A recent cadre of Southern Baptist pastors, theologians and academicians published a statement attempting to clarify what “traditional” Southern Baptists believe about soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). I join those who applaud the discussion. Better we wrestle with and about this than petty, inconsequential concerns. In the end, I’m confident this will have caused more heat than light, though.
Undoubtedly, the statement has invited its share of champions and enemies and as well it should. While I disagree at several important places with the statement, I will leave more technical interactions to those far more equipped to argue the points (for example, Jon Akin at Baptist 21). I want to call attention to a broader consideration.
The statement attempts to define “accurately reflect the beliefs of the majority of Southern Baptists, who are not Calvinists.” In the Preamble, the statement asserts “the majority of Southern Baptists do not embrace Calvinism.” I agree that most Southern Baptists do not embrace Calvinism, especially as the statement presents it. I’m not sure I even embrace the Calvinism as the statement defines it!
However, what is stated as true in this generation is held out as “traditional” Southern Baptist soteriology. The word “traditional” creates all sorts of rhetorical confusion. For some, “traditional” means “when I was growing up in the 1950s.” For others, “traditional” means “when things started in the 1850s.”
I suggest most modern Southern Baptists employ a double-standard when appealing to things “traditional.” For example, when Supreme Court judge Samuel Alito was being vetted as a nominee, the New York Times defined his approach to the Constitution as “orginalism.” This Constitutional “hermeneutic” was further defined by Alito himself, who was quoted as saying, “In interpreting the Constitution I think we should look to the text of the Constitution, and we should look to the meaning that someone would have taken from the text of the Constitution at the time of its adoption.” In other words, the U.S. Constitution means now what the founders meant by it when they crafted it.
First, this is a great principle in biblical interpretation. We would do well to be “originalists” in the pulpit. Scripture means now what it meant when it was written.
Second, this might shed some interesting light on this contemporary issue in Southern Baptist life. As Southern Baptist politics by-in-large leans conservative Republican, many would offer their hearty approval of Judge Alito. In order to protect freedom of religion, speech, and life we demand that the Constitution be interpreted in light of the framers’ intent. We cannot endorse playing fast and loose with the meaning of the Constitution. What it meant then is what it should mean for us now. Unless there is one meaning there is no meaning.
Now, shouldn’t we expect that same hermeneutic with our own founding documents in Southern Baptist life? Many Southern Baptist pastors are alienated, disenfranchised and fired for attempting to apply the principle of “originalism” to our Baptist heritage. What did the SBC founders mean by their confession of faith? An “original” reading of the historic Baptist confessions influencing Southern Baptist faith and practice (including the Baptist Faith and Message) clearly leads to at least a moderate “Calvinistic” understanding of Scripture. And the healthiest churches have been those who remained tenaciously tethered to these biblically-based confessions.
Most Southern Baptists would rather die than be considered liberal Democrat. Yet, many are applying the same principle to our denominational documents that liberal Democrats apply to the U.S. Constitution. I pray we repent from our double standard and joyfully return to “the way we were.”
I submit those crafting this new statement are not traditional at all, but are themselves neo-Southern Baptists. The “new Calvinists” are nothing more than the “old Southern Baptists.” But then again what does “old” mean anyway?