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Southern Baptist Revisionist History

In November of 2016, Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Seminary, effectively disavowed any Southern Baptist who subscribes to Calvinistic convictions or practices. Speaking at a chapel service at the seminary in which Rick Patrick, head of the Connect 3:16 group, had spoken, Patterson said, “I know there are a fair number of you who think you are a Calvinist, but understand there is a denomination which represents that view… It’s called Presbyterian.”

At the outset, before I engage with the historical defects of Patterson’s view, it should be noted that implicit in the quotation above is the idea that his audience doesn’t actually know what they believe; that their theological convictions are subconsciously both false and insincerely held. This notion in and of itself is rather condescending and offensive.

First, Patterson suggests that the only doctrinal dividing line between Presbyterians and Baptists is the doctrine of salvation, double predestination, limited atonement, and etc. As I intend to show here, it is not the doctrine of salvation at all that has historically divided the two groups, but rather church polity, sacramental differences, and distinctions in covenant theology. Even the New York Times gets this right:

“Calvinism is a theological orientation, not a denomination or organization. The Puritans were Calvinist. Presbyterians descend from Scottish Calvinists. Many early Baptists were Calvinist. But in the 19th Century, Protestantism moved toward the non-Calvinist belief that humans must consent to their own salvation — an optimistic, quintessentially American belief.”1

The Innovation of Tradition

Second, after dubbing all the misguided Calvinists in the audience “Presbyterians,” Patterson went on to claim the label of “Traditionalist” for himself and the Connect 3:16 coalition he affiliates with. This is nothing less than revisionist history. G. K. Chesterton once quipped that, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”2 Put another way, Tradition is largely defined for us, and attempting to convolute or recreate it in our own image is nothing more than arrogant self-puffery. Historical (or Traditional) revisionism is unchristian not only because it conforms to the spirit of our postmodern age, but because it stands against truth itself.    

The Connect 3:16 group’s mission statement is largely about shedding theological labels like Arminianism and Calvinism altogether, opting for a seemingly more unifying and broad (and self-defined) “Traditionalist Baptist” label. Their position on salvation is clear from their website’s tagline, “Whosoever Will,” and an obvious reference to John 3:16 in the name. In this, their purpose is explicitly to combat the “New Calvinists” and their alleged “aggressive insistence on the ‘Doctrines of Grace.’” Even in this language, they are subtly suggesting that Calvinists are late to the party.

The problem with 3:16’s claim of the “Traditionalist” label is that they limit the scope of Baptist history to Herschel Hobbs and Adrian Rogers, assuming from the outset that both of those figures embodied historical Baptist doctrine. Not to mention that the group’s maneuvering away from the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) (BFM) is rogue and strictly self-validated, as the 2000 version remains the official statement of faith for the SBC. It may come as a shock to Patterson and Patrick that Southern Baptist life, and certainly Baptist history as a whole, did not begin with the Hobbs-Rogers duo in 1925 (though it should be noted that E.Y. Mullins was the namesake of the 1925 version and that Connect 3:16 makes no mention of him in their statement).

Furthermore, the group’s stance has arguably only been “traditional” since about 1963. Many of the critics of Connect 3:16’s Statement of The Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation dispute the 1925 date, since the document’s position is based on a revision to Article III (on depravity of man) of the SBC doctrinal statement made in 1963. As Tom Ascol of Founders Ministries said regarding this change:

“[T]his document would more accurately be called “A Statement of Modern Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” The understanding of salvation that was prevalent throughout the convention at its inception…was nothing less than historic, evangelical Calvinism.”

As the preamble of the statement admits, “While some earlier Baptist confessions were shaped by Calvinism, the clear trajectory of the [Baptist Faith and Message] since 1925 is away from Calvinism. “ This analysis itself is indeed questionable, but our concern here is its broader historical relevance. In this context, Connect 3:16 is like a Trumpian Republican claiming a “Traditionalist” label within conservatism. A Trumpian political position is not a priori un-conservative, but it is not “traditional” by any stretch of the imagination. It is simply too new, and too much history precedes it.

Inconvenient History

Lest those in the Patterson camp be allowed to limit history, we must stretch our scope back to the 18th Century, the very roots of Baptist life in America. As Thomas Kidd has noted,3 in 1793 there were one thousand thirty-two Baptist churches in America; nine hundred fifty-six were explicitly, and self-professed, Calvinist congregations, believing in a definite atonement, that Christ had died to save the elect decisively. Conversely, “General Baptists,” who would have identified with the tenets of Connect 3:16, believed that Christ had died indefinitely for the sins of anyone who would choose him, accounted for a tiny fraction of Baptists then.

To be sure, Arminian-leaning Baptist churches had existed in America since the 1600s, but they were always a minority. But the Great Awakening of the 1740s, according to Kidd, “wrecked the General Baptist movement, and birthed [under the influence of George Whitefield]… the ‘Separate Baptists.’” This was met with significant backlash from New England’s colonial governments, as I have written about elsewhere, which prohibited the creation of unauthorized congregations.

“Because the move to Baptist convictions happened under the canopy of the Calvinist-dominated Great Awakening. . .most of these new Baptists were Calvinists, too. The General Baptists of New England, wary of interdenominational cooperation, mostly opposed the new revivalism. Doing so nearly ended the Arminian (free will) Baptist influence in America for about three decades. Their numbers dwindled and some Arminians joined Separate or other Calvinist Baptist congregations.”4

The Separate Baptists moved south in the mid-1750s. They founded the Sandy Creek (NC) and the Philadelphia-affiliated Charleston (SC) Baptist associations of churches, which affirmed eternal election in their respective confessions of faith. They did this with militant fervor. As early correspondence and church documents like Jesse Mercer’s letter to Rev. Cyrus White show, lax preaching on the doctrines of justification, predestination, and the atonement were unacceptable to Southern Baptists.5

Kidd says that Calvinism lost some of its dominance during the American Revolution, which, “with its focus on liberty, gave new life to ‘free will’ theology in traditionally Calvinist denominations. But Calvinism remained ascendant among Baptists well into the nineteenth century.” It wasn’t until the 1830s that Calvinism began losing some of its appeal amongst some Baptists, after a controversy over missionary agencies in the 1820s drove a wedge between “missionary Baptists” and some “Primitive Baptists” (hyper-Calvinist) sects, which created a backlash against more orthodox Calvinism and Reformed theology. Yet, it would never become as dominant among Baptists as Calvinism had been.

Repudiating the Past

In recent years, those at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, whilst combating the insurgents of Higher Criticism and Christian Liberalism,6 began to reinvigorate Calvinist theology for Baptists as a more robust return to historical beliefs, which led some Arminian Baptists, like Patterson, to posit that Arminians, in fact, held the “traditional” Baptist view. As briefly—but I hope, thoroughly—shown here, history reveals the dominance of Calvinist soteriological convictions in American Baptist congregations and theology. Patterson’s stand as a “Traditionalist” is therefore historically untenable.

To make his claim, Patterson would also be forced to cast out leading figures of modern Baptist life like Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Russell Moore, and David Platt, who are all avowed Calvinists, but according to Patterson’s mindset, are simply confused about what they really believe.

What’s more, Patterson would be compelled to disown historical Baptist heroes, without whom the Baptist faith would arguably not exist today. These figures, both American and English, would include:7

Benjamin Keach, a signer of the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession, and the author of its companion catechism and The Marrow of True Justification.

John Gill, the English polymath and Hebrew scholar who famously debated John Wesley on predestination; he was the successor pastor of Keach’s church and the predecessor to Charles Spurgeon (the Metropolitan Tabernacle).  

John L. Dagg, called the “first writing theologian among Southern Baptists,” he was President of Mercer University where he authored the Manual of Theology (1857), which was the first comprehensive systematic theology of any Baptist in America. He has been called “the most representative theological figure among antebellum Baptists in the United States.”

