Prof's attack on Calvinism renews debate among Baptists
William R. Estep, distinguished professor of church history emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, contended that Calvinism lacks biblical support, denies human responsibility for sin and is intolerant and anti-missionary, in an article in the Baptist Standard, newsjournal of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
"Only the most out-of-touch Southern Baptist could be unaware of the attempt on the part of some within our ranks to promote a 19th century version of Calvinism among Southern Baptists," Estep wrote.
Among key Baptists who hold to Calvinism, Stephen Haines, a Foreign Mission Board missionary in Paraguay, responded: "I do not know of any system of theology that offers more biblical texts in support of its arguments than Calvinism.
"Whether the scriptural arguments are correctly interpreted and accurately related to each other is for the individual to determine, of course. But Calvinism is entirely dependent on biblical evidence for its argumentation," Haines stated.
Doctrines promoted by Southern Baptist Calvinists include: that Christ died only for the elect, that God preordained all that has happened or will happen and that people are spiritually dead and unable to repent or exercise faith unless God first makes them spiritually alive through regeneration.
Estep predicted if "the Calvinizing of Southern Baptists continues unabated, we are in danger of becoming 'a perfect dunghill,' to borrow a phrase from Andrew Fuller," an English Baptist pastor of the 1700s.
The article coincides with the publication of a longer article on the same topic, "Southern Baptists and Calvinism," by Fisher Humphreys, professor of religion at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. Humphreys' article appeared in The Theological Educator, an academic journal published by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Calling himself a non-Calvinist, Humphreys likewise noted the increased attention Calvinism is receiving among Southern Baptists.
"One incentive for this interest is that the presidents of two Southern Baptist seminaries are supporters of Calvinism," Humphreys wrote. Referring to R. Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., and Mark Coppenger of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Mo., Humphreys said the men are "committed to the 'doctrines of grace,' as Calvinism is sometimes called."
Both Mohler and Coppenger have been guest speakers at the annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference, a loose-knit network of Baptists who hold that many of the SBC's earliest leaders were Calvinists. Haines also has spoken at conference meetings.
Regarding Estep's claim that Calvinism will cause division, Tom Ascol, editor of the conference's quarterly publication, The Founders Journal, responded, "I strongly disagree with Dr. Estep's fear that talking about biblical salvation as understood by Calvinism will be divisive and deadly to our denomination."
Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Cape Coral, Fla., said Southern Baptists' increasing interest in theology is a welcome contrast to the mid-20th century -- a time when pragmatism largely eclipsed any emphasis on doctrine and when theological discourse was left mostly to Baptist academicians.
To Ascol, it is "very healthy that Southern Baptists are having such doctrinal discussions again. ... Being clear on what we believe is critical to the life and health of the church.
"Therefore, talking about our beliefs and being challenged biblically to re-examine what we believe should not be seen as divisive, but essential. ... It will be wonderful to see truth become important to us once again as we move toward the third millennium."
In his article, Estep warned "logically, Calvinism is anti- missionary. The Great Commission is meaningless if every person is programmed for salvation or damnation."
Haines said such a claim would surprise:
-- Jesus, who said, "All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me" (John 6:37, NASB).
-- Paul, who wrote that God "chose us in Him before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians 1:4).
-- Luke, who wrote "as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).
"I have personally found that a strict Calvinism has been a wonderful strength and encouragement to me in 13 years on the mission field," said Haines, who earlier taught church history as a doctoral student and adjunct instructor at Southwestern Seminary in the early 1980s. "A firm conviction that all that the Father gives to the Son will indeed come to him and be saved gives me great hope and staying power in lean times," Haines said.
Humphreys cautioned his readers to distinguish between two breeds of Calvinists. "Some extreme Calvinists have opposed activism concerning evangelism and missions. However, we today recognize that position as hyper-Calvinism. ... Calvinists at their best have been activists and have supported evangelism and missions," Humphreys wrote.
Though many reformed theologians teach God is absolutely sovereign and therefore has predestined every detail of human history, Estep indicated such an idea is incompatible with biblical teachings about sin.
"Calvinism robs the individual of responsibility for his/her own conduct, making a person into a puppet on a string or a robot programmed from birth to death with no will of his/her own," Estep wrote.
Similarly, Humphreys cited three problems with a reformed view of God's sovereignty:
-- "If God willed that human beings sin, how is God not the author of sin?"
-- "If God willed the damnation of certain human beings, how can God be said to have loved them?"
-- "If God willed the final destiny of each and every human being, in what sense can human beings be said to have been free?"
Ascol said Calvinism sees "God as absolutely sovereign and man as absolutely responsible. (Calvinism) is not embarrassed by biblical words like predestine, elect and purpose. Nor is it afraid of biblical words like choose, repent and believe."
An extremely serious accusation, Ascol suggested, was Estep's claim that God, as portrayed by Calvinism, is more like Allah, the God of Islam.
Such a statement, Ascol said, "borders on blasphemy. While this may be true of (Estep's) straw man which he has constructed and called Calvinism, it could not be further from the truth of historic, Southern Baptist Calvinism."
Haines agreed: "Other than divine sovereignty, Islam's Allah has nothing in common with the personal, loving Father who graciously saves sinners through the blood of his beloved Son. The impersonal, unconcerned Potentate of Islam is nowhere present in the portrayal of our Heavenly Father that we find in Calvinism."