Southern Baptists and Calvinists: A Response to Elmer Towns
In the March 2009 edition of The Baptist Banner, Elmer Towns, co-founder and dean of the School of Religion at Liberty University, addressed the issue of the labels “Southern Baptist” and “Calvinist.” His article addressed the relationship Southern Baptists should have with Calvinists. In seeking to articulate this relationship, Towns puts forth four questions which Southern Baptists should ask in seeking to define relationships with Calvinistic congregations. I will address each question and the give some concluding thoughts.
Before I begin my examination of Towns’ questions, I want to address the tone of the article itself. I feel that articles of this sort “poison the well” when attempting look into these biblical issues. Towns’ brief article is fraught with pejorative terms and expressions that would give someone an apriori bias against the doctrines of grace (i.e., Calvinism). Towns employs such expressions as “the intrusive influence of five point Calvinism” and “five point enthusiast.” He asks, “Should or should not Southern Baptists attempt to purge themselves of five point Calvinists?” He refers to Calvinistic influence as “the problem.” After talking about Calvin’s burning of Servetus, Towns writes, “Be careful of some five pointers, with an intolerant DNA just like their forefathers.” He also cautions, “But be careful of the five pointer who waves his flag in attack of other churches or other believers, or anyone who holds a different persuasion than theirs.” In footnote 10, Towns, speaking of the five-point Calvinist, writes, “While the enthusiast irritates us with his absolute assurance that he is right,…” Comparing what Towns terms “Generic Calvinists” to five-point Calvinists, he writes, “Generic Calvinists generally don’t fixate on the five points.” Towns goes on to state, “It is all right to be a Calvinist, but it is not all right to be a flag waving five point extremist that attacks any and every position or church that disagrees with its own.” And probably the most derogatory and depreciatory example is when Towns gives to us an illustration where Calvinism is more akin to a dandelion than a tulip. He writes, “Calvinism is like the dandelion;…dandelions spread their weeds across the entire lawn, blown about by the winds of fads and self-examination. And what more do we know about dandelions? They kill the surrounding grass and as they spread across a beautiful lawn, they can destroy an entire lawn.” If our aim is to have a discussion with other believers concerning cardinal biblical issues, where is there room for uncomplimentary demonstrations such as these? It fails to advance the argument for biblical, thinking Christians. Rather, it adds emotions and passions that tend to bring more heat than light.
Another detractor from Towns’ article is the implied elitism he exhibits. In discussing Question Four, Towns points out that “every spring the dandelions come up. By that I am referring to young Calvinistic enthusiasts who suddenly feel they know systematic theology better than their professors.” Towns speaks of how he is “gracious” with these; yet in essence, tries to set them straight. It seems that in Towns’ estimation, it is something to be pitied that these Calvinists do not know any better. I will be the first to admit that there are unbalanced Calvinists who think they have come to master every fine point of theology, but having a “some-day-you’ll-grow-out-of-this-juvenile-phase-like-I-did” mentality skirts the issue of deriving our doctrine from biblical interpretation.
The Beginning of the Southern Baptist Convention
Towns paints the picture in his article that Calvinism in the SBC is the “new kid on the block.” Historically, this just isn’t the case. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the flagship SBC Seminary, Southern Seminary, writes:
Even the opponents of Calvinism must admit, if historically informed, that Calvinism is the theological tradition into which the Baptist movement was born. The same is true of the Southern Baptist Convention. The most influential Baptist churches, leaders, confessions of faith, and theologians of the founding era were Calvinistic….It was not until well into the twentieth century that any knowledgeable person could claim that Southern Baptists were anything but Calvinists….John A. Broadus—the greatest Baptist preacher of his day—was so certain that Calvinism was revealed in the Bible that he challenged those who sneer at Calvinism to ‘sneer at Mount Blanc’….Other Southern Baptist leaders were also well-identified Calvinists. These included J. B. Gambrell and B. H. Carroll, the founder of Southwestern Seminary.”
