My friend Fisher Humphreys of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University spoke to pastors in Dothan, Ala., in 1997, and estimated that “less than 5 percent of Southern Baptists are Calvinists.” He also predicted, “Southern Baptists will continue to adopt a non-Calvinist theology.”
In 2000, Humphreys and co-author Paul Robertson issued God So Loved the World: Traditional Baptists and Calvinism. They defined “Calvinism” as the theological teachings of John Calvin and “traditional Baptists” as non-Calvinist Southern Baptists. Yet they admitted, “Through most of the first three centuries of Baptist history, a majority of the most influential Baptist leaders were Calvinists.” They cited John Bunyan, Roger Williams, John Gill, Isaac Backus, Richard Furman, William Carey, James P. Boyce and Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Such use of terms seems to suggest that in reality only the English General Baptists, the later Free Will Baptists, and 20th century Baptists have been “traditional Baptists.”
As of 2008, increasing numbers of younger Southern Baptist pastors and seminary graduates identify themselves as Calvinists.
We can argue that Calvinism is not biblical by contending it imposes a system of decrees on the Bible, or by declaring it denies God’s universal salvific will, or by saying it denies the universal divine love expressed in John 3:16, or by insisting that for reprobates (the non-elect) the gospel has become bad news.
But only by disregarding the total evidence of Baptist history can we affirm that the majority of past Baptists in Britain and North America have not been Calvinists in some sense of that term. That majority has affirmed God’s election from eternity of particular human beings unto salvation (particular election) and the final salvation of all true believers in Christ (perseverance), if not indeed also the other tenets of the Dutch Calvinists.
James Leo Garrett Jr. is distinguished professor of theology emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.