Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Southern Baptists and Calvinists: A Response to Elmer Towns (Part 1)

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on March 23, 2009 at 12:15 pm

In the March 2009 edition of The Baptist Banner, Elmer Towns, co-founder and dean of the School of Religion at Liberty University, addressed the issue of the labels “Southern Baptist” and “Calvinist.”  His article addresses the relationship Southern Baptists should have with Calvinists.  In seeking to articulate this relationship, Towns puts forth four questions which Southern Baptists should ask in seeking to define relationships with Calvinistic congregations.  In a series of posts, I will address each question and then give some concluding thoughts.

Before I begin my examination of Towns’ questions, I want to address the tone of the article itself.  I feel that articles of this sort “poison the well” when attempting to look into these biblical issues.  Towns’ brief article is fraught with pejorative terms and expressions that would give someone an apriori bias against the doctrines of grace (i.e., Calvinism).  Towns employs such expressions as “the intrusive influence of five point Calvinism” and “five point enthusiast.”  He asks, “Should or should not Southern Baptists attempt to purge themselves of five point Calvinists?”  He refers to Calvinistic influence as “the problem.”  After talking about Calvin’s burning of Servetus[1], Towns writes, “Be careful of some five pointers, with an intolerant DNA just like their forefathers.”  He also cautions, “But be careful of the five pointer who waves his flag in attack of other churches or other believers, or anyone who holds a different persuasion than theirs.”  In footnote 10, Towns, speaking of the five-point Calvinist, writes, “While the enthusiast irritates us with his absolute assurance that he is right,…”  Comparing what Towns terms “Generic Calvinists” to five-point Calvinists, he writes, “Generic Calvinists generally don’t fixate on the five points.”  Towns goes on to state, “It is all right to be a Calvinist, but it is not all right to be a flag waving five point extremist that attacks any and every position or church that disagrees with its own.”  And probably the most derogatory and depreciatory example is when Towns gives to us an illustration where Calvinism is more akin to a dandelion than a tulip.  He writes, “Calvinism is like the dandelion;…dandelions spread their weeds across the entire lawn, blown about by the winds of fads and self-examination.  And what more do we know about dandelions, they kill the surrounding grass and as they spread across a beautiful lawn, they can destroy an entire lawn.”  If our aim is to have a discussion with other believers concerning cardinal biblical issues, where is there room for uncomplimentary demonstrations such as these?  It fails to advance the argument for biblical, thinking Christians.  Rather, it adds emotions and passions that tend to bring more heat than light.

Another detractor from Towns’ article is the implied elitism he exhibits.  In discussing Question Four, Towns points out that “every spring the dandelions come up.  By that I am referring to young Calvinistic enthusiasts who suddenly feel they know systematic theology better than their professors.”  Towns speaks of how he is “gracious” with these and in essence, tries to set them straight.  It seems that in Towns’ estimation, it is something to be pitied that these Calvinists do not know any better.  I will be the first to admit that there are unbalanced Calvinists who think they have come to master every fine point of theology, but having a “some-day-you’ll-grow-out-of-this-juvenile-phase-like-I-did” mentality skirts the issue of deriving our doctrine from biblical interpretation.

The Beginning of the Southern Baptist Convention

Towns paints the picture in his article that Calvinism in the SBC is the “new kid on the block.”  Historically, this just isn’t the case.  R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the flagship SBC Seminary, Southern Seminary, writes:

Even the opponents of Calvinism must admit, if historically informed, that Calvinism is the theological tradition into which the Baptist movement was born.  The same is true of the Southern Baptist Convention.  The most influential Baptist churches, leaders, confessions of faith, and theologians of the founding era were Calvinistic….It was not until well into the twentieth century that any knowledgeable person could claim that Southern Baptists were anything but Calvinists….John A. Broadus-the greatest Baptist preacher of his day-was so certain that Calvinism was revealed in the Bible that he challenged those who sneer at Calvinism to ‘sneer at Mount Blanc’….Other Southern Baptist leaders were also well-identified Calvinists.  These included J. B. Gambrell and B. H. Carroll, the founder of Southwestern Seminary.”[2]

Mohler concludes, “Calvinism was the mainstream tradition in the Southern Baptist Convention until the turn of the century.  The rise of modern notions of individual liberty and the general spirit of the age have led to an accommodation of historic doctrines in some circles.”

