History professor disputes Calvinism of early Baptists

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--A church historian's claim that Calvinism is not a part of Southern Baptist heritage has fueled sharp disagreement from Baptists who hold to reformed theology.

"Baptists have never been doctrinaire Calvinists, as a careful study of the sources (reveals)," declared William R. Estep, distinguished professor of church history emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, in the Baptist Standard, newsjournal of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Disagreeing with Estep's assessment were two men who have spoken at meetings of the Southern Baptist Founders Conference, a loose-knit network of Baptists who contend the SBC was largely Calvinistic in the 19th century: Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Cape Coral, Fla., and editor of the conference's quarterly publication, The Founders Journal, and Stephen Haines, a Foreign Mission Board missionary in Paraguay.

Calvinistic doctrines include: that Christ died only for the elect, that God preordained all that has happened or will happen, and that lost people are spiritually dead and unable to repent or exercise faith unless God first makes them spiritually alive through regeneration.

Acknowledging some Baptists have identified themselves as Calvinists, Estep called upon readers to consider "the original Baptist vision and its theological insights."

Noting that the earliest Baptists in 17th-century England either abandoned Calvinistic theology or modified it considerably, Estep said contemporary Baptist Calvinists are operating on the basis of incomplete historical information.

"Most of the ardent advocates of this movement have only a slight knowledge of Calvin or his system," wrote Estep, who is widely regarded as the world's leading authority on the Anabaptist movement that originated in 1525. "They simply borrow that which they assume to be both biblical and baptistic without adequate research."

Estep said the same borrowing and inadequate research was likewise characteristic of James P. Boyce, the first president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., who was "thoroughly enamored" with the Calvinism of Princeton theologian Charles Hodge.

Ascol called Estep's remarks "incredibly condescending. ... It is not just distinguished professors of history who read primary source material from our evangelical and Baptist heritage."

Disputing Estep's contention that 19th-century English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon was anything less than a staunch Calvinist, Ascol said, "To suggest that (Spurgeon) was not a thorough-going Calvinist is like suggesting that the Pope is less than Roman Catholic.

"Anyone who has read Spurgeon's sermons or his autobiography -- one chapter of which is titled, 'A Defence of Calvinism' -- will immediately see through Dr. Estep's attempt to characterize him otherwise," Ascol said.

In an interview with Baptist Press, Estep said Baptists hold to both a modified Calvinist doctrine and a reticence to use the word "Calvinist."

"Baptists have been very reluctant to use a man's term," Estep said. "They do not believe that Calvin is the mediator between God and man or the sole interpreter of Scripture. They have wanted to go to the Scriptures and to the New Testament primarily and the revelation of God in Christ."

Defending the label of Calvinist, Ascol said, "It is disingenuous to suggest that the term 'Calvinism' necessarily implies an adherence to everything which John Calvin taught. As Spurgeon said, it is used only for shortness -- theological shorthand, if you will."

Historically, Estep wrote, Calvinism has been marked by "intolerance and a haughty spirit."

Haines responded, "Intolerance and a haughty spirit can be found among Baptists of many stripes, as recent history in our own denomination illustrates."

Anyone who accuses Calvinism of intolerance and haughtiness should consider that such an accusation would encompass most of Southern Baptist history, which is largely Calvinistic, suggested Haines, who taught church history at Southwestern Seminary in the early 1980s as a doctoral student and adjunct instructor.

Haines said Calvinists of the 19th century included the first four presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention -- W.B. Johnson, R.B.C. Howell, Richard Fuller and P.H. Mell -- and the first four faculty members of Southern Seminary -- James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly Jr. and William Williams.

Estep's article coincides with the publication of an article titled, "Southern Baptists and Calvinism," by another Baptist scholar in The Theological Educator, an academic journal published by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

"Calvinism is supportive of humility and of piety," wrote Fisher Humphreys, professor of religion at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, Ala.

Humphreys, who noted he is not a Calvinist, wrote, "It is humbling to think that God has chosen you to be his child and that, if he had not, you would not be his child."

Humphreys said both Calvinists and non-Calvinists have been a part of the SBC since its founding. "Many of the Southern Baptist leaders at that time were Calvinists. They also were committed to revivalism and evangelism."

But Humphreys said many other SBC leaders and Baptist church members in the South were not Calvinists.

"From their beginning, Southern Baptists included both Calvinists and non-Calvinists," Humphreys wrote. "In the century and a half since the convention was formed (in 1845), the trend has been away from Calvinism. Yet Calvinism never died out among Southern Baptists."

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