One Man’s Suggestions for Calvinists and Non-Calvinists

This article appeared in two parts on April 4th & 5th on SBC Today.

Although I no longer don the Calvinist label, I do continue to recognize the system of thought as an option within historic Christianity as well as Southern Baptist life. Further, I have no interest in personally attacking my Calvinist brothers’ and sisters’ devotion, piety, or love for God and His word, for I do sincerely believe that most Calvinists are truth seekers. I do not wish to expel Calvinists nor to be expelled by them from SBC life, but rather to suggest and take some substantive steps to help all of us know God better. I assume that is what the vast majority of those of us in this discussion truly desire; although, there is obvious disagreement in how to accomplish this quest.

In order to continue to move our discussions toward lucidity in both articulation and understanding of our various theological perspectives, I would like to suggest implementing the following ideas within Southern Baptist life. My suggestions are drawn from my life as a Southern Baptist, which includes both the perspective I gained in my years as a Calvinist and now my post Calvinist reflections. While I view my suggestions as necessary, I also view them as partial and modifiable. I believe that some of the steps should be implemented immediately, while others are clearly long term goals that may take years. I offer my suggestions with no more credentials than being a rather obscure but concerned Southern Baptist.

I trust that if we speak with grace and listen with humility, we can learn from each other. I do genuinely believe that if the following suggestions are not implemented, the future of the SBC may not be as bright as it could be; although, one may easily find sufficient grounds to view my suggestions dismissively since I do seem to have an extraordinarily unimpressive record as a prophet. As a Calvinist, I loved, respected and worked with those who were not, and now that I am no longer a Calvinist, I hold that same love, respect, and desire to work with those who are.

Please consider the following suggestions:

I  Calvinism’s challenge is to face its disquieting realities and unabashedly seek to elucidate them to the masses by speaking clearly, often, and consistently with the full implications of Calvinism.

Disquieting realities are the cold, harsh, inescapable implications and conclusions of consistent Calvinism, which I do not believe comport with the warp and woof of Scripture. I mention only two examples; first, according to Calvinism, God necessarily desires for the vast majority of His creation to burn in hell forever and ever; meaning that the gospel, according to Calvinism, is that God “loves to save some sinners and equally loves to damn most sinners to eternal torment.” To retreat to “it is a mystery,” “God is sovereign,” or “all people deserve hell and to save one is grace” does nothing to assuage this austere understanding of God, which I believe is fundamentally inconsistent with the panoply of Scripture and a biblically balanced view of the attributes of God; second, in Genesis, God commanded Adam not to eat of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17); according to Calvinism’s compatible view of man’s nature, which governs the range of choices he has, God did in point of fact desire–not cause–Adam to sin, and this with full knowledge of all of its ensuing torturous horror, of which we are all both perpetrators and sufferers. Both of these concepts are inextricable components of Calvinism and therefore cannot be dismissed by discussing the order of decrees or declaring “mystery.” I appreciate and applaud my Calvinist brothers who shamelessly seek to proclaim these essentials of Calvinism.

I only ask of those who believe Calvinism to be correct, which necessarily entails believing that it pleases God to withhold salvation from more of His humanity than He saves, to please be no more reticent in proclaiming these realities as often, loudly, and consistently as one does the more palatable concepts of Calvinism. At least Calvinists should be as forthright to declare these inescapable conceptions about God as they are to speak of God’s glory, sovereignty, etc., and this without double talk (see definition in next paragraph). Actually, these realities are as much a part of Calvinism’s understanding of the gospel as is “whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In point of fact, the latter is only trivially true in Calvinism since only the unconditionally elected whosoever can indeed be saved.

By double talk, I specifically and only mean, whether meditatively or unmeditatively, thinking, praying, writing, or speaking in such a way that obscures the disquieting realities of Calvinism. This rhetorical practice of many Calvinists makes substantive conversations regarding the essence of Calvinism, so that both Calvinists and those who are desiderative can fully understand these disquieting realities, frustratingly improbable. If a person accepts and clearly and consistently proclaims such realities, then he can be a knowledgeable and consistent Calvinist; however, if one is unwilling to accept and unambiguously proclaim them, he cannot be a consistent Calvinist.

I am not labeling anyone as a double-talker nor is my use of this term intended in, any sense, to be pejorative but merely descriptive.[1] I only intend to highlight one of the issues that I believe, if left unresolved, dooms the otherwise potential fecundity of our conversations. Additionally, I truly desire to contribute to a more clear understanding of Calvinism so that individuals can make a more informed choice of whether to don the designation Calvinist. Anything less than a total repudiation of dissembling communication on both sides will simply perpetuate beclouding the issue.

Additionally, the inconsistencies of which I speak are not the inconsistencies that are endemic in the frailty of all human ideologies merely because we are human and growing; thus, my concerns cannot be justly dismissed by noting that everyone is inconsistent unless the inconsistencies referred to in others are essentially similar to the inconsistencies I am addressing. To wit, these inconsistencies must include language that obscures or euphemizes the insufferable and inescapable corollaries of their position. Further, I come to this understanding by reading Calvinist’s theologies and commentaries, and listening to their declarations and messages as opposed to basking in Arminianism.

II Non-Calvinism’s challenge is to develop systematic theologies and comprehensive systematic interpretive approaches that seek to explain the soteriological perplexities of Scripture biblically, consistently, and comprehensively.

This suggestion is not intended to depreciate nor ignore works in this area (particularly some superb individual books addressing various aspects of Calvinism), but rather to draw attention to the need for considerably more to be done. I am primarily thinking of theologies that can be used in SBC theological training of students and pastors who, when aware of the disquieting realities of Calvinism, reject Calvinism.

