Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Southern-Baptist-Convention.png.

Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Southern-Baptist-Convention.png.

As the Southern Baptist Convention prepares for its annual jamboree next week in Houston, the two big stories are a steep decline in baptisms and the rising tide of Calvinism. Is the one related to the other?

In a tradition that owes its existence to the belief that baptism can only be undertaken after the age of belief, a 5.5 percent slide in dunks is really bad news — an exclamation point in an SBC membership decline that’s been going on for six years. At last year’s meeting, the Convention wrestled with rebranding itself and came up with Great Commission Baptists, a descriptor that looks more and more like wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, the denomination has been roiled by the growing embrace of Calvinism by its clerical elite. Nearly one-third of Southern Baptist churches now subscribe to the teaching of the 16th-century reformer John Calvin that people can do nothing on their own to achieve salvation, and are thus predestined for heaven or hell.

While there have always been Calvinist Baptists, the SBC has historically been dominated by the more optimistic Arminian/Wesleyan view of human nature that took hold in American Protestantism in the 19th century: Christ died for everyone, and everyone has the wherewithal to reach out and accept the gift of grace. In Houston, the delegates will be discussing a new hyper-alliterative report (“Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension”) on the Calvinism conflict. What’s going on here?

Since the fundamentalist take-over of the denomination in the 1970s, the SBC has been all about separating the sheep from the goats. Breaking with its anti-creedal past, it has established doctrines and practices that must be adhered to or else. And as within the gates, so without: Southern Baptists have been in forefront of the country’s culture wars. It’s hard not to see Calvinism as the theological analogue of denominational politics.

Moreover, Calvinism provides an intellectual refuge for beleaguered faithful. Its teaching of utter human depravity and predestination was developed by St. Augustine at a time when the barbarians were literally at the gates and Roman civilization was tottering. That an SBC beset by membership decline should embrace Calvinist theology in the Age of Obama makes a certain amount of sense: The barbarians may be winning but at least we’re saved.

I’m not saying that the membership decline is a direct cause of growing Calvinism, or vice versa. But the two trends are mutually reinforcing — the one a manifestation of a darkening time, the other a world view in which those who are not with us are beyond redemption.

Categories: Beliefs, Institutions

Beliefs:

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

31 Comments

  1. SBC shirking? isn’t that what they wanted to be leaner and meaner? The leadership int the 70′s and 80′s new that SBC ranks would decline with the imposition of doctrine, but they also knew it would make the core membership, hard core. So why are they worried?

  2. “the other a world view in which those who are not with us are beyond redemption.”

    You should refrain from commenting on belief system you don’t understand. Name one orthodox Calvinist who says anyone who is currently without belief cannot be saved.

    • Your response clearly indicates an understanding of a central tenant of Calvinism – election. At the same time, are you are trying to skirt the truth of Calvinistic doctrine? Yes, I would agree that all orthodox Calvinists would state anyone currently without belief can be saved. However, as I’m sure you realize, the issue, here, has to do with a foundational doctrine of Calvinism wherein God has already predetermined who will be saved – and conversely, God has already predetermined those individuals who will spend eternity in Hell.

  3. Why should the SBC be worried about falloff, if there churches believe that they are adhering to the bible? It amazes me that commentators like Mark equate numbers with success when it comes to churches and denominations. Using that logic, Mark would say Jeremiah was a failure.

  4. Jim Vander Spek

    Here are some reflections on my experience with calvinism:

    http://ezinearticles.com/?Reflections-Regarding-Calvinism-and-Theological-Disagreement&id=4315841

  5. Charles Carter

    First, I am a Southern Baptist and NOT(!) a Calvinist — I say this lest my comments be misinterpreted.

    The idea that the Reformed movement was/is anti-missions is without any historical foundation. In fact, the most active missions movement since the early church was the various Reformed bodies in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. with people likie William Carey, Lottie Moon, and others. Calvin’s theology is intensely pro-missions, he teaches that we have an absolute duty to evangelize, and that fervor in doing so was evidence of election. Read the history of missions if you have any doubt as to this.

    Baptists are not Calvinists. Baptists are also not Wesleyan/Arminian. Baptists accept a mild form of Calvinist five point soteriology which is not hyper-Calvinism or full blown Arminianism. Yes, we differ on the details, but the Baptist distinctives (believer’s baptism, baptism by immersion, soul competency, congregational church government, freedom of religion, acceptance of scripture as inspired and inerrant, etc.) bind Baptists together much more strongly than these differences on the details of soteriology.

    I think that it’s perhaps a good thing that Baptists are beginning to take these kinds of doctrinal issues seriously, as long as we can remember Paul’s advice about not letting frivolous disputations and arguments about myths and genealogies tear the body apart.

