Do Doctrines Really Lead to Dunghill?

Do Doctrines Really Lead to Dunghill?

Tom Ascol

Dr. William R. Estep’s article which appeared in the March 26 Baptist Standard (entitled, “Doctrines Lead to `Dunghill’ Prof Warns” and subsequently reprinted in other papers) is tragically flawed and bound to leave unsuspecting readers with serious misunderstandings about our Baptist heritage, former Baptist leaders, and the theological renewal which has begun to take hold in many Southern Baptist churches. Neither the arguments set forth nor the manner in which they are presented are worthy of a Christian scholar and minister of Dr. Estep’s standing. I thank the Lord for his many years of faithful service to Southern Baptists and count it a privilege to have been his student.

The article does not measure up to the standards of research which I learned in his classroom. I would never have been allowed to quote secondary and even tertiary sources when primary ones are available. Yet, this is precisely what he does when he attributes some very doubtful statements to Spurgeon. It has long been popular to misquote Spurgeon, a fact which the London preacher himself recognized when he warned the readers of his autobiography, “Not one in a hundred of the sayings that are fathered upon me are mine at all.”[1]

To suggest that the great evangelist Charles Haddon Spurgeon was not a thorough-going Calvinist is like suggesting that the Pope is less than Roman Catholic. Anyone who has read Spurgeon’s sermons or his autobiography (one chapter of which is entitled, “A Defence of Calvinism”) will immediately see through Dr. Estep’s attempt to characterize him otherwise. Unfortunately, not everyone has had an opportunity to read Spurgeon, and it is such people who may well be misled by Dr. Estep’s misrepresentation.

The premise of Dr. Estep’s article is without foundation. I have never met anyone who seeks to “promote a 19th century version of Calvinism among Southern Baptists as a return to the original theology of the first English Baptists.” As he later notes, the first English Baptists were Arminian. Perhaps he is referring to the discovery among a growing number of Southern Baptists that the founders of the SBC were convinced Calvinists. Great men of God like Boyce, Broadus, Manly, Mell, Howell, Johnson, Mallary were all evangelical Calvinists. Even the founder of Dr. Estep’s seminary, B.H. Carroll, was not ashamed to be so designated. Now, the fact that the founders of our denomination believed in the doctrines of grace does not mean that those doctrines are true. But, if that which our 19th century forebears believed was true in their day, then it is still true today, because God has not changed, truth has not changed and the Bible has not changed.

The real question is, “Does the Bible teach salvation by the sovereign grace of God (or what has been historically nicknamed, Calvinism)?” This is a question which every Bible believing Southern Baptist ought to be willing to entertain. Surely we can talk about the biblical doctrine of salvation without resorting to misrepresentations, name calling, and caricature. It is hard to understand how anyone, especially a historian, could suggest that the Southern Baptist Convention should not be willing to have within its ranks those who believe precisely what the founders of the convention believed about salvation.

It is incredibly condescending to declare that “most of the ardent advocates of this movement have only a slight knowledge of Calvin or his system as set forth in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.” Dr. Estep further betrays an elitist mentality by charging contemporary Calvinists–along with James Boyce–of embracing a theological system “without adequate research.” It is not just distinguished professors of history who read primary source material from our evangelical and Baptist heritage. In fact, one could wish that Dr. Estep had relied more on the actual writings of the men he cited and not so much on undocumented secondary opinions.

Had he done so he would never have perpetuated the myth that John Gill “prided himself on never extending an invitation for a sinner to trust Christ” during his 50-year pastorate. In addition, if Andrew Fuller were allowed to speak for himself we would see that he described himself unashamedly as a strict Calvinist who never opposed “true Calvinism” but only that “false Calvinism” which denies the duty of sinners to repent and believe the gospel. We would further see that he strongly defended what he called the “discriminating doctrines of grace” and quoted the very words of the Canons of Dort as a precise expression of his own sentiments.[2]

Dr. Estep suggests that Boyce and Basil Manly, Jr., derived their theological vision from Charles Hodge and Princeton Seminary, but he completely overlooks the tremendous influence which Basil Manly, Sr., exerted on them years before they ever became acquainted with Princeton. As pastor of the historic First Baptist Church of Charleston, SC, Manly, Sr., was an outspoken and polemic advocate of strict Calvinism. The Charleston Confession of Faith was the Second London Confession of 1689. Boyce and Manly, Jr., cut their spiritual and theological teeth on evangelical Calvinism. When they set forth the Abstract of Principles for the first Southern Baptist Seminary, they were not importing some foreign theology into the Southern Baptist Convention. They were simply summarizing that which was overwhelmingly believed by Southern Baptists in the mid-nineteenth century.

