A couple decades ago, the dust began settling on Bibles in the SBC. The denomination had just conquered the battle against encroaching theological liberalism, in which the literalness and the authority of Scripture was being formidably challenged. In a laudable act of “contending for the faith,” the convention moved to affirm the preeminence of Scripture as the rule of faith and practice.
And then …
The SBC- for all intents and purposes – put the Bible on the shelf. Perhaps you’ll find it vertically stacked next to the latest Beth Moore revelation or adjacent to one of those old “heaven tourism” books, or maybe beside a TD Jakes LifeWay purchase or, more likely, comfortably nestled next to “Jesus Calling For The SBC”. In any case, you’ll likely find Scripture collecting so much debris from disregard that the words of the great Baptist (and Calvinist) Prince of Preachers are now a denominational “examine thyself” (2 Corinthians 13:5) exhortation of epic, critical import:
“There is dust enough on some of your Bibles to write ‘damnation” with your fingers.” Charles Spurgeon
Say it ain’t so, Charlie. But, alas, it is.
I. The Scriptures
The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation. (Baptist Faith & Message 2000)
As a “revised summary of our faith,” the FY 2000 version of the SBC’s beliefs, in its entirety, is superficially acceptable. It’s sufficiently contentious-free that it’s been found generally agreeable enough for some 50,000 cooperating churches to sign on.
The problem isn’t with what the SBC claims about Scripture. It’s about what the SBC does (or, more correctly, doesn’t do) with Scripture. The Word is lauded for faith and practice, but inherent in the convention’s vanilla approach to doctrinal matters is the reality that it doesn’t exalt the Word as the preeminent source for faith and practice AND theology. God has, by the way, established such positioning for it:
You have exalted above all things
your name and your word. Psalm 138:2
The historic moral behaviors restricted by teetotalling Baptists may or may not be gone, but Baptists have always been Biblically-legalistic enough to allow Scripture to dictate its stance on drinking, or gambling, or dancing, and such things. But, as a convention, they’ve failed woefully at being sufficiently entrenched in the Word to allow that Revelation to define and dictate its theology. Arminianism is not, by the way, a theology proper. It’s a default theology. It’s the default condition under which every redeemed sinner is gifted faith. It’s the way we naturally think. God, as you may know, does not think as a man. (Isaiah 55:8-9) There is much for us to learn then.
It’s because the SBC – as a denomination – has no consistent Word-borne, Scripture-defined, Apostolically-endorsed (Ephesians 2:20) theology that the convention is able to accommodate participating churches than range from thoroughly unbiblical seeker-sensitive centers of positive thinking to devoutly Scripturally-obedient congregations with rich theology and the accompanying accoutrements of discipleship and spiritual growth. The SBC, top-down, is far more concerned with watering down what truth it may know from Scripture in order to maximize crowds and keep swirling the waters of its baptistries than it is with understanding what Scripture actually means by what it says.
And this lack of coherent theology is what prompts the continued attacks by the SBC establishment. While the well-won wars for the Scripture should have been a wake-up call that the convention actually would adhere to and teach the sound theology based on that Scripture, the victory became a mere chest-thrust of house-cleaning authority in colleges and seminaries. (To quote SBC President Adrian Rogers, at the time, “If we say pickles have souls, they [seminary professors] better teach that pickles have souls.” Uttered in jest, of course, but far more reflective of clench-jawed control than humble submission to the Word of God.) But, it is simply not enough for Scripture to dictate your behavior, your practice. It can do those things – we are each most capable of being exemplary Pharisees – without at all affecting your understanding of the faith, of who it teaches you are and who it teaches God is. But the theology of the Word is the engine behind our God-given gift of faith. Obedience to Biblical behavioral commands is imminently important, but the apprehension of Biblical theology grows one’s faith in “spiritual wisdom and understanding.” (Colossians 1:9-14)
The asinine and intentionally inflammatory comment about Calvinism as a “Trojan horse” will – and does – play well in pulpits and pews where the consistent teaching of Scripture has been long abandoned. It will get shouts of “Amen” from the deacon quarters where knowledge of authentic Biblical teaching is less important than the value of that “deacon” entry on a resume. It will be applauded by all who have not been given the example of – or exhortation from – pastors and elders who “teach what accords with sound doctrine,” and the critical importance that sound doctrine plays in the life of the church, and the life of the believer. (Titus 2:1) The importance of Scripture hasn’t been a priority in the life of the pew-sitter because it has so often not been a priority in the pulpit. It’s little wonder then that the position of a weak Arminian theological perspective would not be vigorously defended in polemical attacks against Calvinism.
