With fear and trepidation, I want to share a few thoughts that emerged in my mind after a lengthy conversation with Dr. Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Seminary, former-President of Southereaster Baptist Seminary and one of the architects of the conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Patterson spoke at Northside Baptist Church, where I am the Senior Pastor, in August and we were able to have an extended one-on-one conversation over lunch at the local Hilton.
I had never met Dr. Patterson personally prior to that day and I really had no idea what to expect. He was absolutely fascinating in the pulpit, giving a clear expositional message from memory without a note to be seen. It was filled with Scripture, history, philosophy and practical application.
Within seconds of being seated over lunch, I was mesmerized by the intellectual energy and amazing grasp of theology, history and worldview he holds. I had read where some had tried to insinuate that he was an intellectual lightweight by contrasting him with the cerebral Al Mohler. Meaning no disrespect whatsoever to Dr. Mohler, I can say with great confidence, Dr. Patterson can hold his own with anyone including the President of Southern Seminary.
I, of course, had many questions at the ready and at times, Im afraid I might have come off as an interrogator or interviewer, rather than a conversationalist, but these chances are not frequent and I had some serious brains to pick here. Eventually, I was able to move toward a topic that was being frequently discussed on the web (still is) and in other places the role of Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention, now and in the future.
It had been just a few weeks before that Dr. Patterson and Dr. Mohler had appeared in what some had (according to Dr. Patterson, mistakenly) characterized as a debate. Dr. Patterson referenced it as a public conversation instead. The conversation had been held as part of the annual meeting of the SBC and some had left the meeting disappointed that there had been no blood left on the platform or heated barbs exchanged between the two. Not being a Southern Baptist, I hadnt attended the meeting, hadnt heard a recording of it and didnt know much about the exchange. But I did ask Dr. Patterson about it.
When I called it a debate, Dr. Patterson gently redirected the characterization and explained that it was rather a conversation. I asked him what the purpose of it was and he explained that he and Dr. Mohler wanted to demonstrate that it was possible for two men who love and respect each other could discuss the topic, disagree substantively and still walk away as deeply-committed friends and brothers. He flatly refused any suggestion that it was or ever intended to be a full-blown debate over the merits of Calvinism. He repeatedly emphasized his immense love and respect for Dr. Mohler.
I asked him if he thought, (as I have often considered) that the issue of Calvinism could ever become so divisive that it would create a schism even a split within the SBC. His reply and the follow-up conversation fascinated me.
To the thought of a split he adamantly declared that it didnt need to [cause a division]. It was there that he explained the motivation behind the public conversation that had been held. But beyond this, the conversation took a turn that left me with a profound respect and an encouraged spirit toward the whole Calvinist vs. non-Calvinist debate going on within conservative Evangelicalism in general and the SBC specifically.
Without quoting him directly, heres what I learned from Dr. Patterson on the matter
God can use the Calvinists and the non-Calvinists conflict to strengthen the Family of God and to be a blessing for those holding either position. In fact, this Holy Tension that exists between the two groups can serve to help us maintain our balance and perspective on some very essential truths.
Calvinists are notoriously orthodox scholars. Lets face it From Spurgeon to MacArthur to Piper to Mohler these men are brilliant students of the Word. They LOVE the intellectual exercises within theology. They are great expositors of Scripture. They are dedicated to sound exegesis. They represent the brains of the family of God. But with rare exceptions (D. James Kennedy comes to mind), they are rarely known for their evangelistic fervor. They have rightly pointed out the destructive consequences of some of the methodology of the renowned Revivalists including Finney, Moody and Graham. They have stood for orthodox doctrine on key Biblical truths such as Gods Sovereignty, Repentance, Election and the Depravity of Man.
Conversely, non-Calvinists (notice that I have conscientiously avoided using the word Arminians as I find the term to be too-broad and confusing) have often been the zealous prophets of the Gospel showing an unflinching commitment to the proclamation of the Gospel to every creature with a sense of passion and urgency that stirs and motivates believers to join them and non-believers to listen to the message they preach. To continue with my analogy, they represent the heart of the Family of God. They care about the fulfillment of the Great Commission on a personal level. While many/most will give lip-service to the concept of Election, they preach with the energy of those who truly believe whosever will means whosoever will.
