Toward Southern Baptist Unity, Part 1: We are a Spectrum, Not a Polarized Body

See all the posts in the series, Toward Southern Baptist Unity»

Despite the many misguided characterizations of the SBC as a polarized body of Calvinists and “Traditionalists,” Southern Baptists are represented by a spectrum of beliefs* and are not a mere two-party denomination. A key to regaining unity in the SBC is found in the recognition that the two groups who are most opposed to one another do not make up the whole of the convention—that there is a stable middle that has traditionally gotten along well with either end of the spectrum but is much less vocal and often overlooked. I’m speaking of those who are “non-Calvinists” but still hold that God ultimately determines the destinies of men—but He does so without impinging the free will of men. You can call them compatibilists, antinomists, congruists, centrists and middlers. But you cannot call them anything that puts them in the camp of those who deny divine determinism or in the camp of those who deny freedom of will—except to call them Southern Baptists. The current practice, prevalent in discussions of Calvinism, of breaking the SBC into two categories, Calvinists and “non-Calvinists,” with the false assumption that all “non-Calvinists” deny divine determinism, is just plain wrong.  If we were merely composed of Calvinists and “Traditionalists,” real unity would be much more difficult to achieve.

Typical Southern Baptist Centrist beliefs:

  • God is the ultimate Determiner of destinies
  • Men have free will and are accountable for their choices
  • The gospel, Christ crucified and risen, is sufficient to save any and all men
  • Regeneration is the life-giving indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which is given in response to the faith of the sinner
  • Sinners are unable to come to Christ only because of their moral aversion to God, which provides no excuse
  • Those whom God saves were persuaded by God but not forced or coerced; and such gracious persuasion is done from outside the person, as God does not indwell a man until He is invited.
  • Calvinists and libertarians/Traditionalists are extremes on either side of the centrally-located, Biblical truth.

This fact of the presence of a large segment of centrists should not be surprising. The compatibilistic approach typical of many Southern Baptists and their appeal to mystery regarding the affirmation of unconditional election and free will are born of the unwavering spiritual conviction of the Biblical truth of both. Rather than rejecting both Calvinism and Libertarianism (Arminianism) in their entirety, they have shared certain principles of Scriptural truth with both. The Southern Baptist middle has never been completely “other” and separate from the two systems. On the contrary, it has been centered between them and within them, albeit with a slight bias toward Calvinism that is traced to the convention’s Calvinistic roots. The centrality of the compatibilist/antinomist position was not due to a desire for compromise, but it was due to an unwillingness to compromise, as they found the Biblical truth to be located in the middle.

The presence of a strong core of middlers who do not share the discomfort for mystery (regarding how divine determinism and free will are reconciled) that those on either end seem to have, and also do not share the incendiary opposition that the two ends often have for each other, offers hope for enduring the current struggles and an improved organic unity.

Continue to Part 2: We are Not Defined by Political Representation, but by Biblically Determined Truth»

Ken Hamrick, 2013


* SBC Spectrum Chart

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3 comments

  1. revcort

    I don’t know if my testimony in this regard is typical or not. But, although I would call myself fully reformed, I have never had this “incendiary opposition” (as you have described it) toward either Arminians or Traditionalists (as they now wish to be called). I suppose the only thing that upsets me is this very thing- the divisive tone, the personal attacks, and the questioning of motives that I have seen from some. I tried to enter the debate last Summer but got burned by several folks and decided to exit the fray.

    By the way, I completely agree with your assessment here. I think most may be centrists, even, especially the rank and file folks in the pews. Some don’t even know what the debate is about, but I’d venture to say that most, if you sat them down and gave them a thorough explanation with biblical support for both sides of the argument, they’d likely come down somewhere in the middle.

    I’d like to add one more thing- as a Calvinist who has been serving in a mostly centrist and traditional church for 13+ years, I have not made it my goal to turn everyone into a Calvinist or to convince them I’m right and they’re wrong. There are some folks here who believe as I do, but it is not because of my twisting their arms. After all, if anyone should believe in the providence of God over these things, it would be those who believe in sovereign grace. If it is left to me to convince someone, well, I’m not that persuasive. So, my attitude is to wait for God on these things and He will do the convincing if it is to be done. I think most who believe as I do feel the same way. I am not threatened in any way by an opposing view. I think our differences can be seen as a strength if we can keep from biting and devouring one another.

