New Calvinism, the Internet & the Fragmentation of the SBC
Wm. F. Harrell had some interesting things to say in a recent issue of the Baptist Banner. While I agree with much of the original article, I am pretty confident that when Harrell says ‘Calvinism’, he actually means new Calvinism. He discusses the Acts 29 network of ‘churches’ as well as Mark Driscoll, et. al., and therefore, I’ve drawn said conclusion. Below is a section I thought was especially pertinent to the whole issue. The link to the full article is below.
“When one looks at the different facets of the current happenings in the SBC, you can begin to get an idea as to what is actually taking place and where it is all headed. Of course, this assumes that you have enough background. If current trends continue, we will not be able to recognize the SBC in a very few years. Which begs the question: “ Is there nothing right about the SBC?” Is everything wrong and in need of radical surgery? I think not! These people [new Calvinists] are doing with the convention that which many of them have done in churches: radically change the makeup of the church while making those who might oppose them out to be the ones who really don’t desire to be obedient to God or fulfill the great commission.
Things are changing in our Southern Baptist Zion and they are not for the good. If things continue on the present course, I predict that in only a few years we will not have thirty five state and pioneer conventions but about 25. Some will cease to operate. Some will combine with a more stable convention in order to survive. Additionally, I predict that the Executive Committee will cease to be the entity which has guided us so well in the past because fewer conventions will reduce the number of committee members. As it grows smaller someone will say: “why have the Executive Committee?” “It is now much smaller and we don’t need to waste that mission money on having a meeting since we have the internet with the ability for each person to stay home and participate in a video conference.” There will be a movement to let the officers of the committee meet about twice a year, set up a video meeting, and hold an Executive Committee meeting in such a manner. Next will come the bright idea of: “since we don’t have all those people meeting twice a year and since so much has changed, why don’t we sell the Baptist Building?” “We could take that money and start some more churches and send some more missionaries.” I mean…..who in the world could be against such good things?
One might say I am being an alarmist but I believe that the fragmentation of the SBC is already taking place and it will proceed in that direction until we are no longer the monolithic spiritual body which has influence in the nation and world, but we will be like any other denominational body. We will not be the leader among denominations as we have been but we will be classed with those that the world doesn’t care if they exist or not because they are no threat to the sinful directions of society.
I know that what I have said will be decried as harsh, but we are dealing with harsh realities in the SBC. If things follow a normal course, it will be the young theologues who have little or no experience which will be the harshest in their criticism of my thoughts. They are still “wet behind the ears” and don’t have the experience or background to say very much at all. In general they have no respect for those who have had a ministry of forty or more years. I really don’t care who says what. My observations are built on the foundation of sixteen years on the Executive Committee and thirty eight years of pastoring Southern Baptist Churches.
The things I have mentioned are some of the things that bear watching. Time will prove if I am right or not. I think I am.”
Wm. F. Harrell
Dr. Harrell is senior pastor of Abilene Baptist Church, Augusta, GA
original article entitled “Things That Bear Watching” can be found here.
I too was intrigued by this article in the Banner, though perhaps for different reasons. I was a student at Southeastern in the mid nineties when Page Patterson was president. The first time I cruised this article in the Banner, I could not believe that Southeastern was being condemned as a hotbed of Calvinism.
Twenty years ago, the movers and shakers of the Conservative resurgence in the SBC were busy consolidating their gains and gloating over their victories. The shadow of W. E. Criswell loomed large over the convention. Southeastern was referred to by the students there as the east coast campus of Dalla Theological Seminary because of all the DTS profs Page had recruited. From time to time there were meeting of what we students referred to as the “Texas Mafia” – SBC leaders who had been instrumental in wresting control of the convention from what they termed, “the liberals”. (It may have been more accurate to have labeled the neo-orthordox.) As they would sometimes condescend to meet in the cafeteria for the benefit of us “tadpoles”, I myself heard them exclaim, “We’ve kicked the liberals out of the convention, and the Calvinists are next.” The Criswell Bible Collge, Dallas Theological Seminary, free will Dispensationalist hated 5 point Calvinistism every bit as much as they hated the liberals who denied the inerrancy of Scripture. The student body was so solidly behind them that the paltry number of Calvinsts who attended then were unsuccesful in establishing a Founders Club on campus. I am not able to pinpoint precisely what theological perspective is being exported from Southeastern these days, but I dare say it bears little resemblance to the early expressions of the Baptist faith in America: the 1742 Philadelphia confession or Boyce’s Abstract of Principles.