It seems clear to me that Calvinists have, quite admirably, written voluminously in this area whereas those who are neither properly classified as Calvinists nor Arminians have done little in comparison. I think this is a grave shortcoming. Further, I believe that the written systemization of such beliefs, readily available in Calvinism, is very appealing to people who value systematic thinking. I am one such person, and that was a particular draw of Calvinism for me. I could actually see the systematic outlay of the interrelationship of individual concepts.

It has been my experience that professors who clearly demur to being called a Calvinist are left to rely far too heavily upon Calvinistic theologies while merely noting their disagreements with such. This approach is neither fair to Calvinism nor does it offer a viable alternative to other than a personalized Calvinism. It seems obvious to me that Calvinist theologies voluminously outnumber comparable works by those of us who rightly shun being labeled an Arminian or Calvinist. While correcting this deficit will clearly take time, it is nevertheless essential that it is corrected. There are many exceptionally qualified theologians to admirably accomplish this task if we can disabuse ourselves from an unhealthy reliance upon easier paths, which can only perpetuate the status quo.

Some of the characteristics of the approach that I am proposing:

First, this approach moves beyond merely the deconstruction of or noting disagreements with Calvinism. By this I am not suggesting the abandonment of serious critiques of Calvinism, but rather that along with exposing its weaknesses, much more time must be given to constructing thorough and systematic biblical alternatives for our schools, pastors, and serious laymen. Particular attention must be given to soteriology. While critiquing the weaknesses of Calvinism is essential, it is a woefully inadequate theological destination. For example, it is one thing to biblically critique Calvinism’s view of predestination, but it is quite another to offer a biblical alternative as a part of a thorough systematic approach.

Second, this approach does not rely merely upon Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism, etc., nor does it shun any understanding associated or compatible with any of them merely because it is so associated. Simple agreement with certain components of a theological system neither makes nor necessitates one being identified with said system–all such dismissive labeling notwithstanding. Theological designations (Calvinist, Arminian, Traditionalist, etc.) of one’s position should be determined by the adherent rather than by his adversaries. Then, we can freely and respectfully engage one another’s biblical fidelity and internal consistency based upon a person’s chosen identification.

Third, this approach develops positive theological designations to replace popular negative terms such as non-Calvinist, and 1, 2, or 3 point Calvinist. I think some are seeking to do this with terms like “Traditionalist”[2] and “Biblicist” without an adjective, which is not to say one cannot be a “Calvinistic Biblicist” unless one so intends, and I do not. It is to say, just because one chooses to reject being a Calvinist Biblicist or Arminian Biblicist, one should not be banished from using the designation Biblicist.

I have identified those who claim to be 1, 2 or 3 point Calvinists as Minor Calvinists. Although I once accepted such designations as valid and helpful, I no longer see them as such. I have used such designations to describe myself during the latter days of my migration away from Calvinism. I now believe these designations to be invalid since they represent such personalized understandings of “Calvinism” that they become incapable of correctly reflecting the essence of Calvinism; consequently, they obscure what true Calvinism teaches and thereby obscure the disquieting realities of Calvinism; thus, they necessarily facilitate the dialogue to nowhere.

I think the following problems inherent in using “non-Calvinist” or 1, 2, or 3 point Calvinist as a theological designation beckon disabusing ourselves from their use. First, they make Calvinism, ipso facto, the standard (or starting point) from which all perspectives are derived and evaluated. Second, they are by their nature negative appellations, which seem at best to be a somewhat lazy way to describe one’s biblical perspective (although I have been guilty of such in the past). Third, they create an unnecessary and prejudiced trajectory toward Calvinism within Baptist life; for example, when one becomes a Baptist or enters into ministry, the only question to be decided is what kind of Calvinist one is or is to become. Lastly, they are fecund terms for double talk.

I only refer to myself as a Disenchanted Calvinist, when emphasizing my migration from Calvinism. As far as my soteriological position, I would label myself as either a simple Biblicist or an Extensivist. By calling myself a Biblicist, I do not mean, in any sense, that someone who disagrees with me may not be a Biblicist. I use Extensivism as a descriptive of how I would more particularly summarize my precise soteriology.

An Extensivist “believes that man was created in the image of God with otherwise choice and that God’s salvation plan is comprehensive, involving an all-inclusive unconditional offer of salvation and eternal security of the believer; reception of which is conditioned upon grace-enabled faith rather than a narrow plan involving a limited actual offer of salvation restricted to the unconditionally elected, or any plan that, in any way, conditions salvation upon merely a humanly generated faith from fallen man.”

Extensivism may have some things in common with Calvinism, Arminianism, or Molinism, but it neither relies on nor seeks consistency with any of them. Further, similarities do not equal sameness. Extensivism seeks only to present a comprehensive, consistent system of soteriology that is reflective of the totality of Scripture.

I have sought to articulate the ideas of Extensivism in my book, Reflections of a Disenchanted Calvinist: The Disquieting Realities of Calvinism. I am continuing to develop these ideas, which I hope to write about in another book at some point in the future.

One final thought, and I am not seeking to be overly reductionistic; it seems to me that if someone rejects unconditional election, then he cannot be an actual Calvinist for that is at the heart of Calvinism. If a person accepts unconditional election, then he can rightly don the title Calvinist, which then moves the question from one of legitimacy to one of consistency. I do not even believe that four point Calvinism actually addresses the most troubling aspects of Calvinism if it maintains unconditional election; although, it seems to at first glance because of its acceptance of unlimited atonement.

© 2013 Ronnie W. Rogers

[1] For a fuller definition see my book, Reflections of a Disenchanted Calvinist, Glossary of Authorial Terms, (Bloomington, IN: Crossbooks 2012), 152-153.
[2] As defined in “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.”

Ronnie W. Rogers