    • Ken Hamrick

      Brother Courtney,

      Your attitude and approach to those in your own church who might disagree with you can serve as a great example to those involved in that controversy in the SBC. The characteristic of not being threatened by how many agree or disagree could be the solution to real unity. Maybe it depends on what it is you value. If you value political power, then you will pay attention to numbers on your side an on the side of the opposition, and will be threatened if those numbers are trending the wrong way, etc. But if political power is not what you value, then you are free to leave the convincing up to God and be at peace no matter what.

      Thanks for contributing!

  2. dr. james willingham

    The spectrum idea only works for a little while. Then comes polarization as offenses begin due to dislikes of one group for another. Also the desire of some for power will motivate them to push for one pole over the other. The spectrum serves as a paradigm for a dialectic which is a means for manipulation. Eventually, the man centered pole wins out, leaving a wreck of the recognition of God’s sovereignty. The only alternative to this is a better understanding of biblical doctrine. Intellectually, the ideas, precepts, doctrines, beliefs, are designed, evidently, as binary or two poled propositions, and they are apparently contradictory to the human mind, that is, they cannot be reconciled and are not meant to be. The purpose of these apparently contradictory propositions is to set up a tension in the mind a Christian believer, a tension which enables that individual to balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic or, in short, God’s best subliminal advertisement of the Gospel Faith, a mature person. As people began to better understand how the truths of the Bible actually work, they will be able to recognize where others are coming from. Interestingly enough, the enabling and empowering of two poled truths provide for a response to situations that arise, a response that comes from the pole appropriate to a given situation. For example, there are times when the Sovereignty of God and the truths appertaining thereto constitute the right response to a situation. On the other hand, man’s responsibility likewise has situations in which it fits. Consider also the fact of therapeutic paradoxes. Everyone wants to say that God loves ever body, but they run right into the reality where God says plainly that He hates some like Esau: “Esau have.” How does one respond to that statement. Usually, they blithely ignore the problem, and they do so at their own peril. At best, they have injured their presentation of the Gospel and/or they have cut some folks out of the loop that that text is meant to reach.

    In researching and in reflecting upon the facts of revelation, it is plain that every one of the doctrines of grace are an invitation to salvation. Our Lord used election, and note it especially, the election of someone else, as the invitation of a therapeutic paradox. In the case of the woman of Canaan, Mt.15:24, Jesus said, “I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The woman was not a Jew, but his statement moved her to fall down before Him saying, Lord, help me. And then He used the idea of reprobation, saying “It is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it to dogs.” She agrees that she is a dog, a creature that in Jewish lore is symbolic of rejection (just consider Peter’s comment about the dog return to its vomit). Then and there she received our Lord’s highest commendation, “Great is thy faith.” Our Lord used the same approach with his fellow citizens of Nazareth, but with negative results. The election of a widow and a leper, neither of whom wre Jews, so enraged people who had known Jesus from his childhood that they tried to murder him. Again, the paradox is found in Jonah 3, where the prophet declares that in forty days Nineveh will be destroyed. He gave no invitation, said not a word about mercy, but he expected they would respond which they did as readers know.

    Even man’s inability that bothers so many of the Traditionalists can be turned into a means of salvation. I noted recently that they were making much of God’s command and invitation to turn, but a reading of the Old Testament reveals that the people then would make it a prayer, Turn us, and we shall be turned. If they had the power to turn, why ask God to turn them? There is also the case in the New Testament where the man prayed, “Lord, help my unbelief.” In other words, he was begging our Lord to help him believe. The faith which our Lord demands is a divinely given faith, and one gets it by begging God for it. Anyway, when we realize the nature of theological ideas or biblical, we will be able to make this Convention work far more effectively as people move away from offending to being able to identify with where a person is ideologically. They will also be able to understand how a truth of two poles actually works and how it enables one to respond to a particular situation appropriately.

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