James P. Boyce, the Princeton-educated founder of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and author of the magnanimous Abstract of Systematic Theology. Southern Baptist historian Tom Nettles has recently published a new biography on the pastor-theologian-statesman.

Any student of Baptist theology will be familiar with, and revere, these figures, yet Patterson is either ignorant of their influence or, more likely, he conveniently discards them. There is a time and place to debate the actual scriptural and theological merits of the two competing understandings of soteriology in the SBC, but if Patterson intends to take part in that debate, he will be forced to deal with actual Baptist history.

In making his case, Patterson must also articulate what is to be made of historic Baptist doctrinal statements. For example, the Abstract Principles, adopted in 1858 as the original charter of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, stands in direct contradiction to Patterson’s claims. The same is true of earlier Baptist confessions like the Philadelphia Baptist Confession of Faith (1742), which followed closely the Second London Baptist Confession (1689), and the New Hampshire Baptist Confession (1833). Early Southern Baptist Churches regularly adopted these as their official statements of faith and interpreted them as consistent with Baptist doctrine.

Patterson, Patrick, and Connect 3:16 can continue to refer to themselves as “Traditionalists” ad nauseum, but they do so without the aid of history. It would seem that those Southern Baptists who adhere to the views of the figures mentioned above (not to mention  Spurgeon), and seek to conform their doctrine to that which was perpetuated by churches from the early days of Baptist migration to the south, are in reality the “Traditionalists.” They are the true stewards of the Baptist faith, standing athwart recent attempts at retroactive innovation. And they must not be made to feel guilty for rejecting the historical revisionism that is being screamed loudly by semi-Pelagians in certain corners.  

One could be tempted to think that Patterson and Connect 3:16 are limiting the debate to the doctrine of salvation, except that Rick Patrick went on to refute Calvin’s Institutes as a whole (an unwise move in any Protestant debate). “If we are not careful a myriad of related beliefs and practices will enter our camp, hidden within the Trojan Horse of Calvinism.” Patrick continued to condemn elder-led polity as an explicitly Presbyterian model that has no place in Baptist life (sorry Mark Dever). Not only does Patrick oversimplify the issue of polity here, but he exhibits a poor understanding of truly Presbyterian polity which contains far more than elder-run pulpits. A plurality of elders itself in no way conflicts with historic Baptist principles of polity.

Patrick’s critique, then, swiftly moved from criticizing Calvinist beliefs on predestination, to condemning unnamed pastors who partake of alcohol and tobacco, erroneously implying that his teetotaler views are fundamentally Baptist views. He ended his speech with a shockingly pragmatic statement: “It is naïve to think that we can gradually reform our beliefs without simultaneously reforming our practices, and the question we must ask is whether or not these Reformed practices are making things better or worse.”

Whether “Reformed practices” are making Baptist life better or worse in Patrick’s view, is not really a question he has the freedom to ask, nor is it the right question. Baptist are necessarily and historically a product of the Reformation; if you are a Protestant in any sense, this is necessarily true. Patterson and Patrick’s position of tracing Baptist lineage to Anabaptist kinship is part of an ongoing debate that has not reached a consensus across all sects of modern Baptists. Particular Baptists (Calvinists) would trace their theological and historical roots to the English separatist movement of the 1640s and see themselves as a continuation of the Reformation.8 As such, Calvinist Baptists would explicitly affirm their Reformational heritage, whereas Anabaptists would distance themselves from it—but this is a debate for another time.  Either way, to claim the final word on the debate on behalf of all Southern Baptists is not only premature, but imprudent.

Accordingly, a repudiation of Reformed beliefs that were historically accepted by many Baptists at their inception—and embraced by later Southern Baptists—cannot be discarded without also discarding some part of what it means to be Baptist. It seems to me that this rash historicism, or rather, revisionist historicism, has gained any traction at all is at least partially a product of evangelicalism’s radical individualism, lack of veneration for church history as a whole, and related anti-confessionalism,9 but, again, that is a debate for another time.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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