The Kentucky Baptist Convention will host a conference on Calvinism in August. Dr. Paul Chitwood, Executive Director of the KBC, has graciously agreed to participate in a Q&A over the upcoming conference. I have shown you the questions in advance. Here are Chitwood's answers.
Barber: Calvinism, Arminianism, and other options are all around four hundred years old. At least some of the key ideas go back fifteen hundred years to the time of Augustine and Pelagius. Calvinism and Arminianism have affected Baptist life for the entirety of the modern Baptist period. Several conferences in the past decade have addressed the question of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention. What will this conference address or contribute that hasn't already been addressed or contributed?
Chitwood: This conference is intended to provide a learning opportunity for local church leaders and members on these age-old debates. The presentation will help interpret the issues for the churches of our day. The goals are clarity, charity, and unity.
Barber: Southern Baptists have separated from other denominations over issues ranging from the authority of the pope to the proper day of worship. Is Calvinism an issue worthy of denominational division? If not, what is the difference between Calvinistic soteriology and, for example, the mode or meaning of baptism that makes one a rightful cause of division and the other not?
Chitwood: Calvinism in the SBC is absolutely not an issue worthy of denominational division. The primary difference between this issue and others that Baptists have, with conviction, declared as “hills to die on” is the clarity Scripture gives to those issues. With regard to the issues at stake in the Calvinism debate, Scripture seems to hold these matters in tension. I believe that to be intentional.
Barber: Among the denominations from which Southern Baptists are divided are at least some denominations for which the cause of division is Calvinism (I'm thinking in particular of the Free Will Baptists). One of the five points of Calvinism—Perseverance—has been a part of our Southern Baptist statement of faith for as long as we've had statements of faith. Is Perseverance the most important of the five points of Calvinism? If not, why should we divide over this point of Calvinism but over none of the other four? If Southern Baptists should cooperate despite differences over Calvinism, then should we seek union with Free Will Baptists?
Chitwood: As Baptists read Scripture, we have concluded that perseverance is a matter of sufficient clarity to draw the proverbial line in the sand. The other traditional points of Calvinism seem, at least to me, to be matters held in enough tension in Scripture that we can continue to draw a circle in the sand around those who hold differing positions.
Barber: How has the conversation about Calvinism come to have such generational overtones in the Southern Baptist Convention?
Chitwood: That history can be traced back to the Conservative Resurgence. When a generation of Southern Baptist rose up to say, “We take biblical authority and biblical theology very seriously,” rigorous theological debate was sure to come. That members of the rising generation come down on varying sides of the debate on soteriology should come as no surprise.
Barber: Sometimes shriller voices attempt either to dismiss as inconceivable or to lament as inevitable the risk that rising Calvinism in the SBC will inflict the convention with either hyper-Calvinism or Antinomianism. How would you assess these risks? Should conferences like this one include material to ward off these dangers?
Chitwood: I assess these risks as very minimal. More than a decade into what some have termed a resurgence of interest in Calvinism within the SBC, I see no evidence that hyper-Calvinism or Antinomianism are running amuck. Nevertheless, we need always remind ourselves of the dangerous extremes of any theological stance.
Barber: Perhaps the most influential Kentucky Southern Baptist of all times, Edgar Young Mullins, once wrote, "We are learning to discard both [the labels "Calvinism" and "Arminianism"] and to adhere more closely than either to the Scriptures, while retaining the truth in both systems." What is the historical significance of Mullins's position on Calvinism and his dissemination of statements like this one? Can the "Biblicist" perspective be regarded as a contribution that Kentucky made to the broader Southern Baptist Convention in the twentieth century, and is it a peacemaking strategy for today? How do conferences like this one contribute?
Chitwood: More than anything else, the lack of theological understanding, the inaccurate caricatures of Calvinism, and the difficulty of defining a theological system that is neither strictly Reformed nor fully Arminian, create the need for discerning Southern Baptists to define their position as a “biblical theology” and avoid labels, regardless of where they stand. The many straw men and inaccurate caricatures that abound should cause any Southern Baptist to be very cautious about allowing himself or herself to be labeled. We have more than one dictionary. Prayerfully, our conference will help Kentucky Baptists and the broader family of Southern Baptists appreciate the complexity of these issues and gain respect for those who hold differing, yet logical, positions, and still fit comfortably within the boundaries of the Baptist Faith and Message.
Barber: Southern Seminary is obviously based in Louisville, Kentucky, and has a strong Calvinistic flavor. One might, if Southern were the extent of one's exposure to Kentucky Baptists, presume that the state is overwhelmingly Calvinistic. Yet a number of historic educational institutions relate to or have related to the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Considering the entire universe of Kentucky Baptist life, how would you characterize the convention with regard to soteriology?
Chitwood: The Kentucky Baptist Convention is every bit as diverse as the Southern Baptist Convention regarding matters of soteriology. Moreover, the faculty and student body of Southern Seminary represent the diversity of the Southern Baptist Convention. Any assumption that the KBC or SBTS are strictly Calvinist entities is a mistaken assumption.
Barber: Are you a theology wonk? What attracts you, personally, to the idea of conducting this kind of conference?
Chitwood: The primary reason I am attracted to conducting to this type of conference is that I have witnessed the lack of understanding of biblical and historical theology and am grieved by what I consider needless division over this issue. Parties on both sides have been guilty of attempts to marginalize those who hold differing viewpoints. The tone of the debate has often become unchristian and even uncivil. When that happens, we stand in danger of dividing our resources and fellowship to the detriment of the Great Commission. Many Southern Baptists seem to be totally unaware of the real issues in the ongoing debate. I would not consider myself a theology wonk. My undergraduate and graduate degrees were lacking in any exposure to biblical theology. My doctoral studies provided my first real introduction. Yet, 18 years in the pastorate and 10 years as a professor taught me the importance of theology and I am hopeful that those who attend the conference will whet their appetites and begin to drink from deeper wells, even as we recommit ourselves to working together.
Barber: Arminianism is often the sparring partner chosen for Calvinism, but how does Calvinism relate to pragmatism? Pardon my hyperbolic flourish, but not too long ago, conferences sponsored by state Baptist conventions were predominantly "how-to" meetings or promotional campaigns for cooperative initiatives, while doctrinal symposia consisted of four doctoral students in the corner basement room of a campus student center. What has changed to make deep theological conversation the new spectator sport in the SBC?
Chitwood: Again, I think the change is rooted in the Conservative Resurgence. While I celebrate the deepening of our theological conversation, I feel a sense of urgency to call for an overarching commitment to unity and partnership so that our new spectator sport does not become a bloodbath. Furthermore, there is still a place for theologically informed “how-to” meetings and promotional campaigns for cooperative initiatives.
Barber: Southern Baptist Calvinists are not monolithic, are they? If you had to identify different flavors of Calvinism within the SBC, how would you do so?
Chitwood: Southern Baptist Calvinists are no more monolithic than Southern Baptists are monolithic. Nor are Southern Baptists who reject any or most of the tenets of Calvinism monolithic. Debates and disagreements abound in SBC life on a myriad of issues and will continue to do so until Christ’s return. Speaking of which, now there’s a matter that has caused significant debate!