May 14, 2009
While TIME Magazine recently claimed the rise of Calvinism in Christianity as today's No. 3 unexpected trend, Dr. David Dockery raised the question to Oklahoma Baptist University students: Are Southern Baptists Calvinists?
Dockery, president of Union University, spoke at OBU's chapel service Wednesday, May 6. He concluded the year-long chapel theme "Lost and Found," which investigates the attributes of God based on the book "The Knowledge of the Holy" by A.W. Tozer. As a guest speaker for OBU's Hobbs Lecture, Dockery's lecture was titled "Salvation, Sovereignty and Southern Baptists."
Adding to Southern Baptists' ongoing conversation regarding Calvinism, Dockery referred to the roots of Baptist heritage to answer that some Southern Baptists are Calvinists, and others are not. Dockery built his lecture on three biblical affirmations: The Bible affirms the sovereignty of God; the Bible affirms the responsibility of men and women; and the Bible affirms both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of men and women together.
Born 400 years ago in 1509, John Calvin only referred once - and cryptically - to his conversion to the Protestant faith. In 1536, he wrote a small volume titled "The Institutes of the Christian Religion." He revised the text, based on the "Apostles' Creed," numerous times. The work is divided into four books: Book One focuses on the knowledge of God; Book Two focuses on Jesus Christ; Book Three focuses on the Holy Spirit; and Book Four focuses on the church.
"Calvin has bequeathed to us the concept of the Church always reforming and ever in need of further reformation," Dockery said. "And so, in spite of their foibles, blind spots and sins, we continue to build on the foundation laid by John Calvin and the other reformers."
Dockery said some Southern Baptists follow an Arminian tradition, a train of thought developed as an alternative to Calvinism. Named for Jacob Arminius, who lived from 1560-1609, Arminianism based its belief on conditional election, universal offer of salvation, emphasis on God's mercy and general atonement. In response, Calvinists developed the "Five Points" of Calvinism: man's depravity, unconditional election, particular redemption, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of saints.
Through the years, Southern Baptists' founding fathers - including B.H. Carroll, E.Y. Mullins, W.T. Conner, Herschel Hobbs and W.A. Criswell, among others - built the denomination's heritage on elements of Calvinism and Arminianism as aligned with their personal beliefs about the most accurate interpretation of the Bible and these two doctrines.
Dockery said Hobbs, pastor of First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City from 1949-72, played a key role in the denomination's consideration of the doctrines.
"Led by the thought of Herschel Hobbs, Southern Baptists in the middle and latter years of the 20th century moved toward a modified understanding of predestination and foreknowledge," Dockery said. "He believed that God affirmed every free human choice in such a way that the choices are not predetermined."
Dockery noted that, for the most part, Southern Baptists are modified Calvinists.
"We find ourselves now moving into a new century, seeing the rise of Calvinism again across Southern Baptist life, and many people are asking questions: ‘Where did this come from?' and ‘What are we going to do about it?'" Dockery said. "I think we can see some of the same things happening in the 21st century that we saw at the end of the 19th century, and that is that at the leadership level we have a lot of people who are strongly Calvinistic, but at the lay level the large majority of our 24,000 churches across this country reject the teachings of Calvinism. We must recognize that the leadership and the lay people have not always been on the same page about salvation and sovereignty in Southern Baptist life."
Today, Dockery said, Southern Baptists are influenced by different groups, but he said the denomination needs to reconnect with its heritage, to evaluate what is influencing it, and reflect on what can be learned from the denomination's founders - both the advantages and disadvantages of the denomination's tradition.
"The ultimate danger to the Gospel lies not in the nuances of our differences, but in the rising tides of liberalism, neo-paganism and postmodernism that threaten to swamp Southern Baptist identity in cultural accommodation," Dockery said. "Let us not become bitter about those who may not agree with us," he paraphrased from Luther Rice, who brought Baptist together in 1814.
When working with people who hold differing convictions, Dockery offered several suggestions. First, he said believers must not compromise on their own convictions. He urged people to seek togetherness for the right reasons. He said to remember that doctrinal issues are important, but to know how to distinguish between primary and secondary matters of faiths. People with theological disagreements should pray for guidance and illumination from the Holy Spirit, and be humble, not arrogant, when dealing with controversies.
"Finally, we pray for God's guidance, grace and blessing in our doctrinal discussions as we seek consensus and renewal even as we together pray for a Great Commission resurgence in Southern Baptist life," he said.