Now, let me place a few caveats here before someone has an aneurysm. Im not suggesting that Calvinists dont care about evangelism any more than Im suggesting that non-Calvinists dont care about doctrine. Im just pointing out a rather obvious difference in the emphasis between the two positions and I think the anecdotal record strongly supports my opinion. I know of many Calvinists who have a fervent desire to see souls come to repentance and I know many fine non-Calvinists who are as doctrinally orthodox as they come. Im simply suggesting that the bulk direction of the two positions lends itself to my hypothesis.
Dr. Patterson referred to this as a Holy Tension in our discussion and thats a term I believe is accurate and important. As we discussed the topic, heres how the concept unfolded. There does indeed exist a Holy Tension between the two sides in regards to the amount of attention given to their particular positions and as to the implication of their individual positions.
Calvinists tend to pull the more evangelistically-minded non-Calvinists to doctrinal orthodoxy. Lets be honest there HAVE been some very egregious lines of pragmatic methodology throughout the history of American revivalism and of that tendency, Charles Finney might well be the poster child for that error. This pragmatic attention sometimes directed toward decisions, results and statements has muddied the understanding of repentance, conversion and Lordship. The Calvinists have been a check on the mass evangelisms that produce huge numbers of people responding to an emotional appeal, but result in far fewer changed lives and genuine conversions. As they well challenge, true evangelism is based on good theology and you cant have one without the other.
Conversely, non-Calvinists have been a constant prod to those who would rather debate the nuances of the plethora of definitions related to foreknowledge or predestination by pointing out that some questions may well not be answered with absoluteness this side of the Eternity. But the Great Commission is a very clear command to the church and individual believers and the Gospel presented with clarity under the movement of the Holy Spirit is how God draws the Elect to repentance. Evangelism is to be a part of the spiritual disciplines of the mature believer and Election and predestination are no excuse for failing to preach the Gospel wherever we go. Indeed, some Calvinists have become so coldly orthodox that they would deign to celebrate the New Birth of one who answers the call to Salvation thinking it merely a pre-ordained event among many and hardly worthy of an expression of joy or other emotion.
Thus this Holy Tension calls out to the non-Calvinist, Doctrine matters! and to the Calvinist, Evangelism matters!. When non-Calvinists have become doctrinally sloppy, the orthodox scholars have called attention to the Queen of all Sciences Theology. They hold the feet of the pragmatists and the emotionally-driven to the fire of sound doctrine. To the Calvinists, this Holy Tension demands works borne of our faith and a heart that burns as the Apostle Pauls in that he desired to have fruit wherever he went. Each position pulls the other to an important balance of the heart and the head wherein we would emphasize both sound doctrine and evangelistic fervor.
Im often asked if Im a Calvinist and I always ask if I might explain any answer that I might offer rather than just say Yes or No. I sometimes laughingly say that I am a 2.7 point Calvinist as long as I get to define the terms. I find the extremes of some (A.W. Pink comes to mind particularly his latter works) to be beyond where I stand. Indeed, at one point, I laid down my reading of Pinks works as I felt it interfering with my prayer life based on how I was interpreting what he had written to relegate prayer to a fatalistic exercise in futility. (I know some will accuse me of missing his point and that might be the case, but it WAS messing with my prayer life and there was no denying that.) I completely reject the easy-believism and decisionism that has plagued evangelicals for the last century or more. Indeed, I believe that the Holy Tension to which I have alluded has kept me balanced. I love studying doctrine with all its implications. I also rejoice with every new believer who accepts the invitation of the Holy Spirit to become part of Gods family even if they do so while a choir sings I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.
My two hours spent conversing with Paige Patterson were absolutely stimulating and I hope and pray that Ill be able to repeat the exercise in the future. I also look forward to doing the same with Al Mohler. Im not really a Big Tent kind of guy on a lot of issues. But on this particular controversy, this kind of tension is something Ive grown to appreciate. Im glad there appears to be plenty of room within Fundamental and Conservative Evangelical Christianity for both tribes.