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The Shallow Stream of Southern Baptist Semi-Pelagianism

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Tim Guthrie is a Connect 316 board member and is the pastor of Arlington Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Tim Guthrie is also on the nominating committee for the Southern Baptist Convention. As I challenge his recent post on Calvinism below, please be aware that Guthrie has a role in nominating Southern Baptists to posts of leadership.

On his blog on Tuesday, Guthrie posted an article entitled “Why I Reject Today’s Calvinism – Simplified.” As I plan to discuss on Monday’s Daily #DOWNGRADE Segment on the program, Guthrie’s article is an example of the theological schizophrenia pervasive in certain corners of the Southern Baptist Convention. If there truly are “two streams” that flow into Southern Baptist identity and Guthrie claims the Sandy Creek tradition, his post gives evidence that the stream has become a dry bed of logical fallacies, historical inconsistencies, leaping generalities and argumentative absurdities. What I hope to demonstrate isn’t that Guthrie is a bad guy or fit to be ridiculed. What I hope to demonstrate is that if Tim Guthrie is typical of those serving on Southern Baptist committees (and I don’t know if he is or not), the Modern Day Downgrade has saturated the Convention perhaps to the point of no return. It’s hard to come back from this level of ignorance.

As reported by the New York Times and other media outlets, there is a rise in the adoption of a system of theology known as Calvinism. Theologians have debated the worth of such a system for hundreds of years. The following is my simplified breakdown of why I reject this system and believe that others should as well.

What Guthrie is most likely referring to is the New York Times article published last Friday, highlighting [Southern Baptist pastor] Mark Dever and discussing the “Calvinist Revival” taking place throughout evangelicalism. Having laid out his thesis, Guthrie continues…

I choose to accept the Bible first and above all man made thoughts about it. Anabaptist predated Calvinism. Calvinism cannot trace itself back that far. It obviously cannot go further. I would rather hold to the Bible, than a man’s thoughts about the Bible.

Who argues that we should rather accept man-made thoughts about the Bible first and the Bible itself, second? What Calvinist would not agree that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice? What Calvinist believes that the Doctrines of Grace extend to Calvin and not to Scripture? After torching this poor straw-man, Guthrie makes a bizarre claim about Anabaptists.

First, the roots of both the Anabaptist and Calvinist tradition go back to sixteenth century. Both are children of the Reformation. For one to say that the doctrines commonly called Calvinism go back no further than Calvin, they would also have to say that the doctrines common of the Anabaptist tradition go back no further than Bender and Grebel.

Secondly, does Guthrie believe that Anabaptists were “Baptists” as we know them? Guthrie might have well said, “Mennonites are older than Calvinism” or “the Amish are older than Calvinism.” Unless Guthrie is an Anabaptist, this point (in which he’s wrong in the primary presumption anyway) is irrelevant. One wonders if Guthrie would be more comfortable in the nearest Hutterite Colony than in a Southern Baptist Church, which is implicitly and confessionally not Anabaptist. Recent scholarship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has celebrated Anabaptist history in the past few years (which may be what has Guthrie confused), but there’s no legitimate historical link between Southern Baptists and Anabaptists and any connection between the first generation of Baptists (both General and Particular) is marginal at best. [For more on the faulty connections between Southern Baptist heritage and the Anabaptist tradition, click here]

Third, concerning how far Calvinism can trace back its roots, someone should notify Guthrie that “Calvinism” is a half-century older than Guthrie’s Baptist tradition that goes back to 1609. But, of course, both sides would argue that regardless of how far back the labels go, the theology goes back to the New Testament. That doesn’t mean that either side is right, but that’s what both (including Guthrie) would argue.

In the system called Calvinism, God is the author of sin. And Calvinism teaches that God uses sin. I reject this first with the simple fact that the Bible clearly states “God knew no sin, became sin for us…” 2 Corinthians 5:21. Jesus took on our sin, being our sacrifice. A clear and consistent understanding of God would then have to conclude that if He “knew no sin”, He could not be the author of sin. Nor could Gods pure nature be consistent if God “used” sin. I hold that God knows all, even the future, but I reject that God uses sin to accomplish His Will by creating it and making sin one of His tools.

Clearly, Calvinists do not argue that God is “author” of sin. How many times has this fallacious stereotype been soundly denounced – even within Reformed confessions? And yet, Guthrie is under the false presumptions that God is the author of sin. I would encourage the reader to read John MacArthur’s answer to this very question and then stop making arguments that have been soundly rejected. There’s a certain level of intellectual integrity that should provoke one to stop painting caricatures of the other side’s perspective when that caricature is soundly and explicitly rejected by the other side. If Guthrie could find a single Calvinist who argues that God is the author of sin, then he should continue to make the claim.

However, the next statement from Guthrie is a true and accurate reflection of Calvinist teaching. Although God is not the author (provoker, instigator, causer) of sin, God certainly DOES use sin. And when God uses sin to fulfill his divine objectives, he uses sin sinlessly. I’d like to enlighten Pastor Guthrie of at least one example in Scripture where God used sin to accomplish his perfect will. I don’t know the level of Guthrie’s scripture knowledge, so he may not be familiar with the whole account, but God’s Son came to earth, lived a perfect life, and then died on a cross, having been murdered by the hands of men according to the divine decree of God and then rose from the dead (this is called “the Gospel”).

Let me say that again…Jesus was murdered at the hands of sinful men. And as Christ was murdered by sinful men, that sin accomplished the wise purposes of God’s plan.

…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:23, ESV)

…for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:27-28, ESV)

How many biblical examples can one provide of God using sin? God used the sins of Joseph’s brothers to save them from famine and protect the ancestral line of Jesus, a sin that Joseph said was “meant by God for good” (Genesis 50:20). When Judas betrayed Christ, clearly that accomplished the will of God that brings us salvation. But you see, here is where the shallow synergistic waters of Guthrie’s tradition fails most terribly. That anti-Calvinist tradition simply cannot digest or cope with difficult biblical passages or complex theological thought. They want everything “simplified.” Simplified, that is, even more so than Scripture itself. That God can be blameless of causing sin and yet use the sinful nature of sinful men in a sinless way to accomplish his sinless will is beyond their comprehension. That’s precisely why there’s a Calvinist revival in the SBC. We have something that the Synergist stream just doesn’t have – answers to complex theological questions. Even the most unlearned Southern Baptist can look at Guthrie’s reasoning, compare to the Scripture, and see that if God isn’t sovereign over sin and use sin to accomplish his will, Tim Guthrie doesn’t have a crucified Savior.

Calvinism holds that many are born into this life with zero opportunity for salvation. Numerous verses in the Bible deny this. The very nature of the death burial and resurrection tell another story. Everyone has the opportunity to be saved, not everyone will. God knows in advance who will and who will not. Big difference. I hold that everyone has the decision to accept or reject Jesus. He does not decide this for people. He foreknows each persons decision.

If this is actually Guthrie’s understanding of Calvinism (and for all I know, it might be) and not a ridiculous straw-man fabricated for the sake of argumentation, then I can see the reason for his reservation. Unfortunately, it seems that Guthrie’s understanding of Calvinism is shaped by everything except, well…Calvinism. While it is true that Calvinism (and Christian Orthodoxy in general) holds that every man is born dead in our trespasses and sins, completely unable without God’s grace to believe or repent, there is nothing preventing any person from being saved except the wickedness of their own heart. This common semi-Pelagian characterization of the Calvinist view paints a picture of a well-intentioned and God-loving human race trying desperately to repent and believe and somehow this terrible and angry God is not letting them, instead condemning them to hell amidst their pleas for rescue. In reality, the Calvinist view is that the lost and wicked world can repent and be saved any time they want to – but they don’t want to because they’re lost and wicked. In fact, the race is so very fallen that unless God gives grace to an individual that brings forth a repentant heart and the gift of faith, everyone would freely choose to continue in their wicked and fallen state. Once again, this depth of thought is not possible in Guthrie’s worldview – the waters simply don’t run that deep.

