TLANTA (ABP) – A recent Baptist state newspaper editorial warned of a “presumable encroachment” of five-point Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention. Christian Index Editor Gerald Harris penned the editorial titled “The Calvinists are here” Feb. 9.
Harris noted that most individuals working on an upcoming Sunday school curriculum called The Gospel Project are influenced by “Reformed” theology, which emphasizes predestination and downplays free will.
“The average Baptist who sits in a Sunday school class or a small Bible study group has depended on LifeWay to provide Bible study materials that are true to the Word of God and representative of historic Baptist theology,” Harris said. “However, for bane or blessing LifeWay President Thom Rainer seems to have led the SBC literature-producing agency to become more and more Reformed in its theological content.”
Harris also suggested that a North American Mission Board goal to plant thousands of churches over the next 10 years might create jobs for growing numbers of seminary graduates influenced by Reformed thinkers such as John Piper of Desiring God Ministries and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler.
A 2006 LifeWay study found that nearly 30 percent of SBC seminary graduates between 1998 and 2004 now serving as pastors self-describe as Calvinists. In the five years since the study, Harris said it is likely the percentage is even greater.
“There is a growing perception that Southern Seminary has become a seedbed for a brand of Calvinism that is quite different from the Reformed theology of its founder, James Petigru Boyce, and also a training ground for Reformed church planters,” Harris said. “Therefore, it appears that some of our institutions and agencies are giving, at the least, tacit approval to Reformed theology or are, at the most, actively on a path to honor, if not implement Reformed theology and methodology in their institutions.”
Mohler told Baptist Press he didn’t know what Harris is talking about. “The theological standard at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is the Baptist Faith and Message and the Abstract of Principles, upon which the institution was founded, and on which the first signature is that of James Petigru Boyce," Mohler said.
Harris noted with interest that one of the focus cities in NAMB’s new Send North America church-planting program is St. Louis. Seven of 15 recent church plants in that association are part of the Acts 29 Network, a trans-denominational movement to start “missional” churches begun by controversial emergent-church pastor Mark Driscoll. Though Driscoll is not a Baptist, Harris said, he “seems to have a significant influence in the lives of some Southern Baptists,” including Southeastern Seminary President Danny Akin, who has invited Driscoll to campus and wrote an endorsement for his latest book.
Baptist Press quoted Akin saying he “would respectfully disagree” with Harris that evangelical Calvinism is a threat to the health and future of the denomination. LifeWay spokesman Marty King said the Gospel Project is designed not to promote Reformed theology but instead is "LifeWay's response to churches asking for a more in-depth Bible study curriculum.”
NAMB spokesman Mike Ebert described Harris’ commentary as “long on suspicion and innuendo but short on facts.”
"If someone wants to express concern that the SBC is moving toward Calvinism, he should state those concerns honestly and explain why he sees it as a problem,” Ebert said in a statement to Baptist Press. “But to weave together a series of unrelated examples and imply that SBC entities are being infiltrated by Calvinists whose goal is the 'encroachment of Calvinism in SBC life' evokes the McCarthyism of the 1950s."
Harris said some Calvinist views are controversial, such as that God not only foreknows but actually chooses who will be saved and that Jesus died only for the elect and not the whole world. Calvinist-influenced pastors sometimes attempt to replace congregational polity with an elder-led form of church governance, Harris said. He quoted one avowed Calvinist and LifeWay adviser who wrote, “Congregational government is an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ.”
“While most of the Reformed pastors and churchmen I know are gracious and godly people with a profound devotion to the Word of God, Southern Baptists must decide if they are satisfied with what I would call the presumable encroachment of Calvinism in SBC life,” Harris said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.