As Baptists Prepare to Meet, Calvinism Debate Shifts to Heresy Accusation, by Weston Gentry at Christianity Today
A statement by a non-Calvinist faction of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has launched infighting within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, and tensions are expected to escalate Tuesday as church leaders descend on New Orleans…
The May 30 document, ‘A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,’ aims ‘to more carefully express what is generally believed by Southern Baptists about salvation.’ But both Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler and George W. Truett Theological Seminary professor Roger Olson, in separate blog posts, said that parts of the document sound like semi-Pelagianism, a traditionally heretical understanding of Christian salvation.
One sliver of the document’s second article particularly drew their ire. It reads, ‘We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will.’
Even though the two scholars represent opposite ends of the evangelical spectrum on salvation, both made essentially the same allegation: the wording seems, at best, theologically careless and, at worst, represents a heretical understanding of sin, human nature, and the human will.
It appears that the in-fighting over both Calvinism and Arminianism within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)—North America’s largest Protestant denomination—has not eased up over the years.
When I left the Convention behind back in 2004 (while attending its flagship seminary), the arguments were not nearly as loud or prominent. In fact, I generally assumed it was more of a “seminary” debate, given that our particular school was one of the more “Calvinist-friendly” havens in the Convention (and also given the fact that most of the people I knew from Southern Baptist churches were not aware of the debates or even what “Calvinism” or “Arminianism” were). Nevertheless, it seems that things have only become more intense and are now at the forefront of Convention-wide discussion and debate.
Putting aside for the moment the doctrinal issues behind both Calvinism and Arminianism (assuming one could peg these movements as anything resembling monolithic), it is worth considering how these debates arise in the first place within a convention like the SBC. Beyond that, in what sense can men like Mohler or Truett charge other convention members with “sounding like” heretics? In fact, what does heresy even mean for Southern Baptists (or for all Protestants, really)?
The Southern Baptist Convention, as a whole, champions the idea of local church autonomy. Their official website states: “The Convention is an alliance of churches working in friendly cooperation under the heading ‘Southern Baptist.'” This “convention” of local churches is a cooperative that exists primarily for the sake of shared resources and a shared vision with regards to the essentials of the Christian message and Gospel. Interestingly enough, they even go so far as to downplay the “denomination” angle by stating, “Technically, the Southern Baptist convention exists for only two days a year, at the annual gathering.” I guess I could technically say that the Orthodox Church only exists for about two hours a week, during the local celebration of the Holy Eucharist (the Divine Liturgy). For me, that sounds a lot more appealing than a convention every summer.
It should also be noted that there is a great deal of dogmatic leeway in the Southern Baptist Convention. Of note, their own website claims explicitly, “not all, or even most, Christians are Southern Baptists. Countless non-Southern Baptists, and indeed, non-Baptists, have received Christ as Savior and Lord.” I would counter this statement by questioning why, therefore, the Convention sends “missionaries” to countries where demographics show to be over 90% Christian (e.g., Romania). They even posit their doctrinal “distinctives” as things “most” Southern Baptists believe. With this looseness, I would imagine most readers or newcomers to both the Southern Baptist Convention and this overall discussion would wonder how or why a term like heresy could ever be justified.
The Southern Baptists do, of course, have a core set of beliefs (their Baptist Faith and Message), which establish the boundaries that one should never cross in one’s local, autonomous church. In other words, there are limits. However, the means by which one interprets and applies these “limits” is simply according to Scripture alone (by their standards), which effectively means nothing, because “owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters” (St. Vincent of Lérins, Commonitorium, 2:5).
Given this epistemological chaos, it is no wonder that the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism continues to rear its ugly head in the SBC—as both systems of doctrine are easily argued (and refuted) according to the Protestant standard of “scripture alone” (Sola Scriptura). And if one examines the recent history of the Convention, its stability and “conservative” nature are far from resolute. (The first thing that pops into my head is a certain female professor’s nude, female “crucifix” that she had adorning her office at a certain Southern Baptist seminary just a few years ago.) The so-called “liberal” side of things almost diseased the SBC just as it has ultimately derailed and completely de-Christianized the mainline Protestant denominational groups, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the United Churches of Christ (just to name a few).
For now, however, the SBC is on relatively conservative ground. When one’s only appeal is to the scriptures, the only true appeal is to consensus and the arguments of individuals—in other words, everything is according to convention. All things considered, the SBC could have far worse things to argue about.
Circling back to the charges of “heresy” or “heretical” teaching, then, I find it difficult to quantify what men like Mohler and Truett actually intend by such accusations—and whether they could really bear any impact on individuals or on the convention as a whole. If the only standard for Protestant (and Southern Baptist) dogma is an appeal to the scriptures (or even their “right understanding”), how can one ever convincingly argue that one doctrine or another is heresy? What Mohler and Truett are both appealing to is a certain understanding of Church history and tradition, and not scripture alone.
For example, the charge of “Semi-Pelagianism”—while being only known by that particular name in recent centuries—is often associated with the rulings of the second Synod of Orange (AD 529). This local council of the Latin West is generally seen in our day as a vindication of both St. Augustine’s debates against Pelagius and the soteriological distinctives of Calvinism. However, even this synod’s conclusions differ markedly from the viewpoints of Calvinists, and especially from men like Mohler. For example, the council (like St. Augustine) emphatically declares both the necessity of infant baptism and the reality of baptism’s efficacious qualities: “According to the catholic faith we also believe that… grace has been received through baptism.”
Furthermore, and in a denial of monergism (and vindication of synergism), the synod continues: “… all baptized persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul.” Mohler and other Calvinists would certainly deny any insinuation that man’s labors are essential for the salvation of a person’s soul, not to mention the idea that grace is received through baptism.
In a final death knell to Calvinism—and not a semi-invented “Semi-Pelagianism”—the council also concludes: “We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.” That eliminates most of the “five points” of Calvinism with one, simple statement (tt even drops the “anathema” bomb).
So while even Church history and this local synod disagree with Mohler, Pruett and the other accused “New Calvinists” of the Southern Baptist Convention, I still find it interesting that they would appeal to “the Church” (even if it was just a local council) of the 6th century rather than to scripture alone—which has no mention of a system of theology called “Semi-Pelagianism.” In fact, by its very name, it is associated with an historical person and his doctrinal distinctives (albeit misleadingly so—and really, Pelagius was probably only condemned because of Nestorianism).
Given that the Southern Baptist Convention is merely a convention of autonomous churches, and that the Convention does not “ordain” ministers, what is the point of accusing others of “heresy”?
When the anti-ecclesiology of a “lowest common denominator” faith is the name of the game, there is no room for terms like heresy, because there are no means in place to actually deal with heresy. If the “ministry” of the Convention is determined at the local level, it is up to the local churches to determine who is also not worthy of ministry, for that is where the “keys” reside.
This has to be incredibly frustrating for intelligent men like Mohler, who know quite well that the Southern Baptist Convention was founded not only as a defense of slavery, but also on Calvinist doctrinal distinctives. While he likely pines for a more robust ecclesiology in times like these—one that could actually put weight behind a technical term like heresy—the facts are simply the facts. The Convention is a loose association of relatively Baptist-style churches (circa 19th century) with local, autonomous authority. If a group of those local churches decides to pen an article condemning his Calvinism, he really can’t do anything about it. He certainly can’t do anything to throw them out of the denomination.
At the end of the day, the word heresy—for those with an anti-ecclesiology (and for most Protestants, really)—is little more than an insult. It carries no weight and it has no ecclesiastical authority or demand to it. Indeed, I think this is why some are offended when they hear members of the Orthodox Church using terms like heterodox or heretic in theological discussions. They assume we mean what they mean by those words—insults. But we actually have specific, technical meanings attached to such terms, and the means by which to address them.
Beyond this, the Southern Baptist Convention is also left without an ability to constitute itself as a “true church” (or association of churches), given the inability to exercise ecclesiastical discipline. I say this, because most Protestants identify “discipline” as a mark of a true church. For example, the Calvinist Belgic Confession states:
The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults (emphasis added).
While the above statement is well and good (consistent with Protestant beliefs), it both defies and denies Protestant churches everywhere.
One would be remiss to find examples of excommunication or censuring in a Protestant church these days—and when found, one can typically observe the “excommunicated” person waltzing down the street to the next closest Protestant church for the following Sunday’s worship services. There are no consequences. While some churches will do their due diligence to “research” a new member’s history (transferal letters and so forth), this is rare, especially in the consumerist age of the mega-church, where many members may never have any record in the congregation but simply attend services anonymously as one attends a concert. And even in these cases, what church will flat-out refuse membership to a newcomer? (“Surely the other church just didn’t understand this man/woman,” etc.)
Even by their own, general standards, Protestant churches are incapable of living up to the basic tenets that mark out a “true church.” This situation with the Convention is no different, as it only serves to highlight the impotence of terms like heresy in Protestant denominations.
But to me, the most disturbing thing about this whole situation is the fact that such looseness of association also implies a looseness with regards to the Person of Jesus Christ.
Our Lord is, in His Person, Truth incarnate. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. All that we believe about worship, about ecclesiology, and about salvation are inextricably linked to Christ the Person. There are not multiple Christs and therefore there cannot be multiple “ideas” about what He wants.
When a denomination like the Southern Baptist Convention establishes such loose “guidelines” that only “most” of them believe, they are without any true Canon or Rule at all besides “convention” (i.e., democracy or “mob rule”). This not only leads to debates over things like Calvinism but also implies that there are multiple Christs. But Jesus has only one teaching about worship; He has only one teaching about how we are to have a relationship with Him. If one leaves it open for discussion on such pivotal issues, they are making such essentials of the faith to be merely “ideas” and not about true communion and fellowship with the one, true God, worshiping Him and serving Him according to His will.
While we (as Orthodox) certainly agree that the local church should have a certain amount of prominence and authority, this does not excuse the need for consistency in worship (for example), nor does it allow for a schizophrenic Christ Who is left without any true or coherent will(s) of His own.
The solution for the Southern Baptist Convention in this debate is not the debate of systems or the hurling of empty accusations—it is ecclesiology. And that is something that can only be found in Christ and in His one, true Body. Our hearts and doors are open, should anyone be interested—and you don’t have to worry about a debate over Calvinism and Arminianism.