Hyper Calvinism Criticism

Dr. Steve Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has written a paper entitled, The Future of Southern Baptists as Evangelicals. He explains early on in the paper that its purpose is to spur dialogue while addressing the issues with other Southern Baptists. SBC President Bobby Welch and others have chosen to use part of this paper to launch attacks against Calvinist theology and churches. Dr. Lemke lays out 6 issues (and related predictions and warnings) that he believes will play a role in our future as a denomination. I want to get to issue number 4 in particular, but have to make a few quick stops on the way.

He makes the point that doctrinal integrity is one of the primary issues we are facing as a Convention. His concern is, in part, that many of the students today are less interested in topics like soteriology and are more interested in pragmatic questions about church management. I wouldn’t argue with his experience, but my experience has been the opposite. The majority of younger leaders and pastors I know personally are more theologically oriented than many of our more seasoned pastors. I see some good change happening in this area, but agree with his concern as it applies to the whole.

He then raises biblical authority as an issue. I would again agree. We must place our lives and churches under the authority, or rule of Scripture. But then his first few lines of application seem to work against the principle. He brings up the old church covenants that commonly promoted abstinence from the sale and use of beverage alcohol, as well as dancing, and argues that such standards are falling out of favor. To this I want to say two things. First, the standards are certainly in effect when being commissioned by the NAMB or IMB (I went through this process with my wife). Second, this is an area where I think it would be better to be truly under the authority of Scripture, rather than the traditions of men. And just a note; many of our Baptist fathers drank – not to excess, but in thankfulness to God – including early Southern Baptists. But essentially we agree here too, that Scripture should be our authority.

There are a few more things I want to address, but do not have the time since I am focusing on issue number four in his paper: Hyper-Calvinistic Soteriology.

In the beginning Dr. Lemke is generous in dealing with Calvinism. It is clear that he is not out to “get” Calvinists. The problem is with his explanation of hyper-Calvinism. He essentially argues that traditional, five point Calvinism is “hyper” or “hard.” But this is not what has been historically understood as hyper-Calvinism. He goes on to make a distinction between the “hyper-Calvinists” and the “softer baptistic Calvinists.” Of course, the term “baptistic Calvinist” begs the question and is never established in my opinion.

Hyper-Calvinism cannot be determined by the affirmation of the Canons of Dordt. These responses to the Arminian Remonstrance lay out a fundamental expression of Calvinistic theology affirmed by Carey, Spurgeon, Boyce and others. Hyper-Calvinism (HC) is the corruption of historic Calvinism and shows itself in a few ways.

First, HC denies that all men and women can and should be invited to believe in Jesus Christ for salvation. The facts can be presented to an audience, but only the elect should be encouraged to believe after sufficient evidence has been given that they are among God’s chosen. This is at odds with historic Calvinism that has argued we must invite all people to believe in Jesus Christ, though our only hope is in God’s “efficacious grace” bringing the individual to faith and repentance.

Second, HC denies the responsibility of non-elect individuals to believe in Jesus Christ because of their inability. But again here, historic Calvinism rejects this notion. Jonathan Edwards made a very helpful distinction between moral ability and natural ability that has become common thinking in the reformed tradition (See Edward's, Freedom of the Will). Traditional Calvinists believe it is the responsibility of all to believe in Jesus.

Third, HC denies the love of God toward the non-elect. Though classical Calvinism affirms a special love of God for the elect, it also maintains a general benevolent love of God for all of creation. All of this is what led to other problems in HC that were and are reflected in a lack of missionary zeal.

None of these characteristics of HC are implied or derived from the Canons of Dordt.

At the end of this section, Dr. Lemke argues that the evidence (statistical data of “Founders-Friendly Churches" compared to the rest of the Convention's churches) suggests “hard Calvinists,” or traditional, five point Calvinists, tend to be less evangelistic. The interpretation of the stats is problematic. Is a church that is baptizing fewer people and smaller in size less evangelistic? Does it mean they are less successful in evangelism? The issue of large membership rolls and much smaller attandence in our churches raises a relevant point. If two thirds of our SBC membership is not in church, and perhaps unconverted, wouldn’t that be an important component in figuring the meaning of these stats? Let’s pretend the average SBC church has 300 members, but only 100 show up on Sunday morning. Let’s say the average Calvinistic church in the SBC has only 100 members. Wouldn’t we want to know how many of those members show up on Sunday? If 100 of the 100 showed up on Sunday would that change the way we evaluate this information? Perhaps the smaller size of Reformed churches reflects a good thing, and not a bad thing when talking about denominational and ecclesiastical health. Jim Elliff speaks to this so well, I will just direct you to his article.

In my estimation, this part of the paper is seriously flawed. Though unintended, it has become ammunition used by others who do not have the generous spirit of Dr. Lemke to attack those affiliated with Founders Ministries.

Let me say this though, I have found Calvinistic churches that are lacking in evangelistic/missional zeal and work. Is this the fruit of bad theology? I would say it is the fruit of incomplete theology, or more often the result of being more about doctrine than God and people. This is something the more theologically oriented churches have to guard against. It is possible to miss the theological forest for the trees.

Everyone involved is concerned with the future of the SBC. But what those concerns are and how we address them varies based on perspective. This is what makes dialogue so important, and I am grateful for Dr. Lemke's willingness to talk.

***** Update: The Founders Ministries Blog is now addressing Dr. Lemke's paper. Tom Ascol has touched on some of what I have here and will continue in a follow up post. It will certainly be better than what I have given, so be sure and check it out here.