Mohler concludes, “Calvinism was the mainstream tradition in the Southern Baptist Convention until the turn of the century. The rise of modern notions of individual liberty and the general spirit of the age have led to an accommodation of historic doctrines in some circles.”
In all actuality, the recent rise of Calvinism is a “reformation” that is seeking to return the SBC to her historic roots. Just to be frank and put it in the language of the day: We were here first. Sadly, this is a little known fact to most Southern Baptists. Early Southern Baptists intended their churches and members to believe and understand sound doctrine—not just any doctrine, but a particular array of beliefs on which the SBC was formed. There was from the beginning widespread doctrinal accord among them. The consensus was built around the great salvation doctrines which were commonly referred to as the “doctrines of grace.” James Boyce, founder and first president of Southern Seminary, portrayed these doctrines in 1874 as being part of the “prevailing principles” which had guided the denomination to that hour. Forty-four years later in 1918, the 2nd edition of The New Convention Normal Manual made the same affirmation by announcing “nearly all Baptists believe what are usually termed the ‘doctrines of grace.’”
What are these “doctrines of grace?” Specifically, they are those truths of God’s Word which reveal His sovereign majesty in salvation. Historically, these doctrines have also been referred to as “Calvinism,” not because John Calvin conceived of them, but because he very proficiently articulated them into a systematic construct. However, as of late, it seems that “Calvinism” has been deemed a “bad word” in many parts of SBC life. Many employ it pejoratively to refer to fatalism and falsely say that it is antithetic to evangelism. However, in my analysis, nothing could be further from the truth.
As Towns asks “should or should not Southern Baptists attempt to purge themselves of five point Calvinists?” to do so would also require the wholesale jettisoning of the core doctrine that birthed the SBC. Let me be very frank: If it were not for that group of Calvinists meeting together in 1845, there would be no SBC today. I am a Southern Baptist and you are a Southern Baptist because (humanly-speaking) our godly forefathers possessed a cooperative missionary passion that sprung from the fountainhead of Calvinism. These doctrines constituted the common understanding of the gospel among Southern Baptists during their first seventy-five years of existence. They are clearly asserted and defended in the writings of former convention leaders such as James Petigru Boyce, John Leadly Dagg, John A. Broadus, W.B. Johnson, R.B.C. Howell, Basil Manly, Sr., Basil Manly, Jr., Patrick H. Mell, Richard Fuller, and Richard Furman (just to name a few).
Regardless of what it is termed (e.g., Calvinism, Reformed theology, the doctrines of grace, etc.), I believe that the annals of our heritage bear these truths out to be nothing less than historic Southern Baptist orthodoxy. This is the theology which gave rise to the conception and early emergence of the great missionary and evangelistic establishment which we know as the SBC. This is what our forefathers accounted to be the true teaching of Scripture. These are the doctrines on which they erected their churches and which buttressed their ministries.
Towns begins by asking, “Should any Southern Baptist fly under a particular flag?” He acknowledges that “there are many different types of flags flown over Southern Baptist churches.” But when discussing the “Calvinist flag,” he states, “The problem is that most five point Calvinists don’t just point to their flag; many become exclusionary of any other view that will not salute their flag and fight for their flag in ecclesiastical battles.” This is not something to which we should be amazed. Everyone with solid convictions does this; Towns even does this. In fact, he has basically said that much in his article. If I can use his own words, he too is “exclusionary of any other view that will not salute [his] flag,” his flag being obviously that of a non-Calvinist.
The issue is: This “flag” (as Towns calls it) is not just concerning worship style, small groups, or missions; no, this “flag” deals with the very doctrines of man’s sinfulness, the atonement, and salvation. These are subjects that are worthy of exclusivity! When I read my Bible, I derive a theology from it that clearly declares man is sinful and can do no good before a holy God. Since man can do nothing to commend himself to God, He cannot, by his own will and decision, bring about his salvation (which if he could, would not only be good, but it would be the greatest good). Also, Christ’s death on the cross two thousand years ago had purpose and truly did accomplish something. He actually atoned for sins and purged them and washed them away in His blood as He took the place of those sinners upon the cross. He did not merely make sinners “savable;” He actually and really atoned for sin upon that cross. This matter of redemption is not something that is left up to the sinner to decide. And when the Word of God says things like “all that the Father gives Me shall come to Me” (Jn. 6:37) and “this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (Jn. 6:39), I see clearly that God will have His people by His own power. He will regenerate them. He will grant them repentance and faith. And then, as a result, they will choose Christ with their wills, repent of their sins, and believe upon Him. Scripture also makes clear that the same Holy Spirit that regenerated me and gave me spiritual life, resulting in my eyes being opened to the gospel of Christ so that I desired to use my will to choose Christ and repent of my sins and believe upon Him, is the same Holy Spirit who now will not allow me to use my will to turn away from and abandon Christ, thus I am eternally secure and persevere in the faith.
The answer to Towns’ question “should any Southern Baptist fly under a particular flag?” is “yes,” provided Scripture demands it. If your church “flag” is social work or fellowships or small groups, those do not have an exclusionary nature. But when it comes to these truths that stand as the Mt. Everest of biblical doctrine, should we not champion these? If we cannot be “exclusionary of any other view” when it comes to the heart of the gospel, then what else is worthy of us taking a firm stand? Being “exclusionary” does not mean being bitter, mean, nasty, and using pejorative terms when discussing those who disagree with you, but neither does it mean that we should not press others to take up their Bibles and see what it actually says concerning these grand truths.
In Towns’ second question, he asks, “Is Calvinism a diversion against the Great Commission and baptism?” According to Towns’ own research, the answer seems to be “no.” Town cites a study by LifeWay’s Ed Stetzer which indicates that Calvinistic churches are “conducting personal evangelism at a slightly higher rate than their non-Calvinistic peers.” Also, Towns writes that Stetzer points out “although Calvinistic churches baptize fewer people each year, they have a ‘baptism rate’ virtually identical to that of non-Calvinist big churches.” Even by the numbers, Calvinism is not shown to be “a diversion against the Great Commission and baptism.” Further, Mohler writes:
If Calvinism is an enemy to missions and evangelism, it is an enemy to the Gospel itself. The Great Commission and the task of evangelism are assigned to every congregation and every believer. The charge that Calvinism is opposed to evangelism simply will not stick—it is a false argument. The Doctrines of Grace are nothing less than a statement of the Gospel itself. Through the substitutionary work of Christ, God saves sinners. The great promise is that whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
In my experience, I have never seen someone discouraged to witness by their theology. I have never met any Calvinist—be it young, old, enthused, mellow, etc.—who was passionately longing to bring the gospel to the lost, but instead said, “I must discipline myself and hold back because God has His own elect and He’ll save them.” Now I understand that Towns is not saying this, but I’ve heard so many other Southern Baptists make the claim that Calvinism kills evangelism. The fact of the matter is that some Calvinist Southern Baptists do not evangelize. Some non-Calvinist Southern Baptists do not evangelize. Some Calvinist Southern Baptists do evangelize. Some non-Calvinist Southern Baptists do evangelize. With those Calvinists and non-Calvinists who do not evangelize, there are, no doubt, a myriad of reasons given why they do not. However, I would submit that probably none of these reasons would be theological or biblical. True Calvinists could never give biblical reasons for a lack of evangelism because we believe the means of salvation (i.e., the preaching of the gospel) are just as predestined as the people. So, the answer to Towns’ second question is “no.”
Towns’ third question is: “Is five point Calvinism a new intolerance?” I’ll be brief in addressing this question for two reasons. 1st of all, I believe it carries no relevance. I think this question is one that simply adds emotionalism to the subject. In a day when the only thing people are intolerant of is “intolerance,” to ask “is five point Calvinism a new intolerance?” is just to bring heightened emotions to a subject that should be addressed biblically and prayerfully. And if it is insisted that the issue of intolerance be addressed, well there is plenty of that to go around. Practically, I have seen intolerance on both sides. On the one hand, I have seen Calvinistic pastors who have been too hard, too rough, and too fast with a congregation concerning these doctrines and have ended up hurting instead of helping the sheep. With the aim of having their sheep come to love and embrace the sovereignty of God and the doctrines of grace, they tend to forget that “the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24-25). Yet on the other hand, I have seen congregations, when lovingly, gently, and patiently confronted with these biblical truths, not put up a biblical argument against the doctrines of grace, but instead say, “I see what you’re saying in the Bible, but we just don’t believe that around here.” Instead of being teachable, willing to listen, and having a “Berean spirit” characterized by “examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11), they instead fire their pastor and unlovingly throw an entire family on hardship. Yes, there has been intolerance and hurt on both sides, which is why I believe Towns’ question carries no relevance.
