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A new kind of Calvinism

 

The report of the Calvinism Advisory Team appointed by Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee President Frank Page was released over three months ago. Page assembled the group for the purpose of urging Southern Baptists to “grant one another liberty” and “stand together” for the Great Commission.

Associated Baptist Press concluded that the advisory team had the portentous task of “easing tensions between proponents and opponents of Calvinism” and “averting a split in the Convention.”

Page explained that there was a need for Baptists on either side of the theological debate to speak “not at each other, but to each other.”

I particularly appreciated the strong statement indicating that “all candidates for ministry positions in the local church (should) be fully candid and forthcoming about all matters of faith and doctrine” and that “pulpit and staff search committees (should) be fully candid and forthcoming about their congregation and its expectations.”

Seminaries can help with the implementation of this as they prepare their students for Christian service in our churches, agencies, and institutions. Churches and our SBC entities need to make sure they ask the right questions of prospective pastors and staff in order to effectively determine each candidate’s theology and ecclesiology.

I am grateful that the report specifically emphasizes the absolute necessity of evangelism by stating, “We affirm every believer’s responsibility to tell anyone and everyone about Jesus,” because we must reverse our precipitous decline in baptisms.

In 1972 it took 27 Southern Baptists one year to win one person to faith in Christ. In 2012 it took 50 Southern Baptists one year to win one person to faith in Christ. Our number of baptisms in 2012 was the lowest since 1948. We can do better than that!

One section of the report that was particularly problematic for me was the statement pertaining to those children who die before they are capable of moral action. The report stated, “We agree that most Southern Baptists believe that those who die before they are capable of moral action go to heaven through the grace of God and the atonement of Christ, even as they differ as to why this is so.”

The statement so troubled me that I asked the advisory team for further clarification when they gave their report at the recent SBC meeting in Houston. I inquired, “This statement looks more like the results of a survey than a convictional statement. What Southern Baptists are there who do not believe that those who die before they are capable of moral action go to heaven?”

David Dockery, president of Union University and a member of the advisory team, was the first to respond and stated, “The intent of those kind of statements was not to say that it represented the confessional perspective of anyone on the committee, but to recognize the breadth of representation in Southern Baptist life.”

"What Southern Baptists are undecided on the issue or are willing to affirm that some people who die as infants (or are mentally incompetent) will suffer judgment in hell?"

Adam Harwood, associate professor, Theology
New Orleans Seminary

I have been a Southern Baptist for 62 years and I have never met any Baptist in our Convention who admitted to believing that children who die before they are capable of moral action go to hell. Therefore it would appear that the nebulous statement about the destiny of children would have to be influenced by a person or persons on the advisory team.

Adam Harwood, associate professor of Theology at New Orleans Seminary, asks, “What Southern Baptists are undecided on the issue or are willing to affirm that some people who die as infants (or are mentally incompetent) will suffer judgment in hell?”

Yet, the advisory team stated their agreement that “most” Southern Baptists believe that little children who have not reached the age of accountability go to heaven. The word “most” is somewhat ambiguous. Does it refer to 99 percent or 51 percent?

In an attempt to respond to my inquiry Southeastern Seminary President Danny Akin, also a member of the advisory team, actually gave validity to my concern.

Akin graciously responded by referring to an essay that he and Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, wrote in 2002 entitled “The Salvation of Little Ones: Do Infants Go to Heaven?” He recalled, “We discovered in our research that in the reformed tradition, especially in the reformed tradition, there is a strong belief in the election of infants – that infants go to heaven. Charles Spurgeon was adamant about this! B. B. Warfield was adamant about this! Charles Hodge was adamant about this!”

Mohler and Akin then made this claim, which they support in the essay: “We believe that Scripture does indeed teach that all persons who die in infancy are among the elect.” Also, “We believe that our Lord graciously and freely received all those who die in infancy – not on the basis of their innocence or worthiness, but by His grace, made theirs through the atonement He purchased on the cross.” Clearly, the view of the authors is that all who die in infancy are safe with God in heaven.

Since the initial publication of their essay, both Mohler and Akin have reposted the work, which demonstrates they continue to affirm the view. Following the Sandy Hook tragedy last December, Mohler reflected on the death of the young children at the elementary school and reaffirmed the view expressed in the essay.

I recently emailed each member of the advisory team to ask each one if they personally believe that those who die before they are capable of moral action go to heaven through the grace of God and the atonement of Christ.

Those who responded indicated that they believe children are safe with God in heaven if they die before they are capable of moral action. Some did not respond and one would have to conclude that they did not receive my emails, they simply chose not to respond, or they were hesitant to acknowledge personally that they affirm that certain infants who die are not among the elect and will suffer judgment in hell.

Eric Hankins, pastor of First Baptist Church of Oxford, MS, who assisted in writing the document, indicated that the wording of the section in question was crafted to accommodate some members of the advisory team who were not comfortable with the assertion that all who are morally incapable who die go to heaven.

David Allen, dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Seminary, affirmed the same in his email response to my question of the committee. He stated his wholehearted agreement that all infants who die are safe in the arms of Jesus, and that “to suggest otherwise represents an extreme position within a Calvinistic Baptist framework.”

Harwood reminds us, “Calvinists outside the SBC have differed for centuries over whether all who die in infancy should be considered among the elect. For some Calvinists, both the Bible and the Westminster Confession are unclear on the matter. But Southern Baptists, whether Calvinists or non-Calvinist, have been united on this issue – until now.”

I am getting the distinct impression that many who embrace a reformed theology in the Southern Baptist Convention are beginning to feel very uncomfortable with the new kind of Calvinism very unlike the reformed theology of Charles Spurgeon, David Livingstone, William Carey, James Petigru Boyce, Carl F.H. Henry, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.