An old theological controversy is alive and well in evangelical circles today, provoking students at a leading Baptist seminary to walk out of a sermon by a visiting preacher.
The seminary was Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the preacher was Rev Rick Patrick, pastor of First Baptist Church in Sylacauga, Alabama, and the controversy was between Calvinism and Arminianism.
The terms are drawn from the theologians who articulated different views about how God saves people. John Calvin (1509-64) was a French Reformed theologian who stressed the absolute sovereignty of God in conversion, teaching that he had predestined some to be saved. His teaching expressed through the TULIP acronym: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints (or 'once saved always saved').
Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) was a Dutch theologian who taught that Jesus died for all people, that humans have the power to respond or resist to God's calling, and that salvation can be lost. The limits of free will, the implications of God's foreknowledge and the nature of God's sovereignty have fascinated – and sometimes inflamed – theologians for more than 400 years.
Rick Patrick is a member of the Connect 316 organisation, a Southern Baptist network set up to affirm what it says is the denomination's traditional understanding of salvation – which is not Calvinist. It says that while Calvinism has always been present among Southern Baptists, this is generally in a modified form. However, there is now a "New Calvinism" movement, "committed to advancing in the churches an exclusively Calvinistic understanding of salvation, characterized by an aggressive insistence on the 'Doctrines of Grace' ('TULIP'), and to the goal of making Calvinism the central Southern Baptist position on God's plan of salvation." Connect 316 doesn't mention them by name, but the New Calvinism it refers to is the hallmark of networks like The Gospel Coalition and pastors like John Piper, Tim Keller, DA Carson and Kevin DeYoung.
And it's devotees of this school of thought who walked out of Patrick's sermon on November 29. He criticised the Calvinist view of election, saying: "If God has chosen, actively or passively, before the foundation of the world to place the reprobate unconditionally into a category from which they can never possibly escape, then this is, as even Calvin admitted, a dreadful decree. I will never forget the first time a Calvinist looked me straight in the eye and said God does not love everybody. I was speechless, and frankly, that doesn't happen much."
He further warned that Calvinism was a system that was broader than just about salvation, saying: "If we are not careful a myriad of related beliefs and practices will enter our camp, hidden within the Trojan Horse of Calvinism." He instanced the preference among many Calvinists for "elder-led and sometimes even elder-ruled" forms of church government, contrasting with Baptist beliefs in the authority of the church meeting. One Calvinist even claimed that "congregational government is from Satan". He also linked it to post-millenialism of the Left Behind variety and criticised New Calvinists for being lax on baptism, even receiving into membership those who hadn't been baptised. Furthermore, they sat lightly to traditional Southern Baptist moral boundaries; he criticised pastors for smoking and drinking. "They may even home brew the beer themselves, attempting to use it as an outreach to identify with other smokers and drinkers. Sin is not a form of outreach," he said.
It's not known at exactly what point students began to walk out, but after Patrick's sermon seminary president Paige Patterson – not a Calvinist – appeared to suggest that if students were Calvinists they should join the Presbyterian denomination instead of the Baptist. In a blog post on December 2 he referred to students' behaviour as "rude" and stressed the need to hold Calvinists and non-Calvinists together within the denomination.
It's not the first time Patterson – himself no shrinking violent when it comes to controversy, and one of the leading lights in the so-called "conservative resurgence" in the SBC that saw fierce theological battles between conservatives and "liberals" in the 1980s and '90s – has had to play a moderating role; there's an account of a similar attempt in 2012 on The Gospel Coalition's website, though the original documents appear to be missing.
What's clear, though, is that New Calvinism, epitomised by dynamic, charismatic and successful pastors and preachers and relentlessly promoted by well-funded websites and publishing ventures, is impacting a denomination that's traditionally argued about other things. Its self-understanding is that it's the default position for evangelicalism. That, as the push-back from Patterson and others shows, is not the case – but Calvinistic certainty, even if it's based on very shaky theological grounds, can go a long way toward convincing impressionable students that it's right.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods