Editor's critique of Calvinism prompts challenges in return
Posted on Sep 19, 1997 | by Art Toalston
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)??A state Baptist paper editor's allegation that Calvinism is "penetrating" Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has prompted, in return, a doctrinal challenge to the editor.
Mark Wingfield, editor of Kentucky Baptists' Western Recorder, contended in a Sept. 9 editorial that Calvinism's doctrine of limited atonement "drives a dagger through the heart of the gospel" and "doesn't breed a natural zeal for missions."
Limited atonement, one of Calvinism's five key doctrines, holds that Christ died only for those whom God predestined for salvation.
"It is true that some (but not all) the founders of Southern Seminary and of the SBC believed in limited atonement," Wingfield wrote. "But that doesn't mean Kentucky Baptist churches should be sent back to the future. Just because the SBC's founders believed something doesn't make it right. Many supported slavery, for example, and believed women should not have the right to vote."
A leader of the Southern Baptist Founders Conference ?? a loose? knit organization of Baptists who say the doctrines of grace, as Calvinism also is known, were embraced by most early leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention ?? issued a statement Sept. 17 challenging Wingfield and his editorial.
Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Cape Coral, Fla., stated: "If Wingfield is convinced that ... the founders of the SBC and Southern Seminary were wrong in their understanding of the gospel ... he ought to correct their views by articulating his own theological convictions on key issues such as sin, substitutionary atonement, justification, election, regeneration, perseverance and the exclusivity of the gospel message as the only means of a saving relationship with God."
Ascol, who edits the Founders Ministries quarterly journal, also wrote: "Anyone can be a critic. If Wingfield's concern is genuinely to safeguard the gospel of Jesus Christ, and not simply to incite animosity against the leadership of Southern Seminary, then he should be more than willing to set forth his own views on those vital doctrines which he finds so repugnant."
Concerning Wingfield's critique of limited atonement, Ascol wrote: "Anyone who knows the history of missions and evangelism will immediately recognize the superficiality of this charge and will rightly wonder about Mr. Wingfield's own theological convictions.
"Many of the greatest evangelists and missionaries which the world has ever seen were convinced Calvinists," Ascol continued. "George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, John Paton and David Brainerd were all committed to the doctrines of grace as the biblical understanding of the gospel. The father of the modern missionary movement, William Carey, was a five?point Calvinist, as was Adoniram Judson, the first foreign missionary from America."
Wingfield responded by proposing a "national summit on the atonement," co?sponsored by the Western Recorder and the Founders Conference, with an equal number of speakers to be selected by each sponsor. To which Ascol responded that a series of conferences on theological issues could be "very healthy for Southern Baptists," provided "such an effort could be de?politicized" to "insure honest theological expression and dialogue."
"Such an effort would likely take at least a year to plan," Ascol continued in his response to Wingfield. "In the meantime, why not provide space in the Western Recorder to expound either the articles of (Southern Seminary's) Abstract of Principles (doctrinal statement) or key soteriological (Christian salvation theology) issues? A 'point? counterpoint' approach could be used with a writer of your choice and a writer of my choice. This would provide a good preface to a national conference along the same lines and would demonstrate good faith to those who might be suspicious that such a conference is motivated by a political agenda."
Wingfield's editorial also prompted a Sept. 11 response from Thom S. Rainer, dean of Southern Seminary's Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth.
Calvinist doctrine, Wingfield wrote, "even is creeping into the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth. What an irony that anything associated with the name of Billy Graham ?? the greatest free?will evangelist of our time ?? would give a foothold to Calvinist doctrines such as limited atonement."
Rainer wrote to Wingfield: "I simply cannot let your inaccuracies and innuendoes pass without comment. ... Your editorial is hurtful, inaccurate and divisive. My comments, I realize, are strong. But I must say that I, as well as many of our students, have been hurt deeply by your innuendoes."
Concerning Graham, Rainer suggested that Wingfield allow Graham to "speak for himself."
"In a recent conversation (two weeks ago), Dr. Graham said he 'could not be happier about the seminary and the Graham School,'" Rainer continued. "We in the Graham School have shared with him every one of our prospective professors. He has enthusiastically endorsed all of them who came to Southern."
While Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. has been a part of the Founders Conference movement, Rainer said he himself is not a five?point Calvinist and mentioned that to Mohler in the process of being hired as the Graham School's dean. Rainer quoted Mohler as responding: "The mission at Southern Seminary is not Calvinism, but biblical truth, missions and evangelism." Rainer also noted that Danny Akin, the seminary's vice president for academic administration and dean of the school of theology, also "is not a five?point Calvinist."
Recounting that he was a member of Southern's faculty for six years during the 1980s, Rainer wrote: "And I can say without fear of inaccuracy that the emphasis on missions and evangelism has increased exponentially since Dr. Mohler came as president." As one example, Rainer wrote, "For the first time in Southern's history, personal evangelism will be required for all students."
Wingfield, in his editorial, contended, "An honest five?point Calvinist cannot stand in the pulpit of any Kentucky Baptist church and tell the congregation with certainty that Christ died for all of them."
The beliefs of the SBC's founders must be examined "against the witness of Jesus, whose teachings could hardly be construed as supporting limited atonement," Wingfield continued. "Limited atonement drives a dagger through the heart of the gospel, excising key Scriptures such as John 3:16 and the Great Commission."
Current Baptist Calvinists, Wingfield wrote, "have been reared in the missionary mindset of an SBC not influenced by five?point Calvinism. It may be true that today's Baptist Calvinists are missions?minded. But what will be the logical outgrowth as future generations are taught from birth that Jesus didn't die for everyone's sins? That kind of theology doesn't breed a natural zeal for missions."
Ascol, in his statement, wrote that Wingfield's citing of John 3:16 "does not prove his point for an indefinite atonement. It is easy to highlight and misrepresent a particularly difficult teaching and then to dismiss the whole system of theology to which it is attached. Jehovah's Witnesses do this all the time with the Trinity. The doctrine of atonement must be examined in the light of the whole biblical witness regarding the nature of grace and salvation."
During the 15th annual meeting of the Founders Conference last July at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala., Fred Malone, pastor of First Baptist Church, Clinton, La., defended in his address limited atonement, which he also called "definite atonement" or "particular redemption."
"Our Lord died particularly for the sins of his elect people, accomplishing their salvation from beginning to end ?? and for no one else," Malone said. "There is not one moment of suffering, not one drop of Jesus' blood that was wasted. His atonement actually accomplished the redemption for those whom he represented."
Acknowledging several biblical passages seem to deny that Christ died only for the elect, Malone said, "No one denies that these passages are in the Bible. We have wrestled over these passages. We have studied. We have prayed. We have wept, some of us, (and) made life decisions that affected our family and our entire future, based upon our conscience held bound to the Word of God as we understand it.
"We do not claim to have all the answers on all of these passages, but neither can we cut out ... a multitude of other passages in the Bible," which teach limited atonement, such as Matthew 1:21, John 10, Romans 5 or Acts 20:28, Malone stated.
Ascol, observing that Wingfield "is very upset by the fact that after many years Southern Seminary once again has a president and some professors who actually believe the doctrines of grace," noted: "Though this is true, it should be clear to anyone who looks beyond the surface that Al Mohler has no agenda to promote five?point Calvinism. What he obviously is doing, however, is restoring doctrinal and ethical integrity to the seminary by rescuing the Abstract of Principles (which the seminary's professors have signed since 1859) from the ash heap of liberalism onto which it had been cast for most of this century and restoring it to its rightful place.
"This document forms the doctrinal covenant between our mother seminary and the denomination it serves," Ascol wrote. "From its founding Southern Baptists have supported the seminary with the assurance that its professors would teach 'in accordance with, and not contrary to' this Abstract."
Professors signing the Abstract agree that:
?? "God from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not in any wise to be the author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures" (article IV)
?? "Election is God's eternal choice of some persons unto everlasting life ?? not because of foreseen merit in them, but of his mere mercy in Christ ?? in consequence of which choice they are called, justified and glorified" (article V).