The Importance of Weighing Doctrines
Kevin T. Bauder
George Dollar’s 1973 History of Fundamentalism in America includes a section warning against dangers that face fundamentalism. One of those dangers was “Crusading Calvinism,” which, Dollar warned, “will continue to attract the more intellectual to its position, confuse others, and cause its opponents to be disturbed and sensitive over the issue” (276). Many times since then I have heard fundamentalist leaders warn against Crusading Calvinism.
I always thought it odd that I hardly ever—perhaps never—heard these same leaders warn against “Crusading anti-Calvinism.” Through the years I’ve heard any number of attacks on Calvinism and witnessed any number of attempts to purge Calvinists from the ranks. Never have I witnessed equivalent behavior on the part of Calvinists toward non-Calvinists. Consequently, the warnings against Crusading Calvinism always seemed disingenuous to me. I was never quite sure just who these Crusading Calvinists were supposed to be.
Well, apparently I just missed the show. As I was beginning to sense a call toward ministry (about 1976), the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches was in the throes of a conflict over Calvinism. I was young and not yet paying attention, so I had only the vaguest impression of the dispute. My sense was that the anti-Calvinists (chiefly evangelist Robert L. Sumner) were unfairly attacking the Calvinists.
At the time I was attending Faith Baptist Bible College. Faith was an approved agency of the GARBC. The president of the college, David Nettleton, found himself in the middle of the controversy, and he was a moderate Calvinist. At the same time, the campus theologian (Harry Gray) was a classical Arminian of the same, eternal-security-affirming variety as H. C. Thiessen—though, like Thiessen, Gray would not have called himself Arminian. To all appearances, Nettleton and Gray held each other in the highest esteem and treated each other with the greatest deference. While there was disagreement, there was certainly no conflict about Calvinism on our campus.
Lately I’ve been preparing a paper for ETS, and as part of that preparation I’ve been researching the history of the Calvinist conflict in the GARBC. The story can be told in brief. It began when the Council of Fourteen (soon to be Eighteen) tried to get the association to vote on a statement affirming unconditional election. Instead, the fellowship voted that the matter be dropped. Some of the more militant Calvinists from outside the council continued to push the issue, singling out Robert Sumner as their particular target. Sumner defended himself in print. They counterattacked, and he defended himself again—and so it went. These militant Calvinists tried to get Sumner “disapproved” by the council. Then they tried to shame certain council members into not working with Sumner. Finally, the council sent a letter to the militant Calvinists and Sumner, asking both to cease and desist.
There is more to the story, and much of it is ugly. The Council of Eighteen found itself caught between two irascible parties, trying to keep each side from hurting the other. In the end, few participants escaped unwounded.
Perhaps I should make it clear that the more militant Calvinists were not necessarily five-point Calvinists. Some were; some weren’t. Furthermore, most of the Calvinists in the Regular Baptist movement (including the five-pointers) were not identified with the militant group. Indeed, some of them spoke publicly against adopting any statement on election because they believed that such a statement would needlessly exclude churches from associational fellowship.
Looking at the record, it seems that all three of the major parties (militant Calvinists, anti-Calvinists, and Council of Eighteen) contributed to the clash in some way. By the end, however, the council was working to restore calm while the other two parties were still trying to defeat the other extreme. Of those two, the militant Calvinists were clearly the aggressors, while Sumner was simply seeking to defend a theological and ecclesiastical space that he had always enjoyed within the Regular Baptist movement. He was not trying to disfellowship any Calvinists; they were trying to disfellowship him.
In short, the core of the trouble was Crusading Calvinism. The GARBC encompassed some Calvinists who thought that the boundaries of associational fellowship should be so tightly drawn as to exclude people who disagreed with them over unconditional election (or, in some cases, whether regeneration precedes faith in the ordo salutis). In other words, the conflict was not so much about the truth of Calvinism as about its importance. The militant Calvinists thought that their views ought to be a test of fellowship at the associational level. Most of the association, including the Council of Eighteen, disagreed—even though most Regular Baptists were at least moderately Calvinistic in their theology.
For every doctrinal question we must make two decisions. The first decision is what is true. The second decision is just how important this particular truth is. All Christian doctrines and practices are important, but all are not equally important. Some carry greater implications for the overall system of faith. Some are closer to the boundary markers of Christianity. Some become more urgent simply because they cannot be avoided.
I happen to agree with Calvinists that unconditional election is the truth. Unlike most Calvinists, I think that placing regeneration before faith in the ordo salutis is false. Nevertheless, I do not believe that either of these teachings is urgent enough to disrupt most levels of Christian fellowship. For almost all purposes, I am happy to extend my right hand to anyone from traditional, five-point Calvinism to moderate, eternal-security-conscious Arminianism.
So I stand corrected. There have been Crusading Calvinists, and they have posed a danger to fundamentalists. Of course, there are still Crusading anti-Calvinists, and they, too, pose a danger. In neither case is the danger because of the doctrine itself. The danger arises from misweighing the importance of the doctrine and misjudging its urgency.
It’s time to Give to the Max! Give to the Max is a two-week fundraising initiative to help Minnesota non-profits raise money. This year we have a $50,000 matching gift! Working together, we can raise $100,000 to lower the cost of ministry education and to facilitate the proclamation of the gospel throughout the world. Give to the Max is November 1-16, 2017, and any gift you give during that time will apply to our matching gift.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word
Martin Luther (1483–1546)
Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy word,
And break the Pope’s and Turk’s fell sword,
Who fain would hurl from off Thy throne
Christ Jesus, Thy beloved Son.
Lord Jesus Christ, Thy power make known,
For Thou art Lord of Lords alone;
Defend Thy Christendom, that we
May evermore sing praise to Thee.
O Holy Ghost, best comfort Thou,
With unity Thy church endow,
Support us in our final strife,
And lead us out of death to life.
Destroy their counsels, Lord our God,
And smite them with an iron rod,
And let them fall into the snare
Which for Thy Christians they prepare;
So that at last they may perceive
That, Lord our God, Thou still dost live,
And dost deliver mightily
All those who put their trust in Thee.
About Kevin Bauder
Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.