Traditional Baptists and Calvinism: if we are not Calvinists, what shall we call ourselves? Arminians does not describe us accurately, and many Baptists think Arminians are people from Armenia. Non-Calvinistic Baptists is negative.
Calvinism is the vision of Christianity that John Calvin held, especially concerning predestination. Calvin said that God sovereignly predestined (foreordained, willed, decreed) everything that happens in the world. In particular, God predestined that one group of people will be saved and the rest will be lost. God did this without reference to God's foreknowledge of those persons' future behaviors.
In our country, the most famous presentation of Calvinism is the TULIP. It came from the Synod of Dort, which met in 1618-19, and it does somehow seem appropriate that the concepts of a group meeting in Holland might be summarized with the acronym of a tulip. The synod was a response to the Remonstrance, a document written by the followers of the recently deceased Jacob Arminius and published in 1610. That was the year after the first Baptist church came into existence (1608-09), also in the Netherlands, and the year before the King James Version of the Bible was first published (1611).
The sequence of TULIP is not logical, and at Dort, it was ULTIP, as it should have been. The first point should be called "unconditional predestination" rather than "unconditional election," because it is about both the unconditional election of some persons for damnation as well as about the unconditional election of other persons for salvation. In my judgment, anyone who accepts unconditional predestination should have no trouble accepting the other four ideas: limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints follow naturally from unconditional predestination.
Calvinists rightly claim Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and the Roman Catholic Church as predecessors, but they mostly claim the Bible. In the past, Calvinists have argued that they believe the Bible, and we traditional Baptists do not. We have argued that we believe the Bible, and they do not.
I think that both groups were wrong about this and that the situation is actually as follows. First, some passages (call them the C passages) such as Romans 9, taken at face value, teach Calvinism: Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated sounds like double predestination. Calvinists tend to say we traditional Baptists do not believe the Bible, but the more accurate statement is that we do not take the C passages at face value. We interpret them, that is, we offer an interpretation that differs from the face-value meaning.
Other passages taken at face value teach the traditional Baptist view. Call them the B passages. Examples are 1 Timothy 2:1ff. (God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth) and 2 Peter 3:8ff. (God is not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance). Calvinists interpret these passages, that is, they offer interpretations that differ from the face-value meaning. Naturally neither group finds the non-face-value interpretations of the other group convincing.
What guides the two groups to take one set of passages at face value rather than the other? For some Calvinists, it is a belief that sovereignty entails the idea that God foreordains and controls everything that happens: "All events are governed by God's secret plan," (2) as Calvin wrote. R. C. Sproul expressed it this way: "That God in some sense foreordains whatever comes to pass is a necessary result of his sovereignty." (3) We traditional Baptists believe in God's sovereignty, but we do not think that divine sovereignty entails that God foreordains everything.
What guides traditional Baptists to take the B passages at face value is, I think, our conviction that God loves every human being and wants every one to experience the divine love and life that Christ brought. We are guided principally by John 3:16.
Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom
In the past, traditional Baptists have argued with Calvinists principally about two topics, human freedom and missions. I think it is inadvisable to discuss our disagreement in terms of divine sovereignty and human freedom for two reasons. First, God's sovereignty is as important to us as it is to Calvinists; it is just that we do not believe sovereignty entails that God predestines everything that happens.
Second, Calvinists today affirm human freedom. They speak of "compatibilistic freedom" by which they mean that human freedom is compatible with God's having predestined what we will choose. Traditional Baptists believe in libertarian freedom, a phrase which is used to mean that God has not predestined what choices we will make. If we state our differences with Calvinists in terms of divine sovereignty and human freedom, we obscure the fact that both groups believe in divine sovereignty (though in different senses) and that both groups believe in human freedom (though in different senses).
I believe that it is wiser to discuss God's love than human freedom; God's love lies at the heart of our disagreement. Traditional Baptists believe that God loves all people in the sense that God wants all people to be saved; Calvinists believe that God has sovereignly predestined that some people will not be saved.
Missions and Evangelism
As for missions, it is unfair for traditional Baptists to say that Calvinists are not supportive of missions. Virtually all Calvinists in Southern Baptist circles are enthusiastic about missions and evangelism. Why, then, do traditional Baptists feel that Calvinism undermines these things? The reason is that Southern Baptists are motivated to do missions and evangelism by a cluster of beliefs that Calvinists do not hold; these beliefs are that God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved, that people are able to respond to the gospel when they hear it, and that we must tell them so that they will have an opportunity to respond.
Calvinists do not hold these beliefs. A different set of beliefs motivates them to do evangelism and missions: Christ has commanded us to do this, it is a joy to do it, and God is glorified when we do it.
What Traditional Baptists Believe
TULIP is a good summary of Calvinistic beliefs. Traditional Baptist beliefs may be summarized as follows. First, we believe that God is sovereign. We agree with Calvinists that God has the power and the knowledge to do what Calvinists say God has done, namely, predestine that some people will be saved and others not. We believe God sovereignly decided not to do that.
Second, what we believe God sovereignly decided to do was to give human beings libertarian freedom and then to respect the decisions they make. We do not believe that it is a loss of divine sovereignty for God to relate to human beings in this way. In fact, we believe that for God to have decided to relate to human beings in this way and then to do so is an exercise of divine sovereignty.
Third, we believe that everything that God does is good. God is responsible for the good in life; human beings are responsible for their sin, for the suffering that accompanies sin, and for being under condemnation because they have sinned. People sin and suffer and are lost, not because God foreordained that these things will happen but because human beings choose them. Sin and suffering are not God's will but are contrary to it.
Fourth, we believe that God knows the future. Most of us think that God foreknows everything; a few among us think that God foreknows all that can be known but not everything (this is the view that in the past decade became known as "open theism.") In either case, we all agree that God's foreknowledge does not predetermine the future and that human beings have libertarian freedom.
Fifth, we believe that foreordination is a biblical idea, but we think that Calvinists have misunderstood it. We believe that the Bible teaches that God foreordained many things: to anoint Jesus as the Christ, to save the world through Jesus, to work with the Jews rather than some other group of people, to send Paul as a missionary, and so on. We believe that the Bible teaches that God predestined that all who are in Christ will be saved and will be transformed into good people (Eph. 1:4-6) and that God predestined to salvation those whom God foreknew will trust in Christ (Rom. 8:29-30). We believe that God never foreordained evil, only good, so that sin, suffering, and damnation are products of human choices rather than of divine foreordination.
Sixth and finally, we believe that God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved. We believe that it is tragic that so many people never experience God's love. We believe that it is our Christian duty to do all that we can to communicate the message of God's love to all people because, if we do, they will be able to trust in the Lord and be saved.
(1.) Fisher Humphreys and Paul E. Robertson, God So Loved the World: Traditional Baptists and Calvinism (New Orleans: Insight Press, 2000).
(2.) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1950), 1.16.2.
(3.) R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1989), 26.
Fisher Humphreys is professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.