitting that there were some who were elected to salvation and who were effectully saved and who would never fall. Sovereig Grace fully understood and preached in the anointing of the Holy Spirit produces Godly living, devout believers, wonderful witnesses for Christ. Consider how Jonathan Edwards’ Humble Attempt was the primary means for getting the Great Century of Missions rolling. Interestingly, even Spurgeon said Wesley used stronger language than he did about God using force to get some people converted. Like he lady said to another Spurgeon, “O it was so wonderful that I could not resist it.”

  • Some of us owe nothing to Mr. Riesinger or the Reformed Baptit movement. The pastor of the church where I attended as a child in Arkansas, Rev. George Washington Gray, preached Sovereign Grace to his congregation in the 40s-50s. He fit William Warren Sweet’s description of the Frontier Farmer preacher of the Baptists so well that I thought I was reading a description of Brother Gray. My ordaining pastor Dr. Ernest R. Campbell was a Sovereign Grace preacher as was R.G. Lee. Rolfe Barnard was really a Southern Baptist who got his Sovereign Grace views from W.T. Conner’s class in Systematic Theology at SWBTS. In fact most people do not understanand grasp the realiy that Sovereign Grace as the Baptists of the 1700s and 1800s was the most liberal, persuasive, uniting, creative, balanced, flexible, winsome theology on the face of God’s green earth, and it is coming back. This time, God willing, we shal see it win the whole earth for a 1001 generations. Three factors are crucial to an awakening, namely, the theology (Sovereign Grace), the Presence, and the HUMILITY. WAIT UNTIL SOUTHERN BAPTISTS FIND OUT THAT EVERY POINT OF THE TULIP OUTLINE PLUS PREDESTINATION AND REPROBATON ARE THE MOST INTENSELY INVITING, WINSOME, ENCOURAGING, UPLIFTING, UTTERLY TRANSFORMING TRUTHS THAT EVER CAME TO MORTAL MAN FROM THE MIND OF GOD. SUCH TRUTHS MADE THE PILGRIMS WILLING TO BECOME THE STEPPING STONES FOR OTHERS TO ADVANCE THE CAUSE OF CHRIST. THE DEPTH OF THE BIBLE MOVED THEIR PASTOR JOHN ROBINSON WHO WAS ONE OF THE PARTICIPANTS IN THE SYNOD OF DORDT TO SAY, “WHO KNOWS WHAT NEW LIGHT IS GETTING READY TO BREAK FORTH FROM GOD’S WORD.” TRY THE SEPARATE BAPTISTS AND ELDRESSES FOR A CASE IN POINT AND FOR THE UNITING OF SEPARATES AND REGULARS AND FOR EVANGELIZING IN QUANTITY AND QUALITY AND FOR LAUNCHING THE GREAT CENTURY OF MISSIONS. Gentlemen, we are getting ready for another Great Awakening, terrible and awesome as such an event it is, and it behooves us to say: Shall we lead or follow or have to get out of the way?

  • In 1967-68 I was a Social Worker-I with the Kentucky Division of Public Assistance in Ashland. One of my welfare clients, an elderly lady had a painting hanging on a wall of her home. it was a painting of a peasant couple stading in a potato field, heads bowed over a basket of potatoes, giving thanks. In the background could be seen a church steeple. It was the work of a noted French artist of the 1800s, Jean Millet. The lady said the painting had been given to one of her relatives in the 1800s by the son of Jean Millet who had come to America to live. Her relative had performed some favor, and in repayment by way of saying thanks, the son gave the relative the painting. He supposedly said, “This is the original.The one hanging in the Lourve is a copy.” She gave some information that differentiated the two paintings which I was later able to establish as facts, when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC some 3 yrs. later. What the woman on welfare had was apparently a lost masterpiece. When I went back to check on it, the house was burned down. Presumably the work burnt up in the fire. I have used that experience as an illustration for sermons and one article, The Lost Masterpiece.

    In the article I used the title to describe the theology of the Baptists and of the Great Awakenings, truly, a lost masterpiece. To put it bluntly, I often feel suspicious of our present day Reformd Baptist…they have a harshness about their presentations which suggests that there is something artificial about their understanding of that theology which they have supposedly adopted. In my historical researches, I found the theology to be constructed in such a fashion as to make believers balanced, flexible, creative, and magnetic. In fact, all of the doctrines are actually invitations to begin one’s spiritual pilgrimages. These truths are therapeutic paradoxes which restore a sense of responsibility and empowerment to sinners. Knowing that such teachings are intensely inviting truths, winsome beyond words, so wonderful that they prove to be irresistible, one wonders why people would not print such findings, but, evidently, this might upset some applecarts of control and manipulation. Outside forces like to maintain their puppet strings – even if they forfeit the power that really comes with freedom for the reality of revelation.