Today I received an email from a pastor asking for my thoughts on why the ongoing debate over Calvinism and Arminianism is practically important. Is it "much ado about nothing," that will inevitably lead to a split among Baptists the way that it split the General and Particular Baptists in the past? Besides the fact that these two systems of thought are actually different worldviews I offered the following observations.
The debate/dialogue over Calvinism and Arminianism is important for several reasons. These two views represent the two most cogent (I would argue, the only two) perspectives on the Bible's teaching about the nature of salvation and how the Gospel works. Baptists have cared very passionately about these things throughout our history. They should care about them today.
It is not quite accurate to say that Calvinism and Arminianism split early Baptists. The Arminian Baptists emerged first in the early 17th century. A few years later the Calvinistic Baptists emerged. Though they both came out of English Separatism they did not actually split into these two different groups. The Arminian (General) Baptists drifted into Socinianism and universalism in the 18th century. Many of the Calvinistic (Particular) Baptists tended toward hyper-Calvinism in the 18th century.
The development of the modern mission movement occurred among the Particular Baptists in the late 18th century. [EDIT:] Andrew [not Richard!] Fuller helped establish the theological foundations for such work and William Carey put that theology into practice by leaving England for India where he gave his life preaching Christ so that God might be glorified in the salvation of "the heathen."
Southern Baptists were rocked in the cradle of this kind of evangelical Calvinism--the very same theology that was held by Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Adnoiram Judson, the first Baptist missionary from America.
Understanding the issues involved in these two theological perspectives will help Baptists study their Bibles more carefully and appreciate their heritage more deeply. Though Baptists worship the sepulchers of no man we do recognize that if what our forefathers believed was true then, it is true now, because God has not changed, the Bible has not changed and truth has not changed.
Far better to be discussing the doctrine of salvation--even debating it--than arguing over whether or not we should be ordaining homosexuals to the Gospel ministry. Such discussions will spur the sincere believer to look again at what the Bible teaches concerning the salvation that we have in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And that is a great thing.
Two resources that I recommend for a quick take on these things are From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist Convention and also the Mission 150 Founders Journal.