Just note that “Calvinism” is not the entirety of a “theology,” not even the entirety of “Reformed” theology, though this error is frequently made. It is merely one element – the soteriological one – of a wide-encompassing, historically orthodox systematic theology driven by and informed by Scripture. As the Calvinist evangelist (not an oxymoron, btw, but a term consistent with, and applicable to, every NT apostle & disciple) George Whitefield once remarked, and was quoted by Spurgeon, “We are all born Arminians, “ to which Spurgeon agreed saying, “It is grace that turns us into Calvinists.” We could certainly agree with both these towering figures of faith from church history, but we could also, in light of these attacks upon Biblical theology as a “Trojan horse” clarify, perhaps, an appropriate “Calvinist” response. “You’re saved an Arminian. Grace makes you a Calvinist, but that grace is apprehended only a result of the Spirit-illuminated study of the Word.” It does not occur by pew-sitting spiritual osmosis. It comes from studying God’s Word with the faith of a child, being fed a Living Word that itself will teach its own meaning. I like the way the King James Version puts it … “Study to shew thyself approved unto God.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
Thus, Arminian attacks against Biblical theology are to be expected. And they are to be particularly expected from within the ranks of the SBC where Scripture has become a mere 30-second, big-screen, powerpoint slide flashed behind the pulpit-less dais on Sunday mornings. It’s quite a chore to appreciate the “rightly handled Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) when cherry plucked portions of it are used merely as graphic bullet-pointed parentheses to support the preacher’s Sunday morning motivational speech, rather than as the soul-edifying main meal intended to “feed my sheep.” (John 21:17)
Lacking a comprehensive, Biblical theology then – which (I contend) Arminianism is not – leaves a convention full of aisle-walking prayer repeaters who will join in any and all attacks against the notion that they were not the impetus of their salvation. This elevated view of ourselves is the default condition upon which we all arrive at regeneration. It’s only once the richness of God’s truth in His word is expounded, studied, digested, prayed over … that the wonder of grace that has taken place to create our salvation can be had. God has revealed in His Scripture an utterly sovereign view of Himself, along with a view of man that is far less than we like to accept as valid. We simply tend to view ourselves as more important that we really are and, apart from grasping the doctrines of grace, tend to harbor a private chagrin even against God who’s pointed out our arrogance in His Word.
It’s this that prompts the puffed-chest Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, to point to the denominational exit doors for those who dare agree with God in his Word. “I know there are a fair number of you who think you are a Calvinist, but understand there is a denomination which represents that view. It’s called Presbyterian.”
Such an exodus of truth-believers and Word-exalters might be a boon to that declining denomination, but the invitation to egress by a notable influence-wielder likely won’t go over well with the power structure of the SBC, a denomination that is itself hemorrhaging membership at an epic pace. They may be willing to forsake Scripture in order to build the denomination with nifty seeker-sensitive programming, but it’ll be curious to see if they’re actually willing to contribute to its demise by intentionally jettisoning those among the ranks who actually prefer an embrace of the Word – in all its teaching.
The default theology of the SBC is the default theology of every morally-inclined deist, where “Jesus” has become an analogical metaphor for the “must have” fire insurance that we’ll ultimately need and the contemporary magic genie who died a sacrificial death so that we might live the American dream to its fullest. This theology is not borne out of Scripture, it is borne in spite of Scripture. Scripture does not teach Arminianism, but, selectively chosen, it will support it. Scripture teaches the sovereignty of God in ALL things, not merely in our salvation. It is, for the Calvinist then, this attribute of God – His Sovereignty – that gives us the greatest assurance, that brings us the most certain peace, and that grants us fundamental, abiding joy in Christ.
Calvinism is only a “Trojan horse,” perhaps, in the sense of 2 Corinthians 10:4. If one were to consider the mind of an anti-Calvinist to be entrapped in a “stronghold, a fortress” of erroneous theology, then the injection of the truth of Scripture – in the form of the doctrines of grace – might find the metaphor of a Trojan horse to be accurate. It would also find it to be hopeful, a thing to be prayed for. An explosion of the doctrines of grace across the SBC would be the realization of that oft-sought SBC awakening because no such awakening occurs apart from the intensity of focus on the Word.
Calvinism isn’t the enemy of the SBC. Biblical disregard (readily evident in the rampant fruit of Biblical ignorance that plagues the denomination today) is and has been the SBC’s persistent enemy. Calvinism, as it’s defined by its deriders, is, in the purest way possible, the theology of the Bible, of the New Testament, the apostles. It is the theology taught by Christ.
Those adhering to the doctrines of grace are the greatest allies God could send to the SBC, even if in a Trojan horse … because along with us in that horse … we’ll be bringing something Southern Baptists have long forgotten, abandoned, and effectively disregarded.
And … as we leap from the wooden belly of that equine transport, we’ll even bring along a towel so you can wipe “damnation” from its cover.
I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.” Charles Spurgeon
[Contributed by Bud Ahlheim]