And of course, Guthrie’s assertion that “everyone has the decision to accept or reject Jesus” is a juvenile and ridiculous sentiment that the thoughtful Christian can discount with just a few moments’ thought. Will everyone hear of Jesus? No. Then does everyone have the decision to accept or reject Jesus? Obviously not. Then why cling to this absurd, thoughtless speculation? In Gurthrie’s view, everybody has to get an equal chance at salvation. In his soteriology, Guthrie simply doesn’t have the ability to answer a tough question like, “what about all the people who never hear?” It appears that in Guthrie’s view, everybody gets a chance to hear. And that’s a view, quite frankly, outside the realm of reality. Of course, the Calvinist knows that rejecting Jesus is not why a person deserves hell. They deserve hell because they’ve sinned (rejection of the Gospel is just one sin of many that make us deserving of hell). If someone doesn’t hear the Gospel because God didn’t send them a messenger, God is still just for sending them to hell because they have sinned. Once again, this is a thought simply too complex for the shallow soteriology present in this shallow stream of the Baptist faith.

Years ago there was not much difference in those who held to Calvinism and those who did not. Today we are seeing a different picture. Many Calvinist today (not all) play the role of God in judging whether others are truly saved. I understand being a “fruit inspector,” but I reject those who claim others are unregenerate (not saved) when they personally have no knowledge of the hearts of the other people. The mean spirit of this group is well documented. Their lack of applying consistently the biblical admonitions to NOT judge is staggering. Calling people out as unregenerate is more than dangerous. There are those today in this new form of Calvinism that need to be ignored and labeled dangerous. They are arrogant and not biblical in their conduct. They represent a small faction of the whole of Christianity.

At this point, it becomes apparent that Guthrie has never read a lick of Baptist history, or at least he hasn’t retained any of that information. To claim that there was “not much difference” between the Particular and General Baptists would be news to them. Our Calvinistic Southern Baptist forbears would also scoff at that notion. Obadiah Holmes would probably challenge you to a duel for making such a comment.

Guthrie apparently has a problem claiming someone to be unregenerate, having “no knowledge of the hearts of people” (of course, a person’s actions – such as Ergun Caner’s lies and subsequent unrepentance – indicates the state of their heart – Matthew 15:19). It’s interesting that Guthrie claims the same thing concerning the Bible’s stance on “judging” that virtually every atheist, agnostic, or liberal social-activist also claims – a prohibition on judging altogether. Once again, we can’t expect someone of Guthrie’s shallow theological stream to dive any more deeply into the Text to pull out the expository meaning on the topic of judging than the demonstrably lost that hang out on the Huffington Post Religion blog.

The new form being represented in today’s Calvinism is a fad I think – I hope. Though the appeal is obviously geared to the younger generation, there is an absence of anything that would hold this system as endearing. Calvinism leaves devastation in its path anywhere one looks. Calvinism cannot sustain itself indefinitely. It lacks passion for people and tapers the flame of evangelism in the long run.

Once again, I ask, what is “new” about today’s Calvinism? Have the five points changed? Certainly not. Perhaps Guthrie would argue that this “new Calvinism” is just so much meaner and angrier than Calvinism of previous centuries. If that’s his claim, it reinforces my assertion that Guthrie has read very little history. I would also challenge the assumption that Calvinism is “obviously geared to the younger generation.” How is that? Is it the return to hymns? Is it the longer preaching? Is it the boring Bible studies and systematic theologies? Is it the more frequent communion services? Is it the greater emphasis on church discipline and personal holiness? Here, Guthrie is shockingly wrong. He assumes that because it’s younger people leaving his stream for Calvinistic churches that Calvinism is “geared toward the younger people.” I would suggest to you that Calvinism is in stark, bold contrast to everything that Generation X and Generation Y is (statistically) about and flies in the face of everything that church growth specialists tell us those in Generation X and Generation Y want. The Calvinist surge in the SBC among these generations is because many have come to realize that folks in Tim Guthrie’s stream are out of answers. Their thought process is not deep enough. They are intellectually bankrupt. They can’t understand the hard questions, let alone answer them. And so, these particularly inquisitive generations go to where the water runs deep.

To claim that “Calvinism cannot sustain itself indefinitely” is yet another display of historical ignorance. The doctrines commonly known as “Calvinism” have nothing to prove. If Guthrie knew church history, he would know that his tradition is less than a century old. His tradition, this doctrinally inbred hybrid of Arminian-Calvinist bi-polarity and this bizarre, theologically schizophrenic soteriology that combines free-will idolatry with eternal security is inherently new in view of history. Calvinism, which Spurgeon says is the very doctrine of Paul, has already endured the test of time. We’ll see if this brand of Southern Baptist semi-Pelagianism can survive the century. Somehow, I highly doubt it.