I read pastor Harrell’s rant (sorry, it seemed like a rant to me) as an admission of defeat. It would be interesting to look at some of the articles published in the Religious Herald from back in the days of the conservative resurgence. If memory serves me correctly, his objections to the method by which the neo-calvinists have usurped control of some churches that were previously free-will dispensationalist is a verbatim rehearsal of the complaints registered by the old liberals (neo-orthodox) against the conservative juggernaut in those days. Sorry William, but what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
Back on the east coast campus of DTS (Southeastern) back in the 90’s, we were never formally instructed, but there were plenty of opportunities to receive guidance on how to move a congregation from the liberal mindset of viewing the Bible as a useful handbook of suggestions and homiletical material to accepting it as God’s inerrant Word. In short, it’s okay to hide your theological convictions as long as you answer honestly when interviewed by a pulpit committee. However, the same rule applies as when dealing with the IRS – you only provide the information they specifically request. If you made it in, you simply preached the Word to the best of your ability and understanding and prayed for the results. From the tenor of pastor Harrell’s rant, it seems the same tactic has prevailed against those who used it so skillfully two decades ago.
The stark truth that confronts southern Baptists at this hour is how our history has demonstrated that liberalism and conservatism are mirror images of each other – that each in its own way is an utter failure and disaster. The reason for this is quite simple. Despite all the vitriol that passes between them; despite the fact that they are polar opposites on the theological spectrum, there is a commonality, a point of convergence they share. It is their absolute devotion to the doctrine of man’s free will. This fundamental heresy undermines all they attempt in Christ’s name. On the side of liberalism, this vacuity gave rise to neo-othordoxy. One the side of conservatism, this vacuity has spawned neo-calvinism. Both are doomed to failure from the start, because both are attempts to synthesize Christianity and modernity. There is only one faith that was delivered to the saints. It is set forth clearly in Scripture as resting on the unchanging principles of God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s unmitigated responsibilty to his Creator, resulting in a tension that can only be resolved by a Mediator Who can stand as the Substiture for the sinful creature before a holy Creator. It is this faith that provokes the most relentless hatred of the world. It is this faith that was recovered by the Protestant Reformation. It is this faith that is decried by liberals and conservatives, neo-orthodox and neo-calvinist, by any and all who prostrate God’s eternal purpose of grace before the omnipotence of man’s free will as the necessary concession to make friends with the world.
I would like to close with a couple of observations about pastor Harrell’s concerns for the future of the SBC. He is concerned that if current trends continue, we wont’ recognize the SBC. I would ask any serious student of Baptist history if any of the early leaders of the SBC would recognize it today? Would Boyce, or Dagg, or Manly, or Howell recognize the SBC? More to the point, would they participate? I trow not.
Harrell’s other big concern is that the SBC may cease to be the biggest – and I guess by logical extension therefore the best and most important Christian denomination in America. My soul, have we learned nothing in the past decade? Are we so incapable of reading the handwriting on the wall (send me a Daniel)? After the carnage inflicted on our society by big government bailing out businesses and banks that are “too big to fail,” who still believes that bigger is necessarily better? Isn’t the success of this blog and countless others like it indisputable proof to the contrary.
In closing, I would like to register my formal disagreement with pastor Harrell’s rejection of the proposed name change for the SBC. I am indifferent to how fractured the convention may become, while I pray they would officially change their name. I really don’t care what name they adopt – Great Commission Baptists, Israel First Baptists, Total Anti-Slavery Baptists, Tooth Fairy Baptists, whatever. That would leave the door open for local congregation who hold to the historic Baptist faith – think 1689 confession or Boyce’s Abstract of Principles – to call themselves southern (small “s”) Baptists without any confusion about our identity.