Monday, August 27, 2007

Garrett on Calvinism in the Alabama Baptist, Pt. 5

In another of his articles in the Alabama Baptist, Dr. Garrett asks, "Have Baptists always been Dortian Calvinists in their confesions of faith?" The answer, indisputably, is no. General (Arminian) Baptists and Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists have published their own confessions of faith throughout the modern history of Baptists. Dr. Garett gives a helpful overview of some of the more prominent of those confessions, including the decidedly Calvinistic Second London Confession of 1677 (published in 1689).

This confession, through its adoption by the Philadelphia Association (with 2 additional articles) and the Charleston Association became the most influential doctrinal statement among Baptists in the South in the 18th and most of the 19th centuries. Leon McBeth notes the adoption of this confession by the Philadelphia Association in 1742 with these words:
It fixed for generations the doctrinal character of Baptists in this country as evangelical Calvinism, providing a bulwark against both the Arminianism of the Freewills and the determinism of the Hardshells" (The Baptist Heritage, 241).
After commenting on other confessions produced by Baptists in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the Abstract of Principles (1858) and the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963, 2000), Dr. Garrett offers this conclusion:
Those Baptists framing confessions in England and America who were on the Calvinistic side of the Calvinistic-Arminian divide generally adhered to some of the "five points" of the Synod of Dort, but such was not generally true of those on the Arminian side, and progressively those on the Calvinistic side modified or muted their adherence to Dort so that by the 20th century, only the affirmation of perseverance remained.
He does not mean that by the 20th century that Baptists only affirmed the last of the so-called five points of Calvinism. That would be much too broad of a statement. Rather, he presumably means that the confessions of faith produced by Baptists in the 20th century affirm only perseverance out of the Dortian 5 points.

I think he almost asserts too much at this point. Some might conclude that all of the other points of Calvinism have been denied by 20th century Baptist confessions. Even the Baptist Faith and Message can be cited to demonstrate that this is not the case. And I grant that a failure to deny is not necessarily an affirmation, therefore, in that sense, Dr. Garrett's point is well taken. He most certainly is correct that the 20th century witnessed a loss of an earlier commitment to the doctrines of grace among Baptists--especially Southern Baptists.

Still, it is interesting to note the language of the BFM on a few of the other points. In the 1925 version the following statement is made about man's bondage in sin:
He was created in a state of holiness under the law of his Maker, but, through the temptation of Satan, he transgressed the command of God and fell from his original holiness and righteousness; whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.
While I would affirm more than this, the statement hardly seems like a repudiation of total depravity (for a fun and frightening treatment of our move away from the biblical doctrine of sin, read Mark Coppenger's "The Ascent of Lost Man in Southern Baptist Preaching").

But there is more. The BFM 2000 affirms election in terms that view it as fixed and unchangeable:
Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God's sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.
Again, I would affirm much more but how can election be the gracious purpose of God that is unchangeable while at the same time being the basis on which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies and glorifies sinners unless it is eternal? I suppose one could be a universalist and believe that statement but can one honestly believe that election is both conditioned on anything in the creature and at the same time be the "gracious purpose of God" which is "unchangeable?" I agree with Dr. Garrett that this is certainly a "muted" statement of unconditional election, but I would not be willing to say that it does not therefore affirm that point of doctrine.

If some want to debate me on the above two points, I will readily concede that the language is ambiguous and not as clear as one would hope from a document that is supposed to help us confess our faith. Nevertheless, those two statements do at least allow for a Dortian view of sin and election.

My final example is not so linguistically ambiguous. At least it isn't to English teachers and those who are accustomed to taking grammar seriously. Article 4 of the BFM 2000 says,
Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God's grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.
This statement declares that regeneration is "a change of which the sinner responds in repentance and faith." I have heard the arguments against reading the statement this way but still contend that this is the simplest reading of the text.


Cap Pooser said...

Brother Tom, not only is your last example correct but consider the following:Since the 1963 BFM accepted the 1925 recommendation of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (NHCF) as foundational to our beliefs and said “In no case has it sought to delete from or add to the basic contents of the 1925 statement, I have always interpreted our BFM in light of the NHCF. The NHCF says
Of Grace in Regeneration
We believe that, in order to be saved, sinners must be regenerated, or born again (37); that regeneration consists in giving a holy disposition to the mind (38); that it is effected in a manner above our comprehension by the power of the Holy Spirit, in connection with divine truth (39), so as to secure our voluntary obedience to the gospel (40); and that its proper evidence appears in the holy fruits of repentance, and faith, and newness of life (41).

It seems clear to me here that repentance , faith and newness of life are fruits of regeneration, not the fruit of conviction of sin. So I have to interpret the BFM in light of the foundational confession since to do otherwise would violate the stated intention of not deleting from or adding to the NHCF.

Tom said...


I agree with you 100%. The BFM has a pedigree that cannot be dismissed when interpreting its language.

Thanks for making that point so clearly.


lordodamanor said...

I was confronted with this by SBC members: "We were saved under the '63. We became members under it." People tend to give greater weight to the contemporneous, so most will not view the BFM's in their historical context but,

Thanks Cap for something that I should remember, as ta said, the BFM has a pedigree, which should not be dismissed as having no bearing on the current content or intention.

I have to appluad Tom for pointing out the clear doctrinal intent in the work of regenerating grace. Still, the 25 says that it is "conditioned upon faith in Christ" and the 63 and 2000 say that it is "wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin." Both of which make the new birth consequent to an action on the part of man.

Mark Coppenger's warnings on the decline of the sin nature doctrine are well made, and the same thing could be said of this. There is a clear demarcation between the NHCF and the BFM on this point. The reversal of order is a change from monergism to synergism, as ta points out. IMO they are two entirely different kinds of faith. And yet, the BFM's are said to accommodate both. However, word order becomes exclusivistic if and when people do not honor the historical pedigree. It is at that point, then, that the BFM, as I mentioned at the beginning of this, becomes the definitive faith statement of individual members and in their view what divides and separates those who are and are not SBC. The '63 was used as an exclusionary tool in my congregation and the 2000 will follow suit. And, that is exactly the way that they have been used to divide and exclude at the convention level. It was a pipe-dream of Mullins', an opiated influence swallowed by the Convention to adopt a latitudinarian approach in doctrine to effect cooperation. What we end up with is either a confession that means nothing because it can mean anything, or no confession at all. A confession should be a statement of truth in the terms of men as extracted, as clearly as possible from the Scripture. As with Dort, it needs to spell out what is truth, as well as what is not.

In the ongoing contest, there can in the end be no compromise or we, a generation or two along the line, will be right back at this point.