Baptists and Calvinism: Event was called off, but not the debate

It promised to be a lively debate–a topic of widespread interest across the Southern Baptist Convention, a venue filled with hundreds of students and four highly educated men passionate about their theology.

Online buzz swelled as various weblogs carried hundreds of posts rehearsing arguments regarding Baptists and Calvinism.

The auditorium of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., was to be the Oct. 16 setting for a three-hour debate featuring brothers Ergun Caner, president of Liberty Seminary in Lynchburg and a former Criswell College professor, and Emir Caner, dean of the College at Southwestern in Fort Worth, versus Tom Ascol, executive director of Founders Ministries, which represents a Calvinist segment within Southern Baptist life, and James White, director of Alpha & Omega Ministries, which focuses on Christian apologetics and theology.

Ascol is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., and White, formerly a Southern Baptist, is an elder at Phoenix (Ariz.) Reformed Baptist Church.

The debate, however, was canceled due to unresolved disputes among the four men over various ground rules for the event.

Had the debate taken place as scheduled, the give and take might have followed the pattern of their discourse on the Founders blog earlier this year. Among the points of contention that likely would have surfaced are views of historic Baptist roots and such theological constructs as predestination, election, human responsibility and God’s omnibenevolence, which describes his character as perfectly or absolutely good.

Ascol and White hold to a Calvinistic view expressed in the “doctrines of grace” espoused by Reformed theology. A recent study by LifeWay Research found that approximately 10 percent of Southern Baptist pastors call themselves five-point Calvinists.

In debating various facets of Calvinism on the Founders weblog, Ergun Caner declared, “I am neither Arminian nor Calvinist–I am Baptist.” He called himself “a radical reformer in the Anabaptist heritage.” Both Caners uphold what is described as the Sandy Creek tradition where “elders meant preachers,” as Ergun Caner put it, and aggressive evangelism and church planting were embraced along with contemporary worship and a call for decisions.

“I have never suggested that the Sandy Creek tradition did not significantly influence Southern Baptist origins,” Ascol wrote in response. “What I have objected to is the assumptions and historical misrepresentations of that tradition as somehow being anti-Calvinistic.”

In tracing Southern Baptist roots, Ascol points to the Abstracts of Principles used at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as the convention’s first recognized confession of faith. Adopted in 1858, election is described as “God’s eternal choice of some persons unto everlasting life–not because of foreseen merit in them, but of his mere mercy in Christ–in consequence of which choice they are called, justified and glorified.”

Emir Caner quoted from a sermon Danny Akin delivered at Southern Seminary while Akin was academic dean there in which he claimed the Abstract of Principles calls for adherence to only three of the five points of Calvinism–total depravity, unconditional election and perseverance of the saints. Akin said the document allows for effectual calling and particular redemption, but does not require it.

“How do I resist the irresistible and how can I resist something that shouldn’t have been offered to me in the first place?” Ergun Caner asked, in reference to effectual calling and particular redemption, respectively.

Had the debate proceeded, the frequent accusation by the Caners equating so-called Reformed Baptists with hyper-Calvinists likely would have surfaced. White referred on his blog to a sermon in which Caner asked who might fill the shoes of Adrian Rogers to stand against “those hyper-Calvinists who have ceased to give biblical invitations and embraced Protestant Scholasticism.”

“I have to think twice before I call someone Pelagian,” White stated in his Oct. 10 “Dividing Line” radio interview with Ascol, referring to the fifth-century Pelagian heresy that denied original sin. White said terms like hyper-Calvinism are used as a club to beat an opponent. Whit features on his site a link to a message Caner delivered at the Lynchburg church last spring explaining why he could never be a hyper-Calvinist.

Ascol said the extremes of hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism have the same philosophical foundation but go in opposite directions from a faulty presupposition.

“Calvinists say both [hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism] are wrong. We have no spiritual ability, but that does not lessen our responsibility and we must live that biblical tension,” Ascol said.

In the interview, Ascol appealed to Caner to stop what Ascol described as an intentional mischaracterization of Reformed Baptists as hyper-Calvinists.

White restated his rejection of hyper-Calvinism, emphasizing that he distributes gospel tracts in many settings.