It is disingenuous to suggest that the term “Calvinism” necessarily implies an adherence to everything which John Calvin taught. As Spurgeon said, it is used only for “shortness;” theological shorthand, if you will. The great Southern Baptist leader John Broadus said this: “The people who sneer at what is called Calvinism might as well sneer at Mont Blanc. We are not in the least bound to defend all of Calvin’s opinions or actions, but I do not see how any one who really understands the Greek of the Apostle Paul or the Latin of Calvin and Turretin can fail to see that these latter did but interpret and formulate substantially what the former teaches.”[3]

Calvinism is a view of salvation, and indeed, of the whole world, which sees God as absolutely sovereign and man as absolutely responsible. It is not embarrassed by biblical words like predestine, elect, and purpose. Nor is it afraid of biblical words like choose, repent and believe. In a humanistic and man-centered age historic, evangelical Calvinism will often meet with strong, emotional opposition, because it insists that God, and God alone sits enthroned as sovereign over creation, providence and salvation. As Spurgeon said in his day, modern religionists hate such teaching.[4]

But Christian brothers and sisters ought to be able to dialogue about these things in the spirit of grace and love. The place of Calvinism in our Baptist heritage is important, but it is not ultimately important. After all, our forefathers may have been wrong about what they believed concerning God’s sovereignty in salvation. What is ultimately important is this: Is Calvinism true? Is it biblical? Dr. Estep gratuitously asserts that it is not. But such a dismissive attitude will not satisfy any thoughtful Christian who takes the Bible seriously. Verses like Rom. 9:18 (“Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens”) and Eph. 1:4 (“He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world . . . .”), to cite only two of numerous such verses, mean something. Should not Bible-believing Christians be able to talk about the meaning of Scripture without resorting to name calling and misrepresentation?

I strongly disagree with Dr. Estep’s fear that talking about biblical salvation as understood by Calvinism will be divisive and deadly to our denomination. It is very healthy that Southern Baptists are having such doctrinal discussions again. With the rise of pragmatism in the middle part of this century, theological discourse was relegated almost exclusively to the arena of the academy. But, being clear on what we believe is critical to the life and health of the church. Therefore talking about our beliefs and being challenged biblically to reexamine what we believe should not be seen as divisive, but essential. A cursory glance through denominational newspapers and associational minutes from the last century will show that Southern Baptists formerly had just such an attitude. It is wonderful to see truth becoming important to us once again as we move toward the third millennium.

Dr. Estep’s article contains other reckless charges which have been more than adequately addressed throughout history. His claim that “Calvinism’s God resembles Allah” more than the God of the Bible borders on blasphemy. This kind of inflammatory language has no place in honest dialogue between Calvinists and Arminians. While his charge may be true of the straw man which he has constructed and called Calvinism, it could not be further from the truth of that historic, evangelical Calvinism in which the Southern Baptist Convention was cradled. Charles Spurgeon responded to this very attack when he spoke at the dedication service of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1861. “Calvinism and fatalism,” he said, “are two different things.” He elaborated:

We believe that God hath predestinated all things from the beginning, but there is a difference between the predestination of an intelligent, all-wise, all-bounteous God, and that blind fatalism which simply says, “It is because it is to be.” Between the predestination of Scripture and the fate of the Koran every sensible man must perceive a difference of the most essential character. We do not deny that the thing is so ordained that it must be, but why is it to be, but that the Father, God, whose name is loved, ordained it.[5]

If, as he claims, “logically Calvinism is anti-missionary” then Dr. Estep must conclude that Calvinists William Carey, Adoniram Judson, John Paton, George Whitefield, to name but a few, were all illogical. The fact is that neither logically nor theologically, neither historically nor practically has true Calvinism been demonstrated to be opposed to missions. The greatest missionaries and evangelists the world has ever seen have been Calvinists. It is true that some, in the name of God’s sovereignty, have opposed missionary efforts. But these were hyper-Calvinists and not the genuine kind. It was this hyperism (which he called “false Calvinism”) which Andrew Fuller worked to overcome. He and his colleague, William Carey, threw off the fetters of hyperism not by becoming Arminian, but by reading the Bible with both eyes open and seeing revealed there that just as God has predestined whom would be saved so He has also predestined how they will be saved. God’s elect will be saved through the evangelistic proclamation of His gospel. God has not only decreed the ends, He has decreed the means whereby those ends will be attained.

Dr. Estep’s claim that “historically, Calvinism has been marked by intolerance and a haughty spirit” is at variance with the views of the founder of his own seminary. On this point B.H. Carroll said that “if history is capable of testifying to a fact, if even the enemies of religion can be trusted to speak, though reluctantly, of known facts and characteristics, then the fact is established that the faith of the Calvinists, the men who most believed in salvation by grace through faith, and that not of themselves, but as the gift of God, led them to live the purest moral lives that ever shone on this world.”[6] Further, Fisher Humphreys has recently written that “Calvinism is supportive of humility and piety. It is humbling to think that God has chosen you to be his child and that, if he had not, you would not be his child.”[7]

When engaged in theological debate we should speak with that virtue which Andrew Fuller identified as “candor.” This quality, Fuller said, “as it relates to the treatment of an adversary, is that temper of mind which will induce us to treat him openly, fairly, and ingenuously, granting him every thing that can be granted consistently with truth and entertaining the most favorable opinion of his character and conduct that justice will admit.”[8] The cause of God and His revealed truth is not served by making personal attacks against those with whom we disagree.

Dr. Estep’s article seriously misrepresents what John A. Broadus called “that exalted system of Pauline truth which is technically called Calvinism.”[9] I am sorry that it appeared in its current form. The topic which he addresses is an important one and should be discussed. But such discussion ought to conducted on a high level, working diligently not to misrepresent those with whom we disagree, seeking not only to be understood but to understand, and with renewed commitment to love the brethren–even those, perhaps I should say especially those, who differ with us theologically.