The 2nd reason I’ll be brief in responding to this third question is, quite frankly, I don’t follow Towns’ argument or understand what he’s trying to say. He asks the question of Calvinism being “a new intolerance” and then discusses how “the world has become tolerant of any and every religion and almost any and every lifestyle.” Then he discusses the religious tolerance of early America where different religious groups and cults could freely exchange viewpoints in society, but then not bring them into the church. He then closes this section with: “However the tolerance that the church showed to other views is not presently reciprocated. Now anti-Christian views are gaining influence, and they have become intolerant to the Christian church, denying the freedom to teach in public what they have always believed.” Though I agree with what Towns is saying here, this concerns the culture and the church. What does this have to do with his initial question? I must say, this section left me a bit dumbfounded. But in answer to the question (in the sense I discussed above), I must say “no.”
The fourth and final question Towns asks is, “Will five point Calvinism spread?” Instead of providing data such as the number of Calvinistic students becoming pastors, the growing influence of expository preaching in establishing Reformed theology in churches, the influence of ministries such as Mark Dever’s 9 Marks, Founders Ministries, Albert Mohler’s blog, and other Reformed Southern Baptist media, which would all be indicators of whether or not one might predict the “spread” of Calvinism, Towns instead takes up a discussion of biblical interpretation (after he spends half of this section giving a rather detailed metaphorical illustration of how “Calvinism is like the dandelion”).
Though Towns’ intention in discussing biblical interpretation was not in support of Calvinism, I believe here he gets to the heart of the matter—the Word of God. This is why Calvinism is growing and this is why I believe it will continue to grow—because people are being exposed to reformed theology and going back to their Bibles to see if this theology is true. When one gives an honest analysis—setting aside his Southern Baptist traditions and instead letting the Bible alone formulate his thinking, then one discovers what Spurgeon discovered so long ago: that “Calvinism is the gospel.” Spurgeon, in a sermon titled “A Defense of Calvinism,” said:
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.
Steven J. Lawson, Southern Baptist pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church and biblical expositor par excellence, has written:
Over the centuries, seasons of reformation and revival in the church have come when the sovereign grace of God has been openly proclaimed and clearly taught. When a high view of God has been infused into the hearts and minds of God’s people, the church has sat on the elevated plateaus of transcendent truth. This lofty ground is Calvinism—the high ground for the church. The lofty truths of divine sovereignty provide the greatest and grandest view of God. The doctrines of grace serve to elevate the entire life of the church.…For without the theological teachings of Reformed truth concerning God’s sovereignty in man’s salvation, the church is weakened and made vulnerable, soon to begin an inevitable decline into baser beliefs, whether she realizes it or not.
As Southern Baptists take the time to examine the theology of the Reformation in light of Scripture rather than Southern Baptist tradition over the last 80 years, I believe more and more people will come to the same conclusion that Lawson has reached above—that these doctrines that go by the label of “Calvinism” are “the high ground for the church.”
This is precisely why I believe articles like Towns’ that simply deal with pragmatic issues and other articles by Southern Baptist leaders that forecast gloom and doom if Calvinism takes over in the SBC miss the mark. This is not about losing ground and territorial disputes within our Convention’s organizational structures. Rather, this is about “handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). And if that is the aim of more and more Southern Baptists, then Calvinism can do nothing but rise, seeing that “Calvinism is the gospel.”