In all actuality, the recent rise of Calvinism is a “reformation” that is seeking to return the SBC to her historic roots.  Just to be frank and put it in the language of the day: We were here first.  Sadly, this is a little known fact to most Southern Baptists.  Early Southern Baptists intended their churches and members to believe and understand sound doctrine-not just any doctrine, but a particular array of beliefs on which the SBC was formed.  There was from the beginning widespread doctrinal accord among them.  The consensus was built around the great salvation doctrines which were commonly referred to as the “doctrines of grace.”  James Boyce, founder and first president of Southern Seminary, portrayed these doctrines in 1874 as being part of the “prevailing principles” which had guided the denomination to that hour.  Forty-four years later in 1918, the 2nd edition of The New Convention Normal Manual made the same affirmation by announcing “nearly all Baptists believe what are usually termed the ‘doctrines of grace.'”

What are these “doctrines of grace?”  Specifically, they are those truths of God’s Word which reveal His sovereign majesty in salvation.  Historically, these doctrines have also been referred to as “Calvinism,” not because John Calvin conceived of them, but because he very proficiently articulated them into a systematic construct.  However, as of late, it seems that “Calvinism” has been deemed a “bad word” in many parts of SBC life.  Many employ it pejoratively to refer to fatalism and falsely say that it is antithetic to evangelism.  However, in my analysis, nothing could be further from the truth.

As Towns asks “should or should not Southern Baptists attempt to purge themselves of five point Calvinists?” to do so would also require the wholesale jettisoning of the core doctrine that birthed the SBC.  Let me be very frank: If it were not for that group of Calvinists meeting together in 1845, there would be no SBC today.  I am a Southern Baptist and you are a Southern Baptist because (humanly-speaking) our godly forefathers possessed a cooperative missionary passion that sprung from the fountainhead of Calvinism.  These doctrines constituted the common understanding of the gospel among Southern Baptists during their first seventy-five years of existence.  They are clearly asserted and defended in the writings of former convention leaders such as James Petigru Boyce, John Leadly Dagg, John A. Broadus, W.B. Johnson, R.B.C. Howell, Basil Manly, Sr., Basil Manly, Jr., Patrick H. Mell, Richard Fuller, and Richard Furman (just to name a few).

Regardless of what it is termed (e.g., Calvinism, Reformed theology, the doctrines of grace, etc.), I believe that the annals of our heritage bear these truths out to be nothing less than historic Southern Baptist orthodoxy.  This is the theology which gave rise to the conception and early emergence of the great missionary and evangelistic establishment which we know as the SBC.  This is what our forefathers accounted to be the true teaching of Scripture.  These are the doctrines on which they erected their churches and which buttressed their ministries.

Van L. Loomis, Jr.
Pastor-Teacher
Redeeming Grace Baptist Church
Mathews, VA

[1] It was in 1553 that Michael Servetus was executed for heresy.  One wonders how Calvin ever became the whipping boy for the Servetus execution.  Executions for heresy were a common, cultural event at the time.  Servetus was convicted of heresy in France and escaped from jail in Vienna.  He fled to Geneva.  The Genevan authorities caught Servetus and consulted with the authorities in Vienna, who demanded his immediate extradition.  However, the Genevan city council offered him a choice: he could stay in Geneva and face charges or return to Vienna.  He chose to stay in Geneva.  As the trial came to a close, the council determined it could only proceed with one of two actions: either banishment or execution.  They chose to execute the heretic (which, again, was a common, cultural thing to do) by burning him alive.  Calvin intervened to appeal for the more merciful form of execution, beheading.  The council refused.  It is strange that there is so much intense focus on this one execution while hundreds of other executions at that time period in other parts of the world are ignored.

[2] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Reformation of Doctrine and the Renewal of the Church: A Response to Dr. William R. Estep, http://www.albertmohler.com/FidelitasRead.php?article=fidel021, accessed 03/21/2009.

  1. Brother Loomis,

    I read your article with interest but I am confused. You said you were going to address the four questions raised by Dr. Towns. Are you planning to start with the next article? You did not address the question of Dr. Towns in this writing. His question was about any Southern Baptist taking any theological position as their guiding light (flag). You answered with a lesson about the beginning of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have no problem with your lesson. the founders of Southern Seminary were Calvinist and the convention was greatly influenced by them in the early days of the convention. I believe Dr. Towns’ argument is that we should not identify ourselves with any theological system. Let’s follow the true Founder, Jesus the Christ, and not any of these men who have theologies named after them.

  2. Malcolm,

    Thanks for your comment. In answer to your question, yes, this will be a multi-part article in which I will respond to the questions Towns raises one-by-one. Answers to his first two questions have just been posted today by the moderator.

    I started with the subject of Baptist history because it is where Towns begins. Since he went much farther back than the SBC itself, I thought it more germane to discuss SBC origins in particular. Though Baptist history is important, when the discussion is firmly within the realm of Southern Baptists, I feel it is better to look at our SBC founders and SBC origins rather than the “bigger picture” of Baptist history in general.

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