By P. Andrew Sandlin
Published May 1, 2008
To most Church of God, Assembly of God, and Pentecostal Christians the term “Calvinism” is simply bad. It elicits images of a mighty divine ogre damning infants and those who would be saved but are not “elect.”
Baptists and many nondenominationalists in large part also dislike Calvinism, but they are forced to manifest a sort of ambivalence about it simply because they have the queasy feeling that their heritage, if not their doctrine, is somehow Calvinistic. I’m not referring here to Calvinism as an entire system of doctrine in life, as it truly is, but only to the soteriological (or saving) doctrines of Calvinism. Thus, some ambivalent detractors use the term “hyper-Calvinist” in much the same way that Pentecostals and other Arminians use “Calvinist” to refer to those who are “a little more Calvinistic” than they are. For Baptists, the ambivalence is often induced by the recognition that a rich Calvinistic Baptist heritage-in both England and America-really does exist. The Particular Baptists in England, and the Regular Baptists in America, have been historically and are presently firmly Calvinistic in soteriology.
The rub is this. The modern independent Baptist movement (and to a large degree, the Southern Baptist denomination before it) is of all things evangelistic. And of course, being evangelistically minded, it tends to perceive Calvinism as an enemy of evangelism. Many of its disciples have never considered that it may be possible to be both evangelistic and Calvinistic, but that is another matter.
Theirs is a sort of synthesis of Arminianism and Calvinism, but mostly Arminian. Though there are variations to it, it can be understood in broad outline. It goes something like this.
Man is a sinner, but not so totally depraved that he cannot seek after Christ. God sent Christ his Son to die on the cross for everyone in order to make salvation available to all who would receive the message of the gospel. Before the foundation of the world God elected to salvation those that he knew beforehand would believe if they heard his gospel. When an individual hears the gospel and makes a decision for Christ, he becomes justified. Once he has received salvation, he can never forfeit or lose that salvation.
That, in a nutshell, is what many modern independent Baptists believe about salvation.
What many of them apparently fail to notice in their ambivalence about Calvinism, and in their usual declaration that they are not Arminian, is that 80% of that formula is staunchly Arminian. Arminians historically believe that man is depraved but not so totally depraved that he cannot “choose Christ” when given the opportunity; that Christ died for all men in order to make salvation “available”; that election is based on God’s knowing beforehand who would and would not believe; and so forth. The only difference between the modern independent Baptist understanding of salvation and that of historic Arminianism is that Arminians do not believe-as independent Baptists do-that one’s salvation is eternally secure.
Some people refer to this modern independent Baptist view as “mixed Calvinism” but that description is misleading inasmuch as it implies that a significant amount of the view is in fact Calvinistic; it is not. Only a minute portion of it is truly Calvinistic. It is nothing more than a baptized Arminianism with a half-way Calvinistic doctrine of “eternal security” tacked on for good measure.
The idea is that one may believe like a Calvinist, just as long as he doesn’t talk or act like one. This Baptist baptized Arminianism with its ambivalent attitude toward Calvinism on the part of modern independent Baptists is nowhere more strikingly evidenced, however, than in the statement often made, “So-and-so holds Calvinistic doctrine, but thank the Lord, he doesn’t allow his doctrine to affect his practice!”
I doubt that anybody could make a more asinine statement than that. Imagine my saying, “So-and-so believes in the deity of Christ (or vicarious atonement or bodily resurrection), but thank the Lord, he doesn’t allow his doctrine to affect his practice!”
A further complication in the modern independent Baptist mentality is their definition of both “Calvinists” and “hyper-Calvinists.” I refer to their apparent misapprehension that those who believe in unconditional election and particular redemption are somehow hyper-Calvinist. They are nothing of the kind. If we define Calvinism in this sense as affirming what John Calvin taught about salvation, unconditional election and particular redemption and total depravity are nothing more than plain, old Calvinism. One may have some justification for labeling Beza’s double predestination as “hyper-Calvinist”; but to refer to plainly Calvinistic doctrines as “hyper-Calvinist” is at best a misunderstanding, and at worst deliberate deception.
Some independent Baptists want to have their cake and eat it too, and have coined the term “moderate Calvinist,” which is nothing more than the baptized Arminianism. Well, they are either ignorant or else hypocritical. If they want the soteriologically Calvinist name, they should affirm soteriologically Calvinistic doctrine. Period.
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