I was told long ago by a writer that if you ever ask a question in a book or article title or in a chapter or section heading, you’d better answer it. Towns gives us four questions addressing the relationship of Southern Baptists to Calvinists, yet he gives us no answers. I have attempted in my response to give answers to Towns’ questions.
I thoroughly agree with Elmer Towns when he writes, “Southern Baptists believe that every church has the Word of God, and it is that church’s responsibility to study the Word, apply the Word, and live by the principles of the Word of God.” This is the heart of the issue. Far too long during this “Reformed resurgence” have there been straw man arguments put forth against Reformed theology. There has been too much time and ink spilled in order to give ad hominem arguments against Calvinists. It is time to carry out the responsibility that Towns lists—“to study the Word.” These discussions and deliberations must not be personality-based nor emotionally-charged, but instead adjudicated by the Word of God alone. After all, we Southern Baptists are to be people of the Book, right? Since we have won the battle for the Bible with the conservative resurgence (and praise God for that!), why not begin to ask anew, “What exactly does the Bible say?”
The SBC’s history has shown that she went from being conservative to liberal, and then back to conservative again. How did this happen? Southern Baptists in the churches asked the question, “What does the Bible say about the Bible?” Could it be that the SBC, which has went from being Calvinistic to non-Calvinistic, will once again return to her roots by Southern Baptists in their churches asking the question, “What does the Bible say about the gospel and salvation?” May we always be a people of the Book who submit our traditions to the Book and derive our doctrines from the Book.
– FOOTNOTES –
 It was in 1553 that Michael Servetus was executed for heresy. One wonders how Calvin ever became the whipping boy for the Servetus execution. Executions for heresy were a common, cultural event at the time. Servetus was convicted of heresy in France and escaped from jail in Vienna. He fled to Geneva. The Genevan authorities caught Servetus and consulted with the authorities in Vienna, who demanded his immediate extradition. However, the Genevan city council offered him a choice: he could stay in Geneva and face charges or return to Vienna. He chose to stay in Geneva. As the trial came to a close, the council determined it could only proceed with one of two actions: either banishment or execution. They chose to execute the heretic (which, again, was a common, cultural thing to do) by burning him alive. Calvin intervened to appeal for the more merciful form of execution, beheading. The council refused. It is strange that there is so much intense focus on this one execution while hundreds of other executions at that time period in other parts of the world are ignored.
 R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Reformation of Doctrine and the Renewal of the Church: A Response to Dr. William R. Estep, http://www.albertmohler.com/FidelitasRead.php?article=fidel021, accessed 03/21/2009.
 Towns asks another question in this section which veers away hard from the current subject under his heading “Question Two.” He asks, “Are all Calvinistic churches committed to indoctrinating five point Calvinism?” He answers, “Probably not.” But then Towns goes through a bit of church history in order to assert that “in his early life John Calvin espoused extreme positions on predestination” and that “later in life Calvin seemed to mellow his view of predestination as he studied the Scriptures more thoroughly by writing commentaries on every book of the Bible.” Since this is off topic from Town’s main question with which he is addressing, I will simply refer the reader to Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1986), 22-27; François Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1950), 263-84; and William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 172-76; for refutations of Towns’ assertion.
 Ibid., Mohler (emphasis mine).
 If this were not such a repeated accusation from non-Calvinists, Towns would not have to utilize the space to even bring up the question.
 C. H. Spurgeon, “A Defense of Calvinism,” http://www.spurgeon.org/calvinis.htm, accessed 3/21/2009. I would encourage every Southern Baptist to take time to read this passionate sermon by “the prince of preachers.”
 Steven J. Lawson, Foundations of Grace: 1400 bc – ad 100, vol. 1, A Long Line of Godly Men (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2006), 22. I commend the reading of this book to anyone who is interested in “see[ing] whether these things [are] so.” In Foundations, Lawson traces these God-exalting truths throughout the entirety of the Word of God—from Genesis to Revelation. It is an immensely valuable biblical theology of the doctrines of grace.
 Actually, the only answer he gives is to Question 3, which as I have stated above, goes off topic and really has no relevance to the question which was posed.