  6. “You shall know them by their fruits”. Look at the numbers from the heyday of the 60′s and 70′s and then look at just how many of those stuck. Not many. Lots of bodies passed thru the church doors but not many stayed. The whole SBC numbers thing was an illusion. At least the Calvinists are in pursuit of depth in understanding the faith. The Arminians gave you evangelistic conferences filled with Madison Ave. manipulative techniques to induce the numbers but in return, the SBC became souless and shallow. Once the fundies took over the fall was set up. The real numbers fell long long ago but like the federal govt. they were fooled by phoney stats.

  7. Augustine’s conception of God is not a product of his times, or not simply a product of his times.

    Attacking arguments by saying “that was then this is now” is not a reasonable attack but a rhetorical feint. That is to say, Augustine’s conception of God holds for all places at all times, barbarians or no barbarians, or it is a bad conception. So too for Wesleyen, Calvinistic, etc.

    Also, Augustine wrote after the sack of Rome if I am not mistaken. And he was not looking for refuge in an all powerful God (well, not political refuge). He denounced the City of Man and Rome in particular as necessarily evil.

  8. I’m afraid that the author’s understanding of Calvin and Calvinism is severely lacking and distorted. Most people who are anti-Calvin have never read Calvin. They reject a stereotype and caricature or simplistic distortion of this theology and worldview. No doubt some Calvinists make that easy to do.

  9. You’re either chosen or not, saved or damned, and there’s not a thing you can do about it one way or the other. Calvinism boiled down in a nut shell.

    • Charles Carter

      > You’re either chosen or not, saved or damned, and there’s
      > not a thing you can do about it one way or the other
      >. Calvinism boiled down in a nut shell.

      Your statement is true, but there’s a subtlety there you miss. First, the attitude you express is identical to the determinism common throughout the 20th century, behaviorism is just one example.

      More importantly, Calvin taught that the knowledge of salvation was absolutely unknowable. If you are elect, you can’t know it, and if you are reprobate, you don’t know it. One way to tell is the presence of the fruit of the Spirit in a person’s life, but even the reprobate can appear to be pious, while the elect can appear to be damned, e.g., the thief on the cross who would have appeared to all except Christ as an unsaved sinner. The PRACTICAL effect is a tremendous working out of salvation in ordinary life. As an example of an entirely secular examination, see Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ in which Weber attributes the development of capitalism to the (economic) efforts of individual Calvinists to assure themselves that there were indeed elect.

      Again, I repeat that I’m not a Calvinist, but I know several Baptists who are, and they certainly are not fatalistic in any way, but seem to be more missions oriented than the typical semi-Arminian Baptist. Not that any Southern Baptists are truly Arminian … just Free Will Baptists.

    • And therein lies it’s failure as a doctrine: If I’m going to Hell *anyway*, why should I worship the God that’s, effectively, already sent me there? (Or do good works, help my fellow man, etc.) Conversely, if I’m going to Heaven *anyway*, why should I waste my time going through all the rigamarole of worshipping God when I can eat, drink and be merry? (And why bother doing good works or helping my fellow man when I’ve got a “Get into Heaven Free” card?) When it comes right down to it,*not* knowing either way is pretty much irrelevant.

    • I would agree that there is nothing we can do about it. If we could do something about it, then why did Christ have to die? Grace would not be grace if there is something we could do to be saved.

  10. Mark Silk

    Thanks for your comments. Just to be clear, I’m neither pro- nor anti-Calvinism, so far as the SBC is concerned, and the purpose of the post was not to explain what it is. It was to suggest that SBC leaders have been attracted to Calvinism because of what is going on in their world — just as Augustine may have developed his soteriology because of what was going on in his world. The fact that people are led to one or another theological position because of their historical circumstances is irrelevant to the truth of that position.

  11. Mr. Silk’s understanding of calvinism is faulty at best. He obviously is unaware that some of the most mission-minded denominations that are in existence today are either Calvinist in full or in part. The SBC and it’s conservative Presbyterian and Reformed counterparts, such as the Presbyterian Church in America, the Evangelical Presbyteriian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and others are some of the most aggressive denominations in spreading the Gospel throughout the US and the world. Likewise, which denominations are in rapid decline? They are the denominations which have abandoned their doctrinal stands and which downplay Calvinism. Look no further for proof of this than the PCUSA, The Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches, the United Church of Christ, and many others.

  12. Mark Silk

    Excuse me, Charles, but I didn’t say that Calvinists weren’t mission-minded. I suggested why the rise of Calvinism made sense in light of the shrinking of the denomination — i.e. the evident failure of missions.

  13. The SBC has never been more irrelevant, and it grows increasingly so daily. This article and the comments are perfect examples of the reasons why. None of this stuff will attract anyone, and none of it manifests the fruit of the spirit.

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