“W affirm God’s common grace and are commanded to proclaim the gospel that all men everywhere are commanded by God to repent. I don’t know who the elect are,” White said on the Dividing Line program. “There is no power in heaven and earth that can stop the Holy Spirit from drawing men to Himself so we’ll proclaim the gospel to Moonies, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. You can’t assume those people have ever heard the true gospel and so we go to them.”

Emir Caner defines a hyper-Calvinist as one who goes beyond Calvin, arguing that the French reformer would have rejected limited (or particular) atonement.

Ergun Caner recently blogged on his own site that a person who holds to reprobation, a belief that God has created and predestined souls to hell, would be “a poster child” for hyper-Calvinism. He further accused White of being unclear on the issue of whether infants who die go to heaven.

Emir Caner also cited the Romans 9 account of God loving Jacob while hating Esau, rejecting the argument he claimed Calvinists make that God can hate man because of divine sovereignty, Instead of believing that God created man with no intention other than that of damning him, Caner said God hated Esau because he deserved it.

Sprinkled throughout the stream of remarks on the Founders site are quips by Ergun Caner referring to “Piper-Calvinists”—a reference to John Piper, a Minnesota pastor who is a leader to many reformed theology adherents—along with the accusation that Reformed Baptists open themselves up to a defense of infant baptism, a charge Ascoh disputed.

Piper is pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, which came under fire in 2005 for a motion passed by its elders (but rejected by the church body) to, in some circumstances, accept as members those who had been sprinkled or poured on rather than immersed.

Ergun Caner accused Calvinists of giving elders too much authority, but granted that many deacon boards overextend their control of pastors. He accepted Ascol’s accusation that he leaned toward a Landmark theology regarding closed versus open communion (a closed communion excludes non-members of the local church and is associated with the Landmark tradition).

“I stand in the line of the Dissenters throughout history who wanted a free church—not a Roman theocracy and certainly not a Geneva theocracy,” Caner wrote, referencing John Calvin, who is known as the Reformer of Geneva.

While the Caners warn of the decline of churches pastored by so-called Reformed Baptists, Ascol said faithfulness to the practice of biblical Christianity through church discipline and sound preaching sometimes results in a loss of membership.

In the Oct. 10 radio interview, Ascol viewed the impasse over the debate as reflective of “the real mess” in broader evangelicalism and particularly Southern Baptist life. “We don’t know what it means to be Christian anymore,” he said. “That’s not just true doctrinally, but ecclesiologically and ethically.”

White added that 1 Corinthians 1:17 warns against “wisdom words” that empty the cross of Christ of its power. “So many of our seminarians are taught to use all these unbiblical, ungodly methodologies to make up for where evidently the Holy Spirit is falling down and not doing his job.”

White asked, “Is there any shock our churches are filled with people who have no concern for godliness? The idea of it impacting their thoughts and relationships is foreign.”

Most likely, the ill-fated debate would have found some points of agreement between the three Southern Baptist participants (the Caners and Ascol).

Ascol noted, for example, that there are areas of agreement with Reformed Baptists in working for the spiritual health of the convention, including:

>the high rate of false conversions produced by Southern Baptists evangelism.

>the lack of discipline in Southern Baptist churches.

>the cultural captivity of the church.

>a desire to see the gospel preached in power here and around the world.

>the genuine conversion of innumerable sinners.

On many of those points the Caners readily agreed. “Even though we vigorously disagree on virtually every soteriological, anthropological and ecclesiastical doctrine (eternal security excepted), we are similar in that we both love a spirited discourse.” Ergun Caner wrote. “Emir and I willingly and happily agree with your views on church discipline, horrible manipulation, manicured metro boys in the pulpits, stolen sermons, wannabe Willow Creeks and Saddlebacks, and historical myopia.”

Similarly, Emir Caner lamented, “We are raising up pastors in our denomination that are seeker-sensitive, programmatic, postmodern, emergent and weak, We need men of God to stand up and preach the Word faithfully and guard the church from wolves.”

Ascol offered, “Let’s hold our respective convictions fearlessly and be willing to be ruthlessly biblical with each other as we seek to address them and call for renewed spiritual vitality as the Lord gives us light and power.”

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